When I was a young Christian, about 30 years ago, I was taught that the kingdom of God meant one thing and one thing only. It was the place those of us in Christ go to spend eternity with him when we die.
It's a pity that what I was taught is not biblical because I liked the idea at the time. The fact is though that Jesus hardly ever spoke of going to heaven when we die, because that is not what the Christian hope is about.
The "gospel" I was taught back then, and which is believed by the majority of Christians today, is too small. It is not biblical, not Christian, and is not what Jesus was about. It is not good news and it short-changes what the Gospel of Jesus really is.
So, what is this Gospel, and how have we got it so wrong? Whilst this space does not allow the scope to go into a lot of detail, let me point briefly to what I am saying.
The great Christian hope - the Gospel - is that God is in the process of renewing the whole of creation and will one day complete that renewal when Jesus returns and heaven and earth are joined in wonderful union at the end of all things.
It is at this time that humanity will be transformed into the likeness of Christ, but much more than that, the rest of creation will also be renewed. It will be a time when there will be no more tears, no more pain and no more death because the old order of things will have passed away.
It is this that the human heart longs for, not a disembodied place up in the sky where we go and escape from the big bad world. When God created everything, it was made clear that what was made was good. God has never stepped back from that.
How did we get here?
The "gospel" most of us have been taught has more in common with Greek dualistic thought than with what we see in the Bible. The leading New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, says that Greek-speaking Christians influenced by Plato saw the material world as deceitful and something which had to be escaped from. The idea was that we are basically souls trapped in skin and bones.
This is not what the New Testament teaches. The New Testament is very Jewish, and the Jewish conviction was that the people of God would be bodily resurrected at the end of history. Then Jesus was bodily resurrected and the first Christians realised that he was the forerunner of what would one day happen to the rest of us.
It is in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we see the Good News. In Jesus, the kingdom of God, the reign of God, has come to earth. Jesus spoke about the kingdom more than anything else; it is mentioned over 100 times in the gospels.
It is a kingdom in which the poor and outcast are lifted up, where the last are first and the first are last. It is a kingdom in which the love and peace of Christ come to rule over all of existence. And it has already started.
What this means for mission
The reason this is so important is because of its profound implications for mission.
If the Gospel is really about going to heaven when we die, then evangelism – the effort to help as many people as possible get there – will be paramount. But if the Gospel is actually much bigger than that; if it is actually the other way 'round – about heaven coming here, as Jesus taught in his blueprint for prayer, then that changes everything.
It means this world matters and it means working for the anticipation of the new world that Jesus is bringing. It means the alleviation of poverty is a Gospel issue, that care for the environment is a Gospel issue, and that works of justice are central to the Gospel, not an optional add-on. This is the Good News which needs to be the subject of our evangelism.
If our eternal destiny in a disembodied place in the sky is what really matters, then we won't worry about the poor or the environment because those things are passing away. But if Jesus is in the process of making everything new, then to ignore the poor and the environment is to ignore the heart of God.
Your eternal destiny is not "up in heaven" when you die. Your eternal destiny is right here, on a renewed, physical earth, in your renewed, physical body. One day it will be a reality, in that wonderful day when Jesus will complete all things, when death will be no more and the old order of things will have gone forever. That is the great Christian hope.
Nils von Kalm is from Melbourne, Australia and has a passion for showing how the Gospel is relevant to life in the 21st century. He can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/nils.vonkalm and at http://nilsvonkalm.com
Nils von Kalm's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/nils-von-kalm.html