January 14, 2016

How the gospel works:

by Jesse Johnson

I recently came across a video ambitiously titled, “Proving that nobody can get into heaven.” It was produced by Marshall Brain, the same guy who founded the How Stuff Works website, and the author of How “God” Works, which is essentially an argument for atheism.

The video is ten years old, but it’s still making the rounds online. To spare you the 8-plus minutes of it, I’ll summarize Brain’s argument here. He claims he can prove that heaven is “a fairy tale” by looking at the eight times Jesus was asked what it would take to go there. According to Brain, here are the eight answers:  

  1. Love God and your neighbors (Luke 10:25-28)
  2. Honor your father and mother, plus sell everything and follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-22)
  3. Hate your father and mother—and your own life!—(Luke 14:26)
  4. Eat Jesus’ flesh and drink Jesus’ blood (John 6:53-54)
  5. Become like little children (Matthew 18:2-3)
  6. Be born again (John 3:3-7)
  7. Have more righteousness than the Pharisees—keep all 613 OT laws (Matthew 5::17-20)
  8. Believe in Jesus (John 3:16)


heaven is a lie

The gist of his argument is that these contradict each other. About a half-dozen times he says, “if you are a normal intelligent person” you would see how foolish Jesus’ answers are. And he has a point. I’d like to help Brain out here, and make his point more clearly than his video did: Jesus’ answers do contradict each other. He says that you need to love your father and mother, and then later that you need to hate them. He says you need to be like a child, but then that you need to be born again! Well, which is it?!?

Brain ends his video by saying that “If you are a normal, intelligent adult, three things are going to be obvious to you”:

  1. “John 3:16 is only one slice of an 8-slice pizza. Why do you only hear about the John 3:16 step, but not the other ones?”
    • You have to love everyone, and hate everyone.
    • You have to be like a child, and like a law keeping Pharisee.
    • You have to eat flesh and drink blood, and sell everything.
    • “No normal intelligent adult is going to sell everything. That’s nuts!”
  2. Jesus had no idea what he was talking about.
    • If Jesus was perfect, every time he was talking about eternal life, he would have said the same thing”
    • “If you are a normal intelligent adult” this chart should make it obvious.
  3. Heaven is a fairy tale

Obviously Brain doesn’t quite understand the gospel (or the way syllogisms work, but one thing at a time). So in the spirit of How Things Work, here is How the Gospel Works. I’ll use Brain’s same eight points and the same eight verses (but I will move two of them around, and add the word “unless” at a very critical point). After reading this, “no normal, intelligent adult” would think Jesus didn’t’ know what he was talking about.

How the gospel works:

If you want to go to heaven when you die, Jesus says you must:

  1. Love God and your neighbors perfectly (Luke 10:25-28)

Of course, “no normal person” can do this. And that is in fact Jesus’ point. Honestly, either Brain is totally unfamiliar with the gospel, or all of his shock about Jesus’ supposed contradictions is fake. In other words, either the video is entirely ignorant about Jesus, or it is intentionally deceptive. Either way, the response is the same: God is holy, and demands that you be holy too. If you want to go to heaven, you had better be perfect, just like God himself.

  1. Honor your father and mother, plus sell everything and follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-22)

This is more of the same. Jesus is saying that not only do you have to be perfect, you also have to love Jesus more than everything else, including your possessions. Brain is right—no “normal intelligent person” is going to do this, because normal people don’t love God; they love their stuff instead. So far, its not looking good for us.

  1. Have more righteousness than the Pharisees—keep all 613 OT laws (Matthew 5:17-20)

And again, in case you missed it the first few times, Jesus actually does mean that if you want to go to heaven you have to be perfect. He doesn’t just mean Pharisee-perfect either. He really means that you have to godlier than the Pharisees. Basically, if you have ever sinned once, you have no hope of going to heaven.

So that’s it. If you want to earn your way to heaven, of if you think that you will get there because you are a “normal, intelligent person,” then Jesus says you are mistaken. In fact, unless you are the godliest person who ever lived, there is zero chance of you going to heaven when you die.


  1. You are born again (John 3:3-7)

That’s right—Jesus taught a different way to go to heaven. One way is impossible (#s 1-3 above). But if that were the only way to get to heaven, then Brain would be exactly right: heaven would be a fairy tale. Yet there is a second way. That way depends not on your righteousness and law keeping, but on the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. But how?

  1. Believe in Jesus (John 3:16)

You are born again when you believe in Jesus. Not “believe in Jesus” like the law-keeping Pharisees, but “believe in Jesus” as in “believe that he died on the cross to pay the penalty for your failure to be more righteous than the Pharisees.” Because you are a sinner and you deserve hell, God cannot let you go to heaven without punishing your sin. So God sent his son (and if this is confusing, you should totally read John 3:16—the exact verse Brain uses here) and his son died to bear your penalty for sin. Believe that, and you can be saved.

  1. Hate your father and mother—and your own life!—(Luke 14:26)

Simply believing in Jesus can sound trite though. I mean, if you are born again, shouldn’t your life be different? And the answer is, yes it should. Instead of loving your own life, you hate it. Instead of living for yourself, you live for Christ. The Jews often used “love/hate” not in the way Americans use those words, but in terms of a preference. If you love McDonanld’s, you hate Burger King. If you love your own life, you hate Jesus. Better to love him and hate your life.

  1. Eat Jesus’ flesh and drink Jesus’ blood (John 6:53-54)

But Jesus doesn’t just call for your love. He calls for your life. You internalize the gospel. You partake of his sanctifying work. His death becomes your spiritual food. In something that is obvious to every Christian (except Lutherans!), Jesus is using a metaphor here. He is not purporting cannibalism, but is saying that when you are born again through belief in him, you will then live dependently upon him.

  1. Become like little children (Matthew 18:2-3)

When this happens, you become like a child. You do not have standing on your own right to enter heaven, but rather you have standing because of who your heavenly father is. You don’t bring anything to the table, so to speak. All you contribute is the sin that makes your salvation necessary. You are very far from a “normal, intelligent adult.” Instead you are a broken and contrite child, with childlike wonder that Jesus would save you.

If you think that normal people are good and intelligent, then you need to focus on #’s 1-3, and realize that for you, heaven is a fairy tale and you are not going there. Once you realize that, then move on down the list, and see that Jesus made a second way for you. That is How the Gospel Works.


Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Jason

    While it’s true that people can be intentionally dishonest in their statements, it’s easy to forget how confusing the Bible was when we were dead in our sins. I read the Bible for years out of obligation when I was younger, and all I ever got out of it was that wild living was bad.

    You’ve done a good job of highlight the source of the misunderstanding here (namely, that Jesus was both describing the way man can earn eternal life and the way God has chosen to offer it as a gift). I think that’s important, because if we can’t rationally understand the gospel and how the law relates to it than what hope is there that we can understand any of the deeper things?

    • True. Thanks Jason. You know, a real theological take away from this video for me was this: you have to confront people in their sin before they even have a grid for “believe in Jesus.” If you have not been confronted by your sin, “believe in Jesus” does sound like a complete contradiction to “sell all you have and give to the poor.”

      • Jane Hildebrand

        Not to mention, telling people they need to be saved when they don’t know from what. Hell is the real fairy tale these days.

        • Video idea: how modern evangelism proves nobody goes to hell.

      • Truth Unites… and Divides

        a real theological take away from this video for me was this: you have to confront people in their sin before they even have a grid for “believe in Jesus.”

        Jesse, I’m respectfully relaying my personal experience on this one. Well-meaning Christians have informed me that confronting a non-believer on their sin is a “bad thing.” I.e., that such an action negatively portrays Christians as being “judgmental” people and as such, it detracts from the Gospel and Gospel Outreach.

        Therefore, such an approach is to be shunned. And there needs to be an emphasis upon God’s Love and God’s Grace.

        Now, this is what I’ve heard from many well-meaning folks. I don’t know if you’ve come across the sentiment that I’m relaying to you, but I want to inform you of it. And that confronting people in their sin or about sin in general is shunned by a large number of people in the Christian community.


        • 4Commencefiring4

          Replace “their” with “our.” Problem solved.

          • Truth Unites… and Divides

            Can you show me how that conversation goes specifically?

          • 4Commencefiring4

            Telling people that they need to repent of “their” sin implies–to them anyhow–that they are being judged and that the christian is better than they….the “holier than thou” gripe. They hate us for that attitude–even if we didn’t intend to convey it. We’re sinners, too, after all.

            Instead, just say “we” (all of us) need to repent of “our” sin and turn to Christ for salvation. No one is being judged, no one is superior, no one is “holier than thou.”

    • Jane Hildebrand

      An interesting side note to your point of the Bible being confusing to the unsaved, as a former Jehovah’s Witness we were actually taught that the Bible wasn’t written for the average person, but for those going to heaven. Now of course their definition of those going to heaven were the 144,000 who govern the JW’s. So while we were encouraged to strive for holiness, they were the only ones capable of obtaining it. Talk about doctrines of demons.

      • Jason

        Plenty of people behave like that is the case even within evangelical circles, with the average person waiting for their favorite teacher to tell them what the Bible “really means”.

        Of course, that means that any teacher can claim that if the Bible seems to be saying anything other than what they teach it is because they’re the only ones who can interpret it properly.

        The idea that the average believer doesn’t have the discernment to question any teaching of a select few elite is one that countermands many of the exhortations of the church to be actively involved in searching the scriptures, recognizing the preaching of a different gospel, and testing the spirits of teachers.

        Unfortunately, the path of least resistance is to surrender those responsibilities to someone claiming that only they could properly do it anyway, and it comes with the built in excuse for doing so. We need to stop being so lazy!

        • Jane Hildebrand

          As one who was saved by reading the scriptures, there is no greater joy than having God illuminate our minds to His word. It is truly a gift beyond measure.

      • 4Commencefiring4

        If I thought the odds of my going to heaven were, essentially, 144,000 out of the billions of people who have ever lived, I’d want my money back right away. I can’t fathom how that appeals to anyone. Can’t the JWs do simple arithmetic?

        • Jane Hildebrand

          I believe the brain washing reduced our math capabilities. I’m still working on recovering that. 😉

  • KPM

    It seems like Mr. Brain needs to be educated in the dichotomy between Law and Gospel. The Law kills and the Gospel makes alive. God’s standard is perfection, but since no man is perfect, God gives us the perfection of His Son. Thanks for tackling this, Jesse.

  • Jack Shaffer

    He doesn’t appear to be using his God-given brain.

  • jeff

    covenant of works vs. covenant of grace

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