G.K. Chesterton opens The Everlasting Man with the imaginative scenario of a boy who grew up in a cottage on the slope of an ancient, rolling hill. One day, the boy set out from his home in search of a great adventure, and when he had covered a fair distance, he turned around to discover that the faraway hill on which he lived was in fact a small feature of a much larger figure. It took a new vantage point for him to realize that he had unknowingly spent his entire childhood traipsing about a few tiny contours of this gigantic object “on which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be seen.”
I love this little passage because it’s quaint and humorous—typical Chesterton at his best. But more than that, I love it because of the potential it opens up to us in all aspects of our lives. Every hill on which we’ve ever walked may turn out to be much more than a hill. Every house in which we’ve ever resided may turn out to be much more than a house. We never know at what point in our journey we’ll turned around to discover that what we thought we knew was merely a fraction of some greater whole.
Should you ever find yourself enjoying (or perhaps enduring) the company of a group of Christians, you might eventually observe their conversation turning to something they call “the gospel.” More than likely, you would notice on the faces of your Christian companions an excitement and a reverence when this subject came up. And if you were to ask for some sort of explanation as to what “the gospel” is and why they all seemed so excited about it, you may well hear a response that would sound something like this: “It’s the good news! God created us to follow his law, but we sinned against him and, as a result, deserve his eternal wrath. Thankfully, Jesus came to die for our sins so that we can escape that punishment and live forever with him in heaven.”
Having been in the company of Christians my entire life, this explanation of the gospel is as much a part of me as the mole on the back of my neck. It’s familiar territory. Second nature. A language I’ve come to speak fluently.
If you’re a Christian insider like me, you can probably relate. You know how to conceptualize and categorize the gospel in similar terms. It’s about the state of your soul. It’s about your spiritual destination. It’s about avoiding judgment and securing unending heavenly bliss.
But what if this understanding of the gospel turned out to be incomplete? What if a new vantage point revealed it to be—just like the boy’s home on a hill—merely a small, partial feature of a much larger story?
The prevailing notion among many Christians is that the gospel primarily has to do with the eternal destiny of human souls. But although that’s a part of the gospel story, it’s not all of it. How you and I spend eternity is simply one aspect of the holistically good news ushered in by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. The Bible’s full story of the gospel, in the words of Michael Goheen, “begins with the creation of all things and ends with the renewal of all things. In between it offers an interpretation of the meaning of cosmic history” (A Light to the Nations, pp. 18-19). There’s nothing in all the universe that is excluded from this story. The gospel leaves nothing out.
In the book of Colossians, the Apostle Paul sums up the good news of Jesus in a sweeping statement of immense scale: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20).
For those of us who have come to view the cross as our personal ticket to heaven, this is a startling statement. It doesn’t seem to fit into our individualized, spiritualized understanding of the gospel. But Paul isn’t interested in reinforcing our self-serving theology. He sees the scope of redemption being much bigger than you and I and the post-mortem fate of our fellow human beings. It encompasses the entirety of God’s universe. This is why he says in Romans that all of creation—not just humanity—waits and groans for the coming freedom that will come at the culmination of God’s redemptive activity (Rom. 8:19-22).
And Paul isn’t the only one with such an expansive understanding of the good news. When John the Revelator received his vision of God’s climactic victory over evil, he heard this divine proclamation: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Did you catch that? It says “all things.” As in, all things. The world God made has been thoroughly scarred by the intrusion of sin and evil. But the scars are not permanent. The Great Physician is at work, and eventually all that was broken will be made whole.
Not surprisingly, when we dig a little deeper, we find that these New Testament texts (and others like them) about God’s comprehensive redemption in Christ are deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, if we go back to Isaiah 65, we see a vision of God’s coming restoration that looks nothing like us living forever as disembodied, white-robed beings, sitting on clouds all day long with golden harps in hand. Instead, it looks like nitty, gritty, earthy renewal—universal healthcare (65:20), productive employment (65:21), fair housing (65:22), and even peace among animals (65:25). God is apparently interested in far more than saving our souls. He’s interested in remaking the entire universe—the whole scope of the physical, social, and relational contexts in which our souls have their existence.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that when Jesus appeared in the synagogue at Nazareth, he decided to read from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He then rolled up the scroll, handed it off, and said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21).
As far as sermons go, we might prefer something a tiny bit more, well, spiritual. But Jesus isn’t worried about placating our sensitive evangelical consciences. He wants the world to know that he has come to bring good news—good news that meets us in the here-and-now experiences of our here-and-now world. Poverty. Captivity. Blindness. Oppression. These are the tangible realities of our broken existence. And yet these are also the tangible realities to which Jesus has come, making known the arrival God’s favor.
The sheer “earthiness” of Jesus’ life and ministry should tell us something about God’s salvation. As Eugene Peterson says, “The Word did not become a good idea, or a numinous feeling, or a moral aspiration; the Word became flesh.” The implications of this for our theology are massive: “The task of salvation is not refine us into pure spirits so that we will not be cumbered with this too solid flesh. We are not angels, nor are we to become angels” (The Contemplative Pastor, p. 68). Too often, we want a gospel that transcends this worldly existence of ours. But we have something even better: a gospel that transforms our worldly existence.
The gospel doesn’t float about on angelic wings in the spiritual stratosphere. It has feet. It touches down. It enters the neighborhoods where we live. It addresses the issues we regularly face. It offers new meaning for the lives we lead.
So is the gospel a message of personal hope for an eternal future? Absolutely. But that’s not all it is. To never go beyond the me-and-Jesus, pie-in-the-sky definition of the gospel is to spend one’s life wandering the terrain of vast worlds that are too large and too close to be seen. It’s not necessarily that our information is incorrect. In this case, it’s simply incomplete.
In the end, we need to step back and see that the gospel isn’t just about me, and it’s not just about the afterlife. In a much more holistic sense, the gospel is about all that God has done, is doing, and will do in Jesus. And as such, it turns out to be far bigger than merely a message of individual salvation. It’s about beauty overtaking brokenness. It’s about justice overtaking oppression. It’s about health overtaking sickness. It’s about opportunity overtaking poverty. It’s about forgiveness overtaking shame. It’s about peace overtaking violence. It’s about community overtaking isolation. It’s about life overtaking death.
Wherever there is bad news brought about by sin, Jesus has come to announce the good news of his redemption. Which is simply to say that the gospel is as broad as creation itself.
So what does this mean for Christians, practically speaking? What does it mean for the church? Michael Wittmer points us in the right direction when he observes that “the God who redeems us does not want us to keep redemption to ourselves. He wants us to share his grace with the rest of creation, redeeming society, the animal kingdom, and even the earth itself. God wants it all” (Heaven Is a Place on Earth, p. 188).
What this implies, among other things, is that God has called us to a compellingly comprehensive mission. Our job is bigger than getting people to heaven. Our job is to participate in God’s ongoing work to grow his kingdom and renew all things. In Part 2, we’ll explore what it looks like to be faithful in pursuing that mission.