“Dude, you have to come to this play my church is doing. Everyone is getting saved there!” I can still remember the fervor in my friend’s voice as he invited me to go with him after youth group to a play about heaven and hell. Ok, it was mostly about hell, but heaven was in there at the end.
The Basic plot of the show was a series of sin depictions that began with the stereotypical sex and drugs and then got less and less severe ending with people telling white lies.
Each scene began with sin, then showed demons tearing at the person growling instructions to them. At some point each of the persons died and were transported to the gates of heaven where they were told they could not enter and were dragged away to hell erupting with the most horrifying screams my teen ears had ever heard.
It all ended with a person witnessing to one of the sinners. After hearing about hell and heaven, the sinner prayed the sinner’s prayer, died, and was accepted into heaven.
I will be honest, this show was worse than any horror movie I had seen to that point, the lighting, screams, and growling-special-effects voice of Satan made my heart stop. When the altar call was given, you better believe I ran down with everyone else and got saved again just to make sure.
The real problem that I have with these kinds of shows is not the fact that they talk about heaven and hell, but that they take such a low view of salvation and the teachings of Jesus. Instead of lifting Jesus up and calling everyone in the room to follow him, they boil it down to a set of magic words that we can say to get into heaven. That makes those who are skeptical about Christianity think we’re a bunch of slimy tricksters playing on people’s fears without offering anything of substance.
Which is, of course, exactly what Jesus said would happen. In the Sermon on the Mount he talks about people who use his name and even perform miracles, but are really wolves in sheep’s clothing. Rather than calling people to live out the teachings of Jesus, they offer them a cheap version that does not bear fruit in their life, and ultimately does not grant them entrance into heaven.
Salvation is bigger than some trick phrase (like Lord, Lord), and Wesley was careful to offer a different perspective on salvation. He understood salvation as a “way” rather than a moment or a decision. Don’t get me wrong, Wesley was all about getting more people into heaven, but he saw that as the same thing as getting people to follow Jesus now. Doing that required much more than a thirty minute play and a thirty-second prayer.
When Wesley preached, his altar call was much more likely to be about getting involved in small groups that were struggling to do good, stop doing bad, and connecting with God. Research done by Thomas Albin suggests that many more conversions (75%) happened in these groups than in the preaching time, and that often these conversions would require more than two years of involvement.
But isn’t there a quicker way or a simple prayer we could say instead? The idea that there is a “sinner’s prayer” that grants you access to heaven is difficult to match with scripture that encourages us to continue to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phillipians 2:12) Not only that, but it makes our faith look cheap and insignificant. Take a second and read or watch the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus calls us to far more than a prayer! Salvation is a way — a path that we walk towards Jesus. It is a life of sacrifice and surrender; a life that begins wherever we are and takes a narrow road towards Jesus.
You cannot be scared into heaven, nor can you accidentally say the wrong words and go to hell. The “eternal life” Jesus offers doesn’t start when you die, but right now, right where you are. It seeks to transform you into his image and takes a lifetime. It grows from the tiniest seeds of faith into being used by God as a member of his body. That is the Gospel. That is heaven. Anything less is a cheap knockoff.