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Understanding the Kingdom of God by Georgia Harkness


Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by Abingdon Press, New York & Nashville, 1974. This material was edited for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 7: Thy Kingdom Come


The previous chapter ended with the affirmation that we can have assurance and hope without precise knowledge of the nature of the final consummation of Godís purposes in the coming of the kingdom, even as we can have a similar assurance of the individualís life beyond death. The grounds of this assurance are the same in each case -- the love, the goodness, and the adequacy of God. In either field, our position must rest on faith in God, but in conjunction also with the most reasonable conclusions we can draw from such knowledge as we have.

The possibility of drawing some such conclusions is within our grasp. We are not obliged to face a blank wall as we face the future. Assurance falls short of explicit knowledge, but it is not the same as fantasy. In fact, the less we fantasize, the more solidly grounded is our assurance. In this last chapter I shall try to do two things: to trace some connections between the Christian hope of eternal life and the coming of the kingdom; and to indicate the major foundations on which I believe both these forms of faith must rest.

1. The destiny of the individual person

There are two reasons why the future of the individual beyond death needs to be considered in connection with the kingdom of God, even though they are not identical concepts. The first is that it affects us all where we live. Far more important to most persons than any theoretical speculation about the future of humanity is a more immediate question. We all must die. Our loved ones die and leave us grieving in the pain of a great separation. We want to know whether they live on in happiness, and whether we shall ever be reunited. We hope so. The churches have long said so. But appearances are against it, and we wonder.

A second reason for coming to terms with belief in the afterlife stems from the precarious state of human life upon this planet. Until recent years, unless one were an adventist expecting an imminent second coming of Christ, it could be taken for granted that persons would inhabit the earth indefinitely. In some far distant astronomical time, the sunís heat might give out, but that need not worry us now. But no longer is it possible to be so confident. The threat of atomic destruction has hung over the world since 1945. More recently, exhaustion of the earthís natural resources through misuse of the environment and of the worldís food supply through overpopulation have become serious possibilities. We do not know how much time is left before human folly, not the fulfillment of Godís purposes, may put an end to human existence upon earth. If this occurs, Godís rulership will continue in his eternal kingdom, but not among persons on earth. I believe we should confront this possibility without undue alarm but reckon with it.

The kingdom concept is related to that of the individual, but is not identical with it because it is a corporate, and in that sense a social, concept. The kingdom in the Old Testament refers to the future of the chosen people. In the thought of Jesus and the New Testament writers, it is the inclusive body of Christís followers who have become Godís redeemed, obedient, and faithful servants. Thus it soon became identified with the church, and this tendency has persisted in spite of the fact that no visible church fully incorporates it.

Throughout most of the Old Testament period, little was said and apparently little thought about an afterlife for the individual. In Job 19:26 there is a crucial passage which the RSV translates "without my flesh I shall see God," though the KJV says "in my flesh" and other versions give various translations along a different line. The belief in a personal resurrection was developed during the intertestamental period, and we have reflections of it in the reply of Jesus to the Sadducees who did not believe in it and tried to trip him over this issue (Matt. 22:23-33). Jesus apparently accepted it. Among his followers it hinges mainly on Jesusí own resurrection and the many references to it in Paulís letters, especially I Corinthians 15. In these passages the primary note is Godís victory over death and the presence of God both in time and eternity.

The Bible is not the only source of belief in an afterlife. It is found in virtually every major religion, though the forms in which it is conceived differ. It has a place also, whether rejected or affirmed, in philosophy. Here there is an approach to the afterlife which is worth considering in conjunction with Christian thought.

Any philosophical discussion of the future life is apt to be related to the conservation of values. This means the preservation of goodness, truth, beauty, and whatever else makes life rich and meaningful in a mature soul. Are these values ephemeral or lasting? Sometimes they are thought to be conserved in the influences we leave in the ongoing stream of life upon this planet. Again they are viewed as contributions to the Absolute, or Over-soul, or God conceived as an impersonal essence or ground of all that exists. It is the Christian view that in a world created and sustained by God values persist, but in a more personal way than either of these routes suggests. The most valuable and meaningful element in all creation is human personality; it is human selves that must be preserved if their values are not to be lost either in the dissolution of the body or some final cataclysm that may destroy our world.

Then what may we believe on the basis of Christian faith about life after death? Our primary ground of confidence is that in Godís keeping all is well, both for ourselves and those we love. But we can go a step farther as a deduction from what we know of the present life. God has set us in a network of social relations, very precious to us when these relations are what they ought to be. "God setteth the solitary in families" (Ps. 68:6 KJV) -- families of blood kinship, of congeniality of heart and soul, and in the broadest sense, of the family of man. These relationships can become warped and too often do, but at their best and truest they are Godís most precious gifts. It can hardly be supposed that a loving God would permit these relationships to be ended forever by the death of the body, lonely though the separation may be during the intervening years.

Again, in this life of the earthly pilgrimage, God gives us work to do according to our gifts and capacities. Work also is a great gift, not simply as a means of meeting material needs and caring for those we love, but as a source of self fulfillment in a meaningful life. Even when bodily strength diminishes, one can still live zestfully and lend strength and cheer to others. Hence, I cannot believe that the life eternal is one of endless idleness. If it were endless duration only, it would be endless boredom and scarcely willed by God. What we may be given to do in the next life we cannot say, and with so many forms of work in this life related to physical existence, it is useless to speculate. But if there is a fellowship of persons, God will give us tasks for their enrichment.

Since in the present life we are bidden to grow in our own personhood, why not in the next? The traditional Protestant view is of sudden sinlessness for the redeemed, with everlasting punishment for the unsaved. The Roman Catholic view more mercifully has purgatory as a preparation for heaven. But instead of either, it may be that we shall continue to grow toward spiritual maturity, never fully achieved in the present life. It would be a welcome opportunity.

And, finally, the life beyond death can be one of joy. Whether we call it resurrection or immortality, our faith holds out this promise. Resurrection with Godís gift of a new spiritual body is the major biblical concept (cf. I Cor. 15:42-44, 55-57) though immortality is mentioned a number of times (Rom. 2:7; I Cor. 15:53, 54; II Tim. 1: 10). Some insist on speaking of resurrection rather than immortality, lest the latter be construed as a Greek concept of an immortal soul that is separable from a perishing body. In any case, freedom from the present body can be an introduction into joy for the aged or terminally ill when life has run its course. But a far greater happiness for all may be envisioned in Godís nearer presence and fellowship with those we love, the preservation of all that is best and finest in the values knit into the self in oneís earth life, work to do for others and growth in grace, knowledge, and love.

Such a projection of future possibilities for the individual after bodily death is a matter of faith rather than something finite minds can affirm as if we had the wisdom of God. God may have other and better things in store for us, for "it does not yet appear what we shall be." Yet I believe these projections to be more than fantasy. At any rate, I believe them to be rooted not only in Scripture but in the nature of God, in the nature of human personality, and in the relations of persons to one another as we know them now.

2. The coming kingdom

Having stated what I believe can be said with some assurance about the future of the individual beyond death, I turn now to the main theme of this book for some concluding words. It may be helpful to observe similarities as well as differences between these two contexts of the future.

In the previous chapter I have already stated that I do not think it lies within human knowledge to say whether Godís final victory over evil and the final consummation of his kingdom will come within human history or beyond it. Should the end be precipitated by human agencies in defiance of the will of God, it would obviously need to come in a realm beyond human existence on this earth. But should events continue in their normal course, with the ups and downs of human history and a forward movement that prevails in spite of temporary regressions, the future is open.

About a century ago, the poet Alfred Tennyson wrote:

One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.

I do not think this necessarily implies utopianism unless "the whole creation" is interpreted atomistically to mean that everything that looks evil is actually good. I am willing to accept it as a true statement of a purposeful, forward movement without defining the terminus. In general, the exponents of process theology of the Whitehead school stop short of affirming an ultimate end of the world process, while Teilhard de Chardin found it in the Omega Point with Christ as the goal of the evolutionary process. Moltmann and Pannenberg, the leading exponents of the theology of hope, make less of social evolution but believe that Christians are summoned to action in society by the promise of an eschatological future. I shall not attempt to choose among these positions, but will try to say what I believe we can be reasonably sure of.

In the first place, the kingdom of God is present wherever human beings love and serve God and seek in obedience to extend acceptance of his kingly reign upon earth. The kingdom-as-recognized is not always identical with the kingdom-as-existing. It was present in the Old Testament period before Jesus made it his central message; it is present in the worship and moral endeavors of those of faiths other than Christianity; in acts and attitudes of compassion and a determined effort to bring about a better world, it may be present in persons of no acknowledged religious faith. We enter it at any point in time through the power released and the pattern and promise set forth by Jesus. In this sense it is essentially a Christian doctrine, but this does not preclude the fact that others than Christians may experience its power and contribute toward its forward movement within human affairs.

In a somewhat more specific sense, the concept of the kingdom as both present and future has a correlate in the concept of eternal life presented in Johnís Gospel. One enters eternal life where he is in the present and by becoming a believer in Christ -- a believer not only in the mind but in the commitment of life. It is not by accident that John 3:16 has become, world wide, the most beloved and familiar single verse in the Bible. It is by believing, which means by being born anew, that one enters the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5). This is equivalent to saying that one enters into eternal life. This does not rule out eternal life after death, for in John 14:1-3 we find some of the greatest words on this theme in all literature. But it is significant that this Gospel puts its emphasis, not on Christís return as the Son of man, but on the coming of the Holy Spirit as a living presence to replace the bodily presence of Jesus.

The presence of the kingdom is attested by Paul, and he seems to equate it with a term he uses much more frequently, to be "in Christ.íí "The kingdom of God," he says, "does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17) -- an admirable definition of its major marks. Elsewhere he says pungently, "For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power" (I Cor. 4:20). In other passages he speaks of "inheriting" the kingdom of God, but still with an emphasis on its moral requirements that must be met (I Cor. 6:9, 10; 15:50; Gal. 5:21). This points toward the future, but with the seat of its obligations in the present.

What this brings us to is the fact that "Thy kingdom come" is for the present as well as the future and needs to be so understood in reference to the whole of Christian living. But what of the kingdom as future? And how does it correlate with the hope of life after death for the individual?

I have said that the hope of existence beyond bodily death is a form of belief in the conservation of values. This is to say that human life, in spite of its suffering, turmoil, and sometimes its apparent aimlessness, is still meaningful. In the providence of God, the good persists to be used for further good, even though in the immediate scene it may appear to be lost. These convictions stem from the belief that human personality is so valuable that God conserves it even after death as the bearer of these values.

This conviction is a basic note in the kingdom that is yet to come. The road along the way to a better world, which is to say to the fulfillment of Godís purposes, is bound to be a rugged one. Whether or not one believes in a personal devil, there are demonic forces in the world -- cruel, sadistic, self-centered, lusting for power at any cost. The principalities and powers of which Paul spoke are with us. They assail the righteous as well as those of evil intent. They induce not only evil-doing but loss of hope. In their tug at the soul of man, they induce despair. Only by faith in the goodness of God and his power to conserve the good and even at times to make good come out of evil, can courage and the forward look be maintained.

In the presence of such forces, which seem to be more evident at some periods of history than others, it is easy to give up believing in either the goodness of life or the goodness of God. The quest then to enjoy superficial pleasures and to seize what one can for oneís self supplants a more stable and hopeful existence. We seem to be in one of these periods at present.

The Christian concept of the coming kingdom of God runs counter to this mood of pessimism and redeems it through hope. Without overlooking the evil, it affirms that this is still Godís world, that God is working within it for good in spite of the evil that thwarts his purposes, and that God conserves in his own ways, often hidden from us, whatever of good we put into it. As individuals, whatever he may have in store for us in the afterlife, on earth we shall soon be forgotten, so transient is human recollection. But by faith we can know that whatever we do wisely and faithfully at Godís call will endure.

I suggested also that from what we know of social relations in this life, the next life will be a society of persons in which the ties of love will be preserved. This we can believe also about the coming kingdom. To inherit the kingdom has an important meaning probably not intended by Paul, for its content includes past as well as future. We have inherited from the past vast amounts of good in physical sustenance, knowledge, works of beauty, sensitivity to spiritual insights, the culture that has come to us from a long past, and, not least, our Christian faith. It is reasonable to expect that, barring the holocaust, future ages will inherit these same values from us plus, we hope, some accretions from our own time. To pray "Thy kingdom come" is to pray in vital expectancy that these legacies will be carried forward in a greater doing of Godís will on earth.

This will not happen automatically. To pray for the coming of Godís kingdom without working for it is laziness and lethargy. Furthermore, it is blasphemy. The three petitions at the beginning of the Lordís prayer all hang together. "Hallowed be thy nameíí means "In reverence, give God glory." "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven" means "In fidelity, give God labor." Paulís word that "the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power" is nowhere better illustrated than in the repetition of prayer for the coming of Godís kingdom without comparable effort that Godís will should be done on earth.

The goal of the kingdom, both for the immediate and the long-range future, is again aptly summed up by Paul when he speaks of it as "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." This is an inspired combination of terms, for they embody the goals of the kingdom, both as personal living and as the new society of the future for which we labor and pray. With a word about each of these great themes we conclude this study.

Righteousness is not a matter of ethics only, but of Christian faith at its foundations. A good God demands goodness in his people. It is a demand that appears throughout the Bible, coming to its climax in the message and ministry of Jesus and his call to love. There are differences of opinion as to the forms of action required by righteousness, and some objections to the word as suggesting a rigid legalism, but little dispute about righteousness as an essential mark of life in the kingdom of God.

However, there is dispute -- and a large one -- over the unrighteous and what God does with the unrepentant sinner. Traditional faith has said that he is cast into hell, not simply the vague and shadowy Sheol of the Old Testament but to Christian literalists, a burning lake of fire to suffer eternally. Others of us are obliged to believe that this is inconsistent with the character of God. It is something that no morally sensitive human being would do, to say nothing of a God of love. The fact that there are such passages in the New Testament, drawn from Jewish apocalypticism and attributed to Jesus, does not prove that he said them or that he could have believed this to be an appropriate fate. But if we renounce belief in such a hell, must we renounce judgment also? I think not. Judgment comes, we know, in the natural course of events on those who defy the physical, the moral, or the spiritual laws of God. There is deep truth in the belief that whatsoever a man -- or a society -- sows, that will be reaped. Judgment comes also in an inner deterioration of personality, and while psychiatrists may not wish to speak of sin, they must deal with its effects. Along with such visible manifestations of judgment there is that condemnation in love which has traditionally been called the wrath of God. This means that God takes sin seriously, and such condemnation may fall upon us, even in a professed state of righteousness, for our injustice, our indifference to human needs, or any other sin against the love commandment.

Peace -- how we yearn for it! And how much it is needed in our time, among the nations, between clashing economic or political groups, in families, in personal relations of all kinds. Conflict can sometimes be creative, but hostility is a breeder of many types of sin. No wonder that in spite of continuing warfare, which has grown to colossal proportions with ever more deadly weapons, Christ is still designated as the Prince of Peace. As was foreseen by prophets of old, with the coming of Godís kingdom there would be no more war.

In other fields as well, the drawing together of persons in a closer unity of spirit in spite of diversity of cultures and opinions may well be a fundamental note in the coming of the kingdom. Some evidences of this, in spite of problems still to be resolved, may be seen in the birth of both the ecumenical movement and the United Nations in our time. Much more needs to be done before we are "one in the Spirit" in either church or society.

The third note that Paul links with righteousness and peace is joy in the Spirit. This we saw to be a basic note also in a Christian understanding of eternal life. Joy is a legitimate quest of the human spirit, for time or for eternity. It is one of the greatest gifts of God. It is available for the taking, if we will meet the other requirements of the kingdom.

There are many ways of saying this. None surpasses Paulís paean of victory at the end of the eighth chapter of Romans. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" The things he enumerates are abroad in our world today. Then comes the answer, "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." If we believe this, we can believe in the kingdom of God as both present and future; we can work for it as we wait for it; and we can know that our times and our lives are in Godís hands

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