Tag Archives: Kingdom of God

Afterlife, Eternal Life and the Life of the Kingdom

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

When most people who grow up in a Christian church talk about eternal life they are talking about ‘going to heaven’ or what happens to the ‘soul’ after death. Many Christians who faithfully come to worship each week do not realize that this is not the primary direction of Christian hope, instead most of this idea comes from the interaction of Greek philosophical worldview and the language of Christianity. Unfortunately, this focus on the soul’s ascent to be with God in heaven has transformed the profoundly grounded hope of the early followers of Christ into an otherworldly escapism which is often disconnected the horizontal dimension of faith which involve my neighbors and the world.

The Jewish covenantal understanding of their faithful relationship with God and their neighbor is the foundation upon which Jesus builds his vision of life under the kingdom of heaven. Despite Matthew’s frequent use of the kingdom of heaven, instead of the kingdom of God as predominant in Mark and Luke, what Jesus is referring to is God’s kingdom coming to earth. The entire direction of the New Testament’s hope is God’s coming to dwell among God’s people on earth. This is not unique to the New Testament, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there is in the tabernacle and the temple a place where God can dwell among the people, the prophets dream and the psalms sing about the transformations that will come into the world when God reigns not only among Israel but among all the peoples. Just as the people of Israel were to be an alternative community among the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Rome, these followers of Christ were to be an alternative community with alternative values to Rome or whatever society they found themselves within. When Paul, for example, in Philippians 3: 20 can state that, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” He is talking about living as person of an alternative community, the kingdom of heaven, and embodying those values within the space of the Roman empire and teaching others to do the same. Paul’s descriptions of the future glory in Romans 8: 18-27 beautifully dreams the interactive way that the unveiling of the children of God, those who are living under God’s calling and have been transformed for the sake of the world, is precisely for the liberation of the creation (not an escape from it). It is also why Paul ends 1 Corinthians, with the exception of the final travel plans and greeting, with a long discussion about the implication of the resurrection of Christ for the resurrection of all people. Paul is specifically arguing against a ‘non-bodily’ and ‘non earthly’ resurrection, even though many in the Hellenistic (Greek speaking) world would have embraced the idea of the ‘salvation of the soul’ willingly and viewed this bodily resurrection as scandalous. The book of Revelation is often thought of as the destruction of the earth, but what it narrates is the final coming of God to earth and the last but futile resistance of the forces aligned against God’s coming kingdom.

When the gospels speak of ‘eternal life’, the phrase that is translated is the Greek zoe aion. Zoe is where we get the feminine name Zoe from and it means ‘life.’ Aion is where we get the English word ‘eon’ from and while it is often translated ‘eternal’ but when most Christians think of ‘eternal life’ they think of life in heaven. For another perspective on how to think about the term ‘eon,’ it occurs as a noun at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” While some might argue that Jesus really is talking about being with the disciples for ‘eternity,’ what I believe Jesus is telling the disciples is, “I will be will be with you to the end of this age” which will end when the kingdom of heaven/God comes to earth.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke when zoe aion is only used when either the rich young man (all three gospels) or in Luke when a scribe asks (Luke 10:25) Jesus always points them back to the commandments of how they are to live in this life. In both cases the question is not about how to get to heaven, but how to participate in the life of the kingdom of God in the present and Jesus’ answer reflects that earthly reality. John’s gospel uses this term more than the other three gospels combined, but John has long been associated with a ‘realized eschatology’ where the promises of God’s kingdom are already being realized. For example, in John 17 Jesus can state,

since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17: 2-3)

“Eternal life” in John’s gospel is already realized in knowing Jesus and the God who sends Jesus. This life is revealed by participating in the faith and life of Jesus

While the New Testament can use a diverse set of language to talk about the approaching of God’s kingdom to this world, the movement is always God’s movement towards the world instead of the escape of the soul to join God. There are at best hints of some immediate experience of an afterlife and they often come in parables (like the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel) or when Jesus (again in Luke) tells the bandit on the cross “today you will be with me in paradise.” Portions of the church in the last several decades have begun to rediscover the centrality of the resurrection and the coming of God to dwell among the earth instead of the otherworldly focus of much of the church in the previous centuries. It is a subject that pastors and teachers have to approach delicately because it is a drastic change to the imaginations of many of the faithful, but it also invites the faithful into a closer relationship with the world and with the neighbors God has placed within it. In Paul’s rich language it is a call to join in the groaning labor pains of creation while we and the world await the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:23)

Psalm 47 God Assumes Kingship Over Creation

Stained Glass window at the Melkite Catholic Annunciation Cathedral in Roslindale, MA depicting Christ the King with the regalia of a Byzantine Emperor

Psalm 47

<To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.>
1 Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy.
2 For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth.
3 He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet.
4 He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah
5 God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.
8 God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.
9 The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.

The mood of Psalm 47 is jubilant with its words continually urging the hearer to mark the celebration of the establishment of the kingship of God over all the nations and over all of creation. Structurally the psalm pairs actions of praise with a set of reasons for acclamation in a noisy celebration of triumph. While the idea of God as king may be a strange thought in a world where monarchies seem to be a romantic vestige of a past age it remains an important claim of both Christianity and Judaism in contrast to the claims of worldly power exercised by those with economic, political or military power. This psalm, like the rest of scriptures, does not recognize God only in a religious sphere. As Martin Buber stated:

He (God) is not content to be “God” in the religious sense. He does not want to surrender to a man that which is not “God’s”, the rule over the entire actuality of worldly life: this very rule He lays claim to and enters upon it; for there is nothing which is not God’s. (Brueggeman, 2014, p. 224)

The psalm may reflect a context of the relatively short window during the time of King David and King Solomon when Israel did exercise power over other nations, but it does not require this context. The psalm also would have served as a strong polemical reminder in times when Israel or Judah were small nations caught between the Egyptian, Assyrian and later Babylonian empires. For example, in contrast to the Babylonian celebration of the enthronement of Marduk the Israelites would come together to celebrate the enthronement of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God above any other god. In a time when the people of Israel were not a political or military power, they still held onto a belief that their God is not only powerful but was the God of all nations and all creation and they remained God’s chosen possession from among the nations.

The psalm begins with a command not just for Israel but for all the peoples to clap their hands and shout with songs of joy. The title of the LORD, the Most High, combines the name of God with a title that is often used to address God when people other than the Israelites are addressed. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 431) The psalm taps into the expansive hope that God would indeed be recognized as the ruler of all the peoples. The people of Israel were not to place their hopes upon their military prowess but instead to rely upon their God as the divine warrior who would not only protect them but who would allow them to occupy a central place among the nations of the earth. Israel’s identity is tied to the LORD’s election of them as a chosen people and God’s protection. In closing the first stanza of the psalm in verse five we see God personified as shouting as God ascends and either blowing a trumpet (or a shofar) or having a trumpet blown to celebrate this ascension to the place of honor and power.

The second stanza of the psalm with a four-fold command to sing praises. The psalm itself exuberantly models this song of praise to their God and King. The psalm acknowledges God’s place as the king over all creation and over every nation. God now sits enthroned above every other god and king and the worshippers add their voices to the clapping hands, sounding trumpets and shouts. Not only are the people of Israel joining in this praise, but the leaders of the nations also gather to add their voices to the acclamation of God’s reign.

Even though I don’t live in a time and place where kings are the normal manner of governance the idea of the kingdom of God is such a foundational idea for Christianity and that involves God assuming king-ship over the world. We pray in the Lord’s prayer for God’s kingdom to come and yet, we sometimes forget that means acknowledging God not only as one who holds spiritual power but as one who executes worldly leadership as well. Additionally, we may think of this noisy description of clapping, singing, shouting and blowing trumpets as a little too exuberant for the idea of a dignified worship of God. Many people in European and American cultures were raised with an expectation of a restrained expression of emotion in the context of worship but in an imagined future where people from all across the world come to join in the celebration hands clap, shouts go up, trumpets sound and a voice are lifted up singing joyful praises at the realization of God’s reign over all the earth.

Imagining Advent- A poem

Altar Paraments created for Easter Lutheran Church in Eagen Minnesota by Linda Witte Henke

Altar Paraments created for Easter Lutheran Church in Eagen Minnesota by Linda Witte Henke

In a world come of age that no longer dreams
When the spiritual is banished to some distant past
And feelings and dreamings of the romatics are exorcised
In the cold harsh world of facts and data and pundits
Can we imagine the advent of mystery
The coming of the divine into the space of the secular
Will the dreams of the prophets be met by the cynicism of this age
Like in their own day, ignored by those who had surrendered hope
To the foolishness of the past, to the dreams of old men
The prophecy of daughters long gone and the visions of young men

Or might there be in the midst of the foolishness of those dreams
A way out of the rabbit’s hole where we find ourselves trapped in our own wonderlands
Trapped into a world that egocentrically revolves around the walls I build to protect me from thee
What would a world look like where nations no longer train for war
Where spears of separation are beaten into pruning hooks of production
Where swords of every age are reforged into the implements for feeding the nations
Where the shields and walls that divide become the fuel that fires the halls of fellowship
In this crazy kingdom where wolves and lambs lie down, and lions and calves and fatlings
Where children can play with poisonous snakes and we enter into the childish imagination
Of the Lord who is born in the home of the animals, laid in the straw of the ox

Of deserts that become productive and blind that see and deaf that hear,
Where springs of water break forth in the midst of the thirsty ground
And the highway that leads home is no longer a fools dream
No longer just the narrow way that only the wise can discern
To a place where hospitality and healing reign and tears are wiped away
Where children are born to us that might bring the mighty down from their thrones
And uplift the humble of heart and fill the hungry with good things
A crazy dream where the last are first and the first are last
Where the poor, hungry, weeping, hated, cursed and defamed are blessed
Where the ignored child of an unwed mother is Lord
And a crucified slave is the king

These dreams don’t come easy in a world come of age
Where we are all too aware of the ways these dreams were manipulated and mobilized
To prop up the powerful rather than to lift up the lowly
To build walls to divide rather than to create a world where there is no longer
Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female
And yet for all the deconstructionism of the day
The dreams persist, the imagination dares to imagine the heavens opened
The angelic messengers pointing to the sacred in the midst of the profane
That the portals between heaven and earth may indeed be opened
In this unusual advent coming in the smallest and the least
Where a little child might lead them.

Neil White, 2013