The phrase “Good News” evokes more unease than joy, at least in a reluctant Christian such as myself. It brings to mind the secular caricature of a Christian, which the faithful often prove true: a small-town preacher waving around a Bible, telling people to forgo fun and freedom and the wrong kinds of sex so that they can reach a palace in the clouds.
So it’s indeed good news that celebrated Scottish theologian N.T. Wright has written Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good. Here, he sets the gospel in its proper context as the fulfillment of God’s promises recorded in the Old Testament, and refutes both those who see it as a key to an entirely personal, otherworldly salvation and those who emphasize Jesus’ earthly works at the expense of his divinity. (By the gospel, Wright refers not as much to the four stories in the Bible as to the events at their center.)
Wright makes clear that the goal of Christianity is not to escape into heaven, but to begin God’s work of rebuilding earth in the image of heaven, without the violence or hatred or corruption that plague it today. “We cannot stress too strongly, or too often,” he writes, “that the whole message of the New Testament—the whole point of the mission and message of Jesus, of his life, death, and resurrection—is the coming together of heaven and earth, not their separation.”
This “coming together,” he continues, was made possible by Jesus, particularly in his resurrection, which was a sign of a larger defeat of death to come. He was not the sacrifice demanded by an angry, “quasi-pagan” God that many imagine, but an agent he sent into the world to take up its sins and inaugurate the work of rebuilding.
Wright wisely refrains from trying to prove the truth of the resurrection on purely historical grounds. The resurrection was not merely an event within history, but a starting point of a whole new history: that of earth being prepared for the Kingdom of Heaven. “[T]he good news,” he writes, “comes knocking on doors we didn’t even know we had; it flings open the curtain on windows we didn’t know existed to reveal the rising sun flooding the room with glory when we had imagined that all light came from candles.” (Wright makes this point with greater depth in his essay “Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?” from Surprised by Scripture.)
Like C.S. Lewis, Wright lays out his arguments in clear, friendly prose, striking a good balance between the abstractness of theory and the condescending simplicity of much Christian writing. He spends a long and fruitful passage unpacking common phrases, like “Jesus died for your sins,” which represent only part of the gospel but are often taken as its entirety. He makes liberal use of images, anecdotes and imagined dialogue to strengthen his points, and occasionally takes a turn for the rapturous, as in the quote above.
Wright’s emphasis on the gospel’s transformative nature has forced me to confront a part of my faith I’ve been embarrassed to acknowledge despite its obviousness: It’s not rational. I believe in something supernatural, which cannot be proved through science and reason, and is no less absurd than the innumerable faith claims I reject.
My love for and knowledge of Jesus has tended to focus on his teachings and subversive actions, and downplay the miracles and resurrection. It’s tempting to see him as a liberal table-flipper who, as an afterthought, just happened to be the Son of God. That way I can tell my inner atheist, he was a community organizer! Like Obama without the drones! Sure, he calmed the seas and rose from the dead, but that’s not the important part. Don’t worry; I’ve just made some minor modifications to our materialist worldview.
But Jesus’ this-worldly significance is inseparable from his divinity. He was not a human revolutionary, because human revolutionaries, even at their most idealistic, use power and coercion. By contrast, Jesus’ revolution comes through love, and, if only for now, is left to humans to carry out voluntarily. The final coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, though, will not be a human accomplishment. Faith without works is dead, but works without faith—faith that God will eventually finish the job—are vain.
Now that I’ve said that, my inner atheist asks, Are you really waiting for a hand to reach down from the clouds and set things right? Are you eagerly anticipating doomsday? No. I’m pretty sure any magnificent intervention is a while away. In any case, it doesn’t relieve humans of the responsibility to work for change. And I’m looking forward not to the end of the world, but a better world—one where people are provided for and stand together, much like the imagined utopias of both left and right which have failed under human control.
Okay. But all this “Kingdom of Heaven” talk recalls Christian fundamentalists’ efforts to prevent gay marriage and the teaching of evolution—or, on a more awful level, the Islamic State’s efforts to establish a caliphate in the Middle East. Like I said, the Kingdom of Heaven will not come through human actions, though we need to set its foundation by working for justice and charity. Anyone who says the Kingdom of Heaven begins with theocracy is after power, not justice.
I’m still a very this-wordly, pragmatic Christian. But Wright reminds us that the Christian faith is not merely in a set of teachings, nor in the works of a social reformer rabbi, but in his divinity, and in the new relationship with God that he made possible.
It is liberating. And it is crazy. And it is true.
–Available January 6th from HarperOne. 198 pages. $25.99