Consider how the gospel sounded upon its first hearing in the first century. A Galilean Jew named Jesus was executed by crucifixion for alleged crimes against the state by the Roman government; three days later God raised him from the dead, and he is now the world’s new emperor. That’s the gospel! It’s not an explanation; it’s an announcement. It’s the surprising announcement that a crucified Galilean Jew has risen from the dead and is now the world’s new ruler! It may sound absurd, but it’s certainly not cliche. No matter what else one might say about this gospel, it is certainly an astonishing claim.
But in our day the sense of astonishment is largely absent. We don’t think of the gospel as an absurd claim, though it is! (Which is not to say it isn’t true!) In our modern sophistication and over-familiarity with the gospel, we have removed astonishment from the gospel. We have replaced astonishment with something a bit tamer. We have made the gospel reasonable, sensible, and practical. We explain the gospel in cogent terms like “the plan of salvation” and “spiritual laws” — as if it is simply the most rational thing in the world. The gospel is no longer astonishing; it is now commonsense, logical, and most of all, “useful.” We have no use for astonishment because, well, we have no use for astonishment. Astonishment is not something we can use—it’s not something pragmatic that we can utilize to further our self-concocted and self-oriented agendas. So instead of announcing an astonishing gospel, we find ourselves trying to sell a useful gospel. Evangelism takes on the tone of a multilevel marketing presentation. Some buy it, some don’t, but not many are astonished.
Yet astonishment is the most appropriate initial reaction to the gospel story. To respond to the gospel story (and it is a story, not a set of propositions) with calmly asked utilitarian questions is completely inappropriate—as if one were kicking the tires on a used car. What if the three woman at the tomb on the first Easter had calmly responded to the angel with a series of consumerist questions like this: “What do I do with this?” ”How do I use it?” ”How can I make this practical in my life?” —as if the angel had just presented them a business plan. No! The first response must be astonishment and stunned silence. The gospel properly proclaimed and properly heard is a mystery evoking awe—not a prospectus eliciting calculation. Without astonishment as our initial response, we meet Christianity in a wrong way—or more properly, we meet Christ in a wrong way.
Brian Zahnd, Beauty Will Save the World