Friday, October 12, 2012

The Gospel: More Than the Bridge Diagram

In The Atonement: Did God Just Really Need to Punish Someone? (posted October 6), the writer, Kristen, questions the idea that the gospel should only be understood as "God needed to punish someone for sin, so he punished Jesus." She argues that this concept of Christ taking the punishment in our place is an analogy that can be very helpful (and is supported by the bible) but also should not be taken too literally (the analogy breaks down when it starts implying that God is a divine child-abuser, obsessed with punishment).

Furthermore, she points to several other analogies found in the bible which explain the meaning of Christ's death, and weaves them together into a gospel presentation which I think is very insightful and meaningful.

In other words, there are many different ways to explain and understand Jesus' death- Why did he have to die? What was he saving us from?- and these different explanations are all valid (though none of them can fully explain it) and different ones may be meaningful to different people.

Which leads me to this question: What makes a valid gospel presentation? What components does it need to have?

A "gospel presentation" is a short explanation of the main message of Christianity. Generally Christians learn how to do a gospel presentation so that when they get a chance to talk with a non-Christian who wants to hear what Christianity is about, they'll know what to say.

In my experience, the gospel presentation is something written by someone else, which I then memorize and teach to other Christians too. And it goes along with a picture I'm supposed to draw as I talk through the explanation. But let me emphasize that it's not a clever gimmick or used-car-salesman tactic- it's a way to help Christians effectively explain what we believe.

I really believe this stuff. There's nothing dishonest about trying to find an effective way to articulate it to others.

At the same time, it shouldn't just be me reciting what I've been taught- it should be something that really means a lot to me.

So anyway, the most common gospel presentation I've seen is "the bridge diagram":

Image source.
In the bridge diagram, first you draw 2 cliffs- one for people, one for God, with a big gap between them. The gap represents sin that separates us from God. BUT then you draw the cross in the middle- Jesus' death allows us to cross over and be with God! Awesome!

(That was the quick and dirty explanation- if I were actually explaining this to someone who asked me about Christianity, I would definitely go into more detail.)

I really think I'll always love the bridge diagram, if only for nostalgic reasons. It's the first gospel presentation I ever saw/learned/used. It's very easy to remember and easy to draw.

But here's the problem: It doesn't really resonate with me. Yeah, I believe it, but this isn't what saved me, this isn't what convinced me to dedicate my entire life to Jesus, this isn't what inspires me to love God and love people every day of my life.

Like, sin is a gap that separates us from God- why? Just because you drew it there doesn't mean it's true. Overall, the bridge diagram just seems very abstract and it's hard to connect the different parts to practical things in my life.

But I thought "the gospel" WAS the bridge diagram. And while you didn't have to literally draw the picture, you had to at least talk through the explanation that goes along with it, or else you weren't really "sharing the gospel."

I've always heard warnings about how evil it is to "water down the gospel", to change it so it's "more palatable", and how Jesus offended a lot of people... so we should be suspicious of any interpretation of his life/death that's meant to really resonate with and attract people.

But I don't believe that anymore.

I am a Christian because something about the gospel and Christianity IS very attractive and meaningful to me. Why would I be required to use a one-size-fits-all gospel explanation that doesn't really speak to the reasons that led me personally to follow Christ?

And I have to thank InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for introducing me to other gospel presentation diagrams. At first, I was very suspicious- If it's not the bridge diagram, then is it really the gospel? Is that even allowed? You're trying to change the gospel so it sounds better???

But I went along with it, and learned the four worlds diagram and the broken family diagram.

Four worlds diagram. Image source.

My FAVORITE gospel diagram is the broken family diagram. (I guess that makes me a very high-level Christian nerd, having a favorite gospel diagram...) Both the four worlds diagram and the broken family diagram emphasize what sin is and why it's a problem- the destructive effect that each person's tendency towards selfishness has on relationships between people.

Also, both of these gospel presentations are very clear about living a whole new life after believing in Jesus- he saves us from our own sins/weaknesses, which we could not overcome on our own, and he calls us to love others and make the world a better place- to fight against the very real effects of sin that were mentioned earlier in the gospel explanation.

And that really makes sense to me and means a lot to me.

(However, neither of these diagrams necessarily includes the concept of hell. My opinion on this is: that doesn't matter. I believe hell is real, but the idea of Jesus saving me from hell after I die is kind of meh. Instead, I need him RIGHT NOW- I know from experience what kind of hell-on-earth he has already saved me from.)

None of these simple diagrams can fully explain what Christianity is about. But that's okay- they each give a slightly different perspective on it. The significance of who Jesus is and what he did may vary from one Christian to another, from one culture to another.

On the other hand, you can't just say whatever you want and call it the gospel. "Jesus just wants everyone to be nice to people" is NOT the gospel. 

So, I leave you with these questions: What parts are required for a gospel presentation to be faithful to the bible? What is required to have a gospel presentation which is effective in convincing people? (And is it even okay to have a goal of "convincing people"?)


  1. I'm so glad you wrote this - it's so timely for a conversation I'm about to have with one of my mentees about sharing the gospel! We recently talked about the Bridge illustration and its pros/cons. She really didn't like it much at all. I told her there are many, many different ways to share the gospel and that the Bridge is just the version our ministry favors, but I've never seen the Four Worlds or Broken Family ones before. This is a great resource - thanks for sharing, this will spark some great conversation!! :-)

  2. Thanks for linking to my post! As far as what Gospel presentation is most faithful to the BIble, I like to go back to the gospel as Jesus preached it: "The time has come [his hearers would have understood this as "The Messiah is here"] and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the good news!"

    This basically has four components:

    1. The Messiah is here (and by implication, "I am He.")
    2. The kingdom of God is here -- superseding the kingdom of Caesar. A new way of living and relating to one another.
    3. Repent - turn from your sin and your old ways of doing and thinking.
    4. Believe in (this is not mental assent, but a state of trust and reliance on this good news!

    Jesus then after the crucifixion had to adjust the disciples' thinking on what the coming of the Messiah meant, in terms of the Atonement. And then Paul had to interpret for the Gentiles what "The Messiah is here" and "the kingdom of God is at hand" meant for non-Jews, in terms of justification by faith, etc. But Jesus' message is the core of the Gospel, as far as I can see.