A Purpose-Driven Cosmos: Why Jesus Doesn't Promise Us an 'Afterlife'
There's a cemetery plot, somewhere out there, waiting for your corpse. Regardless of who and where you are, you will one day be quite dead. And in 100 years, chances are no one will remember your name—including the people carrying your genes in their bloodstreams. We see our mortal future in everything from the natural forces that sap our hair color to the bacteria that eventually grind our bodies to a maggoty pulp. The universe rolls around us frenetically, and, in every single case, it eventually kills us.
That's not just a matter of our individual destinies. If we are honest, the world around us seems pretty good proof that the gospel isn't true. Doesn't the cosmos seem to be just as the nihilists describe it: a bloody, merciless machine in which power, not goodness or beauty, is ultimate? What, then, is the meaning of life? What's the purpose of history? If it's all heading nowhere, then what difference at all does my existence make?
The gospel of the kingdom doesn't shy away from such questions, but our preaching tends to swerve around the answers it gives. Often we Christians start our gospel proclamation with triumph over sin. Fair enough: The gospel of Christ is indeed the reversal of sin, and of death and hell. But without a broader context, such teaching can treat Christ as a means to an end, a step from the alpha of Eden to the omega of heaven. In a truly Christian vision of the kingdom of God, though, Jesus of Nazareth isn't a hoop we jump through to extend our lives into eternity. Jesus is the kingdom of God in person. As such, he is the meaning of life, the goal of history, and the pattern of the future. The gospel of the kingdom starts and ends with the announcement that God has made Jesus the emperor—and that he plans to bend the cosmos to fit Jesus' agenda, not the other way around.
Jesus and his apostles announced, with the onset of the kingdom of God, an unveiled "mystery," one that explained the "whys" of everything in the universe. The Hebrew Scriptures revealed that the world was called together by God's Word. But the mystery of the kingdom shows us that this Word is personal, taking on flesh and dwelling among us (John 1:1-18). Every culture has experienced the wildness of sexual desire, and sought to safeguard that desire in some form of marriage. Genesis tells us this was "from the beginning," but the mystery of the kingdom shows us why the drive toward "one-flesh" union is so wild and dynamic. It's an icon, a picture ahead of time, of the unity between Christ and his church (Eph. 5:21-33).
Announcing the Kingdom
Despite our mind-boggling explorations into the telescopic and the microscopic, much of the cosmos remains a mystery. Yet there seems to be some rhythm to it. The Christian gospel says the universe we inhabit is designed according to the blueprint of God's purpose in Jesus Christ. Paul tells the Colossian church, speaking of Jesus, that "all things have been created through him and for him" and that "in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:16-17).
With Jesus at the foundation of God's purposes, we see why the Scriptures are so often a depressing story of collapsing kingdoms. Adam and Eve are designed to be king and queen of the universe, but they surrender their servant-dominion to a reptilian invader. The Israelites are to be a "light to the nations," but they repeatedly fall toward the way of death. Israel's kings step forward with power and anointing, but even the best of them succumb to the grave. By the time the story arrives in Bethlehem, the throne of David is occupied by a puppet of a pagan empire. No wonder that star in the sky so troubled the powers-that-were.