What’s Wrong With The Evangelical Gospel?

Someone in my Twitter feed linked the video above earlier this evening.

Watching it, I was struck by two things. First, by how baldly and bluntly it presents the underlying narrative of the gospel message that is standard for many evangelical Christians. Second, how troubling, problematic, and flawed this message actually is when you look at it directly.

At the outset, I want to make clear that I regard myself as an evangelical. I have spent all of my life around evangelicals and it is among evangelicals that I believe that I belong. The supremacy and centrality of Jesus Christ, the final authority of God’s Word through the Scriptures, the necessity and efficacy of the atoning work of Christ at Calvary, the imperative of a life-transforming encounter with Jesus Christ, and the absolute gratuity of divine grace are not just truths that I hold, but are non-negotiable touchstones of my entire Christian consciousness. Consequently, in criticizing the video above, and the form of evangelical gospel messages that it represents, I am not seeking either to dismiss or to in any way diminish these core evangelical convictions. It is precisely on account of these convictions that I reject such an approach so strongly. The gospel is so much better, the gospel is so much bigger than this!

A comprehensive critique of the video would take some time. Rather than present such a critique, I would like to make a few brief points by way of criticism of it:

1. Gnostic Dualism

At the very heart of the message of the video lies a gnostic dualism, a dualism between physicality and the soul and the realm of its salvation. From the very outset the video makes clear that it is about the soul going to heaven and not going to hell. Heaven and hell are both treated as realities radically discontinuous with the current physical order, rather than being on a (punctuated) continuity with it. The soul – the ‘real you’ – must be distinguished from the body. The body can be disposed of by burying or by cremation, obviously a matter of complete unimportance as the body is utterly distinct from the soul. Salvation is about the incorporeal destiny of the incorporeal soul. Nothing about resurrection, a new heavens and a new earth, nothing about the way that sin and salvation are inextricable from the life and fate of the body and the physical universe. Nothing at all.

2. Justice vs. Love

The video presents us with an opposition between God’s justice and his love. Justice is presented in a purely punitive manner, as an obstacle to God’s love that must be overcome. The understanding of Law fits into this paradigm. The Law is not seen as a loving, but broken, covenant that God formed with his people, but as an eternal perfect standard of justice that must be met absolutely. The slightest infraction merits an eternity of torment. Justice determines the fundamental relationship that God bears with his creation, not love. Rather than God’s justice being inextricably connected with his loving commitment to his creation, justice comes first and then love comes on the scene as some extrinsic to it. Consequently, justice must be essentially punitive, rather than restorative.

3. The Nature of the Problem

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real problem or obstacle that must be overcome in this form of the gospel presentation is not our sin, but some logic of divine justice and holiness. Note, not the incompatibility of God’s holiness and our sin, but the incompatibility of our sin and some logic of divine holiness and justice. Let me explain what I mean. The ‘solution’ to the problem doesn’t really address the reality of sin and evil in human beings and the world at all, but only the legal consequences of human sinfulness. Now, while there are nuanced theological ways to present such a doctrine of justification that adequately avoid the charge of it being a legal fiction, I do not believe that this, or most standard evangelical gospel presentations for that matter, succeed on this front.

That we have some sense of the unsatisfactory nature of the proposed solution (and, by implication, of the entire framing of the problem), can be seen in our instinctive reservations concerning the ‘justice’ of a situation where the punishment and perfect record of one party can simply overwrite the actual sinfulness and guilt of another. Surely the notion that a judge could let a defendant guilty of murder go free on account of the actions of another innocent party in his stead is no less abhorrent to our sense of justice than the notion that a judge could simply forgive such a person. In other words, within this presentation it is as if the actual reality of sin is swept under the carpet of Christ, rather than truly and decisively being dealt with. Persons aren’t transformed save as an afterthought: the work of salvation focuses on bare legal statuses.

4. The ‘Bad News’

This message of the gospel is almost entirely framed in terms of the ‘bad news’, which in turn is framed almost entirely in terms of the legal demands of God’s justice, rather than the alienating reality of Sin. Almost a quarter of the video is devoted to arguing for the existence of Hell. Now, I believe in Hell, but the idea that it should be so fundamental to our presentation of the gospel does not seem biblical to me.

Part of the glory of the gospel is the superabundance of the gift of God, something that exceeds any mere solution to a ‘problem’. Divine love has erupted in our history in a manner that eclipses all of the questions and problems by which we might seek to put a measure to God’s gift. This overflowing excess of grace reveals that the problem of sin is also to be found in the way that this ‘problem’ might serve to frame and place a circumscription upon divine grace as its ‘solution’. Christ encompasses and swallows up our problems – they are lost within him, drowned in the flood of God’s goodness. Christ is never bounded by them as their solution. Indeed, our ‘problems’ only truly appear for what they are in the light of the gospel.

5. The ‘Good News’

The biggest problem with the good news is that it isn’t Jesus. Christ isn’t really the punch line of this gospel, just the one who makes it possible. The punch line of this gospel is that your incorporeal soul can go to heaven. And, given the fact that the ‘bad news’ provides the dominating frame for this message in practice ‘going to heaven’ really means little more than ‘not going to hell’. For this gospel, Jesus is amazing primarily because of all that he has done in saving our souls, not so much because he is God with us in human flesh.

6. Individualism

This ‘gospel’ is individualistic through and through. The church is merely a place where we can hear about how individual souls can be saved, not the new humanity in Christ, or temple of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is about the relationship between God and the individual soul. This gospel has little if anything to say about the restoration of relationships between human beings, about establishing justice and an order of peace. Salvation is something enjoyed by the individual soul in glorious detachment from others, not a new social reality (i.e. a relational and interpersonal reality) outside of us, which we enter into and which operates in and through us.

7. Sanctification

One of the problems with this presentation of the gospel is that sanctification becomes a sort of afterthought, rather than a central thrust of God’s saving work. As the key problem is a legal one, once we have the perfect record of Christ to take the place of our imperfect record, our record actually becomes rather unimportant. Although we are being transformed into the image of Christ, this part of the message is not central to the logic of the gospel, although it may dampen some of the instinctive sense of injustice surrounding the legal fiction that supposedly lies at its heart.

8. What we must do

The key action upon which this gospel hinges is the one in which we turn to God and ask for forgiveness and Christ’s perfect record, and surrender to God, who ‘deserves’ to be the central person in our lives. It is upon this action that salvation finally rests. The ‘gospel’ here is completely framed as the answer to ‘what must I do to be saved?’ The gospel is that God has provided a genuine answer to that question. This is in contrast to the biblical presentation of the gospel, which is not framed in terms of this question, but as the announcement of the once for all action of God in Christ. It is this once for all action upon which the biblical gospel hinges, not our response. Our response is essentially something that occurs in the wake of God’s once for all action.

Concluding Thoughts

There are several other things that I could address within the video, but I believe that I have presented some core criticisms above.

Watching this video, I was struck by how seriously we need to replace this popular formulaic gospel narrative with something so much richer and more biblical. We need an evangelical gospel message that does not undermine or undersell our convictions and our biblical instincts. We need an evangelical gospel message that leaves us dumbfounded by grace. We need an evangelical gospel message that leads to the profound transformation of our lives, communities, and world. We need an evangelical gospel message in which Christ is front and centre. We need an evangelical gospel message that captures the wonder of Christ’s body. We need an evangelical gospel message in which divine grace eclipses all of our problems. We need an evangelical gospel message that is all about astounding divine love in Christ, not impersonal divine logic.

We need to hear the message of a love that overcomes all death. We need to hear the story of a Father weeping with joy on the shoulders of his returned son. We need to be transfixed once again by the person of Christ. We need to hear a message dominated by joy and divine grace, not fear. We need to hear a gospel that is truly good news for the poor and oppressed. We need to hear of a Christ that is creating a new humanity, a new heavens and a new earth. We need to hear a gospel that is big enough to encompass the entire creation. We need to hear of a truth that breaks down all of the walls of our hearts and which drives us to share truly good news with others. We need to become the bearers and embodiment of a message that overwhelms us with God’s love, a message in which the identification of our sin is borne by the flood of God’s grace, in which our alienation is realized only in its overcoming.

We have such a gospel. We have a gospel in which we meet a Saviour in whom the overwhelming love of God is manifest in human flesh. We have a gospel that forms a new community and renews the face of the creation. We have a gospel that can free us from our guilt and our sin. We have a gospel that can free us to love one another and our world. We have a gospel in which we encounter and through which we come to share the very heart of God. My hope and prayer is that all of us would learn to live in this gospel, and how to speak it, not settling for anything less than what God has given to us.

I have written a follow-up post: A Better Gospel.

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27 Responses to What’s Wrong With The Evangelical Gospel?

  1. Yes, Yes, Yes! Straight from my heart, Alastair, good job

  2. Paul D Baxter says:

    I couldn’t make myself watch the whole thing. I’m guessing that the story of Israel doesn’t take an especially prominent place in this presentation.

    I’m sure I won’t surprise you when I say that I’m in full agreement with all of your comments here.

  3. nail on head properly hit, keep preaching it!

  4. Graham says:

    I think you covered every point that set me off. Glad I don’t have to sit down and sicken myself further, I can just point people here. It’s a shame that so many presentations start with “you’re broken” and going to hell, unless you let my ideas “fix” you. But I am with you on all points.

  5. Susan says:

    Have you found a gospel presentation that does a better job of incorporating the “we need” portions of your concluding thoughts?

    • Tanya says:

      Yes, ditto! What would your presentation be? I’m interested!

      • Very important question, thanks for asking it. I don’t have time to give a complete answer right now, but here are a few pointers of the way that I would approach the issue.

        First, I wouldn’t think in terms of a single gospel presentation. The gospel is good news to us in so many different ways and different aspects of the good news may be especially important for particular people or cultures at particular times. Rather than trying to force all people through one conveyor belt approach to presenting the gospel, I believe that we need to know the gospel inside out, so that we can improvise our presentation of it in a way that looks the person directly in the eyes, as it were.

        For instance, for certain people we might tell the gospel as the message of deliverance from the fear of death, loss, and failure and all that that entails. For others the gospel might be the message of a rescue from chaos, whether that is societal, personal, or cosmic. For others, the gospel might be less a message of rescue or deliverance, and more a message of transcendent beauty and joy and of the ultimate affirmation of the goodness of creation. For others, the gospel is the personal message of their value and place in the world and in the sight of God. For others, the gospel is the assurance of meaning and purpose in human life and action. For others, the gospel is the message of forgiveness for past sins, and the overcoming of present ones and deliverance from crippling personal and cultural guilt. For others, the gospel is the message of the liberation of the oppressed and the defeat of all tyrants. For others, the gospel is the message of the overcoming of all human divisions, the bringing together of all ethnicities, people groups, male and female, the generations, etc. The gospel is all of these things (and much more besides) for all of us, of course, but we may need to accent different dimensions of the message in particular times and places.

        Second, I would focus upon telling a story, rather than explaining some logic. Watching the video in the post above, much of the presentation consists of supposed logical demands of justice, which cannot actually be found on the pages of Scripture itself, and which are alien to much that is there. This story includes Israel as an important element, for instance.

        Third, God’s love for his creation, his determination not to let sin destroy it, and his commitment to restorative justice, setting to rights all that has gone wrong, would be central.

        Fourth, hell would have a very different place in my picture. Rather than being the threat that frames the whole message of good news, hell would be entirely framed by the message of divine love and commitment to restoring creation. The possibility of eternal loss would be presented as something lying in far closer continuity with current dehumanizing patterns of life. In understanding hell, the focus would be on eternal loss as a consequence of rejection of God’s image in ourselves, others, and most particularly in Christ. Hell would not be presented as being primarily about eternal ‘punishment’ inflicted by God upon the sinner, but about the natural consequences of our erasure of God’s image in ourselves and others. Punishment is part of the biblical picture, but far more dominant is loss, separation, and fruitless regret. When hell is spoken of, it would have to be seen as bound up with God’s purpose to set the world to rights. Those who cling to wickedness and oppression and reject God’s good purpose in Christ risk the eternal consequences that result from spurning the source of all life and goodness.

        Fifth, God created a world that he desired to grow into the fullness of fellowship with himself. The world is created good, but immature and not yet perfect. The created world is like a toddler that needs to grow up into the fullness of adulthood. Sin throws this development off course and twists it. God’s purpose exceeds overcoming the effects of sin, being designed to bring the creation to its full stature and glory, and to flood it with his presence. This is a key aspect of the gospel message.

        Sixth, the purpose of God for creation is Christ. It is in Christ that we see the content of God’s will for us. It is in his communion with the Father, the loving faithfulness of his life, and the resurrection of his body that we see what God has in store for all of us. It is in Christ that we know the communion between God and the creation that was intended from the start.

        Seventh, in speaking of the problems of death and alienation, I would root these firmly in our physical existence. The alienation resulting from sin and death is an alienation between human persons, not just between God and the individual soul. It is an alienation that exists between us and our bodies. It is an alienation that exists between bodies. It is not merely a matter of individual sins, but of evil systems and structures that oppress us. Christ came to address all of these things.

        Eighth, God’s restoration of his image in man would be presented as integral to the gospel. Sanctification is merely something that we do out of gratitude, or a work of God of secondary importance, but is integral to God’s purpose and our salvation. To be saved is to have God’s Law written on our hearts and to be conformed to his image. The good news of the gospel is that God has promised to accomplish and perfect this work in us, and that we can receive it by faith, and not as an autonomous work that we must accomplish for ourselves. When we see Christ, we will be like him. Are there many truths that are more exciting than that?

        Ninth, people will only truly see their sin for what it is when they see Jesus Christ for who he is. Consequently, I would focus a lot less upon drawing people’s attention directly to their sin, and a lot more upon Christ as the Image of God, and the pattern of true humanity. I would present people with God’s overwhelming love, welcome, and salvation. Sin is revealed through this. As we enter into God’s light, we see ourselves for what we really are. However, within this way of presenting the gospel, our sins take on a very different aspect. Christ hasn’t come to condemn us, but to welcome us. As we are overwhelmed by God’s love and welcome, we will suddenly become increasingly aware of our sin as something holding us back and tying us down, and will long to be free of it, so that we can run to God with lighter feet. We do not need to feel condemned to bemoan our sin.

        Tenth, within the ‘gospel’ video above, the resurrection is merely a great miracle to prove that Jesus is God: ‘I rose from the dead to prove that I was God and that everything that I said was true.’ Everything focuses on the cross. My approach to telling the gospel message would place the accent upon the fact that Christ has risen from the dead, and is Lord of all. Christ’s death is not merely paying the punishment for our sins, but assuming the full weight of death and alienation, so that it might be decisively and definitely overcome. The resurrection is the great victory. It is the exclamation mark of the gospel: ‘Christ is risen! Alleluia!’ It is the assurance and foretaste of God’s purposes for the whole creation. It is the promise that God will make all things new. That is truly good news.

        OK, this comment is much longer than I originally intended. However, I hope that it gives some sort of impression of the way that I approach sharing the gospel.

  6. I think this book will offer a help to articulating the story better, published in a few weeks… http://www.amazon.co.uk/Good-God-Enjoying-Father-Spirit/dp/1842277448/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1329565868&sr=8-1
    Thankfully I think I’m hearing more and more people telling a warmer, richer, deeper story.

  7. Pingback: A Better Gospel | Alastair's Adversaria

  8. Aaron says:

    Spot on brother. We do need a better articulation of our good news. The world needs a better articulation of the good news of Jesus.

  9. Thank you! Beautiful and true :-)

  10. Jim says:

    This a very kind and generous review of that video. I would have just said that it’s complete garbage…

  11. Peter Mead says:

    Thanks for this Alastair, amen and amen.

  12. Pingback: Most Popular Posts (and a few neglected ones) | Alastair's Adversaria

  13. Tom says:

    Good article. The bulk of what you are talking about is the communion of the saints . . . but there are some other elements too.

  14. quenarth says:

    This is so excellent! I came across your blog while reading responses to Dr. Leithart’s “Too catholic to be Catholic” post — I am delighted discover another sane voice in the vast blogosphere. Keep writing.

  15. Pingback: A Look Back at 2012 on Alastair’s Adversaria | Alastair's Adversaria

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  17. Rob Grayson says:

    Alastair, greetings from a fellow Brit (in Warwickshire). I’ve come to your blog via a link at the Boar’s Head Tavern.

    Rarely do I find someone who shares my growing concerns with the typical evangelical presentation AND who is able to articulate those concerns so clearly and so well. You have, so to speak, taken the words out of my mouth.

    I look forward to reading many more of your posts and joining in the discussion.

  18. Rob Betts says:

    Hi
    Enjoyed reading your own presentation of the Gospel – excellent. The video link appears to be broken – clicking elicits the message ‘This video does not exist’. Would you be able to look into this, as I’d like to see this. Many thanks.
    Blessings
    Rob

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