The Muddled Kingdom Of God
By Michael Hakeem, Ph.D.

Last year, Easter was marked here by taking note of the "Last Days" and the "Second Coming." It was found that those ideas could not have been in a greater state of disarray, around them swirling vast and bitter controversy.

Another doctrine of Christianity, "the Kingdom of God," is talked about all the time, but Eastertime triggers particular interest in it because it is part of the baggage of ideas that includes the Resurrection, which is associated with the Second Coming, which in turn is related to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is the reason for Christ being. The whole drama of the belief system points to the establishment of the Kingdom. Harper's Bible Dictionary notes: "The central emphasis of Jesus' teaching is the Kingdom (or Reign) of God." The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia agrees: "According to all three Synoptics, the kingdom of God was the central theme of the teaching and preaching of Jesus." One biblical scholar has suggested that the Bible could very well be titled, "The Book of the Coming of the Kingdom of God."

From the pulpits, from the Sunday schools, from the adult Bible classes, and from the shrill urgency of the televangelists Christians drink deeply of the glory that is the Kingdom and learn the need to prepare for it, work for it, watch for it, and even sacrifice self for it. Publications galore are available to instill in believers a passion for the Kingdom. A recent one, The Magnificent Obsession, by the pastor of Dubuque (Iowa) Baptist Church, gives the flavor. He reminds believers that they have been appointed "to work and strive to advance God's kingdom above all else. Even if this means squeezing out the last drop of our sweat, blood, energy, time, and substance, this desire to advance God's kingdom is to be the consuming passion of every Christian: 'Seek first God's kingdom.'" He bemoans the fact that present-day Christians have lost the fire of the first Christians who "left home, family, and careers without regret." He proudly reports: "Torture and death brought praises of Christ to their lips." That kind of "passionate zeal" is rare today, he observes sadly. (He himself has chosen to stay with his family of wife and two children and to pursue his career, if his book's jacket is correct.)

What is this Kingdom of God in the service of which Jesus demands that followers should be ready to give their all, and for which many have willingly sacrificed their lives? The answer describes chaos. Turning to Jesus for edification will not help. He wasn't sure what he was talking about. So we are informed by Professor Steven L. Harris' college-level textbook, The New Testament: A Student's introduction: "Although the term 'kingdom' dominates his parables and other teachings throughout the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus nowhere defines what he means by it. His many separate uses of the term are not easy to harmonize into a coherent statement."

It is always helpful to turn to one of the most reliable, knowledgeable, and scrupulously objective scholars, and a real stickler for details, Professor C. H. Guignebert, who taught the history of Christianity at the Sorbonne for many decades. In his classic work, Jesus, Guignebert notes that "a bitter controversy has raged round the exact interpretation given by the Nazarene to the words 'the Kingdom of God.'" He says that each of the many conflicting views is accompanied by biblical passages in support of it. This is because "the gospels are a mingling of many different currents of ideas." Many of the pertinent biblical verses are not sufficiently clear to prevent diversity of interpretation. More than this, he concludes that "the ideas of Jesus himself varied, and he wavered between two not easily reconcilable tendencies." Guignebert reports that "certain writers [he has reference mostly to scholars like himself] think that the ideas of Jesus [about the Kingdom] are hopelessly confused."

Some will defend Jesus by contending, as does Richard P. McBrien, a Catholic theologian, that Jesus recognized that he did not need to give a definition because his listeners would know what he meant: "And they did. The Kingdom of God was an integral part of contemporary Jewish vocabulary." But this overlooks the fact that Jesus gave the Kingdom a radically new interpretation. As the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible points out: "Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God as an event taking place in his own person and mission. . . . No first-century Jew had any idea of the kingdom of God coming into history in the person of an ordinary man--a teacher who was meek and mild." In fact, his listeners were so little attuned to Jesus' meaning that they expressed shock and befuddlement when they heard his egomaniacal claims about the Kingdom.

This concept, which lies at the very heart of Christian doctrine and which makes the hearts of Christians beat excitedly and joyously, particularly at this season, is a morass of contradiction, controversy, confusion, uncertainty, and incoherence and a battleground for the interminable disputations of those who know most about it. This is hardly ever made known to the congregations by the clergy. It is certainly known to many of the writers of the treatises, commentaries, and textbooks. Only an unusual occupier of the pews can ever find the path leading away from the tie that binds and to the libraries wherein are stored those wonderful and mind-liberating fountains of disillusionment.

If Jesus himself didn't know what he was talking about, can the scholars and others be expected to know? The Encyclopedia Britannica observes that "widely different views have been held about Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom of God." Carl E. Braaten, Professor of Systematic Theology, admits that 'there is no consensus among contemporary theologians on how to interpret Jesus' expectation of the kingdom of God." Both quotes are understatements of the actual state of affairs.

What is the nature of the Kingdom of God? Would one know it if one encounters it? The International Standard Encyclopedia of the Bible, in a statement that is still too bland to capture the enormity of the muddle, says: "Scholars have differed about the basic meaning of the term, whether it covers an 'abstract' idea of God's rule or reign or a 'concrete' idea of the realm over which he will reign--in this case, the age to come." Both uses, it is said, appear in the New Testament.

H. Richard Niebuhr surveyed the use of the concept in American religious history. He found that it "meant different things in different eras." Professor C. Milo Connick, after acknowledging that Jesus never said what he meant by "the Kingdom of God," asserts that "its nature and nearness have become matters of heated dispute." He gives a sampling of widely discrepant usages. One is often treated to statements that are nothing short of stunning in their utter incoherence. This example is from theologian McBrien's Catholicism: "More precisely, the Kingdom of God is indistinguishable from God as such. The Kingdom is not something other than God. The Kingdom of God is God insofar as God is redemptively present and active in our midst through the power of the Holy Spirit." If "the Kingdom of God" is identical to "God as such" and, indeed, "is God," then why not just say "God" and discard "the Kingdom of God"?

Who is to usher in the Kingdom? Christians will say, "God." They don't know about the clergy who like to play God. A long history can be written about clergy and other Christians who made it their business to bring into being the Kingdom of God without waiting for God to do his thing. The "Social Gospel" movement, which was the rage around the turn of the century, is one example. It sought to create the Kingdom of God on earth in these times rather than waiting for the end times. Eschatological notions had little influence on it. It strove to improve social conditions, spread love everywhere, and better the lot of the disadvantaged. That accomplished would be the Kingdom of God.

The reconstructionists likewise see their mission as the establishment of the Kingdom of God here on earth in readiness for the Second Coming when Christ would take over. This entails Christianizing the whole world, getting the civil authorities to apply God's laws to every facet of life, and seeing to it that Christian thinking is the norm by which all things are judged.

The most rabid, arrogant, and dangerous proponents of the idea that it is the function of the church and its adherents to establish the Kingdom of God now here on earth are a number of thriving factions that have been lumped under the term, "New Charismatics." A leading one is headed by Bishop Earl Paulk, pastor of Chapel Hill Harvester Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He espouses "kingdom theology." He wants Christians to move boldly to accomplish what he says is the greatest task ever given to humankind--establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. He and other pastors who share his views (some are influential televangelists) urge believers to consider themselves "little gods" instead of "little people." Only if the church people start acting like "little gods," Paulk says, can they manifest the Kingdom of God. The church, he contends, must exercise stern dominion over all the earth until Christ returns. Bill Hamon, a pastor in the movement, has gone on record as saying that a pastor who does not join the new dispensation should be killed.

When is the Kingdom of God going to make its appearance? There is total disagreement among Christians. Some say the Kingdom is already here--Jesus established it at the First Advent and it is exclusively present; some say it is exclusively future; some say it is present and future, meaning it is partly here now but will be completed later. C. H. Dodd talks about "realized eschatology." He means that what was supposed to happen in the future (the Kingdom of God) has already happened. Eschatology was fulfilled at the incarnation of Christ. The future is present. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says: "For Dodd, the event that belongs at the end of history has happened in the midst of history." The commentator is not disturbed by this semantic derangement. He just reports it like it makes sense.

Only an inkling of the horrendous chaos that surrounds the doctrine of the Kingdom of God has been given.

It should be a matter of serious concern for the intellectual welfare of the society that a vast proportion of the population take the concept seriously rather than seeing it humorously.

Michael Hakeem, Ph.D. is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Wisconsin--Madison. He and his wife Helen are members of the Foundation's Executive Council and are regular volunteers at Freethought Hall.

This article is reprinted (with permission) from the April 1993 issue of Freethought Today, bulletin of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

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