There is only one story in the universe.
Occasionally I'll find a badly told story, which still attempts to convey the message of Christianity. I've said of such works that "you can't blame it for not being the universe" - for that is what is required to tell the story well. God is the original storyteller, and he uses every part of the entire universe to tell us this one story, to send us his one message. All other stories are but retellings of small snippets of this very long and very great story.
We call this story the Gospel: the one story in the universe, and the central message of Christianity.
I will attempt to explain this Gospel in this post. I apologize beforehand for it not being the universe.
The Gospel is simple, as it must be if it's the one message that God has for us. I can summarize it in three words: Christ saves sinners. The Gospel is also complicated, as it must be if it's a story told with the entire universe. Fighting, torture, escapes, true love, and miracles all have a part in it. So let me begin by expanding that three word summary ("Christ saves sinners"), starting with the easiest word to understand: "sinners".
By "sinners", I mean people like me. Immortal souls bound in ephemeral constructs of flesh and blood, aware of their physicality yet knowing that they're not just a lump of matter. In our bodies we are bound to the circles of this world, yet we have an inkling of something beyond it, of something more. For we were gifted by the One Father of All - the source of all goodness - with his breath of life. We were made in his image as his children, intended to grow up to become like him. But we - that is to say, I - have abused this very gift, and have deliberately chosen to defy God and disobey his divine laws. That is sin. Its consequence is death.
Why is the consequence so serious? What harm could one small imperfection cause? Catastrophe. In an otherwise perfect system designed for infinite growth, every flaw is fatal, especially in a critical subsystem like morality. God, in his love for us, created us with unlimited potential - to become like God. His laws were decreed to help us develop into that destiny. Sin is the rejection of all that: it's violating his laws, discarding that divine destiny, and becoming alienated from God himself. And because of our unlimited potential, sin also grows without limit. For a rocket with infinite thrust, any error in its heading sends it infinitely far off course. In a boundless forest, a small fire causes an everlasting conflagration. In an organism that grows forever, cancer results in infinitely large tumors. In humans, sin causes endlessly more sin, which is endless separation from God.
We would not have this problem if we were just rocks, or cows, or even space-faring aliens who are merely fated to rule the stars then perish with the universe. But we are humans, created to be like God. We were the chosen ones. We were supposed to be the pinnacle of creation, not fallen sinners. But precisely because of that greatness, when we fall we fall deep into darkness, deeper into sin, leading to death. Like a debtor who borrows to pay the interest on his debt, like an alcoholic who drinks to deal with his alcoholism, we keep sinning, even in our attempt to do good. Sin begets sin.
Without intervention, we are thereby forever separated from God and therefore from all goodness. Sin infects us and turns us evil. It alienates us from God and makes us into his enemies, the objects of his rightful wrath. But in our folly we have attempted to convince ourselves that it's not that bad, that we're good enough, that we're not really sinners. But this attitude is actually the very symptom of our sinfulness. Sin makes us numb and blinds us to further sin. Consider the people you know. Judge them, if you think yourself qualified. Are not the worst kinds of people convinced that they're good? God is the standard of goodness, and one of the first consequences of falling away from him is that we can no longer rightly discern what is good. Oblivious to our own evil, we blindly stumble from sin into more sin.
We - that is, I - thus find myself in this pit of despair: estranged from God, and therefore also from all good things that might possibly enable me to return to him. Fixed to a doomed trajectory that I'm powerless to change. Infected in my moral core with sin's ever growing evil. Even my attempts to be good are tainted with sin, and my righteous deeds are themselves like filthy rags. Who shall save me from this wretched body of death?
We thus reach "save", the second of the three words that summarize the Gospel ("Christ saves sinners"). What can we do to be saved from our sins? Sin is alienation from God, so our sin distances us from goodness itself. Sin is wickedness, so our evil makes us objects of God's rightful wrath. How shall we save ourselves? What righteousness, what achievement, what works of good deeds can we offer God, to convince him to take us back? Or what discipline or self-improvement can we undergo to empower ourselves and work our way back to him? We have none of these things, because God is the source of all such goodness, and the very nature of our predicament is that we have strayed from him. There is nothing we can do. Any good we think we have is his to begin with. Even the first desire to repent would need to come from him, for we don't have it in ourselves.
So there is no hope in any kind of equivalent exchange. We have nothing good apart from God: nothing to give, nothing to exchange, nothing to bribe God with, and nothing to improve ourselves with. This actually points the way to the solution: we need a nonequivalent exchange - no; an unmerited, outright gift - in order to be saved. We need a transcendent class of help that does for us what we could never do for ourselves - like lead being transmuted into gold, a wooden puppet becoming a person, a fictional character becoming real, or the dead coming back to life.
If God provides such help, it would not be because we deserved it, but because he simply loves us. Not because we are good, but to enable us to do good. Not because we're worth it, but to make us worthy. We could do nothing to contribute to our salvation, but only accept it, trusting in the help God provides. Trust, or faith, would therefore be the mechanism of this salvation in us. Note that faith, of itself, will not save you: a strong faith in a faulty climbing rope will kill you, whereas a weak faith in a good rope will keep you safe. It's the object of faith that's all important: thus we must place ourselves in God's hands. So faith is merely that act of trusting God - an expression of our understanding that it is God alone who does all the saving, including giving us that very faith to accept his salvation.
Furthermore, if God would provide such help, it would not merely be a one-time course correction. Rather it will take us all the way from our creation to our destination. Otherwise we could simply sin again. Don't think that God first created us as "plan A", then saw us going wrong and rescued us as "plan B". God foresaw our fall before he created us, and his plan to make us his children has always been to save us from our sins, once and for all time. This plan includes everything: his breath of life that made us alive, his own image in which he made us, and his foreknowledge and predestination for us before all time. In addition, he rescues us from our sins, restores our broken relationship with him, sanctifies us to make us holy, gifts us his own righteousness, and keeps us from falling, until he finally fulfills in us our destiny - to become like him as his grown children. This plan is everything good that God has for us, which is everything good, period. This is not "plan B", it is the complete fulfillment of God's eternal plan. This is our salvation.
He who began this good work in us will surely bring about its completion. We therefore no longer speak of what God would do, but of what God has been doing since before the foundation of the world, and will continue to do until our faith is made perfect. But what gives us this confidence? And how will God accomplish all this? For that matter, what about other questions like when, where, why, and who? All these questions have their answer in a single sentence: for God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son (Jesus Christ), that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
That finally brings us to "Christ", the first and the most important word in my simple summary of the Gospel ("Christ saves sinners"). If I had to condense those three words down to one - just one word to describe the Gospel and therefore all of existence - it would be "Christ". Jesus Christ is God himself incarnated as a man. In God's act of true love for us, Christ came - God came as a man - to fulfill the plan for our salvation. For what power does anyone else have to stop the course of sin? To save us? To reach us, he humbled himself down to our level, and took on the human form that he first granted us. Like us, he was conceived, born, and raised, and became a man familiar with our sorrow, who experienced our pain. Despite being fully human, he remained morally perfect, serving as our perfect example and enabling the next key part of the plan - his crucifixion and resurrection.
I do not understand Jesus' death on the cross. There are theories of how it worked, but I doubt we have anything close to the full picture. This is only expected: the cross is nothing less than the intersection of all of existence. Everything in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, life and death, good and evil, sin and righteousness, God and his creation, story and Author - they all collide here. I think that a complete understanding of Christ's death and resurrection would require nothing short of the entirety of the mind of God. My telling of the story is utterly insufficient for it - nevertheless I will proceed.
Through Christ's great love for us, he became one with us. As he became part of humanity, we became parts of Christ's body. We see this happening to a small degree between humans: people become one, to the degree that they love one another. Thus an individual's loss or gain, their grief or joy, their ignorance or knowledge, and even their guilt or righteousness, are all suffered or enjoyed by their family and friends, to the degree that they've become one in love. But Jesus is God, and God is love. In his perfect love for us he became perfectly one with us, as only God himself, as only love itself can.
In being united with us, he took upon himself all our sins and its consequences, and was crucified. Because of his perfect love for us, the transfer of our sins is also perfect: we truly bear them no more, as if we had never sinned. Conversely, Christ truly carried our sins, and became truly sinful for us. There on the cross, he suffered all of sin's consequences. He was pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities. The infinite separation from God that was our due was laid upon him, and he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" God himself had never before experienced this separation - this sundering of his own being - because the Trinity had existed without sin in perfect fellowship. No human has ever experienced it, because Jesus took it upon himself instead. The fullness of Christ's passion is therefore incomprehensible to us and incomparable to any of our experiences.
The cross also demonstrates God's love for us, giving proof of that love in sacrifice. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. That's how we know he loves us. And because he first loved us, we can love him back. That's what allows us to believe in him and participate in his plan of salvation. In loving him, we thereby become one with Christ just as he became one with us, thus participating in his suffering and death. Like the sin transfer, our perfect oneness makes this participation perfect: we are truly crucified with Christ and truly die with him. Some think that becoming a Christian is trivially easy, that one can simply plan to "repent" after a lifetime of sin then "get into heaven". In reality the closest analog to becoming a Christian is dying: you must take up the instrument of your execution and follow Jesus to his death.
Thus at Calvary I find myself identifying with nearly every party in the passion story. I am the mockers, deriding Jesus in my disbelief. I am the women, devastated that my teacher should suffer such agony. I am the centurion, saying "Truly this was the Son of God". I am Pilate, waffling between my need for justification and my cowardice. I am the disciples, overcome with fear and unable to understand. I am the thief on the cross, asking to be remembered. I am chanting "crucify! Crucify!", for this Jesus is a sinner, full of my sins, and he must be crucified. And I am with Jesus - crucified, dead, and buried, as punishment for my sins.
So we must be crucified and die. This is difficult - impossibly so. How could we do any of this? Wasn't the whole point of all this that it was supposed to be easy? How could we share in Christ's suffering and death, and not be defeated by it? Would we not be crushed by the penalty for our own sins, the very same penalty that we could never bear ourselves?
But what is impossible for man is possible with God. We are not on our own: we are united with Christ in love. He first loved us, he bears the burden for us, he enables us to love him, he enables us to have faith, he makes us one with him, he does everything. What can separate us from the love of Christ? We will not be crushed or defeated while he still stands. If God is for us, who can be against us? In Christ, we are crucified, dead, and buried for our sins - and yet we live.
The resurrection is the proof of Jesus's perfect victory over sin and death. If Christ was not raised, that would mean Jesus failed in bearing our sins, and they would have then crushed us in turn. God himself would have been defeated, our faith would have been falsely placed, and we would be pitiable above all humanity. But by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus demonstrates that death has no hold on him, that his power exceeds the power of sin, that both sin and death have been ultimately nullified.
The same power that raised Christ from the dead now works in us, for we have been made one with Christ by loving and believing in him. His victory is our victory. If we died with him, we will also live with him - yet not us, but Christ who lives in us. Therefore, we who are in Christ are a new creation - dead to our old selves and made new to be like Christ. Death and sin have no power over us, no more than they have any power over Jesus. The resurrection therefore demonstrates that this whole plan of salvation worked.
Behold furthermore what lavish love God has given to us in Christ: we are not only freed from sin, but made the children of God! We are given Jesus's righteousness, adopted by God, and made co-heirs to God's glory, all on account of being resurrected and made new in Christ. Jesus is the Son of God, so we also become the children of God. We are in Christ, and Christ is one with God. This, finally, is the fulfillment of our destiny, the plan for which God first created us.
So, this is my story: Christ saves sinners. It is a small telling of the one story, the only story in all of existence. Although we have a royal heritage, sin has long kept us from it, in darkness. But when Christ comes to us, we at last see the light - that by loving, believing, and thereby becoming one with him, we can fully become a part of God's family.
I hope that you, too, will tell this one story as your story. The promise of salvation is for absolutely anyone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone can thereby have life in his name.
You may next want to read:
How physics fits within Christianity (part 2)
Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection
Another post, from the table of contents