It has been my impression, and my experience personally, that evangelism leaves many Christians with a sense of being the bearers of bad news rather than good, especially when the audience to our gospel is not receptive and asks us those troubling questions like, ‘so what happens to me if I say “no” and don’t believe this?’ (Of course they know, and we know, that the answer is probably going to be, ‘You will eventually face God’s wrath for rejecting him’—a claim which I regard as true, however uncomfortable it may make me or anyone else feel to say it.) If people face condemnation for not choosing (or perhaps, though this is another debate of its own, for never having the opportunity to choose) the gospel, we wonder, how on earth can the gospel really be good news? Rob Bell in particular has articulated this sentiment, and has concluded in several of his books and public statements, “If the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.”
The ‘gospel’ we are talking about, in my experience, is put something like this: ‘You are sinful, but God loves you very deeply, so much that he sent his son to die on the cross for you, and now he invites you to receive that deep love through forgiveness and the joy of eternal life with him.’ To distill it into something shorter, ‘God loves you; you can be saved.’ Then, we turn right around and say, ‘But if you don’t accept this, he’s going to condemn you to hell.’ Rob Bell is simply one of many to point out that this seems inconsistent with everything prior to that warning. And here’s the thing: Rob Bell’s intuition is exactly right. The claims we tend to make in our proclamation of ‘the gospel’ are inconsistent with our subsequent claim that rejecting it leads to damnation.
The problem, however, is not with the warning of the eternal consequences of rejecting God. This is what Rob Bell fails to understand. Rather, the problem is with our way of understanding and articulating the gospel itself. The gospel, simply put, is not that God loves you and wants to save you. Are you shocked to hear me say it? Don’t misunderstand me—this truth may very well follow from the proclamation of the gospel (and the best evidence of its veracity will be whether or not the person eventually embraces the gospel during his or her lifetime), but it is not the gospel itself. It is not what the apostles and the first Christians went around proclaiming as of first importance to all who would listen; it is not an invitation to a new kind of religious experience; it is not an offering of ‘your best life now’ or ‘be sure you’re going to heaven.’ Read through the preaching of the “gospel” in any of the evangelists’ accounts of Jesus’ life, or in Acts, and you’ll see that their way of doing it differed considerably from ours. Their gospel was much fuller, much better, and much more powerful—indeed, “God’s power, unto [i.e., leading to, but not synonymous with] the salvation of all the faithful” (Rom. 1:16).
For the apostles, the proclamation of the gospel, the good news, the evangelion, was this: an invitation to bend the knee to Jesus the Messiah, who is the risen, reigning Lord and redeemer of the cosmos, through whom God’s kingdom has decisively broken into creation and defeated the powers of darkness, sin, death, and hell. It is not, in other words, primarily soteriological (I re-emphasize the ‘primarily,’ for salvation is indeed fundamental to the gospel’s meaning and importance); rather, the gospel is primarily, to coin a new term, kyriological. It is focused on the lordship of the risen and reigning Christ, with the salvation of individual sinners comprising an outworking of that reality of Christ’s lordship based on their responsiveness to hearing that lordship announced.
Our whole problem arises, I think, from the fact that we have traditionally behaved (at the popular level at least) as though God’s salvation of individual sinners is the whole purpose for which he created this universe, and the only way in which his goodness and love can be expressed toward us. The simple fact is, our salvation is not the point of history, however wonderful salvation may be (and, oh, how it is!). Rather, God created the universe to display his glory, power, and wise rule within it—in other words, he created this universe to serve as the stage on which the great drama of the kingdom of God would be enacted. The universe rebelled against this script, and God has brought it about nonetheless, over and against all creaturely rejection of his purposes; those who reject him are in turn rejected, and this in no way compromises God because God’s sole objective is not their salvation—it is first and foremost to enact the in-breaking and final establishment of his kingdom, and to accomplish the defeat of all evil and sin that would otherwise thwart this.
Salvation is part of this grander purpose. Salvation is not the good news itself, but follows from an acceptance of the good news—the news that this kingdom has, in fact, come near in Jesus Christ. The goodness of the good news, then, is only tasted by those for whom it is seen as true; it simply is not good news to everybody, contrary to what Rob Bell thinks: it is terrible news for any who would ridicule it, resist it, and persistently live an unjust and unrepentant lifestyle that perpetuates the Adamic existence of humanity and the cosmic state of affairs that necessitated the good news in the first place. That which is good news for the poor in spirit and the meek of the earth, for the mourners and the repentant thieves of this world, is bad news for the proud and boastful, for the self-righteous and self-saviors; that which is good news for the captives and the weak is, at the same time, bad news for the oppressive and the strong—for the gospel says with the utmost clarity, ‘Time’s up! The old order has done its worst at the cross of Christ and even so has lost, and all of it is destined to perish—along with all who go on obstinately serving as its agents. Our only hope, then, is to cling with Jesus to that cross (or rather cling to Jesus on it) and to share in his mysterious and shocking victory.’ If the world will not be a victim with Christ, it will not be a victor with him either—it will ultimately be vanquished.
Our evangelistic task in the present time is not to go around telling people that God loves them and wants to save them if they will but let him. (A million theological and exegetical problems that we don’t have time to uproot here are burrowed deep within this statement.) Our task is, rather, to go around telling people that “the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1:15). Then we proceed carefully and clearly to articulate how this is so in Jesus the Messiah, while also displaying this reality through the kingdom-shaped life of God's people, the church. The good news, then, goes out to all, but it does not become good news for all. Though it is objectively good without question, it is subjectively experienced as good only by those who accept it; for those who don’t it may become many things—an intriguing notion but ultimately not practical, perhaps, or maybe an impossibility on ‘purely’ empirical grounds, maybe a Nietzschean power-play, or an unreasonable claim about universal truths that don’t and can’t exist—but it won't be good news, whatever it might be, and (so far as we know) it won’t become that in the world to come either. It is good news for a groaning creation and a groaning people of God within it who await the promised renewal, but hateful, abhorrent news to the powers and principalities over this present darkness—and all who serve them—who prefer things just the way they are.
[[An essay concerning this way of defining the gospel is forthcoming (planned for sometime this summer) - I'll keep you posted!]]