New Directions for the Church 10: offer hope

This is the last in my series of posts on new directions for the Church. After this, instead of telling it what it should be saying, I hope to focus on saying it myself.

This is a plea for the Church to offer a positive message of hope.

In church circles it is well known that the Christian message is supposed to be a positive one. ‘Gospel’ means ‘good news’.

So what is the good news? What have the churches got to offer to the unchurched, which they would experience as good news?

I have spent nearly all my life in church circles, and have heard so many people talking about ‘the Christian message’, ‘the gospel’ and allied terms, that sometimes I have taken it upon myself to respond by asking what the Christian message is. Sometimes I get shocked responses:

What, don’t you know? Call yourself a vicar and you don’t know?

I’m asking you what you think it is.

Quite often, it transpires that people have been talking about ‘the Christian message’ or ‘the good news of the gospel’ for years, without ever asking themselves what it is! It’s just part of the discourse, the kind of thing you say in church meetings.

I don’t want to claim too much. I haven’t done serious sociological surveys about it. Still, it seems to me that it has become quite common in church circles to use this kind of language without even reflecting on its content.

When people specify more closely, they usually say the good news is about salvation. Salvation through Christ, perhaps.

Imagine what it must be like for someone with no Christian background to be approached by someone claiming to have a message of salvation. There would be two obvious questions: salvation from what, and how?

Edward Hicks (American, 1780 - 1849 ), Peaceable Kingdom, c. 1834, oil on canvas, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch

Edward Hicks (American, 1780 – 1849 ), Peaceable Kingdom, c. 1834, oil on canvas, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch

In the Bible there are two major narratives of salvation: from slavery in Egypt, and from exile in Babylon. Neither is what Christians mean today. We want something individualised and somehow relevant here and now. It usually turns out to be salvation from sin, or Hell.

Most people today don’t believe in Hell. If you tell them that by giving their lives to Jesus they will be saved from it, they won’t find it good news at all. It is like telling someone that if they give you all their money you won’t slit their throat. It’s threat, not gospel.

Salvation from sin fares no better. Becoming a Christian doesn’t stop you sinning. Nor does it save you from other people’s sins. There is no technique for suddenly becoming morally perfect. The closest we get is those versions of Christianity that pile extra moral obligations on you: no gay sex, no sex before marriage, etc. Again, more like bad news than good news.

The other question is: how is salvation procured? If you can offer someone salvation – whatever it’s from – how are you going to achieve it?

The only answer I hear these days is the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. This appalling theory depends on belief in a supreme god who is almost the cruellest being imaginable – but not quite, leaving a corner of wiggle room for the devil to be even worse. We are back with Hell and sin. The individual is offered a chance to be one of the lucky minority who will not be tortured for eternity – provided they do as they are told.

So we are still not granted any positive message of hope. The good news is only good news for people who have already been convinced about the bad news. It was one thing for Luther, 500 years ago, to tell a population terrified of eternal damnation that all they needed was faith in God’s grace. Today, the preacher who wants to follow Luther has twice as much to do: first convince them of the reality of Hell and then offer salvation from it.

In its early days, Christianity grew rapidly because it did offer hope.

All faith traditions have, in their roots, some answers to the deepest questions every society asks: who made us, for what purpose, and how we should live. Around the time of Jesus many traditions offered bleak, pessimistic answers. For some, the world is in its present state, with all its problems, as a result of being created by evil gods. Or by a good god powerless to maintain it against destructive demons. If so, life is inescapably tragic. Bad news, now and for always.

Judaism offered a more hopeful answer. God created humanity to bless it. Christianity inherited this optimistic worldview and universalised it. The world has been designed – successfully – to provide for everybody’s needs and enable us to flourish by caring for each other. God has given us freedom to choose between good and evil, thus providing us with the option of sharing God’s holiness. What is wrong is the result of freely chosen human actions. This means we can do something about it, by changing our behaviour. Hope for progress is realistic.

In this kind of way different faith traditions offer different answers to those deepest questions about what we are supposed to be doing here in this universe. Christianity offered Europe the possibility of real, continual, progress. I describe the process in greater detail in my Why Progressives Need God. The paradigm, being about how we treat each other, is ethical.

However, Christianity has varied over time. At a time when its dominant forms reverted to more pessimistic doctrines, the hope of better things got postponed. Instead of being about the here and now, it came to be about the prospects of life after death. Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, progress became a dominant theme in European thought, but mainly outside the churches and with a different content again: control of the physical environment. The hope of progress, today, has come to mean economic growth and new technologies, the gods of western capitalism.

It is now quite clear that they have failed. Economic growth and new technologies do not give us hope, or make society as a whole happier. More often they increase profits for the most powerful at the expense of the powerless and dependent. Once again we have become a distressed society, hoping there is something to hope for and not knowing what. The time is ripe for a new movement, a more convincing gospel.

Here lies the tension. The Christian tradition contains the message of hope that we need – but only in some of its versions. Church leaders could be shouting it from the rooftops. They don’t because they are so desperately anxious about declining numbers, and afraid of offending those committed to more pessimistic versions of Christianity.

Hope is what the first Christians offered. Maybe church leaders will find the courage to offer it once again. Like then, it will be rubbished by those who don’t want change. But it will be welcomed by those who long for something better. It will even, once again, feel like good news.

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