I was abducted by an alien gospel. At least that seems like the best way to describe what happened when I was 11 years old. One day, during a summertime visit to my aunt's home, I found some matches and played with them in the back yard. As she was putting me to bed, my aunt, who had been tipped off by a neighbor, asked me if I had been playing with matches. Being an 11-year-old, I naturally said, "No."
"God knows if you were playing with matches," my aunt said sternly. "If you are lying, you are committing a sin. If you die tonight without having your sins forgiven, you will go to hell." That seemed awfully severe, but having burned my fingers earlier in the day, I didn't want to risk getting close to eternal fire. I eagerly asked Jesus to forgive me for lying, playing with matches, and an assortment of other sins. I fell asleep relieved that if I died during the night I would go to heaven. Now I was saved!
But was I? Had my aunt's "evangelism" ushered me into the new life that Jesus offers and that the Scriptures describea life of love, joy, freedom, and power? Or had I been abducted by a narrow, alien version of Christianity, which consisted of trusting Jesus to rescue me from hell and then faithfully trying to get others to trust Jesus for the same rescue?
In one sense, my aunt's evangelistic effort was effective. For 30 years I have been trying to follow the Jesus I prayed to that night, and I have been trying to introduce others to him. But I have become frustrated with the evangelism that I received and have practiced myself. More and more, I've sensed that the gospel I was told, and which I've been passing along, ignores the substance of life in its hurry to save me from eternal damnation.
This frustration caused me to revisit some old friends. Anyone raised in the evangelical Protestant world will be familiar with these memory verses:
- The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:10)
- For God so loved that world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
- Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. (Acts 16:31)
For years my definitions for these italicized words went something like this.
LostSomeone who is going to hell because he has not believed in Jesus for the payment of his sins.
SavedSomeone who has eternal life because she has believed in Jesus and asked him to forgive her sins.
BelieveTo agree with the proposition that Jesus, God's Son, paid for our sins, thereby giving us eternal life. Generally we show that we "believe" in Jesus by praying a prayer asking him to forgive our sins and come into our lives.
Eternal lifeLife in heaven with Jesus when I die. As millions of evangelicals have been taught to ask: "If you were to die tonight, are you sure you would go to heaven?"
This understanding of the gospel is essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin and death, with wrongdoing and its effects. We've got the past coveredpast sins are forgiven. We've got the future coveredheaven when we die. But what about the present? Life, our actual daily existence, is strangely absent from this version of the good news.
Shortly after we moved to San Francisco, a neighbor asked me to explain what it means to be a Christian. Raised in a Jewish family, he had never talked with a Christian about the essence of Christianity. I rolled out my old presentation: God loves us, but we've all sinned. God sent Jesus to pay for our sins, and if we trust in Jesus' payment, God will forgive our sins and give us eternal life. I've practiced this stuff: my words were clear, my illustrations were clever. But all the while, I found myself thinking, "This doesn't sound like good news. Why must I convince my neighbor that he's bad before the good news will sound good? Really good news ought to sound good even to people who don't feel bad."