There seems to be a lot of confusion today about what the gospel is. There are the obviously crass examples on display at Christian and secular bookstores everywhere, encouraging us all to have our “best life now” or, more recently, to Have a New You by Friday.
But there are also others in our time who point to the ongoing work of social rather than personal transformation. They tell us that we should partner with God in his redemptive mission to change the world through the pursuit of social justice. Now I’m not saying that these aren’t worthy goals. The pursuit of justice either for an individual or for a society is a noble calling, and I would encourage most of the readers of this blog to become better versions of you. But the question is whether these things actually provide a good description of what the gospel is.
Alexis De Tocqueville was a Frenchman who came to America in the early 1800s and was fascinated by differences between America and Europe. He published his observations in a book titled Democracy in America. In that book he focused primarily on politics but also made some fascinating observations about religion in this country. He writes,
Priests in the Middle Ages spoke of nothing but the other life; they hardly took any trouble to prove that a sincere Christian might be happy here below. But preachers in America are continually coming down to earth. Indeed they find it difficult to take their eyes off it. The better to touch their hearers, they are forever pointing out how religious beliefs favor freedom and public order, and it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.
That emphasis is certainly still with us today. Churches, we are told, need to be relevant, down to earth, practical. They need to meet people where they are. But what if where we are is in a world of consumerism, entertainment, and narcissistic hedonism? In such a time a gospel about me, my prosperity, or my worship experience will always be relevant. But churches that focus on something outside of ourselves, something rooted in an ancient and unfamiliar culture – explained and unpacked with big and unfamiliar words like propitiation, justification, and predestination – will always appear to us as irrelevant if we fail to challenge the world’s way of thinking.
Paul helps us in 1 Corinthians 15 by giving us a very good definition of what the gospel is. But before we dive into that definition, here is a little historical background. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are among the earliest writings of the New Testament, a fact is undisputed in our day even by the most liberal scholars. This is a wonderful concession because it means that historians everywhere must explain how by 53-55 AD (which is the generally accepted date of the Corinthian epistles) we find a monotheistic Jewish Pharisee professing faith in the divinity of one of his fellow Rabbis who had gotten himself crucified just a couple decades earlier. It’s a fascinating historical drama in and of itself, especially when you add the fact that before he became a Christian leader and evangelist, Paul was a fierce opponent of this strange Jewish sect, persecuting other believers even unto death. Of course the way the story is usually told is that Jesus was a nice groovy teacher who preached peace, love, and harmony until he unfortunately got himself crucified . The story continues like a good fish story: tales about this Jesus evolved over time so that by the late first century, when the story was finally written down, this teacher is pictured with a halo, walking on water and performing miracles. In other words, the man was turned into a God over time by the believing community.
But if that’s really what happened, how do we explain Paul’s conversion in the early 30s AD? How do we explain the various documents that he left behind, some written in the late 40s (ie. his epistles to the Galatians and Thessalonians)? It’s one thing to get a Greek or Roman pagan to believe in the divinity of one of his neighbors (you might recall the story of when Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for incarnations of Zeus and Hermes in Lystra). But Jews were different. Pharisees in particular were very strict monotheists. So how do we get a man like this to profess the divinity of one of his fellow rabbis at such an early date? This question is totally ignored by most liberal scholars as well as by a popularizer such as Dan Brown in his book the Da Vinci Code. In that story, the teacher Jesus wasn’t declared to be divine until a decree by Constantine in 325 AD. It made for interesting fiction, but it is far from the complexity of actual historical events.
The great thing about Paul is that we don’t have to speculate. We have his writings and no one disputes the early dates of their composition. So the best way to find out what made Paul tick would be to go back to the original sources. And this text for 1 Corinthians 15 is one of the most important such sources.
In the next installment of this blog series, we’ll start walking through Paul’s arguments from this text in order to get a better understanding of what the gospel is and why we should believe it!