Destination Theology: Is the Gospel mainly about going to heaven?

I grew up with the Wordless Book—one page black for sin, one red for Christ’s blood, one white for being cleansed of sin, one gold for going to heaven, one green for growing. It is a strategy often used in children’s ministry to explain the salvation message. It has no doubt been helpful to bring many to Christ.

But I think in my own life that gospel message and the children’s ministry I was a part of nurtured a “Salvation is a ticket to heaven” mentality. The main thing was to get rid of my sin, escape hell and get to heaven.

I think there were some adults in my life who were trying to cast a vision of being reconciled to God so I could know him, so I could love and enjoy him more. But all the heaven talk kind of drowned it out.

Being a Christian became primarily about the destination, and then learning God’s word, and then obeying– black, red, white, gold and green. And somewhere after that, the relationship and intimacy. Anyone else growing up in a Christian home or church have that experience?

When I was twenty-nine I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. As I tried to live in a world of shattered dreams, chronic pain and limited mobility I lived`more and more from duty and resignation. In his mercy, God met me right where I was, as he always does, and drew me into the intimacy and joy that I was missing. I chronicled that journey in my book Godsight: Renewing the Eyes of Our Heart.

I discovered that there was a name for what I had experienced: “Destination Theology.” I decided to re-read the book of Acts with careful attention to the way Jesus’ disciples presented the gospel. What I found there surprised me.

I found in Acts an echo of Jesus’ call to salvation in the gospels: a call to repentance and forgiveness of sins. But more than that, I found a call to a life characterized by blessing and the refreshment of our souls with living water, drawn from the presence of Christ himself.

Peter’s sermon in Acts 3:19-20 is a good example : “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”

While the epistles unpack the idea of substitutionary atonement, the “how” of our entry into the Kingdom of God, the message of Acts focuses on the “what for” of repentance: God’s gracious forgiveness and reconciliation to the “presence of the Lord.” A departed Jesus that the disciples can no longer see, but whose presence remains with them and us always, even to the end of the age. A presence that refreshes us now and will ultimately restore all things—new heavens, new earth.

Heaven and restoration is part of the promise but the emphasis is on forgiveness and reconciliation to the immediate presence of the LORD.

Search for even one example where Jesus’ disciples presented the gospel as a way to escape hell and live in heaven forever…and you will not find it.

Hard to believe? Read Acts for yourself and see how the disciples presented the gospel to the Jews and the Gentiles. You’ll find a couple of references to God and Jesus as judge and the coming judgment. But even there the emphasis is on relationship, not destination.

One day you will find yourself face-to-face with your Creator and judge. The question is, “What kind of relationship do you have with him?” Not, “Where are you going? Heaven or hell?”

This is the way children’s ministry framed it for me growing up, but I have come to love the richness and multi-dimensionality of the message of Acts. Rather than understanding the offer of “eternal life” as a “ticket to heaven,” I now understand it as an invitation to turn from my sin and enter an eternal kind of life with God right now, where I find forgiveness and refreshment in his living presence.

Perhaps it is a small difference to you. But to me it is a difference that has made all the difference. It’s meant living from daily joy and delight in relationship with Jesus rather than duty and resignation in the midst of chronic pain.

In his book Deep Church: A Third Way between Traditional and Emergent, Jim Belcher challenges his readers: Does our gospel presentation begin and end with the message of the cross? Or does it include the message of the resurrection and an invitation to enter an eternal kind of life in God’s kingdom?

To enter the kingdom is to enter the life of God—his power at work to forgive our sins and put to death our sinful desires/choices. It is to enter and enjoy his presence—Emmanuel God with us.

The bronze snake was lifted up in the wilderness so that all who were bitten and dying might look and live. John 3 makes it clear that in the same way anyone may be saved if they have enough faith to look to the Savior.

But if we are snake-bit and dying, what are we looking to the Savior for? A “ticket to heaven”? Or an eternal kind of life that begins now by restoring us to the presence of the Living God?

How we frame the gospel for ourselves and others may determine how we see and live the gospel–as a fire insurance policy safely stored and forgotten…or a new eternal way of life now.

The gospel is not a “destination theology” but so much more!

How was the gospel framed for you when you believed? How do you understand it now? How do you present the gospel in ways that invite people into more than a “ticket to heaven”? Please share your experience in the comments section below.

Lael Arrington

Faith and Culture: Live wisely l  Love well


Lael writes and speaks about faith and culture and how God renews our vision and desire for Him and his Kingdom. She earned a master's degree (MAT) in the history of ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas, and has taught Western culture and apologetics at secular and Christian schools and colleges. Her long-term experience with rheumatoid arthritis and being a pastor’s wife has deepened her desire to minister to the whole person—mind, heart, soul and spirit. Lael has co-hosted a talk radio program, The Things That Matter Most, on secular stations in Houston and Dallas about what we believe and why we believe it with guests as diverse as Dr. Deepak Chopra, atheist Sam Harris and VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer. (Programs are archived on the website.) Lael has authored four books, including a March 2011 soft paper edition of A Faith and Culture Devotional (now titled Faith and Culture: A Guide to a Culture Shaped by Faith), Godsight, and Worldproofing Your Kids. Lael’s writing has also been featured in Focus on the Family and World magazines, and she has appeared on many national radio and television programs. Lael and her husband, Jack, now make their home in South Carolina.