Chapter 6: The Difference it Makes
We have now concluded a survey of the biblical sources most relevant to a resolution of the dilemma regarding the kingdom of God which was outlined in the first chapter. We have looked at the types of understanding of the kingdom most influential in the twentieth century; at the position which this author holds to be most acceptable; at the ideological framework of the times within which Jesus spoke and the evangelists later wrote; and in particular at the parables as giving our clearest evidence of the mind of Christ upon this matter. There is much more that could be said, but this is perhaps enough to provide a sufficient theological and biblical foundation for making up one’s mind on the issue. Without some such foundation and searching the Scriptures, one jumps too easily at a conclusion somewhere along the wide spectrum of opinion. Or, one decides no problem is involved, and there is no use of stirring up the question. Or one may simply bypass it as too controversial or insoluble.
The purpose of this chapter is to try to indicate that what one thinks about the central message of Jesus matters greatly, not only as an academic question of biblical interpretation and a theological quest for truth, but as a matter of personal and social living. What Christians think, or perhaps more often assume as unexamined attitudes, has much to do with what Christians do -- or fail to do. And what Christians do or fail to do is both the product of the churches’ efforts and the seedbed for their future effectiveness in today’s world.
1. The world we live in
As a backdrop for discussing the bearing of the kingdom of God on personal living, social action, the state of the churches today, and their possible service to the future, let us assemble some familiar facts about our present world. This survey need not be extensive and may not say anything not already known to the reader, but the facts need to be assembled for a composite view. They contain some alarming items, and we need to retain our perspective. I am not by nature a pessimist, and I do not believe that everything is wrong with our world. In another context I might include a chapter on "What is Right with Modern Life" as I did some years ago in The Modern Rival of Christian Faith, and most of the things there mentioned are still here and still right.l But along with the good things and some advances over the past years, there is too much that is wrong.
Let us begin with a development that has had both good and bad effects on modern life and has affected radically the lives of all of us. First, then, this is a world of brilliant scientific and technological achievement. It is a world undreamed of at the beginning of this century, and due to great medical advances which are a part of it, a good many of us are still living whose memories span this entire century. It is one of the rewards of growing older that one can recall seeing these things happen! To mention a few of them: the coming of the radio and more recently the television; the cinema, -- first silent, then talking, then colored; quick and easy communication by telephone, an accepted part of life -- first to one’s neighbors, then across the continent, then to the other side of the earth, then to a space ship, and to the moon. Add to these the conquest of space by the airplane as the normal mode of long distance travel, and the automobile which began to be used before the turn of the century has become so much a part of life to millions that a curtailment of gasoline sends the economy into a tailspin. Then add to these the computer with a host of other advances in electronics, and the nuclear space age as a whole, and we have a vast structure of modern miracles. Yet, we have become so much accustomed to these man-made miracles, that we do not marvel at them much any more. The miracles in the Bible we may still puzzle over, to accept, reject, or try to explain, but the miracles around us we do not think much about except to make use of them.
In the second place, we live in a very dangerous world. Some of these dangers stem directly from the brilliant achievements that have just been outlined. There are dangers not only from death on the highways and in the air, but from the wide-spread pollution and destruction of the environment which have made ecology an important concern and at many points a challenge to technology. Nuclear fission, one of the most brilliant of these achievements, has introduced the fear of atomic destruction, perhaps to be world wide, and has increased the arms race under the aegis of national security and with it an enormous expenditure of military funds which might otherwise be available for domestic services. Yet so prone are we to care most about what is near at hand, the fear of atomic destruction is probably less keen in most minds than is the energy crisis which means less oil and gasoline available, less fuel for heating, and an abrupt change in American life-styles. Steadily rising prices, the danger of continuing inflation, an economic recession as bad or worse than the Great Depression of the early 1930s, and widespread unemployment that can hit almost anywhere give plenty to worry about.
In between these dangers, whether remote or close at hand, lies overpopulation, the maldistribution of the natural resources of the world including food, and as a result the malnutrition of over half -- some say two-thirds -- of the world’s population. While better agriculture increases the available food, the population increases faster. There are too many people, as in the southward-moving Sahara Desert, who are now starving, and many others are so undernourished as to be not far from the edge of starvation. With the present population of about three and a half billion people expected to increase to twice that number by the end of the century, and unless halted to increase by geometric ratio beyond that point, this alone would justify saying that we live in a dangerous world.
In the third place, it is a world of startling social and personal immorality. This statement needs to be guarded for two reasons. One is that there are many thousands -- probably many millions in the aggregate -- of decent, kind, honest people in the world who by any ordinary standards could be considered moral. The second is that these same people, or at least many of us, are apt to deplore with shock the overt immorality of others without looking within at our own less conspicuous, but self-satisfied, immoral attitudes. Yet allowing for wholesome exceptions and also for the fact that there are inevitable differences of opinion as to what is considered immoral, we can still say that ours is a time of startling immorality.
To try to state briefly the vast range of evidences along this line is probably futile, but the attempt must be made. There is a world-wide oppression of the exploited for personal gain, whether in material goods or control or often both. There is repression or rejection of persons and denial of opportunities through race, sex, and other forms of prejudice. We are shocked to learn of corruption in high places in government. Cheating of one kind or another, dishonesty, and lying as an attempted cover-up are widely accepted practices in many fields. Defiance of the sex standards of the ages, both in personal relations and in the mores of the entertainment world, is justified in the name of freedom. People defile their own or others’ bodies with ruinous drugs, which include alcohol which is socially accepted as well as marijuana, LSD, or heroin which drinking parents deplore when their children use them.
Mixed in with all this is an increase in crime and violence. Yet outside the circles of overt crime, and found in many "good’’ people, is justification of the violence of war and condemnation of those young persons whose consciences will not let them participate in it. And among those many persons who have committed no illegal act of crime or of overt violence, there is a widespread self-centeredness and demand for the right to do what one pleases which results in the violence of serious hurt to others. Add to this the structural violence built into the social system, and the scene looks dark.
Some of the forms of immorality thus outlined are clearly contrary to the time-honored, yet still relevant, Ten Commandments. Some may be somewhat in limbo because of differing opinions as to what is right, for example, abortion which is regarded by some as horribly immoral and by others as a legitimate step in some cases toward better family life with better rearing of those children who are born, and toward a better-fed world. But permeating most of the issues which have been surveyed is sin in the sense of violation of the Hebrew-Christian love commandment and an indifference to the call of God for moral responsibility in all of life. And where there is sin, God’s judgment is real.
Fourth, it is a very dissatisfied world. On the one hand, there is much oppression and lack of the freedoms of thought, speech, action, livelihood, and self-fulfillment at its best which every person, in the dignity of personhood, ought to have. On the other hand, there are many freedoms, lauded even by some psychiatrists, which are sought and claimed in indifference to the rights and freedoms of others, and which end, not in true self-fulfillment, but in an egocentric self-seeking and self-pity in the frustration of these desires. Much pleasure is sought and there are manifold forms of entertainment to provide it, but the pleasure is apt to prove tasteless and transient. Some deeper forms of disturbance, such as deep disappointments, sickness, bereavement and death, are perennial. Yet others are the result of our too complex and high-tensioned society. Clashes within the family or the work situation that cause resentment, hard feelings and then severance; anonymity and rootlessness in an overcrowded but lonely world; uncertainty as to the future and even as to whether there will be a future -- these elements in our society rob many of what ought to be the rich satisfactions of living.
What this all adds up to is an unsettled and anxious, even at points despairing, world. This is not to suggest that there are no happy people in it, for there are. I do not wish to be among the harbingers of doom who speak and write frequently in these days as if there were nothing good to be said. It is possible to point to very significant advances within the past century, both here and in other nations. In spite of much that still needs to be done, we had better rejoice and be thankful, not only for more comfortable living with the vast range of things technology has produced, but for more recognition of race and sex equality and advances toward implementation of these principles; better education; better health; minimum wage, unemployment and social security provisions; and a large network of social agencies that we sometimes fume at as being bureaucratic and expensive but which few of us would want to see abolished. In the churches we may add a greater ecumenical understanding and fellowship, a greater outreach in service to society, and an effort, however varied in its success, at inner renewal.
These factors should keep us from falling into despair. Yet this is an uneasy time and for great numbers of people, their morale is low. They lack both firm rootage for living in the present and hope for the future. At this point, whether in good circumstances or bad, Christian faith and especially that aspect of it which Jesus called the kingdom of God, becomes highly relevant.
2. Types of response
How have the people responded to these circumstances? And especially the church people? The responses have varied, and it is impossible to set forth categories in which to pigeonhole individuals or groups within precise limits. Yet general trends can be observed, and some indication can be given as to the relation of these trends to the theme of this book.
The secular public has for the most part deplored these circumstances, looked for a scapegoat to take the blame, and found it in those in political or economic power. "Politics is rotten." "Big business" or "the unions," depending on which side of the economic terrain one is on, is responsible for the woes of the other side. Yet one feels that there is little one can do about it except try to keep going and make the best of it. The more action-minded engage in strikes, boycotts, and other forms of protest, with occasional outbreaks of violence. Yet for the most part there is still a feeling of helplessness and sullen rebellion. But if things are bad and can’t be set right, let us enjoy ourselves any way we can! Pessimism, stoicism, and hedonism meet in an outlook that has few if any goals for the future, and in such as there are, only short-range ones.
Among those comfortably situated, things may not seem so bad. Life has not only comforts but personal satisfactions, and things are going to be better after awhile. Still, one is not too sure, for the stock market goes up and down very uncertainly. For large numbers, it is impossible to have even this much assurance. For the poor, the unemployed, and those facing the stark possibility of unemployment, the future looks very dark.
Amid this widespread feeling of helplessness and an ensuing apathy and anxiety, the churches are little trusted if not rejected outright. They are thought not to have the leverage or the expertise in major social issues to make much difference, and are often condemned for an apparent indifference to such matters. For help in personal problems one goes to a psychiatrist or perhaps to a marriage counselor if one can afford it. If not, one muddles along as best one can.
In such a situation the eschatological question, "What is the world coming to?" is often asked. It seldom receives an eschatological answer from the general public or mainline churches. It would be a quite unusual occurrence if one were to bring the current social situation into close connection with the kingdom of God. But the adventists do this, as we shall see presently. Before examining how they do it, let us look at the situation in the mainline churches.
3. In the mainline churches
The well-established churches with a long heritage and social recognition are designated as mainline to distinguish them from the sects, which have proliferated enormously in America. The sects have broken away from the main stream over some issue that they regard as wrongly or too meagerly stressed by the parent church. It should not be regarded as a pejorative term, for the sects sometimes develop into mainline churches, as did the early Methodists. Each sect needs to be judged on its own merits.
In the mainline churches as elsewhere, the response to the current situation is somewhat varied. Yet a widely prevalent aspect of the variation is polarization within the membership. This is conspicuous at a number of points.
A form of polarization of long standing is theological with biblical interpretation as its center. In most of the denominations there is still a considerable number of biblical literalists (self-styled conservatives but called fundamentalists by others) who refuse to accept the views of modern historical and textual scholarship as to the true meanings of the Bible. The liberals seem to them to be subverting the gospel, while the liberals view the fundamentalists as retarding the advance of knowledge and obscuring a wealth of meaning in the Scriptures. What one thinks about the kingdom of God depends in no small measure on this issue.
This line of separation has become less acute than it was fifty years ago when the famous Dayton trial over the right to teach evolution in the public schools took place, and in the same year of 1925 Harry Emerson Fosdick had to leave the pastorate of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City because of his theological views. The literalist point of view is now more common among the sects than in the mainline churches, but it still has its adherents in the latter, as any denominational paper which has a forum of letters to the editor will make evident.
A related but not identical form of polarization is between the exponents of social action as a necessary form of Christian witness and those who would keep the churches only to the sphere of personal religion. This is a deeper and more serious division than the theological one. Conservatives in one of these areas are apt to be so in the other, but not always. A call for the elimination of exploitation of the weak by the strong, of racial and other forms of discrimination, of corruption in business and government, of poverty and its causes, and of the giant evil of war is an offshoot of the earlier social gospel, though not identical with it. The difference lies mainly in the fact that the earlier exponents of the social gospel thought of the coming of the kingdom of God as progressive growth toward a better world through the conquest of these social evils. However, this identification is less often made today, though the former tensions are still present. The denominational leaders and seminary trained clergy are apt to believe that a prophetic social witness as well as ministry to personal life are essential aspects of the churches’ mission. Large segments of the laity, more prone to think as the environing culture does, disapprove this approach.
This unfortunate cleavage is said to be deeper in America than in the churches of any other part of the world.2 Since the full gospel, like a full understanding of the kingdom, requires both love and justice and an extension of love and justice from the mind and heart of the individual Christian to the world, this polarization is a serious barrier to the service of the churches. It provides more than a little of the reason why so many ministers, especially among the recent seminary graduates, prefer some kind of social or educational ministry to service in the local parish.
Other types of polarization in the churches are less acute and may be mentioned more briefly. One of these has to do with modes of ministry to the personal life. The clergy today are better trained in pastoral care than ever before, and most of them take this responsibility seriously. Yet their psychological training tends to accent self-acceptance and to minimize sin, and this makes for an approach which subordinates a basic aspect of the message of Jesus -- his call to penitence. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" sounds archaic to modern ears.
Another form of polarization has to do with evangelism. Many if not most Christian leaders believe that evangelism in the sense of a call to Christian commitment is an essential part of Christian witness. One may rejoice that evangelism is not the bad word it was for a long time in many of the mainline churches. But, evangelism in what form? Here the cleavage appears. Some strongly support the efforts of Billy Graham, of the Campus Crusade for Christ, or other such mass appeals. Others believe that the Christian witness is borne best in the ongoing work of the churches and through small groups, retreats, or other gatherings directed toward personal growth in the Christian life.
Still another form of polarization which has recently swung into prominence is centered in the charismatic movement. At its best, this movement accents the reality and the work of the Holy Spirit -- God present with us for guidance, for comfort, and for strength -- which is basic to any true or effective Christian experience. But the movement does not stop at this point. In some forms it so stresses the baptism of the Spirit as a gift granted to some but withheld from others that it easily runs into a ‘holier than thou" attitude which imperils the basic virtue of Christian humility. Again, it encourages speaking in tongues as the chief expression and even as the only evidence of the baptism of the Spirit. When it takes these turns, it is inevitably divisive.
The last form of polarization to which I shall call attention is in regard to forms of corporate worship. In the movement toward the renewal of the church and from the desire to make the churches relevant to the modern age, a good many innovative services have been introduced. Along with these, and apparently from a desire to accent the joyous rather than the austere aspects of Christian worship, celebration has become customary. When these newer forms of worship have reverence, dignity, and fitness, and when it is the greatness and glory of God that is celebrated rather than the worshiper’s own exuberance, there is much to commend them. Too often these requirements are not met and under the guise of worship they become forms of lively entertainment, perhaps appropriate elsewhere but hardly so in the sanctuary of a church. Confession of sin or a call to penitence is rarely expressed. Informality reigns. Polarization emerges between the exponents of novelty and those who wish to retain at least the central aspects of traditional worship.
What shall we do about these divisions? It is obvious that the churches are weakened when some members withdraw or withhold their moral and financial support because they do not like what is being done or said by others. On the other hand, we cannot force everybody into one mold. In a pluralistic society of which the churches are a part, we cannot expect all to think alike, and the very fact that the thinking is in religious terms gives it a force it might not otherwise have. Dogmatism, like despotism, is unhealthy wherever it appears. But so are divisions of opinion which breed personal animosities and weaken what should be the shared witness of the Christian gospel. Can we not find a cause great enough to bring us together across the gaps?
This could be found in a renewed devotion to the kingdom of God. In all of this social and religious upheaval, where is our concern for the kingdom? There is general agreement that it was the central message of Jesus. Why is it not central today? In the conventional forms of worship, the Lord’s Prayer is still said. Other than that, one could attend a good many services of Christian worship without hearing the kingdom mentioned. Basic elements are there in both social and personal religion, but the connection is seldom spelled out. Further attention to this theme with its bearing on the problems of our life together might make for better living and for stronger churches.
4. In the adventist sects
How fares the kingdom of God in the adventists sects? There are too many of these to discuss in any detail. Furthermore, adventism is not limited to the sects, but is found in the conservative churches and the fundamentalist corps of the mainline churches. It is based on a literalist interpretation of the apocalyptic literature of the Bible, particularly that of Daniel and Revelation, in which various texts and passages are quoted as containing hidden or overt meanings and prophecies which validate belief in an anticipated second coming of Christ in our time, and with it the coming of the kingdom of God. The apocalyptic sayings of Jesus are much quoted, but others are cited to establish the time as being in the very near future. In general, the thought centers in a cosmic conflict between God and Satan, with the world having become so corrupt that only divine intervention to end the present regime and usher in a new one will avail to change it. There is, accordingly, little trust in human social action, but great confidence that human ills can be corrected for the faithful by the bliss that will follow the cataclysmic, yet glorious, coming of the kingdom of God.
The best known and the largest of these groups are the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The former, an outgrowth of the zeal of William Miller in the 1840s, may now be considered more as a church than a sect. It carries on mission work in most of the countries of the world, has hospitals, colleges, and other schools in many lands, and has done much for the amelioration of human suffering as well as for the propagation of its faith. It is hardly typical of the usual adventist position. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a clearer example and will be discussed further. There are too many forms of adventism to examine all of them in any detail.
It is not difficult to discover what the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe, for their faithful witnesses -- usually neatly dressed young people -- come frequently to our doors distributing the periodicals Awake! and The Watchtower and seeking the opportunity to come in and give a Bible lesson. I have a number of copies of these before me as I write. Awake! is said by its publishers to be the most widely read news magazine in the world, published in 29 languages in more than 200 countries with 7,500,000 copies of each issue.3 During 1973, 41 "Divine Victory" assemblies were held in 38 cities of the world, with many thousands often in attendance and a total of 39,313 baptisms of new members. The contemporary influence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not to be taken lightly!
But what do we observe from this literature? First, take a look at a four-page brochure distributed by the millions. It is entitled, "Is Time Running Out For Mankind?" Two pages present evidence that the answer is yes. World wars, massive famines, disease epidemics, violent crimes, and global pollution increasing since 1914 mark that year as the beginning of the last days foretold by Bible prophecy. On the fourth page is the arresting caption, which could cause one to shudder but is designed to induce rejoicing, "You can be happy that so little time is left." This statement is defended by the promise to "honest-hearted" persons that with the coming of God’s kingdom in the near future there will be lasting peace, eternal life without sickness, no more crime and hunger, and the earth will be a delightful home. 4
This in essence is adventist belief, though elaborated else where with accounts of the anticipated divine victory in the last great battle with Satan at Armageddon. But why 1914 as the beginning of the last days? And why this generation? Social changes for the worse are stated to corroborate the woes predicted in Matthew 24:7-29, Mark 13:6-24, and Luke 21:10-26. But the chronology is determined by an ingenious use of other Bible passages. The year 607 B.C. is taken as the date of the fall of Jerusalem to the forces of Nebuchadnezzar, though modern scholarship places this event in 587 B.C. In Revelation 12:6 the woman who had borne a male child that would rule all nations fled into the wilderness and was nourished there for 1,260 days. Again in verse 14 she is referred to as being nourished "for a time, and times, and half a time." What the author was probably referring to in these cryptic words is divine protection of the persecuted church in the last decade of the first century when the book was written to sustain the faithful What the Jehovah’s Witnesses do with it is to take "a time" to mean a year, and add these periods of 1,260 days and three and a half years to make seven years, or 2,520 days. In Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:5, 6 God’s punishment is meted out on the basis of "a day for each year." Count the time from 607 B.C. to A.D. 1914, called the Gentile Times, and it comes close to 2,520 years!
But how are we to understand the word of Jesus, "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place" (Matt. 24:34)? The answer is that those who were living in 1914 are dead or getting old and cannot live much longer. The second coming will occur before this generation ends. 5
A more erudite presentation of adventism is found in a book that has had an enormous sale since its publication in 1970, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth.6 Many passages are cited from the Bible, regardless of their historic setting and context, as prophecies that the end of the world is coming soon. The author makes much of the seven years of Revelation 11:2,3 as a countdown period, or time of tribulations, which will inaugurate the end. But instead of 1914, it is the return of the Jews to their homeland that is the signal, and this generation begins in 1948. There they will rebuild the temple and turn in large numbers to Christ. There they will be assailed, and the last great battle will take place, and current events are leading up to it. Russia is Gog of the land of Magog. Egypt will suffer the terrible fate predicted by Isaiah in chapter 19. Japan and China are the kings of the East that imperil the world. The successor of Rome as the beast with ten horns of Daniel 7 is the European Common Market, and from this revived Roman Empire a future führer will emerge as Antichrist. The great harlot, Babylon, of Revelation 17 who will subvert the people is "one world religion," apostate and ecumenical, to which are added the idolatries of astrology, witchcraft, and drugs.
But what of the end? The author has it in two stages. The first will be the rapture, or translation -- he calls it "the ultimate trip" -- at the beginning of the seven years when many believers are suddenly caught up to meet Christ in the air. Then after Armageddon will come the Messiah, physically and visibly through the heavens to Mount Moriah from which he ascended, accompanied by "clouds of witnesses" in white robes returning in their immortal glorified bodies. "Perhaps the ‘sign of the Son of man’ will be a gigantic celestial image of Jesus flashed upon the heavens for all to see. This would explain how all men suddenly recognize who He is and see the scars from His piercing at the cross." 7
The reader is entitled to make what he will of this. Apparently many accept it. I for one believe that such a presentation is no service to one who desires to understand the great truths of the Bible or find firm foundations for his Christian faith. I believe, as do the adventists, that there is great need of commitment to Christ and a personal religion that will give hope in troubled times and withstand the evil, even demonic, forces abroad in our world. I believe that the future victory of God is basic to the meaning of the kingdom of God. But there must be another way to conceive these great verities.
5. Some other conceptions
Such literalism and fantastic imagery is not the only way to think of Christ’s return and the coming of the kingdom. Those readers who remember the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Evanston, Illinois, in 1954 -- the only one held thus far in the United States -- will recall the long debate which preceded it over the main theme, "Jesus Christ, the hope of the world." When this was chosen as its theme, most Americans apparently assumed that this was intended to accent the hope that Jesus, the center of Christian faith, could bring to a deeply divided and troubled world. An Advisory Commission of scholars of international standing, a few from America but more from Europe and two from the Orient, was chosen to trace out the theme’s implications. When they issued their first report, many Americans were dismayed to find a central emphasis given to the future return of Christ in glory -- an understanding of the Christian hope long since relegated to the sects. The discussion this aroused led the Commission in their second report to distinguish between biblical eschatology and crude apocalypticism, to give more attention to the risen and living Christ in the individual Christian person, and to point out the bearings of Christian hope as a stimulus to action in contemporary society. Yet the return of Christ was still affirmed, with a neat balance between being "in Christ" and "expecting Christ." So it remained in the third and final statement, but with a more extended, vital, and moving affirmation of the kingdom that now is, of having and hoping, and of the kingdom that is to come. Many, including myself, found agreement easier than with the preceding presentations.
In the form in which this coming kingdom was eventually delineated, as divine victory and the final consummation of Christ’s work on earth in both judgment and mercy, the biblical symbolism of Christ’s return becomes meaningful. The Commission refused completely to make any estimate of the time when this would take place, declaring that "when we attempt to calculate the nearness or the distance of His Kingdom we confuse that hope of which Jesus Himself provides the clear pattern. His whole concern was the fulfillment of God’s purpose rather than the satisfaction of man’s curiosity." As to the character of the kingdom that is to come, the Commission said, "We must here speak of matters which, in the nature of things, defy direct expression in explicit speech, matters for which the language of inspired imagination employed in the Scriptures is alone adequate, for these are things that can be discerned and communicated only by the Spirit." Several examples of this inspired imagination are cited. The pure in heart shall see God. Those who are now sons of God will receive the fullness of their inheritance as joint heirs with Christ. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. The dead will be raised incorruptible, receiving a body of heavenly glory. Blind eyes will see; deaf ears will hear; the lame will leap for joy; the captive will be freed. The knowledge of God will cover the earth. The Holy City will appear, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. The choir which no man can number will sing hallelujahs to the praise of the Eternal. All created things will be reconciled in the perfect communion of God with his people. "It is in such visions as these that the Spirit enables us to point to the splendor of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last days. It is towards this salvation that God guides us in hope. This hope is not seen, or it would not be hope; but it is promised to us as suffering, sinning, dying, and believing men. Therefore we wait for it with patience." 8
In the Assembly itself, not a great deal of reference was made to what had been wrought out so carefully after a three-year period of discussion. Yet some Americans in the mainline churches were emboldened by it to begin to speak about Christ’s second coming. As far as I have been able to observe, this mood has not lasted to any great extent. Part of the reason is that interest in the main theme and its formulation passed as the Assembly itself passed into history. Another reason is that in America, the second coming is so deeply embedded in apocalyptic literalism, with its pessimism about the present world and hopelessness about any action to improve it, that any affirmation about Christ’s return is bound to be identified with it. If one cannot affirm it to be understood on a deeper level, it may be better not to speak of a second coming but to accent Christ’s living and continuing presence.
A further factor is that concern about Christian hope has shifted among scholars and those reading their books to another angle --tangent to the kingdom of God but not directly centered in it. This goes by the general caption of the theology of hope. But besides the illuminating Theology of Hope by Jürgen Moltmann9 which introduced this trend in the 1960s, there are earlier but still recent trends which have claimed much attention: the process theology which looks to Alfred North Whitehead as its mentor and the evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin, with Christ as the Omega Point towards which the whole creation moves. Of late we have heard much of the theology of liberation. Interest in these approaches to the future is not inconsistent with concern about the kingdom of God, but neither are they directly focused on it. This may be the reason why less writing has been done on the kingdom in the past twenty years than was formerly the case.
It would not be appropriate for me at this point to go into detail about these developments -- had I the competence -- for each would require a book in itself, or at best a chapter, to do it justice. I have absorbed helpful insights from each of them, but must now try to say something of how the kingdom of God as I understand it might make a difference in the world and the churches of today.
6. Hope, demand, and victory
The kingdom of God is both hope and demand, both promise and duty. If either element is left out, it fails to be what our biblical faith affirms it to be.
Said Paul, "We are saved by hope" (Rom. 8:24 KJV). The RSV makes it more explicit, "For in this hope we were saved" (italics mine). Everybody needs hope to keep going effectively in the daily demands of living, for without it motivation, energy, and action bog down. But more undergirding and uplifting than any other is the hope that comes to us in the message of Christ, the hope of the kingdom of God.
Not as a matter of theory only but of practical application, this hope is what our present distraught, endangered, and morally unstable world needs most. An ancient seer said it in words that never wear out, "Where there is no vision the people perish" (Prov. 29:18 KJV). Again the RSV gives it a somewhat different turn, equally applicable to our age, "Where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint." Our society is largely without vision, which means without clear and adequate goals, and the result is rootlessness and instability. And there seems to be a dearth of prophets to point the way and inspire the vision. The vision both for personal living and a better society is to be found in the kingdom of God, provided we have the faith and the wisdom to find it.
But hope is not all we need. Look again at what we found in surveying the parables of Jesus, and in every one of them is a demand. We need to sense the supreme worth of the kingdom, which in other words means the supreme worth of love which is the essence of the kingdom’s demands. We need to meet the conditions of entrance into the kingdom, of which penitence, humility, and trust are primary. Life in the kingdom is a life of obedience to God and of service in love to God and to one another. The parables of growth are promises of fruitage given by God, but also injunctions to fidelity. The parables of judgment tell us something we ought never to forget -- that the righteous God of goodness and love demands righteousness of his people, and we cannot sin with impunity.
If such hope is available and such demands are to be taken seriously, the churches have a message worth proclaiming -- one about which they ought never be silent. Hope is given us through the grace of God with divine forgiveness and the purging and strengthening of the inner life. But social action to "proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,’’ we must certainly engage in. We must engage in it with a hope grounded in more than our human efforts and a response of the whole person to the call of God as the Holy Spirit shows us the way. Such a sense of mission may not eliminate all the forms of polarization in the churches, but it can go far toward bringing us to a greater unity and a more fruitful service to God and a needy world.
But how do the hope and the demands of the kingdom meet? And, once more, what is the kingdom of God? We found earlier that the three basic meanings drawn from the message of Jesus are God’s universal and eternal kingly rule, the kingdom as an experience in personal life with obligations of service in love, and the kingdom as God’s ultimate victory over evil in the final fulfillment of his purposes. Let us look a little further at each of these.
Without the sovereign, kingly rule of God over his world there would be no kingdom. In our day, when not many kings are left in the political orbit, the force of this term has tended to recede. But if we recognize that a king does not have to be a despot ruling tyrannically, kingly rule still has appropriate meaning. It means power, stability, a center of unity, a bulwark to the nation and hence to the people within it. The people of Jesus’ time wanted a king like David to throw off the oppressor; Jesus taught them to put their trust in a different kind of king. In its most elemental meaning the kingdom of God means kingship, the just, righteous, and loving rule of God over his world.
But rule implies power. Can power and goodness meet in the God of Christian faith? This is an age-old question brought sharply to the fore by the tragic elements in modern life. We hear much of "the silence of God," and Jacques Ellul, a distinguished French lay theologian, has written a book entitled Hope in Time of Abandonment in which he presents evidence from the state of society and the church that God seems at least temporarily to have turned his back on the world. 10 Others hold that it is against the claims of reason to believe in the personal God of supreme love and power such as Jesus worshipped and served. This mood has had its effect in theology, and while few theologians go so far as to accept the death-of-God position, there is a movement away from a transcendent God of kingly power to an immanent spirit or process moving in man and the natural world.
There is some ground for these positions. In particular, the process theology, which conceives of God as working in tenderness and love to overcome the recalcitrant elements of evil and advance the world process by a continuous creation, is consistent with basic notes in Christian faith. Yet there is no adequate substitute for the New Testament understanding of God as both Creator and Redeemer, ruling his world in both power and love, offering to mankind both judgment and mercy, and affording a ground of security and hope for both present and future, for this world and for an ongoing life after death. The problem of evil is indeed serious, and I have indicated my views on this question in conjunction with the providence of God in another book.11 This is not the place to go into it at length. Yet a brief summary of my position may be in order.
Turning to atheism because of the world’s evil is no solution to the problem; for we are then left without explanation of the mystery of the good and the marvel of the intricate order and harmony of the world of nature. Asked to "count your many blessings, name them one by one" as the old hymn puts it, most people could find things to be thankful for -- events, circumstances, persons -- experiences that have yielded happiness. If systematized these would fall into three main types: the beauty, sustenance, and orderliness of nature on which our lives depend; social relations in the family, community, nation, and all our past which have nourished and fashioned us; and, less obviously but essentially, the human capacity of thought, feeling, and will by which to live and act as morally responsible beings.
These are gifts of the Creator. It is these relationships which give us security and happiness; it is these which can also cause suffering and, in the misuse of our freedom, sinning also. The one possibility necessitates the other. Then the suffering and sinning of individuals and groups cause it in others, for as the Bible puts it we are "bound in the bundle of life" (I Sam. 25:29).
We are not to suppose that God wills suffering and sin, and there is much pain which is not the result of sin. Yet there is suffering which is incurred as a result of defiance of the laws of God imbedded in the structure of the world, for there is both a physical and a moral order which cannot be trifled with. This is one form of the judgments of God. Another is the inner deterioration of personality that results from persistent self-centeredness and sinning. Both are very prevalent in our time. But though judgment and mercy are two sides of the divine rulership, it is not the will of God that pain and sin persist. We are called to work with him for their elimination.
Most of the world’s evil is caused by the misuse of human freedom, either overtly or through indifference. We ought, therefore, not to say that God causes it. But why does not God intervene to stop it? Not through divine weakness, but through his self-limitation in having chosen to make a world with the great boons that have been indicated. We are to be God’s servants in the eradication of its evils.
This we know by faith and the experience of the ages, that God cares about our sin and suffering, seeks to redeem us from it, and whatever our plight, God will see us through if we will give him the opportunity. God never abandons us, though we may abandon him. Doubtlessly many readers can recall, as I do, dark experiences which we would not have chosen, but from which God has taught us much.
The High and Holy One who is vastly more than ourselves is also intimately near and ever moving within his world to sustain it and ourselves. This is the essence of the hope engendered by the rulership of the God who is both Creator and Redeemer. Nowhere have I seen this better stated than in the closing words of a great book, God’s Grace and Man’s Hope, by a great Christian and theologian, Daniel Day Williams. These words speak to me:
There is no situation in which the Christian cannot find meaning and hope. There is no social wrong which need remain unattacked, unmitigated, unreformed. There is no private desperate struggle with anxiety and bitterness and failure which cannot yield new hope when we discover that God does not leave us forsaken. But those who know this, while they are released to spend themselves in doing what needs to be done, live with a certain divine carelessness concerning earthly fortunes. Their hope sees beyond the years and they live in this demanding present under the everlasting assurance of God’s love.12
God’s rule is universal and timeless, and "though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet." But what of the kingdom in the present, among us here and now? I do not find the phrase "to enter the kingdom" being used much these days, discussion of the kingdom being centered mainly on the future when such discussion is carried on. Yet there is good biblical justification for such a present reference, and much meaning in it.
It is not necessary to accept in full the position of "realized eschatology" to believe that Jesus felt himself to have a special mission from God in ushering in the kingdom, and, furthermore, that the kingdom was present in and among his followers. There are numerous passages to support both of these conclusions, or a blend of the two. "The kingdom of God is upon you; repent, and believe the Gospel" (Mark 1:15 NEB). After the citation in the Nazareth synagogue of the words of Isaiah which Jesus took as defining his mission, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21). "But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’’ (Matt. 12:28). Luke puts this more graphically, "by the finger of God" (Luke 11:20).
The most crucial of all these passages is the briefest, "The kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Luke 17:21). It is often said that the KJV misconstrued it as "The kingdom of God is within you," this indicating that the kingdom is an inner experience among Christ’s followers whereas it refers to Jesus’ presence as the kingdom-bearer. Undoubtedly the RSV translation is the more accurate, but I doubt that the meaning is changed so radically. There are many passages elsewhere in which Jesus calls his followers to enter the kingdom in the present, and these suggest an inward spiritual change. We found them repeatedly in the parables, and they appear elsewhere, twice with a specific reference to the kingdom in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3, 10), in the injunction of Matthew 6:33 to "seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness," in the linkage of entrance to the kingdom with doing the will of the Father in Matthew 7:21, in the striking hyperbole of the rich man, the camel, and the needle’s eye in Matthew 19:23, 24. One of the very few references in John to the kingdom is that in which Jesus says to Nicodemus, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (3:5).
With this profusion of evidence, with the passages consistent with Jesus’ primary message and too many of them to be likely to be due to false reporting, I do not hesitate to regard entrance into the kingdom as a present fact in the life of the Christian, provided the requirements of entrance and life in the kingdom are met. But this is a large proviso which requires some describing.
What does it mean in our time to enter the kingdom of God? It cannot mean moral perfection, for no person has it. It cannot mean sinlessness in the community of Christ’s followers, the church, for all the churches are made up of finite, fallible, and sinning persons even though some of these may be saints. Even if it is held that Christ’s true church, "the mystical Body of Christ," is sinless, there is no existing, visible church of which this can be said. 13 It cannot mean any existing segment of society, for while some, at least to human eyes, seem nearer the kingdom than others, none is without flaw or fully Christlike.
But the case is not hopeless. To enter the kingdom of God the Christian way is to make such a commitment to Christ that, by the grace of God that has come to us in Christ and the pattern of life put before us by Jesus, life is transformed. This has occurred in vast numbers of people, and at least in some of them the fruits are so visible that there can be no doubt about the fact of life being transformed.
Love is the central requirement of Christian living. "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things," says Paul. It is not required of Christian love to bear all things when evil ought to be resisted, or to believe all things when false ideas, beliefs, or rumors are circulated. Yet to bear rather than strike back in anger or hate, to believe rather than engage in groundless suspicion or attack, to hope rather than give in to despair, to endure rather than surrender to difficult circumstances -- these are requirements that test the Christian’s commitment. Our lives have been blest by people who to a high degree meet these requirements, and such persons are the clearest witness to the meaning of the kingdom of God in our time.
To enter the kingdom as a follower of Christ is to find through the Holy Spirit wisdom, strength, and guidance for living; comfort in sorrow; hope in adversity; outreach in service to others; and an abiding sense of the forgiving and sustaining presence of God. It requires of us penitence, trust, and resolute endeavor. Though it is not without effort on the human side, it is not due to a manipulation of feelings or to good works, but to the grace of God accepted in grateful fidelity.
This is personal religion. But it must not stop with the individual or his immediate surroundings. It must fruit in action to challenge and overcome the evils of society with its poverty, ignorance and disease, its wars and destructive conflicts, its prejudice, oppression, chicanery and quest for profit and power, its insensitivity to the deep needs of persons. Though the power of each individual to remedy these gigantic evils is limited, there is something everybody can do. The first requirement is to avoid contributing to them. A second is to "stand up and be counted" for one’s convictions, and thus help to mold public opinion toward a more just and humane society.
The kingdom of God in the present, as I have tried to outline it in consistency with the message of Jesus, could make a great difference in our churches, and through them in society, if it were taken more seriously. It could go far toward overcoming the polarizations that have been cited. It could overcome the debilitating chasm between personal and social religion. It. could make evangelism the central concern that it ought to be in any church, but far more than an appeal to sign a card, come forward in a meeting, or become in an external sense a church member. It could make the current interest in the Holy Spirit, long overdue, a life-transforming matter with the manifestation of the fruits of the Holy Spirit in all of life. It could supply the hunger of the soul for spiritual disciplines without having to turn to the Eastern religions. It could immensely further the renewal of the churches, whether in worship or in many other matters, by injecting a new spirit, and this could alleviate the need to look for new gimmicks to make the churches relevant to the modern age. Deep-rooted Christian experience, which is what the kingdom of God in the present essentially means, is relevant to any period in time.
We must look now at the kingdom of God in the future, which is the most difficult and divisive of the three approaches that we are considering. The first thing to be said is that we cannot speak about it with precision, for it is a matter of the ultimate, and our finite minds cannot penetrate the ultimate. Paul said it for us when he wrote, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him’’ (I Cor. 2:9 KJV). He then says that God has revealed them to us by the Spirit. I take this to mean that through the Spirit we know enough for hope and trust and victorious living, which is all we really need to know. But it still remains true that "we see in a mirror dimly" within this human earthbound scene.
Yet our minds can form a judgment of the path to be followed in arriving at our limited knowledge of the future kingdom. The principal paths that have been followed are an apocalyptic, cataclysmic, second coming to put an end to the present world and the prophetic or social gospel kingdom that has accented the conquest of earth’s evil by human effort to increase love and justice in response to God’s call. These have been discussed earlier but need to be evaluated further in the light of the contemporary situation.
In chapter 3 I stated several reasons why I find difficulty in the apocalyptic view, though it needs to be reemphasized that one may have an eschatology that is not apocalyptic. To summarize, to literalize the apocalyptic passages in the New Testament, is to run counter to all we know of astronomy and the world of space; they are tied in with the then-current Jewish eschatology and Persian dualism which saw evil in command of creation; as commonly accepted, they encourage passivity about the evils of the present world; they emphasize only one side of the message of Jesus to the exclusion of essential elements; they are grounded at least in part on a misconstruction of biblical poetry and drama. I believe these to be persuasive considerations and have illustrated their effects earlier in this chapter by citing some forms of contemporary adventism.
Yet I respond with my whole being to Handel’s Messiah and especially to its "Hallelujah Chorus," the most stirring piece of music ever composed. It is not by accident that to listen to it is to bring us to our feet! In the language of inspired imagination that speaks in the present but foresees by faith the future we too can say with the seer of Patmos:
Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
King of kings, and Lord of lords. Hallelujah! (Rev. 19:6;11:15;19:16).
This I believe to the point of certainty. But I do not attempt to define its nature. To do so would be human presumption, perhaps blasphemy. Were I to attempt it, the vision would fade away.
This points to a crucial aspect of the matter that often becomes blurred in discussion of it. The return of Christ is not identical with the coming of the kingdom. The closing words of Matthew’s Gospel are, "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." As the risen and living Christ, the promised Comforter, Advocate and Helper, Jesus Christ is here. He is with us and will be to the end of time. He needs only to be welcomed into human lives and his message made regnant in the world’s affairs.
So I align myself more nearly with the social gospel kingdom. But I do not go along fully with the earlier forms of it. That view moved in the right direction but was in trouble at a deeper level. When it did not fall into a secular utopianism, which its most discerning Christian exponents never did, it nevertheless tended to rely too much on human effort and not to lay enough stress on divine grace for the conquest of evil. It needed the counterchallenge which neo-orthodoxy brought to it, even as the latter needed in turn to be reminded that it was underestimating what human nature could be and do when put at the disposal of God.
As events have developed since the waning of both the older liberalism and of neo-orthodoxy, the state of society has moved in opposite directions. What is accented most is the growth of international conflict and domestic tension, crime and immorality, economic instability, personal tension and rootlessness, and withal a deep despair -- in short, the arrival of "future shock." Were neo-orthodoxy still around, it would have plenty of evidence to refute what it viewed as the overly optimistic assumptions of liberalism. However, the trek has been to new forms of atheism or humanism, to adventism, and to a substitution of the occult and of Eastern forms of meditation for Christian worship.
But the picture has another side. As was suggested earlier, those born near the turn of the century have seen within it amazing advances -- not only in science, technology, and increased knowledge, but in the conquest of disease with the prolongation of life, an increase in the recognition of race and sex equality with accompanying legal steps; manifold ministries of welfare to the poor, the young, and the elderly; a growing concern for civil rights in many of its facets. To these developments here may be added abroad the retreat of colonialism and the advance of developing nations toward autonomy and importance in the world scene. All this might be summed up by saying that we have a far greater sense of the dignity and worth of personhood than was present in any earlier day.
Is the world getting better or worse? Sociologically, this is a futile question, for there have been great changes in both directions. What one accents will depend on one’s own experiences, temperament, and general outlook on the world. Neither assured progress nor disruptive decay is fully in evidence.
What one can say in the midst of a complex and changing world is that it is still God’s world, and God is still working for good within it. The process theology is the most promising theological current of our time, and it does not claim that all process is progress. Continuous creation must take place at times against heavy odds. Yet with Professor A. N. Whitehead it believes in God as working through "the tender elements of the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love." 14 I accept this view though not on the basis of Whitehead whom I have never understood very well. I accept it because I believe it to be in keeping with the picture and message of Jesus that I find in the New Testament.
If anyone is concerned to label my theological position, I have always considered myself to be an evangelical liberal, and still do. Regardless of labels, I believe that the creating and redeeming God has greater things yet in store for the fulfillment of his purposes upon this planet. The final form his victory over evil will take is not within my province to predict. It is difficult to envisage, because of the depth and power of human sin, that God’s kingdom will ever fully come on earth, but I do not rule out the possibility. When we speak of the end, the word can mean either goal or termination, and the goal is what most immediately affects us, provided we can view it with hope. If the victory comes as a new heaven and a new earth, then the best description we can give of it is in the words of scripture, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more." (Rev. 21:3, 4)
I have not dealt with the death and afterlife of the individual thus far in this book, though I have done so elsewhere at considerable length.15 The issues involved, though related, are not identical. But the mode of approach is the same. We can trust the loving kindness of God to give us what is best for us and our loved ones in the realm beyond bodily death without an exact description of its nature. We need not abandon hope in eternal life, though we accept it by faith and not by sight. So by faith in the power and the goodness of God as God has come to us in Christ, we can know that our world and our destiny are in God’s hands and face the future with hope and anticipation.
1. The Modern Rival of Christian Faith (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952), chapter 6.
2. Stated by Dr. Alan Walker of Sydney, Australia in an address at the School of Theology at Claremont, Nov. 5, 1973.
3. Awake! Oct. 8, 1973, p. 31. The United Methodist Upper Room is published in more languages, but it is not a news magazine.
4. Nearly 130 million copies of this folder were distributed in 1973, and the placing of another folder in a half billion homes around the world was projected for 1974 The Watchtower, Oct. 15, 1973, p. 635.
5. This summary of beliefs is taken from the Oct. 8, 1973 issue of Awake! pp 16-20.
6. Hal Lindsey with C. C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970). Republished in paperback by Bantam Books. By February, 1973, it had gone through twenty six printings, and had sold over two million copies.
7. Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth, p. 162.
8. Christ -- the Hope of the World: Documents on the Main Theme of the Second Assembly. (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1954), pp. 13, 11, 12.
9. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, trans. James W. Leitch (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).
10. Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment, trans. C. Edward Hopkin (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973).
11. The Providence of God (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960.) Republished as Does God Care? (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1974).
12. Daniel Day Williams, God's Grace and Man's Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1949), p. 197.
13. In ecumenical assemblies, especially the World Council of Churches, it has not been unusual for representatives of the Eastern Orthodox Church to withhold assent on this basis to statements which refer to the church as sinning.
14. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1929), p. 520.
15. Conflicts in Religious Thought, (New York: Holt, 1929; Harper, 1949), chapter 12; in the following books by the Abingdon Press, Understanding the Christian Faith, 1947, chapter 10; The Providence of God, 1960, chapter 8; Our Christian Hope, 1964, chapter 6; What Christians Believe, 1965, chapter 6; and in Beliefs That Count (Nashville: Graded Press, 1961), chapter 12.