I grew up during a time when church plays were in vogue. Or at least a lot of churches thought they were.
Most of the church plays had a very similar theme: a wayward sinner who was on the road to hell. The sinner was often entangled in the classic sins like substance abuse, sexual relations outside of marriage, vanity. You know, someone who makes bad decision after bad decision. Until, suddenly, a friend, family member, or pastor would ask them the life changing question that turned their entire situation around.
Where are you going to go when you die?
The closing scene would be full of excitement and celebration as the wayward sinner turned to Jesus and was swept away by angels into heaven. If the church play director was really edgy, then the closing scene would end with the wayward sinner rejecting Jesus and being drug off the stage by the devil or his demons.
As the curtain would close, the pastor of the church would come out and ask the audience, “Where will you go when you die?” An altar call or something similar would follow and a large number of people would profess faith in Jesus by the end of the night.
I was one of those people.
The church play I attended was held in a performing arts center. There weren’t enough seats for the crowd waiting to see the play. At eleven years old, I sat on my mother’s lap captivated by the music, lighting, and drama of it all. By the time the final act came, my heart was racing out of my chest. I watched the wayward sinner be dragged off the stage and suddenly the room went black.
One spotlight appeared in the pitch black auditorium, and the pastor stepped into it. He soberly looked up, and it felt like he was looking straight at me when he asked, “Do you know where you are going when you die?”
I burst into tears as I imagined myself being dragged into Hell by men dressed in black. I understood the only way for that not to be me was if I put my faith in Jesus. So that night I did. I practically leaped off of my mom’s lap to make my way down the aisle in the packed auditorium.
The lights flicked on. The entire room was cheering as I and several other people walked to the front of the room to make a public statement that we were choosing to put our faith in Jesus. I breathed a sigh of relief now knowing that I would not be going to Hell when I died.
For generations, the evangelism conversation revolved around Heaven and Hell. There are thousands upon thousands of people who can attest to a very similar conversion story. It may not have been a dramatic church play, but the focus of the conversation centered on your eternal destination and Jesus was the only way to escape Hell.
This is still a strategy in place in our churches today. But it’s not as helpful as we’d like to think it is to place an overemphasis on Heaven and Hell. I would actually like to make a case that it’s not as biblical as we’d like to think it is either.
Here are three reasons why overemphasizing Heaven and Hell is far more harmful to evangelism than it is helpful.
1. It leads to fear-based conversions.
When someone is presented with a traumatic and agonizing description of Hell and a dreamlike description of Heaven, certainly anyone in their right might would choose Heaven. I don’t know a single person who would choose Hell over Heaven.
Conversations that revolve around Heaven and Hell as evangelism tools are often very heavy on describing hell as awfully as possible. By no means am I suggesting hell should be described in any other way, but the conversation hinges on the description of Hell far more than it hinges on a biblical description of Heaven.
This leads people to a place of genuine fear and terror of ending up in Hell. And out of this fear of wanting to end up in any place other than Hell, they profess faith in Jesus because it will save them from this awful place.
Yes, the bible is clear that because of our sin we are all damned to Hell. This is a hard truth that we should never feel we must shy away from. But it’s not the best way to lead into a conversation about faith in Jesus.
In fact, we never see a conversion story in the bible that begins with fear. The reason to call Jesus Lord and Savior is not out of fear of going to Hell. A true understanding of coming to faith in Jesus is so much richer and deeper than simply escaping Hell. Not only is it unhelpful to present the gospel of Jesus through means of fear, it’s incredibly harmful to the development of faith in a person’s life.We never see a conversion story in the bible that begins with fear. Click To Tweet
2. It leads to shallow faith.
When a person comes to faith through fear-based motives, they are likely to carry that with them throughout their faith. Or if they come to faith because they’re enticed by the idea of Heaven, then they begin with a very shallow understanding of salvation.
Faith in Jesus is often misunderstood as a golden ticket to Heaven. We care more about the destination of Heaven when the focus of our conversion was centered around escaping Hell.
This understanding of what it means to have faith in Jesus, isn’t really about life transformation. It doesn’t lead to an ongoing submission of ourselves to Jesus. It doesn’t require dying to yourself day after day, in exchange for the life created for you. It also doesn’t lend itself to believing the life Jesus has for you here and now is so much better than anything you can create for yourself.
In many ways, it allows you to continue on unaltered by the death and resurrection of Jesus, apart from cashing out your ticket to heaven upon death. This leads to a watered down and shallow understanding of what it means to live out your faith in Jesus.When someone comes to faith through fear-based motives, they are likely to carry that with them throughout their faith. Click To Tweet
3. Overemphasis on Heaven and Hell loses sight of the gospel.
The gospel—the good news—is about Jesus. It’s about understanding you were dead and it’s only through Jesus you can have life. He is the very essence of what it means to be alive. The gospel is about life and death, not Heaven and Hell. These are not one in the same. They are very different in the way we understand our relationship with God.
Eternity is about being in community with the triune God. It’s not only about what we are saved from, but about what we are saved for and who we are saved by. Jesus wants to change your life on this side of eternity and on the other side. The gospel is good news for our entire life. And that ought to be the focus of our conversation, rather than merely Heaven and Hell.Eternity is about being in community with the triune God. Click To Tweet
MORE RESOURCES TO CHECK OUT
If you found this article helpful, these books might be useful resources to you.
- One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation by Marcus Peter Johnson
- Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did by Randy Newman