We sat on the stairs as I struggled to explain the situation to my three-year-old. She scrunched her face up trying to grasp what it all meant.
“Do you remember what happened to Grandpa’s dog?”
“Yeah, Milo,” I said trying to envision how I would word this. She beat me to it.
“Oh, did Uncle Scott go to Heaven?” She said without any more emotion than if she had asked about lunch. Leave it to the child to be more mature than her daddy. I had thought the conversation would be difficult, but to her it was natural.
“That’s right, Baby. Uncle Scott died. Now he’s in Heaven with God.” I watched her face, wondering if there would be even a spark of grief.
“Ok, can we go play outside now?”
It was as simple as that. We had had the death talk, and it had gone surprisingly well. From that point, she would ask me periodic questions about what happens after death. As she grows, I'm sure it will begin to sink in. It will become personal when her loved ones begin to pass away. For now, she lives in an informed bliss. She understands the death of believers as a temporary separation before we're reunited at the resurrection. All in all, she's got a pretty good grasp for her age.
I was sitting with a few theologian friends, Bob and Shawn over lunch a while back. I had been working on writing a documentary film at the time, and was getting their feedback about it.
Bob asked, “What's the purpose of this film?"
“I don’t want to be morbid or anything. I just want people to realize that they are facing their own impending death,” I said.
“Lucas, I believe that is the definition of the word morbid.”
We laughed about it, but I suppose it’s no laughing matter. It seems that one must understand the stakes before they can understand why they need Jesus. In a sense, I need to have the same death talk with you that I had with my daughter. I'm not trying to be morbid, but it's vital that we establish the stakes. Here it is:
The death rate among earth dwellers is 100%. Unfortunately, that means you're going to die. Now that wasn't too bad, was it? You may be wondering why I'm making such a big deal about death. Well, because it is the catalyst that Jesus used to explain to people why they need Him.
Though many people's Gospel presentation focuses on an eternal consequence in the everlasting lake of fire, the Gospel of John doesn't expound on this idea. This is worth repeating. The Gospel of John, the Bible's evangelistic book, does not mention Hell. You might say, “It’s implied,” but it's not expressly mentioned. That should come as a big surprise since modern and historical evangelists talk a lot about Hell.
Instead, John develops a concept that is much more simple to understand and widely agreed upon. In John's Gospel, when Jesus talks about the consequences of not believing in Him, he does not speak of Hell, but instead of death, not having life, and perishing. If John's Gospel avoids mentioning Hell and the Lake Of Fire altogether, it makes sense that evangelists ought to rethink tactics that lean heavily on this approach. The vocabulary of the Gospel of John is tight and consistent. Gospel presentations ought to mimic this approach.
As the Gospel of John begins to intensify the conflict between Christ and the Jewish authorities, Jesus lays out the destiny of unbelievers. He said:
If you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins. (John 8:24)
In speaking to the Pharisees Jesus explains that they had a terrible consequence awaiting them if they were to remain unbelieving. They would die in their sins, which meant they themselves would bear the consequences of their sins.1 Not only would they physically die, but they would die and be eternally thereafter represented by their criminal record. Whether or not the ultimate consequence is eternal torment in Hell is not what Jesus focuses on here. Instead, He presents the basic idea which they already agree upon, death, and intensifies it by showing death's eternal consequence apart from Christ's forgiveness. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that they will die in their sins (John 8:24), He's explaining that when they die, they will remain in a state of sin-induced death forever. These are exactly the stakes that every unbeliever of all time faces as well. Consider Jesus' words to Nicodemus:
…Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:18)
Jesus points out that condemnation is already the state of affairs for anyone who has never believed and continues in their disbelief. Anyone who does not believe does not have to wait until Judgment Day. That person is condemned already.2 No person is born believing in Jesus; they must become convinced of such truths. According to the verse then, condemnation is the position that all people find themselves in from the moment of their birth. All people face condemnation.
One might ask, “condemnation to what?” Jesus answers that implied question only a verse earlier when he explains that the condemnation for humankind is that they will perish.3(John 3:16) Each person is in a terrible spot for which there is no physical remedy. Every person who has ever been born, except one, was at one time condemned to perish.4 The word can simply mean to die, but as previously stated the word carries with it a tone of everlasting death. This perishing is the final and eternal consequence of not believing. John the Baptist adds to the discussion in chapter 3 of that Gospel when he states:
…He who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36)
Those who do not believe in Jesus will not see life, in the sense that they will not receive eternal life from Christ. For John people cannot straddle the fence concerning Jesus. Without believing the Son, humans do not stand a chance of experiencing eternal life.5 Every man, woman, and child faces death. These are the stakes that Jesus sets out. This is the setup for why eternal life is needed. If you agree that you are going to die, then you ought to agree that you need more life. Virtually no one would turn down an opportunity to live longer. Our dying bodies are like sinking ships, and we need a life preserver. Not only that, but we need a life sustainer.
Jesus places before each of us two options. You can either live forever or forever be in a state of death. Only those who believe in Jesus will have a continuation of life after their mortal race is run.
1 Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 4, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 205.
2 Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 206.
3 Thomas Newberry and George Ricker Berry, The Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2004), John 3:16.
4 Αποληται literally means, may not perish.
5 Gerald L. Borchert, John 1–11, vol. 25A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 195.