Thinking about the Gospel: Heaven or the Kingdom of God? (or both?)
February 7, 2008
Confession: this will be no surprise to most of you, but I – though a card-holding Bible-believing Evangelical Christian – have a few contentions with the American church at large, at least as the Christian faith is often imagined/understood/expressed here (I can’t speak as clearly to European Christianity as I not only don’t find myself in that scene, but haven’t even yet visited – it is possible that my contention may be even more universal in nature, I suppose). That’s not to say that I necessarily believe that Christians who disagree with me are ‘lost’ – only that, at this point, I think they’re mistaken.
Before I get ripped for saying what I am about to say, hear me out: I believe literally in both Heaven and Hell and also believe that people will be going to both. I am also convinced that there will not be found a single person in Hell who isn’t convinced that they rightly deserved it, nor will there be a single individual in Heaven who will feel that they somehow earned their place there.
With that said, the Bible – taken as a whole – really doesn’t speak nearly as often about the ‘afterlife’ as our forms of evangelism often emphasize. Usually when Jesus appears to speak of ‘Heaven’, as in the case of the phrase, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’, it should be noted that the term “Kingdom of Heaven” is only used in Matthew’s gospel, and given that Matthew was a Jew and writing to Jews, and that Jews in that day (and some still today) didn’t think it right to speak God’s name in public, it was very likely that Matthew paraphrased Jesus (who was, by all accounts, far more radical than any who have followed him, which is part of they had him killed – blasphemy) replacing “God” with “Heaven” or “the Lord” (which meant “Master” or “King” – not “God” – in that culture). Notice that in all of the Gospels written without a specifically Jewish audience (Luke, for instance) the parallel passages are worded almost identically but with the phrase “Kingdom of God”, which in almost every case refers not to some “pie in the sky, by and by”, but to God’s rule on earth, here and now, in the hearts and lives of those who accept Jesus as their king. Of course, this isn’t anything new – it’s what Calvin, Luther, and even Jonathan Edwards taught on the subject, and was simply lost during the 1800s when dispensationalism (a modern theological theory) began to take over as the primary ‘conservative’ expression of the faith, the largest of it’s original proponent of which were mostly – I might add – uneducated popular public preachers, and not legitimate Bible scholars.
What’s my point? Far too often the Gospel is painted as simply a ‘get out of Hell free’ ticket, when in fact it is an offer and opportunity to switch allegiances, to choose a new Kingdom (God’s rule, or your own – which is ultimately Satan’s) here and now, to change your citizenship to be a citizen of God’s country, and His rule being priority one. Yes, it is a decision that echoes into eternity, affecting one’s eternal states (where Heaven & Hell come into play), but when one makes God’s glory their ultimate joy – when Christ becomes their delight & treasure – when God lives within us – the Kingdom of God is WITHIN US, here an now, daily present – transforming us, our circumstances, and the world around us! This is no ‘pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by’ faith – God is HERE – His Kingdom has come in Christ!
That is why, when I share the gospel I don’t even think about keeping people out of hell – the notion rarely crosses my mind. I think about introducing them to Jesus, and am sad that they do not know Him here and now. I don’t carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, as though it is my actions alone which may save them, but rather I am a man who loves his God whom I can’t NOT speak of and share my passion for, and through that the Kingdom takes new ground: Jesus is contagious.
Folks, this is more than an altar-call, though it’s quite possible that an altar may be our first step. However, we can’t stop there. The center of the good news of God is NOT Heaven ‘one day’, but as John Piper states “GOD is the Gospel”! We get HIM, and His presence, which begins here and now.
Honestly, I’m still exploring this… it’s something that’s still stirring within me, and needs to process some more…
Feel free to share anything that He’s been teaching you, particularly if it relates to what I’m learning. I’d REALLY appreciate it!
Also, for some helpful, and Biblical, thoughts on the afterlife, see this excellent interview with N.T. Wright HERE.