This post could have been entitled “Where the Kingdom of God is Not.” It deals with the first of two common misunderstandings of the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus. I’ll address each of these, one today and one tomorrow, by stating something that the kingdom is not and then defending my statement with evidence from the gospels.
1. The kingdom of God is not what we call heaven.
In my last post I mentioned that, as a boy, I understood Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom to be an invitation to “get saved and go to heaven.” If you had asked me “Where is the kingdom of God?” I would have answered “In heaven.” This answer wouldn’t have been completely wrong, because God does reign over heaven. But it would have missed much that is essential to the kingdom of God. In fact, we misconstrue Jesus’ teaching if we think that his proclamation of the kingdom was telling us something about God’s rule up in spiritual space or in the afterlife.
Part of our confusion comes from the fact that the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as speaking about “the kingdom of heaven” rather than “the kingdom of God.” Where Mark 1:15 reads “the kingdom of God has come near,” Matthew 3:2 has “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (literally in Greek, “the reign of the heavens,” he basileia ton ouranon, mirroring the Aramaic spoken by Jesus, malkuta’ dishmaha’). Matthew’s phraseology doesn’t mean that the kingdom is literally up in the heavens. Rather, he is using a common circumlocution for God, much as my grandmother did when she said “Good heavens” rather than “Good God.” So, the kingdom of heaven is not the kingdom that exists in heaven, but the reign of God over both heaven and earth.
The words of what we call the Lord’s Prayer confirm this understanding of the kingdom of God. Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Notice that we are to pray for the kingdom to come. It is not a place to which we go after death. Moreover, in his use of Semitic parallelism, Jesus roughly equates the kingdom with the will of God. Currently, in heaven, God reigns and therefore his will is done. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to visit us, for his will to be done on earth.
The fact that the kingdom of God/heaven encompasses this world seems at first glance to be contradicted by something Jesus himself said to Pontius Pilate during his trial: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36, NIV). Doesn’t Jesus mean “My kingdom is not here on earth, but up in heaven”? No, in fact this is not what Jesus means. Two pieces of evidence make this clear. First, the Greek of John 18:36 literally reads, “My reign is not from this world [ek tou kosmou toutou].” Second, the latter portion of John 18:36 explains, “But now my kingdom is from another place [ouk estin enteuthen].” Literally, this sentence reads, “Now my reign is not from here.” Jesus is speaking, not of the location of his kingdom, but of the source of his royal authority. Unlike Pilate, he does not get his authority from an earthly source (Caesar), but from God. Now it’s certainly true that Jesus was not seeking to use his divine authority to establish merely another political state on earth. Nevertheless, the kingdom he announces is, in a sense, heaven on earth, not heaven in heaven.
Sometimes when I have taught people that the kingdom of God is not equal to heaven, they have responded negatively because they assume I’m saying things I am not in fact saying. Some fear I’m denying the reality of life after death. So, let me be clear in saying that I believe there is indeed life beyond this life and that we enter this realm through faith in Jesus Christ. Moreover, our life beyond this life will include a much more immediate and pervasive experience of God’s reign.
Others fear that talking about the kingdom of God as an earthly reality necessarily leads to a liberal political agenda. This fear is stoked by the fact that many Christians who are politically and socially left of center have often used kingdom language for their political and social agendas. I believe that there is no necessary or sacred connection between the kingdom of God and any political agenda, left, right, or center. All human visions, platforms, and programs must be laid at the feet of the King of kings, who calls his followers to a surprising and utterly counter-cultural way of making a difference in the world. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about this later.
Tomorrow, I’ll discuss another place, besides heaven, where the kingdom of God is not (at least not entirely).