Therefore, say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord. I’ll bring you out from Egyptian forced labor. I’ll rescue you from your slavery to them. I’ll set you free with great power and with momentous events of justice. I’ll take you as my people, and I’ll be your God… (Exodus 6:6–7).
If This Gospel Ain’t Good Enough
These are the words an evangelical pastor wrote to me, to explain from the scriptures that “The Gospel” does not include salvation from political violence or social oppression:
While Jesus was on earth he let John the Baptist be beheaded. No delivery for him. Just his decapitated head on a platter to satisfy a woman’s whim. Jesus said when a Roman soldier forces you to carry his gear one mile you go two. Wants your shirt? Give him your coat. Hits you in the face. Give them the other side. He didn’t say rebel against your enemies, he said pray for them.
Jesus’s disciples didn’t lead rebellions against Rome, they preached repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. And were oppressed all the way, until they were murdered. That’s the good news…I just don’t see where the Bible promises liberty on this side of eternity.
That statement is not entirely false. Yes, there are indeed times where God does not burst in and miraculously save people from their troubles. Yes, there is a time to consider that nuance. But that time is not at the moment when hurting people are praying for God’s help.
The pastor’s words above are what I’ve referred to elsewhere as the gospel of death: Lie down and take it from the empire. Don’t set your hope on God to intervene, because there is no salvation — not here anyway. So, don’t be obsessed with what happens to you in this life. When you’re dead, no one can stop-and-frisk you or shoot you because of racial bias. You’ll be safe in heaven with Jesus, where none of this stuff exists. Death will solve this. That’s the good news.
Something akin to atheism seems to haunt many of my evangelical brothers and sisters. They say they believe in God, yet they also tell me that prayers against racial injustice are futile. They have chosen to fixate on what God has not done, rather than on God’s saving deeds, and have stopped believing that God intervenes. They instinctively respond with an insensitive word of caution to those who wait expectantly for God. Their basic assumption is that God is not likely to save.
I tried to convey to this pastor, my friend, that such morbid pessimism — even when dressed in religious language — made for a pretty bad gospel. His response:
If heaven is not good news enough, then I don’t know what is.
That cold response — very “take-it-or-leave-it” — suggests heaven is the only thing to look forward to. So if you’re looking for something else then — well — tough cookies! The actual needs of the recipients of this version of the good doesn’t appear to be a priority. Whether the recipients of such news would call it “good” is neither here nor there.
The Gospel In Goshen
When Moses and his family made it back to Goshen, they called together the ghetto elders and told them about Moses’ meeting with God.
…When they heard that the Lord had paid attention to the Israelites and had seen their oppression, they bowed down and worshipped (Exodus 4:31, emphasis added).
The good news of God’s concern was the gospel the ghetto children needed to hear. The simple message that they were seen by God was enough cause for worship.
The good news God sent to the ghetto was not, “Don’t be so concerned about your lot in this life.” It was not a message of spiritual revival. It was not a promise of immortality and relief when they die. It was a promise of holistic rescue.
At the same time, the good news to Goshen was overtly relational. When God later announces “I’ll take you as my people, and I’ll be your God…” (Exodus 6:7) that is covenant language. In fact, the promises God makes in the passage explored here would become the basis of traditional Jewish wedding vows. Under the chuppah (a sort of wedding canopy), the groom would recite those very same promises to the bride: “I will bring you out…I will rescue you…I will redeem you…I will take you…” (Exodus 6:6–7).
This point is especially important because it shows salvation to be both deeply relational and politically relevant.
Salvation is an expression of God’s concern. That is the gospel in Goshen: God sees you, God is in this with you, God plans to do something about this.
The Gospel Everyone Needs to Hear
Those who insist that the gospel is only about having a personal, spiritual relationship with Jesus that eventually leads to heaven are missing the obvious: that one would expect God to get intervene when we’re in danger because we are in relationship. We expect our friends, family, and loved ones to show up for us when we we’re in dire need.
If we understand that love naturally expresses itself in practical common-sense acts of kindness and compassion between humans, how much more should we expect that kind of practical love from God? We call on God to intervene because we understand that God loves us. Salvation — from hunger, poverty, domestic violence, racial violence, etc. — is an expression of that love.
When hurting people come to God, their most pressing need is often just to know that God is concerned about them. They usually aren’t looking for deeply nuanced philosophical discussions on why there is so much evil in the world, why God doesn’t always intervene, and what theologians think God’s priorities are. Usually the questions are much more immediate and personal: Will God save me from this situation? They need to know that God sees them, that God is with them, and God wants better for them.
God is near the brokenhearted, whether they’re wounded by a failed relationship or by today’s headlines. It may be true that sometimes God doesn’t show up in the way we had hoped. But sometimes He does. That’s the gospel.
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For Further Exploration:
- How “The Gospel” Has Not Been Good to Everyone (But Can Be): Lisa Sharon Harper Shares “The Very Good Gospel.”
- How “Turning the Other Cheek” Is An Act of Resistance: Theologian Walter Wink Explains the Sermon on The Mount as Non-Violent Resistance.
- “The Gospel” Is About The Whole World: Theologian N.T. Wright Speaks About the Good News That God Plans to Save the World.
- On Re-Thinking How We Understand “The Gospel”: Theologian N.T. Wright Answers “What Is The Gospel?”