There’s no small amount of confusion around the notion of heaven and the Kingdom of God. Much of it probably derives from the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew writes to a Jewish audience for whom the word “God” is unutterable, so he changes “Kingdom of God” to “Kingdom of Heaven.” In the Gospels according to Mark and Luke (and Thomas), Jesus’ expressed purpose is to embody and proclaim the Kingdom of God as a lived reality here and now – “not in some heaven, light years away.” So “The kingdom of heaven,” (to use Matthew’s designation) isn’t about an otherworldly heaven – it isn’t a concept of the afterlife at all.
As Dave Tomlinson says in his book, How to Be a Bad Christian (and a Better Human Being),
It’s a “state of consciousness – a different way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that anyone may sense from time to time. Every truly joyful (I don’t mean ‘religious’) experience is a taste of heaven. Every kindness is a taste of heaven. Every loving partnership, every real friendship is a taste of heaven. Every expression of beauty, every new discovery is a taste of heaven. Every selfless act, every attempt to create justice, every hungry mouth fed, every homeless person welcomed, every difference celebrated is a taste of heaven.”
The real danger comes when Christians become “so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good.” Again, Tomlinson says,
“There is a stream of otherworldly spirituality within Christianity that tells us not to feel too much at home in this world; that we are exiles or aliens here, awaiting removal to our true home in heaven. I think this is mistaken. Yes, of course, there are things in the world that we shouldn’t feel at home with – injustice, poverty, prejudice, greed, abuse, disease and the like – but it is these things that are alien and need to be eradicated, evicted and exiled.”
“It is my utter conviction that the dream ‑ the intensity ‑ of Jesus of Nazareth had nothing to do with people getting to Heaven. It’s about the Kingdom of God. It’s about the here. It’s about the now. It’s about us being empowered by the presence of the divine with us; that the Jesus story is our story. The Jesus reality is the divine emerging in the human, giving voice to that ‘presence’ in the universe and on this planet ‑ and saying, ‘This is what it is to be human.'”
It’s not about getting to some otherworldly heaven, but about how we embody the Jesus story in our own lives, here and now. May the coming New Year offer us all opportunities to live out the Jesus story wherever we find ourselves!