Chapter 1: RELIGION
Why people reject religion. Why not all religion is created equal. Why this is good news.
The highlight of my summer was built around a fake volcano.
We lived in the desert, with the kind of summer heat that could make your skin crawl if you stood outside for too long, the kind of heat you could see shimmer in the air when you looked own the highway.
That’s why I loved the fake volcano.
My parents would drive me across town to the other side of the mountain—a long drive even in our small city. From there I’d take another long drive with my friend’s family. A bunch of boys packed into a car that smelled like sunscreen and too many Cheetos. Then after a long while we’d see it: the black craggy volcano rock with blue water slides coming out of it. We’d start screaming and would run to the gates of the water park. For the rest of the day we’d float in the lazy river, haul our water-soaked mats around the water park, and climb the volcano to take “The Screamer” all the way down. Hours later we’d drive back to their house, sun dazed and happy, and making plans for the rest of our sleepover.
It was only later I learned the truth: The water park was even closer to our house than to my friend’s house.
It was maybe 15 minutes away from where I lived. As a kid, I never had a good sense of geography, or at least I didn’t care to pay attention, so I was always fuzzy on where exactly the water park was. And we didn’t drive there often from my house because my parents didn’t like going to the water park. (Perhaps they didn’t like joy or happiness, I can’t be sure, but that’s what I’m assuming.) I spent my childhood living a short drive away from the water park I loved more than anything else in my city. It’s probably good that I didn’t know this at the time or I’d probably have packed a lunch and tried to walk there.
Some days when I drive by it today I still can’t believe that it was there all along.
And I think this is exactly what happens in our lives. We drive all over in life, looking for something that can fulfill us and satisfy us, something we can’t lose. We hope we’ll find it in more stuff, better stuff, newer stuff. We hope we’ll find it in the perfect relationship (or the next one after that). But the thing we really want is right around the corner all along.
I’m convinced that in a world that promises good news but never delivers, the better news we long for is found in the story of Jesus.
I grew up in and around church stuff with people talking about the “gospel” of Jesus, but it wasn’t until later that I learned it literally meant “good news.” The “gospel of Jesus” means literally “the good news about Jesus.” There’s a claim right there. The claim is that, “This news is so incredibly good you’re going to want to stop what you’re doing and hear it.”
The term “gospel” comes from the ancient Greek world and it had a deeper meaning that we often grasp today. Imagine an ancient army is plowing its way toward your village. The people back home are anxiously waiting to hear if they’ll be enslaved or saved. Mothers and children and old men would be scanning the horizon. Finally, they’d see someone in the distance—a single runner coming straight from the front lines. He’d run into the town square, breathless, people would gather around. Finally, he’d get the word out: “Victory.” And the town would cheer.
That’s “good news” or “gospel” – it’s the same term in the language of the New Testament. It’s the kind of news that means everything changes.
We live at a time when many people know something about Jesus, something about the Bible, something about religion, but most people don’t think it sounds like great news. And I get it. For many years, it didn’t sound like great news to me either.
Here are a few reasons we don’t see what’s right in front of us.
For many, Jesus just seems irrelevant to the day to day details of their lives. We’re good at sectioning off our lives into little boxes like “fitness” “job” “friends” and may or may not even have one for “spirituality.” People will think “I should get around to being more spiritual” almost the way people think they should get around to eating healthier. But I believe the gospel is as relevant as the air we breathe and the heart that beats within us. The Bible shows us that who God is and who we are affects every single “box” we have in our lives.
Some want nothing to do with Jesus or the Bible because they see Christian religion as too hateful or backward or wrongheaded to even consider. I was at a punk rock flea market in my city (yes, we have those where I live) when I struck up a conversation with a vendor. He told me, “I don’t believe in any of that Jesus stuff it’s all a lie and I hate all that stuff.” As we kept talking it turned out he thought so many Christian beliefs were harmful to everyone. But it also turned out he didn’t know as much as he thought about what Christians actually believed. So, if you think the same thing, then stick with us and see what the Bible says for yourself.
For other people, anything about Jesus or church just seems like a burden they don’t need. You can see it as religious people giving everyone else a long list of “don’t do this” guilt trips. It can feel like that one overbearing relative who always wants to know your life details at Thanksgiving then criticizes all your decisions. And I’ll admit up front that the Bible does tell you how to live your life and sometimes you won’t like it. But if that’s the main idea you have about the Bible I think you’re dead wrong. As I’ll try to explain, the gospel of Jesus gives you true freedom and life.
A Counterfeit Gospel
Part of the problem with those objections to hearing the gospel is that many people think they already know it, or know enough. But the Bible says that not everything that calls itself “gospel” is actually gospel at all.
Maybe you saw hypocrisy from a distance or were hurt up-close and personal. Maybe you see the effects of evil things done in the name of “religion” in your life or in in the pages of history. Maybe you grew up without a scrap of religious upbringing but some of what you see in “religious people” seems mean-spirited, angry, and distasteful. For many people who have been burned by religion and want nothing to do with it, the solution is to run away from all religion and never look back.
Some religious activities look a lot like the Bible, but they’re the opposite of what the Bible is teaching. Before throwing the Bible out let’s give it the chance to explain the difference between the religion found in its pages and the religion outside it.
Colossians 3:23 refers to “self-made religion” that has nothing to do with the religion laid out in the Bible. This is the common denominator with religion that is the opposite of the Bible’s religion––it is all about confidence in yourself. Whether it involves lots of vague spiritual levels and periods of silence, or constant religious rituals, or a materialistic pursuit of more and better stuff, it’s all about self. The Bible says that all of this isn’t at all what true religion is really like. Instead we’ve made our own religion out of bits and pieces of Bible, a religious Frankenstein that will never come to life.
Here’s an example: Paul the Apostle once wrote to a group of churches in Galatia who seemed to believe all the right things. Their “church services” didn’t look all that different from others, they talked about God a lot, and yet, this is what Paul writes to them in Galatians 1:6-7 (ESV): “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”
Paul says that they’re abandoning their entire faith. That’s scary—because it means you can believe a lot of the right things according to the Bible and yet be utterly wrong at the core. For those of us who consider themselves religious, it’s a stark warning to carefully examine whether the religion we’re practicing is the religion the Bible preaches or another religion entirely. But for those who don’t think of themselves as religious, maybe because they’ve been burned, it’s an invitation. It’s an invitation to question everything you know about religion and discover better news.
A Recovering Pharisee
I’ve discovered that one of my ancestors was a sometimes preacher who, after church Sunday, would go drink in an outhouse until he passed out on Sunday afternoons. This person, that in front of others looked good, had real issues at home. He stole money from one of his kids and abandoned his family for long periods of time. When I heard about this I remember feeling angry. How could he possibly be claiming to be a Christian and then just using the stuff of religion to benefit himself?
But I did the same stuff.
I was saved, not from drugs and alcohol, but from being a self-righteous jerk. I was an older kid, sitting in kids ministry, feeling smug about how I was better than everyone else in the class, when God saved me. Until then, I didn’t think the “gospel” was very “good news.” I mean I thought it was great that Jesus was so nice to everyone, especially to good kids like me. Going to church was way more about how I was a “good kid” (especially compared with some others) than about anything else. I learned how to play the church game and get a pat on the back. But my religion was all about myself and getting God and other people to do what I wanted.
Then God saved me from myself.
What defines the religion laid out in the Bible? What makes it different from every other religious system? In 1 Corinthians 15:3 the Bible tells us: “For I delivered to you as of first importance…” Paul the Apostle, a towering figure in the New Testament, the man who even non-Christian historians agree helped reshape the world, the man who planted churches from one end of the Roman empire to the other, is telling us something profound. Out of all the pages of theology he ever wrote, he’s saying “This one thing is more important than anything else.” Get this and you’ll get the heart of the Christian faith.
So here it is in his first letter to the church in Corinth: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Do you see what’s of first importance there? It’s not a specific ritual or a series of prayers or a list of songs to sing in church. It’s not a “thing” at all. It’s a person: Jesus.
And it’s not just Jesus in general, but specifically the good news about his life, death and resurrection. Note the contrast––self-made religion is all about us and what we do, the religion of the Bible is all about Jesus. At the center of the “good news” is not us, but Jesus. That’s why it’s such good news.
Now, I have a confession to make here. I’m here to preach at you.
If you’re not a Christian or not sure, I have a goal for you: I want you to hear the story about Jesus from the Bible and see for yourself why it’s such good news. I am a good old-fashioned Bible peddler and revival preacher. I want you to stop walking down a path that is utterly killing you, enslaving you, making you miserable, and that will end very, very, badly. I want you to hear the best news in the history of the universe. I think in a world of over-hyped promises and gimmicks there’s better news out there and it’s found in Jesus.
If you’re a Christian I want to preach at you too. If you think of yourself as a Christian but don’t think the gospel is very good news—or at least not life-shaping and universe-shaking—you need to hear it again. I am convinced that far too many Christians spend their lives wandering around life looking for what can only be found in Jesus. I think we too quickly forget why the story of Jesus is such unbelievably good news. I want you to fall in love with the gospel of Jesus Christ again, and I want you to live differently after you do. I want the religion you practice and preach to be utterly full of gospel, utterly full of good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
When I understood not just the facts of the gospel but how the gospel applied to my own life, it began to change every part of me. It began to change my relationship with God so that I was eager to run to him. It began to change my relationships with others so that I was more honest and more loving. It began to change my relationship to the church from being a place of performance to a place of community. I want this for you too.
As we go, I’ll make you two promises: First, I’ll be honest about what the Bible says, even when it’s uncomfortable. Not everything that follows will be easy, but it will be true as the Bible tells it. Second, I’ll try to make the Bible’s message clear and help you see these things in Scripture for yourself.
Now, are you ready to hear the best news in the world? It doesn’t start with us at all.