The gospel is, literally, “good news.” The English word “gospel” is used for the Greek word “euangelion,” which meant an important royal announcement. Likewise, the Christian gospel announces the timeless story of how the sovereign God went to all redemptive lengths to show that he is for us, not against us – whether we were for him or not.
Of course, many don’t accept this news.
Some don’t want the gospel to be true. They simply don’t want there to be a personal, sovereign Creator. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel famously said, “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
Others think the gospel is too good to be true. I’ve known those who thought they were too bad for God to love them. One that immediately comes to mind was a WWII veteran who believed he literally had too much blood on his hands to be forgiven.
Yet others think it’s too unfair to be true. Many of my Muslim friends struggle with the idea that God could be properly for people who are against him and are harming his created people and world.
Increasing numbers believe it is fake news: that it is simply untrue because there is a lack of supporting evidence. It is also becoming more popular to believe that, whatever the historical facts, this message is bad – read: harmful – news for contemporary society.
These significant barriers to belief arise from different places: the will, the psyche, moral intuition, access to evidence and imagination.
There’s another, less discussed, barrier. We humans don’t have much choice in what we believe. Instead, belief is largely a reflex action. Lots of the time, we simply believe what appears to be true to us. We register the existence and nature of things through our senses. We intuit things. We accept things people tell us. We reflect on things and piece things together. We trust our experience of life to teach us things. None of these ways are infallible.
We’re all humans trying to sort out what we think about life in a complex universe.
We do have responsibilities: to pursue true beliefs, to choose where to direct our senses and who to believe, and to examine our beliefs to see how sensible they are. Nevertheless, it remains the case that we can’t just decide what we want. Our beliefs correspond to what seems true to us.
This observation has big implications for sharing the Christian gospel.
First, seeing belief as reflexive should lead us to recognise that virtually everyone is genuine in their beliefs.
Yes, sometimes our discussions about these things can get heated or frustrating – but belief is rarely malicious. We’re all humans trying to sort out what we think about life in a complex universe. We all come from different places, have access to different evidence, and evaluate new things through brain “grids” of radically different existing beliefs.
Trying to change someone else’s mind by telling them they are wrong almost never works.
Second, changing our minds is also largely a reflex action. In the same way we don’t choose what to believe, we also don’t choose to change our minds about things. Instead, we “come to realise” that an existing belief is false. How? By coming to believe a new thing that changes the way things appear to us.
Sometimes this new thing is a fact or experience or piece of evidence. Other times it’s a new perspective on things – a new angle. So, trying to change someone else’s mind by telling them they are wrong almost never works. Instead, it comes from showing them a new thing that makes them realise they were mistaken previously.
If Christians want people to change their minds about Jesus, they need to present the old news in ways that bring new things before their audience.
Third, this means Christians need to make sure that their gospel really is “new.” In Australia, the Christian message is an old story. It’s so vaguely familiar to so many, that we think we know it when we don’t. We may know lots of bits of it but not know how it fits together. We may know all of it but not have the belief framework to understand it.
If Christians want people to change their minds about Jesus, they need to present the old news in ways that bring new things before their audience. To do this, they need to listen carefully to unbelievers to see what they already believe. Then they need to come at the gospel from newly imagined angles, highlight lesser known features, identify unknown evidence, and testify to new ways they see God at work in their lives. All this opens possibilities for hearers coming to believe new things about Jesus.
Yes, belief (and unbelief) is complex, but if Christians want people to “come to realise” that the good news is good, it helps to keep it news.
Richard Shumack is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and a philosopher of religion.