A Corrective Perspective on Evangelism
Do we really need the Gospel? It is a problematic question because of the many assumptions cleaving to its syntax by way of our inherited baggage. In the modern age we are typically quite averse to perceiving ourselves as needy people. No one wants to be the clingy girlfriend or boyfriend that can’t live another hour without their significant other texting back. No one wants to think they will always need government assistance to feed their children. The combat vet doesn’t need another shot of whiskey to get through another afternoon. This is just how he chooses to live his life … for now.
So how does one interpret this so-called “need of the Gospel” message that evangelical (lower case ‘e’) Christianity is so brazen on declaring? How should one interpret other colloquial questions of need? Do I need my wife’s love? I suppose in one sense, yes. But in another certainly not. I will not literally cease to exist if my wife stops loving me. Hypothetically, I could even continue on emotionally through assistance of certain consumable pills or fermented liquids. But do I need the love of a good woman? That all just depends on what you mean by “need.”
Now, does one need air to live? Well this appears more straightforward and devoid of any subjective mental bias. Here it seems we can quite definitively say yes. If one does not possess any oxygen for a limited duration of time, one will most certainly die. But then we may ask, why does one need to live? Here already we are making a normative judgment. Life is good and death is bad. Sure. But in the great wisdom tradition of so many toddlers before us: why? Why is life good and why is death bad? The assumption, of course, is that some states are irrevocably good in the most general sense. Okay. Then at this point we may now ask why a good state is good. But that would be like asking why goodness is good, which is a tautological question. You simply must accept that Goodness simply is as a statement of Truth. As such we have reached the culminating discovery:
We need air to live only so far as life being good is a truthful commitment.
If you take out the word “need” with all its emotional tension, then — logically speaking — all living creatures require oxygen to persist in animate subsistence. And all human beings are living creatures. Therefore humans require air to sustain life. But this is rather banal. Why should we care that such a simple syllogism is true? What matters to us is if there is a necessity that invokes action beyond objective material event causality.
Let us take a non-living example: tides need the moon to go in and out. But so what? To say that the tide needs the moon to perform this action is nothing more than a subjective interpretation of mindless events. There is no actual need present in the earth’s coastal seas; no actual beckoning for its far off lover in the sky, shrouded by cloud and planetary shadow, but feeling it’s invisible, gravitational kiss teasing out the ocean’s rhythmic dance in a ballet of astronomical romance. Any supposed need present in nature (including human nature), like it or not, is actually a psychological imposition. It expresses something beyond the material constraint of bodies in motion. A man needs love from his wife, animals need air to live, and the tide needs the moon to come and go because underlying these so-called needs are derivations of what is either Good, True, or Beautiful as known only by some mind.
To say that anything, especially a human being, needs something is to automatically assume something transcendental. Otherwise that pesky “need-word” loses all of its more-than-just-simply-metaphorical meaning. But if the transcendental is at stake, then the veracity of such a need makes all the difference.
Do we actually need the Gospel? The answer to this question is intimately tied to whether or not it is true because of what is claimed more broadly within the ancient tradition it initiated. In other words, who Christ says we are is also the answer to why we need him.
Now one might say that we need the Gospel because without it we will continue in our suffering. And with it, we will find true bliss and unity with each other and God. On the surface, this could be interpreted as meaning if you don’t accept the Gospel then you will perish (stick), but if you do accept it then you will experience everlasting pleasure (carrot). But this sort of dilution assumes that the people in need of the Gospel are essentially blank canvases without any prior story, purpose, or final cause — no final state of maturity that defines our journey and makes sense of what we should become. It assumes that earthly pain and pleasure are the highest transcendentals and humans are self-created, purely autonomous entities wandering the landscape between these two poles.
If this is all human beings are, then the Gospel message is simply another competing advertisement promising an escape from suffering and death, and a promise of happy bliss and eternal youth. Evangelists would be reduced to vacuum salesmen, insisting that the Powersuck 3000 is the best, most reliable vacuum of all time and if you don’t buy it, you’ll surely be susceptible to dangerous bacteria lurking in your home. And you don’t want to die from a bacterial infection do you?
If modern liberalism is true, then our anthropology is subject to the free marketplace of ideologies. Human beings are nothing more than survival organisms given an unexplainable, purely random power to choose what one sees as most desirous for overcoming the hurdles of self-aware despair. In such a market, the Gospel is certainly doomed to fail. Not only would it be unnecessary, it would only dubiously be capable of producing enough evidence to suggest that such a worldview is the best remedy to our plight against nature. And even if it did provide such insurmountable evidence, this would only be a sociological proof for a given period of time, not to mention entirely subjective in the first place.
But if the Gospel is, in fact, true and what the Christian tradition has to say about our anthropology is also true, then humans are not wordless books given the power to write our own story. We are not wanderers of an arbitrary moral landscape attempting to climb out of the pit of suffering and ascend to the peak of happiness and bliss. Rather, if we are icons of the transcendent source of all being, then to be in disharmony with this source is an aberration of our identity. If we are creatures whose natural will is to be one with God and His good creation, then to be in disunity with either is wholly and passionately unnatural.
Evangelizing the Gospel isn’t about trying to sell the latest self-help book to your best possible life. It’s simply telling the world that we’re now able to go home to who we really are.
It’s more a message of what we are and, thereby, what we will become because of what Christ has already done for us. It’s the news that says we are all melodies to a great symphony. At the present moment, our notes are absent from the symphony’s true song. Our melody has been corrupted by forces obscuring the harmony. But the Gospel message, as a singular event in history and the ever-present reality accessible to us now, is the salvific tuner correcting every melody and harmonizing the symphony’s overall sound. Does the symphony need this savior? If it desires to play the song it was always made to play then yes, of course. And as should be obvious, the symphony always desires to play its song, even if it doesn’t quite know it yet.
Without the Gospel, the melodies are missing or off key, making the symphony incomplete and its song unrecognizable. Even if a single note is absent then the song is not its true song. We were made to exist as melodies in this symphony. To persist out of tune is not about existing in despair when happiness is right around the corner. It’s to exist as something we are not.
We were made to be in harmonious union with God and each other. This is essential to the Gospel message itself. And as it turns out, functioning in opposition to what we are is a surefire way to bring about destruction on ourselves and each other. Like drug addicts stealing from our loved ones, selling our children into slavery, we persist along our own hedonistic path, all in an attempt to make a few bucks so we can buy the next hit. We’re completely unaware that not being a drug addict is who we were really made to be. But the consequences for killing and stealing from each other and rotting our teeth away so that we can hoard more of our desired narcotic is more than just the hidden despair burning our souls alive. The occasional parental ripping away of our substance of choice, as perceived by us feeble-minded, inebriated addicts, appears to us like a brutal flogging from every inch of skin to the marrow of our bones. Yet such judgment — and make no mistake, it is judgment — is intended to restore us to our natural selves.
Still, the flames of withdrawal and the habitual relapses will continue unless we willingly give up the drug once and for all and participate in the rehabilitation that has been offered. Except this rehabilitation is no tranquil resort with miniature coy pond or mild-mannered hypnotist. It is the absolute cure to the addictive curse and the freedom from all suffering and death it causes, recapitulated in a single human being who took the consequences of the curse on himself, suffered to an infinite degree the agony that all our cancerous binging has manifested, and transformed its final mortal effect into a pathway for new life.
This is salvation. Like the symphony it is corporate. In history, it is something that has already happened, is happening for those who participate in it now, and will happen for everyone in the eventual fullness of their participation. Does a human need to be free from her destructive addiction? If the definition of a human is that of one who is intended to be free from all addiction then yes, of course, this is very much is needed. And if the only cure to said addiction is the Gospel then we may answer the question quite positively.
Therefore — again in re-framing the problem — the question isn’t whether or not we actually need the Gospel. Instead, we must ask if the Gospel is in fact true. And just as importantly, is the anthropology ascribed by modern liberalism false? I say yes on both accounts. Showing why or how this is the case — well, that’s another story for another time…