One of the most challenging objections I receive on a regular basis is the view that belief in Jesus is important for one reason and one reason only– the afterlife! In other words, it seems the only thing that matters is what happens to people after they die. Committed followers of Jesus ask people “If you were to die today, do you have assurance you are going to heaven?”
Skeptics complain that the message seems to be “Accept Jesus, or be tortured by God forever and ever.” This is sad and is also a misunderstanding of the original context of the Good News. The first thing I find myself doing is telling the person that eternal life is a quality of life (i.e., in union with Jesus), and is a quantity of life (unlimited) that starts in this life (John 17: 3). So no, eternal life doesn’t start when we die. It starts the minute we come to trust in Jesus and we turn our lives over to him.
Let’s take a look at the how the “Good News” is presented by our Messiah:
Jesus and Isaiah
In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61: “the Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” ( Luke 4:18-19 ). So according to Jesus, the prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus’ own ministry ( 4:21 ) since He has come to free the physically infirm, such as the blind ( 4:18 ) and the leprous ( 4:27 ; cf. 7:21 ; 9:6 ). Here, we don’t see any message of the afterlife in this text.
Jesus and the Kingdom of God Gospel
One point that is generally agreed on by all scholars is that the central message of Jesus was about the kingdom of God. He preached the arrival of the messianic age and its activity of deliverance, contrasting the greatness of the kingdom era with the era of John the Baptist, which had now seemingly passed (Luke 4:16-30; 7:22-23). In the New Testament, the Greek word for kingdom is “basileia,” which denotes “sovereignty,” “royal power,” and “dominion.” The references to the word “kingdom” can be seen in two classes: First, it is viewed as a present reality and involves suffering for those who enter into it (2 Thess. 1:5). Second, the kingdom is futuristic and involves reward (Matt 25:34), as well as glory (Matt 13:43).
Steve Gregg also notes the following:
“Jesus’ message was not about going to heaven after death. Jesus compared His movement, which He called “the kingdom of God,” to a small seed, or a pinch of leaven, which was destined to expand and to permeate its environment (the earth). The expression “kingdom of heaven” (found only in Matthew’s gospel) does not refer to heaven; rather, it is Matthew’s synonym for “the kingdom of God,” the term used by the other New Testament writers referring to Christ’s messianic movement, which was, in the person of Christ Himself, and the company of those who embraced Him as King, launching an offensive against the devil’s domain (e.g., Matt. 3:1; Mark 1:14–15; Luke 10:9–11; 17:20–21; 16:16; Acts 17:7; Rom. 14:17; Col. 1:13)”– see Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views of God?s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin, pg 59.
The Gospel after the Resurrection: A Look at Paul
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” – 1 Cor. 15: 1-4.
For Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection are central ( 1 Cor 15:1-4 ). Notice that the Gospel is a message that is rooted in the Tanak (the Old Testament).
Let’s see how Paul lays out the Good News in Romans 1: 1-7. Notice there is very little about the afterlife here.
“Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”-Romans 1: 1-7
Michael Bird has an excellent summation of Paul’s passage here in Romans. He says:
“Romans 1:3-4 has political teeth as long as the Messiah is envisioned as the ruler of the world. Paul opens his letter to the Romans by weaving together a standard epistolary greeting with some traditional material about the “gospel of God” and “Messiah Jesus.” The gospel of God is the good news from God and also about God. The background of this “gospel” (euangelion) lies on the one hand in the Jewish world with the promise of the coming reign of God to bring an “The title Christos (Messiah) in Paul has routinely been de-Judaized and depoliticized in Pauline scholarship by those who want to show that Paul did not have a messianic faith. Yet the evidence overwhelmingly points in the other direction with messianism forming the hub of Paul’s Christology (see Rom 9:5; 1 Cor 10:4; 15:22; 2 Cor 5:10; 11:2-3; Eph 1:10, 12, 20; 5:14; Phil 1:15, 17; 3:7). Importantly, “Messiah” implies kingship in Jewish tradition (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:2, 7; 89:19-21, 26-27; Psalms of Solomon 17.32). Paul explicates this gospel “regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:3-4). Importantly, lineage meant legitimation. Jesus is linked to the house of David, from whose house Israel’s rightful king would come to fulfill the prophetic promises. Yet Jesus is also the “Son of God,” which is both a messianic title and expresses Jesus’ unique filial relationship with Israel’s God. Contra much scholarship, what we have in Romans 1:1-4 is not some primitive adoptionist Christology that still lurks beneath Paul’s high Christology.
These terse remarks are not about adoption but accession to the throne beside God. Behind all of this stands a contrast between two kinds of sonship and two types of kingdoms. The designation of Jesus as the “Son of God” does not follow on from the deification of his adopted father, nor is the title earned by any military battle. Jesus was rather designated the “Son of God” by resurrection from the dead. All the more significant because Roman religion did not believe in a resurrection. Consider also that resurrection was politically threatening as it constituted the vindication and victory of those killed for opposing imperial rule as it is in Daniel 12, 2 Maccabees 7 and Revelation 20. Resurrection implies a reordering of power, an apocalyptic upheaval of the world, an inversion of the pyramid of privilege, so that those ruled over in fear are raised to reign in divine glory. The resurrection of Jesus to kingship means the supplanting of all kingdoms that compete with it. Paul celebrates that a person put to death by Roman authorities as a royal pretender had been brought back to life by Israel’s God and is now installed as Lord of God’s coming kingdom.”-Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, Scot McKnight, Joseph B. Modica, and Andy Crouch
The Gospel in the Book of Acts
Here we see the way the Good News is seen in Acts:
1. The promises by God made in the Hebrew Bible/The Old Testament have now been revealed with the coming of Jesus the Messiah (Acts 2:30;3;19;24,10:43; 26:6-7;22).
2. Jesus was anointed by God at his baptism (Acts 10:38).
3. Jesus began his ministry at Galilee after his baptism (Acts 10:37).
4. Jesus conducted a beneficent ministry, doing good and performing mighty works by the power of God ( Acts 2:22; 10:38).
5. The Messiah was crucified according to the plan of God (Acts 2:23).
6. He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples (Acts 2:24; 31-32; 3:15-26;10:40-41;17:31;26:23).
7. Jesus was exalted and given the name “Lord” (Acts 2:25-29;33-36;3:13;10:36).
8. He gave the Holy Spirit to form the new community of God (Acts 1:8;2;14-18;33,38-39;10:44-47).
9. He will come again for judgment and the restoration of all things (Acts 3:20-21;10:42; 17:31).
10. All who hear the message should repent and be baptized because of the finished work of Jesus (Acts 2:21;38;3:19;10:43, 17-48; 17:30, 26:20).
What’s the point?
When we look at the variety of ways the Gospel is presented in the Bible, it is a message that is much broader than the afterlife. In some cases, there is no focus on the afterlife at all. To tell people they only need to believe in Jesus in order to go to heaven when they die isn’t the full Gospel. For that matter, any message of the Gospel that is simply about the afterlife is a de-judiazed message. Anthony Saldarini elaborates:
“Does Jesus the Jew—as a Jew—have any impact on Christian theology and on Jewish-Christian relations? . . . To wrench Jesus out of his Jewish world destroys Jesus and destroys Christianity, the religion that grew out of his teachings. Even Jesus’ most familiar role as Christ is a Jewish role. If Christians leave the concrete realities of Jesus’ life and of the history of Israel in favor of a mythic, universal, spiritual Jesus and an otherworldly kingdom of God, they deny their origins in Israel, their history, and the God who loved and protected Israel and the church. They cease to interpret the actual Jesus sent by God and remake him in their own image and likeness. The dangers are obvious. If Christians violently wrench Jesus out of his natural, ethnic and historical place within the people of Israel, they open the way to doing equal violence to Israel, the place and people of Jesus.”-A. Saldarini, “What Price the Uniqueness of Jesus?” Bible Review, June 1999: 17. Print.