This is one of those posts that I’m reluctant to write. Obviously it is an extremely important question. But I also don’t think it is something that can really be summarized in a blog post. If we look in our Bibles, we see four examples of “the Gospel according to…” They take up a lot of space. They aren’t the same, although I would argue that even while having different stories and even different theologies, their pictures of “the Gospel” do not conflict. So we have different “versions” of the Gospel, in a sense. Not everybody sees it the same way, and four examples are provided in our Scripture and many more are provided throughout history and still today. So why can’t we pinpoint it to a few convenient facts? The Bible didn’t just give us a few convenient facts – God could have saved a lot of paper space and a lot of time of theologians trying to figure it out, but he didn’t. Instead Scripture gives us a powerful story spanning over a thousand years. So as much as summarizing attempts can be useful, I think it is faulty to try to claim that those summaries are in fact “the Gospel” when even the best that the Bible could do is “the Gospel according to…”
Ok, so what would I give as a technical definition of the Gospel? What the four Gospel books have in common is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So maybe the Gospel is not so much facts, not even the facts of that story. Maybe the Gospel is the whole person at the centre of the story. And can we really ever summarize everything about a person, even in the fairly lengthy descriptions in our Scripture? John’s version of the Gospel even says that he had to leave a lot of things out, but he picked out what was the most important to him in order to accomplish his purpose of writing the book. Maybe the better question, though, is <em>why</em> is this story of Jesus, this person of Jesus, Gospel?
Gospel, for those who don’t know, means “good news”. It comes from the Greek word roughly transliterated as evangelion, which is where we get words like evangelical/evangelism, etc. So we’ve got this person Jesus, and his story which aside from the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke only span about 3 years. What does that mean for us?
As a side note, this can be seen as a question of semantics. Many see this part of the question as what is really meant by “what is the Gospel?” I think that’s fair because if there isn’t something about it that makes it good news for us to hear today then it isn’t really good news, so you can’t really separate the theology from the implications. I think that’s semantics, and that’s largely why I put the two questions into one post even though it will probably be pretty long.
This is again a challenge to try to summarize because within my own belief that Jesus is fully God as well as fully human, it can mean a whole lot of things. But in an effort for you to finish reading this post instead of giving up, I’ll adopt a summary used by The Meeting House chain of churches here in Ontario. While I’m always inclined to think that there is more that I can’t put words to, everything I come up with when I think about what the Gospel is does somehow fall into one or more of these categories.
Jesus Came to Show Us God’s Love
It’s hard to wrap our head around the idea of God’s love. Love fundamentally must be something that is actually real, active. If God’s love was purely a feel-good emotion, sure, there would be no need for embracing our humanity in Jesus. But Jesus shows us that isn’t what God’s love is like. It joins us in our suffering. It heals the sick. It welcomes the outcast. It fights evil on our behalf. This fundamental characteristic of God forms the basis for our understanding of him. The concreteness of it evidenced in an actual life helps us see what real love looks like. Yet without the other three points to follow, this could still be left as a feel-good story that has no impact.
Jesus Saves Us From Sin/Evil
There is a large variety of views for how Jesus saves us from sin, of course. Some would say that we are saved from the power of sin, others would say from the penalty of sin (Hell) or others the eternal consequence of sin (also potentially Hell but with a different implication of the characteristics of God). Some would make the afterlife central to this salvation, while others would say that salvation is about this life and the afterlife is an afterthought. So I won’t talk about that in much more detail here. But Christians do all agree in some way or another that Jesus saves us from sin/evil.
Depending on your own background, this may be the aspect you’ve only ever heard referred to as the Gospel. For an extreme example, during the Rob Bell Love Wins controversy, one of the things that upset me the most is that people claimed that if non-Christians aren’t eternally trapped in eternal conscious torment, there is no point of being a Christian. For them, the Gospel is fundamentally about Hell-avoidance. That to me was the primary example of what happens when the Gospel is boiled down to this one point without the others. Have you ever been approached with the “good news” that you’re going to Hell? I definitely consider that a disgrace to the Gospel.
Jesus Came To Set Up His Kingdom
I muse a lot on the concept of the Kingdom of God. My views aren’t always the same as many others. Many throughout history have seen the Kingdom of God as only a future thing, so again that takes us back to the afterlife conversation. Yet Jesus’ regularly said that the Kingdom of God had come with him. So this is a matter of Christian debate: does that mean that the Kingdom of God is already here and has been for 2000 years? That would cause us to rethink our concepts of what the Kingdom of God is – like 1st century Judea, we imagine an authoritative Kingdom where all the bad guys are punished and the loyal followers are rewarded. Some might argue that Jesus was simply being hyperbolic and that we are still to wait for the Kingdom – Judgement Day as it were – and the job of the Christian is to wait expectantly. I don’t accept that latter option, but feel free to debate it if you think so. So maybe this part isn’t universal for all Christians but I don’t think it can be denied Scripturally. I believe that Jesus did start his Kingdom. We haven’t always done a great job of carrying it on, but he did promise us that it would grow slowly after all, like a mustard seed into a great tree.
This element on its own would be also be problematic as a form of Social Gospel. I use that in the more negative sense, knowing that it is often used in other positive ways too. What I mean is that when this is the only aspect seen, without a concept of what God’s love means or without a concept of freedom from sin, or without a concept of freedom from religion, we can simply turn Christianity into a social group, being active on social justice issues. That’s important, but it is definitely lacking in my opinion because it becomes stripped of any relationship.
Jesus Came to Save Us From Religion
This one also needs to be careful with definitions. I do not use religion in the more positive sense that you are more likely to encounter in academic discussion. I use it in the negative sense which I think more closely captures what the average North American would define as “religion”: essentially religion is what you do to get to God. It may be a social justice religion where social ethics values are central. I think mainline Protestants are most likely to fall into this trap. It may be a pietist religion where personal ethics or personal displays of devotion are central – this was more the case with the Pharisees who Jesus often disputed (even though most scholars would think that Jesus technically was a Pharisee himself). This trap is probably most commonly seen in evangelical Protestants. It may be a ritual based religion, which to me is the trap most likely for Catholicism to fall into. It may be a mystical or ecstatic religion where supernatural personal experiences are what you really need to generate to be a Christian, and this trap is most likely to fall onto Pentecostals and Eastern Orthodox.
To be clear, I did not just say that everybody in every denomination is this negative sense of “religious”. What I said is that those are the traps, the forms of religion, that each category are most likely to fall into. You could also look at it on an individual level because certain personalities lean towards one or more of those as well. I’m also not saying that those things aren’t good, but they have value in light of being loved, not in an attempt to earn love. What unites them all as “religion” is that they are seen as the things that we do in order to earn our way to God. And this funnels into more shame which along with the opposite problem of pride I think is ultimately what separates us from God instead of draws us to her. But Jesus constantly went up against religion, showing us that we should stop trying to earn God’s love. Whatever your view of the atonement, he went to the cross for us, died even while we were still sinners – while we didn’t deserve it – so that we would stop trying to do it ourselves. Most Christians say this, but then we still go back to feeling like we need to earn it after we become Christians, which I think is fundamentally a combination of the lies of demonic powers, the lies of society (the American Dream is that we get what we deserve right?), and lies of our own flawed humanity. But the good news of Jesus is that we don’t need to earn God’s love – not by a special prayer of repentance, not by believing the right doctrines, not by going through the right rituals, not by speaking in tongues. We are loved. Period.
And of course, like all the others, that by itself would and often is easily abused. Well if Jesus came to end religion, I can just be “spiritual” and do my own thing right? Well there is still a concept of sin which does harm yourself and others. The consequences of that evil – or punishment for it as some Christians would say – are still very real. Not earning your way out of it does not mean you embrace it either. And there is still the concept of the Kingdom of God for us to work toward. We don’t earn love by working toward the Kingdom of God, but we work toward the Kingdom of God because we are loved.
So in summary these four things, held together, summarize the Good News about as well as can be done in my opinion. How adequate is it? I don’t know really. I think there’s always more that we are always discovering. The Good News is an entire person after all. Even better – an entire divine person. I suspect that we can spend all of eternity getting to know more and more of what exactly is so amazing about this good news. But even the full “Gospel according to Ryan” would not nearly fit in a blog post. It would not even fit in all my blog posts for the rest of my life. There is always new joy in new implications of what it means for me – it is not static Gospel that gets tiring – and maybe that is the best news of all.