Lately, I’ve been thinking about what, exactly, the message of the gospel is. Of course, the term ‘gospel’ means “good news.” The puzzle for me is that, at least the way it is often presented by Christians, the gospel is not obviously good news.
This typical version of the gospel focuses on Good Friday: Jesus died on the cross, taking upon himself God’s judgment and punishment for human sin, so that we sinful humans could be spared and forgiven by God. According to this “Good Friday gospel,” the good news is that we humans have been given a second chance, that God has forgiven us.
Good News, Bad News
But, while it is clearly good news to escape the judgment of God and be forgiven our sins, to accept this as good news we must first swallow a huge piece of bad news—namely that our sins are such that we deserve death (after all, Jesus died for us) and that we require God’s forgiveness. So, at best, this Good Friday gospel is “mixed news.”
And, in any case, those who do not already have a commitment to Christianity or do not live with a powerful sense of guilt generally fail to see why they deserve death and require God to forgive them. I think most non-Christians do have a sense they are not perfect and that they fail even their own ethical standards from time to time. But, most of these folks think this imperfection is just part of being human, that it should be no great affront to God (assuming God exists), and that it is certainly not deserving of death. In short, they reject the Christian account of the “bad news” about sin, and thus they don’t really feel the need for the Good Friday gospel. For this reason, the Good Friday gospel tends to fall flat.
Advocates of the Good Friday gospel typically write off this response as self-deception and a failure to grasp the extent of human sinfulness. And there is some truth to this view. However, I think Christians should be less quick to write off the response. The fact that the Good Friday gospel falls flat for most non-Christians suggests a deeper problem with that conception of the gospel.
The Good Friday gospel is not clearly the biblical gospel. One clue to this point is Jesus’s annunciation of the gospel. Consider Mark 1:14-15:
Now after John [the Baptist] was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news [gospel] of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news [gospel].”
In Mark, this is the first act of Jesus’s public ministry. For that reason we ought to pay careful attention to it: Mark means for it to communicate Jesus’s ministry program.
And what is Jesus doing in this crucial first act of ministry? He is proclaiming the gospel. And what is that gospel? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” Jesus follows up by saying, “repent and believe,” and repentance is surely connected to the idea of being sinful—sin is what we are to repent of. But, repentance and belief are not themselves part of the gospel he announces. Rather, they are the proper responses to that gospel. The gospel itself is that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
Now, one might legitimately wonder why this message about the arrival of the kingdom of God would be good news to its hearers. To understand why, we need to remember the position of the Jewish people in Jesus’s day. They lived under the oppressive Roman regime and were generally scattered throughout the Mediterranean. As N.T. Wright might put it, there was a sense that they had never completely returned from the Babylonian exile described in 2 Kings 25.
To many first-century Jews, this predicament was attributable to the fact that God was not serving as their king. Because Israel had cyclically rejected God’s direct, loving rule—rule by way of the special laws enacted in the covenant on Mount Sinai (described in Exodus)—God had given his people over to be ruled by oppressive human kings. They had made their bed, and now they had to sleep in it.
In this context, many Jews would have longed for a restoration of the kingdom of God. If God were only in charge, if God would only accept the role of Israel’s king again, everything would be different. God would rule with justice, and there would be peace, joy, and prosperity among his people, out from under the yoke of foreigners—not unlike the period in which Israel was ruled by king David. If God decided to be king again, God would transform Israel’s sorry condition, and all would be well.
This, then, is the good news that Jesus came announcing: God is again taking up the throne, God’s kingdom has drawn near, and this kingdom will bring transformation and justice. Of course, many Jews rejected Jesus’s gospel because the transformation he initiated did not exactly meet their expectations; specifically, it did not have the immediate political consequence of throwing off the Romans. Instead, it focused on the transformation of sinful human hearts.
But, perhaps ironically, this seemingly more humble aim of restoring human hearts will, according to the Christian story, one day culminate in the transformation of the entire cosmos—the creation of a “New Jerusalem” in which there will be unshakable justice, peace, joy, and love. And this transformation begins in human hearts because, ultimately, the human heart—understood as the seat of human motivation—is the origin of injustice and hatred.
This version of the gospel, it seems to me, is obvious good news, even for folks who are not predisposed to Christianity. Anyone breathing can tell that all is not well with our world. Newspapers are filled with stories of horrific injustice. Despots continue to rule around the world. Even the lives of those who live in relatively peaceful and free parts of the world experience pain, hardship, relational strife, loneliness, lack, and personal disappointment. Everyone can see that things could be a lot better.
The Christian gospel, then, is that God plans to transform this sad, sorry world, and that even now the transformation is underway in the hearts and lives of those who follow Jesus.
Good Friday and the Gospel
Good Friday clearly has an important place in the Christian narrative—it points to the forgiveness, reconciliation, and new covenant with God that is required if we are to be part of the restoration of all things. The cross was God reaching out to human beings and saying, “Come, covenant again with me; be part of the restoration of my kingdom.”
So, to partner with God we must accept the bad news that we are, indeed, sinful, that we are part of the problem with this world, part of the world in need of transformation and renewal. Embracing the cross is, in part, accepting that bad news, along with the reconciling forgiveness God offers.
But, this Good Friday story is not, itself, the gospel. Rather, it is the way God made for us to enter into God’s transformation of the world. It is that latter fact—that God is transforming the world—which is the biblical good news.
The Gospel of Advent
On the first day of Advent, it strikes me that this biblical gospel has stronger links to Advent and Christmas than it does to Good Friday. Advent and Christmas, of course, focus on the coming of Jesus the king. As the famous Advent passage from Isaiah 9:6-7 puts it,
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
For generations Christians have interpreted this passage as pointing to Jesus, the child born to us and given to us, which we anticipate during Advent and celebrate at Christmas. And, of course, the passage goes on to point out that this child born to us will establish a kingdom ruled with justice and righteousness—the very thing Jesus announced in his gospel. This Advent gospel is genuinely good news.