While the word gospel means “good news,” understanding the gospel begins with bad news: death.
In modern society, death is a biological question. We define death as “the permanent cessation of all vital functions” (e.g. pulse, brain waves, breathing, etc.).
Death in New Testament usage focuses on the ongoing process of corruption, futility and decay rather than the end living in this earthly body. It is a principle of decay that ultimately brings us all to our final end, and it is the basic problem of humanity.
Death in the natural world
Nothing in the natural world is permanent. Humans, plants and animals die and turn to dust. Nature wears away mountains, beaches, and stones. Eventually even the sturdiest buildings turn to rubble. Despite our best efforts, everything in our physical existence eventually breaks, decays and turns to ruin.
This inevitable breakdown is death. The reason everything from mountains to kitchen appliances wears out is the rule of death. Nothing escapes its influence. Given time, everything falls apart, wears out and breaks down.
If you’ve studied modern physics, you’ll recognize this principle in the concept of entropy. Like a cell phone battery dying or a refrigerator with an open door getting warmer, the universe is losing its viability. That physical entropy is called death, decay and corruption in the New Testament.
Death is so much a part of our fallen world that we take it for granted. We don’t notice it as anything unusual or question why the world works that way. It’s simply the way things have always been. From the time our first long-waited-for toy broke or our favorite pair of jeans got a hole in the knee or the tree house rotted, we learned the lesson of death. We’re used to it. Everything breaks. That’s just the way it is. We’ve stopped thinking about it.
But there’s more.
Death in relationships
Death affects more than toys, cars, kitchen appliances and blue jeans. The same decay that ravages the physical world also ravages relationships. We see it as divorce, alienation, war, murder, strife, hatred, hostility, insecurity, aggravation, bitterness, fear, loneliness, depression, broken hearts and office politics — to name a few.
Every human relationship falls apart — left to itself with no effort to overcome death. Marriages fall apart. Parents alienate their children. Nations go to war. Offices are overrun with cliques, in-fighting and politics. Best friends stop speaking to each other. From the biblical perspective, this “moral entropy” or death naturally and inevitably effects every relationship.
Browse the shelves of bookstores and you’ll find hundreds of titles on how to overcome death in relationships. There are books on strengthening your marriage, how to listen to your teenager, how to handle sibling rivalry, how to negotiate with your boss, how to manage difficult employees, how to get along with your parents, how to talk to people of different faiths, ethic backgrounds and/or social class, etc. etc.
We need all these how-to books because of death. Left to ourselves, we fail to understand each other, we act selfishly, thoughtlessly or aggressively. We hurt each other — even when we don’t intend to hurt. Actions which seem perfectly natural, acceptable and reasonable to me offend you. I may act with what I think is your best interest, but all I do is wound you deeply. That’s death. Our relationships fall apart, just like our toys, because we can’t escape the death.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Death also extends inside our very souls and ravages our personalities. The breakdown in our relationships leaves us insecure, fearful, obnoxious, destructive, skeptical, and damaged. The rule of death erodes both our subjective and interpersonal existence. Personalities as well as relationships fall apart. We are not the same after a broken heart, betrayal or disappointment. Death leaves us scarred. We have to work to overcome not only the death in our lives, but the “baggage” it leaves behind.
The question is why.
Why is there Death?
Where does death come from and why are we so marked by it? The Bible is clear on that point: death is a direct result of sin. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” Death is the just and natural consequence of rebellion to God. When you sin, you experience death, just as certainly as you’ll hit the ground if you jump off the roof. As long as mankind remains in rebellion to God, mankind will be ruled by death.
But there is more to the bad news
Prisoners of Death
Not only is this death an inevitable result of sin, we can’t change it and we can’t stop it. We are prisoners of death. Though we overcome some of the grudges, failures and broken pieces of our lives, we can’t keep our existence from falling apart. When we scramble to snatch one kind act, we lose two others in the process. And even the righteous actions we do perform are laced with the poison of death.
We are prisoners of death because we are inherently rebellious to God. When we reject God, we lose His offer of Life. Though we kept on breathing, we are no longer Living. Death becomes our ruler, instead of Life.
What is Life?
The promise of “eternal life” is more than immortality; it is the promise of different kind of existence — an existence with no death as just defined.
Imagine a world where there are no wars, no murders, no troubled marriages, no broken hearts, no office politics, no selfish professors, no disappointments, no greed, no stealing, no tragedies, no abandonment, no neglect, no thoughtlessness, no cruelty, no murder, no strife, no hostility, no vengeance and no selfishness; a world where everyone’s actions,words and thoughts are ruled by goodness, kindness and compassion; and where the natural direction of the everything is to greater good.
Imagine what it would be like if everything good, true and right was nurtured, enhanced and supported; if marriages naturally grew in intimacy and commitment without effort or thought; if parents and children normally drew closer together as they interacted; if brothers and sisters never even considered fighting; if racial, cultural and social differences didn’t matter at all; if war was unthinkable because nations automatically grew more understanding of each other; if we naturally encouraged each other to compassion, generosity, caring, kindness, greatness, and courtesy; if we had a golden Midas touch, so that we brought goodness out of everything we came in contact with and made it better.
That is the concept of Life in the New Testament.
The good news of the gospel is that God has promised us this type of Life in Jesus Christ. In the kingdom of God, the moral entropy of our existence will be reversed. We will be ruled by Life rather than death. We will be people who naturally enhance goodness, who promote truth and encourage right. We will be new creatures. Instead of destroying everything we touch through evil and ignorance, we will nurture and uphold the goodness around us and inside us.
That kind of Life is the hope of believers. It is worth waiting for and literally everything is worth sacrificing to gain it. The rule of Life is so intrinsically valuable nothing in our present experience compares to it. We have been given a taste and a glimpse of what Life will be like and we wait eagerly for the full installment.
If you were the kind of person who was marked by Life and completely freed from all the effects and consequences of death, you would be holy. Holiness is having a pure character, one untouched by sin and death and ruled by Life and goodness. God has promised us holiness. He promised to make us holy as He is holy — that is to free us completely from death and give us the perfect, wonderful, glorious moral character that is marked by Life.
These are the facts of Life and death: Life automatically and inevitably results from holiness. Death automatically and inevitably results from sin. If we want to have Life, we must be made holy. We can’t get one without the other. If we want to have Life, we must conquer sin.
The problem is how. That brings us to justification.
Next in series: What is the gospel? Justification