Better than what?
The word "gospel" literally means "good news." But in these days, the word "gospel" has become the shorthand way of framing our message about Jesus and Christianity. There has been a great emphasis on correctly stating and preaching the "gospel." For the normal person on the street, or in the pew, if you were to ask them what is the good news of Jesus, what kind of answer would you get? Despite all the books written about the gospel, the answer will lack nuance, depth, and scope.
I think Rob is writing to those people on the street, immersed in real life, giving them a working definition of the gospel that they can remember - more than that, that they can grasp with their heart and either truly embrace or clearly reject. Rather than the gospel becoming a complex set of doctrinal beliefs, Rob seeks to reveal the thumping heart and blood of the gospel in Jesus.
To do this, Rob retells a story/parable that Jesus made up about God and his love for sinners and the righteous. You can read it for yourself in Luke 15, it's about a father with two sons. One of the interesting angles Rob takes on this story is by pointing out the different stories at work in this one parable. Rob points out that both the younger son and older brother have a version of their life-story. The challenge is this: will they believe the story that their Father is telling them?
The younger son believes he is "no longer worthy to be called the father's son." (165) The older brother believes that he has been slaving for his father all these years without so much as a word of thanks, not even a small goat for a party. The older brother also believes that the father has been unfair.
The father, when the younger son comes home, tells a different story - here is a robe for your shoulders, a ring for your finger, and soon lets fill your belly up with roast beef and fine wine! And the father, when angrily confronted by the older brother, tells him a different story - "My son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours." (167) This is followed up with an invitation to join the party.
Rob points out that the challenge for each of the sons is about trust and belief - will either one of them trust the story the father is telling them? Will they believe their father? The differences between the two stories - the one we tell ourselves and the one the father tells us - Rob says it's "the difference between heaven...and hell." (169)
Heaven and hell seem to be right next to each other in this story - the younger son enjoying the party being thrown for him, the older brother fuming just outside the tent doors, refusing to enter, "to join in the celebration." (169) Rob is going to use this parable as a launching point for ideas about the good news, about heaven and hell. This is a unique approach, sure to attract lots of objections.
Rob has made the argument in earlier chapters about the temporary nature of hell. This comes into play in this chapter about heaven and hell as thought about from the perspective of the parable in Luke 15.
"Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story." (170)
What? This is not what most people think of when it comes to hell - where's the fire and brimstone?
But in reflecting through the story, Rob observes that belief and trust are essential to our experience with God - or without him. And this story that Jesus tells points to a moment of decision for each son - will they believe their Father, will they trust his words to them about their situation?
"We believe all sorts of things about ourselves. What the gospel does is confront our version of the story with God's version of our story." (171) Some people are full of flaws, they're marked by failure, they carry around heavy weights of shame and guilt. They believe they are not good enough. Certainly not for church. Or heaven. There are others, though, who believe they are good enough. Their pride keeps them out of church, keeps them independent, keeps them convinced that is God for the weak. And God brings to each of them, to each of us, another story which will challenge the story we've been telling ourselves.
"It is a brutally honest, exuberantly liberating story, and it is good news. It begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved. That in spite of whatever has gone horribly wrong deep in our hearts and has spread to every corner of the world, in spite of our sins, failures, rebellion, and hard hearts, in spite of what's been done to us or what we've done, God has made peace with us." (172)
Rob implies that when Jesus died on the cross, the sins of the world, of every individual who had ever lived, who ever will live, were forgiven. The blood of Jesus atoned for the sins of every person, forever. It's not fair, but it is generous. It is shocking, when you think about it. But, as Rob shares, "we create hell whenever we fail to trust God's retelling of our story." (173) When we see Jesus, we see God - and so what Jesus tells us about God, well, it's something we have to decide whether to trust it. When we don't believe the story that Jesus tells us about God and about ourselves, we miss out on the party.
One of the observations that Rob makes, though, is that the older son - and even the younger one - he had a distorted view of God. This is what made it hard for him to trust the new story the father told them. The younger son gained a new view of of his father, and thus trusted him. The older son struggled much longer with the conflicting views - a longstanding belief that his father was a slavedriver, stingy... now challenged by a father who seems to be generously unfair and outrageously forgiving. Even towards him.
It's this idea of a distorted view of God that Rob is going to focus on - that the good news often preached today presents a distorted view of God. The summary: For God so loved the world that he gave us his one and only son, that whoever believes in him won't die, but will live forever. But if you don't believe in this God, this same loving God will throw you into the lake of fire, eternal conscious torment. Billions of years of screaming, writhing, agony for seventy or eighty years of rebellion against God. "A loving heavenly father who will to to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony." (173-4)
For those Christians that believe in eternal conscious torment, Rob's characterization of their belief and God will certainly irk and offend them. Apparently Rob has many friends, though, who are terrified and traumatized by the kind of God that would damn men and women to eternal conscious torment. Rob and others ask the question: "Just what kind of God is behind all this?" (175) The good news is better than the distorted view of God you've come to believe in...or disbelieve.
He goes on to write:
Because if something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing, or compelling music, or great coffee, will be able to disguise that one, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.
Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God. Sometimes the reason people have a problem accepting "the gospel" is that they sense that the God lurking behind Jesus isn't safe, loving, or good. It doesn't make sense, it can't be reconciled, and so they say no. (175)
Hermeneutics is the science and art of interpretation of Scripture. Rob's hermeneutics are obviously at odds with that of many other Christians. His hermeneutics of Luke 15, of the gospel, of God as revealed through Scripture clash with other classic beliefs. But Rob's hermeneutics are rooted in the Scriptures, so I think his ideas are worth wrestling with - which will lead either to a strengthening of our traditional beliefs, or a doorway into a more faithful reading of Scripture. As Rob says, "our beliefs matter. They are incredibly important. Our beliefs shape us and guide us and determine our lives." (176)
Rob is challenging our traditional and culturally popular notions of God. The good news we preach is connected both to the God we believe in, and the God our audience believes in. Rob is inviting his readers to reconsider the God that is presented in the Scriptures, particularly in Luke 15, as presented by Jesus. As Rob sees it, we are free to choose what to believe - we can believe the story that God is retelling us about ourselves, "or we can cling to our own version of the story. And to trust God's telling, we have to trust God." (176) To reject God, his story, his love and grace "will lead to misery. It is a form of punishment, all on its own." (176) God's is love, what God does is love, and the essence of love is such that "it can be resisted and rejected and denied and avoided, and that will bring another reality. Now, and then." (177)
Not only is Rob challenging the notion of what we believe about God, and about heaven and hell, but also what we believe about what this relationship with God ought to look like. He describes it as the difference between entrance and enjoyment. "...when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will 'get into heaven,' that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club. The good news is better than that." (178-9) The good news is better than fire insurance.
He goes to say:
When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless, giving, circle of joy and creativity. Life has never been about just "getting in." It's about thriving in God's good world." (179)
Jesus calls disciples to keep entering into this shared life of peace and joy as it transforms our hearts, until it's the most natural way to live that we can imagine. Until it's second nature. Until we naturally embody and practice the kinds of attitudes and actions that will go on in the age to come. A discussion about how to "just get into heaven" has no place in the life of a disciple of Jesus because it's missing the point of it all. (179)
Rob notices amongst many Christians that there is a certain lack of distinctiveness. Many surveys show that there is little lifestyle difference between Christians and non-Christians. When many Christians talk about their faith, the main point of it is so that they can go to heaven when they die. And there is something in us that recoils at that over-simplification. What is the connection between believing in Jesus and life transformation? I think that is what Rob is trying to get at in his articulation of the gospel - a belief, a trust, a relationship that bleeds into a way of life that looks and smells and feels like Jesus. And so he starts with what we believe, which is a very controversial place to go.
"We shape our God, and then our God shapes us." (183) With that phrase, Rob cautions us to rethink what we believe about God. More than that, to re-examine the effects of our life, and then work backwards to see what we really believe. What we believe about God deeply affects how we live. Do you believe God is a slavedriver? Or do you believe that "God is the rescuer?" (182) The good news is better than being ruled by a slavedriver God.
More on this - it's central to Rob's big point in this chapter:
There is another dimension to the violent, demanding God, the one people need Jesus to rescue them from. We see it in the words of the older brother, when he says he "never even disobeyed." You can sense the anxiety in his defense, the paranoid awareness that he believed his father was looking over his shoulder the whole time, waiting and watching to catch him in disobedience.
The violent God creates profound worry in people. Tension. Stress. This God is supposed to bring peace, that's how the pitch goes, but in the end this God can easily produce followers who are paralyzed and catatonic with fear. Whatever you do, don't step out of line or give this God any reason to be displeased, because who knows what will be unleashed.
Jesus frees us from that, because his kind of love simply does away with fear. (184)
What kind of love does Jesus describe for us in the story?
"Our badness can separate us from God's love, that is clear. But our goodness can separate us from God's love as well. Neither son understands that the father's love was never about any of that. The father's love cannot be earned, and it cannot be taken away. It just is." (187)
Your deepest, darkest sins and your shameful secrets are simply irrelevant when it comes to the counterintuitive, ecstatic announcement of the gospel. So are your goodness, your rightness, your church attendance, and all of the wise, moral, mature decisions you have made and actions you have taken. It simply doesn't matter when it comes to the surprising, unexpected declaration that God's love is simply yours. There is nothing left for both sons to do but to trust.
Our trusting, our change of heart, our believing God's version of the story doesn't bring it into existence, make it happen, or create it. It simply is. On the cross, Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (188)
Jesus meets us and redeems us in all the ways we have it together and in all the ways we don't, in all the times we proudly display for the world our goodness, greatness and rightness, and in all of the ways we fall flat on our faces. It's only when you lose your life that you can find it, Jesus says. The only thing left to do is trust. Everybody is already at the party. Heaven and hell, here, now, around us, upon us, within us. (190)
This is the Good News as Rob understands it. This is the God of the Scriptures that Rob believes. This is the Gospel of Jesus that Rob trusts.
I agree that the heart of the Gospel is God's love for us, as demonstrated through Jesus. I agree that trust/believing/faith is central to our relationship with God. I'm not sure the parable of the two sons can carry as much theological weight as Rob wants it to. And I think there is an oversimplification of the Gospel going on here in this chapter. Yet I think it is crucial for Rob to publicize the vicious views of God that are being created by the sloppy preaching of Evangelicals.
And I agree that too many people have turned away from God - not the God of the Scriptures, but the God of the different Christians who present a confusing and hard-to-love God. Rob sees in God a very non-violent being - but I think that there is much to discuss - and disagree with here. I see his point though about the way Christians can embrace a particular view of God and violence that leads them away from the way of Jesus.
Indeed, the good news is better than it is often presented. Is it better than what Rob presents?