“If you were to die tonight, do you know that you would go to heaven?”
I’ve heard it a million times. It’s like the cheesy pickup line of evangelism. I suppose it can be an effective way to start people thinking about eternal and spiritual things, but I’ve often wondered whether it’s a question that ultimately does more harm than good. And I pretty much always conclude that it is. Why, you ask? Well, because if the audience of your question says no, then your next move is of course to tell them how they can get to heaven. And that’s something that I think we need to stop doing.
For one thing, there’s no biblical basis for it. Similar to how the New Testament conspicuously lacks the phrase “ask Jesus into your heart”, there’s no Scriptural precedent of telling someone “how to go to heaven”. In fact, the phrase “go to heaven” doesn’t appear a single time in any major English translation of Scripture (ASV, NIV, ESV, NRSV, KJV; correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am). Of course, the fact that an exact phrase isn’t contained in Scripture doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad–sermon writing would be awfully difficult and repetitive if that was the case. The question is whether what we’re telling people is an appropriate representation of the gospel; that is, one that is in line with the heart of the words of Jesus and the New Testament writers. It seems to me that telling people how they can go to heaven when they die falls short of this. Here’s some reasons why:
I. People don’t know what heaven is
When we approach people evangelistically with the tactic of telling them how they can go to heaven when they die, we assume too much understanding on their part. I think by talking this way, we more often than not evoke a false concept of heaven. What I mean is this: when the average secular person in the Western world hears the word “heaven”, their brain is most likely going to picture Jodie Foster in Contact, or else recall images of Looney Tunes characters sitting on clouds and playing harps after getting blown up by a stick of dynamite disguised as a delicious hot dog.
The fact of the matter is that most people don’t have anything that resembles a Christian concept of heaven. Heaven has been mythicized and caricatured in our culture, creating the perception that it’s where nice people go after they die to wear halos and listen to elevator music. And because that is neither believable nor particularly desirable, most people are probably not going to be interested in an offer to help them get there. Not only that, but because this is the concept of heaven that a lot of people are going to be working with, we are likely to further their perception of Christians as foolish and juvenile for believing in such silliness. Now, of course this isn’t true; we don’t believe that heaven is a place for clouds and harp lessons (more on the Christian conception of heaven to follow). And of course we should not be overly concerned with what the world thinks of us. But when we talk about heaven and ignore the fact that most people misunderstand it as a silly and naive concept, we are complicit in presenting a distorted picture of the truth, and ultimately a distorted picture of God.
II. We present heaven incorrectly
When we tell people “how to get to heaven”, I think we are implicitly and (generally) unintentionally misrepresenting it simply by our language. The language of “going to heaven” or “getting to heaven” perpetuates the misconception of heaven as a place. By using this type of language, we unintentionally teach people to conceive of it as a physical destination where one hopes to be mystically transported after death. We unconsciously encourage Wizard of Oz thinking about heaven–that it’s a place somewhere over the rainbow, full of candy and goodies and endless fun activities.
But this is not a Christian understanding of heaven. The Christian conception of heaven, at the most basic level, is simply to be with God. It is to know and be known by him, to the fullest extent of our capacity to do so; to be in the unmitigated presence of the Beautiful One who is simultaneously the cause, the sustainer, and the purpose of our existence. Although it is difficult for finite, physical beings to conceive of existence without the language of location, we must understand that heaven is much less a place and much more a state of being. (In the same way, “eternal life” is not so much a length of life as a quality of life–more on that later.) All this is to say that it is vitally important for us to communicate the Christian conception of heaven properly to others, as well to have a reflective understanding of it for ourselves that is rooted in biblical witness and Christian tradition. And I believe telling people “how to get there” is dangerous in this respect. Heaven is not a place away up in the sky; heaven is the presence of God. And although we cannot hope in this life to fully wrap our minds around what that means, we must try to do so insofar as we are capable.
III. We inadequately portray the gospel
This is by far the weightiest consideration of all, and the reasons outlined above factor into it. There’s a number of concerns here, but I’ll try to be brief. (No promises.) The first and most surface-level consequence of “how to get to heaven” evangelism is that, intentionally or not, it presents Jesus as a Get-out-of-Hell-Free card—“But Sam,” you say, “Romans 6:23!”
No. Don’t you do that. Yes, salvation is an unmerited gift from God. But it is not something that we get to stake a claim on and then use as a trump card when it comes to the afterlife. When we speak about Jesus primarily as the way out of hell, we strip him of his glory and lordship and reduce him to a superstitious insurance policy that we can keep in our back pocket as a guarantee of protection. But Jesus is not a good insurance agent, giving us a great deal on a policy that gets us out of hell so that we can kick back in a golden armchair and enjoy heavenly retirement someday. That is not the gospel. Jesus did not come to give us a way out of hell; he came to give us himself. The gospel, the good news of the New Testament, is not that we can avoid hell; it is that we are now restored to the Creator, by whom and for whom we exist. Salvation is not good news because it provides an alternative to hell; it is good news because it means that we are no longer hopelessly separated from the Cause and Purpose of our existence.
And this is not just something that we look forward to in the future, while we bury our heads in the sand in the meantime and hope for the best. Our restoration to the Creator begins in the here and now. See, salvation isn’t future-based. We often speak and think as though salvation is something that doesn’t really come into play until later, when we die or Jesus comes back. So we say things like “I’m a Christian, which means when I die I’ll go to heaven and be with God.” But that is not the heart of the gospel. The heart of the gospel is not that we are saved from hell in the future, but that we are saved from sin and reconciled to God beginning now.
All throughout the gospels and the New Testament we see that eternal life–that is, the quality of life that belongs to God–has already come to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we see heaven colliding with earth and the eternal invading the temporal. Then in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the very life and breath of God is deposited in his disciples. And it is no different today; when we are saved by Christ, we are given his Spirit as a first deposit of eternal life (II Corinthians 1:22). Let that sink in: when God puts his Spirit in us, eternal life begins. As Christians in the world, we live in the already but not yet: although there is more to come than we will experience in this life, we have already been given the presence of God here and now. Thus in a very real way–not simply wishful thinking or a figure of speech–heaven too has already come to us, here and now. It isn’t an external future reward or something far away from us; it is an integral part of the daily Christian life.
So let’s stop telling people how to get to heaven, and start showing them that it’s already here instead.