Wednesday, May 9, 2018
The Kingdom of God and Life after Death
Over the years, I have contemplated a number of traditions in scripture regarding the kingdom of God and the afterlife. Jesus speaks about the kingdom more than any other subject. It is a great mystery we live into and a reality we pray into being. Jesus taught us to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and this prayer is the centerpiece of our missional theology.
Almost all of Jesus's teaching is dipped in illustrative language such as parables and stories, metaphorical language such as his “I am” statements, and allegorical language such as "if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off." His teaching is about the mystery of the kingdom and how to live in it now. But the promise is that one day it will come into fullness. The classical theology of the kingdom is that it is both “now” and “not yet.” Jesus said very little about getting us into heaven. Most of his teaching is about getting a little of heaven into us.
There is much in the scripture that leads up to Christ’s teaching on the kingdom of God, starting with the longing for an earthly king by Israel, who was tired of the pesky Philistines, and God’s warning about what it would entail (taxes, the draft, giving their daughters away, etc.). Then, as if out of the disappointments that these human kings brought, there emerged in the scripture a longing for a Messianic king. As we flip over to the New Testament, Jesus, the Christ, fulfills these longings as the Messiah and begins to teach openly about the kingdom. From this theological setting, there are strands of tradition that develop in New Testament scripture about the ultimate reality of the coming kingdom. As George Ladd aptly said, in the Christ event the kingdom was “fulfillment without consummation.”
Jesus promises that there is more to the redemption story beyond the grave and beyond present history, and Paul begins to shed light on it. But we are left with mystery about the details. Jesus couldn’t be more clear about the gift of heaven to look forward to, in the midst of controversy between Pharisees and Sadducees over whether there is an afterlife. But by the masterful design of God’s revelation, we are left to trust how the end times pan out.
Personally, I do not buy into the fundamentalist concept that every strand of scriptural tradition is meant to be literal and somehow fits together in an elaborate scheme of the end times. For example, I do not believe in the rapture (a word not in the Bible), but that Jesus was using metaphorical language to describe an aspect of the second coming. Similarly, I do not believe in a thousand years of the kingdom on earth, because it is based on one verse in the book of Revelation, which is chalk full of metaphorical language. There are those who write books and make charts and argue details, and it’s a futile effort in our worship of the one who said that only the Father knows the times and seasons.
Here are some scriptures to study, as I have personally categorized them. In the strands of tradition under “unrealized eschatology,” I hold them up in creative tension rather than trying to be too exacting about how it all happens.
I always emphasize our two-part promise for the afterlife. There is both an immediacy of heaven for those who call on the name of the Lord in this life, as well as a second coming which brings ultimate reconciliation of all things and raises souls that are asleep in the last days (though I don’t believe God will destroy the gift of free will, so I’m not really universalist). With John Wesley, I don’t buy purgatory and see it as an invented solution to this dynamic tension between the “now” and “not yet.” Just holding up the two-part promise, and trusting God for the rest, is what makes the most sense to me personally.
But study it for yourself and see what you think.
The Kingdom is NOW – “Realized eschatology”
Lk 17:20-21 - Jesus said the kingdom is “in the midst of you”
Mt 12:24-28 – Jesus said the kingdom “has come to you”
Mt 11:2-6 – Jesus threw John the Baptist off guard
Lk 4:38-29 – One crowd wanted to throw him off a cliff
Jn 6:15 – Another wanted to crown him king
The Kingdom is NOT YET – “Unrealized eschatology”
Lk 19:11-13 – they “supposed” the kingdom was to appear immediately
Rm 8:18-25 – creation “groaning”, waiting for redemption
He 2:8-9 – we see Jesus but not everything in “subjection” to him
First strand of this tradition – IMMEDIACY of heaven:
Lk 23:39-43 – Jesus said “today” you will be with me in paradise
2 Cor 5:8 – To be absent in body is to be present “with the Lord”
Second strand of this tradition – RESSURECTION of the body:
1 Cor 15:35-44, 51-52 – trumpet shall sound and “dead shall be raised”
1 Jn 3:2-3 – when Christ is revealed, we shall be “like him”
1 Thes 4:16-17 – dead in Christ shall rise first
Third strand of this tradition – SECOND coming:
Acts 1:9-11 – will come back in blaze of glory “as he left”
1 Thess 5:2 – “day” will come as thief in the night
Mt 24:36-44 – the rapture concept
Fourth strand of this tradition – MILLENIALISM (pre- or post-):
Rev. 20:1-6 – Angel binding Satan for 1,000 years
Fifth strand of this tradition – UNIVERSAL restoration:
Acts 3:19-21 – Jesus in heaven “until the time of universal restoration”
Jn 3:17 – not to condemn the world but that the “world” might be saved
Jn 12:32 – when Christ lifted up from earth, will draw “all the world” to self
Unbalanced Views of the Kingdom are PROBLEMATIC
“Sweet By and By” spirituality – fixation on the NOT YET
Prosperity and “Name It and Claim It” spirituality – fixation on the NOW
Gnostic (ancient heresy) spirituality – fixation on SPLIT between now and not yet
A Balanced View of the Kingdom is MYSTERY
Mt 13:10-11 – Jesus speaks of the “secrets” of the kingdom
Jn 18:36-37 – Jesus said the kingdom is not “from this world”