In part one of this series we looked at what an overarching narrative is and how they function. These big narratives help us to answer basic questions like “Who am I?” “What is my purpose?” and “Where is all this going?” It’s not really possible to go through life without a narrative, but more often than not our narratives go unquestioned. We just assume that this is how the world works. Narratives are typically things that we think with rather than think about.
In part two of this series we’re going to take a look at how we might begin to understand what we mean by the Christian narrative.
Now, when I’m talking about the Christian narrative I am not merely talking about the sequence of biblical events. A timeline of bible history is not the same thing as the Biblical or Christian narrative. It’s important to know about things like the period of the judges, the establishment of the monarchy, the split between the kingdoms, the exile, the return and so on, but this is not really what I’m talking about. These things fit into the narrative, but they themselves are not the narrative.
Instead, think of the Christian narrative as like the elevator speech for the faith. If you have thirty seconds to tell someone what Christians believe, what do you say? This is a good way of getting to your own understanding of the Christian narrative.
The Not-Quite-Christian Narrative
Now, I don’t know what you might say. But most Christians will probably say something about how we’re all sinful since we don’t/can’t follow God’s law (i.e. we sin), but luckily Jesus came and died on the cross for our sins so that now if you believe in him, then you won’t have to go to hell forever as a punishment for breaking God’s law. Instead of going to hell, you get to go to heaven when you die and live with God and Jesus forever.
I think this is fairly representative of what an average Christian might say, but unfortunately there are a lot of problems with this. There are some nitpicky things that I could point out, like not understanding what sin really is or failing to recognize that our ultimate hope is not a disembodied heavenly existence, but is the resurrection of our bodies on the last day.
Yet despite all this, the main problem is that this is not the story that the scriptures tell. At best, this narrative is crude caricature or parody of the Christian faith and the story of the Bible, but it is far away from being the real deal. We’ll talk about the real deal below, but first it’s helpful to point out a few more general problems with this common, but false Christian narrative.
First of all, this narrative is incredibly individualistic. It’s all about me and God. It’s about Jesus paying for my sin so that I can go to heaven when I die. If there’s any place for the people of God as found in ancient Israel or the church, it’s only as a gathering of religiously like-minded individuals. However, the way the scriptures tell the narrative, Jesus didn’t come to save individuals; he came to save his people. If you are part of that people, say by having the faith of Abraham and being baptized into the name of the triune God, then of course you, the individual, are saved. But the emphasis is still on God saving his people.
Secondly, this narrative is escapist. It understands the ultimate goal in life is to escape this good creation that God has made. If you play your cards right and believe the right things (or do the right things if you’re a legalist), then you get to escape to God’s penthouse apartment in the sky. But if you don’t, then you’re going to be condemned forever to God’s personal underground torture chamber. But this is not the picture of the scriptures. The story is not about us escaping to enter into God’s presence, but it is about God bringing his presence to us. In other words, it’s not about us leaving earth to go to heaven, but it’s about heaven coming down to earth. Hell is not God’s underground torture chamber, but it is a necessary result of God setting things to right. Beings like the devil and his angels will not abide by the rule and reign of God and therefore cannot be a part of this new creation.
Finally, this narrative is too focused on personal guilt. This is understandable to a certain degree since the Bible puts a lot of focus on guilt over sin, whether it’s the Old Testament sacrificial system or Jesus giving his apostles the authority to forgive sins in his name. But when you zoom out and look at the narrative from a thousand feet high, the focus is not on absolving personal guilt. That’s a part of it once you zoom in, but when taken as a whole, that’s not what the narrative is really about. Instead, it’s about restoring creation to what it was always meant to be, and since we are a part of this creation, we get to be part of this restoration. And of course part of this restoration is the forgiveness of personal guilt, but that is only one part of our own redemption. Other parts of our redemption include the promise that we will be given new hearts to finally love God and each other fully (cf. Ezek 36:22ff) or that we will be given brand new bodies like the risen Jesus (1 Cor 15).
The Christian Narrative
I think it’s helpful to think of the Christian narrative as a three-act play. Each part is an essential part of the narrative. It’s helpful to point out that God is always the main actor and the setting is all of creation. In many distortions of the Christian narrative the main actor is human beings and the setting is effectively the human heart or the relationship of an individual to God.
Act I: Creation/Fall
Act II: Promise/Fulfillment
Act III: Judgment/New Creation
The story begins and ends with creation. God’s first act is creating the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. Any narrative that does not start there is not a Christian narrative. One of the essential, defining characteristics of the God of Israel is that he is the creator of everything (cf. Psalm 95). God has ordered creation in such a way that life flourishes, but human beings, the crown of God’s creation, rebel against his rule and order for creation. Instead, they decide that their rule and order is better than God’s. This desire to have things our way instead of the creator’s way is something that still affects all human beings to this day.
However, God will not let his creation be thrown into chaos. And because of his mercy he promises not only to restore his creation, but to restore human beings as well. This dynamic of promise and fulfillment then runs throughout the narrative of the scriptures. Sometimes the gap in time between promise and fulfillment is very small, like when God promises to preserve Noah and his family and then he does. Sometimes the gap is larger, like when God promises to make a great nation from Abraham’s offspring. It takes several hundred years before Israel is a notable nation. Sometimes the gap is even larger, like when God promises to Eve that her offspring would crush the head of the serpent who deceived her or when God promises to King David that his line will reign forever on the throne. These promises are not fulfilled until the coming of the Messiah, Jesus.
In the meantime, God forms a new people for himself and he promises to bless them and the nations through them. He has a special, albeit not exclusive, relationship with this people. Even though this people continually rebels against his rule and promises, God always remains faithful to them. He may punish them for their rebellion, but he always preserves a remnant and always remains faithful to the promises that he has made.
The ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to his people Israel comes with Jesus. When we talk about the coming of Jesus, we tend to only talk about how Jesus came to die for our sins, and while that’s true and that is part of the narrative, that’s not the whole story. In fact the way the NT tells the story, it’s not even the main part of the story. Remember that the Christian narrative is not primarily about personal guilt. Instead, it’s about God and his creation. Thus, Jesus comes to proclaim the coming rule and reign of God (aka the Kingdom of God). Ever since the fall, the creation has been in rebellion from the creator’s rule. Jesus comes to proclaim that God is coming back to rule his creation once again. This means that the effects of the fall: sin, disease, and death are beginning to be reversed. This is why Jesus forgives sins, heals the sick and disabled, and even raises the dead. This is a foretaste of what is coming when God comes to rule over his creation. The Gospels make it clear that when Jesus dies, it’s because the leaders of ancient Israel, God’s chosen people, have rejected Jesus as the Messiah. In line with the first humans, they have rejected the rule and reign of God. But Jesus’ death is no defeat. Instead, the scriptures make it clear that Jesus’ death also becomes a sacrifice for sin and the means by which death itself is defeated. At Easter God then vindicates his Son by raising him from the dead, showing that rule and reign of God is still coming through this Messiah King.
In the meantime, the church is the continuation of God’s chosen people Israel. While the church is initially Jewish it quickly expands to encompass all nations. The church continues to proclaim the gospel, that is, the good news that God is coming back to rule over his creation through the Messiah King Jesus. All who repent of their rebellion will be forgiven and will be a part of this coming rule and reign of God when it comes fully on the last day.
In the final act Jesus comes again as he promised and raises all people from their graves. Those who refused to repent and loved their own rule and reign more than the rule and reign of God will be cast away from God’s presence forever. Those who repented and welcomed the coming rule and reign of God through Jesus will be remade to be now fully human, the way God had originally designed. God will remake his creation and will finally make his dwelling on earth with his people forever.
Obviously there is more to this narrative than what I’ve presented right here. We can ask questions about the difference between God’s people before Jesus and God’s people after Jesus. What about all the specific laws that God had given the people of Israel? We can ask questions about how the church forms new disciples of Jesus and how exactly this all works (e.g. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Office of the Ministry). We can ask questions about the relationship between God’s free and gracious call to be a part of his kingdom and the good works that Christians do in obedience to this call (Justification and Sanctification). We can ask questions about any number of things. And these are all important. But the main story is still the main story, these questions do not become the main story, as happens when the Gospel gets boiled down to Jesus dying for our sins so that now we don’t have to do anything to “get saved.”
The Christian Narrative and the Big Questions
Also, this narrative is not merely a summary of the Bible, but it is a narrative that gives shape and meaning to our lives. If you want a fuller treatment of how the Christian story does this over against secular narratives, you should check out Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God. This is an amazing book and you should go read it right now.
In any case, I’ll briefly explore the answers that this narrative gives to the answers I’ve identified in this series.
Who am I? I am a creature. That is, I have been created by the creator. I am in rebellion to this creator and must repent of my rebellion since God, the creator, is the source of all life and goodness. In cutting myself off from him, I cut myself off from life and goodness itself. I am also a member of God’s chosen people through baptism and faith. My membership in this family gives me a family that spans all times and all places. I am one for whom Jesus has died, I am one in whom the Spirit dwells, and I am one whom the Father calls his beloved son for Jesus’ sake.
What is my purpose? As a member of God’s holy, redeemed people, I am called to live life in accord with the creator’s design for his creation. This means rejecting all the ways in which I live only for myself and take advantage of others. It means setting my hope not on the pleasures and treasures of this world, but on the coming re-made world that will come. In the meantime I live as a witness to the new life that has come and is coming through Jesus. I do this by loving my enemies and serving my neighbor in my various vocations.
Where is all this going? Jesus is coming back any day now. When Jesus comes back it will not matter what you accomplished in life; it will not matter how happy you managed to be. All that will matter is that you are a member of God’s chosen people who confess that Jesus is Lord. The present form of this world will pass away, but God will re-create the world so that it will finally be in accord with how he had created it at the beginning.
Tim Mackie on Speaking and Living the Gospel
The Christian Narrative Part 1: What’s a Narrative and Why Does It Matter?
Why You Shouldn’t Apply the Bible to Your Life
The Upside-Down-Topsy-Turvy Kingdom of God
Book Review: “Surprised by Hope”