“And He said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43).
I have a friend who died an untimely death recently. I had, to the best of my ability (which probably wasn’t that great), tried to witness to him about Jesus Christ and eternal life in Him. As with any loved one who dies, I like to think that he received Jesus as his Savior before he died, but I don’t have any level of confidence one way or the other.
In our conversations about Christian related things, he at least once expressed this common idea: well, I’ll just wait until right before I die, and believe then. I’m fairly confident I addressed that issue: it’s all well and good, except we don’t know when “right before I die” will occur. For him, it was on an early fall morning.
People come up with all kinds of ideas about Christianity and reasons to not accept its tenets. Sometimes we think that if we believe in Jesus, we will miss out on something. There is also the intellectual objections; because we grow up in a system oriented against truth, Christianity is seen as unsophisticated. Weaving through any objection is the fundamental issue of the will, people are not willing to obey the Gospel. Mixed in among all of this are misleading presentations that focus on lifestyle changes that an unbeliever must be willing to make as part of receiving the Gospel, which muddles the issue; yes, there should be lifestyle changes for Christians, but those changes are for Christians(!), an unbeliever does not have the ability to live any part of the Christian life, for him the issue is only Jesus Christ, who He is and what He did.
A common phrase heard in Gospel presentations is: “When you die.” Believe in Jesus so that you can go to heaven when you die. A “When you die” emphasis makes it seem as though Christianity is a religion for the dead. And if I’m 25, death seems a long way off, so why buy in now, when I can wait until dying seems much more likely.
The above statement was more or less my hypothesis. To test it, I surveyed the book of Acts. There are presentations of the Gospel sprinkled throughout the book, but Luke provides nine discourses to review to see if the first generation of the church put the same kind of emphasis on “when you die” as people seem to do today. The early church period was during an age when death for the young was much more of a reality than it is today, so, if anything, any emphasis on dying should be enhanced during this time.
Peter provides the first sermon which occurred on Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41). It emphasizes that David, who died, prophesied the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In response Peter exhorts his Jewish audience to: “Repent and be baptized” (v. 38). This will result in the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit and is available to all. There is no direct “when you die” benefit provided in Peter’s speech. The forgiveness of sins provision ultimately concerns the judgment all people will experience after they die, but it is also a benefit experienced immediately.
Peter provides the next sermon in his Portico preaching (Acts 3:11-26). Here Peter places a greater emphasis on ultimate results: the completely Jewish audience is encouraged to repent and turn back which will result in the forgiveness of sins, but more relevant to our discussion, it will also lead to the times of refreshing and the sending of Jesus! These two promises don’t so much concern what happens when you die, but they do concern what happens when Israel cries out for its Savior. This has not happened yet, but this promise relates directly to many Old Testament predictions for Israel and its coming kingdom. Before the council of Jewish leaders (Acts 4:1-22) Peter emphasized Jesus: crucified, raised from the dead, the cornerstone, salvation in no one else. When Peter, along with the rest of the apostles, appeared before the council of Jewish leaders again (Acts 5:17-42) the emphasis remained on Jesus: the Jesus they had killed God raised, God exalted Him as Israel’s Leader and Savior. The Holy Spirit is for those who obey God. In none of these four confessions is there any focus on life after death. Instead, the focus is on as N.T. Wright says, life after life after death, the resurrection! And since death must precede such life, it wouldn’t be fair to say that “when you die” is a totally absent idea in Peter’s remarks.
Peter next witnesses to the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10) (1). Luke describes Cornelius as a man who feared God (v. 2), which suggests he was an Old Testament type of believer at the beginning of the chapter.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Before Cornelius Peter declares Jesus Christ: peace through Him, He is Lord of all, God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit, the people crucified Him, God raised Him, He is appointed to be the judge of the living and the dead, believing in Him results in the forgiveness of sins.
The presentation of Jesus as the judge of the living and the dead is given three times in the New Testament (Acts 10:42; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:5; he is called “Lord of the dead and the living” in Rom. 14:9). It is probably most famous because of its inclusion in the Apostle’s Creed, which itself can be viewed as summarizing the sermons recorded in Acts. That the Man Jesus Christ will be our judge is of significant significance. This does concern what happens when we die, but it applies to believers and unbelievers alike. Both will, in a sense, go to be with Jesus, at least for a short period of time.
Luke spends most of the rest of Acts focusing on the ministry of his pal Paul. The first major discourse Luke records of Paul is his in Pisidia (Acts 13:13-52). Paul delivers this message to a mostly Jewish audience recounting some of their history, similarly to what Stephen did in Acts 7; however, Stephen emphasized the Jewish tendency to reject God whereas Paul emphasizes Jesus: the Son of David, promised by the prophets, rejected by Israel’s leaders, executed, buried, raised (v. 30), raised (v. 33), raised (v. 34), resurrection prophesied (v. 35), raised (v. 37). In this resurrected Man “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (v. 38). Paul then finishes with a warning for the people to not ignore his message.
From his message before a Jewish audience in Pisidia Luke moves to recounting Paul’s address to a Gentile audience in Athens (Acts 17:22-34). Here Paul reveals the Greeks’ unknown God as the one true Creator God. Because of Jesus Christ the period of groping in darkness (even if self-created) is over; it is time to repent “because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a Man” Whom God raised from the dead (v. 31). Instead of focusing on happy thoughts of going to heaven when you die, Paul emphasizes the appointed judgment for all. Paul repeats this theme in his conversation with Felix (Acts 24:1-27): resurrection of the just and unjust, and the coming judgment.
The final major discourse recorded by Luke is Paul’s before Agrippa (Acts 26). Paul sums up the major theme of his messages (which has resulted in him being imprisoned): Paul hopes in God’s promises, God raises the dead! Paul then recounts his calling and ministry to the Gentiles, which sparked the jealousy of the Jews. This caused Paul to respond by pointing out to them what the prophets and Moses said: the Christ must suffer, He would be raised from the dead, He would be a light to the Jews and Gentiles.
In all of these accounts of the early church’s ministry, the focus on resurrection far eclipses any idea of a going to heaven when you die message. The presentation of the Gospel is about Jesus, His death, His resurrection, the coming judgment. In this I have not really proved my hypothesis that a “when you die” focus is unwarranted. By discussing judgment and resurrection one is assuming death. Still, there remains a tendency to see Christianity as a religion that dead people need. It’s true dead people do need Jesus, but on a Christian basis we are all born dead and we need Jesus to be raised with Him now, to be with Him when we die physically and to be resurrected in Him at His coming.