Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Druchesis VIII: The Kingdom

Introduction: The Kingdom of God

And now we come to the end. Not the end of our series, since we will next discuss the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments in accordance with the catechetical tradition. And not the end of the story, for the good news of the gospel is that the end is just the beginning. Rather, we come to the end of God: the end for which God created the world. At the conclusion of the creed we speak of the fulfillment of God's purposes, God's "end" in the teleological sense of the word. And so we come to eschatology: the doctrine of last things.

The term "eschatology" can be a bit misleading, for talk of "last things" seems to locate these things as merely the last in series of similar things. But nothing could be further from the truth, for these things are not "things" like other things that just happen to come last. These things are final consummation of God's own purposes, the culmination of creation and redemption. These things are the fullness of all things, a fullness initiated and achieved and revealed by God himself. And so eschatology does not engage in "futurology," wherein we predict facts about the future in order to generate beliefs akin to the beliefs so far expresses in the creed. Rather, eschatology is theology, a form of God-talk. Specifically, it is theological teleology: reflection on God's own purposes revealed in Jesus Christ and promised in the Holy Spirit. So it does not speak last things as much as it speaks of the Last One: God himself from the perspective of his final purposes.

The category around which we can best organize reflection on God's purposes is the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a (if not the) pervasive theme in Scripture. It is the expectation of Israel, the content of Jesus's preaching and activity, and the driving hope of the Christian community. Kingdom-language has a comprehensiveness to it that avoids exclusively futuristic talk of last things. Kingdom-language teaches us to think eschatologically not only about eschatology itself but also about all theological topics -- seeing all things from the perspective of God's coming reign. In fact, we have been thinking this way all along in this series, for we have spoken of faith in terms of the story of God with us. God's story is not a pointless meandering adventure but a purposeful narrative with a beginning, middle and end. The mission of God with us has a purpose. The Father sends his Son in the power of the Spirit in order that all things might be reconciled to him and in him. So missional narrative theology, at least of the sort exemplified in this series, is eschatological theology. It is theological thinking that takes its bearings from God's kingdom purposes.

So, if the kingdom is the key to theology in general and eschatology in particular, what is it? What is the kingdom of God? Well, there are a lot of ways to define the kingdom of God: it is God's realm, God's effective presence, God's people in submission to him, God's own heavenly space, etc. Although strict definitions are seldom helpful in crucial theological matters, a strict definition of God's kingdom is particular difficult to come by. Why? Because God's kingdom is by definition undefinable. As Jesus's kingdom parables attest, God's kingdom is unpredictable. It is full of surprises. This is precisely because it is God's kingdom: the fulfillment of his work of creation and redemption and therefore the surplus beyond what is inherent in the created order. The kingdom is the transcendent purpose of God for his world. And so it exceeds expectations and detailed descriptions. That is why a strict definition is not the way to go.

Does this mean we have nothing to say about the kingdom? Certainly not! We can still point to the kingdom. We can pick it out. How? Well, instead of a strict definition of what the kingdom is, we can begin to understand the kingdom in terms of what it is not. Now I don't mean just saying a bunch of stuff it isn't. Saying the kingdom of God is not a banana, though accurate, doesn't reveal much. Rather, I am suggesting that we gesture at the kingdom by speaking of in terms of its relations. You may recall this is how we speak of the trinitarian persons: they are identified by their opposing relations. An analogous procedure may be helpful here. In the case of the kingdom, we pick it out by its relation to the church and to the world.

On the one hand, the kingdom is not the church. The kingdom cannot be equated with the church. The church seeks to live in light of the kingdom, but it is not itself God's kingdom. The kingdom is more than the church: God has more in store for the world than it merely joining the church. The kingdom cannot be sacralized. We often forget this, thinking that building the church simply is building the kingdom. But it is never that simple. Remember Alfred Loisy's famous quote from last week : "Jesus preached the kingdom, but the church came instead." We already pointed out one of the layers of irony in this quote. Another of those layers is the blunt reminder for the church to preach not itself but the kingdom of God. In other words, the kingdom is not the church.

On the other hand, the kingdom is not the world. The kingdom cannot be equated with the world as it is, or even the best parts of the world. The world is waiting for the in-breaking of God's kingdom, and there are certainly signs of the kingdom popping up in the world outside the walls of the church. But the kingdom is more than the world: God has more in store for the world than simply sustaining its best features. God's kingdom will transform this world, and so transcends this world. The kingdom cannot be secularized. Even as the church becomes more missional by learning to look beyond its own institutional life for the work of God in this world, it must not become so enamored with the world so as to think that the kingdom is the world. God's hope for the world surpasses even the world's own best hopes. The kingdom is not the world.

Having picked out God's kingdom in relation to the church and the world, we can begin to fill out our picture of God's kingdom. We will draw our content from the promises of God confirmed by and revealed in the resurrection of Jesus. We will structure this content around the language of the classic creeds: the kingdom is "the life of the world to come," "the resurrection of the body," and "the life everlasting." In other words, the kingdom of God is (1) New Creation, (2) Resurrection, and (3) Eternal Life.

(1) New Creation

The kingdom of God is the re-creation of the world. It is thus analogous to the creative work of God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. The kingdom of God is the new heavens and the new earth. It is new creation. Now the language of new creation is unfortunately not found in the Apostles' Creed, but it is implied in the last line of the Nicene Creed: "the life of the world to come." The reference to "world" (Greek: cosmos) gives us a sense of the big picture. We begin with this cosmic dimension in order to place our talk of personal destiny in its proper context. Christian hope is not just about individual life-after-death. Although it is included within eschatology, my individual destiny is not the whole story or even the central point. When personal hope is made the central point, eschatology all too easily becomes escapism. Rather, our personal hope fits within the larger story of God. The kingdom of God is the renewal of all things, the marriage of heaven and earth, the fulfillment of God's creative purposes. The kingdom of God does not replace but transforms God's good creation. This promise of transformation is revealed by Jesus, whose creatureliness is affirmed in his resurrection from the dead. And so here at the end we confirm what we have said from the beginning: that creation and redemption are positively related. Redemption is the fulfillment of creation. Redemption is new creation.

By affirming the positive relationship between creation and redemption, we run immediately into a problem. How does this transformation occur? Is it a gradual sort of thing, or does it happen all at once? Or, to put the question in eschatological terms, when does this transformation occur? Has it already begun, or is it still to come? There is certainly Scriptural evidence in favor of both sides. The kingdom comes like a thief in the knight, yet it also works like yeast in the dough. The kingdom is to come, yet is it already advancing violently.

What shall we do with this temporal tension in the New Testament? Some have tried to resolve it one way or the other. On one end of the spectrum, Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer famously spoke of a thoroughgoing eschatology, found especially in the teachings of the historical Jesus. This meant that the kingdom was for Jesus absolutely future, so that any talk of a present kingdom in the New Testament were later developments designed to deal with the disappointment surrounding Jesus's death and/or his delay in returning. Though Schweitzer considered this feature problematic, some theologians (such as Rudolf Bultmann and the early Karl Barth) attempted to make use of this perspective in their theology. The emphasis here is on the discontinuity between creation and redemption: God will redeem creation by his own radically new act. The advantage here is the critical limit set on all idolatrous claims to build the kingdom today. The disadvantage is that this view tends to empty history of its significance.

On the other end of the spectrum, C. H. Dodd famously spoke of a realized eschatology, in which the kingdom has already come. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, all things are fulfilled, including Jesus's own prophetic predictions. All that is left is the proclamation and expansion of this kingdom. Such an approach is often adopted by theologians to support either a high view of the church or a secularized kingdom-building work in the world. The emphasis is on the continuity between creation and redemption: God is redeeming creation in and through his creatures. The advantage here is the seriousness with which it takes the presence of the kingdom in Jesus Christ the King. The disadvantage is the temptation to co-opt the kingdom for our own ends, as well as the deeply problematic fact that the world remains quite rebellious against God's reign.

An attempt at mediation within this old debate was supplied by Oscar Cullmann. He recommended the notion of an inaugurated eschatology. The kingdom has already but not yet come. It has already burst onto the scene in Jesus Christ, the turning point of history. And yet it awaits its final consummation at the end of all things. Although seemingly obvious, this view provides a conceptuality for keeping alive the temporal tension of Scripture.

This tension is expressed profoundly in Jesus' preaching: "The Kingdom of God is at hand." What does "at hand" mean? Does it mean it's here? Or does it mean it is coming? The answer is, "Yes." It's both here and still to come. This tension is held together in the very person of Jesus Christ, who as the incarnate Son of God fully embodies God's kingdom and invites his human brothers and sisters to participate in his kingdom, an incorporation which awaits its final consummation at the resurrection of the dead.

However, it is worth noting that merely saying "both/and" will not do as a theological procedure. One must think carefully about how to relate both aspects, in this case the presence and the future of the coming kingdom of God, and within that temporal dynamic the continuity and discontinuity between creation and redemption. One should keep alive this Scriptural tension, but do so in a way that upholds the values found in the more extreme positions identified above. Extreme positions uncover deep insights that must be taken on board by any worthwhile mediating position. That's good advice in general, and is particularly important when discussing God's kingdom, for the kingdom is radically new and yet precisely as new it is the very fulfillment of God's creation. Nothing holds this tension of discontinuity and continuity together better than the promise of resurrection, to which we now turn.

(2) Resurrection

The kingdom of God is the resurrection of the dead. It is thus analogous to the Father's raising of his son Jesus from the dead. Easter is the inauguration of the kingdom. In the bodily resurrection of Jesus we have a clear instance both of the surpassing of creation's own possibilities and God's re-affirmation of creation. In the resurrection of Jesus, God confirms his promise to not give up on his creation by giving to it something brand new. And so the continuity and discontinuity of creation and redemption are held together in Christ.

However, the risen Christ is more than an instance of our future hope. He is its basis. Only on the basis of the revelation of the crucified Jesus as the risen Lord do we have hope for our own resurrection from the dead. Following Paul's imagery: the risen Christ is the first-fruits, of which the resurrection of the dead is the harvest. Or, to follow another of Paul's image-sets: Jesus Christ is the firstborn from the dead, so many other sons and daughters will be revealed at the coming of God's kingdom. The bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead fills Christian eschatology with a specific content and secure hope, which far exceed any vague wish for life-after-death.

In fact, as N. T. Wright succinctly puts it, Christian hope in resurrection is decidedly not about life after death, but rather about life after life-after-death. We know this is so because Jesus did not simply "die and go to heaven," but was crucified, dead and buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead. He then ascended into heaven and has promised to return from there -- not to take us to heaven, but to bring heaven to earth. The king will bring the fullness of his kingdom here. The New Jerusalem will descend to earth, and we will reign with Christ forever. In order to be in such eternal fellowship with the risen son, human beings will be given new, resurrected bodies. These bodies will be different than the ones we are currently used to (discontinuity), yet these bodies will still be bodies (continuity). God in Christ has not given up on space, time and matter. God is so firmly pro-creation that he will not even leave it to its own "natural" end in decay and death. God puts death to death in the death of Christ, so that in him we might be raised from the dead.

All this talk of a future resurrection from the dead raises the question of an intermediate state. What happens in the meantime, between our death and resurrection? Where do we go when we die? This is the place where the immortality of the soul fits in. The belief that humans have a non-material identifying substance called a "soul" that survives one's natural death is not the same as belief in the resurrection of the dead. You can't turn "resurrection" into a code-word for the immorality of the soul. Immortality of the soul is not the centerpiece of Christian hope; resurrection of the body is.

However, theories about the souls can be helpful for imagining the intermediate state between death and resurrection. Such theories are not required by Christian faith, but neither are they strictly ruled out by it. Some suggest that resurrection faith is incompatible with belief in immortality, often in justifiable opposition to the bad habit in the Christian tradition of overplaying immortality at the expense of resurrection. But abuse does not bar use. Many of the greatest thinkers in the Christian tradition have displayed the compatibility of resurrection and immortality. The key is to relentlessly subordinate all theoretical talk of an immortal soul to the sure faith in the resurrection of the dead. The idea of the immortality of the soul is only a theory to explain the intermediate state, and that's all it is. As such, immortality is a function of resurrection.

Two implications follow from this. First, immortality is not a natural attribute of the soul. Only God is immortal. Humans may have been created for immortality, but they were not created with immortality. Human immortality is a gift from God, and it ultimately comes in the form of a renewed bodily life at the resurrection. Any "immortality" prior to the resurrection is a temporary holding pattern, the preservation of our identity by God.

Second, whatever the soul is, it must not be thought of in abstraction from the body. The "soul" is simply a way of gesturing at the difference between a living body and a corpse. Soul means life. So we must not think of the intermediate state in terms of souls running around and doing things, as if our story just keeps on rolling. No, our life is hid with Christ in God. Whether God preserves our life-history only in his mind or also by means of a temporary form of bodily existence, we don't really know. The point is that an immortal soul awaiting the resurrection of the dead is not a ghost or an angel who might visit earth or meddle in its affairs. The human person, however preserved by God, awaits the breath of new life into a new bodily existence on the day of the Lord's return. And with the mention of the breath of new life, we come to our final point.

(3) Eternal Life

The kingdom of God is the giving of eternal life. It is thus analogous to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit onto the church at Pentecost. Actually, in light of the forward-looking orientation of the Spirit's work, the analogy runs the other way: the outpouring of the Spirit on the disciples is analogous to the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh. The indwelling of the Spirit is the foretaste and foreshadowing of the Spirit's gift of everlasting life to those risen in Christ. As Paul puts it, the Spirit is the down-payment of things to come. The Spirit fills and guides us now, but he will be the driving principle of our lives in the kingdom. So the resurrection of our bodies will not be just one last miracle to display the omnipotence of God, but is the indispensable means to the end of enjoying eternal fellowship with the risen Christ.

This living fellowship with Christ by the Spirit marks the completion of our sanctification. According to the various Christian traditions, this completion is referred to as glorification, the beatific vision, or deification. Although each term understands eternal life differently, all of them contain the crucial element of seeing. The crucial distinction between now and then is the means by which we are sanctified: it is no longer by faith, but by sight. "We shall be like him because we shall see him as he truly is" (1 Jn 3:2). In the kingdom we will share in God's eternal life because Jesus will be revealed. It is thus no coincidence that the last book of the Bible is called Revelation, for it is by revelation that God achieves the completion of his work in us.

But does completion mean conclusion? Does eternal life mean the story is simply over? Is the coming kingdom a denouement that just goes on and on and on? In other words, will heaven be boring? This is a common question, and one can see why it arises. But it betrays a misunderstanding both of God's future and ours. On the one hand, an eternity spent worshipping God will not be boring because of the inexhaustible riches of God's triune life. Maybe church is boring, but God isn't. God will never run out of aspects of his identity and character to reveal to us in spirit and in truth. On the other hand, worship in the kingdom will be expressed not only in our absolute love of God but also in our relative love of one another. The twofold love command will still apply in the kingdom, the only difference is that it will always be obeyed. So in the kingdom we are not envoloped back into God but rather we have fellowship with God in his outward movement among his people. As the vision of both Ezekiel and John attest, the river in the New Jerusalem flows out of the city. The only difference is that in John's New Jerusalem, the river does not flow out of the temple for there is no temple. "I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" (Rev 21:22). There is no separate place for worship because in the kingdom we will worship God as we walk outward with him toward our fellow creatures. It is for this kingdom that we pray, "Come, Lord Jesus. Come."

Any thoughts?
  • Do you agree that the kingdom of God is the best category around which to organize eschatological reflection? Why or why not?
  • Is it a good thing to distinguish the kingdom from the church and from the world? What happens when the kingdom is too closely identified with either?
  • When thinking about God's new creation, do you tend to emphasize discontinuity or continuity? Do you have a reason for your tendency? How can these best be held together without making recourse to a simplistic both/and appeal?
  • If Jesus is the basis of our future hope, what other implications does his resurection have for eschatological reflection?
  • Do Christians tend to conflate resurrection of the body and immortality of the soul? What happens when we do this? Do we have to chose between them? Or are they compatible, perhaps in the way I have sketched or in some other way?
  • Have you every asked or been asked to question, "Will heaven be boring?" How have you answered this question? How will you answer this question in the future?

No comments: