David Bentley Hart has written a provocative article, ‘Everything you know about the Gospel of Paul is likely wrong’.[1] In it he rejects that version of the gospel believed by ‘the average American Christian—say, some genial Presbyterian who attends church regularly and owns a New International Version of the Bible’. He replaces it with his own version of the gospel which centres on Christ’s defeat of evil powers.

I agree that it is good to rethink our reading of the Bible, to try to avoid reading into it our own ideas or assumptions, including those we have received from our contemporary Christian world. Even if our Bible is infallible, we are not infallible readers or interpreters of it! And as CS Lewis observed, when we read ancient texts is it not the unfamiliar words which confuse us, because we know that we do not know what they mean: It is the familiar words into which we are likely to read our own meanings.[2] Indeed, one of the joys of studying the Bible again and again over many years is uncovering treasures and insights and ideas which you have never noticed before!

While I have often appreciated the elegance and clarity of David Bentley Hart’s writings, in this case I think that he is seriously wrong, and has fallen into the error of which he accuses others. The gospel believed by his ‘genial Presbyterian’ may require further theological tweaking, but it is closer to the truth than Hart’s gospel.

I hope to show that Hart’s version does not correspond to the reality of the New Testament evidence.

1. Is cosmic victory over evil powers ‘the essence’ of Paul’s gospel, rather than salvation by faith in Christ through his atoning death and resurrection?

Hart writes, ‘Paul’s actual teachings, however … emphasise neither original guilt nor imputed righteousness (he believed in neither), but rather the overthrow of bad angels.’

Christ’s cosmic victory is certainly a feature of Paul’s gospel, but not its essence or centre, or its main theme.

Christ’s cosmic victory is certainly a feature of Paul’s gospel, but not its essence or centre, or its main theme.

For example, in Romans, it only features in 8:38,39, whereas Paul spends chapters 1-8 explaining that we are sinners under the wrath of God, (chs 1-3); that Christ’s atoning sacrifice delivers us (ch 3); that we are saved by faith (chs 4,5); that we should be transformed in our moral behaviour through Christ (chs 6-8). He then applies this to Jews and Gentiles (chs 9-1, 14, 15); and also gives moral teaching and greetings (chs 12,13, 16).

In Galatians, Christ’s cosmic victory is only implied in 4:3, 8-11. In Ephesians, which is our major source of this idea in Paul it is found in 1:10,21,22; 2:2,3; 3:10; 6:10-17. It is also found in 1 Corinthians 2:6; 15:24-28; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12; and Colossians 1:13, 20; 2:10,15.

There is no mention of this theme in 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, or Titus.

It is an important theme, and especially relevant when people have lost confidence in God the creator and sustainer of the universe, when they are dualists who believe in the equal powers of good and evil, or when they have been influenced by evil spirits. However, it is not the heart of the gospel.

2. Is ‘faith’, pistis, as Hart claims, ‘largely … works of obedience and love of others’?

Paul uses pistis in a variety of ways. It can mean trust in, dependence on, confidence in God. This is its predominant meaning. It can also mean ‘the faith’, that is the content of Christianity. It can also mean a special gift of ‘faith’, given to some and not to others. It does not ever mean ‘works of obedience and love of others’. It results in good works, but of itself, it is not good works (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Paul’s main point is to contrast ‘faith’ on the one hand with ‘works’ on the other. In some contexts ‘works’ means conforming to Jewishness, in being circumcised, or keeping Old Testament food laws or festivals (Romans 4, Galatians 2). But he also uses it more broadly, to mean any achievement on which we base our approach to God, as a way of winning his favour (Ephesians 2:8-10 again, and Titus 3:3-8). We are saved by God’s good work in Christ, not by our good works. So it is fatal to trust our good works, of any kind. See Luke 18:9-14 for Jesus’ version of this teaching. However, for Paul, authentic faith is always followed by doing good works, which flow from faith.

3. Is Christ’s righteousness imputed to us?

It is true that this exact expression is not found in Paul. He does write of us receiving God’s righteousness as a gift, as it is ‘credited’ to us or, ‘reckoned’ to us. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us is a corollary of verses like 2 Corinthians 5:21 and 1 Corinthians 1:30.

4. Does Paul refer to Hell?

It is true that he does not use that word. Most teaching on hell in the New Testament is found in Jesus’ teaching, and in the book of Revelation. Paul’s usual way of expressing the reality of hell is to describe its significance: being under God’s wrath, being under God’s judgement, receiving God’s condemnation. However, he does refer to ‘the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord …’ in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, which is ‘hell’ by another name!

References to hell in the gospels include the following: Matthew 5:22,29, 20; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33; 24:51; 25:30,46; Mark 9:43,45,47; Luke 16:19-31. And in Luke 12: 5 Jesus warns his disciples to fear God, who has authority to throw them into hell. In John’s gospel, to ‘perish’ is to suffer God’s judgement (John 3:16, 10:29). Revelation 20:7-15 refers to hell as the ‘lake of fire’. And Hebrews warns of ‘a fearful expectation of judgement and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries’, and tells us that ’our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 10:27, 12:29).

In writing his article, Hart has unfortunately distorted the evidence, by contrasting the viewpoint of his ‘genial Presbyterian’ whose view of the gospel presumably comes from all of the New Testament, with his own version of Paul’s writings. Even if his view of Paul’s theology is correct, there is evidence in the rest of the New Testament which supports the view point of that ‘genial Presbyterian’. And the writings of a scholar will always be more nuanced than a description of a stereotype!

Even if Hart’s view of Paul’s theology is correct, there is evidence in the rest of the New Testament which supports the view point of that ‘genial Presbyterian’. The writings of a scholar will always be more nuanced than a description of a stereotype!

In fact, the most extensive theological statement of the death of Christ in the New Testament is Hebrews. Its main focus is on Christ as priest and sacrifice, and it is clear that the purpose of that sacrifice is to deal with human sin. There is only one reference to the defeat of the devil, and that is in 2:14,15. And it is highly significant that here it is death which is the great enemy, as it is in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28. It is death which is the chief enemy of humanity, and this is because death is the punishment for sin and the sign of God’s judgement. The great focus of Christ’s death in Hebrews is God-ward: Christ’s sacrifice was offered to God. Its outcomes include the forgiveness of our sins, our access to the presence of God by the blood of Christ, and the defeat of the devil. But they are outcomes, not the focus of Christ’s sacrifice, which is an offering to God.[3]

Graham Cole puts these matters in the right perspective when he writes: ‘the good news is that Christ’s cross not only saves us but additionally disarms those forces arraigned against us’; ‘[t]he key to the disarmament is the forgiveness of sins on the basis of the cross’; and, ‘Christus Victor needs the explanatory power of substitutionary atonement’.[4]

What about the NIV11 Bible?

Hart’s ‘genial Presbyterian’ reads the NIV Bible. Oddly enough, in the introductory essay printed at the beginning of the NIV11, entitled, ‘The drama of the Bible’,[5] the editors make a similar mistake to that of Hart!

In describing Jesus’ death they write, ‘Jesus takes onto himself the full force of evil and empties it of its power’.[6] This may be true, but what matters is that Jesus takes onto himself our sin and God’s judgement, the covenant curse of God.

Perhaps Hart’s ‘genial Presbyterian’ is more confused than he realises!

[1] https://aeon.co/ideas/the-gospels-of-paul-dont-say-what-you-think-they-say

[2] C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words, Second Edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1967, p. 1.

[3] For more on this theme, see my review of NT Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: https://australia.thegospelcoalition.org/article/n-t-wright-vs-straw-men-a-review-of-the-day-the-revolution-began

[4] Graham Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom, NSBT, Nottingham, Apollos/ Downers Grove, IVP, 2009, p. 183.

[5] Holy Bible, New International Version 2011, Colorado Springs, Biblica, 2011.

[6] NIV2011, p. viii.