Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Earth Vision Follow Up

I want to follow up on the post about God’s vision for the earth, in which I asserted that, while God has a full and vital vision for the future of the earth, most Christians’ vision of the future is focused almost solely on heaven, and as a result we have missed much of what Jesus and Scripture are really talking about.

This has been part of the discussion that I have been having with my Wednesday night Bible study crew (an open study in which there is always room for more participants). So I decided to do a little research. The question I was seeking an answer for was this: how much did Jesus and the New Testament writers talk about heaven, specifically our concept of heaven as the place of eternal reward after a person dies. Using my Bible software I did a search on the word “heaven” to see how often it occurs in the New Testament, and looked up each occurrence to see to what it referred. Here’s what I found:

The word “heaven” occurs 248 times in the New Testament. 32 of those instances, however, are Matthew’s substitution of “Kingdom of Heaven” for the other gospel writer’s “Kingdom of God”. The vast majority of times—206—the word refers either to the sky or to the place where God dwells. Actually, that’s the same thing, for all the ancients believed that the gods or God lived up in the sky. But in none of these instances does the word refer to the place of reward in the afterlife for good people or Christians. There are only 10 instances where the word could be construed as referring to any kind of reward for faithfulness, or an abode after death. When the word search is expanded to include the plural “heavens,” you find a lot more references to the sky, and only one that talks about an eternal body after death, 1 Corinthians 5:1-2. So the concept is not foreign to the New Testament, but neither is it prominent, certainly not in the degree to which modern Christians give it.

In contrast, there are 99 instances of the phrase “Kingdom of God” (and its cognate “Kingdom of Heaven”) in the New Testament, all but 13 of them coming from Jesus. Yet, when I speak to different groups of Christians and ask them, “What one thing did Jesus talk about more than anything else,” I have yet to have anyone answer, “Kingdom of God.” I get “salvation” (he speaks of it only thirteen times), “forgiveness” (sixteen), or “eternal life” (twenty-one). But not once, not once has anyone ever said, “Kingdom of God,” not even after they have run out of every other answer. I have had to give them the answer every single time.

What’s up? Why have we missed this? Well, I think part of it is that we are so obsessed with heaven that every time we read “Kingdom of God,” we automatically think “heaven.” But read the gospels, and it is clear that the Kingdom of God does not refer to a non-physical place of eternal reward where the spirits of saved people float around for all of eternity with God and the angels. No, it is a very physical place, a very earthly place, where peace and justice and mercy and love are the order of the day. The contrasts Jesus makes are not between earth in this life and heaven in the next, but between the kingdoms of this age and the Kingdom of God in the new age. And the biblical vision is not of heaven as a place that we go to but rather of earth as a place that heaven comes to so that God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” So that the justice that characterizes heaven now characterizes earth as well. And the love that characterizes heaven characterizes earth as well. And the presence of God which characterizes heaven will characterize the earth as well. Who said that you have to die and go to heaven to be in the presence of God? The good news that was proclaimed when Jesus was born was that his name would be “Immanuel” which means “God is with us”!

It seems to me that we need to get this straight, and that if we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus that we ought to talk about things in the same proportion that Jesus talked about them. Which means that we need to talk about the Kingdom of God a whole lot more.

In Acts 1, after Jesus had ascended into the sky on a cloud, two men in white robes said to his disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand there staring up into heaven?”

Maybe we need a couple of angels to ask us the same thing.

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