A billboard outside Chicago asks drivers, “Where are you going? Heaven or Hell.” The word “Heaven” shines upon backlit clouds while “Hell” blazes amid raging flames. A number is given for convicted motorists to call.
I hope many do, though I wonder how effective such roadside messages are in our secular, pluralistic age. Jesus promises to make us “fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19), but often it seems the fish aren’t biting. Many people remain amazingly unfazed by the afterlife; they’re entirely focused on the here and now. Ask where they’re going when they die and they’ll shrug and say they’ll handle it when the time comes. They assume it will all work out for the best.
Some churches respond to such lack of interest in the afterlife by changing the subject. They rarely mention death or hell but instead emphasize how Jesus improves our present lives. He is our BFF who carries our burdens and heals our brokenness. These ministries may think they’re still fishing, but they’re more like children who, bored with watching their undisturbed bobbers, have waded into the shallows to net minnows.
To use a baseball metaphor, they are playing small ball. They are content to slap a single, steal second, bunt the runner to third, then hit a sacrifice fly to scratch out a run. Please hear me. We must show people how Jesus helps with today’s problems. But we must never forget that we alone have the answer to sin, death, and hell. Someday Jesus is going to ask us why we seldom swung for the fences.
But how do we do that? How do we whet people’s appetite for the next life when they only seem interested in this one? We could follow Scripture’s lead and explain the next life will be a lot like this one. Specifically, we could try three strategies.
1. Lead with lesser hopes.
The deepest longing of every human heart can only be satisfied in the embrace of our Lord and Savior. Jesus said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). But if the finest things in life are an acquired taste, we shouldn’t be surprised when unbelievers, whose minds have been blinded by Satan, don’t yet appreciate “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). Perhaps this is why our Lord, while calling people to love him most, also promised lesser rewards (Matt. 5:11–12; 6:19–21; 25:23; Mark 9:41; Luke 6:35; 19:11–27). Specifically, he told his disciples they would “inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). This is not a metaphor.
Isaiah (65:17–25), Peter (2 Peter 3:10–13), and John (Revelation 21:1–5) all declare that God’s people will live forever on a new earth. The phrase “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1) bookends Scripture’s opening sentence, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Creation, then new creation. God’s story ends much as it began, with his redeemed people worshiping him, communing with each other, and enjoying the many pleasures of God’s good world.
By all means, let’s tell people about the immense comfort of going to heaven when they die. Who can imagine that first moment when we see Jesus? But let’s also tell them this inexpressible climax is not the end. Heaven is not our final destination, but the first leg of a journey that is round trip (this is why our soul’s journey to heaven is called the “intermediate state”). Christians believe in the three R’s: the return of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the restoration of all things.
Heaven is not our final destination, but the first leg of a journey that is round trip.
Let’s tell people their ultimate choice is not just between heaven and hell, but between hell and here. Do you want to live forever here, on this restored planet? Everything you do not like about your life can be traced to Adam’s fall. Imagine living here when the curse is reversed! How sweet will be our fruit? How vibrant our colors? How soaring our music? If you like being human and you like living here, you’re going to love the new earth. Repent of your sin, put your faith in Jesus, and all this will be yours. Literally.
2. Close with highest fears.
Jesus spoke often about rewards, and he spoke more than anyone else about hell. If we follow his lead and tell people of the glories awaiting who love him, we should also follow his example and warn of the disaster if they don’t. The stakes could not be higher. Jesus promises endless earthly bliss for those who turn from their sin, and everlasting hell for those who refuse.
Speaking about hell can be uncomfortable, because we don’t want to manipulate people with fear or come across like the caricature on a street corner screaming, “Turn or burn!” I get it. This is why it’s important to lead with the hope of God’s promised future. We must emphasize what Jesus saves us for.
But we must not forget what Jesus saves us from. If hope leads us to the promised land, a healthy fear will keep us from returning to Egypt. Fear is the right motivation when the danger is real. Meeting a bear in the woods is the wrong time to say, “I refuse to be motivated by fear. I choose to act entirely from love.” You’ll be lunch! If hell is real, people should be more afraid of it than of anything else.
I may not want to scare people into repentance, but Jesus did. He told people they should gouge out their eye or cut off their hand if it would stop them from going to hell (Matt. 5:29–30). I don’t speak about hell as fiercely and frequently as Jesus did. If he wasn’t worried about manipulation, then I shouldn’t worry about it either.
3. Invite them to church.
None of this may matter to people hunched over their smart phones, scrolling from one distraction to another. Technology’s incessant cacophony inevitably shrinks our horizons. Some hearts are so scrunched they scarcely think about tomorrow, let alone next week or next year. What could possibly make them ponder the afterlife?
The assembly of God’s people. We are “the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). We are the community in which the promises and warnings of Jesus are both proclaimed and made plausible. As we gather in the presence of Christ, his Spirit reorients our hearts toward Jesus and what truly matters. We hear the old, old story once more, and we believe.
And so might they. The Spirit of God uses the Word of God among the people of God to bring the lost to himself. Let’s be purposeful about our preaching, our liturgy, and our fellowship. Let’s be the church.