I don’t plan to spend much time with the Almost Gospels since it’s all very negative, and even writing about them may give the feel that I speak from a place of perceived superiority. However, I know so many people whose lives are a mess because of an incorrect or incomplete understanding of the true Gospel that I am willing to risk coming across as a negatively minded know it all.
The Santa Claus Gospel
The word “gospel” means good news. So just what is the good news? It’s all about us! Given the self-centered bent of human nature, it’s no surprise that humanism would somehow find its way into what we proclaim as the very core of the Christian faith.
Santa Claus is entirely a product of human imagination. The jolly old man exists only to fulfill our material desires. Parents have wisely added a touch of behavior modification with the threat of Santa’s naughty list. The punishment of coal in the stocking serves as a convenient threat to keep kids attuned to the wishes of mom and dad, but in the end Santa almost always winks at undesirable behavior.
Using a similar model, we’ve made this gospel all about what God can do for us. The underlying message is that the Creator of the universe exists solely for our benefit. Upon accepting His free gift of salvation, we are free to live any which way we please, knowing that a quick, semi-remorseful prayer is all that is needed for Him to come running to our rescue. And if He doesn’t respond according to our expectations? Why, we’re highly offended! After all, that’s what He’s there for, isn’t it?
Forget about the problem of sin; the Santa gospel is all about self-actualization with a focus on God’s servant-like willingness to fulfill our dreams and desires, fanning the flames of happiness in our hearts. After all, if it isn’t fun, then it can’t be God. And all of that stuff about suffering? Well, for the most part, it’s best to simply ignore anything that resembles unpleasant because even thinking about suffering is unpleasant in itself.
The Gospel of Jesus as Savior (but not Lord)
This gospel dovetails nicely with the Santa Claus gospel. In its entirety grace is nothing more than God’s free gift of unmerited favor; how we live matters not. After all, God always understands and always stands willing to forgive. It almost goes without saying that He doesn’t seriously expect anything of us.
Through this mindset Christianity is about a destination rather than a relationship. The goal is simply make it to heaven someday. Heaven itself may or may not actually exist, so it’s always safer to raise one’s hand and pray to accept Christ–just in case it’s all for real.
Personal devotions are optional, or reserved for times of crisis. Connecting with a local body of believers may be helpful for social purposes, so long as nothing resembling commitment is involved. And repentance, well, that’s a word best left to the clerics. The bottom line is that an accountable, transformed life means little. I mean, why change when we’re good enough by human standards to navigate life on earth? What we need most is a kind, passive Savior whose angels will lovingly transport us to a better afterlife (if it exists).
I once read a book in which a well-known author encouraged his readers to send a whole bunch of prayers toward heaven. Most won’t hit their mark, he explained, but if you send enough, every now and again one might luckily connect. While I don’t subscribe to this random perspective of prayer, it does provide a picture of how I see the Almost Gospels working. For the most part, very little real transformation is involved, but every now and again the truth takes hold and someone strikes gold as he or she figures things out.
And while I am extremely thankful for the few who do end up genuinely walking with God, my heart breaks for the many more who profess Christ, but miss His transformational power. This is too important an issue for the church to maintain the status quo; in the long run their poor or non-existent witness discredits the true Gospel and actually hinders genuine seekers from drawing near to God. I think we can do better!