I was talking with some friends the other day about the difficulty of explaining the gospel to people without any shared frame of reference: no belief in God, no belief in the objective good, no belief in inherent wrongness or sin, etc. I’m not great this but I thought I’d give it a try.
Here is how I might explain the gospel and why I believe it to someone willing to listen for a bit.
The question of evil
There is something wrong with the world. There are natural disasters and random suffering, and even death. As a human being I feel that these things are bad; that they are not meant to be part of the universe. I can’t just say that it’s how the world is. The deepest part of me says no to these things. They are evil.
But the evil isn’t just out in the world. It’s inside me too. I make decisions that make the world worse for everyone else (and in long run, for me too). I do this because there is something deeply wrong with me. It’s not just that I’m bad at figuring out how to do good – sometimes I just don’t want to do good. And I have this in common with every human being that has ever lived (minus one).
So being human means having this standard or idea called Good. But it’s also fundamentally human to not live up to that standard. Weird. How’s that work?
The question of good
There is thing Good that us human beings use to measure the world around us, and ourselves. But Good comes from outside the universe. If Good was something from inside the universe then it wouldn’t tell us that our universe is fundamentally broken (which it is). We can only sort good and bad using an external standard. If you’re sorting good and rotten apples then looking at the array of apples isn’t enough by itself – they are all equally apple-ish. You need the concept of good and rotten, which is an external idea.
In the same way, if Good was invented or grew out of the universe then it would be a thing like the universe: mixed good and evil. But it isn’t. Good is only good. So it has to come from a pure source of goodness. If you only eat sour things then you won’t have a sense of sweetness; if you don’t know oceans exist then you don’t really get that you live on a continent. Good comes from outside the universe because we use it to judge the universe.
And by the way, there’s no point saying “Good is just whatever helps humanity achieve our desires without hurting each other” or something similar. Then you get the question “humans want lots of things, how do we know which desires should be satisfied?” and Good appears again like a disgruntled ghost.
So we’re in a universe of mixed good and evil, but there’s this thing called Good that comes in from outside the universe somewhere. If there is pure good somewhere then why is the universe not pure good?
The question of agency
The only part of the universe that ever chooses between good and evil is us human beings. Natural disasters don’t make choices, animals don’t make choices, cancer doesn’t plan to hurt people, death does not organise freak accidents. These things just happen as the result of the world around us not being sufficiently ordered and suited for human existence (i.e. flawed, imperfect, broken, evil).
But humans do choose evil over good. Since we’re the only possible suspects I think that’s pretty good reason to think we’re guilty. We are the reason the world is this way, and we are the reason that we are this way: petty, selfish, timid, cruel.
There is a problem right at the bottom of humanity and it is humanity that caused it. So what now?
The problem is comprehensive, running through the whole world and every human being who has ever or will ever live (except one). Humans broke the world so we need to fix it: in the sense that what does something can undo it, and in the sense that until humans are fixed ourselves the world will never be safe from getting broken again.
But we can’t fix it. Mixed-up people full of good and bad can’t build a purely good world. If you try and design a better computer using a broken computer, things aren’t going to go well. If you build a wall with a broken set-square or level, it will be a bad wall.
What has to happen is the Good needs to come into the universe and do the work for us. But the work has to be done by humans; so the Good needs to be a human being.
So the perfect Good outside the universe, whom we call God, became a human being. His name was Jesus of Nazareth.
What did he do?
Evil is the thing that needs to be destroyed. Another definition of evil is the lack of something that ought to be there, and under this definition evil is the thing that needs to be made up for and healed.
Jesus let himself be killed; not just killed, but betrayed and exiled and condemned and declared guilty. He did this because you condemn bad things, and Jesus was destroying all the evil in the universe. And he was giving his own goodness to heal all the evil in the universe.
Tangent: it’s impossible to be the gift and the giver at the same time. This means God is more than one person; in fact God is three people but one being or entity. The Father sends the Son who sends the Spirit who unites us to the Father in the Son etc etc etc. This makes sense because love is part of goodness, and you can’t have love without having a relationship between people; so of course God is more than one person. But I digress.
Part of the evil Jesus was destroying was death, so after three days he came back to life. All the evil in the universe was broken, destroyed, and fixed. Jesus dying and coming back to life was like the judge setting a prisoner free; all that’s left is for the guards to uncuff the prisoner (the universe is the prisoner).
What’s happening now is that Jesus is showing people that he has destroyed the evil in them and in the universe, and preparing them for when he comes back and completely renovates the universe to be entirely good forever.
For reasons not clear to me, Jesus chose to do this through people rather than doing it himself. He sent the Spirit (the third person in God) to help people do this.
It really really matters that the people working with the Spirit help other people see that Jesus has done this. Because Jesus has destroyed all the evil, it is going to go away when he comes back to renovate the universe. It is obsolete and unnecessary, like an old poster slowly peeling off a wall.
But if people don’t let go of their evil now, it will hurt when Jesus tears it away – and if you hold on to your evil and say “Jesus I want to keep this” then you will be torn away with it. It’s like jumping overboard holding an anchor.
So the work of Jesus’ people is to work with the Spirit and show the world that Jesus has beaten evil (the evil outside us and inside us) and help them let go of evil and grab onto Good.
Good isn’t just a concept any more, it’s a person – Jesus himself is Good. So we want people to grab onto Jesus and accept that he’s destroyed the evil they want to hold onto.
How’s that sound?