The Kingdom of Heaven is Near
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” Mark 1:14-15
Beginning in childhood and reinforced throughout my life, the stubborn concept developed that heaven and hell were faraway places where we would live forever after we died. Heaven was somewhere above, and hell was somewhere below. Heaven was a joyful paradise, and hell was a place of eternal misery. Where we ended up depended on how we lived on earth. Today, my issue with the teaching is not so much that it is wrong, misleading, and unhelpful, although a strong case can be made on each of those counts, but that the teaching presents wrong, misleading, and unhelpful imagery of heaven, hell, and eternity.
The church of my childhood taught and perpetuated these versions of heaven, hell, and eternity, as many churches continue to do today. In spite of insisting we are saved by grace, as the apostle Paul proclaimed, there remains a strong element of needing to earn our salvation underlying too many religious discussions. This is due, at least in part, to our feelings of unworthiness for something as wonderful as inclusion in the family of God, with its unearned love and acceptance. Many of our feelings of unworthiness were instilled by our church experiences, with sermons often telling us what awful, sinful people we are. At least some of this was an attempt to control behavior, particularly sexual behavior. It was also an attempt to create and perpetuate the need for churches, which presumed to offer salvation in return for faithful membership.
The first recorded words of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and repeated throughout the Gospels, are that the kingdom of God – usually considered synonymous with heaven – is near. We seldom consider what that nearness implies. It seems inconsistent with the conflict, pain, and suffering occurring all around us.
For all the speculation about possible destinations after we die, we completely ignore that heaven and hell are present and familiar experiences in our world right now! Speculating about possible post-death futures separates us from experiencing heaven in the present moment, which is where God exists. And the present moment is always near, regardless of whether we consciously attend to it. When we wallow in the muck of regret, guilt, or shame from past events or daydream of possible future unpleasantness we find ourselves in hellish states of being. In contrast to the present moment, the past and future are but illusions, mental creations, and are not realities we can live within.
Eternity stretches out in all directions and dimensions from where we are now – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – and from this place we may experience heaven through our fully conscious awareness. Eternity, contrary to popular belief, is not an unending extension of chronological time, which follows the passing hours of the clock. Eternity can, perhaps, be better described as experiential time in that it is a thread of interwoven experiences existing outside of chronological time. It is springtime as I write this. Seen through the lens of chronological time, spring is its own season that follows winter, which follows autumn, which follows summer. Seen through experiential time, this moment is part of the unbroken expression of spring days of the (chronological) past and spring days yet to be experienced in the (chronological) future. This spring moment is a manifestation of the eternity of spring, just as our earthly lives are manifestations of the eternity of life. When we consciously enter this moment of the eternal spring, the unfathomable fullness of its beauty, glory, and promise of renewal and rebirth are present with and available to us. Otherwise it is just another of a long string of mundane, separate days – some enjoyable, some not-so-much – marked by the ticking of the clock. The conscious entrance into an experiential moment is the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, not as a moment in 3-dimensional space and time, but as entrance into the eternity of the on-going, ever-evolving, unbroken life of God. We experience heaven when we attend to our moments as integral aspects of the eternal life of God; we experience hell when our attention gets stuck in the unconsummated and incomplete stages of the emergence of the whole.
When we stray from the moment, we suffer. And the farther we stray, the more we suffer. Yes, we undergo all manner of earthly challenges, but all are necessary and temporary stages of the relentless progression of eternal life as experienced in chronological time. Our experience can be joyful regardless of our circumstances, because heaven exists in experiential time and is always near, right here and right now. And that is good news.
This is an expansion on an essay I first published in September 2016 as part of the series titled, How Did I Miss That? The opinions expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of others. To engage with me or to explore contemplative spiritual direction, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.