"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent, and believe in the good news." -Mark 1:15
There is some truly bad theology floating around regarding what God was doing in his son. Popular American theology says that God sent his son to save individuals so they can get into heaven when they die. The focus is placed on the cross, on Jesus's death as sacrifice and atonement for our sins, but there are some serious shortcomings and oversights with such a narrow soteriology.
For example, if the only reason Jesus walked among us was to die for our sins, and therefore wash them away, why live for thirty plus years first? Why not be born as the Son of God, and then die? God could have saved the Biblical authors a whole lot of time had Herod the Great been allowed to kill Jesus as an infant. Also, why all this talk about the Kingdom of God during his ministry years, and even more startling, why talk about it as if it is coming to earth? If the Kingdom of God means heaven in the popular sense (a happy place our souls go when we die if we have been good), then why didn't Jesus say that, say something along the lines of, "Follow me and you can enter the Kingdom of God in the next life."? As far as I am aware, he never said anything remotely close to that.
(An aside here, I would fully expect, at this point, for someone to bring up the story of Jesus telling one of the criminals crucified with him, "...Today you will be with me in Paradise." Here's a few thoughts about that. First, this story only occurs in Luke, and the Gospel of Luke is primarily concerned with how God is working through Jesus to bring the ostracized and marginalized back into a relationship with him. In Luke, Jesus has more meals with tax collectors and prostitutes than in any other gospel. So, Luke might not be telling us this story to tell us anything about going to heaven, but rather something about who is allowed to be with Jesus. Second of all, notice that Jesus calls wherever the criminal is going "Paradise." At first glance it may not look all that important, but Paradise and Kingdom of God are two different phrases for a reason. Kingdom of God as Jesus meant it, and heaven as we mean it, are two very different things. The only other place I can think of where Jesus is blatantly talking about the afterlife is where he tells the disciples in the Gospel of John, "In my father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?" But again, that doesn't really tell us much about what heaven will be, and it certainly doesn't seem to be the focus of his ministry in John.)
Now let me be clear. I am not saying that heaven does not exist, nor am I saying that Jesus's death did not atone for our sins. What I am saying is that we might be missing something very, very important if we think what happens after we die was the focus of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection. The focus, or at least what Mark makes the focus in his gospel, is Jesus working to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth. And that changes a whole lot about my life and mission if I have been "saved."
In too much pop-Christianity, my relationship with God is all about me. I have entered into a relationship with God, through his son, so that God can bless me. What about Jesus's life, death, and resurrection gives us that idea? Jesus lived, died, and rose again to bless others. That is what living in the Kingdom of God is all about, and that has direct implications on what life should look like on this side of death. If the Kingdom of God is where God's will is done (and isn't that what Jesus prays will come to earth?), and Jesus was working to make that a reality here, then my salvation probably has a whole lot to do with what's left of my life after I commit to following Jesus. What happens when I die is really not all that important beside the knowledge that I will continue to exist as God's servant wherever I might be just as I have been here.
If Jesus's life teaches us anything, and I'm pretty sure Mark would back me up on this, it is that salvation, and the life in the Kingdom of God that salvation implies, is not about earning brownie points here and getting congratulatory cookies when we die. Salvation is about hard work and sacrifice. It is about dying to ourselves, picking up our crosses, and submitting ourselves to the will of God. None of that comes easy.
Yes, the Kingdom of God has come near. It has become a reality in the resurrection of Jesus. And yes, we have been invited to live in it, but know that responding to that invitation means picking up your cross and following a crucified Lord. There is work to be done, healing to give, peace to offer, and disciples to make. If we as Christians started focusing more on Kingdom living than heaven dying, our world might look very different.
One last thing, I can't help but plug a NT Wright book here. If you haven't read it yet, you need to read Surprised by Hope. I have yet to read a better book about the final hope of Christianity and the ultimate vision of the Kingdom of God here on earth.
Stopping point: Mark 7