I had the privilege of sitting in on our youth Bible study one recent Sunday night. The topic was “decisions” and our associate pastor, Felicia Fox, was doing an awesome job of managing the chaos of 10 preteen and teenage boys.
After asking one of the youth to read John 3:16, a few students began asking about what happens to people who have never heard the gospel.
“Will God send people to hell just because they didn’t say yes to a question they never had the privilege of hearing?” one of them asked.
The reasoning of a few of these boys was that it wouldn’t seem to be in God’s character to send a child to everlasting flames who had never heard about Jesus.
I was proud that they figured that out on their own. It showed me they were developing good theology from their pastors, teachers and parents.
Their question was really about whether the God who is love could be trusted to do the right and loving thing.
When it comes to eternal destinies, God is the one who deserves our trust and we aren’t privy to know the hearts of other human beings.
But our youth’s question got me to thinking. It seems to me that the fatal flaw of modern American evangelical Christianity has been our fixation with the beginning point of faith and the eternal fate of the individual soul.
What we seem to have missed is the in-between.
Perhaps the reason so many people today have dismissed Christianity – and the church – is that once we’ve taken care of “believing in Jesus” and settled our eternal destiny, far too many Christians live like they want to live in between those two events disregarding the teachings of Jesus.
Discipleship in our day is seen far too often as an optional accessory to our faith.
For many believers, following Jesus in the here and now is an afterthought. We need a course correction.
Instead of being obsessed with “getting people into heaven one day,” we should be obsessed with “getting heaven into people now.”
Getting people into heaven at some future time is good, but heaven starts here. Jesus said in John 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Eternal life begins here and now. Heaven starts here by knowing God through Jesus in a daily relationship through the Holy Spirit.
This means that ongoing process of “knowing” God should make a real difference in the way we live, make decisions and treat other people. That is what the world is waiting to see take place in the lives of church members.
So what difference is Jesus making in the way you think and make decisions? What difference is Jesus making in the way you order your life this week? These are the kinds of questions the church had better start asking of our people.
The world is watching and increasingly dismissing our so-called “faith” when it seems to have no bearing on our actions. James echoed this critique when he bluntly said, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).
So what good is a dead faith? It’s good for nothing. We can change that “good for nothing” perception by allowing Jesus’ life and teachings to influence our daily lives in tangible, meaningful ways.
What might happen if Christians became obsessed with answering Jesus’ prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out?
Perhaps we would realize that heaven starts here, in you and me.
Dennis R. Atwood is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Mount Olive, North Carolina.