Good News for Today’s World
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I was recently talking to a friend about the Christian Gospel. What exactly is the Christian “good news”? How might it be made more relevant today? In an article he’d written, he’d suggested that we replace our traditional emphasis on guilt, with a focus on shame. Guilt is about admitting “I did something wrong”. Shame acknowledges “there is something wrong with me”. Shame is particularly prevalent in a culture that emphasises achievement, success, and social media popularity. Those who believe that they’ve fallen short end up feeling unworthy, unloved, and unlovable. The salvation offered by God in Christ, rescues us from our shame, and offers in its place acceptance and adoption as God’s precious children.
It was a convincing argument, but it was not universally well received. Surely it wasn’t our place to change the Gospel to suit our hearers! Indeed, the Apostle Paul clearly rebukes those who preach a different gospel (Gal 1:7). We read, too, in the Pastoral Epistles a clear warning against telling people simply what they want to hear (2 Tim 4:3-4). So, which should we preach: salvation from guilt or salvation from shame?
There is, in fact, a third possibility. In his book, “The 3D Gospel”, Jayson Georges argues that there are three kinds of salvation. We’re saved from guilt, shame, and fear. Moreover, each of these, he suggests, can be linked with a particular culture. Guilt is most common in Western culture, and the remedy is forgiveness. Shame is seen mostly in Asian culture, and the answer is unconditional adoption as God’s children. Fear is found particularly in African culture, and God’s solution is the defeat of evil through Jesus’ resurrection. Jayson Georges says that rather than choosing just one of these motifs, we need to be preaching all three.
We’re in danger of making things too complicated here. So, let’s step back and look at what the Bible actually says. Do we find just one version of the gospel “good news”? Or do we find three? Or, in fact, many?
In each of the Synoptic Gospels we read of Jesus “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (Matt 4:23; Mark 9:35; and Luke 8:2). So, it is reasonable to imagine that whenever Jesus met someone he had “good news” for them. That does seem to be so. But what was that “good news”? Intriguingly, it seems to have been something different for each person and situation. Other than his thoughts about God’s kingdom, Jesus seems to have had not one message, but many. For the hungry crowds, it was about the provision of food. For the blind man, it meant having his sight restored. To the penitent thief, Jesus promised a place with him in paradise. For everyone from the fishermen on the seashore to the rich young ruler, the gospel was a call to a radical new kind of life. We find surprisingly little about guilt, shame, or fear.
We can go further than this to find something really remarkable but usually unnoticed. In Matthew’s account of the incarnation, we find the angel telling Joseph: “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21) [italics mine, of course!]. So, we’re all set to find as we read Matthew plenty of tales of forgiveness. Except that’s there’s only one – the account of the paralytic who’s lowered through the roof. Even in that story, forgiveness is just one element of what’s going on. In many ways more important are the themes of healing (for the paralytic) and Jesus’ claims about himself (for both us and the onlookers). There’s certainly plenty of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel about us forgiving other people (for example in the Sermon on the Mount), but Jesus himself seems relatively unbothered by guilt.
In his article, my friend was claiming that the traditional message of “guilt forgiven” was no longer relevant. It didn’t connect with people’s lives today. Equally, in my view, it doesn’t speak into the world’s biggest and most pressing problems: the pandemic, poverty, inequality, discrimination, fake news, climate change, and more. The question is: Are these things of concern to God? Yes, of course they are! But the trouble is that a gospel that talks only of “guilt” has remarkably little to say about the pressing needs of the world (other than, perhaps, that it’s all our fault.) The same could be said about a gospel focused on shame or fear. I believe it’s because of this that people are put off Christianity. “You claim to have good news”, sceptics may say, “but where’s the good news for a world facing a climate catastrophe?!?”
So, we need a gospel that addresses the actual situation of the world. However, we can’t simply make up whatever nice-sounding message we like. We need to root the gospel so as to make sense of what’s going on in the Bible – especially in the ministry of Jesus.
To begin the task of imagining a fresh and relevant gospel message of “good news”, I turn (maybe surprisingly) to the creation narratives in Genesis. There we find that God makes the world “good” (Gen 1:10, 12, 18, etc.) and “very good” (Gen 1:31). The words that we translate as “good” is the Hebrew word “tov” which means: “things just as they should be”. Everything “works properly”. The whole created order is as the Creator God intends. Like Goldilocks’ porridge things are “just right”.
Seen in this light, the Fall becomes the story of how the world ceased to be “just right”. Now, not only do Adam and Eve experience guilt and shame and fear of God, but they also experience difficulty in childbirth, toil in work, and separation from both God and Eden. Things are very much no longer as God originally intended.
But God couldn’t let that state continue. So, God patiently taught wayward human beings how things ought to be, and what it means for the world to be “just right”. Maybe here we could use the words “righteous” and “righteousness”. Laws told us how to live rightly. Those unfamiliar passages about building the tabernacle or the temple (which we so frequently skip over) are actually absolutely central to what God’s about. They tell us that God is concerned that things should be “just right” – even down to the smallest detail. Likewise, the prophets proclaimed a world in which everything was made “just right” as God intends. Swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. People sit under their own vines and no one will be a slave to poverty or calamity any longer.
Turning again to the Gospel accounts, we find Jesus working to make the world “just right” – as God intends. His work is not primarily about guilt or shame or fear. Rather it’s about remaking the world according to God’s good intentions. Eyes see. Ears hear. Legs walk. Wedding guests celebrate. The temple is cleansed so as to become a place of worship. And human beings are liberated from everything that prevents them from living fulfilled lives in a deep and loving relationship with God. (If there were time, we could explore how Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit accomplish this work. That will be a task for another time.)
So, what now of guilt, shame, and fear? These are all things that prevent us living lives that are “just right” as God intends. Salvation from these things is not the “real” gospel message, nor the “right” gospel message, nor the “appropriate” gospel message. Rather, deliverance from each of the three becomes just one aspect of a bigger picture. The gospel message is (to put it somewhat crudely): “God can fix the mess”.
This message of a world made “just right” suddenly becomes pertinent to world issues. The Christian gospel is now not just about my feelings and my psychological needs – whether they be guilt, shame, or fear – as if the whole of God’s eternal plan was solely to do with me. Rather, it’s about the much grander, more exciting, more far-reaching vision a new world in which everything becomes as God intends. Diseases are healed. The poor are made rich. People speak the truth in love. The planet is restored and protected. In this world, God’s Will is done and his good intentions for a world that’s “just right” are made manifest. A useful phrase for this might be the “kingdom of God”.
Of course, this is only the beginning of our task. We need to grasp what it means for the world to be “just right” and “as God intends”. I have plenty of thoughts about these questions, too. However, in a nutshell, God’s intentions seem (to me) to relate to: (a) authentic identity, (b) life-giving relationships, and (c) the freedom to grow. We also need to understand the part that we’re called to play in this divine initiative of recreation. There is still a long way to go. However, I believe that these could be the first tentative steps towards a bold reimagining of the gospel for today.
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