We have been taught all our lives that the most important thing we can do for a dying relative or friend is to lead him or her to faith in Jesus before he or she passes into the next world unprotected. This scenario has been recently, and I must add, powerfully, set before us in the movie God is not Dead. In the last scene of the movie, the greatest antagonist against the belief in God is hit by a car on his way to a concert being helped by the protagonists who want to glorify God. While it is apparent that the antagonist is repentant and desirous of changing his ways as he makes his way to the concert, a minister, with whom he has had a couple of dialogues, sees him lying in the street during a pouring rain. He runs up to him and gives him a simple, last chance to trust in Jesus. And he does. The scene actually gives the viewer chills; it is so exciting. It did that for me at least.
Because of our training, our first thought is, regardless of how many lives he led astray and in spite of overturning the faith of many Christians who had taken his philosophy classes, he is now safe in the arms of Jesus and assured a place in heaven for all eternity. In our estimation, we escape the charges of injustice and unfairness because we have been taught that Jesus paid it all. His death paid for every sin that this professor would ever commit. And since He bore on the cross the sins of the whole world and the penalties which those sins justly deserved, an eleventh hour faith in Jesus is all that is needed to escape the divine judgment due to those sins.
But what if belief in Jesus doesn’t secure anything on the other side of the grave? What if believing in Jesus only deals with this life? What if the sins that can be forgiven and the penalties resulting from those sins are confined to this earthly life alone? What if Jesus’ payment for sins only deals with this side of the grave? What if the promise of eternal life is something that is enjoyed only here on planet earth? What if the salvation that is received upon believing in Jesus only involves this present life and not the afterlife as well? What if there is no gift of a perfect, permanent, righteous standing before God by believing in Jesus? What if all of Jesus’ work on the cross can be applied to this life alone? What if there is no one act of faith in Jesus that could deliver a person from hell?
What if, after we’ve gone back to the Bible to test all the doctrines that we have been taught for the last five hundred years, related to the broad topic of soteriology, they all prove to be unsupportable? How would that change our thinking about sharing Jesus with a dying person who had not trusted in Him for salvation, for eternal life, or for forgiveness of sins? Would we even have any rationale for urgency in the matter? If there was no escape from hell to offer him if there was no forgiveness of sins to be obtained that would free him from his own personal judgment, and if there was no guarantee of a heavenly destiny to promise him, why would you make such haste to share Jesus at that point? Of course, there are many, many other reasons to want to demonstrate our love for the dying one.
Our training has led us to place all people into one of two groups: either they are believers in Jesus or they are unbelievers, having never trusted in Jesus for eternal life. If they are believers, then they are good-to-go, right? If they are unbelievers, they have no hope regardless of what else they might have believed and how they lived their lives. This, however, is plainly not how the Scriptures present the matter. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament emphasize walking by faith, not coming to a faith (either in God the Father or in Jesus). If a person has not learned and implemented a walk of faith, he has missed out on God’s blessings in this life and will be shocked at his own judgment when he stands before Jesus in whom he has believed but with whom he has not walked.
It has often been assumed that the thief on the cross was a deathbed conversion. But if you look back at what is actually said about the thief, you will not see the term conversion or convert used. You will not find the word save or salvation used. There is not even the use of either of the terms justify or justification used (and these, unlike the others, clearly could have been). The various texts don’t tell us whether the thief believed in Jesus here for the first time. Apparently, he did not since he already knew about, and most probably believed, Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. Since Jesus was offering to set up the Messiah’s kingdom, He is either the Messiah or some nut case who was completely self-deluded. By evaluating Jesus’ life and ministry, His miraculous works and His marvelous words, the thief rightly concluded that Jesus was the Messiah and not a nut case. But these were beliefs that he held before he was ever hanged on a cross. He is not coming to these beliefs at this point in his life.
Furthermore, no one knows what kind of person he was; no one knows what kind of life he had lived. All that we do know is that he was rightly condemned for something that he and the other thief had done. But he might have lived a perfectly good life until he chose to commit a crime(s) worthy of death. Just as Judas experienced a horrible ending to his life, but had, only hours before, been commended by Jesus for his life and ministry (Lk. 22:24-30), and assured of his throne for ruling in the coming kingdom of Messiah, the thief could have been another example of a very praiseworthy life gone bad at the end for a multitude of reasons.
Every judgment that the Scriptures describe centers upon what a person did, not upon what he might have believed or in whom he might have believed. The judgments evaluate his works, not the correctness of his doctrines. And since Jesus never simply and straightforwardly ~ i.e., explicitly ~ offered heaven for one’s belief in Him, we are propagating an unbiblical idea in the hope of getting someone to finally trust in Jesus. While that is indeed sweet, it actually achieves nothing at all because the life that Jesus offered while He ministered on earth was a life to be experienced while one lives on earth. It simply didn’t have anything to do with getting to heaven.
This life is not even necessary for heaven. In other words, people who never had the life Jesus offered may get to heaven in spite of that fact. It is clear that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all when to heaven (Matt. 22:32) and will be in the coming kingdom when it is set up (Matt. 8:11) even though the Bible never once declares that they had the life that Jesus was offering to those who believe in Him. And if that it true, and it obviously is, then there is no reason to believe that the same is not happening today in peoples all around the globe. Going to heaven is not dependent upon believing in Jesus for eternal life. If it were, then that truth would be clearly stated, and it is not.
Love the dying; care for them; encourage them in any way that is honest. But don’t promise them heaven if they would only believe in Jesus. From a straightforward reading of the Bible, it doesn’t appear to work that way.
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