We are bombarded today with wall-to-wall news coverage; some news is quirky such as the latest UFO sightings or lottery win, some is interesting such as the latest technology release or science study, some is “entertaining “ such as the latest sport or movie news, but mainly we are fed a diet of bad news, whether it is wars, natural disasters, financial crisis or the latest grisly crime. What we do not get is good news, I mean really good news. I have just finished grading (a lot of) papers from a class I have been teaching for the past few months on Basic Christian Beliefs. I hope it has been as much a learning experience for the class as it was for me. The question I set the for the paper is something that has the potential to elicit many and varied responses; “What is the Good News all about?” The teaching of the class and the subsequent responses have led me to consider this great question anew and I have a number of thoughts that I want to write down to further my meditation. The typical answers Evangelicals give to this question range from “Jesus died for my sins” (i.e. Penal Substitutionary Atonement) to the fabled response Karl Barth gave to the reporter who asked him to sum up his Church Dogmatics in one sentence and he replied “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”.
The Good News or Gospel as we alternately know it is first seen on the lips of Jesus as he goes around the region of the Galilee “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” (Matt 4:23). Clearly Jesus was not teaching Penal Substitutionary Atonement, yet he was announcing glad tidings had come to Israel. What Jesus was teaching (that the Messiah had come) AND Penal Substitutionary Atonement are messages of Good News and they are a critical part of the story of God that we will address in a just a little bit, but before we get to the story I want to talk about assumptions.
The Apostle Paul visited many synagogues and meeting places with Jews and God-Fearing Gentiles to persuade them from the Hebrew scriptures that Jesus was was both the Son of God and the Son of David and therefore the promised Messiah. For Paul this was the proclamation of the Gospel. Yet Paul was speaking in a largely Jewish context, the Gentiles he spoke to also held most of the same assumptions (with a couple of exceptions). If the news that the Son of David and the Son of God has finally arrived is to be considered Good News one must have an understanding of this set of assumptions. These assumptions are often where apologetics focus:
Assumption One – God exists
It is a sad fact that in our secularized culture belief in God (any God) is no longer assumed. While not every unbeliever is a Richard Dawkins or indeed like his militant atheist compatriots, belief in the existence of God is certainly declining in the Western nations. This is the most fundamental of assumptions that has to be realized and countered. A big caveat to this however must be made, many people will concede that a God exists, but typically it is a unthought through fuzzy type of spirituality rather than a belief in one (Judeo -Christian) God. This leads us to the second assumption.
Assumption Two – God is righteous and has an absolute moral standard
While many in our culture will have a belief in some kind of God. It is often a pluralistic, “any thing goes” type of deity rather than a Holy God who requires righteousness and has set his moral standard in history and in also in our hearts. The assumption of pluralism has led to an all ways lead to God approach. This approach is logically foolish, for all the main monotheistic beliefs in God offer an absolute and exclusive approach to God. None of the main world religions are compatible with each other. While people of different beliefs can and should live together in peace, this does not mean that people of different beliefs morph their belief into a pot-pourri approach of all belief.
Assumption Three – The Bible is God’s Word to mankind
Belief in the veracity of the narrative of the Bible is a fundamental assumption that has come under attack for the past two thousand years and at this point in history like at no other time. For evangelicals the Bible is the plumb-line of truth and for good reason. Belief in the inerrancy of scripture is something that must be explored and explained repeatedly. While textual variant criticism must continue in order to resolve copyist errors, these are truly insignificant in relation to the attacks upon scripture related to their veracity, the existence of the supernatural and the existence of a moral standard.
Assumption Four – Sin is real and has consequences
The assumption of sin is clearly related to the assumption of the existence of a moral law which can be found in the scriptures, but it must be mentioned. Because a moral law exists, disobedience or transgression of that law is what we call sin. Giving oneself to activities which are contrary to the law of God is giving oneself to sin. The very existence of sin is denied by many unbelievers today, yet it is important to understand that acts contrary to the law of God are sin and they do have terrible consequences. The wages of sin really are death. Christians believe two fundamental things about sin, beliefs which are not often shared by unbelievers. Firstly we are all “born in sin”, meaning that the disobedience of Adam is passed to us through our parents and as a result of this inherent corruption we all have a propensity to sin. Secondly, many beliefs and actions that society not only condones, but celebrates (and often ridicules those who do not share the same assumption) are in fact sinful and must be recognized as such.
Assumption Five – God gets involved – He sees and he cares
This last assumption concerns the nature of God. A movement which came out of the Enlightenment called Deism, promoted a belief in God, but the Deist God is a detached stoic creation. Deists denied God acted on the Human stage, He didn’t (and doesn’t) get involved in the events of the world through supernatural means. Deism does not remain as a movement, but the impulses of Deism are alive and well. Evangelical believers believe that God does get involved on the human stage. They believe he sees humanity and he cares about humanity. The assumption of the Evangelical is not necessarily shared by the unbeliever.
While there are several other assumptions one could introduce, one can safely assume that all of these assumptions would be shared by Paul and the audience to whom he was proclaiming the Good News. Likewise when Jesus proclaimed the Good News His audience would also share these assumptions. These assumptions are often the place where a presentation of the Gospel gets derailed today, and as a result we should have thought through these issues. However I wanted to remind myself not to stop here, because none of these assumptions are actually the Good News as it is described in the Bible.
Paradise Lost – The Bad News
To understand the Good News, we have to first understand and meditate upon the “Bad News”. The bad news is the loss of Eden. Eden presents us with a picture of unmarred beauty, full and unhindered relationships both between man and woman and between humanity and God. No shame, no tears, no pain, no worry, no poverty, no strife., no injustice. Instead we find significance, loving relations, provision, meaningful work, even romance. From the height of perfection paradise was truly lost through one small act of disobedience. God said that disobedience would bring death and it did, both spiritually and physically. From this one sinful act corruption entered the world. Eden was lost but could it be regained? The narrative of the scriptures is that Eden will be restored and humanity will be redeemed, but how?
The plan of redemption involves the choosing of a family: the Jews, and through this family the revelation of how God will bring about redemption. Then finally through this family the coming of the redeemer who would restore humanity to Eden. Promises and prophesies were made continually since the sin of Adam and Eve that this redeemer would come. Facts about what he would look like were continually given. He would be the Son of David, therefore a King of Israel, he would be God incarnate. When he finally arrived after so much promise, it is not surprising that He announced His coming as “Good News” and His followers after him realized this truly was good news.
Not only was His coming Good News, but what he came to do was Good – He came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:9), he came to “destroy the works of the devil”. His life, his death, burial, resurrection and ascension all mean that if we repent and believe in Him we will have life in him. This means we are on the road to a restored Eden. Now that is Good News. Nobody can get on that road except through His blood, nobody is righteous enough. But there is a way to get on the road and we have it through Jesus. The bad news is that if we continue to live in the corruption that entered the world at Eden, we will condemn ourselves to an eternity without Jesus and therefore without life.
This is such a brief overview of the Good News. But it involves a tremendous story of love, of lost love, of tragedy, of redemption and with a beautiful happy ending. We need to be aware of the assumptions, but let us focus a little more on the story which truly is Good News.