Much to my surprise, my mother wanted to have a minister speak at my father's memorial service. To comply, we met ahead of time with one of the pastors to give him some background about Dad. Then as we were about to leave, the minister asked if he "could share the gospel." My mother looked confused, so to take advantage of the opportunity, my wife and I answered for her. "Yes," we both said, almost simultaneously.
Looking back, everyone was happy with the message preached that day, save for a few die-hard secularists. Yet something about the content nagged at me.
Here was the gospel as preached that day, in a nutshell. "All people are condemned by God and doomed to an eternity in the after-life of painful torture in the flames of Hell. However, God sent his son so that those who hear his Word and obey it escape the flames of Hell. Those privileged few will be with God in Heaven when they die."
In essence, this is the standard "Gospel Message" as we hear it in America, at least since the Billys (Sunday and Graham) defined the content. Yet, while I listened to this sermon I felt in no small measure what non-believers must feel when they hear this modern-day gospel: Is that it? Is that all there is to this message and life of Jesus? Is that all you've got? Sheesh! It's a wonder you guys got out of Palestine.
In short, "Boring!
This is not the "gospel message" as I read it in the Bible. At best it is a truncated Gospel message. This is the message that frankly got the church of today where it is; half-hearted believers preaching an empty, low calorie gospel message to a world starving for challenge and a meaning beyond themselves. But since we see no gospel message beyond "pie in the sky when you die" then at least we can give them some entertainment to kill time until that great by and by.
I think this is the fundamental motivation of the new Mega-Church movement. We give the gospel of "heaven after death" and think that is then end of the message. Then to keep their interest, we give them entertainment music instead of worship; we give Nickelodean-style programs to the kids to teach them virtues instead of catechism lessons or examples of resurrection living; we provide "Vegetales instead of the milk or meat of Christian doctrine; we have low level "community groups" that discuss lessons based on study guides and books like "The Prayer of Jabez" or Rick Warren's latest tract instead of the Bible and the Bible alone; we bring in outside psychological counselors instead of training the men to disciple the men and the women the younger women. We fill our churches with programs, programs, and more programs.
All of this is massive evidence that we also believe that the gospel message of "heaven when you die" is boring and incomplete on its own. And we are right.
However, these days of cutting short the Gospel message must end. A gelded Gospel cannot generate believers any more than a castrated thoroughbred could produce another generation of race horses. It is my contention that the gospel must recover its full content in this present century or it will die. The "you can go to heaven when you die" message can no longer cut it if Christianity is not to go the way of any other of the other mystery religions of ancient Greece and Rome.
Yet the "you can go to heaven when you die" message is not the gospel as presented by Jesus at all. You want proof? Find this phrase in the Bible anywhere: "Accept Jesus into your heart and then you will go to heaven when you die." You may be able to find pieces of that statement spread out over several epistles, but nowhere is that single entire phrase found in the Bible. No where. Don't you find that somewhat confusing? If that statement is the Gospel, why isn't it repeated many times throughout the Bible? Why is it not on the lips of Peter and Paul over and over again in Acts? Why is it not repeated in Romans and Corinthians and Galatians? Why is it not mentioned in whole cloth even once?
Also, to make matters worse, the church of the first and second centuries did not even believe that they went to heaven when they died. As I have mentioned elsewhere, they believed that the fate of the believer was to reside is paradise, a better neighborhood in Hades, until Christ returned to the earth. Their focus was on the physical resurrection of the believer to live on a renewed earth. Even at the end of time, the believer would not live in heaven except for the times when Heaven intersected with the earth in the resurrection life. As noted at Preteristarchive.com ,
It may seem curious to us today, but the ancient Christian chiliasts defended a view of the afterlife in which the souls of the righteous did not go immediately to God's presence in heaven at the time of death, but went instead to a subterranean Hades. Here souls, in refreshment and joyful contemplation, waited for the resurrection and the earthly kingdom before they could enter the presence of God.
If you said the Gospel message was "believing in Jesus so you could go to heaven when you died" they would have called you a heretic; in fact they would have called you a specific kind of heretic. They would have called you a Gnostic. In Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter XXXI , Irenaeus (A. D. 190) says,
For the heretics, despising the handiwork of God, and not admitting the salvation of their flesh, while they also treat the promise of God contemptuously, and pass beyond God altogether in the sentiments they form, affirm that immediately upon their death they shall pass above the heavens and the Demiurge, and go to the Mother (Achamoth) or to that Father whom they have feigned. Those persons, therefore, who disallow a resurrection affecting the whole man, and as far as in them lies remove it from the midst [of the Christian scheme], how can they be wondered at, if again they know nothing as to the plan of the resurrection?
So the early church taught that the inner man or soul, at death, went to the invisible place or Hades, to await the bodily resurrection. Only at the time of the bodily resurrection did the believer enter into the heavenly glory. The only people who taught some version of going directly into heaven at death were the Gnostics. Such people were considered heretics by the early church.
Now I am not saying the early church was wrong or right regarding this view of life after death. On that point, I remain agnostic. However, I think this does prove that the early church could not have equated our version of "accepting Jesus into your heart and you will go into heaven when you die" with the Gospel message. They did not believe that Christians went directly into heaven when they died so they could not make that message equivalent with the Gospel. Accordingly, we are left with only two possible conclusions:
1) The early church did not preach or even possess the true gospel message;
2) Or, we do not.
Considering we pretty much owe everything we have, including the Scriptures, to the courage and faithfulness of the early church, I would be hesitant indeed to proclaim that they did not know the Gospel or preached a false Gospel. Therefore, the message about "going to heaven when you die," though possibly true, has to be taken as ancillary to the Gospel rather than central to its message. It is at best a side benefit rather than its core.
Which leads to the question: just what is the Gospel Message? I think N. T. Wright points us in the right direction. He notes:
The point about Jesus going to heaven is not that we'll go there to be with him one day, away from this wicked old world at last. The point is that from heaven he is ruling the world, ruling it through the faithful lives, the suffering, and the witness of his Spirit-driven apostolic followers, calling it to account, demonstrating that there is a new way of living, a way which upstages all Caesar's pretensions to have saved the world, or united it, or brought it genuine justice, freedom, and peace. (All those claims, by the way, are the standard things that all empires have claimed, whether in the first century or the twenty-first.)
As we can break down that condensed statement on the part of Wright, we will begin to recover the Gospel as known and proclaimed by Paul and the Apostles. Once we begin to live it, we will recover an excitement that will once again stir up the world.
We may stir up a renewed church or renewed persecution, but one thing will be certain: that Gospel message won't be considered boring by anyone.