The gospel as conceived of by traditional Christian theology is a divine savior myth of personal postmortem salvation. It is the news that through faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of God’s Son human beings can escape the fatal consequences of sin and live eternally in a heavenly world. Constructed in this way, so as to address primarily psychological concerns, the Christian gospel relies upon the divine identity of the God-man who pioneers the chthonic-celestial journey through death and into life. Being that he is both God and man, this Christ can function as both a worthy sacrifice for the guilt of sin and as an indomitable champion over the fear of death. Within such a framework, moreover, forgiveness and justification serve personal, metaphysical, and otherworldly ends. In other words, this gospel “saves souls.”
The traditional divine savior myth, of course, has little relation to the kerygma of the earliest Christians. While the gospel outlined above—the message of Christ’s transcendent victory over sin and death—finds a more-or-less comfortable home in the pages of John’s Gospel, the main thrust of the New Testament consistently presents the matter in more concrete historical terms. Episodes from the book of Acts demonstrate the point.
God’s gospel contra pagan cults
In Acts 14:8-18 Paul and Barnabas arrive in the country of Lycaonia after fleeing persecution. There they proclaim their gospel by word and by deeds of spirit-power. One such deed, the healing of a man crippled from birth, arouses the pagan townsfolk to make ready a sacrificial offering for Zeus and Hermes. Having interpreted the miracle in accordance with their own local piety, the community prepares to celebrate the divine visitation made manifest in Paul and Barnabas: “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (Acts 14:11). The pious Jew that he is, Paul attempts to stop them:
Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news (εὐαγγελίζω), that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways…Acts 14:15-16
With these words Paul seeks to reinterpret the rehabilitation of the crippled man. Divine power, Paul claims, has arrived among the Greeks not from the Olympian gods but from an unexpected quarter, from the god of a foreign land. According to these Jewish messengers, it is Israel’s God who is now working beyond his usual territorial bounds in order to undo the ancestral cults that long flourished across the Mediterranean. It is to this end that the crippled Greek has been healed. By this act of restorative power, the almighty God has decreed that idolatrous civilization is no longer permissible and that the “worthless” deities of Rome will be unable to protect their servants from the divine judgements ahead. The pagan peoples of the world must now abandon their local gods and serve the God of Israel alone (cf. 1 Thess 1:9-10). Whether they are willing or unwilling, the nations will soon submit to this strange God (cf. Phil 2:10-11).
In this way Paul’s gospel to the Greeks1 inextricably operates in relation to the religious foundations of the Roman world. Put another way, the Christian gospel is the news that Israel’s God has decided to no longer tolerate the age of pagan dominion (cf. Romans 3:25, Revelation 14:6-11). As such, the idol-maker Demetrius correctly interprets the political implications of Paul’s message (Acts 19:25-27). His gospel threatens to upend the worship of Artemis and of all the Olympians. If the apostles are allowed free range, so Demetrius argues, the “whole world” might “discredit and depose” the once great gods of the empire. These gods, still thought to be at work in and on behalf of the emperors, were proving impotent before the might of Israel’s God, now manifested in the Christians. The divine “providence” (i.e. Jupiter) that had installed emperor Augustus as “savior” (σωτήρ) of the world in accordance with the “gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον) of Pax Romana, therefore, was now being called into question (Priene Calendar Inscription, cf. Acts 17:6-7). A momentous religious and political transformation was afoot.
Christ’s place in God’s gospel
As among the Lycaonians, Paul’s evangelistic speech to the Greeks in Athens also signals the twilight of the pagan age (Acts 17:22-29). The true owner of heaven and earth, Paul announces, is the aniconic God of Israel, the God who now calls upon the nations to serve him exclusively:
While God has overlooked the times of [idolatrous] ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.Acts 17:30-31
Here again, Paul’s gospel concerns the nascent relationship between pagan civilization and Israel’s God. With this context firmly established, Christ’s role in the gospel becomes clear:
- On the one hand, the dying and rising Christ functions to authenticate Paul’s gospel concerning the impending metamorphosis of the international order. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is thus a sign of God’s imminent annexation of the inhabited world.
- On the other hand, the telos of Paul’s gospel, that is, the installation of God’s kingdom over the nations, lies in the hands of this Jesus, the one who would soon transfigure the world for the sake of those who believed his message. Christ is thus the means by which the gospel achieves its ends.
Whatever metaphysical atoning significance the early Christians may have given the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, therefore, concepts such as repentance (i.e. turning from idols), forgiveness, and justification served the gospel by preparing a sanctified people to “rule upon the earth” in place of the pagan order (Revelation 5:9-10). This is to say that Christ’s substitutionary chthonic-celestial cycle—his descent and ascension on behalf of his friends (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-11)—put a decidedly historical outcome into motion: the subjugation of “every ruler, authority, and power” to God’s kingdom (1 Cor 15:20-28). The divine patience that had long turned a blind eye to idolatrous empire was now spent.
1—The book of Acts establishes a clear evangelistic pattern: When among Jews, the apostles proclaim Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah—When among Greeks, the apostles proclaim Israel’s God as the lord of the nations.