The lesson in a nutshell: The Good News is not a life raft to take us off to heaven when the world is annihilated. The Good News is that God has entered the world through Jesus Christ to save it. God’s saving presence in our midst is called the Kingdom of God.
My Leaky Life Raft
I grew up in a world of apocalyptic fear. The buildup of nuclear weapons in the 1970’s made total annihilation seem inevitable. The end could come any moment, with horrifying ease—the touch of a button. The ghastly images in the book of Revelation were not metaphors. Plagues, ecological disasters, and the rise of an Antichrist were right around the corner. Soon, the Beast would rise up out of the pit, unleashing death and hell. Back in the 70’s, if you had told me I would be around in 2017 I would have laughed in your face. This world was the Titanic and it had already struck an iceberg.
The good news was that God had sent a life raft. When this world vaporized in smoke and blood, the life raft would take its grateful passengers off to heaven to live with God forever. I learned this “life raft” version of the gospel as The Four Spiritual Laws1 It went like this.
- God loves me
- Sin has ruined my relationship with God
- God sent Jesus to die on the cross for my sin
- If I ask Jesus into my heart, I will be made right with God and go to heaven when I die. If I don’t, I will spend eternity in hell.
Maybe I would live to a ripe old age. More likely, the world would end long before that. Either way, I was living on a ticking time bomb. All that mattered was getting a seat on that life raft. The Four Spiritual Laws told me how.
As the decades passed with no Armageddon, I developed some uneasy questions about the life raft gospel. To begin with, getting into heaven seemed like a trick. I just had to believe the right stuff and ask Jesus into my heart. Once I did this, I was in. Done deal. How I lived was irrelevant. I was saved because I knew the formula. It was like crossing the Bridge of Death in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. The Keeper of the Bridge says,
“Answer me these questions three, 'ere the other side you see.”
If Lancelot and his men get three trivia questions right, all is well. If they slip up, it’s off to the chasm of death. I had the right answers so I didn’t need to worry. Others would not be not so fortunate. This seemed a strange way for God to decide people’s eternal destinies.
Another problem was that I could find no logical reason to care about the created world. Since the physical universe would soon be destroyed, environmentalism was for softheaded chumps, running around rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Likewise physical health was a waste of time. Why exercise? Why eat right? The human body was just an earth suit. It, along with all other material things, would soon be destroyed. Pass the Doritos.
And then there was the fact that the good news was hidden in a big confusing book. If I was handed a Bible and told to summarize its message, the odds of coming up with The Four Spiritual Laws would be nearly zero. The Bible was a corn maze. Why did God make things so hard to figure out? And what about all the people who didn’t? Was God a sadistic puzzle maker?
Most troubling of all, I saw that my “good news” was terrible news for nearly everyone but me. The vast majority of human beings would roast in Hell forever. This included billions of people who had never even heard of Jesus. I was glad to be one of the lucky ones in the life raft but could I honestly cheer as the Titanic sank? God’s love seemed pretty awful.
Then there was the Bible. As I read the stories of Jesus they didn’t sound like my life raft version of the good news at all. If The Four Spiritual Laws were the recipe for going to heaven, I wondered why Jesus and his disciples didn’t tell anyone. Instead, they went around proclaiming the “Kingdom of God.” I relaxed this tension by reading “Kingdom of God” as code for “going to heaven when you die.” But Jesus sure seemed confused about how to get there.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount didn’t look like an evangelistic crusade at all. He didn’t ask anyone to “ask him into their heart.” Instead, he called for a counter-cultural lifestyle involving radical humility, forgiveness, love for enemies, respect for women, and personal integrity. His conclusion was the craziest part of all. Jesus didn’t warn people of hell or give them the formula for going to heaven. Instead, he said you will know a tree by it’s fruit and told people not to be fools who hear the truth and don’t practice it. By my formula, not a single person got a seat on the life raft that day.
I turned to the letters of Paul. I found verses that could be used to fit The Four Spiritual Laws but I wondered why Paul never laid them out clearly, in the right order. In fact, when I read the entirety of Paul’s letters, working to grasp the full meaning and context, Paul sounded a lot like Jesus, in other words, confused about how to get to heaven.
Why I Proudly Make My Home on the Titanic
I have given up my seat on the life raft and moved back aboard the Titanic. I did this because I came to understand the gospel in a totally new way, one that is more true to the teaching of Jesus.
The word “gospel” in the New Testament is a translation of the Greek word euangelion (ευαγγελιον). Euangelion was used to describe a monumental event with implications for the whole world. For example, if the Romans decisively defeated an invading army and brought an age of peace to the empire, the announcement that went out would be called euangelion.
Often euangelion is translated “good news” since in Greek eu means “good” and angelion means “news.” To be sure, euangelion is good news. But “good news” doesn’t capture the revolutionary nature of the word. Euangelion is earth-shatteringly good news.
What is the euangelion in the New Testament?
- In Matthew Mark and Luke the euangelion is the Kingdom of God/Heaven.” 2
- John does not use the word euangelion. Instead, his good news is “eternal life” (zōē aiōn, ζωη αιων).
- Paul’s euangelion is “Jesus Christ.”
I grew up interpreting these phrases like this:
- The good news of the Kingdom of God/Heaven means I can go to heaven when the world blows up.
- The good news of eternal life means I can go to heaven when the world blows up.
- The good news of Jesus Christ means Jesus came to make a way that I could go to heaven when the world blows up.
See a pattern? I was missing the point.
The Bible made much more sense to me when I saw that the good news is not a life raft to float me off to heaven when the Titanic sinks. The good news is that God has boarded the Titanic to save it. That’s why I’ve moved back aboard. It’s where God is.
The Euangelion In Matthew, Mark, and Luke
All of the gospels begin by announcing the coming of Christ into the world. In Matthew and Luke we get the Christmas stories. Mark begins by announcing the “euangelion of of Jesus, the Messiah.” Jesus is the good news.
But Jesus didn’t go around telling people that he was the Messiah. That would have been a disaster. People would have thought him crazy. Jesus’ approach was to proclaimed the Kingdom of God and let people discover his true identity for themselves.
Here is a typical example of Jesus’ message from Mark:
Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15)
Jesus’ “good news” is the arrival of the Kingdom of God. As you continue reading the accounts of Jesus’ life, you discover that he did four main things.
- He taught about the Kingdom of God. The parables, for example, are called “parables of the Kingdom” because many begin with the phrase “the Kingdom of heaven is like…”
- He demonstrated the Kingdom of God by loving outcastes, feeding the poor, forgiving sinners, and opening the eyes of the blind.
- He revealed his true identity by doing things no mortal could do. As you read, you grow in awareness that this man from Nazareth was no ordinary person.
- In a plot twist that no one saw, Jesus planted heaven’s flag in this fallen world. The cross was not the total disaster it appeared to be. The crucifixion turned out to be God with us in our suffering and for us in our sin. The resurrection was the end of Adam’s rebellion and the start of a whole new age.
The Euangelion in John
John begins his gospel by telling about Jesus too. The “Word become flesh.” Again, the good news is Jesus.
John doesn’t ever use the term euangelion. His good news is “eternal life.” The reason this sounds a long way off from the “Kingdom of God,” is due to a poor translation.
The Jews of Jesus’ day longed for God to send a Savior to finally fulfill the promise to Abraham. When the Savior came, he would inaugurate the Messianic age. In Greek, the word for “age” or “era” is aiōn (αιων). So the big question was, “How do I participate in the life in the coming, Messianic age?” This is expressed in Greek by the phrase zōē aiōn (ζωη αιων), “life of the [coming] age.” When the rich man asks Jesus “What good must I do to have zōē aiōn, life of the coming age?” (Matthew 19:17), it is another way of asking “What must I do to enter the Kingdom of God?” The coming Messianic age and the coming Kingdom of God describe the same thing.
Unfortunately, zōē aiōn is almost always translated “eternal life.”3 To our English ear, “eternal life” sounds like endless existence. The rich man asks “What must I do to be part of God’s coming Messianic age?” But what we we hear is, “What must I do to live forever?” We further twist this to mean “What must I do to live forever in heaven when the world blows up?” That is not what zōē aiōn means at all! Zōē aiōn is the life of the coming age, the Messianic age, what Matthew, Mark, and Luke call “the Kingdom of God.” And the good news is that the “coming age” has come.
Take a fresh look at John 3:16
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever trusts in Him shall not perish, but have the life of the coming age (zōē aiōn). (John 3:16)
This well-worn verse does not say that God so loved people that he rescued them from the world he was about to demolish. It says God loved the world. The Greek word translated “world” is cosmos (κοσμος). God sent His Son to save the cosmos. This is not just good news for the for the people on the Titanic. It is good news for the Titanic itself. The curse has been broken and God’s new age has begun.
The Euangelion in Paul’s Letters
In a few places, Paul is described as preaching the Kingdom of God. At the end of the book of Acts, we find Paul in prison in Rome.
He [Paul] stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered. (Acts 28:30-31)
Paul often uses the phrase “Kingdom of God”4 but his favorite way to describe the euangelion is “The good news of Jesus Christ.” Again, due to a translation issue, we miss the point. “Christ” (Christos, Χριστος) means “Messiah.” We read “Christ” as another name for Jesus. But “Christ” is not a name; it is a description. “Jesus Christ” means “Jesus the Messiah.” To say that Jesus is the Messiah is to say that the Messianic age has arrived, or to put it another way, that the Kingdom of God has arrived.
Paul and the gospel writers use different terms but they are on the same page. The “gospel of the Kingdom,” the “gospel of eternal life,” and the “gospel of Jesus Christ” are all ways to say that God has invaded this world to fix what ain’t right. The gospel is not a formula to escape this world and go to heaven. The gospel is heaven come to earth. God has boarded the Titanic and will not only keep it from sinking. He will remake it with a renewed glory beyond imagination.5
Obviously, our present world is far from renewed. But the restoration is already underway. Christ is its King and love is its power. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the epicenter. From this, love radiates outward to heal and restore every living thing.
For God did not send the Son into the world [cosmos] to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. (John 3:17)
The final picture in the book of Revelation is not an incinerated planet but a new earth with heaven descending on it. All people are invited to be part of this new world, and no need to wait. We do this when we declare Christ to be our Lord and embrace the Kingdom of God.
Our Lives Aboard the Titanic
Obviously, we experience a tension. There is a heated battle between hope and despair, love and hate, war and peace, life and death. This is the battle we feel every morning when one part of us wants to crawl back under the covers and the other is ready to get up and take on the day. Every moment of our life we feel: 1) This sinking ship, 2) The Kingdom of God. The question is, which do we choose? Which world will be our world? To say “Jesus Christ is Lord” is to say that we side with life, love, hope, joy and peace. To reject the Kingdom of God is to live on a sinking ship.
Who is Christ? What is his Kingdom like? How do we behave in it? These are the most wonderful questions in the world. They are what the life and teachings of Jesus and the writings of his first followers are about. The answers point outward, to a New Creation, with endless discoveries to be made. Here is a taste:
The Kingdom of God is a welcome home. A loving Father awaits, with a seat for us at the table. (See the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32)
In the Kingdom of God we live a radical lifestyle that defeats this world and turns it on its head. (Read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7)
In the Kingdom of God, love is stronger than anything: Stronger than hate, despair, racial strife, sickness, unbelief, natural disasters, unforgiveness, war, and even death. In ways we cannot yet comprehend, even terrible things are being woven into the fabric of God’s new world. (Try reading Romans 8:28-39.)
In the Kingdom of God we are one human family under the banner of God’s love. No more “insiders” and “outsiders.” Just an invitation to the whole world to embrace the love of God. (See Paul’s insistence that all people are now part of Christ’s family, for example in Galatians 3:26-29.)
There are hundreds—thousands—of implications of the coming of the Kingdom. We follow a heavenly Lord into a newly created world. There is no end to this adventure.
Does this sound like one man’s wild interpretation. Not so! There is growing consensus that the gospel as I have just described it is true to the Biblical narrative. Last Sunday, I was in an evangelical church and pulled out the Pew Bible to take a look. On the first few pages was is a “Cliff Notes” summary of the message of the Bible. I was happily surprised to find the summary to be basically what I have just described. We’re moving in a good direction.
Still, if you grew up thinking of the gospel as a life raft it may be difficult to read the Scriptures in the way I have described. Please try this new set of lenses anyway. I think you will discover that things come into focus and make much more sense. I also think you’ll realize that the gospel is much better news than a life raft.
Start by trying out your new lenses on the Lord’s Prayer
‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
‘Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
‘Give us this day our daily bread.
‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
We pray for the renewal of our earth by a Kingdom from heaven. We live by the ethics of the heavenly kingdom: simplicity, forgiveness, and goodness. To reject this Kingdom is to side with a lost cause. To embrace it opens the door to a whole new existence.
Keep in mind that this chapter is just one piece of a massive paradigm shift. I know this raises other questions, for example, “What is heaven?” We’ll address that in two weeks. But your most pressing question might be, “What does God want us to do?” With the Life Raft gospel, we were supposed to “ask Jesus into our hearts.” If the Kingdom of God is the good news, what are we supposed to do? How are we saved, and what does God want from us?
The answer to these questions is marvelously simple—in fact, it can be said with a single word. We’ll move on to this next week in Episode 2: Jesus Asked For Only One Thing—And It Got Lost in Translation!
- Something like this version of the gospel has been around since the Reformation but it was given a huge boost in the last century by Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade (now called "Cru"). In 1956, he put it into a tract called "The Four Spiritual Laws.” This tract has been printed in over 200 languages and distributed to more than 2.5 billion people. It is the most widely disseminated religious booklet in history. It would be hard to overstate the impact of this little booklet on the modern American understanding of Christianity. This is the message Billy Graham preached. You will hear some version of it from most evangelical pulpits today. Campus Crusade is now called “Cru.” Bright was a passionate lover of God. I do not question his character or motives. I suspect he is an honored citizen of God’s Kingdom.
- Matthew usually uses use “Kingdom of Heaven” as a way to avoid speaking the name of God, much as I might say “O my heavens!” instead of “O my God!” But the meaning is the same.
- N.T. Wright is one exception. He correctly translates zōē aiōn as “the life of God’s new age.”
- Romans 14:17, 1 Corinthians 4:20, 1 Corinthians 6:9, Ephesians 5:5 etc.
- The 1953 movie “The Robe” may be a little cheesy, but it does a good job of portraying the early Christian movement and the gospel of the Kingdom of God.