Leaving Christianity – Part Eight
As a Christian, the idea of heaven was an important one to me. Heaven was a place I looked forward to, and I was sad to leave the idea of a literal heaven behind. However, my understanding of heaven has shifted and even now it is a comforting and encouraging concept to me. I invited guest writer Erik Papík to share more!
The Idea of Heaven
A lot of Christians have a notion of heaven as a place where they are going to end up after they die. This is the message taught to Christians by their parents and their community. What Christians don’t realize is that they believe in this basic notion of Christianity—the existence of Heaven and Hell—based on the authority of their community and preachers. But what if their community and preachers are “off the track” as far as the original notion of Heaven taught by Jesus is concerned?
A lot of Christians don’t realize that we actually have very little historical evidence about what the “historical” Jesus taught and preached. In fact, a lot of scholars of religion refer to early Christianity as a collection of “Christianities.” There were many different “Jesuses”, ranging from “apocalyptic prophet”, “charismatic healer”, “teacher of wisdom” to a “prophet of social change.” It was only hundreds of centuries after Jesus’ death that the Bible was cannonized and only one version of Jesus was picked for everybody. In the end, Jesus was kicked up the pedestal as a “messiah” and “the only son of God.” Fortunately, nowadays there is more scholarly evidence about the early “Christianities” and their messages, and it seems that the original message of Jesus might be more aligned with the version of Jesus as portrayed for example in the Gospel of Thomas (see eg. Elaine Pagels and her book The Gnostic Gospels, in which she examines the divisions in the early Christian church).
As far as this article is concerned, I am siding with the historical version of Jesus as a “teacher of wisdom.” Jesus was not God, but rather, a human teacher who sought to uncover the divine light in all human beings (see Pagels’ book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, where she compares the Gospel of John and Gospel of Thomas, and argues that a close reading of the works shows that while the Gospel of Thomas taught its adherents that “there is a light within each person, and it lights up the whole universe [-] If it does not shine, there is darkness”, the Gospel of John emphasizes the revelation that God as Jesus Christ is the “light of the world”). To cut to the chase, my approach to Jesus is mostly aligned with the view of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas:
- The Kingdom of God (Heaven) is not a final destination but a state of self-discovery. The historical Jesus actually seems to have ridiculed those who thought of the Kingdom of God in literal terms.
If those who lead you say to you, ‘look, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds will get there first.Gospel of Thomas 3
- The Kingdom of God (Heaven) needs one to recognize one’s true nature as a Son of God.
When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father.Gospel of Thomas 3
- The Kingdom of God is right here and right now, it’s this life you are living on the planet Earth, it just needs to be recognized.
His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”Gospel of Thomas 113
Heaven According to Historical Jesus
If we are to piece together what the historical Jesus might have meant by the Kingdom of God, especially as a teacher of wisdom, we need to first decide which texts we are going to use. I decided to mainly focus on the sayings of Jesus in the canonical Gospels since these documents most likely used the same written source (original sayings of Jesus known as Q Source), and the sayings often overlap word for word not only in relation to one another but also in relation to the Gospel of Thomas.
So let’s start. The core message of Jesus is to exclusively focus on attaining the “Kingdom of God”, this effort should be the most primary focus of one’s life and should be put before worrying about clothes, food, and material possessions.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.Mathew 6:33, KJV
It should follow from this that the next most important piece of information to pay attention to is where exactly one needs to look for this Kingdom. Is it a physical place outside or is it a state of self-discovery? And indeed, in The Gospel of Luke Jesus is very clear about the location of this Kingdom,
Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.Luke 17:21, KJV
First of all, we should seek the Kingdom of God before anything else, and the location of this kingdom is within us. At this point people might say that Jesus was the only one who was the Son of God. But this is not necessarily so. The gospels we are using are old, mythological documents. But let’s say that we want to look at least at one instance where Jesus was clear about his status as a son of God as opposed to the Son of God, we should go no further than the gospel of John where Jesus explicitly says that he is a son of God—and you are too!
Jesus replied, “Is it not written in your Law: ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken—then what about the One whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world? How then can you accuse Me of blasphemy for stating that I amJohn 10:34-36, KJV
thea* Son of God?
💡 The definite article the has been a choice of translators. In the original Greek Jesus indicates an indefinite article a and therefore speaks about being a son of God, ie. being of the nature of God. This is because the article in the original Greek is omitted and this indicates an indefinite article. Still, in this case one has to decide which article to use based on the context. And the context here is the following: Jesus quotes Psalm 82 from the Old Testament which says, “I have said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’”
Now let’s sum up. If we see Jesus as a teacher of wisdom (and there is no reason not to see him that way), his basic message about the Kingdom of God (Heaven) comes down to the following three fundamental points:
- Seek first the Kingdom, everything else will be added to you.
- The Kingdom is within you.
- Jesus as a son of God is simply inviting you to recognize that you too are sons of the Most High. (“That they may be one, as we are one” – John 17:22)
This sort of a message aligns with the view of Jesus as a “teacher of wisdom.” And in fact, maybe some time in the future, this will become a conclusive view about Jesus. Imagine if the original source of Jesus’ sayings is found and it aligns with this point of view. Well, we’ve collectively created a “Christianity” which was based on presumptions which simply were “off the charts.” We created the idea of afterlife and Heaven as a physical location and lived in this fabricated illusion for two thousand years. Stuff like that happens. The same way people used to believe that the Earth was flat for hundreds of years, and it took a long time for people to abandon this illusion (even though you can still find “flat Earth” proponents nowadays). Maybe it’s going to be the same with the historical Jesus, whoever the man actually was. One day we might abandon the collective illusion of “Christ as the Messiah” and accept the more down-to-earth “Jesus as a teacher of wisdom.”