We can and should eradicate ageing as a cause of death… use technology to augment our bodies and our minds… [and] merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals.–Mark O’Connell
In the previous article, we saw how traditional frameworks for explaining the gospel are no longer effective in our emerging post-Christian society. First, we saw that Christianity’s heavy focus on salvation by grace and not works, while alleviating to the person steeped in legalism, barely registers with the mind of the secular thinker. This is a difficult concept for many protestants to accept because our entire approach to the gospel is historically rooted in the unconditional gift of justification.
Our roots begin with Martin Luther who, after decades of attempting to gain his own salvation, discovered the promise that the “just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17), that “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Rom. 3:20), and that salvation is “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:9). Thus, justification by faith came to be the center of Luther’s theological proclamation to the degree that he could say,
Every week I preach justification by faith to my people, because every week they forget it.
After Luther came Calvin, whose life’s work was centered in demonstrating that man can do nothing to be saved. Jacobus Arminius, George Whitfield, and John Wesley all fought to emphasize the same truth. While not as popular a reformer, perhaps few stated it as clearly as the English evangelical clergyman Charles Simeon when he said,
Justification by faith alone, is the hinge upon which the whole of Christianity turns.
Thus, the protestant psyche is deeply rooted in proclaiming the free gift of justification and ensuring that listeners have a clear and healthy understanding of the relationship between justification and works.
However, the contemporary secular milieu is one which has never heard of Luther, Calvin or Arminius. They are unfamiliar with the legalism of Rome, with the asceticism of the monks, and with the debates over justification and sanctification. They do not come from the world of the Hindu, whose “salvation” depends on either the way of works, the way of knowledge, or the way of devotion. They do not have the background of the Buddhist whom aims to progress through the five pathways in order to attain Nirvana. They have never lived under the pressure of the five pillars of Islam or the ceremonial laws of Judaism. Therefore, a gospel heavy on a grace versus works–while liberating and of great utility for the religious person who has ever lived to attain redemption through his moral purity–is of little significance to the secular psyche who has never read a Bible, entered a church, or wondered if it is good enough to enter heaven.
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In fact, the opposite is true. If there is any theological heavenward path in the secular mind, it simply revolves around being a good person, alleviating suffering, and living a life of equilibrium. There is no complicated formula. There is no devotion to a deity, magical prayers, ritualistic expectations, or acts of piety. Just be human. A good one–not perfect, just authentic–and that will suffice. Everything else is overcomplicated religious noise at best, and manipulative ideologies that exploit the weak in order to perpetuate religious institutions at worst. And what about heaven? Well, perhaps the self-described techno spiritualist Matthew Hoffman captured the cultural mantra best:
I’ll act as much like Jesus taught as I can because I feel that’s a great way to live. Will I get rewarded in Heaven? I don’t care.
To this simple view of reality, the message that we are not saved by how good we are but by faith in Jesus sounds like salvation by a formulaic ascent to a historical figure who is purported to be a deity. This, to the post-church world, seems like bad news, not good news–because it suggests that God doesn’t value virtuous living but must instead demand religious allegiance. Likewise, when the Christian starts speaking of sin, the secular mind–steeped in moral relativism–wanders off.
And the supposed irresistible beauty of eternal security is interpreted as a religious loophole easily exploited by perpetrators of individual and collective injustice and suffering. The perpetrator can now rest assured in his “assurance of salvation”–a theme he obsessively defends–while the people he hurt are left to pick up the pieces of a broken life, often so wounded that they are overcome by cynicism and reject all faith–an act which the same perpetrator believes to be condemned. In the end, the victim who never embraced the formula goes to eternal death, while the perpetrator who got the golden ticket to heaven gets to live forever in bliss.
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To make matters worse, all traditional frameworks for explaining the gospel suffer from a fatal flaw. Regardless of how eloquent its presenter, one cannot seem to get away from the fact that at the end of all our eloquence the gospel appears to be reducible to a simple formula–“follow me or I’ll kill you.” This, the secular person sees as the undergirding oppressive nature of Christianity. Leave behind all the talk of grace and love, for it is mere propaganda–a cleverly worded public relations campaign to beautify what is–in truth–a divine dictator bent on annihilating anyone who does not comply with his imposed demands. Thus, grace is seen as a free gift offered to anyone who abandons their autonomy in order to embrace the religious ideals that God approves. Anyone who rejects this grace he erases from existence–their voice and protest never to be heard again. Could there ever be another narrative as oppressive and simultaneously romanced as this?
I hope this summary of the previous article can help close any gaps that might remain in the reader’s conceptualization of how the secular mind interprets and relates to the “good news” we so eloquently espouse. If the gospel is to make any sense, it must be reframed in a way that speaks meaningfully to the objections that our post-to-meta-modern transition is contending with. In my particular context, I have found an approach that is helpful. It follows a progressive three step pattern that revisits the concepts of “the perpetuation of the pattern of self,” followed by “the reversal of the way of self,” and concludes with “the divine reorientation towards the highest possible good” (which I will elaborate on more in the next article). I will explore each of these below.
The Perpetuation of the Pattern of Self
In part two of “The Great Controversy and Absurdity” I introduced this concept under the same heading. And here, in exploring the gospel, is where this concept becomes most useful. As I noted before, the culture finds words like “sin” questionable because the word itself has been abused by the church. We have judged others, condemned others, and accused others of sin so much that the mere mention of the term raises a person’s defenses. Therefore, rather than getting hung up on a term, I skip the concept altogether and instead speak of the perpetuation of the pattern of self.
This simply means that every human being is driven by the impulse of self and, as a result, we perpetuate its patterns. I have yet to meet one person who denies that they have been selfish in life. After exploring with them the beauty of humanity, the Imago Dei, and the original design of creation, I ask, “What happened?” It’s no lie, our world is far from the paradise of Genesis 1-2. We then talk about Lucifer’s rebellion and lay the foundation for the impulse of self (also explored in the Great Controversy and Absurdity) and, once clear, I move into the perpetuation of the pattern of self.
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“What would happen if your selfish patterns were multiplied the world around–would the world be a more beautiful place, or a tenser place?” is the question I ask. Now granted, sometimes people struggle to judge themselves. So, I have also found it easier to admit my own self-centered tendencies and then ask them the same question with myself as the subject. “If my selfish patterns were multiplied in every corner of the globe, would this be a more beautiful world, or not?” The answer is easily no.
My selfish patterns, multiplied in the world around, would compound exponentially into more self-centeredness and, consequently, more suffering. At this point I tell my fellow sojourner that my patterns of selfishness are already multiplied in the world around. Those same patterns are in every human being and lead to tension, violence, and injustice everywhere we go.
I then switch gears and ask, “If God were to get rid of all the self-centered impulses in this world at noon today, what would happen to me?” Well, one of two things. If God destroys all selfishness, either I will be destroyed with everyone else, or–if I live on–I will no longer be me, for I love my selfishness and am bound to it even to the point of identity. I then ask, “What about you?”
In my experience so far, this question tends to be the “aha-moment” that allows the post-Christian to see with clarity why God doesn’t simply wipe out all the bad people. The truth is that evil is not a thing to contend with externally but internally. The problem is not merely “out there” with “those people” but “in here” with “me.” I am part of the collective web of humanity, and all of us are driven by the compulsion to place self above others.
Now suppose there really are measurably good people on the earth, if God gets rid of the bad ones and leaves only the good ones, how long before those good people turn bad and start fighting each other? How long until their offspring goes to war? How long until we end up exactly where we are today?
At this point, people often tend to catch the idea that all of humanity–despite its beauty–is deeply flawed. Humanity is, as Simone De Beauvoir once said,
Weighted down by present events… bewildered before the darkness of the future which is haunted by frightful spectres, war, sickness, revolution, fascism, bolshevism.
To this reality, Beauvoir contends that man’s greatest fear is that, in the face of this unavoidable unknown, he will be forced to recall the “agonizing consciousness of himself”. Thus, it is not too great a task to conclude that the social and humanitarian landscape of our globe is so steeped in the slough of injustice that all of us are tied in and unable to escape. Therefore, if God is to restore the world back to its original beauty and harmony, how will he do it? If he is to restore me or you back to the image of love, how will he accomplish this? If humanity is ever to procure its greatest possible goodness–what writer Tarun Mittal referred to as the attainment of our “massive potential”–liberated from the oppression of the impulse of self, how will this ever come to pass?
The Reversal of the Way of Self
This is where the gospel comes in. Jesus, who is God, came to our world in order to set us free from the oppressive regime of the self and restore us back to the image of love which we were originally designed to reflect. In this sense, the gospel isn’t simply about me being “forever-forgiven” but about my restoration. God is not justifying the unjust, the oppressor, the self-centered, and the abuser, granting them some free pass to heaven because they believe in Jesus, only to allow those same people to continue to perpetuate suffering in their spheres of influence.
To the contrary, when God justifies the unjust, the very act brings with it a metamorphosis of being that begins a process of healing and restoration. The unjust becomes just. The oppressor becomes the liberator. The abuser becomes a defender. The self-centered becomes other-centered. Thus, the gospel has virtue–or utility–in that through it the way of self is reversed and, as this reversal is exponentially perpetuated throughout the earth, a new kingdom emerges–a kingdom driven by the ethic of love rather than the impulse of self. It was this kind of Christianity which the anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to when he wrote,
We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.
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But how is this possible? Well, this is the good news of salvation. God became a man in the person of Jesus. As a man, he lived out love in a way no other human being has ever done. Jesus was the perfect man. But notice, Jesus was not religious in any traditional sense of the term. He had his customs, yes, but outside of this we cannot regard Jesus as being religious in the way we often speak of religion.
Instead, what we find is that Jesus was human. Human in the most authentic sense, human in the most complete and undeniable way. The biblical witness then seems more concerned with revealing his humanity than his religion because the biblical narrative is not about religion but about humanity. Jesus is part of that narrative, a divine call to return to our original design and finally become who we are in the fullest sense. Thus, the biblical call to salvation is not about being more religious but being more human–a return to the Imago Dei reflected most fully in the person of Jesus.
Does this mean we ignore justification or downplay the difference between grace and works? Of course not. Those foundations need to be clear, especially when we consider that we must not simply introduce our community to the gospel but also inoculate it from false gospels that seek to bring them under the bondage of religion. Salvation, I am clear, is not what Jesus did plus what I do. It is the work of Jesus only. Nevertheless, the gospel is itself a dance between heaven and earth and, to the secular age steeped in social justice and the pursuit of a just future for all, a gospel that offers a logic toward true restoration and justice is just as important as the promise that salvation is a gift from beginning, to middle, to end.
The Divine Reorientation Towards the Highest Possible Good
This perspective on the gospel helps solidify three things.
- It solidifies the fallenness of humanity.
- It solidifies the need for salvation to come from beyond.
- It solidifies the need for salvation itself to have utility beyond psychological relief of guilt.
All three of these elements are valued within secularism’s language of being. Approached properly, the gospel can be presented point by point without ever moving away either from the pillars of the good news itself, or the value structure of contemporary secular culture.
While the secular world is not steeped in religious legalism, it is nevertheless steeped in its own version of self-redemption. Humankind today is attempting to redeem itself from annihilation through environmental reform–a call reflected best in Greta Thunberg’s observation that our doom will only come to pass if “we choose” to doom ourselves.
If that fails, humankind aims to save itself from extinction through space exploration–what Jeff Bezos referred to as going “to space to save the earth.” And if this fails, humanity aims to immortalize itself through the trans-human goal of fusing human with machine–what Mark O’Connell refers to as “remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals.” In each and every case, the scenario is the same: humans are, via the medium of science, attempting to secure their own salvation.
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And to this, the gospel speaks beautifully because it reminds us that no matter what we do or where we go, we will always be teetering on the precipice of self-annihilation because we are the perpetuators of our own suffering. Until the impulse of self is healed and a new world, filled with a new impulse, is born, there can be no true rest, no true atonement, no true salvation.
And this the gospel promises by posturing that in Christ the human heart can be reoriented to daily advance toward its highest possible good. That is, the gospel reorients us to live inwardly, act outwardly, and relate upwardly in a poetic pursuit of what it means to be a humanity created in the image of love. This poetic life is thus an outflow of being which brings the divine love into the terrestrial village in tangible, meaningful ways.
We will explore this reorientation in more detail in the next article.
 Matthew Hoffman, “8 Reasons I Believe in God and Don’t Care About Heaven.”
 Tarun Mittal, “To be is to be: Jean-Paul Sartre on existentialism and freedom.”
 Kelsey Piper, “The case against colonizing space to save humanity.”
 The Guardian, “No death and an enhanced life: Is the future transhuman?”