Gospel Analogies

I have been trying to come up with good metaphors and analogies to help my kids get the Gospel better. I find that it seems to work a helluva lot better than using philosophy:

The Good News is that salvation is the sun in the sky, not a distant star found by following the map of the law.

The Good News is that life is not a test, it is a art show. The choice we have as artists is between letting the image of God inside us shape our works of art or rejecting all order for our own style and inspiration. Our works will be interesting to many, but Christianity teaches us that only God’s works will be glorious in the end.

The Good News is salvation is 1+1=2 not E=mc^2.

The Good News is that salvation is an easy answer, not a tricky question.

The Good news is that salvation is pure joy, not mere contentment.

The Good News is that we don’t have to know anything to see salvation, we simply have to open our eyes and look.

I would love to hear any critiques of any of these analogies, and — especially — any analogies that have helped you understand or explain the Gospel.

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51 thoughts on “Gospel Analogies

  1. How about simply that the Good News is that Jesus loves us and wants us to believe in him.

    Not really a metaphor, but why come up with an analogy when those simple words do the trick?

  2. Jared – You bring up something I have been thinking a lot about lately. Analogies can be very useful for understanding the gospel, the kingdom of God, and salvation. The gospels record several. I think it is important to understand that they all break down at some point (the kingdom of God is not literally a pearl, nor is the desire for the kingdom of God the same as the lust for lucre), but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful. It is important to see the value in the analogy while recognizing that the analogy is not the thing itself. And this usually isn’t that hard to do with Jesus’ parables.

    Perhaps more difficult to see is that Paul has several models of salvation that he uses throughout his letters. One example is a judicial model, in which he uses legal language to describe how we are acquitted of our guilt and declared “justified.” Another example is the participationist model, in which humans participate in Jesus’ victory over sin and death by being buried with him in baptism (Romans 6). There are yet other models, including the use of slavery language (in which we are redeemed/bought back from being slaves to death and sin). Paul uses all of these models to help illustrate the saving effects of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. However, I think it is important to remember that the Pauline models help us understand the thing, but are not the thing itself.

    Here is a very brief summary of Bart Ehrman’s look at these Pauline models.

    And here is Mormon New Testament scholar Eric Huntsman’s treatment of them.

  3. In regards to limitations on analogies, I have to reference Stephen Robinson’s great book Believing Christ. I think some (both within and outside of Mormonism) have overly criticized his parable of the bicycle used in that book. I think the problem is that some interpreted it too literally (e.g., I can earn part of my way to salvation by doing my absolute, very best, and then (and only then) Jesus will take care of the rest). I think the actual point of the parable is that, as Paul taught through his judicial model, no one can perfectly keep the Law. Whatever our efforts, they will fall terribly, miserably short. But there is one who can bridge the gulf between where we are and where God is, and if we accept his gift to us, we can enjoy God’s promised salvation.

    Interestingly, in that same chapter, Robinson gives two or three other analogies that I think most critics would be less critical of.

  4. Analogies are useful sometimes, sure. I don’t think you’d find an argument against that.

    But when it comes to God, we can never adequately describe so much of what he is and what he does for us. Sometimes, we can over think things and try to put them in terms we are comfortable with. As such, we can limit God, but since God is limitless, we do him a disservice by focusing on analogies. Such is the way of pride, though.

    We are better served simply recognizing that God is much bigger than us, and trust in him that he knows better than we do.

  5. A son hated his father and wished he was dead. He took his inheritance early and wasted it on sin. Eventually out of desperation he went back to his father to beg for table scraps. When he got there his father threw a party for him.

  6. One of the sheep from a flock wanders off, so the shepherd leaves the rest of the flock and goes searching for the lost one. When he finds it, he picks it up and carries it back, and he calls all his friends and neighbors together to celebrate.

  7. A lady lost a coin, turned everything over in her house, found it, then went to all of her friends to celebrate that she found it.

  8. A foster child is approached by a very wealthy man who would like to adopt the child. He informs that he is worth billions of dollars to which the child would be heir. All the child would need to do is sign a form stating that the child is now exclusively part of the man’s family and would take the man’s name upon him/her and live in his house. [End here for evangelicals, continue reading if you’re Mormon.]

    Furthermore, the man told the child that, in addition to the great inheritance that awaits him/her, he would like to teach the child the family business and, most especially, the principles and attributes that made him successful. “I have the best job in the world,” the man said. “All I do is help people and make them better. I would like to not only share with you my wealth, but also my position, standing, and joy. I can easily give you what I have; but to become what I am, you have to make the choice to follow. I will help you, guide you, and give you the strength to do it as long as you want to keep going. I’ll show you the laws and principles I had to follow to get where I am. Follow my example, and all that I have will be yours. It’s a tough path to follow, but let me tell you – there is no greater joy than what I do.”

  9. “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he calleth it, and if the sheep doth come after him, and confess and forsake its straying ways, and turn neither to the right nor to the left, and do all things that he sayeth for the journey back and obey the other authorized sheep in all things and perform all of his ordinances and in all things show gratefulness for all he hath done for the sheep in making the sheep’s return possible, then she sheep cometh home. And when the sheep cometh home, he proclaimeth that the sheep hath passed the test.”

  10. Another financial analogy: The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man who was offered the opportunity to have Warren Buffet [or some mythical omniscient investor] as his personal investment advisor, who, when he heard of the opportunity, dropped his current employment, freed up all of his financial assets, and fully committed himself to following Buffet’s investment principles and financial advice.

  11. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven . . . wait. Scratch that. All of them will enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

  12. “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a foolish man, which built his house upon a false rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell catastrophically: for it was founded upon a rock, which is too hard a surface for a house to be on and no human can possibly follow my teachings anyway. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a wise man which built his house upon the sand: for he knew that no one can successfully follow my teachings. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it floated away gracefully, for it was not built on a foundation of works.”

  13. Interesting translation of that story, JT… which is it?

    As to money, I don’t recall where Jesus, or any apostles, really, tells us to be rich like Warren B, or the rich adoptive uncle.

    Anyway, as I said above, the Gospel is really very simple. No analogy is needed.

  14. Slowcowboy (& maybe Kullervo) – See parables of: lost coin, pearl of great price, talents, etc. None of these parables is teaching anyone to be rich; neither is the one I threw out there. This goes back to the point I was making earlier about not taking analogies or parables too far.

    Analogies can be very helpful in helping us understand a thing, as Jared pointed out in the OP. Jesus and Paul clearly thought so, as they included a lot of parables, analogies, and metaphors in their teachings.

  15. The cutting edge translations I included were just a little friendly banter with Kullervo.

  16. Er, you did post this:

    “Another financial analogy: The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man who was offered the opportunity to have Warren Buffet [or some mythical omniscient investor] as his personal investment advisor, who, when he heard of the opportunity, dropped his current employment, freed up all of his financial assets, and fully committed himself to following Buffet’s investment principles and financial advice.”

    Not sure I am following you here. You also posted one on a rich adoptive dad who taught the adoptive child how to get rich. It seems the very real point of those analogies is to follow the WB or new dad and you can get everything he has. And in both of these analogies, the emphasis is on material gain.

  17. Jared – Sorry for the hijacks. Re: the OP, I like your 1+1=2 analogy, which I take to be teaching simplicity. You could take it a step further and say 1+[infinity symbol] = [infinity symbol]. It’s also simple, but also teaches the power of God in our lives at the same time.

  18. Slowcowboy – You are understand that those are analogies, correct?

    Example 1: When Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a person finding a valuable pearl and doing everything to obtain it, he is not trying to teach us about the value and qualities of fine pearls.

    Example 2: When Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven will be like a man that leaves on a journey and entrusts 3 servants with his money, severely rebuking the one who did not increase the money entrusted, he is not actually talking about money, or how to entrust property, invest money, rebuke, etc.

  19. JT, but YOUR analogy is talking about getting what the rich men had.

    The pearl example is about finding something that is extremely valuable and giving all you have to get it, like we are to do with Jesus. The servants example is about doing what we can with the gifts God has given us. The three above about rejoicing about finding lost things are about what God does when we come to him.

    But YOUR examples were about material gain. Notice your last sentence in the adoptive story:

    “Follow my example, and all that I have will be yours. It’s a tough path to follow, but let me tell you – there is no greater joy than what I do.” All that I have will be yours… Its tough. But it brings great joy to ME, and it will to you, too.

    The point I was bringing up about your analogies, not those of Jesus, was where your focus was, not Jesus’ focus.

    Having said that, money is one of the most talked about subjects in the Bible…

  20. slowcowboy,

    I’m not Jared, but for me, the words “Jesus”, “loves”, “us” and “believe” are unclear, dubious, or full of baggage.

    the purpose of the analogies (at least, as far as I can tell) is to destabilize what we think the words mean or entail and then restabilize them much more expansively.

    As to the OP, I liked the sun one…but the other ones are pretty opaque to me.

    As to the comments, I liked Tim’s summarized prodigal son (but feel like ‘wasted’ and ‘sin’ are dubious/unclear/baggage terms. At least as far as I understand it, Christianity says that we are all wasting our inheritance on sin…but not everyone is going to see it that way, and feel like they have to go back in desperation to the father they supposedly hate), loved Kullervo’s summarized 99 and 1, and loved JT’s foster child analogy (both evangelical and the Mormon addendum)

  21. I agree with you regarding the language. I think the problem with reaching me with Christianity is that understanding words is very tricky and frought with reasonable dead ends.

  22. Andrew, I guess I could respond a million ways. I think where the baggage you speak of becomes a problem when you let the baggage influence your assumptions on what is meant by those words.

    Its quite unfortunate the baggage exists, but it does. Nonetheless, the words are quite clear and straight forward. Yes, Jesus loves us, and all he wants from us is to believe in him. That’s it. That’s all.

    Now, as I said above, there are a million other answers, and I could probably right a book from those words and your response. After all, who is Jesus? What does love mean? And how is it shown? Who is the “us”? Is it limited to believers? What about Mormons, are they included, too? Muslims? And what do we exactly believe, and why? Each of these are loaded questions. And there are many, many more.

    But the words spoken are really quite simple, once you understand what they mean. And you don’t have to answer all of the question to understand what they mean. I don’t expect you to believe me. In fact, I expect you to reject me pretty straightforwardly, probably for a number of reasons. So be it. Yet that does not change the truth behind what I am writing here.

    Analogies do have value. But they can cloud simple truths, too, just as much as they exemplify some simple truths, too. We ought not rely on them too much, in my opinion. In any area of life analogies can become problematic– its not just in religion. I live in a world of analogies, and no two situations are exactly the same. Our tendency is to both lose sight of the similarities and of the differences in analogies. Therefore, its sometimes just better to come out and speak directly.

    Bottom lining something has value, too. I tend to think bottom lines are powerful. Its harder to hide behind one than it is an analogy. Breaking something down to its most basic or simple point gives us a place to start from.

    So, I present the bottom line about Jesus, and bringing someone to Christ. That’s it. If someone has additional questions from that, I am happy to expand. But Jesus does love us, and all he wants is for us to love him back and believe in him. At its most basic core, the Gospel is that simple.

  23. Jared, what words and what trick?

    Its interesting to see you note that language and understanding words leads to dead ends. Do you mean that words you previously understood to mean one thing you found meant something else?

  24. slowcowboy,

    but the thing about baggage is that it affects people in ways that they do not perceive. In other words, if the expression “Jesus loves us” has baggage, then that baggage will affect us even if we don’t perceive it. The thing is…even perceiving the baggage doesn’t necessarily allow us to set the baggage down.

    As you yourself say:

    But the words spoken are really quite simple, once you understand what they mean.

    But this means that things are contingent on understanding what the words mean. But that’s exactly what I’m getting at. A lot of people don’t understand what the words mean, or we think we know what the words mean, but our understanding has baggage.

  25. And what I am saying is that Jesus loves us and wants us to love and believe in him. I am saying that any baggage or misunderstanding can be overcome so that you really can understand the truth in that statement..

  26. I would say that the point of analogies and metaphors is to try to overcome baggage and misunderstanding.

    New/modern metaphors (or metaphors that are more personal, like Jared’s) are a part of this task.

  27. I don’t disagree with you, but no analogy will be perfect. So, I present the bottom line. Analogies are just one tool to overcome misunderstandings and baggage. I’d add that without a bottom line, a point that you are trying to clarify, you won’t ever get where you need to be. You have to know where you are going.

  28. Certainly. The people making the analogies should be ones who understand what the goal is.

    It’s like if you’re a teacher — being a teacher is not just about knowing the material (but that is certainly a prerequisite)…it’s about knowing (multiple) ways of presenting the material to others in ways that they will be more likely to understand

  29. Fair enough. But Jared asked our opinions on his analogies so I provided is prefer to just tell the bottom line rather than use an analogy.

  30. Yes, and you asked a question: “why come up with an analogy when those simple words do the trick?”

    The answer: “because those simple words don’t do the trick for everyone”

  31. Andrew, yes, you are correct I asked the question. I gave my reasons why. You need not agree. I think being direct can be more effective.

  32. Jared, what words and what trick?

    The trick is an understanding of the message of the New Testament, i.e. recognizing the news and recognizing it as good.

    To a monist, like a Mormon or a secular scientist, there is nothing tangible to the good news, Jesus was a man who said some words and made a huge impression on his followers, but the relevance of that phenomena to a person’s physical reality now cannot be shown by saying that “Jesus loves us”. Even if the person hearing these words conceded that Jesus loved the world and sincerely died with the understanding that he was “saving” it, this message does not appear relevant to the physical reality of the present. There is no obvious link between the reported historical phenomena and the unfolding reality before us. The trick is to find the words that reveal the relevance and the link.

  33. Slowcowboy, what some Christian (Calvinist?) thinkers seem to misunderstand is that the Gospel is nothing more than thinking, and that thinking can change to the point that “Jesus loves us” means absolutely nothing at all, nor can it sensibly. The only evangelical tactic in this situation is to expand upon the Gospel to convince a particular audience. This is what Paul did, but he was talking to those who accepted a dualistic metaphysics. The problem with explaining the Gospel simply is that most people have abandoned a dualistic metaphysics.

  34. JT, but YOUR analogy is talking about getting what the rich men had.

    The pearl example is about finding something that is extremely valuable and giving all you have to get it, like we are to do with Jesus. The servants example is about doing what we can with the gifts God has given us. The three above about rejoicing about finding lost things are about what God does when we come to him.

    But YOUR examples were about material gain.

    /facepalm

  35. JT, curious your thoughts on what the two analogies you used mean. Forget about the pearl for a second, as we apparently don’t see that eye to eye. What do you think about learning from Buffett or the rich adopted father teaching you how to get everything he has?

  36. Slowcowboy – It looks like you get that the parables of the pearl, the lost coin, and the talents are not literally about the material things (and they are material things) described in each analogy. I’m just confused as to why you can’t see that the analogies I used are not literally about material things either.

  37. I, too, am confused as to how you don’t see that using a story about a rich adoptive father teaching a kid to likewise become rich is not about material things.

    What I see your analogies as teaching is that you can choose to follow the example of very rich and powerful men to get what they have in the end. Even if what is gained is not literally material wealth, it does include very real power and authority. Either way, its about personal gain, not joy in finding something lost (as heaven is joyful for us when we come to God), using talents as they are given to us, or huge personal sacrifice.

    That is the problem I have with your analogies: they do not encourage sacrifice but rather obedience to obtain personal gain. Sure, the obedience can include personal gain, but there is a huge difference in these two concepts of human behavior.

  38. 🙂

    Hey, I accused Joseph Smith of wielding Fleming Sword earlier so its all good.

    JT, we don’t see eye to eye on much of these topics, but I enjoy the discussion. I hope you never take too much offense…

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