Karl Marx called religion the opium of the people. When Christianity teaches people to trudge through life on this earth so they can find eternal happiness in heaven, Marx is right. That is not the path to healthy abundance.
Instead, this take on faith invites lives of withdrawal from mainstream society and self-neglect through conformity. That makes it unloving to self and others. This pain is then numbed by the promise of eternal life. That makes broken Christianity akin to the opium dens Oscar Wilde describes in his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, places where you can, “buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new.” Thankfully this is not what the Bible teaches, so while Christianity is broken, Christian faith doesn’t have to be.
The Kingdom of God
As we explored in our second post on the way of Jesus versus the way of Caesar, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God (or, in Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven). Western Christianity frequently misunderstands the Greek word for kingdom and thinks about it in terms of a geographic place. Thus the whole idea about escaping this earth for a blissful eternity in heaven. While I have no objections to the idea of eternal life or that, in the end, divine love will reign supreme, that is not what Jesus is talking about when he refers to the Kingdom of God.
Instead, the Greek word for kingdom is about someone’s rule or reign. So in Jesus’ day, wherever a conquered people lived in fear of their Roman oppressors, or the Temple money changers extorted the masses, or the religious leadership shamed the common people for their benefit, they lived according to a Kingdom of Caesar (or, more broadly speaking, a Kingdom of Power). But when Jesus rejects these practices and his followers do the same, they are no longer living in Caesar’s kingdom even if Rome continued to occupy the land. They have rejected the way of power for something else.
So what is life like where people live under the rule and reign of God? Much like each of the Gospel writers and Paul have different takes on the crucifixion and resurrection, they highlight different aspects of Kingdom living:
The Gospel According to Matthew summarizes the character of disciples in the Beatitudes, eight statements that describe the life that flows from faith. That last bit is important. For Matthew, the Beatitudes are not qualities you pursue, but something that you start to embody when you encounter the God Jesus calls Father. Living from faith prompts disciples to be the salt of the earth and light of the world, both sustaining what is good and exposing what is vile. In Matthew, that is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
While Matthew focuses on the character faith creates in the lives of disciples, Mark highlights God’s people undermining systemic injustice. In Mark, Jesus binds evil, or what the Apostle Paul will later call the principalities and powers that shape how we see the world. The oldest example of evil capturing human hearts and minds is the story of the Fall where Adam and Eve go from trusting God’s goodness to wanting to be like God. Today, these principalities and powers invite some to believe in meritocracy and cause others to embrace victimhood. They offer justification for inequality based on race, gender, and economic class. Heeding Jesus’ invitation to the Kingdom of God according to Mark means standing up to oppression and offering a different way forward.
In many ways, Luke brings Matthew and Mark’s understanding of the Kingdom of God together. On one hand, there is a strong focus on how humanity should approach a loving God with confidence because they trust in divine love. At the same time, there is a strong call to transformation as they live from their belovedness. According to Luke’s Jesus, as you grasp the depth of divine love, all of life, your time, talents, and treasures, reprioritize around the Kingdom. But not in an obligatory way, but one where any other way of living stops making sense.
The Gospel According to John never uses the term kingdom, but instead focuses entirely on the nature the ruler. John seems to realize that until we know and trust who God is, we will never experience abundant life on this side of eternity. It is not until the final verses of John when God restores Peter, where we get a teaser as to how God invites us to live. Although, in my personal experience, that is all we need. The hardest part of faith is not living well, it is believing that you are radically and relentlessly loved as you are so you are free to live well. No wonder John spends all his time trying to reveal the nature of divine glory that draws near fallen people with kindness, compassion, and embrace.
Paul (in Galatians)
In Galatians 3:28 Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Some research indicates this was not something Paul wrote, but an ancient baptismal creed Paul quoted. In other words, Paul was reminding them of the life they embraced when they came to faith and entered the Kingdom of God. It is a life where there is no longer division based on race, socio-economic status, or gender. In other words, the Gospel tears down the very walls we use to divide ourselves and find power over one another.
What’s the Point?
All this means a kingdom is not about geography, but the allegiances of people’s hearts. And that’s why Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus’ focus is not about getting people to heaven but bringing heaven (a place where relentless love holds the heart’s allegiance) to earth.
You are radically and relentlessly loved. So much so that you can cast off all self-doubt and shame. You are free to live from that love in a way that honors the fullness of who you and lets others know that they too are radically and relentlessly loved. Will you do it perfectly? No, but when you are loved like you are, guilt is just an opportunity to learn and to make amends.
That is the actual good news of Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom.
Podcast: The Afterlife from The Bible For Normal People
What does the Bible say about the afterlife? Listen and find out!
Dissertation: Re-Storying God: Re-Imagining the God of the Bible and Re-Enchanting our Neo-Secular Selves by Joe Burnham
Like last week, I used my dissertation as a guide to writing this week’s post. While my thoughts continue to evolve, everything Abundance Reconstructed is ultimately an outpouring of this work.
Videos: The Beatitudes by Joe Burnham
In my dissertation, I barely gloss over the Beatitudes, but in the process of clarifying what Abundance Reconstructed is, I did a series of videos deep-diving into the first part of the Sermon on the Mount. So if you want more on Matthew’s take on life in the Kingdom, check these out.
Book: Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N. T. Wright (affiliate)
In a rare book that is celebrated by theologians across the spectrum, those both conservative and progressive, N. T. Wright, one of the world’s best and most accessible scholars invites us to stop focusing on going to heaven and instead seek to bring heaven to earth.
Book: The Forgotten Creed by Stephen Patterson (affiliate)
Do you want more on Galatians 3 and the division Paul sought to break down in the ancient world? This is the book for you.
Celebrate someone else in whatever way feels most true to you. It could be a card or a letter. Or maybe you take them out for a meal or a night on the town. Perhaps you buy them a gift. Just do something that comes as an expression of your truest self that communicates to them that they are seen, known, and loved.
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This post is the last in a five-part series on rescuing Christian faith from Christianity. To receive the full series, sign up for our weekly email for spiritual misfits who realize that Christianity is broken but Christian faith doesn’t have to be.
All Bible quotes come from Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.