Jesus and the Word by Rudolf Bultmann
Rudolf Bultmann was an outstanding scholar in the field of New Testament study. He was born in Germany in 1884 and studied at Tubingen, Berlin and Marburg. During the Nazi domination, he took an active part in the strong opposition which the churches built up. After the war he spent much time lecturing in Europe and the United States. This book was published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York in 1934 and 1958. It was first published in Germany in 1926. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 2: The Teaching of Jesus: The Coming of the Kingdom of God
1. The Proclamation of Deliverance (Heil has a somewhat broader meaning than any one English equivalent. The translation "deliverance" has usually been chosen rather than "salvation," in accordance with the emphasis of the crisis theologians that Christian salvation is not a possession.) and Call to Repentance
The message of Jesus is an eschatological gospel -- the proclamation that now the fulfillment of the promise is at hand, that now the Kingdom of God begins:
"Happy are the eyes that see what you see ! for I tell you: Many prophets and kings have desired to see what you see, and have not seen it; to hear what you hear, and have not heard it." (Luke 10 :23, 24)
Then the summons to deliverance rings out:
"Happy are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God,
If the Kingdom of God is beginning, then the rule of Satan, who now with his evil demons infests the earth, must be ending. And indeed the demons can be seen already in flight; their cause is lost. Jesus and his disciples in the consciousness of their mission drive out demons and heal the sick. A strange word of Jesus to his disciples is recorded:
"I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions and over all the might of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means harm you " (Luke 10:18,19)
He answers the doubters:
"If I by the finger of God drive out the demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you." (Luke 11 :20)
He who has eyes to see must recognize that God, the stronger, has triumphed over Satan and broken his power; for
"No one can enter the house of a strong man and plunder it,
unless he has first bound the strong man." ( Mark 3:27)
It is true then! The promise of the prophets is fulfilled.
"The blind see, and the lame walk,
The time of joy begins: mourning and fasting are
However little we know of the life of Jesus, if we keep in mind that he was finally crucified as a Messianic agitator, we shall be able in the light of the eschatological message to understand the fragmentary accounts of the end of his activity, overgrown though they are with legend. He seems to have entered Jerusalem with a crowd of enthusiastic adherents; all were full of joy and of confidence that now the Kingdom of God was beginning. It was a band like that which the Egyptian prophet attempted to lead to Jerusalem, which was halted and scattered by a division of troops sent by the Procurator Felix to meet it. Jesus entered Jerusalem, and with his followers took possession (as it seems) of the temple, in order to cleanse the holy precincts from all evil in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.
The oldest account of the last meal of Jesus with his disciples (Luke 22:15-18) contains a significant saying:
"With desire I have desired to eat this passover with
Even this account has a legendary coloring; but possibly it preserves an old saying in which Jesus affirmed the certainty that he would celebrate the next (Passover?) feast with his followers in the Kingdom of God.
At any rate his message is based on the certainty: the Kingdom of God is beginning, is beginning now! His own activity is for him and for his followers the sign that the Kingdom is imminent. It is absurd and presumptuous to ask him for a specific sign as evidence (Mark 8:11, 12); his message accredits him. The cleverness of the men of this world is foolishness, since they know, when the fig tree begins to grow green, that summer is coming; they can interpret the signs of sky, clouds, and wind, to predict the weather; but they do not understand the signs of the present age and do not know that it is the last hour. (Mark 13:28, 29; Luke 12:54-56)
In this last hour, the hour of decision, Jesus is sent with the final, decisive word. Happy is he who understands it and is not offended in him! (Matt.11:6) Decision is inevitable for him or against him: "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters." (Matt. 12:30) Wiser was the queen of Sheba, who of old came to Solomon to hear his wisdom; wiser were the Ninevites, who repented at the preaching of the prophet Jonah -- wiser than the fools of this generation, who do not understand what is happening before their eyes. (Luke 11:31, 32) But soon, when the Kingdom of God comes, when the Judge of the world, the "Son of Man" appears, Jesus will be justified and:
"Whoever acknowledges me before men,
Now is the time of decision: "Follow me and let the
"For the sake of the Kingdom of God" involves complete renunciation, brings every man face to face with the ultimate Either-Or.( Entweder-Oder: a phrase of Kierkegaard often used by the crisis theologians.)
To decide for the Kingdom is to sacrifice for it all things else.
"The Kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid, and in his joy he went and sold all that he had, and bought the field. "The Kingdom of God is like a merchant seeking goodly pearls, who when he found a pearl of great price went and sold all that he had, and bought the pearl." (Matt. 13:44-46)
"If your eye leads you astray, pluck it out and cast it from you. For it is better that one of your members perish, than that your whole body should be cast into hell."
"If your hand leads you astray, cut it off and cast it from you. For it is better that one of your members perish, than that your whole body should go into hell." (Matt. 5:29, 30)
There are people who for the Kingdom’ s sake have made themselves eunuchs, says Jesus. (Matt. 19:12) The road to deliverance leads through the narrow gate only; the many on the broad way are traveling to destruction. (Matt. 7 :13, 14) This call to decision is the call to repentance. For most men cling to this world, and do not muster energy to decide wholly for God. They do desire the Kingdom, but they desire it along with other things -- riches, and the respect of other men; they are not ready for repentance. When the invitation to the Kingdom comes to them they are claimed by various other interests.
"A man prepared a great supper and invited many. And he sent his servant at supper-time to call those who were invited: Come, for now it is ready. And they all began with one accord to excuse themselves. The first said: I have bought a field and must go out and see it; I beg you to excuse me. And another said: I have bought five yoke of oxen and I am going to try them; I beg you to excuse me. And another said: I have married a wife and therefore I cannot come. And the servant came and told his master these things.
"Then the master of the house became angry and said to the servant: Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame. And the servant said: Master, what you commanded is done, and yet there is room. Then said the master to the servant: Go out into the highways and the hedges and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, not one of those men who were invited shall taste of my supper." (Luke 14:16-24)
The call to the Kingdom of God is accordingly, as the parable shows, an invitation which is at the same time a demand. Those who are invited must put the Kingdom of God above all other things. It makes its claim not on man’ s frivolous desire for pleasure but on his will. The word of invitation is at the same time a word of warning:
"Who of you when he intends to build a tower does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all that see it begin to mock him, saying, this man began to build and was not able to finish.
"Or what king, as he goes to encounter another king in war, does not first sit down and consult whether with ten thousand he is able to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? If not, he sends him an embassy while he is still far away and asks for terms of peace." (Luke 14:28-32)
A man therefore should think seriously before he decides to have anything to do with this invitation. A ready acceptance in words has no value; an act of will is required.
"Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you whom he is like. He is like a man who built a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation upon a rock. Then when the flood came, the stream broke upon that house but could not shake it, because it was founded upon a rock. But he who hears and does not is like a man who built a house upon the earth without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, it fell immediately, and the ruin of that house was great." (Luke 6 :46-49)
How far must devotion and readiness for self-sacrifice be carried?
"If any man comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 4 26)
In two brief narratives belonging to the later stratum of the tradition, the church has shown vividly how this decisive Either-Or dominates the preaching of Jesus, how every other interest disappears before the exclusiveness of the demand of God.
"It happened, as Jesus was speaking, that a woman of the people raised her voice and said: Happy is the womb which bore you and the breast which gave you suck ! But he said: Rather, happy are they who hear the word of God and keep it." (Luke 11 :27-28)
"And there came his mother and his brothers, and standing outside they sent to call him, for a crowd was sitting around him. And they told him, Your mother and your brothers outside are looking for you. And he answered: Who are my mother and my brothers ? And looking at those who were sitting around him, he said: See, here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:31-35)
2. The Kingdom of God
What then is the meaning of "the Kingdom of God?" How is it to be conceived? The simplest answer is: the Kingdom of God is deliverance for men. It is that eschatological deliverance which ends everything earthly. This deliverance is the only deliverance which can properly be so called; therefore it demands of man decision. It is not something which man can possess along with other good things, which he may pursue along with other interests. This deliverance confronts man as an Either-Or.
Thus it is meaningless to call the Kingdom of God the "highest value," if by this is meant the culmination of all that men consider good. And the phrase would still not express truly the distance between the Kingdom of God and all other values, even if the relativity of these other values to this highest value is emphasized. A "highest value" always remains in connection with the relative. The Kingdom of God as eschatological deliverance is diametrically opposed to all relative values -- provided that the idea of eschatology is wholly and radically understood; and such an understanding must now be sought.
It is already clear that the Kingdom of God is no "highest good" in the ethical sense. It is not a good toward which the will and action of men is directed, not an ideal which is in any sense realized through human conduct, which in any sense requires men to bring it into existence. Being eschatological, it is wholly supernatural. Against all impatience which would bring in the Kingdom by force, the parable speaks:
Such a parable must not be read in the light of the modern conceptions of "nature" and "evolution." The parable presupposes that the growth and ripening of the seed is not something "natural," within man’ s control, but that it is something miraculous. As the grain springs up miraculously and ripens without human agency or understanding, so marvelous is the coming of the Kingdom of God. If we need proof that we must lay aside our modern view-point in order to understand such a saying in the sense of primitive Christianity, let us consider a very similar parable of the early Christian tradition. It is found in the first Epistle of Clement, dating from the end of the first century, and there the interpretation is given. The parable is to show how inevitably the divine judgment comes.
"O you fools, consider a plant, a grapevine for example. First it sheds the old leaves, then the young shoots sprout, then leaves, then flowers, then the green grapes, finally the ripe grapes appear. You see how quickly the fruit is ripe. Even so quickly and suddenly will God’ s final judgment come, as the Scripture testifies: He will come quickly and will not tarry, suddenly the Lord will come to His temple, the Holy One for whom you wait." (1 Clem. 23:4, 5)
The Kingdom of God, then, is something miraculous, in fact the absolute miracle, opposed to all the here and now; it is "wholly other," heavenly (cf. R. Otto). Whoever seeks it must realize that he cuts himself off from the world, otherwise he belongs to those who are not fit, who put their hand to the plow and look back. The stories of the calling of the first disciples are legends (Mark 1:16-20, 2:14); he who seeks for a historical kernel in them by attempting to explain psychologically the behavior of the disciples misunderstands them. But these legends are the historical witness for the meaning of Jesus’ message concerning the Kingdom, which tears men up by the roots from their business life and from their social relationships and commands the dead to bury their dead. "The saints," the company of disciples of Jesus soon called themselves -- those who are separated from the present world and have their life in the beyond.
Although the metaphor of "entering into" the Kingdom of God often occurs that does not imply any possibility of conceiving the Kingdom as something which either is or can be realized in any organization of world fellowship. Naturally both the Greek word and the Aramaic behind it can be translated as "Realm of God." However, this translation is a dangerous one, for all modern conceptions of citizens or members of the state, of fellow-countrymen and the like, are utterly mistaken. The Kingdom of God is not an ideal which realizes itself in human history; we cannot speak of its founding, its building, its completion; we can say only that it draws near, it comes, it appears. It is supernatural, superhistorical; and while men can "receive" its salvation, can enter it, it is not they, with their fellowship and their activity, who constitute the Kingdom, but God’ s power alone. Even if the parables of the mustard-seed and the leaven really applied originally to the Kingdom of God, they were certainly not intended to denote the "natural" growth of the Kingdom, but were meant to show how inescapable will be its coming, however easily ignored or misinterpreted may be the signs of its coming which are conspicuous in the activity of Jesus. The marvelous, superhistorical character of the Kingdom is the constant presupposition.
But must we stop at this merely negative definition? What should we understand positively by the Kingdom of God? What sort of events are meant when its coming is announced? There can be no doubt that Jesus like his contemporaries expected a tremendous eschatological drama. Then will the "Son of Man" come, that heavenly Messianic figure, which appeared in the apocalyptic hope of later Judaism, partly obliterating the older Messianic figure of the Davidic king and partly combining with it. Then will the dead rise, the judgment will take place, and to some the heavenly glory will be revealed while others will be cast into the flames of hell, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Evidently Jesus shared with his contemporaries the belief in all these dramatic events. As in that saying at the last supper, so at other times too, he speaks with entire naturalness of eating and drinking in the Kingdom of God.
But it should be noted that he neither depicts the punishments of hell nor paints elaborate pictures of the heavenly glory. The oracular and esoteric note is completely lacking in the few prophecies of the future which can be ascribed to him with any probability. In fact he absolutely repudiates all representations of the Kingdom which human imagination can create, when he says:
"When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels in heaven." (Mark 12:25)
In other words, men are forbidden to make any picture of the future life. Jesus thus rejects the whole content of apocalyptic speculation, as he rejects also the calculation of the time and the watching for signs. It is said for example in a Jewish apocalypse:
"If the Almighty spare your life, then after three times
In the teaching of Jesus nothing of this kind is found, rather the warning against all such calculation:
"The Kingdom of God does not so come that the time
"And if someone says to you, Look here, or Look
The real significance of "the Kingdom of God" for the message of Jesus does not in any sense depend on the dramatic events attending its coming, nor on any circumstances which the imagination can conceive. It interests him not at all as a describable state of existence, but rather as the transcendent event, which signifies for man the ultimate Either-Or, which constrains him to decision. The meaning of this decision becomes clearer when we consider further how Jesus’ message of the Kingdom is related to the Jewish eschatological hopes. Obviously the Jews thought of the deliverance of the Kingdom of God as deliverance for the Jews. The Kingdom of God is at the same time the Jewish kingdom. (Daniel 2 :44, 7 :27) Even where the expectations have gone beyond the old national political boundaries, where God’ s world judgment of all men has replaced the downfall of nations overthrown for the benefit of Israel, where the material and nationalistic colors have been blended into the pictures of the heavenly glory, where the deliverance of the whole world is expected at the last day -- even there the favored position of the Jewish people is taken for granted. The Messianic king of the last day is depicted after the model of the national Davidic dynasty; Jerusalem and its temple, though exalted to heavenly grandeur, are still in the final day of triumph symbols of Jewish glory. The hope of the return of the scattered lost tribes to the holy land is a constant element in the eschatological expectation. And obviously the overthrow of the Roman rule is equally necessary to the picture.
From Jesus we hear almost nothing of all these things. A clear impression of this difference can be derived from a comparison of the eschatological petitions of a Jewish prayer, the "Eighteen Benedictions," with the corresponding petitions of the prayer used in the circle of Jesus’ disciples, the Lord’ s prayer. In the former the petitions run as follows:
"Look upon our need and guide our warfare
In the Lord’ s prayer we find only
"Father, hallowed be Thy name,
This is in agreement with the answer of Jesus to the question whether the Jews should pay tribute to Caesar: "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God." (Mark 12 :I3-I7) That is, the seeking after God is not to be confused with political desires. Similarly Jesus rejects the request to settle a quarrel over an inheritance: "Man, who made me a judge or arbiter over you?" (Luke 1- :13, 14)
But unmistakable as the difference between the eschatological expectation of Jesus and the popular Jewish hopes is, it must neither be exaggerated nor, as is usually the case, misunderstood. The fact that in the thought of Jesus the national connotation of the Kingdom of God remains in the background does not mean that he taught its universality. He took for granted as did his contemporaries that the Kingdom of God was to come for the benefit of the Jewish people. Among his reported sayings are some in which the Kingdom of God is at the same time the kingdom of the faithful, who are comforted: "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’ s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom." (Luke 12: 32, cf. Daniel 7 :27) And a saying in a different form is preserved in which the chief authority in the Messianic age is promised to the Twelve as the representatives of the twelve tribes of the holy nation. (Matt. 19:28, Luke 22:29, 30) These are indeed not genuine words of Jesus; they reflect the hope of the earliest community, in which the Twelve were probably first chosen. But the history of this earliest community itself shows plainly that the preaching of Jesus had not extended beyond the boundaries of the Jewish people; he never thought of a mission to the Gentiles. The mission to the Gentiles came into being only after serious conflicts in the primitive church; and then the assumption was that such a mission was a way of adding to the chosen people, the Jewish Messianic community. The Gentile who wished to belong in the last day to the elect must be circumcised and keep the Jewish Law.
Out of such assumptions arose certain sayings which are put into the mouth of Jesus:
"Go not into any way of the Gentiles,
And this natural limitation of the preaching to the Jews is naïvely expressed in the words:
"But when they persecute you in this city, flee into
From the time of the controversy over the conversion of the Gentiles come the stories of the centurion in Capernaum and of the Syro-Phaenician woman. (Matt. 8:5-13 omitting verses 11, 12; Mark 7:24-30) These stories show that there are exceptions among the heathen who are worthy of being saved.
It is not impossible that the following saying goes back to Jesus himself.
"There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and yourselves cast out. From east and west, from north and south shall men come, and shall sit down to eat in the Kingdom of God." (Luke 13 :28, 29, cf. Matt. 8 :11, 12)
Even if those who are to come from all directions to put to shame Jesus’ fellow-countrymen are really Gentiles and not Jews of the dispersion, the words none the less naively assert that the chosen people and its heroes hold the central place in the Kingdom of God; afterward the Gentiles would join them, according to ancient prophecy. (Cf. Isaiah 2 :1-3; 59 :19) This is not an assertion that the Gentiles will come instead of the Jews, nor even that the Gentiles will come like the Jews; rather it is said that many Gentiles will come to shame the Jews. Further, the coming of the Gentiles does not mean that they join the actual historical community as a result of the preaching; it is rather a miraculous eschatological event. But the chief significance of this saying is negative: if many Gentiles are to bring the unrepentant Jews to shame, then clearly, belonging to the Jewish race does not constitute a right to a share in the Kingdom. Just this emphasis is characteristic of Jesus’ conception, probably also of that of John the Baptist -- the Jew as such has no claim before God. Consistently with this Jesus proclaims a call to decision and repentance. Consistently, too, Jesus can elsewhere picture a Samaritan as putting the true Jew to shame. (Luke 10:29-37)
3. Universalism and Individualism? Dualism and Pessimism?
This does not mean, however, that Jesus thinks in universalistic terms. Man as such has as little claim as the Jew. Jesus is far from seeing man in the light of humanism, as if by a natural endowment or by his destiny to realize an ideal, he possessed in himself divinity or kinship to God. Thus the humanistic concept of universality is wholly foreign to him. If the Kingdom of God were conceived universalistically, a claim of man upon God would be established. And it is exactly this claim which does not exist. It may indeed be said that there is a contradiction between the implication of the call to repentance addressed to the people, which does away with the claims of the nation as such, and the postulated limitation of the preaching to the Jews. This very contradiction shows clearly that man and the Kingdom of God are not seen by Jesus in the light of a humanistic ideal of mankind, that man as such is not predestined for the Kingdom. The Kingdom is an eschatological miracle, and those destined for it are not thus destined because of their humanity but because they are called of God. To begin with, the Jewish people are called, and the connection of the Kingdom with the Jewish people demonstrates most clearly how far from universalistic is the thought of the Kingdom, how utterly every human claim on God disappears; for the calling of the nation depends wholly on God’ s choosing. On the other hand, a nationalistic misinterpretation is avoided, since the call to repentance is directed to the chosen people, and this call rejects every claim of the individual based on the fact that he belongs to this people.
Thus all humanistic individualism is rejected. Not the individual but the "church" is called, to it belongs the promise. It is not the individual who attains, in the Kingdom of God, to the realization of his latent capacities, to the cultivation of his personality, or to perfect happiness. That God should cause His sovereignty to appear, that His will should be done, that the promise to the community should be fulfilled, this is what the realization of the Kingdom of God means. Thus the individual indeed finds deliverance, but only because he belongs to the eschatological community, not because of his personality. Further, the call to repentance guards against the misunderstanding that a man either could depend upon his calling or ought ever to despair of his calling. Through the call to repentance he is forced to decision, and his decision will show whether he belongs to the chosen or to the rejected.
Finally all individualistic cultivation of the spirit, all mysticism, is excluded. Jesus calls to decision, not to the inner life. He promises neither ecstasy nor spiritual peace; the Kingdom of God is not the object of occult vision and mystical raptures. The very naïveté of the heavenly banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is significant. Jesus does not think of man in terms of the anthropological dualism of Hellenistic mysticism; that is, he does not speak of the tragedy of man, of the entangling of the divine soul in the earthly body, of its purification and liberation, either through cultic means or through contemplation, devotion, and absorption of self into the Infinite. The Kingdom of God is not a spiritual power or sphere, to which the highest in man is essentially akin, into which in certain spiritual experiences the soul enters. All pietistic religious experience is wholly alien to him. By any such means a claim of man on God would again be established, and man’ s attitude toward God would be that of raising himself to deity. Jesus knows only one attitude toward God -- obedience. Since he sees man standing at the point of decision, the essential part of man is for him the will, the free act, and in this connection the dualistic anthropology which sees two natures, flesh and spirit, active in man, has no meaning. For on will, on free act, depends man’ s existence as a unit, as a whole; reflection on the antithesis of spirit and flesh has no place here. It is not the physical in man which is evil in him -- the whole man is evil if his will is evil.
The Kingdom of God, then, is not to be understood in terms of a metaphysical or cosmological dualism. The present world is not deprived of value because of a dualistic pessimism. To what extent the well-known sayings on the lilies of the field, the birds of heaven, and similar words were really spoken by Jesus can no longer be determined; they express the childlike faith in providence found in Jewish proverbial wisdom and that of the Orient in general. In any case the statement that in contrast to John the ascetic he was called a glutton and wine-drinker belongs to old tradition. (Matt. 11 :16-19) No word of complaint over the evil of the world, that it would be better never to have been born, that the beast is better off than man, such as the Jewish apocalypses contain, dominates the preaching of Jesus.
(One such saying is indeed inserted in the gospel record: "The foxes have holes and the birds of heaven their nests, but a son of man has nowhere to lay his head." ( Matt. 8 :20) But this owes its inclusion among the words of Jesus to a misinterpretation. "A son of man" (human being) was understood as "the Son of man," and thus the saying was believed to embody a statement of Jesus about himself.)
To Jesus the world is not evil, but men are evil; and not in the sense that the human race as such is evil because of its lower nature. No, just as there are good and bad trees, so there are good and bad men; as the seed falls on good and bad ground, so the word of the gospel falls on good and bad hearts. There are healthy and sick, just and unjust. No theory of dualism, but the urgency of the demand leads to the insight that the will of men as a rule is bad, that before God at least none can be called good. (Matt. 7 :11, Mark 10 :8) But the bad will is what makes the evil man evil, the greedy hard-hearted, the religious self-complacent. The call to repentance includes all, and no one has any advantage over another or can look down on him. When he was told about the Galileans whom Pilate had slain, he said,
"Do you think that these Galileans were especially wicked, because this death came upon them? No, I tell you, but if you do not repent, you also will perish. Or do you think that those eighteen whom the Tower of Siloam fell on and slew were guiltier than the others in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; if you do not repent, you also will perish." (Luke 13 :1-5)
The real evil in the world, then, is the evil will of men. Accordingly the "other world," the Kingdom of God, is not conceived as a universal metaphysical entity, as a finer, higher, more spiritual nature over against the earthly nature. The concept "Nature" has no place here. Except as the God-given world in which man receives the gift of God and must prove himself obedient to God’ s will, "nature" for Jesus does not exist. Thus the question of how far the present earthly nature is to be changed or replaced through the coming of the Kingdom is not relevant. Just as the present world exists only as God’ s creation, so the world to come also will be His creation. Therefore the Kingdom of God cannot be for Jesus a colorful realm of fancy to which the individual can flee for refreshment and escape from responsibility.
4. Future and Present. The Necessity of Decision
The future Kingdom of God, then, is not something which is to come in the course of time, so that to advance its coming one can do something in particular, perhaps through penitential prayers and good works, which become superfluous in the moment of its coming. Rather, the Kingdom of God is a power which, although it is entirely future, wholly determines the present. It determines the present because it now compels man to decision; he is determined thereby either in this direction or in that, as chosen or as rejected, in his entire present existence. Future and present are not related in the sense that the Kingdom begins as a historical fact in the present and achieves its fulfillment in the future; nor in the sense that an inner, spiritual possession of personal attributes or qualities of soul constitutes a present hold on the Kingdom, to which only the future consummation is lacking. Rather the Kingdom of God is genuinely future, because it is not a metaphysical entity or condition, but the future action of God, which can be in no sense something given in the present. None the less this future determines man in his present, and exactly for that reason is true future not merely something to come "somewhere, sometime," but destined for man and constraining him to decision.
The coming of the Kingdom of God is therefore not really an event in the course of time, which is due to occur sometime and toward which man can either take a definite attitude or hold himself neutral. Before he takes any attitude he is already constrained to make his choice, and therefore he must understand that just this necessity of decision constitutes the essential part of his human nature. Because Jesus sees man thus in a crisis of decision before God, it is understandable that in his thought the Jewish Messianic hope becomes the absolute certainty that in this hour the Kingdom of God is coming. If men are standing in the crisis of decision, and if precisely this crisis is the essential characteristic of their humanity, then every hour is the last hour, and we can understand that for Jesus the whole contemporary mythology is pressed into the service of this conception of human existence. Thus he understood and proclaimed his hour as the last hour.
This message of the Kingdom of God is absolutely alien to the present-day conception of humanity. We are accustomed to regard a man as an individual of the species "man," a being endowed with definite capacities, the development of which brings the human ideal in him to realization -- of course with variations in each individual. As "character" or as "personality," man achieves his end. Harmonious development of all human faculties, according to the individual endowment of each man, is the way to this ideal. Perhaps no man can travel this road to the end, but progress along the road, bringing the ideal nearer to realization, justifies human existence. We are accustomed to distinguish between the physical or sensuous and the mental or spiritual life. And even if at the same time the connection between them is assumed, and symmetrical development is the shining goal, still the spirit is the guiding principle, and the life of the spirit is the true meaning of human existence.
All this is completely alien to the teaching of Jesus. Jesus expresses no conception of a human ideal, no thought of a development of human capacities, no idea of something valuable in man as such, no conception of the spirit in the modern sense. Of the spirit in our sense and of its life or experience, Jesus does not speak at all. The word which in the English Biblical translations is generally rendered "soul" or "spirit" usually means simply "life," as in the well-known saying: "What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?" (Mark 8:36) The meaning is simply: Of what use are all the possessions of the world to a man who must die? The greed of man for property and profit is here shown to be as absurd as in the story of the rich farmer.
"There was a rich man whose land had yielded well. And he thought to himself, What shall I do? I have no place to put my grain. And he said, This is what I will do; I will pull down my barns and build greater ones, and there I will put all my grain. And then I will say to my soul [i.e., simply "to myself"], Soul, you have much wealth stored up for many years; rest, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said to him, Fool, tonight your soul [i.e., your life] will be taken, and who then will own your possessions?" (Luke 12:16-20)
The modern conception differs fundamentally from that of Jesus, because the former assumes the intrinsic worth of humanity, at least of the highest and noblest in it. The highest in man, indeed, is often designated without qualification as divine. By way of contrast, the worth of a man for Jesus is not determined by his human quality or the character of his spiritual life, but simply by the decision the man makes in the here-and-now of his present life. Jesus sees man as standing here and now under the necessity of decision, with the possibility of decision through his own free act. Only what a man now does gives him his value. And this crisis of decision arises for the man because he is face to face with the coming of the Kingdom of God. Somewhat similarly one might see the essential quality of human life defined by the fact that death awaits men and by the way they allow themselves to be determined thereby. And indeed the Kingdom of God and death are alike in this -- that both the Kingdom and death imply the end of earthly human existence as we know it, with its possibilities and interests. Moreover it may be said that death, like the Kingdom, is not to be considered by man as an accidental event, which sometime will bring to an end the everyday course of life, but as the true future which confronts man and limits him in the present and puts him under the necessity of decision. Thus in either case the judgment is pronounced upon man not from the human standpoint, as if man’ s value were somehow immanent and securely possessed by him, but from without -- according to Jesus, of course, God is the only Judge.
However, the coming of the Kingdom of God differs from the coming of death, because death is darkness, silence, while the Kingdom is a positive promise to man. Evidently when a man is constrained by the inevitable coming of death to make the decision, this decision can have only a negative sense, that is, to live his present life as a dying man, as an alien. On the contrary the decision which is forced upon him because of the coming of the Kingdom is positive -- that is, to act in his present life in accordance with the will of God. What positive meaning "to do the will of God" has for men has yet to be determined from the teaching of Jesus.
First, it must again be stressed that the eschatological message of Jesus, the preaching of the coming of the Kingdom and of the call to repentance, can be understood only when one considers the conception of man which in the last analysis underlies it, and when one remembers that it can have meaning only for him who is ready to question the habitual human self-interpretation and to measure it by this opposed interpretation of human existence. Then it becomes obvious that the attention is not to be turned to the contemporary mythology in terms of which the real meaning in Jesus’ teaching finds its outward expression. This mythology ends by abandoning the fundamental insight which gave it birth, the conception of man as forced to decision through a future act of God. To this mythology belongs the expectation of the end of the world as occurring in time, the expectation which in the contemporary situation of Jesus is the natural expression of his conviction that even in the present man stands in the crisis of decision, that the present is for him the last hour. To this mythology belongs also the figure of Satan who now fights against the hosts of the Lord. If it is true that to Jesus the world can be called bad only in so far as men are bad, that is, are of evil will, then it is clear how little the figure of Satan really meant to him.
Finally, it is also clear why Jesus cannot give a description of the Kingdom of God. Any such description would be possible only by projecting the demands and ideals of man or his spiritual experiences into the other world; and thereby the essential character of the beyond would be taken away. The Kingdom would be a creation of human desire and imagination; it would not be the Kingdom of God. But the Kingdom of God is not something dark, silent, and unknown, so that the idea of its relation to man is based wholly on speculation; rather the will of God is a comprehensible concept for men. What does it mean?
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