Galileo said, “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” It was part of his defense against a religious establishment bent on power. For generations Christianity insisted the earth sat at the center of the solar system. That celestial geography demonstrates the primacy of humanity in all creation.
Today we realize that the church in Galileo’s day was wrong. What we often don’t realize is that Galileo, at least in that quote, was wrong as well. Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible does not teach us how to go to heaven. Similarly, Jesus didn’t teach how to go to heaven when you die. Rather, both the Bible and Jesus teach what it looks like when heaven comes to earth.
An Introduction to the Kingdom
I first confronted this often shocking reality at the Spirit West Coast Christian Music Festival twenty years ago. I don’t remember much about the speaker I was listening to. She was a woman of African descent in one of the venue’s small teaching tents. A friend guesses it was Priscilla Shirer. She opened her talk by declaring that Jesus didn’t come to just announce forgiveness. Instead, he came proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Trying to wrap my mind around that simple statement prompted me to miss the rest of what she said. After all, it failed fit with my theology at the time.
Needing an answer right then and there I started thumbing through my pocket Bible. I flipped through all four Gospel accounts. It quickly became clear Jesus taught almost exclusively on the Kingdom of God. In Matthew calls it the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, Jesus’ ministry launches with a message identical to John the Baptist. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17, NRSV). By the time I decided she was right and I should listen, her talk was done.
I have no clue why I remember that moment so vividly. This is even more true because it had no immediate impact on how I understood my faith. I assumed the Kingdom was a different way to describe an afterlife in heaven and went on my way. At the same time, something deep down knew there was more to it than that. For years, every time I read a Kingdom parable, I found myself back in that muggy tent.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Then I went to Seminary and learned that the Greek word we translate kingdom is not about a geographic place. Nor is it about a heavenly afterlife. Rather, it is better understood as the rule or reign of God. You could say that the kingdom of God is wherever the will of God happens.
While this definitely moved things forward for me, I wasn’t ready to take it far enough. I did dropped the here versus there understanding of the Kingdom. At the same time, I summed up the will of God as the desire to forgive sins. So I just assumed that wherever forgiveness happens, then the will of God happens.
This held true until the late summer of 2015. When I finally realize I was a spiritual wreck, I began to doubt everything I believed. This started me down a path that led me to an new understanding of the Kingdom of God. It is an understanding of Jesus’ teaching, that unveils an abundant life as I understand it today.
This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.