This article is from Issue 59: Sep/Oct 2012

What Are the Gospels Really About?

N.T. Wright dismantles five common misconceptions.

It has been slowly dawning on me that there is a fundamental problem deep at the heart of Christian faith and practice as I have known them—we have forgotten what the four Gospels are about.

Yes, they’re about Jesus. But what exactly are they saying about Jesus? Why did Jesus live? Would it have made any difference if, as the virgin-born Son of God, He had been plucked from total obscurity and crucified, dying for our sins, without any of this “middle matter” happening? I have realized that many Christians read the Gospels without ever asking those questions.
So, what have the churches normally done with the “middle”—all the mass of rich material that the Gospels offer us between Jesus’ birth, or at least His baptism, and His trial and death?

The Church’s tradition has, it seems, offered at least five different types of answers. But none correspond very closely to what the four Gospels actually talk about.

GOING TO HEAVEN

The first inadequate answer is that Jesus came to teach people how to go to heaven. This is, I believe, a major and serious misunderstanding.

For many centuries, Christians in Western churches have assumed the whole point of Christian faith is to “go to heaven,” so they have read everything in the Bible in that light. To a man with a hammer, all problems appear as nails. To readers interested in post-mortem bliss, all Scriptures seem to be telling us how to go to heaven. But as we shall see, they aren’t and don’t.

Think of the Lord’s Prayer, which comes at the center of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7. At the center of the prayer itself, we find Jesus teaching His followers to pray that God’s Kingdom might come and His will be done “on earth as in heaven.” The “Kingdom of heaven” is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth. When Matthew has Jesus talking about heaven’s Kingdom, Jesus means that heaven—in other words, the God of heaven—is establishing His sovereign rule not just in heaven but on earth as well.
Another expression that has routinely been misunderstood in this connection is “eternal life,” which in modern English has regularly been used to point to a heavenly destination somehow outside time and probably outside space and matter as well.