I met a man yesterday who is passionate about his mission. In his lifetime he hopes to bring one billion people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Did you hear that? One billion.
This is his approach: he goes to schools in India, talks with the principals and tells them that if they will let him share “the true story of Christmas,” he will give every child in the school a free pen.
I asked him to tell me the true story of Christmas and he said, “Well, it’s about Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus, of course, but that’s only the beginning.”
He then told me about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, his preaching of the Kingdom, his healing of the sick, his death on a cross and his resurrection.
But it sounded as if the story he tells eventually comes down to this: that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you will perish in the flames of hell for eternity. Then he invites the children to say the sinner’s prayer with him and be saved, and many of them do.
Later I thought about this man and his mission and how it is a different mission than bringing heaven to earth.
His mission is keeping people out of hell, which made me ask, “Is that what it’s all about? Is the ‘true story of Christmas’ a story about keeping people out of hell?”
That’s not the message I get from the true story of Christmas. In fact, that’s not the message I get from either of the Gospels that tell the Christmas story (Matthew and Luke).
I challenge you to read either one all the way through, from beginning to end, and conclude that it’s about how to stay out of hell.
Hell doesn’t figure into these Gospels very often. Jesus mentions it seven times in Matthew, two times in Luke.
By contrast, he makes reference to the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, a staggering 120 times in the Gospels.
When his disciples ask him to teach them to pray, he says, “Pray for this: that God’s kingdom would come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That was his mission.
So where did we get the idea that our mission is to keep people out of hell?
The evangelist I talked with on Sunday might say that he gets it from John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
“See?” he would say. “That’s the true story of Christmas. God loved the world so much he gave his only son, like a Christmas present, wrapped in swaddling cloths.” And I would agree; that is the true story of Christmas.
“But if we don’t receive the gift of his son,” he would add, “we will perish everlastingly.” And that’s where I get stuck.
Love with an “if” in it is conditional love, and I believe that God loves us unconditionally.
I sometimes say to people, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do to make him love you more. There’s nothing you can do to make him love you less. All you can do is choose to receive the gift of his love.”
What if those Indian schoolchildren heard that message? Wouldn’t that sound more like what the gospel is supposed to be – good news?
And if they could really believe that God loved them unconditionally, wouldn’t heaven come to earth?
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.