What is the gospel?
I’m taking a slight detour from fat theory into theologyland because something has been on my mind a lot lately and I just need to get it out there.
One of my dear friends posted recently on her blog about Jesus’ last words as recorded in Matthew and the appended ending of Mark* Her interpretation of this was that while we do need to participate in acts of kindness and grace that Jesus called us to, ultimately we must also preach the “narrow way,” i.e. that belief in Jesus is the only way to heaven.
One commenter said:
I think it’s easy to concentrate on doing all the good works and leave out the gospel just because so many people find the gospel offensive (because of it’s straight and narrowness).
But the thing is, not all of us believe that the gospel is “straight and narrowness,” especially in terms of a narrowness of of belief. Fred Clark talks about this in the most recent installment of his critiques on the Left Behind book series. In the particular passage that Fred is discussing here, Buck, one of the two main characters of the series, is talking to a Catholic archbishop with prospects of becoming the pope. What follows is Fred’s commentary on what’s happening (emphasis mine):
It’s their way of reminding readers that Catholics are not real, true Christians. They may foolishly believe that their infant Baptism and confirmation and sacraments will save them, but they haven’t said the magic words. Catholics, according to the authors, believe they can be saved by good works, when what really saves us is intellectual assent to proper soteriological propositions. Caryn Litewski will soon die as she deserves. She will be killed in the earthquake, or poisoned by Wormwood, or be slain by pestilence or famine or giant demon locusts. And then she will burn forever and ever in Hell, just like her fellow Papists at that food pantry/health clinic/shelter downtown. Reminding readers of that was the whole purpose of her brief appearance in this story.
All we have to do is study the four accounts of Jesus’ life that we can find in the Christian Scriptures, and I think it’s pretty clear that they do not support the idea that Jesus cared more about our “intellectual assent to proper soteriological propositions” than the way we lived our lives**. He had an awful lot to say about the wrongness of exploitation, greed, and excluding the sick and poor from the community. Repeatedly he spoke about salvation coming to folks based on how they lived their lives (see the sheep and goats parable from Matthew 25 for one well-known example). He didn’t spend much time on intellectual beliefs.
I think it’s interesting, though, that the term “The Gospel” is used to describe the abhorrent, “straight and narrow” theology that Fred eviscerates. It’s so very bizarre because “gospel” translates to “good news.” But what is good about the news that you are bound for hell? Or that anyone is bound for hell? What is good about the news that your actions on earth make no difference? That saying some magic words is the most important thing you’ll ever do with your life? That’s not good news. That’s terrible news. It’s terrifying. It’s depressing. When it comes to loved ones who’ve died without ever having said the “right” incantation, it’s heart-wrenchingly hopeless.
Good news is that you’re beloved. Good news is that there is reason to hope. Good news is that when you choose to live your life in loving ways you can make a difference in this world. Good news is that God sides with the oppressed, and that liberation is within reach. Good news is that we can bring about the upside-down kingdom of God—where the first are last and the last are first—here and now; that we don’t have to wait for pearly gates. We can never completely grasp what or who God is, but the good news is that we can say that God is love and God loves us. Whatever we believe. That, my friends, is the gospel.
* you may have noticed when you read some Bibles that the last few paragraphs of Mark are separated as an “alternate ending.” This appended ending was added a little later than the rest of the book. It may be part of the original work but we do not have clear evidence for that. It is also likely to be a kind of “summary ending” to make sure the reader “gets the point.”
** without making this post excessively long, let me just quickly point out that there’s also a simple logical fallacy in saying, “salvation is by faith alone; you can’t be saved by good works” and simultaneously saying, “you need to believe this specific thing and say these specific words to be saved.” Saying the magic words? That’s a work. It’s a thing you do. To get yourself saved. So the logic doesn’t even hold up