What Is The Gospel? Part IV: Theological Worlds

One of best books out there for thinking through various aspects of the gospel is W. Paul Jones’ book Theological Worlds: Understanding the Alternative Rhythms of Christian Belief. In it, Jones discusses five different “theological worlds” that people inhabit.  Understood simply, these are five different frameworks for thinking about the faith, each of which has its own narrative trajectory.   Any given person will “live in” one of these worlds more than the others.  They are:

  1. Separation and Reunion.  Inhabitants of this world feel a sense on loneliness or abandonment.   They long to feel connected, and to be part of a community.  Salvation is perceived as being or going home.
  2. Conflict and Vindication.  People in this world are angry because of experienced chaos or normlessness.  They are keenly aware of political and economic forces that pit people against one another, creating winners and losers.  They salvation they long for is a new orderly kingdom where things are set right.
  3. Emptiness and Fulfillment.  In this world, the great struggle is purposelessness.  There is an ache because of lost potential and an inability to determine one’s place in the world.  Salvation is viewed as wholeness and being a integral part of a purposeful system.
  4. Condemnation and Forgiveness.  In this world, inhabitants feel guilt because of falling short or idolatry.  The are deeply aware of their own failings, and desire to be accepted in spite of all the ways they have fallen short. Salvation is percieved as removal of guilt, reprieve, adoption.
  5. Suffering and Endurance.  People who live here feel overwhelmed by meaningless pain.  It seems that whatever can go wrong will.  One is tempted to fall into cynical despair.  Salvation is understood as the perceiving God’s presence and concern as we continue to endure and survive.

Each of these worlds has strong Biblical backing, and the New Testament addresses all of these interests when speaking of salvation.  But the contemporary protestant world spends the vast majority of our time in world four, which I strongly suspect is the least-inhabited world in secular America.  It’s no wonder that the skeptics who listen to us sometimes say “these Christians aren’t even in the same world I’m living in.”  They’re right; we aren’t.

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