It seems to me that our evangelism has become quite messed up because we’ve made it all about the destiny of the individual after death. But I question whether this is the basis for the proclamation of the Good News in the NT at all. The message of Jesus was “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It wasn’t, “repent, for if you don’t the consequences for you personally will be very nasty in the afterlife.” It’s true he did talk about judgment on “this generation” for refusing the offer of God’s grace. But much of that involved national temporal judgment which horrifically came to pass in 67-70 AD under Titus and his legions, including the ultimate destruction of the Temple which Jesus predicted. Refusing God’s grace does have consequences, and not just in the next life, and not just for individuals. How many national calamities are actually the judgment of God for refusing to receive the kingdom? It’s interesting that N.T. Wright (and others as well) interprets the “gehenna” sayings as part of that national judgment on “this generation”. It wasn’t that gehenna was a future place of misery for unrepentant sinners, but that Jerusalem was literally going to be turned into a big burning garbage dump, complete with corpses and all the rest (and it was). I think there might be something to that idea. The horror of that experience for that generation might be hard for us to relate to, but I found this artist’s rendition of the destruction of the Temple on Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Franc … ez_017.jpg.
So the “big picture” of evangelism is announcing the inbreaking of the kingdom of God and calling people to repentance in light of that coming kingdom. It’s not just about what happens to sinners after they die. Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:8-12 have always struck me as significant in terms of what evangelism is really all about: “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him.”
It seems to me that evangelism has more to do with announcing the victory of Jesus to the principalities and powers as it does with the destiny of individual human beings in the afterlife. This world is under the control of spiritual forces of wickedness. Our calling is to bring first our own lives, and then the lives of those around us, under God’s rulership and thus help bring about the defeat of those principalities and powers. It’s interesting to me that the most commonly held motivation for evangelism today is concern for the fate of individual sinners after death. And yet I can’t think of a single passage in the NT that ever mentions this as a motivation for evangelism. I’ve wondered about that for a long time, even before I became a hopeful universalist. I think we should really be concerned about the fact that God’s rule is not being received by so many people, and that so many people are living in misery NOW because of that, imprisoned by false beliefs and ideas, and in bondage to deceiving spirits. Evangelism is spiritual warfare, not just trying to give people “fire insurance” for eternity! I think a lot of evangelism is ineffective because there is very little emphasis on repentance. We’re so much into the idea that salvation is not earned that it’s like we’re afraid to tell people they need to DO something other than come forward to an altar call and pray the sinners’ prayer.
It’s struck me for quite some time (even before I became a hopeful universalist) how very different our evangelism is from the evangelism I see in the NT. On the Day of Pentecost, when the crowds were cut to heart over their guilt for the murder of the very One whom God had sent to them, and they asked “what should we do?”, Peter didn’t say "okay, all of you who sincerely believe in your hearts come forward, and then pray these words after me . . .” Instead, he said “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, change your life and start demonstrating the reign of God by bringing your lives under his rulership. It’s also interesting to me that he said to the crowd, “save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” He didn’t say “save yourselves from damnation in the afterlife!”
Just a few thoughts.