WHAT IS THE GOSPEL?
The word "gospel" has come to epitomize the Christian message. It is a word whose origin lies in the Greek word euaggelion (the double "gg" is pronounced "ng" as is "ing") whose literal meaning is "good message." Notice that the Greek eu is found in other English words, such as euthanasia which means, "good death" (-thanasia comes from the Greek word for death, thanatos). Notice also that the Greek -aggelion comes from the Greek word aggelos which means "agent" or "messenger." The English word "gospel" has its own etymology as follows: Before 1250 gospel, developed from Old English godspell (the "o" is pronounced as a long o), which is a compound from around 750 A.D. of god, "good," and spell, "story" or "message"; the first element of the Old English compound godspell, god, was mistakenly associated with God, and for this reason a short o appeared in the Old English variant godspell.
For many, the gospel can be summarized in this way: You can't get into heaven unless you have accepted in your heart Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and you can only do this by faith, not by good works alone. Oftentimes, John 3:16 is read as a good example of this summarization: "Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life." This verse reinforces the position that one need only "believe" and nothing more. This verse is used as a proof-text for the position that those who have not heard of and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior are condemned to eternal hell, with no chance of escape, once they have passed away from this life. Hence, if one freely accepts this offering that God has given freely of Himself, that is, given freely by His grace, then one is said to be "saved." We must recall, however, that this represents a particularly narrow American Protestant interpretation that stems out of the evangelical tradition; it claims how humans come to share in Jesus' atoning sacrifice. By the mid-nineteenth century, the 1850s, evangelicals (itself a word derived from the Greek euaggelion and means literally, "good newsers") had reduced the requirements for salvation to a simple formula: Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. It follows that those who don't consciously embrace Jesus as their Savior have no chance for salvation. Unbelievers are branded as unrepentant sinners whose lot is eternal hell fire if they don't accept Jesus in this life, now, here on Earth. Acceptance of Jesus as a personal Lord and Savior is expressed in the ceremony of baptism, itself a controversial subject among Christians today, for some Christians disregard infant baptism, e.g. Baptists, while others accept it as legitimate, e.g. Catholics. Biblical support for the salvation formula, "accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior," is often cited in the following verses:
Mark 16:15-16, "Then he told them: 'Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation. The man who believes in it and accepts baptism will be saved; the man who refuses to believe in it will be condemned'";
John 3:17, "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him";
Acts 2:21, "Then shall everyone be saved who calls on the name of the Lord";
Acts 15:11, ". . . we are saved by the favor of the Lord Jesus . . .";
Romans 5:9, "Now that we have been justified by his blood, it is all the more certain that we shall be saved by him from God's wrath (judgment and condemnation to eternal hell)";
Romans 10:16-17, "But not all have believed the gospel. Isaiah asks, 'Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?' Faith, then, comes through hearing, and what is heard is the word of Christ";
Ephesians 5:5-6, "he brought us to life with Christ when we were dead in sin. By this favor you were saved. Both with and in Christ Jesus he raised us up and gave us a place in the heavens";
1 Timothy 2:4, "for he wants all men to be saved and come to know the truth";
2 Timothy 1:9, "God has saved us and has called us to a holy life, not because of any merit of ours but according to his own design--the grace held out to us in Christ Jesus before the world began";
Titus 2:11, "The grace of God has appeared, offering salvation to all men";
and Titus 3:5, "he saved us; not because of any righteous deeds we have done, but because of his mercy."
These verses are commonly used to show that the gospel is as Paul summarizes it in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, "I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you . . . . you are being saved by it at this very moment . . . as I preached it to you . . . Christ died for our sins . . . he was buried . . . [he] rose on the third day . . . he was seen . . . this is what we preach and this is what you believed."
Let us begin not by going into each of these verses and seeing how they "fit," or not, the simple salvation formula, but rather let us first consider from where the preaching of the gospel was believed to have originated. The Christians to whom 1 Peter was addressed read that a holy spirit communicated the "good news" through certain individuals who were instruments through whom spirits could communicate. Consider 1 Peter 1:12: "in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven." This is the standard English translation exhibiting the more traditional term "the Holy Spirit" whereas the Greek text lacks the definite article "the" and "holy spirit" occurs in a prepositional phrase whose force is lacking in the standard translation here. The Greek is awkward: ha nun aneggele humin dia ton euaggelisamenon humas en pneumati hagio apostalenti ap' ouranou. The participle euaggelisamenon, "ones who proclaim good news," is preceded by a preposition dia which, besides the translation of it here as "by," also means "through." The prepositional phrase en pneumati hagio is almost always translated as "by the Holy Spirit." But a better translation is "by a holy spirit" because the Greek phrase lacks the definite article and so is rendered better by the indefinite in English. The two prepositional phrases dia ton euaggelisamenon and en pneumati hagio, taken together in this syntax, convey the meaning that a holy spirit communicates the gospel through those who are proclaimers of the good news. The phrase en pneumati hagio is rendered better as "with a holy spirit" rather than "by a holy spirit" because "with" conveys the idea of accompaniment whereby a spirit speaks through a human instrument. Those who speak "with a spirit" were believed to have been possessed by the spirit (see Mark 1:23 and 5:2 for en pneumati as "with a spirit" in the context of accompaniment) so that when the human instrument appeared to be speaking, it was actually the foreign spirit, invisible of course to spectators, who was speaking through the mouthpiece of the otherwise human "proclaimer of the good news." So, with this in mind, 1 Peter 1:12 runs as follows in English: "in the things which have now been announced to you by those through whom a holy spirit, sent from heaven, proclaimed the good news."
Now, let us say that a Scripture is being read among Christians gathered for the purpose of learning of the meaning of the gospel. Who is the rightful interpreter of the particular Scripture? After all, even among the earliest Christians the letters of Paul were "hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16). Who was the most reliable to render the true meaning of a Scripture? The same as those who communicated the gospel: a holy spirit. Consider 2 Peter 1:20-21, "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." Again, we see the more traditional rendering "the Holy Spirit" whereas the Greek text, again, lacks the definite article "the" and so is rendered better into English as indefinite, "a holy spirit." The "prophecy" mentioned here has nothing to do with "prediction" of future things. There was a perfectly good word for "prediction" that is used in 2 Peter 3:2, "that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets;" the word translated as "predictions" is proeiremenon that is a derivative of the verb proeipon, "to tell beforehand," "foretell," "to have already stated something," or "having said something previously." The word "prophecy" is not temporal, "foretell," it is spatial "forth tell." The preposition pro can be either temporal, "earlier than," "before," or spatial, "in front of," "before," "at." The other element, "-phecy," comes from the Greek verb phemi, "to speak." The word prophecy then conveys the notion of "speaking forth" whether on religious or secular matters. In ancient Greek, the word "prophecy" is attested in both religious and secular contexts. The content of the "speaking forth" could be on just about anything, past, present, or future and spoken by one either inspired or not. Its usage in 2 Peter 1:20-21 has to do with speaking forth and not so much about "predictions" regarding future events. So we might read verse 20 as, "no speaking forth on matters of Scripture is ever one's own interpretation." In other words, the meaning of Scripture cannot be adequately conveyed in the interpretations of any one person (idias). Verse 21 tells us why this is the case: "because no speaking forth ever came by the impulse of a man, but those moved [to speak] by means of a holy spirit spoke on behalf of God." In other words, just as in 1 Peter 1:12 where a holy spirit speaks the gospel, so too here in 2 Peter 1:20-21 a holy spirit is the rightful source for the intrepretation of Scripture, since, afterall "the ignorant and unstable twist" Scripture's meaning. So, spirit communication is the underlying principle in both the preaching of the gospel and the elaboration on the meaning of Scripture: holy spirits sent from heaven are the true bearers of the gospel message and the only rightful interpreters of the Scriptures.
The main effect of accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior is being "saved." What exactly does it mean to be saved according to the biblical text?
"And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner?" (1 Peter 4:18). Countless words have addressed this question and the problem of how to attain salvation. Opinions and interpretations regarding the steps leading to salvation vary from church to church. Nevertheless, one of the points on which they agree is that salvation is a free gift of God. "It is to His grace alone that you owe your salvation after having adopted the faith. Your salvation is not what you deserve, then, but purely a gift of God. It is not the reward for your deeds, so that no one can boast of his salvation" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Opinions diverge quickly past this point.
Faith in Christ is necessary if one is to be saved. In the words of Paul and Silas, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved" (Acts 16:31). This verse indicates salvation in the future tense, "you shall be saved," as something eventually resulting from trust in Christ. In the same way, Luke quotes Isaiah when writing that "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6). The reference is again to a future result in the verse: "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." (John 1:12).
These verses do not suggest salvation is an immediate consequence of believing in Christ. Something is also required in the way of behavior. "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age" (Titus 2:11-12).
Although good deeds are not sufficient to win entry into Heaven for us (see Ephesians 2:8-9), they are at the same time necessary. "Faith without works is dead [separated from God]" (James 2:20). "You see that a man is justified [put right] by works, and not by faith alone" (James 2:24), or, more forcefully, "You see, then that man pleases God with good deeds and not by faith alone," although without faith it is impossible to please God (see Hebrews 11:6). The salvation process begins with accepting God through Christ, and continues by faith in Him evidenced by our deeds. As a result, our human way of thinking grows little by little into agreement with the nature of God. We achieve spiritual life thereby.
The final result of salvation and reunion with God is truly a free gift of God, but He requires from us our best efforts to learn the lessons He teaches and to pass the tests He administers. Our eventual purification is then assured. "And I will bring the third part through the fire, refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them; I will say 'They are My people,' and they will say, 'The Lord is my God'" (Zech 13:9). The fire may grow hot indeed, but the refining produces purified spirits. Peter instructs us to rejoice at being tested by the fire of adversity (1 Peter 1:6-7), because later on it produces "the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls" (1 Peter 1:19), "a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:5).
The instructions from Paul to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12) can be written as "work through your purification process on the way home to God with reverent awe and the trembling which may accompany it," and, he adds, "for it is God who is at work in you" (Phil 2:13).
Above all we strive to learn love and shun fear. As previously pointed out, Christ summarized the Old Testament commandments as the commandment to love. Peter stressed the fundamental importance of love, in view of our erring natures, when he wrote, "Above all keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). Paul wrote to the faithful that the real "goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5). The thirteenth chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians explains at length that love is the spiritual gift of greatest value, to be sought above all others. Such love reconciles us through Christ to God's ways of thinking, defeating spiritual death and resulting in salvation.
We see, then, that salvation is presented in the Scriptures as a process, rather than as an immediate reward. Salvation is through the Savior, Whose victory won for us our release from spiritual death. One may well wonder about the fate of people who refuse to learn God's lessons, but who believe in Christ. Are they ready for Heaven? One also wonders about the end in store for those who refuse to accept Christ until shortly before death. How can they be purified, seeing they have so little time remaining?
The parable of the prodigal son is a Biblical example illustrating, among other things, salvation. The younger son took his share of the father's wealth and left home. He abandoned his father's house and jurisdiction and began living according to his own tastes. The son eventually squandered everything and came to ruin. Realizing that his own will was the cause of his wretched state, the son changed his attitude and set out on the road home. While he was still far away, his father ran to greet him. His father accepted his repentance with a homecoming feast, saying, "for this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found [saved, recovered]" (Luke 15:24). Rephrased, this passage reads, "for this son of mine was alienated from me, and has come to be reconciled with me again; he was wandering away, and has been received back into my home." This parable vividly illustrates the common Biblical meanings of "life" and "death" as they describe our relationship with the heavenly Father. The parable further illustrates the salvation of the son as the homecoming of one who has learned from his errors and has changed his way of thinking. The son came to his senses on his own and freely desired to return to his loving father's house. In the same way, we set out on the homeward trek to our heavenly Father, enduring hardships, lessons, and tests along the way, but knowing that at last we shall be made fit to reenter His house. This is the process called salvation.
The son was said to be lost. Here, again, we have the familiar problem of a translation not having the same meaning as the original word. To the modern reader, a person is lost if we cannot locate him. That meaning is rarely the Biblical usage. On the contrary, the father of the prodigal son may well have known where his son was at all times. We are not told that the son was lost in the usual sense. Instead, he was lost in the sense of having left his father's domain and of having gone astray. It is the leaving and going astray which are at issue, not the knowledge of the whereabouts of the son.
We use "lost" in a variety of senses today. We may have lost track of time or have lost our place in a book. Perhaps our team lost a game. But all is not lost, for we still know where to find the time, our place in a book, or the game. We still know where they are. Similarly, a "lost" sinner has a known location, and "lost" Israel was taken to a known place. But the sinner and Israel both wandered away from God, as the prodigal left his own father. In that sense, they were "lost."
Christ said of His followers, "Those that Thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled" (John 17:12). The son of perdition, Judas Iscariot, did in fact stray from God and Christ, but his whereabouts were known. "My people have become lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray" (Jeremiah 50:6). Nevertheless, the Lord said, "I will seek [come for] for the lost, and bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick" (Ezekiel 34:16). Many years later, He had no trouble finding His sheep for He said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 15:24). "For the Son of Man has come to save [cleanse and call home, restore to spiritual life] that which as lost [wandered away from God, spiritually dead]" (Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:9). "For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd" (1 Peter 2:25).
In summary, the term "lost" means virtually the same thing as "spiritually dead," and "the lost" the same as "the dead." Opposite in meaning to "lost" is "saved," "the saved" being those spiritually alive souls who are undergoing salvation, the purification process, with the assured end result of continued existence in the realm of Christ. The humans God intended to use as His instruments for spreading His truth on Earth were the tribes collectively known as Israel. They were selected and set apart for the task of bringing salvation and spiritual life to all nations. Unfortunately, these "chosen people" strayed from obedience to His commandments and became lost. But their whereabouts were known.
Now, with these thoughts in mind, we can revisit the Scripture passages above. When Paul mentioned that by the gospel "you are being saved by it at this very moment" (1 Corinthians 15:1-11), we can see that the salvation promised by the gospel was something that was initiated by Christ's death and resurrection. How in the world could one man's torture, death by being nailed to a cross, have any significance for the "salvation" of the totality of generations and generations of mankind? What are we being saved "from" in the first place? The gospel story as it is often preached today is left impotent in the face of such questions. But the fault is not with the gospel itself. The fault is with its preachers today who but poorly understand the links in the chain that make up the gospel message. Two of the most significant links in the chain of the gospel message that go missing from Sunday sermons is 1) the reason for Christ's death and 2) what His death achieved during the interim between his death and resurrection. The Apostle's Creed, recited in some churches, preserves a faint yet cryptic glimmer of that achievement: "was crucified, died and was buried, he descended into hell, on the third day he rose again." Other renderings read: "he descended to the dead, and on the third day he rose again from the dead." Clearly, descending "into hell" has the same import as descending "to the dead" as it indeed should, for in Luke 16:23 and 31 being "in Hades" and moving from there is "rising from the dead." Note that these passages, taken from the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16:19-31, state the fate of "the dead" up to that point:
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
Note that this narrative precedes Christ's death and resurrection, for at that time "a great chasm has been fixed." This chasm is in reference to a "fissure" between two separate realms, that of the spiritually dead or "the lost," that which the Earth was a part of, and that of the spiritually alive, Paradise and the upper Heavenly dimensions. Before Christ's death and resurrection, none could pass over from "the dead" (Hell) to "the living" (Heaven). But, there were those few spirits, Christ included, who came from the heavenly dimensions and so upon death, were able to return there, for example Enoch, Abraham, and John the Baptist. Apparently, Lazarus had been a pure spirit from Heaven or else he could not be residing in "Abraham's bosom" after passing away from the Earth before Christ's death and resurrection. The rich man on the other hand was not a pure spirit and had to atone for his misdeeds. Hence, the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man might be a metaphor for the Fall of the Spirits from Heaven: the rich man is he who stores up his own wealth and by not sharing his wealth has morally gone astray, which is an implicit reference to the going astray exhibited by the prodigal son. Whereas the prodigal son was welcomed back, the rich man remained "in Hades" or "among the dead" because Christ's act of Redemption, i.e., his death and resurrection, had not yet taken place. Obviously, the story of the prodigal son's return to the father was a foreshadowing of the Messiah's achievement: descending to the dead and curtailing the power of the dead's Ringleader, commonly known by the name "Lucifer" or "the Devil." This curtailment of power is the reason why Christ "descended to hell" as the Apostle's Creed states. We see this reason for Christ's descent to hell or the lower spiritual dimensions of the spiritually dead after his death on the cross even more clearly in Hebrews 2:14: "Thus He was to be enabled to suffer the death of the body so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil (or: "in order to wrest the power from him who rules over the spiritually dead, namely, the devil"). Thus, the mystery of Christ's descent to hell is explained. We see another bit of light shed on this mystery in 1 Peter 3:18-19: "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits"—here, made alive "in the Spirit" refers to Christ's separation, as an almighty Spirit, from his physcial body that lay hanging deceased on the cross: "It is finished," and "he gave up the ghost (the spirit)." As an almighty Spirit, Christ was able to descend to the dead and carry out the rest of His mission, to preach liberation unto the "imprisoned spirits," i.e. "the dead," "the lost," those from among which Earthlings had arisen to the level of the Earth but could go no further into the heavenly dimensions until Christ's Mighty Act of Redemption had taken place. Ephesians 4:9 similarly states, "Now this expression, 'He ascended,' what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?" The phrase "descended into the lower parts of the earth" cannot possibly refer to any kind of burial underground for the simple reason that Christ's earthly body was entombed above ground. Romans 10:7 is clear on this point: "'Who will descend into the abyss?' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)?" Other versions read, "'Who will go down to the place of the dead?'" This is also indicated by the words, "having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead" (Colossians 2:12). By having given Christ their allegiance, the Colossians were already viewed as having been raised from the dead, although their departure from Earth had not yet taken place. The "resurrection of the dead" has, therefore, not the slightest reference to the reanimating of a physical body, nor to the transporting of a fleshly body, that has been "glorified," into Heaven (which is often an interpretation of 1 Cor 15). When Paul writes that "Christ died for our sins" in 1 Corinthians 15:3, the "sins" are no mere bad thoughts or rude words that might occur in any given day between persons or even the wholesale slaughter of millions of people in war. The "sin(s)" for which Christ died is suggested by the fate of those to whom he visited during his descent to the lower dimensions that are exiled from God's kingdom, hence they can be called the kingdom of the dead, i.e. the kingdom of those separated or exiled from God. It is the fact of this separation, this exile, for which Christ died. This exile of a multitude of spirits from Heaven was precipitated by their miscalculation, their "missing the mark," hence their sin of not following God's precepts as residents of Heaven. God did not create Hades and "imprison spirits" for mere sadistic pleasure on His part. God is no monster. Thus, such a part of Creation could exist only by the exercise of those spirits' free will that put them in that situation in the first place. Like criminals imprisoned for a crime that they committed themselves, imprisoned spirits are such that they have committed a wrong and must atone for it. But, Christ's descent to them must have had a greater purpose than just merely appearing there before them as a mighty spectacle. That purpose was the reason for his death, and that purpose is the GOOD NEWS, the gospel. For before Christ's death, descent, and resurrection from among the dead ones, no exiled spirit from Heaven could reenter Heaven. By coming to Earth and dying here, Christ was visiting those exiles from Heaven, ourselves, humanity, who are the incarnation of the fallen ones, the dead ones, the exiled ones. Now Christ's death allowed him to descend as a Victor over the Devil's constant onslaughts against Him while a human being on Earth: Christ remained steadfast against the Devil till the very end; till his death on the cross. That faith in God allowed him to descend to the dead, break its chains so that the dead ones could leave that kingdom, and thereby, like Christ, "resurrect from the dead." The imprisoning of exiled spirits in the lower spirit spheres and their visitation by a Redeemer is echoed in Isaiah 24:22, "They will be herded together like prisoners bound in a dungeon (in a pit), and they shall be put in the prison, and after many days they shall be visited" (many translations distort the meaning of this verse by rendering it as "and after many days they shall be punished").
This is the large gap in the gospel message that preachers do not fill in in their sermons. Why? Because it would shatter their theology of "eternal damnation," "born again," "physical resurrection of the body in the graveyard," and "accept Jesus now in this lifetime or else forever be damned" theology. What good would there be by making "proclamations" to imprisoned spirits? Would Christ simply taunt them in their misery or would Christ proclaim liberation for them as Hebrews 2:14 implicitly suggests: the devil's power has been wrest from him, i.e. the Devil can no longer hold, by force, any repentant spirit who wants to leave the dungeons of hell and begin their journey heavenward? Christ's death on the cross and descent to the dead in the lower spiritual dimensions made this possible: THIS is the GOOD NEWS, and it also goes for people alive on Earth at that time and now, for we, too, are among the "dead" ones who have chosen to follow Christ and his commandment to love one another and learn our lessons that re-educate us for citizenry in Heaven. Paul had in mind the same concept mentioned in Hebrews 2:14 whereby the power of death has been shaken, that is, the power of the devil to separate spirits from God by force has been wrested from him by Christ's descent into hell, when he wrote: "Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55). By "Death" Paul refers to the Devil himself, who has the "power of death" as mentioned in Hebrews 2:14. Now, Christ's death on the cross and resurrection have much greater meaning and significance than is normally heard in a Sunday sermon. Inquisitive persons rightfully ask, How can the crucifixion and murder of a single man in first-century Palestine have such cosmic significance? After all, the Romans were crucifying criminals left and right and in a variety of tortuous ways, e.g., nailing through the genitals or nailing multiple persons to a single cross. So why does Jesus' crucifixion make any difference? Biblically speaking, the answer is two-fold: 1) the identity of Christ; and 2) the reason for Christ's death on the cross and what that death would mean for the kingdom of the dead. That is the difference, and that is the gospel. Once the devil's power had been curtailed by Christ's descent, then the spirits there, who wanted to, could begin making their way heavenward, as Paul mentions, "For as in Adam all die (by following Adam's example), so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own time" (1 Corinthians 15:22-23).
Christ's identity has been hopelessly confused with God's identity because of the kind of relationship that Christ claimed to have had with God. The relationship was one as "Father," but this relationship could be had by any one as Christ himself said, "Jesus said to her, 'Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God'" (John 20:17). God is Father not only of Christ, but of all people. Yet, Christ owes to God Himself a unique relationship shared by no other spirit but Christ himself: "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him" (Matt 11:27; Luke 10:22). This expresses a relationship, not of identity but rather of unity as we see in the expression, "I and the Father are one." It is true that Christ wants all to return to their heavenly Father, yet Christ shares a relationship with God that is, on the one hand, unique, but on the other hand had by all spirits. No other spirit shares the same closeness to the Father as does Christ, for Christ is "number one" after God as John 1:1-19 illustrates. But Christ wants all of us to share in a common unity with him and his Father, that heavenly unity that we all shared before the Great Fall from Heaven, an event for which Christ the Spirit incarnated on Earth in order to prepare the fallen ones to begin their journey back to Heaven, and to make an offensive move on the kindgom of the dead in order to break Satan's chains that bound the fallen ones by force. There was no real use for the fallen spirits to ascend out of Hell at any time before Christ's Redemption; they could not return to Heaven. The story of Adam and Eve ejected from Paradise without the ability to return to it is a sort of caricature of the Great Fall from Heaven. No fallen spirit could return until a Redeemer had been sent to free them and prepare their reentry into the portals of Heaven. Also, in the Old Testament every one who dies returns to "Sheol" and never goes to heaven--no spirit at that time could enter into heaven except those spirits who had not succumbed to the Fall of the spirits from Heaven. Among these "pure" spirits were many of the prophets, e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, etc. Sheol was the shadowy underworld in Hebrew cosmology; those who were there were known as "the dead." The Greek translation of the Hebrew word "sheol" is "hades." The Earth was the "highest" level to which the dead could reach on their way out of the Abyss before Christ's Redemptive act.
How do spirits in Hades "move" to the Earth and become a human being? They must be incarnated, put "in flesh," born as a babe to begin their journey heavenward in that way. What if the spirit does not learn all the he/she needs to learn in one life? Then that spirit is re-incarnated, or put "in flesh again" in order to, once again, be made that much more fit for Heaven. The usual objection present-day Christianity offers to reincarnation, apart from its so-called Hindu origins (yet, ancient Greeks such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Plato taught reincarnation, called by them as the transmigration of the soul), finds its basis in the verse, "it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). Upon superficial reading, the verse would seem to settle this issue. If this verse has the meaning usually ascribed to it, then Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to physical life, must still be alive somewhere in the world, and well over two thousand years old by now. Otherwise, he must have died again, and thereby died twice in contradiction to Hebrews 9:27. Naturally, the same can be said for the daughter of Jairus and for the many others who were brought back to life in this way. Are they still alive? If not, then they died more than once, and the usual interpretation of Hebrews 9:27 fails. On the other hand, the Bibles state that neither Enoch nor Elijah died even once. They were transferred directly into Heaven, so the usual reading of Hebrews 9:27 fails again. Clearly, the accepted interpretation of Hebrew 9:27, as referring to physical life and death, is incorrect. To understand this verse, we must recall that "death" and "the dead" in the Bible usually do not mean "deceased." Instead, they mean divorced from God, separated and removed from God and His kingdom, exiled and estranged from God, in the same way that Paul says "dead to sin," i.e. one is estranged from sin. And so it is true that mankind did, indeed, suffer once this death of separation from God's heavenly kingdom, and was stranded on Earth without hope of escape until the coming of the Savior or Messiah. Clearly, "dead" here has nothing to do with physical death, as we see in 1 Tim 5:6, "she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives." Those people (who are spirits) who have received Christ's message and believed it have "passed out of death into life" (John 5:24). This is the meaning of the gospel message, and it is to be communicated anew to each generation by a holy spirit sent on behalf of Christ so as not to corrupt the gospel message or distort it in any way (see John 16:12, 1 Peter 1:12, and 2 Peter 1:20-21).
Now, the phrase "resurrection of the dead" is much more meaningful. Whereas at one time, most all Christians imagined this phrase in the light of the empty tomb and Christ's resurrection appearances that, to all outward appearances, looked human with the wounds from crucifixion, . . . Now, Christians can understand the phrase in its correct way: the dead are spirits exiled from Heaven and therefore "cut off" or "separated" from God. Resurrection "from" the dead simply refers to ascending from the lower spirit spheres that had been created especially for the exiled spirits for their eventual rehabilitation. Resurrection "of" the dead is the ascension of the dead ones "to life." Thus, the gospel can be summarized as those who "passed out of death into life" (John 5:24), life given to the dead by "a life-giving Spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:48): Christ.
When Christians "thank" Christ, the Lord, as their Savior, they do so because the "sin" that Christ saved them from was actually the consequence of the ultimate sin for which scores and scores of spirits were ejected from Heaven eons and eons ago. That consequence has been the suffering of the exiled spirits in the lower spiritual dimensions from which Christ came to deliever them. Christ's "blood," i.e., his death on the Christ, was significant because it showed that He had withstood the onslaughts of all that the Devil could throw at him while a human being on Earth. This victory in death was the springboard from which He descended to these lower spiritual dimensions, of which the Earth resides in the most bearable dimension of all the lower spirit spheres before the sphere of Paradise. So, when Christians thank Christ because he saved them from their "sins," what is really meant is that Christ saved them from the "sin of death," the sin of separation from God. We are those exiled spirits, every human, animal, bug, bird of the air, blade of grass, bacteria, all life in the universe is the incarnation of the exiled spirits making their way back to heaven. Many Christian preachers press "the cross" and Jesus' "precious blood" as the focus point of the gospel. This must sound strange and a bit of a turn off for many people. In the mean time, the real meaning of Christ's death on the cross is obscured by emphasis on "blood," "blood of the lamb," "blood sacrifice," and someone who has "to die for our sins." The scenario that an innocent person had to be mercilessly beaten, whipped, nailed to a cross and murdered for OUR "sins" does not add up for many thinking people. And the preachers are partly to blame. The real reason and purpose of Christ's death is never clearly and correctly given. Even among those who recite the Apostle's Creed, no one draws a connection between Christ's death and Christ's descent to Hades or the reason for such a descent in the first place: we were once "dead," i.e. separated from God's Kingdom due to the fall from Heaven under the leadership of a spirit known to history as "Lucifer." It was for this reason that Christ incarnated on the Earth and died a martyr's death in order to claim victory in death (because Christ endured all that Satan could muster up against him in life on Earth). Once martyred, Christ could take on an offensive against the Regime of the Dead in order to "release" those from the lower spiritual dimensions who wanted to return to God in heaven and begin to make straight their ways. Paul summarizes this nicely in Colossians 2:13-15, "When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." Note, "when you WERE dead." The phrase "having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness" refers to the legal claim that Lucifer had over us as his one-time subjects in the revolt in Heaven that resulted in the Fall. Ever since, Lucifer has had a fair and "legal" claim on us all; a claim that "stood against us and condemned us" UNTIL Christ took that legal indebtedness to Satan away by "nailing it to the cross" afterwhich he descended to the lower spirit spheres and "disarmed the powers and authorities." Christ's death on the cross allowed Him to "triumph" over Lucifer and his minions, hence as Paul writes, "triumphing over them by the cross."
Those who deny the existence of spirits, the existence of lower spirit dimensions, who deny that Christ descended to the realm of the dead, also known as "Hell," and rose from there, and those who interpret the resurrection of the dead as a physical resurrection of dead persons in the cemetary frustrate the meaning of God's purpose in sending Christ upon the Earth and the meaning of the agony of the crucifixion, as well as distorting for Christians (and for others) the true purpose of Christ's mission on the Earth and the true significance and ramifications of His death on the cross.
May God's holy ones, sent to you on behalf of Christ, your Savior, communicate His gospel anew to you so that your burdens may be lifted and the chains of church dogma loosened so that they may fall away forever. Amen.