This article by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition to celebrate the release of the DVD Heaven, How I Got Here: A Night with the Thief on the Cross.
John Aiello was worried about his father.
Seventy-three years old and suffering from renal cancer, John Aiello Sr. didn’t have much time left. And his son knew that even though Aiello Sr. said he believed in Jesus, his faith was missing something crucial.
“He’d say, ‘I’m trying to live a better life,’ but never anything about grace,” said Aiello, the executive director of Unlocking the Bible, a media ministry affiliated with Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois. “And there was incredible uncertainty about facing his own death. He’d ask me, ‘What do you think is going to happen when I die?’”
And then, one week before Easter 2011, Aiello Sr. accepted God’s grace through faith in Jesus’s death on the cross. The Bible story that finally brought it home is a short one—“it only takes up about three inches of text,” Aiello said—but it has a long tail. More than 2,000 years after the thief was crucified next to Jesus, Aiello heard the story again from his pastor, Colin Smith.
Aiello told it to his dad, and the idea of grace finally clicked. And like the thief, the short conversion story of John Aiello Sr. has a long tail.
Through a book, a radio drama, and a Stephen Baldwin one-man play, the story of God’s grace to the thief on the cross has reached millions in the last two years.
“You’re always surprised by what the Lord does,” Smith said. “It’s essentially something very simple, but at the end of the day sometimes the things that are the simplest are the most useful. Here is a very familiar story, but placed in a fresh way. And God in his kindness has seen fit to use it.”
Smith’s sermon was part of an Easter series on the seven last sayings of Christ on the cross—not an unusual path for pastors to take around the holiday.
“I felt for a long time that the story of the thief on the cross was probably the clearest and simplest story for explaining the heart of the gospel,” he said. Especially for those who believe Christianity is a tally of right and wrong, “this story just blows that out of the water.”
“A week later, I went to visit John’s father, and he told me the story of the thief on the cross,” Smith said. “It was unusual because he was telling me the story like I’d never heard it before. I said to him, ‘Are you telling me that you’ve come to believe in the Lord Jesus like the thief on the cross believed in the Lord Jesus?’”
“Yeah, I have,” Aiello Sr. said.
“When did that happen?”
“Last week, when John told me the story,” he said.
Impressed with the power of the story,Smith and Aiello wondered how they could get it in front of other nominal Christians like Aiello Sr.
It’s not hard to find them. Of the 84 million adults who self-report as evangelical Christians in the United States, just 18 million meet the Barna Group definition, which includes making a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, believing when they die they’ll go to heaven because they confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their Savior, and believing eternal salvation is only possible through grace, not works.
In other words, 38 percent of the American population in 2006 said they were evangelical Christians, while probably 8 percent actually were. And that total doesn’t even include non-practicing Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, among others.
To reach a wider swath of them, Smith decided to write a book…