“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk. 2:8-14).
Awhile back a well-meaning man and his son knocked on my door, awkward, tracts in hand. Below is the conversation as I remember it. I don’t think it is far from verbatim.
Me: “Hi. How can I help you?”
Man: “If you died today, do you know for certain you would not go hell?”
Man: “Would you like to be certain of that?”
Man: [Handing me tract] “Read this. It tells you how you can be certain you will not go to hell.”
Me: “Jesus said not to be anxious about tomorrow. I feel like you are trying to make me feel anxious about tomorrow.”
Man: “I thought you said you didn’t know for certain you weren’t going to hell when you died.”
Me: “I did. But I’m not anxious about hell. My faith is in Jesus, not in heaven, and certainly not in not going to hell. At any rate, Jesus is the Judge, so I’d rather put my trust in the Judge than in the verdict. Wouldn’t the latter just be mistaking myself as the judge? Don’t you think this approach to evangelism makes you out to be the judge and makes everyone else out to be on trial?”
[Very long, uncomfortable pause–I waited, comfortably.]
Man: “Okay, well I hope you get a chance to read this.”
Me: “Have a good one.”
When the angels proclaimed the coming of Christ our King it came with a message: “Fear not!” And I can’t help but think that our evangelism about the second coming of Jesus Christ should sound similar. Below is one of the most beautiful examples of evangelism, of sharing the Good News, I have ever witnessed, singing with the angel’s and whatnot in a “flash mob”:
I’ve probably watched this video 100 times. I love it. It is to me a symbol of evangelism in the truest sense, flash mobbing people in praise. It’s not news that simply leads people out of hell but News that leads people into worship. Evangelism is not a hit-and-run get-the-hell-out-of-hell proposition but a public declaration that Jesus Christ, the world’s true King, has come to offer his righteousness as a gift to sinners (Phil. 3:9) and is coming back to judge the world, fix the world, in righteousness (Acts 17:31). Its aim is not to promote the wretchedness of man or the rightness of the Church but rather to proclaim the grace of God in Jesus Christ and the glorious inbreaking of his kingdom, to which the only fitting response is praise. I can’t help but wonder how many of those people at that mall had ever clapped their hands for the coming of Christ before that day. But they did that day, because that day the News was Good. As it’s been said, “missions exists because worship doesn’t.”
Now, to be clear, I believe hell will be populated aplenty, and I reject the notion that God forces anyone or everyone to embrace his love and respond in love. That just ain’t how love works. But I also reject the notion of a Gospel that is grounded in heaven-and-hell and not in Jesus Christ, because that is not the Gospel found in the Gospels, nor the one proclaimed in the New Testament, and I remain ever more committed to the Gospel found in the Bible than the one found in contemporary Christian evangelicalism, or contemporary Christian liberalism for that matter.
In the book of Acts, for example, the New Testament book that should be used above all as the Church’s model for evangelism, the word “hell” (Grk. Gehenna) is never used. Not once. The word Hades, on the other hand, is used twice, but it is not used to refer to the place people who aren’t saved go when they die; it’s used to refer to the place Jesus went to save people when he died (Acts 2:27, 31). That should matter. That should shape the way we think about what the News actually is and the way we articulate it to the world to which we’ve been sent to announce it as Good.
The Apostles did not use fear tactics to “scare the hell out of people.” In fact, they seemed to have a certain aversion to the notion of using “tactics” of any sort. The Apostle Paul referred to his own “tactic” of evangelism to the Corinthians as methodologically foolish (1 Cor. 1:18, 23). He goes on to say
“I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…my speech and message were not in plausible words of wisdom but in the demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that you faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:2-5).
The Apostles simply focused on the Person of Jesus Christ and trusted that the Holy Spirit would empower their message, so long as their message remained faithfully Christ-centered. So whatever else we might conclude, we must conclude that the Good News of Jesus Christ is Christ-centered, not hell-centered, or even heaven-centered for that matter. It centers on a Person, not a place. By promoting a place-centered gospel, heaven becomes the goal, at best, and Jesus becomes a mere means to an end. At worst, the only goal is to get out of hell, and Jesus becomes a cheap deal on fire insurance. We may end up with more buyers selling cheap fire insurance, but we may also end up with more people in hell.
In fact, before the Holy Spirit was poured out in Acts 2, the Apostles themselves were hung up on a place-centered Gospel and Jesus had to rebuke them:
“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Jesus said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).
They were focused on a place. Jesus refocused them on a Person–on Him. If you have any doubt that our culture is also out of focus in a similar way, just go type “heaven” into your Google Images search box and see what comes up. Never mind. I’ll do it for you:
Who knew heaven was made of cotton balls?! Which is strange, since in the Bible heaven is made of an unbending throne (Isa. 66:1; Acts 7:46). But I’m not seeing a throne or the Person seated on the throne. All I see is what I remember seeing growing up when people talked about heaven as a cotton candy paradise where disembodied souls float up to the clouds when they die. But if the Bible’s descriptions are relevant to this discussion, the only mention of “clouds” in relation to heaven found there is when Jesus returns to set establish his throne on earth: “then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mt. 13:26). And when that happens, this world will not be less physical and more ethereal. It will be physical to the max: full of jasper and gold and glass and precious stones like emerald and onyx and ruby and chrysolite and beryl and topaz and turquoise and amethyst and, indeed, pearly gates planted firmly into the ground (Rev. 21:18-21). C.S. Lewis spoke of the heaven-on-earth as being so physical and real that at first even the grass would hurt our feet (The Great Divorce). But I digress…
The bottom line is this: the Good News of Jesus Christ is not about how fear-worthy hell is and how afraid we should feel about it–-that’s just not the point; it is about how love-worthy God is and how grateful we should be for his grace, and how eager we should be for him to return. It is not that one day we will float off into a wofty cotton field. It is that one day Jesus Christ will come back to earth to establish his throne on earth as it is in heaven, to which our unending response will be to worship with the angels on earth as they do in heaven (Rev. 4; 5:1-14; 7:9-17; 15; 19:4-8; 22:8-9).
Place-centered eschatology (study of “last things”) leads to man-made ideals of paradise. It’s what, for example, both Muslim and Mormon eschatology embraces, and precisely because they desire to be liberated from their gods. Who can blame them? But if we think heaven is the place where we will finally have our way and God will finally leave us alone, then we may be in danger precisely of getting our way and finally being left alone: we may be in danger of going to that heaven, which is another way of saying going to hell. But Christ-centered eschatology leads to worship. Christians (should) know that paradise is only paradisiacal because Christ is at the center, on the throne, and we are there with him, on our face.
Jesus is absolutely going to return and judge the world in righteousness, and those who trust in a righteousness of their own and not the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ will not be able to stand in that judgment, but that is a beautiful message, because that means Jesus is going to fix all that is broken in this world because of sin, which I know includes all that I have broken in this world because of my sin. And this is a beautiful message, indeed, because it means a world with no more sin and no more corruption, no more injustice and no more abuse, no more heartaches and no more headaches, no more bankruptcies and no more divorce, no more sadness and no more loneliness, no more fallen soldiers and no more single mothers, no more cancer and no more miscarriages, no more hatred and no more homelessness. Jesus is coming back to restore the good world he made (cf. Gen. 1) in judgment and salvation in such a way that it will be virtually unrecognizable but also will unmistakably be home–why? Because He will be here:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new!”
And that is something you can’t help but respond to in worship, whether you’re a grown adult at a mall or a little kid on a couch, like this one, who just couldn’t help herself as I was writing this reflection (wish I could have caught it all on video!):
So the next time you intend to mob someone with the Good News, just make sure you intend to point them to the Person who is coming to this place called home, and make sure you’re prepared to join them in praise, for:
“The kingdom of this world is become
The kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ!
And of His Christ!
And He shall reign for ever and ever!
And he shall reign forever and ever!
King of kings–and Lord of lords
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”