The Gospel Dimension
I love superhero stories. I love the larger-than-life powers and mind-blowing CGI effects, but that is not the main reason I am attracted to this genre. There is something special about the way these kinds of stories are told. Often, a “nobody” is living a less-than-fulfilled life, sometimes at the end of their rope. And then they encounter some experience or revelation that catapults them into a whole new world. Life completely changes in an instant. Maybe one of the reasons I love superhero stories is because my Christian faith kind of works that way. One day I was living my normal humdrum life, and then I hear the good news about Jesus and—*BAM*—everything changes. That upending story of a life changed from one moment to the next has been told for two thousand years as people have met King Jesus. You hear the good news and nothing will ever be the same again.
But the interesting thing is that the gospel (gospel means “good news”) is at the same time a message and more than a message. Just like hearing, hey you are an alien from Krypton, is a message, but that message is a gateway to a whole new reality. I suppose most of us know that about the gospel, it’s more than just words. But sometimes we can take that for granted. Our initial experience of the gospel is someone preaching good news to us. But by faith, then, we enter into something more. If we look at the New Testament, the word for gospel, euangelion, is actually used in several different ways, each showing us a new facet of the “more” of the gospel.
If we look at the New Testament, the word for gospel, euangelion, is actually used in several different ways, each showing us a new facet of the “more” of the gospel.
One particular book displays the diversity of meaning in fascinating ways—Philippians. In his letter, Paul uses euangelion in at least three different ways in just this one letter, though each usage points back to the same overall phenomenon, the Christ event. Taking a closer look at all three expands our definition of a word so common we may forget its significance. In fact, a new look at the word “gospel” might just open the door to a whole new universe.
Euangelion as message.
Let’s start with the basics. Throughout the New Testament The word euangelion means “good news” or “gospel” (coming from old English “godspell,” good+spell). Its basic reference is to a message or teaching about salvation. Paul reminds the Roman Christians of this in a series of rhetorical questions: how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’...So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ (Rom 10:14-15, 17).
In 1 Corinthians, Paul identifies some of the key components of the euangelion he preached: Christ died for sinners, he was buried, raised, and appeared to many, including the apostles (1 Cor 15:3-8). What we can say confidently is that when Paul uses euangelion, often he is making reference to a teaching about Jesus Christ (Rom 16:25). In fact, central to Paul’s apostolic mandate was that he was commissioned to proclaim the euangelion to Gentiles (1 Thess 2:9; Gal 2:2; Col 1:23).
Phillippians adds to the chorus of New Testament references to euangelion as a message. In it, Paul not only refers to his own ministry of spreading the gospel (1:12) but acknowledges that there are Christian preachers out there with more nefarious motivations, who use the Christian message as a weapon to get Paul in more hot water with the authorities (Phil 1:15-17). They saw themselves as rivals, perhaps loudly claiming that Jesus is a ruler challenging the emperor’s power—and if this caught the attention of Roman leaders nearby to Paul’s prison, it might be “off with his head!”
This “message” use of euangelion is the “default” setting for the terminology in Christian usage, because that is the basic meaning of the compound word itself (eu [good] + angelion [message/report]). What Philippians highlights, though, is the fact that Paul could use euangelion in ways that make it seem like something more than a message, he makes it seem like a culture and a mission too
Euangelion as culture.
Sometimes, Paul used euangelion in a way that seemed like it was more than a verbal or written message, more like an ideology, way of being, lifestyle, and culture. For example, in his “call to action” for the Philippians (1:27-30), he encourages them to live their lives worthy of the “gospel of Christ.” He urges them to stand firm, arms locked, and strive together “for the faith of the gospel.” His statement is obviously about more than speaking words of good news.
Paul shows the Philippian believers that their faith is not only in the euangelion, it is guided by it as well.
The euangelion of Christ is a whole way of being that they are embodying and defending. It is like a constitution that guides those who believe the message, and they are called to live by its standards. Paul writes as if Christ is king of a special kingdom, and euangelion is the kingdom ethos. Paul shows the Philippian believers that their faith is not only in the euangelion, it is guided by it as well. In that sense, it is the truth of God as message and the way of God as culture.
Euangelion as mission.
Finally, Paul can use euangelion as a reference to the “gospel mission”—the aim of spreading the message and culture of faith and life in Christ Jesus, inviting others to become citizens of the gospel kingdom and champions of the gospel way, led by King Jesus.
In Philippians 1:4, Paul begins the letter by reminding the believers there that in the early phase of his ministry, he found few partners willing to support him, but these Philippians courageously chose to “share in the gospel” from the start. Here, when Paul talks about sharing in the euangelion, he is not simply referring to being fellow Christians. This is a more technical usage that translates better as something like “gospel mission.” The point he is making is that the Philippian church gave resources, prayers, and perhaps even personnel to contribute to his apostolic ministry of spreading the gospel message, kingdom, and culture.
This same concept comes up again in chapter two. Paul prepares the Philippians for the imminent arrival of his colleague, Timothy, a devoted leader who has (literally) “served for the gospel” (2:21). This is Paul’s shorthand way of referring to ministry in the gospel mission. And in chapter four, Paul commends two leaders in Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, women who (literally) “labored in the gospel” together with Paul (4:2). English translations often add a few explanatory words here to capture what Paul was communicating: Euodia and Syntyche worked beside Paul “in the work of the gospel” (NRSV).
The one thing that seems clear in this brief survey of the use of euangelion in Philippians is that for Paul the “gospel” is more than a message, though not less than that. The touchpoint for his ministry with Gentiles is that they hear a message of good news about Jesus Christ from his apostolic proclamation, but Paul thought of euangelion as a much larger reality. But the way Paul uses euangelion leaves us with questions: How is the “gospel” its own message, culture, and mission? How do all these different uses fit together? We could stop there and throw our hands up and declare this a mystery. But I think the world of modern science fiction offers some fresh perspective that might help us out.
What if Paul thought about the euangelion as not just a message or mission, but something more like a parallel dimension? It could be all three because the “gospel” was a whole universe unto itself. It is a kingdom that knows no physical boundaries, a world that no one can visit with human-made vehicles or technology. This message, culture, and mission are tied to a whole other dimension.
Enter “The Multiverse”
Even though there are a lot of Marvel (MCU) movies going back many years now, Paul did not watch any of them. So, he wasn’t theorizing about a multiverse, as we think of it, in his writings. But ancient people did ponder the existence of other realms that somehow interacted with our world—how else do the gods show up seemingly out of thin air and disappear without a trace?
Paul's aspects all appear to be elements that reflect a wider sense that the “gospel” is like a world unto itself, a “gospel dimension” you might say, a kind of parallel cosmos that encapsulates a unique kingdom, culture, and ethos.
This concept could help explain how Paul could imagine the euangelion as its own plane that gives meaning to Christian life in this world. Before getting further into Paul’s understanding of what I will call the “gospel dimension,” let’s consider how a “multiverse” concept might shed light on things like Christian identity, ideology, culture, and ethos.
The first thing I find intriguing about the multiverse is the notion that other worlds exist, not in a different location (on a map), but in the same place in a parallel realm. For those who are “in the know” about these other hidden worlds, there is a fresh awareness of life and activity that is invisible to the naked eye, but “real” nonetheless.
A second multiverse concept is even riper for insight into “gospel” thinking. In the movie Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, we come to know about a woman named America Chavez, someone who can open portals to other dimensions in the multiverse. She claims to have visited 73 other realities. In the mind-bending twists and turns of the plot of this film, Chavez and Strange end up in another version of earth. Chavez recalls visiting this (other) earth before and noting that food is free (and that food is free in most worlds, a clear criticism of “earth 616,” the world Strange comes from, the earth as we know it). What I love about this kind of multiverse concept is the possibility of imagining a completely different way to live. You and I (on earth 616) can feel stuck in the rut of “the way things are” whether it is war, economics, or healthcare. But thinking about another dimension that is a different version of our reality opens up new possibilities. We start to ask, what if…?
A third multiverse dynamic is worth noting. Sometimes people can travel from one dimension to another and bring or share new resources. Imagine if another earth dimension brought a cure for cancer to earth 616. And, of course, they can bring not just tangible objects, but also new teachings and intelligence. Or a new culture and way of being. And that gets us close to what Paul was trying to do with gospel language in Philippians.
Opening a Portal to the “Gospel Dimension”
We have noted above that Paul could use euangelion in different ways, all relating to the Christ event, but different aspects of it: sometimes as a message, or a culture, or a mission. But Paul's aspects all appear to be elements that reflect a wider sense that the “gospel” is like a world unto itself, a “gospel dimension” you might say, a kind of parallel cosmos that encapsulates a unique kingdom, culture, and ethos. To share the euangelion is to open people’s eyes to a whole new world and reality.
For Paul, this was not escapism. Life now is lived in this world of flesh and blood (Phil 1:22). Paul saw believers as something like resident aliens from another dimension, given a mission and purpose on this earth. The immediate goal is not to slip through a portal to the gospel dimension in an attempt to flee from this world. Rather, they are meant to draw power, wisdom, and a thriving culture from the gospel dimension and spread it in this world.
Now, this could make Paul’s apostolic commission seem like a multiverse colonial effort, to force his world upon others (like Alexander the Great in his conquest tour). But, first of all, Paul was not in a position of power over the Gentiles he encountered, so he could not and did not shove his gospel down their throats. Second, time and again he talked about gospel proclamation as an act of winsome persuasion, not coercion, the offer of divine love that can be received with gratitude and joy.
Paul’s appeals to living according to the euangelion (Phil 1:27) sets up the gospel as not just a verbal proclamation alone, but a divine reality invisible to the naked eye, a cosmos that can empower life in the here and now. Believers are called to live according to this invisible kingdom standard—from the gospel dimension—rather than conform to the ways of this world.
Phillipians’ Depiction of the “Gospel Dimension”
So, what exactly are the culture and ethos of the gospel dimension? Not unlike those MCU dimensions where food is free, the gospel dimension is a mind-bending reality where people live in a completely different way. Paul captures a vision for this “gospel” ethos in Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Could you imagine a world that operated like that? How could such a place even exist? Well, MCU has its superheroes with metal suits, hammers, and capes and Christians have our own: Jesus Christ. And Paul reminds the Philippians of the model of Christ who left his throne of glory to save sinners, humbling himself and reducing himself to our form so he could rescue us (2:6-11). This is the formative ethos narrative of the gospel dimension, something believers aspire to replicate in this world for the good of all.
Meditating on Paul’s use of euangelion hopefully expands the Christian imagination when it comes to the width, breadth, and depth of the gospel—no less than a word encapsulating our good news, but much more indeed: a glorious realm that points the way for other worlds towards humility, goodness, love, and joy in the way of King Jesus. Paul believed the “gospel dimension” (as I call it) has the power to transform our sin-ruined world, and the church is called to join the cause of heralding and embodying a new way of being human in our world here and now.