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March 24, 2024

I Shared the Gospel with My Dad… And Millions Overheard

Weekly Bible E-Newsletter to Help You Open Your Bible

My wife and I have been blessed with two wonderful sons, Jack and Joe. Seemingly every day, they teach us something new about technology, about themselves, or about life. If you are a parent, I’m sure you can relate. We learn a great deal from our kids. Most of these lessons, however, come from things we see in them or things we see them do. Personally, I have yet to experience one of my boys intentionally sitting me down and saying, “Dad, I’d like to help you understand something better.” I have never had such a conversation with my sons, but in early 2011, I did have one with my dad.

My Dad, John Sr., was 73 years old and suffering from renal cancer. He didn’t have much time left. Since his early days attending church with his family in Chicago, he had always believed in God, but as his time on earth was coming to an end, it was clear that his faith was missing something crucial.

When we spoke, he would talk about regrets he had, about how he was trying to live a better life, but he never mentioned grace. He had an obvious uncertainty about facing his death and what would happen to him when he died. He hoped for heaven, but he was burdened by the question of if he had done enough to earn it.

In January of 2011, I had taken on a new role as Executive Director of Open the Bible, working closely with Pastor Colin Smith. Many years prior, my wife and I had come to a true and saving faith under Pastor Colin’s teaching at The Orchard Church in suburban Chicago. Just a few weeks after starting my new role, I attended a Sunday service where Pastor Colin preached a sermon entitled “Breakfast with the Devil. Supper with the Savior,” where he focused on Luke 23 and the story of the thief on the cross who was crucified next to Jesus.

The thief’s story is without question the clearest example in the Bible of how we do not earn our way into heaven. It is not our works, but rather the finished work of Jesus on the cross that makes all the difference. This thief must have lived a horrible life as he had been sentenced to die a brutal death. He even began his day railing at Jesus, and yet with his final breaths, he asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. With what I imagine to be tears of absolute joy, our tortured, suffering Savior found the strength to say to this thief “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” 

Wow. My Dad had to hear this story.

So, I called him later that morning and shared the story of the thief. I made it clear that his sins could be forgiven just like the thief’s, answered a few questions, told him I loved him, and then prayed with him and for him. I have to say, sharing the gospel with my dad was intimidating. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, how I would do it, or exactly what I would say. I am so grateful that the Holy Spirit had it all under control.

Somehow the Spirit gave me just the right words at just the right time. Later that week, in a one-on-one meeting with Pastor Colin, my dad made it clear that he had placed his trust and faith in Jesus Christ. After talking more with him, Pastor Colin asked when this faith in Jesus started. My Dad answered. “About a week ago, when my son shared with me the story of the thief on the cross.” Praise the Lord. My Dad died less than a year later. He has been in heaven ever since.

Not long after my dad’s passing, Pastor Colin, some key team members, and I sat down together, thanked the Lord for His kindness, and asked Him to help us think about what we at Open the Bible could do to reach others who might be in a similar place as my dad, struggling with how they might earn their way into heaven. In that meeting, the idea for Heaven, How I Got Here: The Story of the Thief on the Cross was born.  

It really isn’t hard to find people who profess faith but do not truly understand grace. According to Barna Group research, there are tens of millions of them across the US. To try and reach as many of these people as we could, we decided a book would be the starting point. Specifically, Pastor Colin felt a first-person narrative told by the thief himself, from heaven, would be best.

The Book

With only a handful of lines in the book of Luke, the Bible doesn’t really give much detail about the thief’s life and how he ended up on the cross. All we really know is that he must have been a violent criminal of some sort to have been sentenced to crucifixion. So, our team did some research about life in first-century Jerusalem trying to imagine his most likely background. We wanted his story to be authentic, believable, and one that people in the 21st century could relate to. 

At less than 100 pages, Heaven, How I Got Here was meant to be a quick read on the train to work in the morning, or an easy thing to pass out to friends and family. That strategy has worked out well.

This simple book, which Pastor Colin dedicated to my wife Carla and I, “in grateful memory of John, Sr., who also believed” has been translated into a dozen languages and has been read by well over a hundred thousand people around the world.

Even now, years later, Open the Bible receives notes of people saying they gave this book to someone in their life, and the Lord used it to bring that person to faith. Amen to that!

Partnering with Stephen Baldwin on Radio, on Stage, and on Film

It wasn’t long after we had the book manuscript that our team felt we should expand the kinds of tools we had to tell this story. Some people like to listen to or watch stories, and we didn’t want to miss anyone who needed to hear this amazing story of grace. As we moved off the written page, it was very clear we needed someone to be the voice and the face of the thief. I will never forget that whiteboard session we had in our conference room, where each attendee brought names of men they thought could play this role. We all love the work of Kevin Sorbo, Jim Caviezel, Kirk Cameron… but they were all either too squeaky clean or too tied to other projects to make sense as the thief.

Stephen Baldwin and I in 2016

Then Steve Hiller (the voice of our Open the Bible radio program with Pastor Colin) suggested Stephen Baldwin. I read and watched his testimony on I Am Second, and I knew we had our guy. He (as they say) had me at hello.

In early 2015, we began airing a powerful radio drama featuring Stephen’s emotional depiction of the thief.  We have aired this on hundreds of radio stations around the globe over the years, and we estimate that 10 million people have heard it.

Working closely with accomplished playwright Tim Gregory, we also developed a one-man play which Stephen performed live at The Orchard in Arlington Heights, IL in front of 12 sold out audiences during the 2015 and 2016 Easter weeks. Thousands of church members and attendees prayed about inviting people to the play who needed to hear about grace, about Jesus. In the 70-year history of The Orchard, the Heaven, How I Got Here performances have been the most successful outreach efforts ever embarked upon.

In 2016, we filmed Stephen’s performance of the one-man-play. We were so grateful for Stephen’s connections in Hollywood, as they allowed us to find a phenomenal team to capture the powerful story and performance on film and preserve it in its purest form for people all around the world to see.

Watch the Heaven Film for Free this Year

To date, this 60-minute Heaven How I Got Here film has been seen by millions in multiple languages. This year we have made the film available for you to view for free online during Easter week. Here’s how you can watch:

Beginning Sunday, March 24rd through Easter Sunday, March 31stHeaven, How I Got Here is available for free – click here to watch!

If you’ve ever wondered how to get to heaven, what heaven will be like, or if we will know one another in heaven, click here to explore dozens of free resources.

I encourage you to watch this film and consider sharing it with someone in your life who may need to hear this fresh presentation of the gospel.

The Open the Bible team will be praying throughout Easter season that the Lord will use these free resources to assist you and many others in sharing the great news about Jesus Christ and what He accomplished on the cross.

Millions Overheard

One of my favorite memories of working with Stephen Baldwin on this project was a conversation just a couple years ago. Together, we read several of the many notes we have received from readers, listeners, and viewers of Heaven, How I Got Here who have either come to faith or have helped someone else come to faith from these materials. We praised the Lord, we wept, and we both expressed great anticipation to being in heaven ourselves someday and encountering some of these people. We have no idea how many that will be, only the Lord does, and all the glory goes to Him! But to be used in some small way as part of someone’s journey to an eternity with Jesus… what an extraordinary privilege!

We just never know what may happen when we step out and share the gospel with people the Lord puts before us. Thinking back to the talk I had with my dad in 2011, who could have imagined that in a way, through Heaven How I Got Here, millions of people were listening in. How awesome is that!

My humble prayer today is that during Easter week 2024, this film and the other free resources we have assembled on heaven encourage and equip you to speak boldly with someone you know about Jesus—and that the Lord uses your conversation to bring that person to Him… just like He did with the thief and with my dad.


John Aiello

Executive Director

John came on board as the Executive Director for Open the Bible in February 2011. He previously served from 1999-2010 as the co-founder and CEO of SAVO, a fast-growing enterprise software company located in Chicago. John holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois and an M.B.A. from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. In addition, John teaches a class on entrepreneurial selling at Kellogg and serves on the boards of several software companies in Chicago. John and his wife, Carla, live in Arlington Heights with their two beautiful sons.
John came on board as the Executive Director for Open the Bible in February 2011. He previously served from 1999-2010 as the co-founder and CEO of SAVO, a fast-growing enterprise software company located in Chicago. John holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois and an M.B.A. from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. In addition, John teaches a class on entrepreneurial selling at Kellogg and serves on the boards of several software companies in Chicago. John and his wife, Carla, live in Arlington Heights with their two beautiful sons.