The Kingdom of Heaven
I have encountered many people who struggle with the thought of God sending people to hell, to this place of outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and a lake of fire that is never quenched. They ask questions like “How can a loving God send innocent people to someplace so horrible?” It can be challenging to make sense of it. Yet Jesus speaks about this terrible place, this separation from God. Perhaps there is another way of looking at and dealing with this reality instead of rejecting it. What if there is a hidden invitation? What if the reality of being with God and being separated from God are more real and matter more than we have ever imagined or considered?
What is it like to live with God here and now? And what will it look like to live with God in the future when our earthly lives are done? What does it look like to live without God here and now in the physical (and spiritual)? What might it look like to be separated from God in the future?
My experience of living in the Kingdom of God now on this earth includes a peace that is hard to describe. It is an assurance that all is well and all will be well despite the trials, hurts, and pain that I experience in this life. I also experience joy and love that go so much deeper than simple emotions and physical pleasures (food, entertainment, relationships, etc.). Sometimes the unpleasant experiences are the results of simply living in a broken and fallen world. Sometimes, though, these unpleasant experiences are the direct result of attacks against the Kingdom of God - those spirits and people and forces that do not claim God as Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
I have been thinking more about the Kingdom of God/Heaven recently. I cannot help but think about exploring this topic one year when I was in undergrad with Young Friends during Ohio Yearly Meeting. It was probably my favorite and most impactful year of being with Young Friends as a high schooler and undergraduate. Previous to Ohio Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions, I had looked up all of the verses in the Bible that mentioned kingdom. Throughout the annual sessions that year, I talked with a variety of Friends about the Kingdom of God/Heaven and gained their insights.
For the Young Friends’ portion of the sixth day evening presentation, we created our own version of the Kingdom of Heaven on stage. We used benches to create the boundary for the Kingdom of Heaven and we had the entrance resemble the shape of the cross in a way. Inside the Kingdom, we tried to give a glimpse of joy, pleasure, luxury, relaxation, and ease (on a very low bugdet - I believe cotton balls were used) . One of the things that had the biggest impact on me, I did not fully realize or understand until later. Well, I am not sure I fully understand it yet. It was a picture of grace. And faith. I remember going out of the Kingdom of Heaven and into the “world” to try to bring people into the Kingdom of Heaven. I was talking with one of our adult leaders, trying to convince him of the things to believe and he was not budging. However, he was walking towards the entrance of the Kingdom of Heaven and all of a sudden he entered through the cross shaped entrance. To me that was a powerful lesson of faith and grace. The questions that we each need answered in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven will likely be answered. On the other hand, there is a point where I think faith and grace take over. Questions still remain. We live with the tension of uncertainty and paradoxes. Yet we have experienced Jesus and God enough to be able to start living in the Kingdom of Heaven.
John the Baptist’s message to Israel was “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near or at hand.” Jesus started his ministry with the same message. A few things strike me as I consider this. First of all, I have read enough of both the Old and the New Testaments to be struck with the novelty of these two people claiming that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Throughout the Old Testament, God broke into people’s lives at times and showed that Israel was his nation, his special people. However, all of the prophets always spoke of a time that was coming when God would be more present with His people but never that that time was near. I can imagine that the Jews of John the Baptist’s time were kind of like kids on Christmas Eve. This long awaited and eagerly anticipated time and kingdom is finally here!
Most of the Christians in protestant denominations that I come in contact with anticipate going to Heaven someday when they die. They say the sinners prayer, accept Jesus into their heart, and get their ticket to heaven. That’s why the book and movie “Heaven Is For Real” is so popular. It is further hope and encouragement that heaven really exists and they - we - get to go there someday. Friends gave me a very different view of the Kingdom of Heaven that year during annual sessions. For them, it was about living in the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, on this green earth. There is a tension of it being here and now and yet still to come, present and future. For the above mentioned Christians, perhaps Jesus words, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.” needs to be said again and louder for those in the back.
The other thing that has recently struck me was that John the Baptist and Jesus did not just proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. They heralded the arrival of the Kingdom with “repent”. Merriam-Webster.com defines repent “to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life; to feel regret or contrition; to change one’s mind.” In a nutshell, John and Jesus were saying that one must live differently in the Kingdom of Heaven than how one was living outside of the Kingdom of Heaven. There are, no doubt, lots of opinions and thoughts about what to call and how to categorize “outside the Kingdom of Heaven”. Personally, I am trying to learn how to live more fully in the Kingdom of Heaven right here, right now. I am finding that it takes a continual laying down of my thoughts, ideas, and desires and surrendering them to God. It takes an incredible amount of effort to learn the principles and truths and ways of this kingdom and to guard against the ways that are not of this kingdom. The joy and the peace that I experience living in the Kingdom of God and being in relationship with God are worth the cost of giving up everything else.
I know there are lots of questions concerning Jesus, God, God’s wrath, sin, punishment for sin, Jesus dying on the cross, and love, God’s love. A lot of these seem to be paradoxical. I am not going to try to answer these questions. Lots of other people have attempted to answer these questions in a far better and more complete way than I could even hope to. I feel like my place, on this blog and in my circles, is to acknowledge these questions and acknowledge that they have some hard answers. These questions should not be swept under the rug. There are answers out there. Go and find them. In your search for the answers though, I would encourage you to not reject possible answers simply because they are hard answers to accept or because you do not like them. I hope that perhaps you can look at all the pieces and see an invitation to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.