Ray Waddle of the Nashville Tennessean, gives voice to N.T. Wright’s theological interpretation about the Kingdom of Heaven as it should be…
An indispensable buzzword of this partisan moment is silo: Left or right, secular or religious, we sit in hardened rival silos of filtered information, snug, smug and untouched by new data, better arguments, or the voices of neighbors and other strangers.
The figure of Jesus suffers from this odd contemporary lack of a meeting of minds. Two siloed groups notably jostle for dominance. The skeptical wing says Jesus was merely a good man, if he existed at all. A conservative wing regards him as God’s Son who came from faraway heaven to take away our sins, then went back to heaven beyond the skies and will return harshly to judge the world.
But what if the point of Jesus was to tell people that God is in charge of the world right now and urges everyone to get to work to make this newly incorporated kingdom a success? What if Jesus came not to teach people how to get into distant heaven but to enact God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” as he said in the Lord’s Prayer?
N.T. Wright, a scholar-writer and a former Anglican bishop, is considered a leading British interpreter of Christian faith, a successor to C.S. Lewis. For years now, he has been thinking his way past the two entrenched stories about Jesus, re-reading Scripture, questioning some old stubborn misreadings. At stake is the rescue of the faith from hardened arteries and terminal boredom.
His latest book, Simply Jesus, takes up the theme: God’s new creation is breaking in, and Jesus embodies what God wants done. God installed Jesus to act on his behalf. Jesus forgave; he healed; he said love one another. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” Jesus said.
Wright defines heaven
In this bleeding world, all that might sound like pious nonsense. But in Wright’s eyes, the evidence grows that God is in charge despite it all. Good is infiltrating. “Jesus has all kinds of projects up his sleeve,” Wright says.
The unpredicted emergence of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission wouldn’t have happened without faith in God, he argues. Neither would the Jubilee movement to reduce the debt of poor nations if churches hadn’t acted. A million neighborhood ministries that aid at-risk youngsters or older adults wouldn’t get done if believers didn’t care and God’s rule didn’t have a foothold.
From his Bible reading, Wright concludes God intends to be the world’s sovereign today, not a distant future hope. This is uncomfortable news to those who thought they could despairingly give up on human society and place their bets on the Second Coming. Think again, Wright says. Heaven isn’t what we assumed.
“People who still think that ‘heaven’ is a long way away, up in the sky, and that that’s where Jesus has gone, imagine that the second coming will be an event somewhat like the return of a space shuttle from its far-off orbit. Not so. Heaven is God’s space, God’s dimension of present reality.” Jesus’ return means heaven and earth will one day come together and be present and transparent to each other, Wright declares.
Earth and heaven have overlapped already at least once: in the life of Jesus. The task is to expand that overlapping terrain.
Wright imagines the real world when Jesus is running it: “The poor in spirit will be making the kingdom of heaven happen. The meek will be taking over the earth, so gently that the powerful won’t notice until it’s too late. The peacemakers will be putting the arms manufacturers out of business. Those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice will be analyzing government policy and legal rulings and speaking up on behalf of those at the bottom of the pile.”
This kingdom campaign beckons hearts and minds to venture out of their silos. Will skeptics be moved to see religion as a force for humane political reform and not a force of nay-saying and violence? Can rapture-ready believers behold this world as an arena for change and not a hopeless orb of iniquity to be blown to bits by divine wrath ASAP?
Such a cascade of miracles starts first with imagination. The Bible is still stirring dreams and rumors of a new heaven and even a new earth.
Columnist Ray Waddle, a former Tennessean religion editor, now lives in Connecticut.