To find the answer, we have to spread the net wider, broaden the context of the topic. All this while, we have understood the Gospel to mean good news for Jews, but now we should consider the possibility that it is good news to non believers too. A clue is found in Acts 17:18, where the presence of Stoics and Epicureans ignites the interest of Paul. We will come back to this to find out exactly how.
The common problem both theists and atheists, meaning all of mankind, face, is what to do with death, since their world view, no matter how grand, is reduced to nothing in the face of it. Theists are able to offer answers to what happens after death, generally that God, who they believe exist, will reward those who have lived righteously. The problem with this common view, which atheists are quick to point out, is that no existing view, until the Gospel was preached, offered evidence about the truth of the version of the view offered by each religion.
How could a person know for sure that a reward awaited the righteous? Most religions offered compelling explanations about the reasonableness of its view, but it all boiled down to faith, a hope that it was true, based on the truth in the explanations. Judaism based its confidence in the truth of the Bible based on the predictions that had been fulfilled about it, and the high percentage of the prayers that had been answered by its God, and above all, a set of teachings that all recognised as righteous:
Deuteronomy 4: 3You have witnessed what the Lord did at Baal Peor, how he eradicated from your midst everyone who followed Baal Peor. 4But you who remained faithful to the Lord your God are still alive to this very day, every one of you. 5Look! I have taught you statutes and ordinances just as the Lord my God told me to do, so that you might carry them out in the land you are about to enter and possess. 6So be sure to do them, because this will testify of your wise understanding to the people who will learn of all these statutes and say, “Indeed, this great nation is a very wise people.” 7In fact, what other great nation has a god so near to them like the Lord our God whenever we call on him? 8And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this whole law that I am about to share with you today?
However, even Judaism could not prove that God existed and would reward the righteous, to the satisfaction of atheists.
The Gospel, the good news proclaimed to Israel, with some nuances to its content (who were the children of Abraham?) announced that the children of Abraham would finally become blessings to the world, as promised, through showing the existence of God, AND His presence with His followers, thereby motivating them to also follow Him:
Luke 7:22So he answered them, "Go tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news proclaimed to them.
Luke 11:14Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the man who had been mute began to speak, and the crowds were amazed. 15But some of them said, “By the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, he casts out demons.” 16Others, to test him, began asking for a sign from heaven. 17But Jesus, realizing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is destroyed, and a divided household falls. 18So if Satan too is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? I ask you this because you claim that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. 19Now if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you.
John 3:1Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council, 2came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
That is the claim of the Gospel, that those baptised in the name of Christ would receive the Holy Spirit and fire, evidence of God’s presence (Emmanuel, God with us) and clear understanding of Scripture, God’s requirements from His followers.
They would be manifesting great works and revealing wisdom from God, like Moses, and motivating people, like the children of Israel in Egypt and Rahab in Jericho, to come out of darkness, leave serving mammon for self interest, to serve God, by living selflessly.
Exodus 4:1Moses answered again, “And if they do not believe me or pay attention to me, but say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you’?” 2The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” 3The Lord said, “Throw it to the ground.” So he threw it to the ground, and it became a snake, and Moses ran from it. 4But the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand and grab it by the tail” – so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand – 5“that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you”.
Exodus 8:18When the magicians attempted to bring forth gnats by their secret arts, they could not. So there were gnats on people and on animals. 19The magicians said to Pharaoh, “It is the finger of God!” But Pharaoh’s heart remained hard, and he did not listen to them, just as the Lord had predicted.
How did this view affect non-believers like the Epicureans? These last believed God created the world, but abandoned it, a view called Deism. He never answered prayers, He was not interested in giving substance to human existence. It was left to humans to create their own purpose in life, and for Epicureans, it meant doing acts that had been carefully thought out to provide meaning and joy. Epicureus recorded that when he went through difficult periods, even when dying painfully from stones blocking his urinary tract, memories of those events sustained him, gave him relief from the suffering.
So the Gospel has a universal appeal, and not just to Jews. When the Epicureans heard that God did have the interests of His creation in His heart, they were open to hear more:
Acts 17:32Now when they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33So Paul left the Areopagus. 34But some people joined him and believed. Among them were Dionysius, who was a member of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
To summarise, Jesus saves from not having a hope:
Ephesians 2:Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh – who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed on the body by human hands – 12that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, 15when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
The hope being supported by evidence:
Galatians 3:14in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles, so that we could receive the promise of the Spirit by faith.
All Scripture from the NETBible.