Is the Gospel Good News?

An Easter meditation in the company of George MacDonald and David Bentley Hart

“Yet I know that good is coming to me—that good is always coming; though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it.”

– George MacDonald

The Easter festival celebrates that Jesus, through his incarnation, death, and resurrection, decisively defeated the powers of evil in this world. Few who call themselves Christians would argue with this central Christian claim; however, exactly how this was achieved and its implications are an ongoing matter of debate. Here, I want to focus on just one aspect of that debate and its consequences with particular thanks to my mentor George MacDonald and to David Bentley Hart as we dip into the latter’s paper, “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho.”1

It is worth noting at the outset that the Apostle Paul uses at least ten metaphors to try and help us understand what Jesus achieved through his death on the cross.2 We read, for example, that Jesus short-circuited the power of Satan, defeating him, and—in a metaphor taken from the custom of a Roman commander flaunting the spoils of war—leading Satan, bound, in a victory procession, a “triumph.”3 We also read that Jesus—using the metaphor of the redemption of a slave—bought us our freedom; that, in some sense, Jesus paid the price for our freedom.4 Or we might reflect on the cultic image of Jesus somehow “satisfying” God’s wrath against sinners (or sinfulness),5 or that we are “justified”, a legal term implying the declaration of “not guilty” by the court.6 It is also worth noting here that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Lord, forgive our sins,” a prayer that would be meaningless if God did not have both the capacity and the will to forgive human sin.

Focusing uniquely on any one of these metaphors can be problematic. For example, Jesus paying the price for our redemption necessarily begs questions: To whom was the payment made? And in what currency? Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–253), for example, is associated with the view (perhaps erroneously) that Adam’s sin had somehow given Satan legal rights to rule over the fate of humans and that Jesus paid Satan off—in other words, bought back the rights to be the ruler of the world.7 The first take-away here is that biblical imagery surrounding the Christ event (as noted in my previous blog with regard to biblical prophecy) is diverse and one must be cautious of taking metaphors too literally or of focusing on one image at the expense of others. It is at times like these that we remember that “every putatively meaningful theological affirmation dangles upon a golden but fragile thread of analogy.”8

The basic problem I want to explore here, summarised neatly by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, is “the biblically, historically, dogmatically and ecumenically unfounded and counter-productive tendency in some conservative Protestant traditions to make the forensic framework not only the dominant one but also the exclusive one” while neglecting the many other New Testament soteriological metaphors.9 The tendency, in other words, for the language of the law court or the contract to dominate our conversation about the cross—the view that Christ “atoned” for our sins, “justified” us in God’s sight, and that, having taken our sin upon himself, imputed righteousness to us. It is not that these biblical metaphors are hollow: they carry profound truth; rather, the issue is that when unbalanced by other biblical images—or when we forget that they are metaphors—such language can obscure, trivialise, or distort the extraordinary breadth and depth of what Christ achieved, which, Paul insists, is ultimately a “great mystery” (1 Tim 3:16).10 These issues were particularly the subject of debate in the late nineteenth century at which time much wisdom emerged from the conversation, so it seems curious that such vocabulary still dominates the Easter conversation, devoid of critical engagement. And why is this a problem? Because the focus on a retributive, judgemental salvific scheme produces retributive and judgemental Christians who tend to divide humanity into those that are “saved” and those that are “lost,” the latter often looked down on as being inferior since not chosen by God for salvation.

Making “the forensic framework not only the dominant one but also the exclusive one” magnetically attracts other images—God is a judge on a grand throne; those who fail to sign the “contract” (allow Christ to pay the fine) are sentenced to death; and so forth. In this scheme, hell obviously plays a central role since it is the main means of punishment. In 1868, it led George MacDonald to conclude that since hell is considered by many Christians to be the deepest place in the universe—the “bottomless pit”—and since the foundations of any structure must be built in the deepest place, it is a system “founded in hell.”11 And it seems to me MacDonald was onto something: that the human predilection for “judgement” has little to do with the divine longing for justice;12 rather, it reflects the human desire for retribution—to get even. And it is for this reason that a Dantean hell still appeals to human nature. We have a tendency to make God in our own image.

To briefly comment on this: I have heard numerous sermons that use Isaiah’s words “your ways are not my ways” (Isa 55:7) to defend God’s apparently immoral acts such as the doctrine of eternal damnation. In other words, the defence claims that God is so “other” and God’s actions are so ineffable and inscrutable that we must accept at face value “what the Bible tells us” on the basis that whatever God wills must be morally right since God is perfect.13 While this is technically true (as a perfect God of love cannot act immorally) it raises the spectre that just as God and humanity live in separate ontological spheres, so they live in different moral spheres—a view that George MacDonald thought absurd, concluding: “To say that what our deepest conscience calls darkness may be light to God, is blasphemy.”14 David Bentley Hart agrees; he argues: “Precisely because God and creation are ontologically distinct in the manner of the absolute and the contingent, they are morally indiscerptible.”15 I simply point out here that this Isaiah verse is preceded by a divine declaration that is often overlooked:

Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

That God will “freely pardon” sits uncomfortably with some. One nineteenth-century critic of George MacDonald, Samuel Law Wilson, for example, accused him of ignoring the “awful controversy caused by sin.”16 However, it reminds us that God’s solution to the problem of evil is not motivated by vengeance but by love—a love which reaches out to embrace all humanity. And to suggest that God is working to free all humanity from evil does not, as those such as Wilson complain, reduce the gospel to a “slight and facile process”; on the contrary, it suggests the scope and application of Christ’s sacrifice is far beyond human imagination. Neither does it trivialise the gravity of evil or the need for a genuine (that is, repentant) human response to the divine initiative.

This Easter I suggest it might be worth revising our understanding of the gospel, the Christian “good news,” after all, the news that the majority of humanity will be eternally quarantined from the blessed in a state of perpetual judgement—or worse still, as Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas asserted, “that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven)”17 —can hardly be considered “good.” Furthermore, apart the immediate fate of the wicked, from the point of view of creation it represents a divine failure to bring the “project” to a satisfactory conclusion. To put it crudely, a God making millions in his own image and then throwing the majority away as unfit for purpose can hardly be considered a successful project manager.

Of course, those satisfied with Calvin’s “immensely influential but deeply defective theological tradition”18 will accuse me, rightly, of ignoring the nuances of Calvin’s thought, but my point here is that serious intellectual somersaults are required in order to recognise in Calvin’s picture of God the image of the God of love. Furthermore, most people do not have the time or resources to engage in such somersaults and, therefore, simply conclude that “this is what Christians believe.” I certainly believed it when I was younger.

Instead, while recognising that the New Testament does insist that this-life choices have eternal consequences and should not be taken lightly, it also strongly suggests that there is a bigger picture of grace that is beyond our present sight. That, at the consummation of this age, Christ will be “all in all” (1 Cor 12:6; 15:28; Eph 1:23). David Bentley Hart, developing this theme, notes that:

Even Paul asks, in the tortured, conditional voice of Romans 9, whether there might be vessels of wrath stored up solely for destruction only because he trusts that there are not, that instead all are bound in disobedience only so that God might prove himself just by showing mercy on all. The argumentum ad baculum is a terrifying specter, momentarily conjured up only so as to be immediately chased away by a decisive, radiant argumentum ad caritatem.19

In this context it is fitting to allow Paul the final word—advice given to his young protégé, Timothy:

That is why we labour and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, and especially of those who believe. (1 Tim 4:10)

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Notes and references

  1. Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics, 3 (1) 1–17.
  2. See, for example, Walter Schmithals, “Death,” in Colin Brown (ed.) Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986 (1:437–479).
  3. Col 2:15.
  4. Eph 1:7.
  5. Rom 3:25.
  6. Rom 5:9.
  7. See, for example, Waldow, Daniel, “From Whom Was Humanity Saved? The Ransom Soteriology of Origen’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans,” International Journal of Systematic Theology, 21 (3) 265–289.
  8. “God, Creation, and Evil,” 6.
  9. Justification: Five Views, ed. by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, London: SPCK, 2012, 124.
  10. The word “mystery” is frequently used by Paul, as is “understanding,” however the latter should not be reduced to mere logic since it is given so that we “may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Co1 2:2).
  11. Robert Falconer, 3 vols, London: Hurst and Blackett, 1868, 1:152.
  12. This “longing for justice” is particularly evident in Jesus’s use of Isaiah’s words relating the Jubilee Year as his manifesto. Lk 4:18–19; cf. Isa 61:1–2; Isa 58:6; Lev 25:8–54.
  13. This view known as “voluntarism” was espoused by John Calvin and is, therefore, prevalent in Western Christianity. Calvin wrote: “Everything which [God] wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it” (Institutes, 3:23:2). Calvin denied being a voluntarist, but evidence points to the contrary. See Danielson, Dennis Richard, Milton’s Good God, Cambridge University Press, 1982, 69.
  14. “Light,” in Unspoken Sermons: Third Series.
  15. “God, Creation, and Evil,” 2.
  16. Wilson, Samuel Law, The Theology of Modern Literature, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1899, 284.
  17. “God, Creation, and Evil,” 9.
  18. “God, Creation, and Evil,” 8.
  19. “God, Creation, and Evil,” 5–6. Texts referred to (at the head of the paper) are Rom 5:18–19, 11:32; 1 Cor 3:15, 15:22, 15:28; 1 Tim 2.3–4; 4:10 and Hart reasonably asks why texts that imply (and only imply) eternal damnation predominate in many theories about the afterlife while largely ignoring verses such as these that paint a very different picture.