The Gospel: God’s Better Story

By Rubel Shelly

The Bible is a six-act drama reflecting the light of our Creator.

Ivan Illich (1926–2002) was an Austrian philosopher and former Catholic priest. As he became increasingly critical of modern education, consumerism, health care, and Western social values in general, he pondered the larger question of how to change society. When asked whether violent revolution or gradual reform was the better way to effect change, he replied:

Images ©Christian Standard Media
Images ©Christian Standard Media

Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step. . . . If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is just such a revolutionary and life-changing story. It is hardly a “tale,” as in an invented story or make-believe account of reality. It is the true account of where we have come from and where we are going. It is the comprehensive story of what God has done, is doing, and will do, and how a given human life fits within that narrative in order to find meaning, standards by which to evaluate itself, and confidence in facing the unseen future.

Following the lead of many others, it seems apparent to me that the Bible story should be treated as such—a story, a controlling narrative, the defining account of Christian identity. We must not use the Bible as a quarry for stones to throw at one another but as Heaven’s invitation to step inside the story of redemptive love.

This should have been obvious to a biblical people all along and not a recent discovery. After all, one needs only to read the key sermons in the book of Acts to see that the gospel is presented as the story of God, as traced through Abraham, Moses, the prophets, Jesus, and the church.

For my own purposes, I have developed a way to tell the Bible story as a six-act drama that builds off the recurrent biblical motif of light.

Act I: Let There Be Light!
Life as it was meant to be (Genesis 1, 2)

The story that invites humankind into the loving community of the Triune deity opens with an account of light piercing the darkness. “Let there be light!” is not only a call for life-giving rays from the sun into earth’s physical atmosphere. It is the divine proffer of truth and insight for spiritual life within the kingdom of God. What was Eden, if not the ideal community of divine self-disclosure and human openness to that Holy Presence?

The initial relationship between deity and humanity was without defect—no distance, no barriers, no hostility, no dread. Lions and lambs, male and female—all lived in the shalom of a garden paradise. The sovereign reign of God over creation was an ideal state for those made in the divine image and destined to bear that image throughout the earth and for all time.

Act II: The Darkness Descends
Sin and its resulting chaos (Genesis 3–11)

What was meant to be the enduring shalom of human existence was disrupted by pride that was quickly directed toward rebellion. Suddenly there was distance between both humans and God and humans and their fellow humans. The fall created barriers, hostilities, and dread both needless and terrible.

Instead of living within the open transparency of God’s light and presence, his human creatures had chosen to rebel. With that rebellion came hiding, lying, and blaming. Soon there was murder. And it seemed that every thought that came to the minds of God’s human creatures was only evil. Continually. Creatively.

What had begun in light and beauty, stability and peace, was quickly unraveling into the chaos of iniquity. The God who once could be known in naked innocence was now willfully disavowed. The creation itself would be worshipped in his place. Whether the sun, moon, and stars or human castings of domestic animals, wild beasts, or mortal form, the creature made to bear the divine image debased himself and herself inconceivably. Even the holiest and purest form of human intimacy was perverted into obscenity and debauchery as sex was profaned as mere commodity or exploitation.

Act III: A Light to the Nations
Israel (Genesis 12:1–Malachi)

Although justice could have been served by it, a loving God would not leave his fallen, disoriented, and faithless creatures without hope. He offered what one of his prophets would call “light to the nations” (Isaiah 51:4) by calling Abraham to leave idolatry for monotheism, to leave an evil culture to create a faithful alternative. From this man and his descendants was to come a people who would model holiness in an unholy environment and thereby call the world back to Yahweh.

But a nation called to be light to the nations quickly became a chameleon among the nations. Israel took on the dark hues of idolatry and greed, racial exclusiveness and sexual perversion, exploitation of community and indifference to neighbor.

Has the divine purpose failed? Has evil triumphed? Will humans be lost to the darkness forever?

Act IV: The True Light
Jesus, Immanuel (the Gospels)

Jesus is the ultimate and full response of Heaven to earth’s great need. The One John calls “the true light” (John 1:9) has come now to be the light that cannot be quenched by the darkness of evil. The definitive proof that he is indeed God among us, and that he is the way, the truth, and the life, is his conquest of death. Did the prince of darkness think he had destroyed the light of God with a Roman cross and sealed tomb? Jesus lives!

The empty tomb of the first Easter morning lets us know that light conquers darkness, truth defeats lies, and righteousness will triumph over wickedness. The Holy God who might have left us to our self-created ruin bears witness to his true nature as light, redemption, and healing in the Gospel message: the kingdom of God is at hand for all who turn to Jesus.

Act V: Let Your Light Shine
The Church (Acts, the Epistles, Revelation 1:1–20:10)

The holy task that once belonged to ethnic Israel is now the commission of Christ’s church. We are to be light for the whole world—an alternative community of faith, hope, and love. Yes, in the words of one of the Twelve: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

What you are and do as a part of Christ’s spiritual body matters. It matters because it is part of the divine strategy to bring light to all the places where there is darkness. Each of us has the chance to fill that role in places and with persons the rest of us cannot reach.

Act VI: God’s Glory Is the Light
A new Heaven and a new earth (Revelation 20:11–22:21)

The final act of this transforming redemption narrative will be inaugurated when the Lord of Heaven and earth returns. With sin, death, and darkness destroyed at his appearing, all those who have loved and longed for him will share in what has been willed for us from the start—the eternal kingdom, shalom, Eden restored.

The philosopher was right. The way to change the world is to give it a better story, a narrative superior to the one it has embraced and is living. This redemption narrative from creation to new creation is that better story the world is waiting to hear.

Embrace it. Live inside it. Share it.

Rubel Shelly is a preacher and a professor of philosophy and Bible at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. 

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