This is part 4 of a series of posts (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) on Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans (RHE from here on). In this post, it is my desire to work through RHE’s understanding of the gospel (chapter 6 in her book).
Christ in the Old Testament?
First, it’s important to note that in her first 5 chapters which deal with Origin Stories, Deliverance Stories, War Stories, Wisdom Stories, and Resistance Stories, there is no pointing to Christ and His gospel. I don’t mean to say that Jesus is never mentioned but that she doesn’t connect the trajectory of the Old Testament as one that is consummated in Christ.
For example, in her chapter on War Stories, she writes “So to whatever extent God owes us an explanation for the Bible’s war stories, Jesus is that explanation. And Christ won his kingdom without war” (pg. 77).
You might think this sounds sort of right, but what she is doing here is positing a position that says if the war stories of the Old Testament are really true then God is immoral. There is no way God could have commanded the destruction of pagan cities and their inhabitants. So, we know those stories aren’t true as recorded in Scripture because of Jesus, and He “would rather die by violence than commit it” (pg. 77).
But what RHE has failed to understand is that the war stories of the Bible actually show us not only the depravity of humanity but also the righteous wrath God has toward sin. It’s not so much that Christ “won His kingdom without war” but that He is the King who went to war for us on the cross.
Actually, on the cross, He went to war as us, as God imputed the sin of His people upon the Son. On the cross, God “went to war”, crushing the Son under Divine wrath (Isaiah 53:10) as He (God the Son) perfectly represented His people.
This is just one example of how RHE misses the gospel centrality of the Old Testament. But she also misses Him when she talks about Job, and tries to explain Proverbs, Psalms, Genesis, etc.
Remember, Jesus teaches us the whole Old Testament is about Him (John 5:39ff, Luke 24:27). Jesus didn’t explain away the war stories, or Job, or creation. Rather, He showed that it all unbreakably pointed to Him.
What is the Gospel?
Now, when it comes to defining the gospel, RHE does mention the “life, death, and resurrection of Jesus” (pg. 153). But she does not connect this to rescuing us from the righteous penalty owed us for our transgressions. She does not connect it to God’s holiness.
Readers might think they’d see an attempt at a Christus Victor approach but even that is not really spelled out all that obviously. Rather, RHE’s gospel is about all of the followers of Jesus living out the kingdom of heaven together (which is to be defined as a resistance movement against political conservatives).
So, while there are true things mentioned in this chapter on the gospel, the gospel that is presented is insufficient. It’s sort of ironic that she faults the Bible for being unclear when her understanding of the gospel is not presented all that clearly.
RHE says she can’t give the gospel in a statement (pg. 151), even though Paul could in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3. She also says that what makes the gospel “good news…varies from person to person and community to community” (pg. 151).
This is patently false. What makes the gospel good news is that it is God’s answer for our rebellion against Him. Jesus died the substitutionary death on the cross to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). Instead of an objective reality that rescues sinners from the wrath of God, she says “every Christian gets ‘a gospel according to…’” (pg. 155). In other words, everyone’s story becomes the gospel story.
She claims that some of the stories about Jesus are “embellish[ed]” (pg. 152) in the Gospels and that He mainly came to tell inspiring stories, only “deliver[ing] a few sermons and entertain[ing] a couple of theological discussions” (pg. 158). Of course, she misses the plain fact that in the gospels Jesus went around teaching people (Matthew 4:23) and one of the things He taught them was that He would give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Christ our Substitute
I guess if I were to address every single problem in RHE’s book, I’d have to write a book of my own! But the main point here is RHE denies any need for Christ substituting Himself for sinners. She scoffs at penal substitutionary atonement saying it teaches that “Jesus basically shows up to post our bail” (pg. 154).
She tries to put forth a view of kingdom living that is possible apart from God’s wrath against our sins being satisfied. This rips the core out of the heart of the gospel.
RHE (like many other liberal professing Christians) totally rejects any idea of God’s wrath toward personal sin. Curiously missing on speaking of Jesus as non-violent is the book of Revelation where Jesus will crush His enemies – all those who’ve rejected Him. Any gospel that doesn’t propitiate God’s wrath is a hopeless one.
I don’t need rescue from the patriarchy or my white maleness. I need rescue from a Holy God who is just and in His justice must punish sinners for their sin. A cross without penal substitutionary atonement for my sin leaves me in a state of enmity with God. It’s hopeless.
A Holy People
In RHE’s view, what we need to do is to see Jesus’ “life and teachings [as] the way to liberation” (pg. 155). This is the classic liberal take on the gospel. It says that we need to live like Jesus to find life as it was intended so we can help others and all live a wonderful life together. This living like Jesus (to her) includes accepting homosexuality as a viable lifestyle, toppling the patriarchy, and being involved in various humanitarian efforts (oh, and also protesting).
She says “I am a Christian because the story of Jesus is still the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about” (pg. 164). Again, this seems to uphold doubt as a virtue. But it also implies that living like Jesus (as she defines it) is what the gospel is really all about. She doesn’t need Jesus as her substitute on the cross.
While I agree that “Jesus invites us into a story that is bigger than ourselves” (pg. 164), we must be adamant that that “bigger story” is about His building a holy people, zealous for good works (Titus 2:14). And that the way Christ secures His holy people is His own blood, bearing our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). The gospel is not “your story” but Christ’s story – His perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection.
The gospel does affect the way we live and it does affect society (because it affects the individuals who make up society). The gospel certainly is cosmic in scope. But if we gut the gospel of substitution, sin, righteousness, imputation, and wrath, and try to make it solely about grace, mercy, and love then we no longer have the biblical gospel (and we no longer actually understand the terms grace, mercy and love!). We have a hodgepodge of maxims that are only held together by a liberal worldview that grounds its morality in what’s popular today instead of the inerrant, infallible Scriptures.
The gospel put forth by RHE is not a saving gospel. It’s not good news. It won’t get us to Heaven. And most importantly it won’t bring us to God Himself, who is the goal of the gospel (1 Peter 3:18).
I’m saddened that RHE appears to be on the same trajectory as Rob Bell. This is all because she is working so hard to remake God in her image, instead of letting 66 God-breathed books shape her theology.
There are still three posts left in this series. Part 5 will deal more with her understanding of the Old Testament. Part 6 will deal with the New Testament. And finally, part 7 will conclude and issue an important warning.
Here are all the posts in the series: