“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'” Then they remembered his words. When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. (Luke 24:5b-9 TNIV)
All throughout my church life, I heard people talking about “the Gospel.” We had to “share the Gospel” with all of our lost friends and our motivation was to be, more or less, so that they wouldn’t wind up burning in hell for all of eternity. The God presented in this Gospel is loving, but not so loving as to be afraid to use torture as motivation for trust and obedience. And, despite being raised in a faith tradition that emphasized “once saved, always saved,” there was an unspoken understanding that, if we Christians weren’t obedient to certain rules and regulations, the same fate awaited us as well.
Interestingly enough, this same attitude underlies our understanding of the Gospel still today. There seems to be a sense in which certain sins are unforgivable and, if a Christian finds himself struggling with or inadvertently practicing these sins, their salvation is questionable at best. More likely, though, you were just not saved to begin with and were destined for hell anyway.
The central theme of this Gospel is hell. Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died on a cross, rose again, and ascended to the right hand of the Father all so that we won’t wind up in hell.
I’ve come to a place where I take serious issue with this version of the Gospel because I don’t see this being the motivation of the first Christians. The first Christians talked about Jesus because He had risen from the dead, thereby proving that He was, indeed, God-in-the-flesh. The idea of Jesus having told the truth all along, even about the stuff that was deemed impossible, filled the men and women in the upper room with such joy and conviction that they could not remain silent any longer about their Rabbi. Add to the mix the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, and even language barriers were rendered obsolete in the proclamation of this message.
But what message were they proclaiming?
All of these people had actually seen Jesus alive after He had died. All they could talk about was the fact that a dead man was alive, and that the dead man was none other than the God-man. Sin was paid for. New life was possible. Jesus had kept His promise. Death, eternal or otherwise, was not the motivation for having faith in Jesus. Resurrection was.
This is not to say that hell has no role to play in the Gospel. Hell is indeed a part of the story. After all, Jesus did say that there was a place reserved for those who were not on His side; a place for those who He had never known. But this is not the primary story line. We can’t downplay hell’s importance, but we must be cautious to not give it a more prominent place than the Scriptures do.
When all is said and done, the Gospel that the Scriptures and early church proclaimed was about a messiah who would come and set God’s people free from the tyranny of sin. This messiah was the God-man Jesus. But how was this story articulated? We will begin looking into that next time.