by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
December 11, 2008 - The stretch of Interstate 40 between Memphis and Jackson (Tennessee) is unlikely to make anyone’s Top 10 list of “Great American Roads”. Aside from one steep incline in connection with a sharp bend in the road near Exit 56, it’s mostly flat, mostly straight, and mostly non-descript. For those who drive it almost daily (me!), the monotony of this truck-route is broken only by seasonal changes in the foliage and the periodic drama of spectacular sunrises and sunsets (if, of course, you’re headed in the “right” direction).
Like many American interstate highways, the stretch of I-40 between Memphis and Jackson is punctuated by billboards. Most aren’t nearly as eye-catching as one that soars above Exit 56. The westbound driver can hardly miss it. The sign is a simple as it is Goliath-like. It reads: “It’s your choice…” – beneath which are the words “Heaven or Hell” – the former being depicted against the backdrop of serene clouds, the latter surrounded by uninviting flames. At the bottom of the sign, in smaller print, is the biblical reference “John 3:16” opposite a phone number that one presumably might call for more information about the “choice.”
Undoubtedly, a billboard like this will provoke a myriad of responses. Among those likely to hope its content will produce salvific fruit, a sign like this is surely an occasion for a heartfelt, “Amen!” For the intellectually sophisticated, cynical secularist, it’s probably an object of scorn – viewed as a quaint relic of religious Americana from the fading era of Southern fundamentalism. For the evangelical children of fundamentalist descent, it represents an occasion to cringe – its bluntness, not to mention gaudy use of media from a bygone era, reflecting a failure to grasp the prophetic utterances of cultural icon, Bob Dylan: “The times, they are a-changin’.” Still others, perhaps those with a mischievous streak, might be inclined to wonder whether God or Satan would answer if they called the phone number on the sign!
Beyond the immediate reaction one might have upon seeing the sign for the first time, this I-40 billboard stands out for reasons beyond its height and its aggressive evangelistic technique. For the billboard’s theology is simultaneously exactly right, and yet, terribly wrong. And sadly, it is precisely what the billboard gets terribly wrong that potentially undermines what it has exactly right.
Scripture clearly conveys an eschatology that is disjunctive. In the end, there are only two ends. As C.S. Lewis puts it, there are those who, in the end, will say to God “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God will say, “thy will be done.” There are only two possible destinations, two possibilities for the human telos. One ends in eternal bliss; the other in destruction. On this point, the I-40 billboard is exactly right. (And for the Christian, there should be no shame in proclaiming this truth – even from more than 50 feet above a highway!)
Sadly however, the sign invites its readers to contemplate this verity in a manner that is deeply mistaken. Recall that the sign puts it this way: “It’s your choice . . . Heaven or Hell” The error is in the assumption behind the manner in which the question is put to the readers. (No, this has nothing to do with theological squabbles about Calvinism) Specifically, the question invites its readers to consider a proposition on the assumption that they are presently neutral with respect to either alternative.
It is as if one were at a restaurant. “Coffee or tea?” “Cream or sugar?” “Vanilla or chocolate?” As anyone who has been in such situations knows, answers such as “Both!” or even “No thank you, neither please.” are appropriate. And yet, these are precisely the kinds of possible responses that the sign invites (ridiculous though the former might seem in this particular case).
The point is that from a Christian perspective, no one is presently neutral with respect to their eternal destiny. And yet, this particular sign invites consideration about one’s end in a way that gives the impression that one could simply opt out. “No thanks, I’d rather not go to heaven or hell.”
Of course, the billboard’s menu-approach does soften the sharper edges of what would otherwise be a rather stark sign – much like the voice of one calling in the wilderness. For the message could avoid the error if it took the imperative: “Choose heaven or you’ll end up in hell!” Perhaps that’s why the prophets kept it even simpler. “Repent!”