I keep thinking about this and I’m confident that it will change the course of my life.
There’s a widely reported story of an outspoken atheist named Penn Jillette [Image credit: Andy Kropal/AP]. He’s a famous magician (Penn & Teller, a Las Vegas show), an author, TV personality, and speaker. After one of his performances, this is what happened and I’ve condensed his own words a bit.
“A guy about my age had participated in one of my acts as an audience member. He complimented me on the show, and then said, ‘I brought this for you.’ He held up a small book. It was a New Testament with the Psalms, something that could fit in a person’s pocket.
“’I wrote in the front of it,’” the man said, ‘and I wanted you to have this.’ He said he was a businessman and not crazy. He was kind, and nice, and sane, and looked me in the eyes, and talked to me, and then gave me this Bible.
“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe there is a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. . .
“How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate someone to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
“I mean, if I believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe it, that that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point that I tackle you, and this is more important than that.
You can view the short YouTube video of Penn’s full 2009 account here.
By the way, this story recently made the headlines again when the “mystery man” Christian who talked to Penn was revealed. You can read about that here, including the Christian movie that was made involving Penn Jillette.
The Permanence of Eternity
I gotta tell you, this story has really affected me as it has thousands of others. I fell into deep, sober reflection:
“Do I really believe what my faith tells me about the afterlife or not? And if I do, why don’t I act like I do, especially when it comes to helping others understand? Can I be that uncaring to not say anything?”
I then thought of some simple but trivial comparisons to make the feeling of, “Oh no, this stinks and it’s too late to change it!” more relatable.
Maybe you can relate to situations like these:
- Your spouse asks you to go to the store to buy ice cream. You get her favorite flavor, go to the counter and realize you forgot your wallet. Sigh. . . You have to put it back. It’s too late to change it and you have a depressing ride home.
- Or you probably remember having an important test at school and you simply didn’t do the work or study to prepare for it. But test day comes and there you sit, staring at questions that you simply can’t answer. It’s too late to change it and all you can get are the just consequences of not taking it seriously. Pretending the test wasn’t real didn’t change the fact that it was real.
- You booked a cruise as your honeymoon getaway. In the busyness of the wedding planning, you forgot your required paperwork and passport and you will be unable to board the ship (but your spouse didn’t forget hers). It’s too late to fix it. This once of a lifetime experience is lost to you and your spouse forever and your new spouse is sobbing and devastated. Talk about a depressing ride home.
But eternity is at stake! What an awful thing to know that a person wasted their life and that there’s no fixing it. There comes a point that it’s too late. The opportunity is gone. Surely the loss of eternal, incomprehensible happiness is part of the weeping and gnashing of teeth that Jesus described.
You guys know I like focusing on the positive. But maybe I do that a little too much, I’ve been thinking lately.
There’s an important flipside to the great things in the gospel.
I see that I haven’t followed Jesus’s example in talking about the dreadful consequences of inaction and rebellion.
Warnings about “Bad Stuff” in the Afterlife
Jesus provided more information about the afterlife and “hell” and “damnation” than any other person in the Bible. He was more vivid and emphatic than anyone else, like this:
The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 13:41-43)
To this day, there’s disagreement about the nature of hell (literal burning versus figure of speech) but nobody can read all that Jesus said about hell without realizing that it must be really, REALLY bad. (Read more great examples and commentary here at Crossway.org, TheGospelCoalition.org, and Christianity.com.)
I certainly don’t believe in a trite God who seeks childish revenge on those who didn’t do what He said because it insulted Him. That’s nonsense. Rather, there are eternal, spiritual laws of behavior and consequence that simply exist. God’s laws. When we violent those laws and live contrary to God’s goodness and light, we must pay the required and inescapable penalty (unless we are saved through Jesus Christ, who pays the price of our penalties if we accept and follow Him—which is the good news we usually talk about.) God’s commandments keep us on the side of goodness and light.
Being “Saved” from “Destruction”
I think a lot of non-Christians find the term “saved” to be kind of weird. I can see why, to be honsest.
“Saved from what?” is the natural question. But given what we just read above, that should be pretty clear now.
The Greek word sometimes translated as “damned” is “Apolleia,” which means “destruction” or “waste.”
You may recall that throughout the scriptures, God often compares His children and even entire nations to trees with fruit. (See Isaiah 5.) All of us make choices in this life leading to either good habits and positive contributions to others or lives full of nasty, shameful things like dishonesty, harsh words, selfishness, addictions, violence, and more.
God compares good fruit to lives full of good works and nasty looking fruit to lives full of evil deeds.
Do you happen to have any overgrown apple trees near you? As you drive or walk through such orchards in the fall of the year, have you ever noticed those ugly, misshapen, wormy, half rotten apples all over the tree?
In scripture, God commands his servants to cut trees like that down and burn them. They’re a “waste” so they get destroyed. They’re a waste because they did not fulfill the purpose of their creation.
The glorious news of the gospel is that we can be transformed—SAVED from this wasted state—both in this life and the next. But how are we transformed? Jesus taught,
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16, NIV)
When we take the step to believe in Christ and be baptized and then press forward in the “strait and narrow path,” this results in the Lord saying, in effect, “Don’t cut that tree down. I’ll save it.” (See Matthew 7:13-14.)
What a remarkable thing! The first step of looking to Christ and believe brings instant salvation. It’s not all we must do, but it’s the main thing we must do to enter the path away from waste and inevitable, horrible suffering.
Imagine driving by that same orchard and seeing a now-shimmering, verdant tree covered with grocery story-perfect apples—and it was the same tree that was wretchedly wild with gnarly, pocked apples just months past!
So, What to Do?
If you, like me, feel “pricked in your heart” to take action, here’s what I’m thinking. I’d love to hear thoughts in the comments below or the Contact form.
- I plan to be more direct in conversation and writing. It’s possible to be just as courteous and respectful as ever, but why not get right to the point, like the guy who gave Penn the Bible?
- I plan to pray more for opportunities to talk with non-believers and seek inspiration of what to say and how to invite people to act so they don’t miss out.
- I’m going to remember something I heard on Moody radio this week, on the Janet Parshall show when she interviewed David Robertson. He said something to the effect,
When we talk to people about the gospel, we’re not approaching them like a blank slate.We’re not the first. God has already been working on them. He’s working on everybody. Everyone around us is a work in progress, whether they know God is working within their lives or not. When you evangelize, you’re just a tiny part of the grand process.
- I’ve already asked God to shape me and help me understand how I can be the person He created me to be to do His work in the fullest way possible.
Because what else possibly comes close to being this important—where eternity is at stake for everyone around us? Everyone we know. Our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, our family. Everyone.
Extra Credit Reading 🙂
While researching for this post, I came across this fascinating story about one of America’s most famous theologians, Charles Spurgeon.
I love this story. It’s touching, kind of comical, and illustrates a critical principle. God uses a simple, rural, uneducated man to reach a boy who would end up evangelizing to tens of thousands throughout the world through his masterful writings.
This story demonstrates the first step to “being saved” and avoiding the horrors that Christ described. It’s similar to my own conversion story. (And contact me please if you would like to discuss this. My Contact Form on the website will work.)
The day was January 6, 1850. Spurgeon was not quite sixteen years old:
I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm, one Sunday morning, while I was going to a certain place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a side street, and came to a little Primitive Methodist chapel. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people. . . . The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. . . . He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth [Isaiah 45:22].”
He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus: “My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look.
“But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me’. . . . Many of ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. Ye will never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some of ye say, ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.’”
When he had gone to about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes or so he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I dare say, with so few present he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, “and you always will be miserable — miserable in life, and miserable in death — if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.”
Then lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a primitive Methodists could do, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but to look and live.”
I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said — I did not take much notice of it — I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” What a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could have almost looked my eyes away.
There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to him. . . . And now I can say —
E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And Shall be till I die.
Note: This is not an endorsement of any particular Christian denomination. I share this to illustrate a true principle, namely the simplicity of initiating the journey of salvation. Once we look to Jesus like that, each of us must seek out a church family and be baptized, asking God to lead us in the right path to Him.
Learn about the easy-to-read book that brings the life and teachings of Jesus into movie-like vivid color, Jesus Christ, His Life and Mine: https://rchristianbohlen.com/the-book/.
Estimated Reading Time:
5 – 6 minutes