An Anemic Gospel
“The gospel” is such an interesting phrase to me. It is the one phrase that evangelical Christians will stake everything on, and also the one phrase that everyone would define somewhat differently.
“This belief is a threat to the gospel! This person is preaching another gospel! The phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ undermines the gospel!”
Yeesh, well, what is this “gospel” that everyone seems ready to kill for?
One of the complicating factors is that it actually means something different depending on where the concept shows up in the Bible.
Take, for instance, Isaiah 52:7 –
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news [gospel],
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
In this passage, the good news is that God will deliver Israel from Babylon as He did from Egypt and Assyria. It’s not about heaven or hell. It’s not about the afterlife. It’s not about freedom from sin. It’s not about the institution of new covenant. The “salvation” is quite literally God saving Israel from Babylon and liberating Jerusalem, and the “gospel” is the announcement that God is doing this.
This passage is also quoted by Paul in Romans 10 to establish the need for preaching salvation, again, to the Jews. In Romans 10, the context is that God has defined a righteousness apart from the Torah, which only cursed Israel. Through faith in Jesus, the condemnation of the Law no longer applies to Israel, and their situation which was a result of the curse of the Law would be overturned. Just as Isaiah saw the need for the announcement of this good news among Israel in his day, so Paul says a similar proclamation is needed in his day (and will likely get a similar response).
This is a tricky concept, because we’re very used to injecting words like “salvation” or “gospel” with what’s in our heads and assume that’s what the writers must have meant. It’s important that when we read about “the gospel” that we take the time to determine what the actual good news is that’s being talked about in that passage, or what being “saved” might mean in that particular context.
I would argue that the “gospel” that is nearest to us is the announcement that Jesus has been made Lord and Christ and that his people who have his Spirit show that the true, creator God has not given up on the world or His vision for it, and no matter what the world looks like now or how empty or broken your life is in it, the creator calls you into His world in the here and now. And, one day, all the structures that threaten you will be judged and removed, including death itself.
Obviously, we can debate that.
However, I feel fairly confident that at no point in the Bible is the gospel ever defined as: You are going to Hell when you die because you have committed sins, but if you accept Jesus into your heart, you’ll go to Heaven when you die, instead.
Now, most evangelicals, probably including John MacArthur, would say that sounds too reductionistic. But if they were to “flesh it out,” most would just add more backstory. They would talk about Adam and the Fall. They would talk about God’s holy nature. Some of them would talk about how accepting Jesus into your heart also means that your life needs to change (ironically, some would argue this is actually not at all the gospel). A few of the more biblically astute might even point out that “Heaven” isn’t the end destination, but resurrection in a new heavens and new earth is (which is entirely correct).
But this is just more meat on the bones. The core assertion is that the gospel is about an individual’s destiny after they die.
The consequences of this are twofold:
- Because this is the story, it gets read back into any and all passages that seem to mention it whether this would be intelligible to the authors or not.
- Anything unrelated to producing the conversion experience which transitions someone from Hell to Heaven is viewed at best as a secondary matter and at worst something Satan is using to take the church away from her mission.
I’m not going to belabor that first consequence. The Isaiah passage I quoted illustrates how this happens and actually creates a lot of distance between us and the biblical text. The good news Isaiah proclaims is not, “Hey, I know you’re exiled and under Babylon’s power right now, but if you accept Jesus, you’ll go to Heaven when you die,” and if you read the passage in that way, not only do you miss what Isaiah was trying to communicate to those faithful saints under persecution, you also potentially miss what comfort that passage might offer you, which is that God will not abandon His people to their circumstances no matter how dire those circumstances may appear in the world (or how long they may go on).
But the second consequence explains so much. If it’s not about an individual’s conversion, then it has nothing to do with “the gospel.” Under this way of thinking, the church should simply not be distracted with issues like poverty, disease, racial or gender inequities, psychological health, or corruption in the halls of power.
One of the chief obstacles to this, unfortunately, is Jesus himself, who seems reasonably interested in addressing these things as they appear in his circumstances. In terms of air time, personal conversion certainly gets mentioned, but this is just one facet of Jesus’ ministry in which he embodies and enacts the holistic restoration of a people. The kingdom of God isn’t simply about the afterlife but an entire, competing world system. It is literally a new kosmos.
It is the rise of this kosmos with Jesus as the king that threatens the Temple power structure and the Roman Empire and why they want to snuff it out. People’s afterlives are no threat to any power structure, ever, and one could argue that some power structures have effectively harnessed an interest in the afterlife to preserve the political status quo (not naming names). But the incursion of a new concrete, historical, political reality into the here and now is quite the potential threat, especially as it mobilizes large groups of people.
But the popularity of the conversion/afterlife-centric version of the gospel is immense and John MacArthur is a product of it. If you think of the gospel primarily in terms of converting to secure a good afterlife, then you’re going to consider things like social justice and reevaluating women’s roles to be at best secondary concerns, but more likely an actual danger that keeps the church from doing her “real work.”