What is the gospel? This is a question that I often ask during teaching sessions. It’s fascinating how such a simple question causes listeners to stop and think.

There are generally two elements in people’s responses: first, the gospel centres around an event in history and it is good news; second, the gospel is both true and good.

For a long time, apologetics focused on the question of whether the gospel is true: did Jesus live, die and rise again from the dead? Was He the Son of God? As theologian C. S. Lewis put it, was He lunatic, liar or lord?

The question today is less about whether the gospel is true, but rather whether it is good news. Truth is apparently subjective: you have your truth and I have mine. A plural society allows people to believe in different truths. This is not to concede the importance of truth but to note that a different issue seems to have arisen. What if the gospel is not seen as good news?


There is a growing group of voices challenging the goodness of the Christian faith. This shift is significant; it puts evangelicals in the dock. It argues that orthodox theology itself, and not misrepresentations of it, is offensive and harmful.

There are two implications of this shift. The first relates to mission and discipleship; put simply, people are less likely to become Christians, or remain Christians, if the gospel is not seen as good news in our society. The second major implication is around freedom of religion; some are now asking the state to intervene on questions of theology
because religious freedom does not extend to harmful practices. What would once have been matters for doctrinal discussion and dispute, are now to be reviewed by various quangos and a range of government departments. All of this has an impact on our calling to speak out.

What is truth?

So, let’s first turn back to the question of truth. There is this incredibly dark and yet almost humorous moment when Jesus stands on trial before Pilate. The Roman ruler wants to know if Jesus is the King of the Jews. Jesus wants to know if this is Pilate’s own question or if someone put him up to it. You can imagine the disdain in Pilate’s
voice as he replied, Am I a Jew?” before asking again what it is that Jesus has done.

Jesus begins to explain about His kingdom and Pilate thinks Jesus has slipped up: So you are a king then,” he challenges. Jesus responds that His kingdom is about truth; everyone on the side of truth listens to His voice. Confused, Pilate asks, What is truth?”

A world in which people do not know what is truth is not new. Theologian N. T. Wright describes Pilate as the first postmodernist. In a sense this is deeply reassuring: Jesus has faced the very same challenges we do and has shown us the way. The challenge, as missionary Lesslie Newbigin put it, is to contextualise without compromise”.

In his book Dominion, historian and agnostic Tom Holland argues that the entire fabric of the cosmos was ruptured when God became human and walked the earth. The crucifixion of Jesus – and the resurrection – was not merely an event in history but the very pivot around which the cosmos turns”. We must continue to proclaim that at a certain point in human history, God, the creator of the world, in whom meaning and truth is found, appeared as a man. Jesus came to love and to serve, to live, die and rise again, to break the powers that oppress, and to reconcile all things to the Father.

This news event is not a private matter. Newbigin notes that Christianity has lost its place in the public square and has largely been relegated to the private sector. The gospel has become about changing individuals and not about changing systems and structures. This was already to sell the gospel short, but now the very idea of change is being challenged. Now even a privatised faith is unacceptable because those private beliefs could be harmful and so they must be patrolled and where necessary controlled.

Good news?

That takes us to the second key question of whether the gospel is good news – the shift from an intellectual problem to a moral one. The secular world has rejected the transcendent and any external source of authority, leading to a turn inwards. As the world out there grows increasingly fractured, hostile and uncertain, the inner self is where people look for protection and meaning.

In expressive individualism, we discover, create or choose our identity inside of us and then express it out into the world. The key here is that meaning exists inside of us. As author David Foster Wallace comments, Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid person in existence.” All we have to do is live authentically – personal freedom and self-expression have become the culturally accepted paths to our own salvation.

So, each person lives their own story in a world of micro-narratives. Overarching stories are rejected because they are associated with power. Religion is seen as using story to control the lives of its followers – telling them how to behave. The modern justice movement is focused on de-centring those with privilege and power. Christianity has had both privilege and power and so is seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Any claim to religious freedom is seen as an attempt to hold onto power and therefore as an affront to justice.

In the process, sacrifice is framed as oppressive and inauthentic, the beauty of forgiveness and reconciliation is seen to compound guilt and shame, and the offer of transformation is portrayed as judgmental and condemning.

This should make for an unsettling read. If the gospel is no longer seen as good news, then few will want to speak out, and even fewer will want to listen. Again, this is not a new challenge. The core human temptation, going right back to the Garden of Eden, is to redefine good and evil on your own terms, rather than trust God’s vision and definition of human flourishing.

Heart’s cry

The good news is that there is something in the human heart, even amid the cultural shifts and a disordered fallen condition, that longs for a better story. There are moments, often around death or sickness, when people are open and even seeking the transcendent. As author Julian Barnes puts it, I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”

We have been invited into a story that is more than just true; it is the best story ever told. It is the story that make sense of all other stories humans tell about the world. It tells the story of an event in history and the good news about a person. It tells the story of good conquering evil. It tells the story of a hero who dies for His enemies. It tells the story of a king who gave His only Son so we could become sons and daughters. It tells the story of Jesus who charted the path of true human flourishing, combining authority with compassion, justice with mercy, and freedom with obedience. It tells the story that leads to the home for which every human heart was made.

We need an apologetics shaped by the cross, an apologetics that listens to, and cares for, the other. This is not about trying to win an argument but instead about demonstrating Christ’s love for others and inviting them to come and see’. We must embody the truth and beauty and goodness of the gospel – in loving marriages and faithful singleness, in parenting our children, caring for our elderly parents, and in our conversations about race, sexuality and creation care. Our churches must be a sign and a foretaste of the new heaven and the new earth – a living, communal apologetic.

As I heard one young person put it recently, We are craving truth, but we are also craving true community.” We are that true community. Amazingly, we are each called to be the storyteller and story bearer of this beautiful, true and good story.

Learn more

Catch up on seasons one and two of the Being Human podcast, where Evangelical Alliance directors Peter Lynas and Jo Frost inspire and equip Christians to understand, articulate and participate in the biblical vision of humanity.