Be careful what you promise

On the Sola Panel:

Do you know for sure that you are going to be with God in Heaven? If God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into My Heaven?” what would you say?

Have you ever used these questions (or a variation on them) to talk about the impact of the gospel of Jesus Christ with friends or strangers? They are the introductory questions in the well-known gospel explanation associated with Evangelism Explosion (EE). They’ve proved themselves to be a very popular way to start a serious discussion about our relationship with God. We assume that people in our world have given at least some thought to their own death and eternal destiny. These questions help us to show how the gospel, with its strong emphasis on assurance of future salvation through Jesus (e.g. 1 Thess 1:10, Heb 9:27-28, 1 Pet 1:3-5), provides a clear answer to important issues.

But, perhaps, not any more: XEE, the next generation version of Evangelism Explosion, starts with quite a different set of questions:

On a Scale of 1 to 10, how fulfilling would you say your life is?

What makes it an X? Would it change in either direction if God were in your life?

The key Bible verse for XEE is John 10:10: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”. The emerging generations, according to XEE, no longer think very much about death or the afterlife; people care more about the now-life. Futility or fulfilment today matters more than fear or hope for tomorrow. And so, if we want people to listen to our explanation of the gospel, we need to start with something that people today actually care about. You can have a fulfilling life, says XEE, by having a relationship with God through Jesus. XEE’s presentation does, of course, say that this “life to the full” is not just about our circumstances, feelings, or quality of life; it also says that it continues beyond the grave. Nevertheless, XEE’s overall emphasis is the fact that Jesus gives us fulfilment in life now.

The creators of XEE have made a serious effort to understand the real concerns of real people whom we want to hear the gospel, and we should applaud them for it. There is an advantage to beginning a gospel presentation by addressing a felt need in your hearer(s). It makes evangelism much easier because it means you can start up a genuine conversation quickly on a topic that matters to them. But I have a question for users of XEE. In fact, I have a question for anyone who has tried to use ‘fulfilment in life’ as a good way to begin a discussion about Jesus. That question is this: how do you deal with the fact that most people’s idea of ‘fulfilment’ is so utterly different to the kind of fulfilment Jesus talks about?

The idea of ‘fulfilment’ in today’s world is incredibly ambiguous. It is usually associated with careers, family, sexual relationships and education. If you ask somebody whether they’d like ‘fulfilment’, that’s the kind of thing they’re most likely to be thinking about initially. However, Jesus’ view of ‘abundant life’, or life ‘to the full’ (John 10:10), is very different. In John’s Gospel, ‘full’ or ‘abundant’ life is eternal life (John 3:15, 4:14, 4:36, 6:40, 6:68). Even though this abundant life is available now through Jesus’ word (John 5:24, 8:31-32, 14:23, 15:3-4) and Spirit (John 4:23, 7:38), it ultimately means life beyond death (John 5:21, 5:25). The ‘full’ life of John 10:10 is about being saved from God’s judgement for our sins (John 3:16-17, 3:36, 5:24, 5:29, 7:24, 10:9). Actually, people who came to Jesus expecting material benefits for their own daily life needed to be corrected (John 4:15, 6:27). Many of them turned away from him because he has disappointed them in this regard (John 6:66). Indeed, in the here and now, Jesus promises his disciples hardship, persecution and hatred by the world (John 15:18, 17:14), not just the benefits of a fulfilling relationship with God.

So if you begin your discussion about Jesus by asking people whether they feel fulfilled in life, and if you imply that the gospel is the answer to this need, you’re going to have a much harder job further down the track. You’ll have to show people that the Bible’s idea of a fulfilled life is completely different from what they first expected when you started talking to them about ‘fulfilment’. How do you avoid the confusion? Talking about ‘fulfilment in life’ might be more instantly accessible to post-Christian generations. And it clearly makes initial conversations easier. But is it, in the long run, going to cause more problems than it solves?

I’m not saying that we should only ever use the ‘classic’ EE questions about getting into heaven either. In fact, these questions have their own pitfalls. Because they begin with human concerns about the afterlife rather than with God himself, they run the risk (if not used properly) of marginalizing Jesus’ demand on our lives and making the gospel sound like a mere ‘free ticket to heaven’. Nevertheless, there are also great advantages to these classic questions. They are clear and direct. They imply that there is a personal God, that this God will judge us, and that there is an afterlife that really matters. This means that they can potentially generate discussion that quickly gets to the heart of some of these central biblical concerns. On the other hand, as the creators of XEE have realized, these questions assume too much in a post-Christian world. Can we really take for granted that our hearers have a clear view of God, judgement and heaven before we start to share the gospel with them?

Perhaps there are alternative questions we could use to start up a conversation—questions that make sense without being confused with promises that Jesus simply doesn’t make. Perhaps we could talk about people’s fear of death in general. (According to Hebrews 2:15, the fear of death itself is a basic feature of human existence, not just a generational thing. The fear of death is certainly a common theme in much contemporary fiction; just look at the Harry Potter series, which is all about the terror of death, from the first book to the last.) Or have you discovered other means to talk quickly and easily about the impact of the gospel in ways that make sense to our current generation?

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