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Does "Gospel" Simply Mean "Good News"? Or Have We Unintentionally Defined Ourselves into a Corner?

November 10, 2014 33 Comments

111014There are times in the Church when we want to define something rather easily and simply so as to make it memorable and easy to grasp. But in so doing, we run the risk of doing harm to its deeper, richer, and more accurate meaning.

I wonder if we have not done this with the word “gospel.” Most of us have been trained to define the word “gospel” as “good news.” Clearly there is good news in the Gospels and, by extension, the whole of the New Testament. However, as we shall see, “good news” as a definition falls short of what the term actually means.

Further, in our current cultural setting, the way in which many hear the phrase “good news”  also creates, I would argue, a false impression that all Scriptures are pleasant, happy, cheerful, consoling, and so forth. But the Scriptures are not all in this mode of “good.” Many of the Scriptures challenge, provoke, and even trouble and strike fear.

Yet, because “good news” has become an interpretive key of sorts, many thus filter what they see, hear, and preach of the Scriptures. If something does not come across as good news, does not fit into the template of being cheerful and consoling, it is either recast with a twisted interpretation, or it is sometimes wholly set aside.  For example, the Lord Jesus often issues fierce messages against sin and unbelief, warns about judgment and Hell, and insists that we follow Him unreservedly, even if this means accepting the Cross, the hatred of the world, or the loss of relationship with certain family members. But because such logia of Jesus Himself do not fit the modern concept of “good news,” such strong statements are too easily set aside by many as not sounding like “the Jesus they know.”

Thus, the common definition of gospel as “good news” tends to be a poor template by which to understand the words and teachings of Jesus Christ.  It makes people averse to the harder sayings of Jesus, even dismissive of them. A woman once remarked to a priest I know who had preached on a difficult topic, “Now, Father, I come to Church expecting to hear something uplifting and encouragement from you. But I did not hear that today from you.”

What then is the fuller and richer understanding of the word “gospel”? Pope Benedict addressed this topic well in Volume I of Jesus of Nazareth:

The Evangelists designate Jesus’ preaching with the Greek term Evangelion. But what does this term actually mean? The term has recently been translated as ‘good news.’ That sounds attractive, but it falls far short of the order of magnitude of what is actually meant by the word evangelion. This term figures in the vocabulary of the Roman emperors, who understood themselves as lords, saviors, and redeemers of the world.  The messages issued by the emperor were called in Latin evangelium   regardless of whether or not their content was particularly cheerful or pleasant . The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message, that it is not just a piece of news, but a changing of the world for the better. “When the Evangelists adopt this word, and it thereby becomes the generic name for their writings, what they mean to tell us is this: What the emperors, who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim, really occurs here – a message endowed with plenary authority, a message that is not just talk but reality…. the Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech – not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform. Mark speaks of the ‘Gospel of God,’ the point being that it is not the emperors who can save the world, but God. And it is here that God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears; it is here that what the emperors merely assert, but cannot actually perform, truly takes place. For here it is the real Lord of the world – the Living God – who goes into action (Jesus of Nazareth Vol 1 pp. 46-47).

Therefore note some qualities of the term “gospel” and of the nature of God’s Word:

1. The term is not necessarily indicative of something pleasant or happy. It originally referred to the utterance of an emperor, even if the content was not particularly pleasant. For example an “evangelion” might announce an increase in taxes or the summoning of an army. In God’s Word, the Gospel might include promises of salvation, offers of forgiveness, and blessings. But it might also include the teachings on the need for repentance, on the requirement to take up a cross, on accepting that we may well be hated, and on the fact that judgment is looming.

2. The emphasis of the word “evangelion” was that it had authority behind it, authority capable of changing your life. Thus if the emperor announced that he was paving a nearby road, or raising taxes, or summoning men to arms, or declaring a holiday—whatever the message contained, you knew your life was going to change, perhaps dramatically, due to the emperor’s authority. With the Word of God, too, there is declared in the term “gospel,” the truth that when God speaks, His Word has the power to change your life, either by conferring great blessings, or by announcing more challenging things (such as the fact that the day of judgment is looming for us all, or that certain of our behaviors are not acceptable for membership in the Kingdom).

3. The Gospel is not merely noetic (informative); it is dynamic (transformative). God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Thus when God says “Be holy,” His words contain the actual power to effect what they announce, provided we receive them in faith.

4. The Gospel is no mere written word. The Gospel is Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh. Therefore the Gospel saves all who receive it (Him) with faith and heed its warnings and teachings with the obedience of faith.

Thus, the term “gospel” means more than “good news.” And given our cultural setting and its presuppositions related to the word “good,” the notion that “gospel = good news” can be downright misleading. It is better and richer to understand the term “gospel” to refer to the life-changing and transformative utterance of God, which is able to save us if we obey its demands in faith. It is in fact Jesus Himself who is the Word made Flesh. Perhaps this is less memorable, but it is more true and less misleading.

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  1. Catharine says:

    Thank you, Father, for another wonderful teaching. I think another part of the gospel which is often overlooked is that as the word of God, it is also “reformative,” i.e., this is eternal truth, taught to us by the One who is Eternal Truth. As such, it is not going to conform itself either to us as individuals, nor to the spirit of our age (the dire and utter condition in which we all must exist, at least to some extent). Thus, we are called to ponder deeply not only the Truth, but what it is, how we must conform ourselves to it, and not expect things to be the other way around. This has not always been a comfortable process, and it certainly does not come easily or quickly most of the time; however, over time, this contemplation of divine things, and there is nothing more divine than the words of Jesus Christ Himself, is almost the most soul-satisfying thing there is, after Mass and Eucharistic adoration.
    Please keep your wonderful articles coming–thank you so very much!!

  2. annaincalifornia says:

    Hello Monsignor Pope,

    I can relate most literally with your last sentence….
    It seems that no matter how HONEST and straightforward one is, or
    speaks, or behaves, there is always going to be misunderstanding.
    There will always be someone who is misled according to their own
    perception. No matter how clear the MESSAGE or good news.

    Jesus was crucified. People misunderstood His words and actions.
    They felt misled. They expected Him to be different.

    Can we, ashis disciples, expect to be better than the master? In proclaiming the
    Good News, there will always be those who cannot comprehend
    Or see the Truth.

    Your littlest lamb, anna

    Proverbs 24:16

  3. Repent and Believe the Gospel! says:

    “Good news” because God revealed to us the State of Everlasting Life on the 3rd day.

    “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” – John 6:54

    Pertaining to John 6:54, “6” is the number of man. God is saying: man (man=6) go backward “5….4…..go back to 3 (that is chapter 3 of Genesis) and you will understand why Jesus commanded us to eat His body and drink His blood, the Holy Spirit is pretty clever with the number trick.

    But I am revealing to much………

    • Robertlifelongcatholic says:

      You lost me in the math.

      • Scott W. says:

        Indeed. Numbered chapters and verses did really show up until the 13th century and added for convenience rather than theological significance.

      • Repent and Believe the Gospel! says:

        I like you Robert, I think you’re cool, but this is not calculus. This is very simple. God is leaving us with a clue: 6 is the number of man, 54 (the number is going backward). To WHAT? = To the number 3. This is what God is saying: Man go back to three to figure out what John 6:54 is.

        Go to chapter three of the Book of Genesis and try to figure out what He meant when He said: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” – John 6:54

        There’re a whole bunch of clues in the Bible, that God left behind.

        My theology is on the cutting edge but very Orthodox.

        Now, in John 6:66 some followers stop following Jesus because Jesus told them to eat His Body and Drink His Blood, and you know that the number 666 points to the Anti-Christ; THEREFORE, the Anti-Christ will deny the truth regarding transubstantiation [see cutting edge theology]. And believe me we need cutting edge Orthodox theologians to get us out of the mess that we are in now.

        Now, I believe that some –[I didn’t say all]– numbers, chapters and verses were given to inspired Holy men by God to give us wisdom. Simple as that! Who are we to tell God what He can do and what He can’t do?

    • Chris says:

      You do realize that the Bible did not come to us in chapters and verses? The books of the Bibles were broken not down like that until medieval times…

      • Repent and Believe the Gospel! says:

        Well, guess what? That’s the unfolding of revelation.

        Man inspired by God to put the chapters and verses in there for our sake, God used these people to give us wisdom! The term “trinity” was not given by Jesus either, neither was the Immaculate Conception……again the UNFOLDING of revelation inspired the men to put the chapters and verses in there.

        Be little clever, okay?

        • Robertlifelongcatholic says:

          You wouldn’t be a conspiracy theorist by any chance.

          • Repent and Believe the Gospel! says:

            No, my theology is on the cutting edge but very Orthodox. I think out side of the Box, just like John Duns Scotus with the Immaculate Conception.

  4. Mike says:

    Looking at your fourth point directly above. I would say that the gospel is no mere written word because it is not any written word. If I am not mistaken, the apostle Paul speaks of the Gospel to the Galatians, saying that there is only one gospel. This was before there were the written texts called gospels later by the early church. Focusing on the Gospels as books seems to miss the point of their titles – the Gospel “according to” Matthew or Mark, etc. and so it would seem that we should put the focus back on the preaching that was later written down as the memoirs of the apostles.
    The good news is that Jesus died and rose from the dead for each and every one of us (whether we like it or not). This is what Paul passes on as of first importance to his communities. I think we do a disservice to the Gospel to only think of it as the text. It is the living preaching and teaching that is passed on about the Truth of the Trinitarian love of God. This perspective will make it easier to see the dynamism and transformative character of the Gospel.

  5. David says:

    So as a catechist seeking definitions that are easy for youth to remember, would life-changing message or life-saving message be a more accurate short definition for gospel?

  6. Neo says:

    The Gospel is Jesus Christ is The Truth.
    The Gospel of God = The Truth of God.
    Have a blessed day.

  7. Patrick Sanguinetti says:

    It is interesting how often “forgiveness”is emphasized when commenting on even the hardest saying Gospels. “Better a millstone tied to the neck” always came to mind when hearing the reports of how children were abused by Priests but nearly all commentary on the issue dealt with what would lead a person to commit such an act/and or forgiveness! Thanks for reminding us that the fierce messages should be noted just as strongly as the good/easy stuff.

  8. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    This could come across as obnoxious and I mean that in a good way.

  9. Michael Petek says:

    There’s one missing. The Hebrew word for Gospel is “bashar” which also means “flesh”.

  10. Maria J. says:

    Thank you ; love the quotes from Pope Emer.Benedict too and we get to see the long suffering patience in the love of The Father , who uses the pagan unholy systems in the world , such as the Roman emperors , to help us to grasp the truth better ; thank you for highlighting same !

    One of the major confusions in our times in these aspect might be how even some ‘religious ‘ figures seem to try to equate , for example Gandhi and The Lord Jesus , as though they were on par ; putting up statues of the latter are considered , oh so benign and worthy causes , without realising that such actions also might be endorcement of value systems and views that can also affect us , in its own ways ; Gandhi is said to have read the bible many times but could not grasp the infinite love of The God-Man ,for His Bride and offering up His life, for The Bride , The Church and destroy the works and claims of the enemy . Instead he , as per history
    ( unsure if deep inside he knew who the Lord is !) chose to remain as a devotee of the hindu god Rama ;

    Rama ! – may be even a symbolic sort of name like ‘ a cry was heard in Rama ; Rachel weeping for her children ‘ .

    Rama of the hinduism legend abandons his pregnant wife ; are there unholy soul ties , from such connections that are a part of many who choose such figures as ‘fathers ‘ , with their earthly values !

    While Ghandhi too might have had some good intentions, possibly including dreams for a hindu India , to replace the ‘foreign ‘ meaning possibly also Christian connected British system ( true, the latter possibly with its anti Church agenda and related debts ) , while had dreams of helping the poor and downtroden , resulting from an oppressive caste system , as part of that religion , had embraced the awareness , may be from bible, of need to help the poor ..yet , the blood shed and masacres of the partition, related longstanding rivalries and massive spending on arms at the neglect of the very poor – on this day as we recall the sacrifices of the veterans , the debt of sin of nations and persons , thank God, we have a King , who alone can bear the debt of our burden of sins ..and free us from same !

    Thank you for the reminder ..Thank You , My Lord !

    • Maria J. says:

      Correction – as can be understood from the context , the reference with regard to the statues
      is about Gandhi , who is a latter , in chronological and hopefully some spiritual sense only , of The Lord , not as written incorrectly , in the related sentence in the above post .

      On this Feast of St.Martin, after whom is named the island of St.Martin, there is another island – Malta and the Knghts of Malta and the appt . of Cardinal Burke that are puzzling issues in many hearts ;

      St.Paul finds hospitality in the pagan island of Malta , after the shipwreck ; the cobra around his wrist was thrown into the fire without doing him harm ; would it be that , Cardinal Burke, in his new post might have far reaching prophetic roles – may be even forming a real ‘Crusader ‘ sort of army , this time with far more spiritual training as well , to help in the battles that are both internal and external , thus helping to save shipwrecked lives and Churches in the wartone regions !

      Hope the Holy Spirit surprises us !

  11. DJD says:

    Msgr. Pope – I look forward to these blog posts your writing reminds of Pope Benedict’s style; clarity, truth, and understanding distilled to message that are accessible to all to help us examine our spiritual life. You help to heal the wound left by the departure of Papa Benedict in my spiritual life.

    • Taylor says:

      I think Msgr. Pope has the Mind of the Spirit, which is the same mind as Pope Francis as well. We have to be willing to receive the Holy Spirit’s direction through each Pope as they come, and trust them when they define on matters of faith and morals, and strive to obey the direction of each Pope in all other official situations as they arise. The Spirit does not like to let us rest on our laurels…He seems to agitate us when we need it, and we should respond with open minds and hearts and trust that God does not change, nor will God’s work through each Pope cause us to accept a change which is not based in truth and God’s will.

      • BM says:

        One can do that and still pine for the particular beauty and clarity with which our last pope wrote and spoke.

      • DJD says:

        Taylor I think you missed the point of my comment, it has nothing to do with Pope Francis, I just think Pope Benedict was one of the most unique teachers Catholics will experience in our lifetime, his ability to take the most difficult and challenging concepts and make it understandable and challenging are his gift, Just like some people enjoy Mozart or Schubert more than Bach in classical music, Most would admit Bach has a unique place in music history, so it is with Papa Benedict.

  12. Matt says:

    In God’s Word, the Gospel might include promises of salvation, offers of forgiveness, and blessings. But it might also include the teachings on the need for repentance, on the requirement to take up a cross, on accepting that we may well be hated, and on the fact that judgment is looming.

    By abandoning the use of “Good News,” we end up falling into the very trap that we supposedly want to avoid. the Good News is indeed promises of salvation, offers of forgiveness, and blessings. Those other teachings on the need for repentance, on the requirement to take up a cross, on accepting that we may well be hated, and on the fact that judgment is looming — those too are Good News and it is imperative that people understand that. To avoid the use of the term is to implicitly accept that repentance, the cross, persecution, judgment, etc. are bad news.

    Even within the Church — perhaps especially in the Church — there is this error. We saw it on display at the Synod on the Family as the teachings on human sexuality, marriage and the Eucharist were treated as burdens, as bad news. Wrong. That man is made for woman, and that man is not made for man in a sexual way is good news, even if some are not living that way. That marriage is permanent is good news, even if some find it inconvenient and want divorce on demand from society and ex post facto nullification on demand from the Church. And yet because some who should know better did not appreciate that these things are indeed Good News, they counseled abandoning them in practice, if not in doctrine.

    Instead of walking away from the Good News phraseology, we need to embrace it even more and turn it around on people, helping them to understand that all of those so-called “hard teachings” are not hard at all — they only see hard because we are hard-hearted and hard-headed — but are objectively good and actually make life easier.

    • Language debates are always so interesting! Just for the record I affirm everything you have said. However, my point really is that OTHERS do not share your fine insights and do not get the paradoxes you describe at all. And among the others I describe are also many Catholics. I salute your battle to get people to see the richness of the concept but my own experience in life is that words sadly change and the change usually involves a degradation. “Marriage” as a word has degraded for example. Good luck in trying to restore its meaning. Holy Matrimony is now the better way to signify our stance. At any rate, all fine, just starting a discussion here that has also provided you the opportunity to re-up what should be the richer understanding of “good news” with all its paradox

  13. chuckles8888 says:

    The term “gospel” does mean good news. It has also been used as “the Truth”. Jesus made it good news by doing EVERYTHING for us. All we have to do to be saved is say yes. There is no work to do, else you may brag that you did something worthy of being saved. Grace and faith are imputed to you even when you are not worthy and Scripture tells us we are saved by grace through faith. Our problem is we can’t believe it’s that easy. We keep trying to imagine that it’s grace and something else we have to do. Many denominations believe you have to wear your hair a certain way, or dress a certain way, or even join a certain denomination to receive eternal life. It’s a relationship as with a wife to her husband, not a social club. Jesus has taken our sins, past, present, and future, upon Himself, and leave nothing left for us to do but agree that He is Lord. If there was anything left to do, we would all fail to reach perfection. For me that’s good news.
    I saw much wrong with the article, but I don’t want to nit pick. Repentance comes from loving your Savior. It’s not something required by Law as we are not under Law. If I married the Law, it would be something I was forced to do, but being wed to the Savior, it’s something I want to do, as I want to please the lover of my soul.
    The so called “hard teachings” are not hard if you know what love is. To turn from double mindedness is expected, but He is just explaining that, if you love Him, you will chose Him every time, even over your own wants and family relationships. I guess many of us don’t understand true love or we wouldn’t have to have so much explained to us. Eventually, we usually figure out that when Jesus says he loves us, it means He loves us, even enough to leave heaven and suffer and die for His bride on the cross. Now, if the Spirit draws you, you are agreeing to live and die for Him and Him only, because you allegedly love Him. Once the Covenant is agreed to, you cannot be pried from His hand. That is good news, as all of us have committed adultery with other idols while betrothed to Him. The Book of Hosea comes to mind as He tried to explain how He feels about us. His love is true, even as ours fails from time to time. That’s good news for me. Jesus is the Gospel, as he is the Way, The Truth, and The Life. No one comes to the Father except by Him. Jesus is Truth, ergo, The Gospel. False religion says there is some other way other than Jesus. If there were, Jesus would not have died on the cross. God would have just pointed out that Muslims follow the law to the letter, so why can’t you? God would have never allowed His only Son to suffer and die if there were some other way. Even Jesus answered that question in the Garden when he asked the Father to take this cup from Him if it were His will, but there was no other way. Everything was arranged from the foundation of the world, and God had to arrange everything for us and bring it to completion or we would have failed and been doomed forever.
    To realize just how desperately evil we are and how weak we are, God had to do it all for us or live eternity without His Bride. Just as Adam named the creatures on the Earth in Genesis, but found no helper for Himself, Jesus wanted a wife for Himself, as Adam was made in the image of God. The woman formed was pleasing to Adam because God wants the same for Himself. Everything from Genesis to Revelation is about obtaining a bride for Jesus to live happily ever after for eternity. Each redeemed person that says yes to salvation excites God as a young man feels before the first date with his true love. If you can remember what it was like to begin a relationship with the spouse you marry, that is why we do works for our beloved. It’s not because we have to to fulfill some formula to belong to God. When I was accepted by my wife as her beloved, that was good news for me. When we figure out how desperately evil we are and see what God has already done for us to be with Him, that’s good news to me.

    • Again same problem as the other comment above, namely that I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said (If I were to nit-pick your article I would dispute your notion that we don’t need to repent since we are not under law. If so why did Jesus say, to repent). But the point isn’t really what you and I understand “good news” to mean. A trained Christian can come to understand the paradoxes of the term and how love changes the equation. But the point of the article is wonder if “good news” as a translation for evangelion works today in the culture wherein “good news” is more generally understood to mean “pleasant” or “comfortable” etc. Hence you or I (by that thinking) offend against the good news when we warn of judgment or hell or sin, or point to scarce and the cross. Look how long you took to make your point that “good news” really DOES include challenging notions. So, I think you are missing the point of the article which is not what “good news” actually does include, but what the notion of “good news” is culturally expected to include and NOT include.

  14. Joan says:

    Msgr. Pope,

    Please tell me why priests do not talk about sin anymore. We always hear about God’s forgiveness but not about the flip side of the coin-sin. I cannot tell you the last time I heard about sin from the pulpit. If priests are afraid of offending people ;then, they are not doing their job. Maybe that is why so many people lose their way because there is no one to lead them.
    Just some thoughts. I truly enjoy your column.

  15. Sygurd says:

    An excellent and important exegesis, thank you, Monsignor. You are absolutely right – both Christ and Christianity have been for too long misrepresented as all sweetness and no gall. I was once talking to a female acquaintance of mine about Jesus’ chasing the merchants out of the Temple and she seriously asked, “Do you think that He REALLY did this?”. That’s why the faith is in such – probably irreversible – decline. It started with Jesus being described solely as “humble and meek” and His message being practically limited to the Beatitudes. What about “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword”, or “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple”? Many theologians have spent long hours bending themselves backwards to prove that Jesus couldn’t possibly mean what He said…

  16. C Beltz says:

    Msgr, I think you have correctly identified that today’s “modern” culture has forgotten what the term “good” can mean. Good is not just something that makes you feel “good, pleasant, happy, etc”. Medicine often does not taste good, yet it’s beneficial effect cannot be denied, therefore it is good.

    Likewise, open heart surgery would in no way feel good, yet its life saving ability is good. An erupting volcano can seem bad, but the renewal effect it has after the eruption has passed is beautiful and ultimately good.

    Couple our vocabulary disability with modern man’s attempt to micro-nize the Bible and break it down into sound bites and bumper stickers, and you have created unrealistic expectations of what the good news is.

    Jesus is the Good News. Always has been, always will be.

  17. Rolando Rodriguez, OFS. says:

    “A woman once remarked to a priest I know who had preached on a difficult topic, ‘Now, Father, I come to Church expecting to hear something uplifting and encouragement from you. But I did not hear that today from you.’”

    I was born in San Antonio, Texas. It was nuestra Señora de Guadalupe who brought the Good News to our family.
    1. The term is not necessarily indicative of something pleasant or happy.
    “Hear me my child, that which scares you and causes you anguish is nothing… Am I not here who am your Mother?”
    2. The emphasis of the word “evangelion” was that it had authority behind it, authority capable of changing your life.
    “Know and understand, you the dearest of my children, that I am the ever Holy Virgin, Mother of the True God through whom one lives.”
    3. The Gospel is not merely noetic (informative); it is dynamic (transformative)
    “Hear me and understand well, the least of my children, that nothing should frighten or grieve you. Let not your heart be disturbed. Do not fear that sickness, nor any other sickness or anguish.”
    4. The Gospel is no mere written word.
    “Am I not here, who am your Mother? Are you not under my protection? Am I not your health? Are you not happily within my embrace? What else do you wish? Do not grieve nor be disturbed by anything.” 
    (Words of our Lady of Guadalupe to San Juan Diego on Mt. Tepeyac, December 12, 1531)

    Thus, the term “gospel” means more than “good news.” And given our cultural setting and its presuppositions related to the word “good,” the notion that “gospel = good news” can be downright misleading. It is better and richer to understand the term “gospel” to refer to the life-changing and transformative utterance of God, which is able to save us if we obey its demands in faith. It is in fact Jesus Himself who is the Word made Flesh. Perhaps this is less memorable, but it is more true and less misleading.

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