Recently my Patheos colleague, Dr. Marcus Borg, wrote a piece entitled “What is the Gospel?“, which invited a much needed discussion in regards to the nature of the Gospel of Jesus. The question of “why is the message of Jesus good news?” is perhaps one of the most worthy questions in theology to wrestle with, so I welcome the question and dialogue on the subject.
Dr. Borg’s piece correctly points out that the Gospel of Jesus has, over time, been diluted and simmered down into something that is good news for the afterlife but often, little more. This concept of reducing the message of Jesus is the central theme of my upcoming book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, which comes out next August (and has an entire chapter on the Kingdom of God). Dr. Borg correctly argues, I believe, that we often place a hyper focus on the afterlife– escaping hell and achieving heaven. Such an understanding of the Gospel, he and I agree, is a reduced understanding at best.
Certainly, this was the “Gospel” I, like Dr. Borg, grew up with.
The solution he presents (If I have understood his argument correctly), is to return to a here-and-now understanding of the “Kingdom of God” as a present reality and as central to the teachings of Christ. To this, I could not agree more. The Kingdom of God is absolutely central to the teachings of Jesus, and is a present reality. In fact, we see both John the Baptist mention it as he paves the way for Jesus, and see Jesus himself start his ministry immediately by talking about the “Kingdom of God”. Further along in the ministry of Jesus, we see him enter a stage of his ministry where he taught mostly in parables– something that usually began with the statement: “The Kingdom of God is like…” Even at the end of his life, standing before Pilate, Jesus talks of his “Kingdom” as if it were present at that very moment.
I even view the Hebrew Scriptures as having a theme of “Announcing the Kingdom” as discussed by Glasser, et. al, in their book of the same name.
How did we arrive at this reduced understanding of the Kingdom? I think part of the problem in American Christianity is that often Kingdom statements are translated as “Kingdom of Heaven” and without a deeper wrestling with the text, we have for too long assumed that Jesus was talking about heaven– as in a place we go to when we die. Like Dr. Borg, I don’t believe he was. Jesus came to inaugurate a Kingdom that begins right here, right now. Like us, many of Jesus’ contemporaries completely missed this point of the Kingdom being “now”, to which Jesus warns them in Matthew 21 that, “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you”.
Of this present reality, Dr. Borg writes:
“Importantly, “the kingdom of God” was not about life in the next world, not about heaven, but life on earth. Though Christians have not always recognized this, they should not be surprised by it. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. To use one of Dom Crossan’s great one-liners: heaven’s in great shape – earth is where the problems are.
The coming of the kingdom of God on earth was about justice and peace. Justice: that everybody should have enough (“daily bread”) of the material basis of life. Peace: the end of war and violence. Jesus’s passion – what he was passionate about – was God and the kingdom of God. It involves a twofold transformation: of ourselves and of “this world.”
If I understand the above quote correctly (this is dialogue, not a critique), I fear that we could over compensate and arrive at an equally diluted view on Kingdom, albeit from the opposite end. Specifically, when Borg says it was “not about life in the next world”, I fear that our understanding of Kingdom could be reduced to a present reality, and only a present reality. I agree in principle (clearly when Jesus talks of the “Kingdom” and “Eternal Life” he is speaking of the present) and I agree that a return to a proper understanding of Kingdom is crucially important. However, I hope we won’t dilute it to an “either or” proposition on either end– because I believe the Kingdom and Good News are not only about now, but of a future reality as well.
Personally, I prefer embracing the Kingdom as many others have, with a “now but not yet”, “inaugurated but not fully realized” understanding. Certainly, the Kingdom of God is a present reality– but clearly it is not something that has been fully realized (something Borg seems to affirm in his piece). Life in the Kingdom–the message of the Gospel– gives me hope because it is a “both and” not an “either or” proposition. The Good News can be about this world, and the next. Christ, I believe, came to establish his Kingdom, defeat the works of the Devil, and reconcile “all things” to himself. The Good News is that I am invited to become an agent of God’s reconciliation to the world around me, and that I can begin living in, and participating in, the Kingdom right here, right now.
However, the Good News is also that one day, Christ will return and make this Kingdom one, as the prophet Isaiah said, that will have “no end”. The Good News is not simply that I can live in the Kingdom now, but that I will also live in the Kingdom then.
Seeing the Kingdom as a present reality is an invitation, as Borg writes, of “transformation”– something I think we are all invited to participate in.
Seeing the Kingdom as a future reality, is an invitation to embrace the hope that our transformational work will have eternal significance, one day being completed.
And so, I invite my readers to dialogue with his.
Why is the Gospel “Good News”? Is it Good News for now, Good News for then, or is it perhaps, both?