I was reading through the Book of Acts recently, and I noticed that the message preached by the Apostles and various Disciples was primarily the Resurrection – that Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised from the dead by the power of God. A lot of people talk about not “sugarcoating” the Gospel, by which they very often mean preaching what they call “the Bad News” and telling people a whole lot about how very sinful they are and how much they deserve to go to hell – and will go to hell, unless they “believe in Jesus.”
When I read the Acts of the Apostles, that’s not what I see. I do see plenty of references to the fact that the people – or their leaders, not uncommonly it is precisely these whom the preacher is addressing – have put Jesus to death, but it does not have the ring or emphasis of “Look how horrible you all are!” but of an identification – the Jesus of whom we are speaking is the one you crucified – or the sound of, “This is what God has made of this terrible act!” (and there are quite a few which very clearly are making precisely that point). In fact, there is even one place in which Peter says, “And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your leaders did also. But the things which God announced beforehand by all the prophets, He has thus brought to pass, that His Christ would suffer. Therefore repent and turn to the Lord, that your sins may all be wiped away and times of refreshing may come from His presence.” One of the relatively few occurrences of anything that sounds to me like it could be a threat of hell occurs just a few sentences later, inside what appears to be a quotation of Moses. “The Lord God will raise up a prophet like me from among your brethren, and Him you shall listen to, and it shall be that every soul which does not obey the prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.” [Acts 3:17-19,22-23]
Here are the only other occurrences I have noted: “since you repudiated it, and judged yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are now going to the Gentiles.” [Acts 13:46] This is, I think, the nearest contender, yet even it does not have the ring of the “preaching” so common today about how much men deserve hell and how damned to it they are without Christ and how much their sins have merited hell. There are also a number of places through the Acts where Christ is proclaimed “Judge of the Living and the Dead,” but this is hardly a threat of hell, let alone an emphasized threat of hell, but rather a proclamation of the exaltation and Kingship of Christ, the reward of His Sacrifice – even the power by which He is able to provide us the forgiveness of sins; judgment is not the same as condemnation. There is this also: “Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you white-washed wall! Do you sit there to judge me according to the Law and, in violation of the Law, order me struck?” This, yet again, is no preaching to the crowds or to varied individuals of how much the wrath of God hangs over them: it is a specific reprimand, to a specific individual, who is actively engaged in a very specific and hypocritical sin, and it has a great deal of symmetry in it. Paul is calling for the same unjust punishment he had just received to be returned upon the one who called for it, and calling out the individual for a sin he is very plainly and openly committing. I guess there is one other I shall call out, lest someone else wonder why I have overlooked it. “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is calling all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” This is, again, hardly an explicit, emphasized threat of hell as such. It certainly does not feel like most preaching about hell or total depravity. It is, granted, a promise of judgment.
Rather, the Gospel throughout Acts, is that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and through Him is the forgiveness of sins. There are long discourses on how it was that corruption could not hold Him nor Hades have Him. Always, over and over again, it is said that He is risen and exalted for the forgiveness of sins – not even that He died for the forgiveness of sins, though He did that, but that is not where the emphasis is placed. How could He rise unless He had first descended? How could He break the holds of death without suffering it? Hear now some of the things the Apostles said.
“God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for it to hold Him in its power… This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses… Therefore, let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ.” [Acts 2:24,32,36]
“The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God has exalted to His right hand as Prince and Savior to grant repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” [Acts 5:30-31]
“God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He appear, not to all people, but to witnesses chosen by God, to us who ate and drank with Him. And He has commanded us to preach to the people and to solemnly testify that this is the One whom God has appointed Judge of the Living and the Dead. Of Him all the prophets spoke that through Him all who believe in His Name would receive the forgiveness of sins.” [Acts 10:40-43]
“But He whom God raised did not undergo decay; therefore, let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him the forgiveness of sins is made known to you.” [Acts 13:37-38]
We hear also of Athens that Paul was perceived as “preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” [Acts 17:18]
The preaching in Acts is quite unabashed that “there is no one else, nor is there any other name under Heaven given among men by which we may be saved,” but that is not the same as threatening with hell, let alone with making hell a main-stay of the message.
All of this fits in with the recorded words of Jesus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. “The Son of Man has not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world may be saved through Him.”
The Gospel is the Good News. It is the proclamation that God has raised Jesus from the dead; that in Jesus God has broken the bonds of death and offers us the forgiveness of sins and a share in the resurrection of the dead. There is no Bad News; bad stuff there certainly is, but none of it is news. Humans may sometimes act as if it is so, but it is not, and it needs no messenger of God nor special proclamation to reveal it. It is a known fact of human life that we all die, that we are estranged from God, that our happiness in this world is neither perfect, pure (that is, untainted with sorrow or regret), or secure, or that we have, at least to some degree, failed and done less or other than what we knew was right. If a human does not know this, your or my telling him or her that he or she has sinned or deserves hell is not going to remedy the situation. Nor is it the message we have been commissioned to preach: the resurrection and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ Name.
Neither is it glorifying to God to preach a message which may lead people to believe that we at least think or feel that we love or care about their souls more than God does, or that it would be possible to love or care about souls more than God does. Furthermore, it is “the kindness of God that leads you to repentance” (reference Romans chapter one), not the threat of hell. No true understanding of sin comes of the teaching of hell. If one does not feel at sin such abhorrence that one wishes to be rid of it forever and hates it utterly, the teaching of hell will cause, depending on the nature and inclination of the individual, either defiance, of the sort a man might rightfully experience towards a tyrant like Stalin or any number of others, or else what is, I recall, called “Stockholm Syndrome” – the activity of siding with a stronger, more powerful oppressor, and of adopting the oppressor’s behavior and rules as “right.” “Divine” Stockholm Syndrome is nothing good. It is not repentance. It is not love. It is not the forgiveness of sins. (This is not saying that all who feel that their sin rightfully deserves hell suffer from that affliction; some may abhor sin in light of the kindness of God and, thus abhorring sin, may accept the teachings about hell.)It is the kindness of God that must lead to repentance. It is the kindness of God that reveals sin, not the fear of Him. Only in light of the kindness of God can anyone abhor sin as God abhors it – can anyone confess his or her sin.
It is the Good News that has been entrusted to us. Let us faithfully proclaim the Resurrection to the Glory of the Exalted One! It is the Resurrection that is the heart of Christianity – its joy, its hope, its fervor, its fearlessness, its glory and crown and life. It is the Faith and Hope in which the martyrs have died as witnesses – martyrs – to the resurrection. (If I remember my history correctly, there was a time when some Roman Emperor or other decreed that the bodies of the martyrs were to be burned and their ashes scattered so that they could not be raised – obviously, this is no hindrance to God, and the martyrs did not fear that it would be, but it proves that what was seen to be the heart and soul of their testimony and of their fearless and joyful endurance is the Resurrection!) It is this we preach: that Jesus, who died, is risen and exalted, and in Him all who will come to Him will partake of eternal life! This is the Good News God has given us to preach to this sin-sick and weary world. This is our commission. Let us not add to it with other things, in the vague notion that this will produce more or “truer” converts. We are only His Heralds, His Apostles. That is not our business: it is God’s.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Copyright 2021 Raina Nightingale