Understanding the Kingdom of God
by Georgia Harkness


Why another book on the kingdom of God? Are there not already many of these on the library shelves? And is not this the most controversial subject in Christian theology, on which anything one says on a level beneath the surface will call forth disagreement? Granted. Yet it still seems to this author that there is a place for another book on this theme.

There is general agreement that the kingdom of God is at the heart of the message of Jesus. Try to extract it from the words recorded in the Synoptic Gospels as spoken by him, and nearly everything else goes with it. People may differ as to how to combine the apparently contradictory things on this subject ascribed to him, but nobody who reads the New Testament can doubt that the kingdom was at the center of the thinking and speaking of Jesus.

This fact alone should make the kingdom of God a matter of perennial importance. But in our time we can add the fact that while the secular world tends to look with suspicion on virtually every other element in Christian belief -- the existence of a personal God, the nature of man, the relevance of the church, sin and salvation, the future life, the Trinity -- Jesus himself is not in question. He is the center of faith and loyalty not only in the Jesus movement, but for many others who reject or by-pass the church yet find in his teachings of love and compassion the key to a better world. They may or may not speak about the kingdom, but if Jesus is central, so ought also to be the basic note in his message.

A further reason for exploring this subject is to relieve the vacuity present in connection with the words spoken on innumerable occasions, "Thy kingdom come," and "thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory." The Lord’s Prayer, in spite of the vogue of innovations, is still used almost universally in services of public worship. To many of us it is so familiar that we repeat it with our reflexes instead of with the mind and heart. But if challenged to say what this kingdom is for which we pray, many might be at a loss to give a reply.

It was mentioned above that many books on the kingdom of God have been written. This is true, but considerably more true of the first half of the twentieth century than of the period since that time. In the heyday of the liberal social gospel which occurred at the same time that form criticism and other important New Testament studies were making a fresh impact on Christian thought, the kingdom was considerably explored. Sometimes this was from the angle of the principles of Christian ethics believed to be derived from it, and again it centered on the attempt to explore the relations of apocalyptic to prophetic thought in the message of Jesus. As the social gospel came to be regarded as an aberration of liberal theology, discussion of the kingdom from this standpoint was interrupted. This demise was hastened by the rise of neo-orthodoxy, but has lasted beyond the neo-orthodox period into the present. The angle of New Testament criticism remained, but has taken a new turn toward the validity of the second coming and other aspects of a futuristic kingdom.

The watershed is to be found in the 1950s. Though no single event produced it, it came into focus in the ecumenical discussion of "Jesus Christ, the hope of the world," the main theme of the Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1954. As three years of discussion by the preparatory commission on the main theme were summarized in successive releases, many Americans discovered to their surprise that the second coming of Christ, which they supposed had been relegated to the Pentecostals and other biblical literalists, was an active concern of eminent European theologians and the keynote in their understanding of the kingdom. Gradually, American thought became adjusted to the idea that when divested of its cruder settings, the return of Christ as the consummation of the kingdom needed to be taken seriously.

In recent years there has been a significant upturn of interest in the theology of hope. Two German theologians, Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenburg, have been most influential in this field. It has become prominent in American thinking as well, whether grounded in the Bible or in process theology. The theology of hope is of great importance and is related to the kingdom as a deduction from it. Yet it is not a substitute for an inclusive understanding of the kingdom. Furthermore, hope is not the only basic note in the meaning of the kingdom. This involves judgment as well as hope and calls for obedience and commitment in every aspect of Christian living.

From the standpoint of popular appeal, hope is a legitimate desire and is something that everybody needs and ought to be able to have. This is less acknowledged in current society in regard to other central aspects of the kingdom. Judgment is not a popular mood in today’s world where the prevailing quest is for self-enjoyment, or at most for self-fulfillment, within congenial social relations. Obedience and commitment to the will of God are called for in "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." But such obedience and commitment are always costly with faith and love as the central requirements of the kingdom. Can these be judged as the dominant notes in today’s world? Hardly.

We come then to the basic reason for the writing of this book. Most of the writings about the kingdom of late are of an academic nature, trying to discern from the biblical foundations a view which the author regards as the true one. This is important, and the present author will draw upon these studies to try to clarify and, in a measure, evaluate them. Our faith must rest upon true foundations as far as we can discern them. But this is not the main reason this project is undertaken. The reason lies in the spiritual hunger which is evident beneath the spiritual chaos and lack of compelling purpose in our time.

This spiritual hunger appears in many recent developments. We see it in the Jesus movement, the charismatic revival with its speaking in tongues, the growth in conservative churches while others decline in numbers and influence, the turn toward Eastern meditative cults, the upsurge once more of belief in an imminent second coming of Christ to put an end to the distresses of our time. All these moods and movements give hope and assurance to some people. What is lacking in them is a clear understanding of the life-giving personal and social relevance of the kingdom of God. This gives hope; it calls for repentance and offers renewal; it demands obedience to the will of God; it summons us to love one another. Nothing is more needed in our time or in any other.

Instead of waiting for somebody else to write the book that I believe is needed, I decided to undertake it. The first chapter will assess the dilemma we are in. Then, the second will be a rapid survey of the movement of thought in this matter in the twentieth century. I have lived through much of it either as an observer or participant, and this should lend some perspective. Four major types of kingdom theory are reviewed with an attempt at their evaluation.

Chapter 3 will present the author’s own understanding of the kingdom of God. This might logically be deferred until after the grounds for holding it are presented, but it is placed here so that if the reader desires, he may compare it with the positions surveyed in the previous chapter.

The next two chapters present these grounds by way of following the injunction to search the Scriptures. Their aim is to examine as closely as possible what Jesus believed about the kingdom when he made it his central message. Chapter 4, entitled "The Kingdom Before and After Jesus," looks at the origins of this concept in the Old Testament and the intertestamental period and then at what was made of it in the early church. Chapter 5, "The Kingdom in the Parables," examines these as the primary source of our knowledge of the basic message of Jesus.

The last two chapters turn from theological analysis and biblical study to the relations of these to the individual Christian and to the message and the service of the churches in the present world. Hence, they deal with the difference a better understanding of the kingdom might make in strengthening hope and courage, overcoming divisive forms of polarization in the churches, and redirecting action toward greater human good. The final chapter sums up what the Christian may believe, not with precise knowledge but with reasonable assurance, about life after death and the future coming of the kingdom, with the relationship between these two grounds of hope.

The author makes no claim to have said the authoritative word in any of these disputed, but vitally important, issues. This is simply the outcome of one person’s lifetime of thinking. But if the book moves Christians and their churches a step toward clarity, understanding, and effectiveness of action, it will have served its purpose.