Book Review: “One Thing You Can’t Do In Heaven”

By | December 12, 2010


I recently read the book “One Thing You Can’t Do In Heaven” by Mark Cahill. I must admit, the title alone turned me off. It said to me that the author held to a common view of evangelism, one which I believe has some significant shortcomings. However, since a group I am a part of was studying it, I wanted to read it for myself and give it a fair chance. (Disclaimer: I have limited the scope of this article such that I am unable to fully develop and argue every point I bring up; to do so would to be to write a full book on evangelism.)

Overall, I found many positive things in the book. Nevertheless, I also have many criticisms, most of which are ironically tied to the compliments. The problem is that, in my opinion, Cahill doesn’t have a complete enough view of evangelism, and he breezes over the most important points he makes in the book. My biggest compliment is that the book is inspiring. While I might not agree with everything Cahill said, it did remind me of my passion to minister to people. My main criticism is tied to this. I felt that the book only provided answers, regarding what to do with this passion, for a certain type of person. I was frustrated because I felt the book didn’t give answers for how someone like me could be more involved in witnessing in a way which fits the type of person I am.

The majority of the book consists of Cahill sharing stories, describing how people can be more like him, and encouraging them to do so. A common a complaint against evangelists is that they want everyone to be like them. People respond by saying that different people have different gifts and talents, and that they aren’t gifted in evangelism. In other words, the argument is that people who aren’t gifted in evangelism, aren’t going to go out and witness all of the time like the evangelists do. The evangelists are often aware of this complaint, but usually disagree and continue to hold that everyone should be witnessing. (I thought that Cahill wrote something in response to this complaint, however I could not find it in the book.)

Mark is obviously gifted in the area of evangelism, and certainly has been given a passion for it. I believe that it is clear that he is an outgoing extrovert. On page 18, he talks about praying for the unknown people he’ll be flying with, and says, “I don’t consider them strangers, but friends I haven’t met yet.” This is a text book statement for an extrovert to make. Later in the book, a salesman points out that Cahill has used all of the best sales techniques, and can’t believe that Mark hasn’t had any sales training (p. 192). This tells me that Cahill naturally possesses all of these aptitudes. Now it is true, as Cahill points out, that he needed practice in order to develop his skills (p. 18). A naturally athletic person can become a great athlete by developing his or her skill through practice. However a person who is not naturally athletic can only get so far by practicing. In other words, practicing helps us develop our skills, but it doesn’t change our fundamental strengths, personality, etc.

That said, I would agree with what evangelists say, that we all (followers of Christ) ought to have a heart for those who don’t know God. In thinking about evangelism recently, I have recognized my passion for this, even though evangelism is at the bottom of my spiritual gifts. What I am arguing is that people are indeed different, and that because of that, the answer isn’t to have them all try and act more like outgoing, evangelistically gifted people. I think we can all participate in witnessing, but that it will look different depending on the person. The shortcoming of the book is that it offers none of these other solutions.

To be fair, churches as a whole have failed miserably at leading people to follow Christ. Because of this, books like this, which offer incomplete and under-developed views of Christianity, are a significant step forward. They help many people to grow. However, I don’t think this means the books are great, so much as it is a sad commentary on where people are starting from.

Compliments and Criticisms

I believe that Cahill repeatedly projects his own passions and talents onto everything and everyone. He makes witnessing more or less the most important thing about Christianity (while it is important, it isn’t the primary focus). He also reads the bible through this lens, to the point that he will see witnessing in verses which do not actually have this idea in the text itself. Cahill seems to assume that witnessing is commanded as being one if not the most important thing to God. However, if an honest look is taken at the New Testament, it is surprising how little witnessing is instructed. Specifically, why don’t the authors of the epistles spend more time clearly instructing believers on how to go out and witness, if it is so important?

As mentioned, I felt that many of the most important points made in the book were quickly glossed over. The biggest example of this is how Cahill seems to know the key to evangelism, yet only talks about it in a couple of sentences late in the book. “If you want to become a better evangelist, fall more in love with Jesus.” (p. 171). He likewise says that people don’t share because they don’t have something to share (p. 55). That’s the key right there. While he states this, it’s as though he doesn’t fully grasp it either. If he did, why not spend more time in the book trying to get people to fall more in love with Jesus? If he wants people to be better evangelists, and he says this, why doesn’t he demonstrate it? (In contrast, you might want to check out the book “Jesus Manifesto”, which isn’t about witnessing, but is about trying to get people to fall more in love with Jesus.)

I’ve spent a lot of time being critical, but I certainly want to share some of the positives of the book as well. Cahill talks about the importance of how we view people. We need to view them as people whom God loves and desires to have a relationship with, even if they appear to be far away from God at present. In fact, if you see the type of people he witnesses to (punks, prostitutes, business people, etc.), it’s apparent that he does segregate by outward appearances. He also talked about going out to where the people are. Churches have done a horrible job of reaching people by becoming mostly isolated, gathering Christians and separating them from the everyone else. Evangelism has become a matter of hoping you can convince a few people to visit your church (and church becomes a show…). I fully agree with and support the idea of getting out of a church building and going to meet people where they are at already; this is something we need to be doing.

Cahill also communicates that people often aren’t opposed to, and in many cases may be interested in, spiritual discussion if done in right manner. This is a great and valuable concept to grasp. If you recognize that people may actually be interested in having a good spiritual discussion, that makes it much easier to begin one. He also touches on talking to people in a way which they are most likely to be open. He briefly discusses genuinely caring about people, building rapport in the conversation, and in taking time to listen to them and their beliefs. However the problem continues to be that he mentions all of these important things only in passing, without explaining or expanding on them much if at all.

I feel that one of the most important concepts to understand about evangelism is that it is God who works in people and convicts them of their need to turn to Him. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Cahill ever talks about this in the book. Rather, the underlying message of the book is that we do the work of converting people and will be successful if we learn how to witness correctly. The problem with this is that people use the fact that God worked through ones means as a justification for that means. In other words, someone came to Christ after reading a tract, so they think the way to reach people is through using tracts. Or another person was “saved” at concert, so they think that what we need are more evangelistic concerts. We need to be intelligent, and carefully consider the best ways of ministering to and loving people, rather than just using God’s work as a justification for the means He happened to use.

Cahill does correctly point out that God can be at work even when we don’t see it. He recounts times when his efforts appeared to be fruitless, but how he later learned that they made a difference in someone’s life. He also rightly points out that a lack of conversion at that the present does not mean failure, and that people need to hear about Christ 7.6 times on average before they are ready to make a commitment to Him (p. 53). Cahill also briefly points out that he doesn’t try to pressure someone into a conversion, a mistake which many evangelists make. Mark states that he may actually dissuade a person from “making a decision” if he feels they aren’t serious. While he does touch on the fact that we shouldn’t pressure people or try to “shove our ideas down their throat”, he again doesn’t take much time to emphasize this point.

I appreciate that Cahill points out how 87% of people come to Christ through a friend (p. 66). Given that statement, it is ironic that most of the book is focused on witnessing to strangers (er, friends he hasn’t met yet)—or at least most of his examples are. Unfortunately, dividing people into the categories of “lost” and “saved” hurts our understanding of how to relate to the people we know already. When it’s this black and white, and the only thing that is important is to have someone be in the “saved” category, then it can easily appear that the most loving thing to do is to try and push them into that category whatever it takes (and whether they like it or not). I would like to suggest that it is better to view everyone—”lost” or “saved”—as being on a spiritual journey. Our assignment is to help point them to Christ along the way. Seen from this point of view, it is much easier to not be tempted to pressure people into “a decision”, and not be frustrated if people don’t “make a decision” right away. As mentioned, it usually takes people a while to decide to follow Christ. That is obviously a big decision. We need to allow our friends and/or family the space to make their decision as they come to it and as the Spirit convicts them. We have an excellent opportunity to walk along side them both before and after they decide to follow Christ. We need to demonstrate that we love them and will continue to be there, whether or not they choose to follow. When they are ready, we may well be the people they turn to for guidance.

Cahill points out that most people believe because someone explained the gospel to them at some point. He uses this as an argument for verbally talking to people about the gospel. That’s fine and good, and needs to take place at the right time. However, he then argues against any other way of witnessing, and demonstrates a misunderstanding of what being a witness through action looks like. First of all, one problem with the whole book is that the focus is always on individuals, only answering the question, “How does an individual evangelize?” There is never any mention of how we might work together. Cahill suggests that actions are a poor way to witness, because we all make mistakes and none of us is perfect. I certainly believe that following Christ should make a difference in our actions, and I think Cahill would agree with this. But who says that we have to be perfect in order to be a good witness through our actions? The problem is that Jesus said people would know us by our love for one another. That’s not something you can do as an individual. If you completely ignore the community of the body of Christ, and only think in terms of individual people, you will completely miss huge ways in which God intends for us to be witnesses to the world. Cahill goes on to say that those who don’t want to witness to strangers are ashamed of Christ. I don’t believe this is necessarily true.

On another positive note, Cahill does encourage us to look for ways to talk about spiritual matters and to get people to think about the bigger questions of life (such as why are we here, what happens after death, etc.). He suggests many “icebreaker” type questions which are good at leading into spiritual conversations (chapter 7). He also rightly says that a person doesn’t need to have a lot of spiritual knowledge in order to share their faith, and that one doesn’t have to be able to answer every question. However later on, he ironically demonstrates that his witnessing technique is based on knowledge and being able to answer more questions than the other person can. He also states that it is best to know a lot. So while he at first states that a person doesn’t need to know a lot, what he writes later will likely make people feel as though they do.

Unfortunately, later in the book Cahill gets into apologetics. For those unfamiliar, apologetics is the disciple of systematically arguing a belief. Commonly it refers to people coming up with arguments as to how conservative “Christian” ideas are true and everyone else is wrong. There are a couple of problems with this in my opinion. First of all, certain ideas not foundational to Christianity are argued as essential beliefs. But the biggest problem that Cahill and apologists fall into is this: truth seems to be determined by who can make the best argument. It is a subtle and unintentional mistake, but it is made nonetheless. The apologists spend much time preparing arguments. They then release these arguments on people who are unprepared. The apologists subsequently declare themselves to be right (and usually seem a bit smug about it) because the other person can’t come up with an equally strong defense of their own position on the spot.

The problem I have with this is that it doesn’t prove anything in reality. It doesn’t prove one side to be right, nor does it prove the other side to be wrong. After winning an argument, often claims are then exaggerated beyond truth. Cahill claims to be able to prove there is a God (p. 153), that the bible is true (p. 158), and that evolution is disproven (p. 158). Now I grant that the validity of these statements depends on how “proving” is defined. However, I would say that, while strong arguments can be made for these things, strong arguments alone don’t definitively prove a matter. In other words, I think it is more accurate and respectful to claim that there are reasonable arguments for God and the bible, such that believing in them isn’t ridiculous. But to claim they are provable is going too far.

A further problem with depending on arguments to prove truth is that most Christians do not have all of the knowledge in order to argue these points. In other words, if part of sharing our faith is winning a debate, what happens when we lose the debate? If most Christians are unprepared in apologetics, isn’t it likely that the other person could make a point to which they have no rebuttal? Does this mean that Christianity is false? I certainly hope not!

Many of my other complaints have to do with things being oversimplified. Cahill focuses only on the “lost”, as though discipling the found isn’t important as well. This follows from the over simplification of dividing people into “lost” and “found”, as though everyone is either black or white. The discussion of attitude in the second chapter is good (“get to” rather than “got to”), however I still feel it is overly simplistic. Sometimes what we need is a simple attitude adjustment, but it certainly doesn’t address every problem. I argue that the reason very few Christians witness isn’t a matter of attitude, but is due to much bigger, systemic and paradigmatic problems.

Beyond this, I feel like Cahill reduces the gospel to only (or primarily) being a matter of going to heaven when we die. In relation to this, he spends a chapter discussing the use of tracts. I admit, I am not a fan of tracts. I feel like they have the tendency to reduce the gospel to a formula, and make following Christ out to be a matter of simply intellectually agreeing with a few statements. Obviously God still works through tracts, but my gut says there must be a better way. I looked at some of the tracts from the two organizations Cahill mentions as his favorites. I admit, I couldn’t stand to look for very long. I even noticed one tract which, apparently, explained why Roman Catholics are not Christians (I strongly disagree, but further explanation is beyond the scope of this article).

I think this may be true with many tracts, but it definitely was the case with the book: all of the quotes from the Bible were taken from the King James translation. I understand that many people have grown up with it and therefore feel it sounds more “biblical” or holy or poetic. But the language is 400 years old and isn’t commonly used anywhere else in our modern day. The bible may hold eternal truths, but it is meant to be in common language. I feel that the King James is more likely to obscure the text as compared to other more recent translations. In other words, when talking to someone who isn’t very familiar with Christianity, it would be much clearer to use a translation which leans toward modern speech, such as the New Living Translation or The Message.

Which Gospel?

In Chapter 8, Cahill talks about the need to convince people of their sins and he strongly suggests using the ten commandments to do so. This is a traditional way to make the gospel compact (though I believe the use of the ten commandments specifically comes from Ray Comfort). The formula is: God requires you to be perfect, you are far from perfect—you are a sinner, therefore you need Jesus. I understand where he is coming from, however I feel like there could be a better way to go about this. First, I don’t like using the ten commandments, because we are not under the Law. Secondly, I know that I’d be a little offended if someone tried to corner me into looking that bad. Many people think that they are decent people. They know that no one is perfect, but they are trying the best they can. So I wonder, would it be possible to convict people by demonstrating God’s greatness? If we communicated the immensity of God’s love, would people recognize that they aren’t good enough? I at least like to think about starting there, rather than starting with people’s sin. I think it makes more sense to focus on God and His love first. This demonstrates why we aren’t good enough for God, at which point we can explain how He shows us grace through Christ.

One last complaint, by the way it is worded, Cahill seems to say that “Jesus loves you” isn’t biblical, or is less biblical the “message of sin, righteousness, Law, judgement, and Hell” (p. 184). He is not the first nor only person to say something along these lines. I believe what people are actually complaining about is a “feel good” gospel, one in which God does not really make any demands on people, where God doesn’t have power or doesn’t judge. Cahill and many other want a message that has more teeth, one which hits people and convicts them to change. But the problem isn’t the message that “Jesus loves you”, it’s a gross misunderstanding of Christ’s love. In fact, I’d say that it is not knowing Christ’s love at all! God’s love is foundational to everything, it is massive, exciting, powerful, motivational, and it is good news.

Viewing the gospel from a legal standpoint is one way to look at it, but is not the only way. In comparison to God’s overarching love, the legal view is cold and sterile. The problem with making the legal view the primary way of seeing the gospel is that it emphasizes God’s judgement and wrath as His primary characteristics over His love. God’s love is only inserted into this gospel as a means to deal with our sins—it isn’t the primary quality of God. Yet in the bible, God continually expresses His love more than anything else.

I think the condemnation angle is only one way to witness to people, and one which many may not connect with. While a person can make the legal argument from the Bible, that may not really convince someone who thinks that they are a decent person. And it doesn’t seem like that good of new to me; it falls into the category of “kindly” giving a person a crutch after you have broken their leg. If, however, we can convince people of God’s amazing love, then we have imparted to them a desire to be right with God. I think this is more in line with what God wants, rather than having a person simply make a confession in order to keep from going to hell.


There are certainly some helpful resources in this book. However I’d hesitate to recommend it to someone who is unfamiliar with the subject of evangelism, due to its limited scope. I would be most likely to recommend it to a person who has similar personality and gifts to Cahill, as they would get the most out of it. I like how Cahill states the witnessing is a great way to grow in faith, as it provides impetus for prayer and study (p. 58). He also correctly says that faith needs to be put into action in order to grow (p. 210). However Neil Cole develops these ideas much further in his book, “Organic Church”. Overall, I certainly recommend Cole’s book as a much fuller and developed view of growing the church through making new disciples.

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