OMG. Why haven’t I noticed this until now? I’ve been preaching and writing about the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God for fifteen years. I even led a group on the kingdom of heaven this morning from my developing Bible study called Dry Bones: Breathing New Life Into Petrified Words In the Bible. Here’s the text:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
I just noticed that the story of Nicodemus and being “born again” was about the kingdom of God. This changes everything.
You don’t have to be “born again” to go to Paradise when you die. The kingdom of God and Paradise are not the same. Not even close. I take a lot of time to explain it in ILC: The Kingdom of Heaven for Today. The quickest way to explain it here is to say that the Greek word basilea can be translated as “kingdom, reign, or rule.” The reign of a king or queen is the manner in which a ruler governs his or her territory or subjects. God’s reign is about all things working together with peace, order, harmony, unity, equality, and love. Our God doesn’t play favorites. God was revealed in Jesus Christ. God’s reign, i.e., the reign/kingdom of God, is one of unity empowered by unconditional love.
Some who love the Jewish scriptures might be convinced that God is just, punishing those who need to be punished and rewarding those who deserve a reward. That’s very Jewish. But it has nothing to do with grace.
This text is not about going to Paradise when you die. Baptism may assure people that they’ll go to Paradise, but becoming a new person helps you to experience the reign of God in this life. It’s similar to metanoia. If you change the way you think, you automatically become a new person—assuming of course that you’ve been immersed in a pure/holy Spirit instead of a judging one.
Those who do not change the way they think about God, not awakening to the evidence in Jesus Christ of a God of unconditional love, will not experience the reign of Love that can bring order and harmony into their lives. They will continue in judgment and trying to make sure everyone gets their due punishment. That’s a pretty thankless job but a lot of people choose it.
Someone might point to the references to eternal life at the end of the text, but that’s a similar misunderstanding of the location of life in the same way the kingdom of heaven/God is not about Paradise. Bible commentators since the 1980’s have conceded that aionios zoa (eternal life) often means something different than living into eternity after you are dead. Their explanation is this: eternal life sometimes refers to the quality of life God can give you here on earth. Their words, not mine. Bible scholars. I’m not inventing this. And I can’t explain why few people hear this from the pulpit. But I will add that I believe it always refers to a special kind of life on this earth. I’ve got that explanation in an upcoming book, too.
When you interpret the Scriptures with a view to improving your life and the lives of others in the world today rather than as a reference guide telling you how to get into Paradise after you are dead, it makes more sense. Unconditional love wins. Grace wins. Metanoia. Give it a try.