This morning I was in Wal-Mart and saw once again the popular books that continue to be on the best-seller’s list about heaven and the after life. We are fascinated with questions about the hear after. We want to hear the story about 90 Minutes in Heaven and want to know if the little boy can tell us if Heaven is for Real. Is it true that Love Wins or are we just Erasing Hell? Americans are fascinated with the afterlife. I guess I should not be surprised by this phenomenon after watching the frenzy of book buying that occurred with the Left Behind series. So much of American Christianity has been built upon the question of what happens after death.
This made me want to write a book with the title 90 Years of Heaven on Earth or Heaven on Earth is for Real. But as soon as I say that, I wonder if the conservative contingent out there will automatically pigeonhole me into some kind of liberal camp. Nonetheless, I cannot get all wrapped up in this afterlife ranting. To a Jew listening to Jesus in the first century, talk about the kingdom of God had very concrete implications. Mark’s account of Jesus’ life summarizes the beginning of his public ministry with these words: Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)
Luke tells us records a specific account of Jesus’ early ministry where he reads from Isaiah 61.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)
The point in both of these passages is that the kingdom of God is revealed in the presence and ministry of Jesus Christ. The listeners that day no longer needed to await the coming of the Messiah. Jesus came to offer good news in the moment and time of those listening and it would result in concrete, tangible, visible manifestations. This is the point that N. T. Wright is making in the following quote.
“If, then, someone were to speak to Jesus’ contemporaries of YHWH’s becoming king, we may safely assume that they would have in mind, in some form or other, this two-sided story concerning the double reality of exile. Israel would ‘really’ return from exile; YHWH would finally return to Zion. But if these were to happen there would have to be a third element as well: evil, usually in the form of Israel’s enemies, must be defeated.” —N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God
The Kingdom of God, the reign of YHWH had concrete “right now” meaning. It was not something that was simply coming in the after death, some kind of spiritual, non-physical reality that has nothing to do with this earth and God’s creation.
I know that there is coming a day when Jesus will return and restore justice and redeem all of creation. I know that the New Testament confronts Jewish assumptions about the kingdom of God. But the Bible never ever turns the kingdom of God into platonic, disembodied experience that has nothing to do with life on earth. Jesus wants to reveal his kingdom in the midst of the powers and the principalities of the air, He want so provide an experience of the good news in very concrete ways. Questions about the afterlife and not unimportant, but the questions about the kingdom of God in the here and now are a lot more important.