Let me make some assertions very clear.
- I believe there is life after death.
- I believe life after death depends on Jesus. Those who have the Son have life. Those who don’t, don’t.
- I believe in heaven and in the reality of hell.
Having said that, I would like to make two observations – one that has, I believe, unassailable biblical support and the other equally unassailable support from our own experience.
- There is not a single place I’ve found in the NT where the offer of salvation was presented to someone on the basis of where that person would spend eternity. The gospel was about the Lordship of Christ and his right as risen Lord to rule lives, not about where people would go when they die.
- Every evangelistic presentation I’ve ever seen is about “Where will you go when you die?” “If you were to die tonight and stand before God…” “Heaven or hell?”
Again, I am not casting doubt on the existence of heaven or hell. They are real and important. I’m making an observation. Heaven and hell are never the basis of the gospel presentation in the Bible. We should preach about heaven and about hell, but if the Apostles never used death as the basis of their gospel presentations, should we? Let me show you a few scriptures – all from Acts.
1. Acts 2 was certainly an anomaly in many ways, but it was also the first true gospel proclamation. Peter preached the crucifixion and especially the resurrection of Jesus. He concluded, (Acts 2:36-38):
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The risen Jesus was Lord and they needed to repent of their sins and and get right with God. The real question did not seem to be, “If you die tonight…?” but “If you live tonight, will you be in your sin or will you be right with God?”
2. After Peter and James raised the lame man in Acts 3, they spoke to the crowd in Solomon’s Portico. They reminded them of the crowds’ culpability in the death of Christ and preached Christ’s resurrection once again. Then, the “invitation.”
Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out… Acts 3:19
Repent, for the forgiveness of sins. No mention of “where will you go when you die?”
3. In Acts 4, they are summoned to the Council for the offense of healing the lame man. There, Peter proclaims Christ again.
Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:8-12
It’s about the resurrection and about sin and salvation. No mention of death and eternity.
4. Peter, in Acts 10, preaches to the Gentiles. This is about as close as we come to anything that resembles a “heaven and hell” presentation – and it’s not that close.
And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:40-43
He mentions that Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead – you will face him! But the thrust of the passage, again, is that sin needs to be forgiven and that the risen Lord deserves your devotion.
5. Well, it must be Paul, right? In Acts 13, we get Paul’s first lengthy gospel presentation, to Pisidian Antioch. He spends most of his time, like Peter, on the resurrection of Christ and exalts his Lordship. Then he says,
Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Acts 13:38-39
6. The Acts 16 encounter with the jailer was about believing in Jesus for salvation, but there was, again, no mention of eternity or of the two options.
You can read the rest of the book of Acts and the New Testament. Yes, the Bible talks about eternal glory and eternal punishment, but I cannot find a single place in which eternal glory is the primary inducement for salvation or eternal punishment is the bludgeon which motivates repentance. The general pattern seems be be:
- The death of Jesus Christ is mentioned.
- The resurrection of Jesus Christ is emphasized.
- Having been raised, Jesus is Lord of all.
- People are to repent of sin and believe in Jesus, the Risen Lord.
- Those who repent and believe are forgiven and are right with God.
The gospel is always presented on the basis of our current relationship with God, not our future residence with (or without) him.
If the Bible does not use eternal residence as the motivation for belief, why is that the basis of just about every gospel presentation?
Again, heaven and hell are biblical concepts, but are they the right concepts to use for our gospel presentations? Have we made a mistake there?
Has our emphasis on “the sweet by and by” caused some to get the idea that they are buying an eternal fire insurance policy so that they don’t fry when they die, while ignoring the Lordship of Christ in their daily lives? Could it be that if we used more biblical gospel presentations, focusing on the Lordship of Christ, on sin and salvation, on the need to yield to Christ TODAY not just get a reservation for heaven SOMEDAY, that it might help people understand the decision they are making?
As you discuss this, I’m going to call down the curses of Psalm 109 on anyone who logs on to chastise me for not caring about heaven or hell! That is not the issue. The Bible teaches that heaven awaits the believer and that there is a real hell for those who reject Christ. My premise is that these are not front and center truths in NT gospel presentations. Here are questions I have.
- 1. Have I missed something? Are there gospel presentations or biblical evidence that I’ve failed to take into account?
- 2. If the biblical model does not emphasize heaven and hell, should we?
- 3. What are the effects of our emphasis on eternity rather than on being right with God today?