Christianity Today proclaims N. T. Wright to be the most prolific biblical scholar in a generation. Some say he is the most important apologist since C. S. Lewis (on the dust cover). If so, then whether you agree with him or not, what Wright says carries considerable weight. In Simply Good News Wright is defining the gospel and working out its implications. He repeatedly, and correctly, states that the gospel is not good advice; it is a good news message about an event that has changed everything (pp. 4, 16). But Wright’s understanding about this event (which includes the cross and the resurrection) is not what many would assume. He agrees the message that Jesus died for our sins and took our punishment so that we could be saved and go to heaven is true, but it is a distorted message, which does not go far enough and in some ways is a message which the Western church (a constant theme within the book, pp. 5, 23, 65, 77, 79, 82, 83, 85, 86, 90, 94, 114, 124, 130, 138, 163) has simply got wrong (pp. 5, 23, 65). How so? First, getting people to heaven and keeping them out of hell was never God’s plan (pp. 6, 98, 107, 148). God’s plan was about His kingdom in which heaven comes to earth (p. 7). Wright is confused about the new heaven and earth, seeing them as virtually synonymous (pp. 91, 163), but technically he is correct that believers will spend eternity on the new earth. However, I find it interesting that Wright and his ilk pay little attention to what happens until the new heaven and earth are created. That millions of believers have spent perhaps thousands of years in heaven seems to go unnoticed. But Wright’s message is that “the good news is not about how to escape [the world]. It [is] about how the one true God [is] changing it, radically and forever” (p. 13).
Wright habitually depreciates certain aspects of the biblical gospel, claiming it is not the message of Jesus and the apostles, then immediately turns around and says that none of those things is totally wrong (pp. 19, 25, 65, 69, 70, 73, 81, 97, 102, 154, 162). In effect this would minimize any criticism of Wright’s views. For example:
In particular, the church has latched onto a way of speaking about the gospel that goes like this: You are a sinner, deserving death; Jesus died in your place; therefore believe in Him, and you’ll go to heaven after all. This can be shortened even further to something like, Jesus took my punishment…Just to be clear, this theme (Jesus dying in my place) is indeed prominent in the Bible (p. 65).
In particular, Wright wants to distance the Christian faith from the concept of a God of wrath and replace Him with a God of pure love (pp. 68, 69). This creates an unbalanced view of the Lord who in the Bible is a God of infinite love but who is also holy and rightly judges sin. He even neatly sidesteps the clear message of God’s wrath in Romans 1:18ff and manages to reduce, through carefully selected verses, the wrath of God to rescuing love (pp. 70-72) and the restoration and transformation of all creation (p. 72). Of course, if one can virtually eliminate the wrath of God they can also eliminate hell. He is able to do so by framing traditional views of hell as medieval distortions of God still clung to by the Western church (p. 98).
What exactly is Wright’s gospel then? It is not human beings rescued by God through Jesus—we imagined this (p. 97) – nor that we need to be reconciled to God—we imagined that, too (p. 97) although he strangely admits that these things are true (p. 97). But the full or whole gospel, according to Wright, is that because of what Christ has done a whole new universe is coming. And this is good news for the whole of creation (apparently all humanity as well) and not just for “a few humans who get the magic password that lets them off the hook and into heaven after all” (p. 97). What a sad distortion of the biblical depiction of saving grace received by faith (Eph 2:8-9). The gospel according to Wright is the restoration of God’s original intention for the planet. He writes, “God made humans so that he could look after his world through this particular creature. His intention was to bring his creation forward from its beginnings to be the glorious place he always intended and to do so through this human family” (pp. 97-98). The gospel is God reclaiming the earth so that “the world would be healed, transformed, rescued and renewed” (p. 36). And “what was holding back the kingdom was the dark power, the force of evil itself. On the cross, that power was defeated” (p. 46). At that point Christ’s kingdom was re-established on earth and our task is to help bring the kingdom to its ultimate glory (pp. 54-55):
The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world, in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection…The ancient sickness that had crippled the whole world, and humans with it, has been cured at last, so that new life can rise up in its place…That one day it will happen, completely and utterly, to all creation; and that we humans, every single one of us, whoever we are, can be caught up in that transformation here and now. This is the Christian gospel. Do not allow yourself to be fobbed off with anything less (p. 55).
With this kind of gospel it is a short step to making the mission of the believer that of “working to make the world” a better place (p. 77). Since, according to Wright, the idea of Jesus taking us to heaven is seriously misleading (pp. 90, 93), and the idea of Jesus returning is complex, all that matters is creating the new heavens and earth, which are the same place (p. 91). The complete gospel includes restoring this earth (pp. 98-100, 158). We must work with God to bring about this change on the planet (pp. 118-120).
Wright concludes Simply Good News by saying that we can become good news people only through prayer (p. 153). He then presses the Lord’s Prayer into service to explain the gospel. It should be noted that the Lord’s Prayer never mentions the gospel but it fits Wright’s agenda that the gospel is basically the kingdom of God (p. 158):
The good news is that the living God is indeed establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven, through the finished work of Jesus, and is inviting people of all sorts to share not only in the benefits of this kingdom but also in the work through which it will come to its ultimate completion (p. 164).
“It is time for God to become king—here and now” (p. 161) and it is time for us to “become transformed people who are then transforming the world” (p. 169).
Wright’s gospel is the familiar “already/not yet” view which teaches that the kingdom is now (but even more is coming) concept. The biblical gospel of reconciliation is given a nod but the “whole” gospel is working with the Lord to transform this planet and return it to its original glory. The full gospel then becomes not only the biblical gospel but is also combined with the social gospel of the world’s transformation through the instrumentality of believers prior to the return of Christ. It should be noted that Wright does not really engage with the important biblical texts dealing with the gospel. Simply Good News is not an exegesis of Scripture. It is an understanding of the purposes of God through the lens of a particular amillennial/postmillennial understanding of the kingdom of God. This is a dangerous book.
Simply Good News, Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good by N. T. Wright (New York: Harper Collins, 2015) 189 pp, Hard $24.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel