In, Surprised by Hope, NT Wright says this:
"The most important thing to say … is that 'heaven and hell' are not, so to speak, what the whole game is about. This is one of the central surprises in the Christian hope…. 'What happens after death' is not the major, central, framing question that centuries of theological tradition have supposed. The NT, true to its OT roots, regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God's prupose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos. The destiny of individual human beings must be understood within that context--not simply in the sense that we are only part of a much larger picture, but in the sense that part of the whole point of being 'saved' in the present is so that we can play a vital role (Paul speaks of this role in the shocking terms of being 'fellow workers with God') within that larger picture and purpose. And that in turn makes us realize that the question of our own 'destiny', in terms of the alternatives of joy or woe, is probably the wrong way of looking at the whole question. The question ought to be, 'How will God's new creation come?' and then, 'How will we humans contribute to that renewal of creation, and to the fresh projects which the creator God will launch in his new world?' The choice before humans would then be framed differently: are you going to worship the creator God, and discover thereby what it means to become fully and gloriously human, reflecting his powerful, healing, transformative love into the world? Or are you going to worship the world as it is, boosting your corruptible humanness by gaining power or pleasure from forces within the world, but merely contributing thereby to your own dehumanization and the further corruption of the world itself?"
The first time I read those words they hit me like a ton of bricks. I would encourage everyone to slowly re-read that paragraph once more; it is completely packed with life changing thoughts, not least for anyone in full-time Christian ministry.
Go ahead. I'll wait. Seriously.
"What happens after death is not the central, framing question" that it has been supposed to be? This is a shocking and powerful statement with massive implications for the way we share our faith with others.
How many of us have started or been swept into conversations that began, "If you were to die today, how sure are you that you would go to heaven?" Or "do you know where you're going after you die?" Or "If you were standing before God after you die and he asked you why he should let you into heaven, what do you think you would say?" And there are so many more.
The way many of us have been trained to talk about Christianity is through a different lens than Wright is offering. For us, the most important thing is where someone is going after they die, but for Wright, the central question is "How will God's new creation come?" And he argues that this is the central question of both the Old and New Testaments, as well as first-century Jews and, later, Christians. I think he is absolutely right.
This does not mean that our eternal destination is not important, but I think it does mean that we should probably stop making our evangelism primarily or mainly about whether someone is going to heaven or hell after death. Heaven and Hell, at least the way we typically think about them, are simply not the point of Christianity, but they are rather important parts of a bigger equation -- How God is rescuing and putting the world right.
And then, I think we'll find, when we frame "God's putting the world right" as the primary focus, we are just as eager and excited to share our faith with others. And it is equally as urgent a message. Not to mention that it seems more in line with what the Bible actually teaches.