Sayings have undeniable power. These short extracts, compiled, construct a metanarrative that form the context for understanding everything else we say. In this 3-part blog series, I want to look at 3 sayings we Christians use that obscure the story of Jesus, and because, well, they just rub me the wrong way. I will break down what we say, the problem it creates, and how to say it better. In my first post, I discussed inviting people to church, and in the second, asking Jesus into your heart. Now, bear with me on #3: “Jesus is your ticket to heaven.” Yes, we have to stop saying this.
What We Say
You’re on the fast track to hell, along with everyone else in the handbasket. But it’s not (solely) your fault; you didn’t know about Jesus and that’s why you’re going there. Don’t you want to go to heaven? It’s a wonderful place, where you’ll see everyone you know and love. The God you don’t yet know is going to be there. And you get to live eternally in this wonderful place. Why wouldn’t you want to be there? It’s undeniably the place to be. Accept Jesus and you get a one way ticket out of hell and into heaven. Sound good? Sweet, let’s pray.
The “Jesus is your ticket to heaven” saying, or any variation thereof, is at it’s worst gunboat evangelism, escapism in the middle, and on the extreme end narcissistic individualism. It is also inaccurate.
Gunboat evangelism only encourages shallow conversion without discipleship. It also violates the spirit of the gospel. Jesus does say “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”, but Jesus doesn’t go for gunboat evangelism; he doesn’t say love me or else. He warns us of not only our sins but the entire state of sin the world is in. The need for conversion is only the first step towards change.
Hell is real. The adversary is real. I won’t deny those truths. The world actually is going to hell in a handbasket, but a counteracting force is also at work in the world: the kingdom of God. Planted by Jesus and nurtured (or at least we try) by his Church, the kingdom of God is a seed that though small will grow to be the largest tree, a little bit of yeast that will work throughout the dough. Jesus talked far more about the kingdom of heaven coming to earth than he did speak of us going to heaven when we die. Jesus came not to take us out of the world, but to change us that we might be changemakers in the world.
Pharisaical narcissism focuses us on maintenance of our moral purity, devolving into self-righteousness or self-shaming that keeps us from partnering with Jesus in his work of renewal. It breeds an individualism solely focused on getting me into heaven. Gunboat evangelism turns the guns on the evangelist: if we help others get into heaven, it’s only to get me notches on my belt, and more heavenly rewards.
Say It Better
What ought we say instead? Maybe, “Jesus loves us, died for us, is risen for us, and is coming back for us. He asks us to believe in him, and he needs us to join him in his renewal of all things, to bring heaven down to earth. What we receive in exchange will be him – he is life, he is everything. You may not know it now, but I promise you will. Follow me and I will do my best to show you what it means to follow Christ.”
We could say it better if we believed better. So let’s keep a few things in mind:
#1 Heaven is not our final destination.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.”…I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. Revelation 21:1-3, 22
I am frustrated we rarely share this beautiful narrative, shying away from apocalyptic talk. We vaguely discuss heaven and let people draw their own conclusions. The Bible is clear that the appeal of the afterlife is not that it is some hyperbolic version of an earthly existence, rather the afterlife of the new creation appeals to us because God is there. We must emphasize the afterlife as eternal presence with God.
#2 Heaven is not our individual reward.
I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” ~ Jesus
If we read closely between the lines of the story of Jesus’ final night before his betrayal and execution, the sadness and grief is not so much because Jesus was going to suffer and die. They were saddened because they would be separated from Jesus and from one another. Jesus would not be with them as he was. This is why Jesus emphasizes over and over how he wouldn’t be with them any longer, and why he promises at his ascension that he would be with them through the end of the age. Because our true reward as disciples is God himself, not what he gives us.
Individualism only harms the gospel. We ought to replace our “I”s with “we”‘s remembering that love for God is love for our neighbor, and vice versa. Jesus did not come just for one person, he came to bring himself a people. We too should emphasize this.
#3 We must love the world.
And he [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. Ephesians 1:9-10
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. Romans 8:19-21
Our Lord taught us to pray ‘your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ The goal is to bring the kingdom (rulership) of God to earth, not simply to bide our time and escape the destruction of earth. John said not to love the world, but remember he also said it for love of the world that God sent the Son. Escapist ideas about heaven keep us from loving the world as God does, desiring to liberate it from frustration so it may experience the reconciliation and renewal through the gospel of Christ.
Jesus invites us to partner with him in this work. We carry on his work to destroy the works of the devil and erect the works of God. It means adopting orphans, opposing human trafficking, prophetically denouncing sins against the public—the unjust behaviors of global banks in the financial crisis spring to mind—promoting global peace, writing songs, paying it forward, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, and doing all the other things Christians ought to do. We drive out demons, speak in new tongues and heal the sick, displaying the supernatural works of God.