THE KINGDOM OF GOD: PRESENT OR FUTURE?
by Anthony Buzzard
"In the Book of Acts the Kingdom of God was still the general formula for the substance of Christian teaching..." (Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. II, p. 855).
On the lips of Jesus the term Kingdom of God unquestionably summarized the very heart of His Message. "The Kingdom of God is the central theme of the teaching of Jesus, and it involves His whole understanding of His own person and work" (Theological Word Book of the Bible, Alan Richardson, p. 119).
Yet the voluminous discussions of the meaning of the Kingdom of the God, the heart of the Gospel preached by Jesus, and therefore the Christian Gospel, continue to leave the impression that the subject is complex in the extreme, indeed that the truth of the matter is virtually beyond recovery. An enormous amount of scholarly energy has gone into analyzing the biblical and non-biblical evidence in an effort to explain what Jesus taught as His central theme. Can it really be that our New Testament records provide no clear idea of what Christ and the Apostles meant us to understand by the Kingdom of God? Nothing less than the Gospel message of salvation is at stake.
Nearly all writers on this subject agree that the Kingdom has both a present and a future reference in the teaching of the New Testament. But it is the present reference which seems always to attract most attention, the impression being given that Jesus insisted on the fact that the Kingdom of God had arrived with His ministry. How deeply that notion has been instilled in us can be tested by asking in a variety of religious circles what is understood by the term Kingdom of God. Almost invariably the reaction will be that it is a present reality, a reign of God in the hearts of the believers, the Kingdom thus being, in some sense, synonymous with the Church. Now that emphasis might well appear convincing, were it not for a large number of impressively simple New Testament passages which flatly contradict the notion that the Kingdom was present, in the sense that the Kingdom itself had come with Jesus. Surprisingly, these passages seem to have escaped notice. Yet they provide the most obvious support for the fact that the coming of the Kingdom is linked overwhelmingly in the New Testament not with the ministry of Jesus in Palestine, but with the Coming of the Messiah in the glory of His Kingdom at the end of the age (popularly, but wrongly known as the end of the world). It is essential, therefore, at the outset, to make a fundamental distinction between the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom, which is at the heart of the ministry of Christ and the Apostles, and the future coming of the Kingdom which is consistently associated with His Coming in glory at the end of the "present evil age" (Gal. 1:4).
The Coming of the Kingdom
Any analysis of the time-element in connection with the Kingdom of God should quite naturally concern itself firstly with the New Testament use of the word "come" in reference to the Kingdom of God. Do the New Testament writers consider the coming of the Kingdom to have occurred already, or is it expected for the future? Immediately we are struck with the fact that we
are to pray continually that the Kingdom should come ("Thy Kingdom come," Matt. 6:10, Luke 11:2). Jesus was undoubtedly present when these words were spoken; yet He urges His disciples to pray for the coming of the Kingdom! It is thus clear that it had not yet come; and this impression is reinforced by the fact that Jesus, speaking shortly before His death, did not expect to drink again of the wine of the Passover cup until the Kingdom had come (Luke 22:18). Moreover, Joseph of Arimathaea, who was a disciple (Matt. 27:57) and therefore understood the faith, was at the time of the crucifixion still waiting for the Kingdom to come (Luke 23:51). Its coming is here quite obviously still in the future. As absolute confirmation of this, we find in Luke 21:31 that it is the cataclysmic future events leading up to the return of Christ in glory which herald also the coming of the Kingdom of God:
"When you see all these things [warning of the near approach of the Return of Christ in glory], know that the Kingdom of God is near" - "about to come" (Good News Bible).
The future coming of Christ in glory is thus decisively linked with the coming of the Kingdom.
We may add to these passages the crucial parable in Luke 19 in which Jesus describes Himself as a nobleman who is to depart to a "far country" (i.e., to the Father in heaven) to receive His authority to rule and then to return as King to establish the Kingdom. This information is given by Christ to correct the misunderstanding that the Kingdom of God was to appear immediately (Luke 19:11). According to Jesus, there is no question that it will appear, but not in the immediate future. It is significant that it was Jesus' being close to Jerusalem at the time that prompted the expectation that the Kingdom was about to be manifested publicly. This shows that the Kingdom was understood as being a Messianic government, centered upon Jerusalem, as all the prophets had envisaged it. Jesus says nothing, then or after the resurrection, to suggest that their understanding of the Kingdom was fundamentally wrong. It is only the question of the time of its arrival which needs to be clarified, and no precise chronological data are offered here or anywhere in the New Testament to allow the setting of dates. Much harm has been done to the New Testament doctrine of the Second Coming by those who succumb to the illusion that the precise time of the Great Event may be known in advance.
The parable in Luke 19 makes two important points: firstly that the Kingdom had not yet appeared, late in the ministry of Christ, and secondly that it will appear when Christ returns from the "far country," after an unspecified period of absence. It should be quite clear that the evidence of Scripture entirely negates the popular concept that the Kingdom of God had come with the ministry of Christ. In every case where the simple verb "come" is used of the Kingdom, it is a future coming which is being described. (We leave until later the handful of passages which perhaps imply, in another sense, the presence of the Kingdom in the ministry of Christ.)
"In the Kingdom"
We may now fairly examine a group of sayings which describe a situation where people are said to be "in the Kingdom." Does the New Testament see this state of affairs as present or future? The phrase is first found in Matt. 8:11, where it is said that many shall come and recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob "in the Kingdom," while others will be cast out. The event being described is the well-known Messianic banquet, which is to occur at the Return of the Lord.
There is a further reference to this celebrated occasion when Jesus states, at the last Passover, that He will no more drink of the wine of the Passover until He drinks it new with the disciples "in the Kingdom" (Matt. 26:29, Luke 22:16). Here it should be noted that "in the Kingdom" is parallel to "until the Kingdom comes," only three verses later. A further passage gives an equally telling picture of the future Kingdom. James and John request from Jesus prominent positions with Him "in the Kingdom" (Matt. 20:21). This is patently a request for positions in the future Messianic Reign, and though the petition cannot be granted, Christ confirms the reality of the future Kingdom by stating that the highest positions in it will be assigned to those whom God chooses (Matt. 20:23). In this connection we must refer also to Matt. 19:28 which likewise places the inauguration of the Reign of God in the New Age or New World (Moffatt and New International Version). It is then that Christ sits on the throne of His glory, that is, "when the Son of Man comes in His glory" (Matt. 25:31), and His authority to govern is shared with the Apostles. At that same time the righteous shall "shine forth in the Kingdom of their Father" (Matt. 13:43). A composite version of Matthew's and Luke's description of the future Kingdom, gives us the clearest possible picture of the Hope which animates the apostolic church:
"'I tell you positively,' Jesus replied, 'in the Reborn World, when the Son of Man takes His seat on the throne of state, you, too, shall be seated on twelve thrones, governing the twelve tribes of Israel. You are those who have stayed with me through all my trials, and just as my Father has promised me His Kingdom, so do I now promise you that you shall eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom; and you shall sit on thrones governing the twelve tribes of Israel'" (Matt. 19:28, Luke 22:28, Authentic New Testament, translation by Hugh Schonfield).
Such a vision of the New Age, the Messianic Era, would have been well understood by those of Jesus' contemporaries who were familiar with the writings of the prophets, for they had constantly foreseen a coming Golden Age of world peace, to be presided over by the Messianic King.
"Entering" and "Inheriting the Kingdom"
Having established that the coming of the Kingdom is seen as future and is linked with the Coming of Christ in glory, and that to be "in the Kingdom" is to have attained to a share in the eschatological [i.e., future] Kingdom, we must now examine the frequent use of the words "enter" and "inherit" with reference to the Kingdom. The concept of entry into the Kingdom and inheritance of it is, of course, basic to the whole New Testament. When is this to occur?
We find an unequivocal answer in Matthew 25, where the faithful are invited to enter or inherit the Kingdom "when the Son of Man comes in His Glory and sits on His glorious throne" (v. 31). This is quite evidently in the future. Entry into the Kingdom of God is elsewhere equated with entry into "Life" or "the Life of the Coming Age" (AV, "eternal life"), to be introduced by Christ at His Coming at the end of the present age (Mark 9:30). These passages are definitive for the frequent references to entry into or inheritance of the Kingdom. All refer to the future, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (In John's Gospel there is a greater emphasis on the Life of the Age to come being experienced now, but this does not mean that John did not share with his fellow Apostles the expectation of the future public manifestation of the Kingdom at the Return of the Messiah.)
A most important sequence of parallel statements by Matthew equates entry into the Kingdom with "entering Life," "being saved," and with "eating and drinking in the Kingdom" and "judging," that is, governing the 12 tribes in the New Age (see Matt. 19:16-28). Here, in every case, the references are to the eschatological salvation to be granted to believers at the Return of the Messiah; and among the terms used to describe this salvation inheritance of the Kingdom of God is the most prominent, as in so many other New Testament passages. The idea of inheriting or entering the Kingdom is derived from the OT promises to Israel of inheriting and entering the promised land of Canaan. The New Testament promises believers that they will "enter" and "inherit" the land of Israel and thus the Kingdom of God on earth (Matt. 5:5, Rev. 5:10, etc.). The Hebrew Land promise, which is at the basis of the covenant, has become in the New Testament the promise of future entry into the Kingdom of God.
Mark provides in chapter 9:43, 47 a clear definition of the two possible destinies of man. These are to "enter life," or to "go into hell-fire." The same fact may be stated, as Mark reports it as "to enter the Kingdom of God," or to "be cast into hell-fire" (9:47). This shows beyond doubt that entrance into the Kingdom of God is an event of the future parallel in time with being cast into hell-fire. There is no verse in Mark's Gospel which suggests that the Kingdom of God is present. Mark introduces us to the Kingdom of God by reporting that Jesus declared it to be "at hand" (Mark 1:14, 15), or "approaching." That this did not mean it was present is clear from two important facts. In Mark 14:53, a prominent disciple is still "waiting for the Kingdom of God"! This was after the crucifixion of Jesus. Mark hardly expects us to believe that the Kingdom had come with the ministry of Jesus. The expression "the Kingdom of God is approaching" reappears in the parallel phrases that "the end is at hand" (I Pet. 4:7) and that "the Lord's return is at hand (James 5:8). In neither case could this mean that these events had arrived. They are expected in the future, as is the Kingdom of God.
These basic facts take us back to the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist. He preached the same Gospel as Jesus Himself. "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2; 4:17, 23). John puts before us the to great events on the horizon of his spiritual vision. These are either to be "gathered as wheat into the barn" (i.e. enter the Kingdom) or to be "burned up as chaff with unquenchable fire" (i.e., to go into hell-fire).
The future as Jesus and the New Testament sees it offers us a choice of "entering the Kingdom." which is the same as "inheriting" or "entering the Life of the Age to Come," or being "burned up as chaff in hell-fire." The two destinies announced in the Gospel, which is Good News as well as threatening News, are to enter "the barn or the bonfire."
The Kingdom in Acts and the Epistles
If we turn to the evidence outside the Gospels, we find that Paul consistently uses the term Kingdom of God to denote the future reward and objective of the present Christian life. The Theological Word-Book of the Bible, amongst many other authorities, confirms this quite simply: "God's Reign is still to be established," as the future Messianic Reign. Having pointed out that it is in reference to the future Kingdom that Christ bids His disciples pray, "Thy Kingdom come," this authority states:
"It is generally in this [future] sense that the expression Kingdom of God is used in the New Testament outside the Gospels, as denoting the Messianic Kingdom which is the reward and goal in heaven of the Christian life here below."
Unquestionably, then, the Kingdom of God is first and foremost the future Messianic Kingdom, to be established by Christ at His Return.
Our quotation above suggests that the location of the Kingdom will be in heaven, i.e., not here on the earth. This popular idea was firmly rejected by an article appearing in the London Times of Nov. 22, 1980, where Kenneth Leech says that to describe the Kingdom of God as "unearthly" is to make nonsense of the entire Jewish-Christian hope for the transformation of the earth - 'Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as in heaven.'" Jesus promised the renewed earth to his followers and Abraham, the father of all the faithful, was expecting to posses Canaan (Heb. 11:8). He never yet inherited the land (Acts 7:5) and must rise in the resurrection to do so.
As examples of references to the future Kingdom outside the Gospels, we may cite the following:
Acts 14:22: "It is through much tribulation that we must enter the Kingdom of God" (Note the common New Testament theme of suffering now, and inheritance of the Kingdom or Reign then).
James 2:5: We are now "heirs of the Kingdom of God which God has promised to them that love Him" (as often elsewhere in the epistles, heirs now, inheritors then).
II Peter 1:11: By developing Christian qualities of character now, "there shall be supplied to you entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ."
Rev. 11:15: "The kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of our God..." (a vision of the future transfer of power to Jesus at His Second Coming).
I Cor. 15:50: "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, i.e., a transformation of our present physical bodies into spiritual bodies is required for the future inheritance of the Kingdom of God. This is conclusive for the argument that the Kingdom is primarily future in Paul's thinking. It is impossible for us to inherit the Kingdom at present. This can only happen at the future resurrection.
The passages we have treated so far, both in the Gospels and the Epistles must surely more than justify the interesting statement made by the writer on eschatology (study of the future) in the celebrated Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (Vol. I, pp. 530, 531). The writer referred to Matthew, Mark and Luke only, but his statement remains true for the entire New Testament:
"There is nothing in the synoptics [Matt., Mark, Luke] antagonistic to the eschatological [i.e., future] view of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not present in any sense not reconcilable with the fact that it is also and mainly future.... Jesus did not dissociate Himself from the traditional view that the end would come in the form of a catastrophic transformation, culminating in the Advent of Messiah Himself, who would come from heaven. He seems everywhere to set His seal to this view.... He steadfastly contemplated a final wonder of destruction and reconstruction which would be the perfect establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth" (emphasis mine).
A similar conclusion is drawn by another writer in the same Dictionary (distinguished for its sober collation of biblical data) in a discussion of the Coming of the Kingdom, Vol. I, p. 775. While rightly stating that there is a sense in which the Kingdom is now present, the writer says:
"We are taught by Jesus to think of the Kingdom as yet to come. In the Lord's prayer we have the petition 'Thy Kingdom come!' And there are many passages which show that these words refer to a great future realization. But clearest of these are the parables of growth: the tares, the mustard seed, the leaven, the draw-net, the seed growing in secret.... They connect the conception of the Kingdom as a spiritual fact here and now with that conception which is eschatological and regards the Kingdom as a perfected state of things in the future. It is plain that our Lord never lost sight of the great final realization of the ideal. He constantly looked at the present in the light of the future, and taught His followers to live and work with the great end in view" (Luke 12:37) (emphasis mine).
The Kingdom Anticipated
It is right that we turn our attention to the handful of important passages which describe the Kingdom of God as in some sense present in the ministry of Christ and the Apostles, or indeed as a present reality for Christians in general. Though these passages represent a tiny fraction of the far more numerous references to the future Kingdom of God, they are frequently the only ones quoted in contemporary discussions of the Kingdom. A completely misleading impression of the predominant New Testament view of the nature of the Kingdom may thus be given. The future Kingdom, so widely attested throughout the New Testament and seen as the great future prospect for the believer, is wrongly referred to as the "consummation," when according to the biblical writers its future is really the beginning of the manifested world-wide Rule of the Messiah on earth.
The references to the Kingdom as in some sense present in the ministry of Christ must be treated as special cases, and not be allowed to obscure the far greater emphasis on the Kingdom as future. A parallel may be seen in the non-literal resurrection referred to by Paul (Eph.2:6). This has already happened in the life of the believer at conversion, but it must never be allowed to overshadow or replace the future objective resurrection of the dead in Christ (see II Tim. 2:18). That future resurrection is for all the biblical writers the great historical event marking the end of the present age, and ushering in the Age of Messiah.
Firstly, on a single occasion, Christ is quoted as saying that the Kingdom of God has come upon those from whom a demon is exorcised (Matt.12:28, Luke 11:20). The Kingdom of Satan had then been defeated in respect of each individual who was thus freed from the shackles of the demonic influence. This is very different in its scope from the universal victory of the Kingdom at the end of the age, though it is certainly, of course, an anticipation of the final triumph. It should be noted, however, that the same phrase "come upon" is found in I Thess.2:16, where it appears to mean that those on whom the wrath "has come" are destined for the future wrath of God. They are candidates for the future vengeance of God, what Paul in the same letter calls "the wrath to come" (I Thess. 1:10). Similarly, to say that the Kingdom has "come upon" an individual may simply mean that when the demon is removed from him he becomes a candidate for the future Kingdom.
Confirmation that this is the right understanding is provided by Moulton and Milligan in their Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, p. 331. Evidence from the papyri proves that the parallel statement in I Cor.10:11, "upon whom the ends of the ages are come" means "who are heirs of the revenues of the ages." To say that the Kingdom of God has "come upon" someone may thus indicate that he is heir to the future Kingdom.
Secondly, Luke, only, records an episode in which Jesus says that the Kingdom is already "in your midst" (Luke 17:21). To take this single passage to mean that the Kingdom has now fully arrived and has no future reality is not only to contradict the rest of the New Testament but to make Luke ludicrously inconsistent; for only a few verses later he is describing the Coming of Christ in terms of lightening flashing from east to west, and he later defines this spectacular and universally visible event as the coming of the Kingdom of God (Luke 21:31). It is clear that the Kingdom is present among the people in the special sense that the King Himself is present, though unrecognized by the Pharisees. There was little point in their looking for a world-wide manifestation of the Kingdom, when they had failed to recognize the King.
Thirdly, entry into the Kingdom is spoken of in a single passage as a process beginning now (Matt. 23:13). It is well known that all the great events of the future must be anticipated now by the individual believer. The future Kingdom confronts each of us when we first hear the Good News of the Reign of God. In this sense the Christian must embark now, in this life, upon the business of preparing for entry into the Kingdom at the end. The entry, seen here as a process, begins in the present life. In the same vein, Paul states on one occasion (Col. 1:13) that we have been transferred into the Kingdom of God, by being rescued from the Satanic Kingdom of darkness. It should however be carefully noted that he does not say that we have already inherited the Kingdom. In the same letter (Col 3:24) he describes the inheritance as something yet to be received. Elsewhere he states categorically that "flesh and blood," i.e., human beings in their present physical state, "cannot inherit the Kingdom of God" (I Cor. 15:50). He also connects the coming of the Kingdom with the future "appearing" of Christ in glory (II Tim. 4:1); and this is his final statement on this central teaching.
It will be appropriate to include at this point the remarks of the distinguished Jewish historian, Dr. Hugh Schonfield, who spent a life-time researching the origins of Christianity and is well qualified to comment on the way in which the New Testament term Kingdom of God has been divorced from its original Messianic context.
"Christians have very mixed-up notions of what is meant by the Kingdom of God. The prevailing opinion is that it is a state or condition which the believer experiences, both individually and in the corporate life of the Church as the body of Christ. Here Christ's reign is realized. But in only one passage in the Gospels - and there by a mistranslation of the Greek text - is the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven represented as something internal. Yet so enthusiastic has the Church been to evade the consequences of regarding Jesus as the Messiah that it has singled out as of special merit the words "the Kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). Everywhere else in the Synoptic Gospels, in Luke as in Matthew and Mark, the Kingdom of God is a state of affairs on earth, the coming of which is to be prayed for, which Jews should seek after, strive to be worthy of and thus be able to enter into and which is described as near at hand. It is equated with the time when the Messianic Age will commence" (For Christ's Sake, p.68, emphasis added).
If students and expositors of Scripture are to reflect the central New Testament doctrine of the Gospel about the Kingdom of God, it is clear that a fundamental change of emphasis is required. The writer had an opportunity to enquire of an English vicar what part the doctrine of the Second Coming played in his preaching. The reply was "none at all." The clergyman then volunteered the information that he particularly dreaded the season of Advent in the church calendar, because he knew that he was expected to preach on the Coming of Christ!
The Kingdom to Come at the Second Coming of Jesus
The Kingdom of God is primarily associated with the Second Coming of Christ. It is the grand goal and objective of the Christian life now. The fact that we hear so little about the return of Christ is a measure of how little we care for His Kingdom. If broadcast sermons can be taken as typical, it appears that the whole eschatological hope of entry into the Kingdom of God at the Return of Christ has been abandoned. This can mean nothing less than that the heart and essence of Christianity has been discarded. For the New Testament is founded upon Christ and His Gospel Message of the Kingdom, and that Kingdom is itself the basis of the great Hope that Christ will return to establish it. It is first and foremost, as we have seen, a Kingdom of the future (even allowing for the fact that particularly in the Gospel of John the "Life" of the future Age can be embarked on now). It will be no answer to say that preaching should concern itself primarily with the virtues of faith and love; for Paul makes it quite clear that the development of those qualities is predicated upon first grasping the hope of the future goal. In Col. 1:4, 5 he speaks of "your faith ... and love...[built on] the Hope reserved for you." It is essential that the Hope be defined if it is to be effective as a stimulus to faith and love. Hope is everywhere in the New Testament directed towards the Return of Christ and the future Kingdom. As Alan Richardson says: "Hope is through and through eschatological, always bearing reference to the Return of the Lord Jesus at the end of the age" (Theological Word-Book of the Bible, p.109). The Hope upon which everything depends is the conviction that the glorious Kingdom shall be manifested at the Return of the Messiah. We should note in passing that New Testament hope is never directed to the moment of the individual's death, but always to the Parousia.
For the early Christians and equally for us if we can only believe, the New Testament holds out the Hope of participation in the Messianic Reign when it comes. Astonishingly, this information makes little impact on contemporary churchgoers, for they have been taught to think of a goal of quite a different order, to be obtained by each believer at the moment of death, and in a location far removed from the earth. It seems rarely to occur to readers of Scripture that such thinking represents a radical departure from the view of the early Christians. They expected to inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5).
The earth, renewed and restored under the government of the Messiah, was to be their Kingdom of Heaven (i.e., a Kingdom of divine origin to arrive from heaven). Had not Abraham, the Father of the New Testament faithful, been promised the world as his inheritance (Rom. 4:13)? Had he not sojourned in a land which he was later to possess, though he received not a "square yard" of it during his life-time (Acts 7:5, Heb. 8:11ff.)? In promising the earth to the disciples, Jesus was only confirming what had been the hope of the faithful for thousands of years (see Ps. 37). These biblical facts are beyond question, and no one need go further than a local book-shop to confirm them. The Pelican Commentary on Matthew, by J.C. Fenton, gives us a simple definition of the meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven:
"Jesus promises the disciples the Kingdom of heaven - that is the greatest possession of all, to reign over the earth when God begins to rule ... to be set over the earth as rulers under God (cp. Matt. 25:21,23: 'I will set you over much')." The disciples will be comforted by God "when His Kingdom comes and His will is done (6:10)."
Commenting on the Christian reward "in Heaven," Fenton says: "'in Heaven' means not that they will go to heaven (an idea which is seldom found in the New Testament), but 'with God'" (p. 83, emphasis mine).
Let the reader search the pages of the New Testament. He will find no promise of a reward in a location "beyond the skies." The distinguished New Testament scholar, J.A.T. Robinson, states the truth when he says:
"In the Bible, heaven is nowhere the destination of the dying" (In the End God, p. 105). The same assertion is made by Robert Girdlestone, M.A. (Synonyms of the Old Testament, p.267): "We rarely read that the godly will go to heaven, either at death or at the resurrection. We are rather told of a Kingdom being set up on earth, of a heavenly city descending from above, and taking up its abode in the new or renewed earth."
Returning to the Pelican Commentary on Matthew, we find that in the Lord's prayer, "the disciples are taught to pray first for the coming of the Age to Come; compare the Aramaic prayer in I Cor. 16:21: 'Our Lord Come', and Rev. 22:20: 'Come, Lord Jesus!'" (p. 101). Matthew has more to say about this future Kingdom in chapter 19, verse 28. Fenton explains that the New Age (AV 'Regeneration') refers to "the Kingdom as the time when everything will be made new, born again because God's will will be done on earth (6:10).... Christ comes to rule." The disciples "will share in His Dominion over the New Age" (p. 317). They will take part in the renewal of the world, and the re-education of mankind.
These passages and many others in the New Testament define the Hope which lies at the center of the Lord's prayer: "Thy Kingdom Come!" The Kingdom for which we are to pray is nothing less than a state of affairs on earth where God's will will be fully accomplished. The disciples are to be instrumental in administering that Divine Rule with Christ, thus using their divinely conferred authority as co-rulers in the Messianic Kingdom to render the greatest possible service. Nowhere, however, does the New Testament suggest that this ideal state of affairs will be achieved apart from the Return of Christ. The prayer for the Kingdom is thus in reality a prayer for the Return of the Messiah who will inaugurate the Divine Reign. This is the central theme of Apostolic Christianity: "Don't you know that the Saints shall rule the world?" (I Cor. 6:2.) "If we endure with Him, we shall also reign as Kings with Him" (II Tim. 2:12). The Church shall "reign on the earth" (Rev. 5:10).
The Reign of the Messiah over a renewed earth is, after all, the glorious hope expressed by all the Old Testament prophets, and eagerly awaited by the Apostles as the Restoration of all things (Acts 3:21). This hope Jesus came to confirm (Rom. 15:8). In this connection, Professor T.F. Glasson's remark in his recent publication "Jesus and the End of the World" is of utmost significance:
"The prophets and Psalmist had depicted an era of peace and justice in which men would beat their swords into ploughshares. Christianity has no right to abandon these visions of the future: Isa. 2;11; Ps. 72, and many others of a similar type. To say that these will be fulfilled in heaven is to abandon them. Heaven is already a realm of peace and love. To attach the Messianic promises to heaven is virtually to discard them" (p. 129, emphasis mine).
"Abandon," "discard" the promise of an era of peace and justice?! Have we, like so many previous generations, failed to heed the message of the prophets, the servants and spokesmen of God? This is exactly the point made by Kenneth Leech quoted earlier. He charges the churches with having made "a nonsense of the entire Jewish-Christian hope for the transformation of the earth - 'Thy Kingdom Come, 'Thy will be done on earth.'" Will no one rise in indignation at such wholesale defection from the prophets' vision?
A Loss of Hope and Vision
The process by which the church originally lost its hope for the future began when the expected Second Coming did not occur immediately. Instead of persisting in the faith that the promises of Christ would ultimately find their accomplishment in the Return of the Lord Jesus to establish the Kingdom, the church retreated behind a quite different hope of its own invention (with help from alien Greek philosophy), that of attaining at the moment of death to a heavenly Kingdom "beyond the skies." This hope has nothing whatsoever to do with the biblical promise of the Messianic Kingdom on earth, and its acceptance as being the hope actually taught by Christ and the Apostles has caused untold confusion.
The false hope was "safe" in the sense that there is no way in which its fulfillment can be verified or challenged. But it was disastrous, not only as being a distortion of the apostolic message about the coming Kingdom, but also because it has robbed the churches of any real answer to the forces of atheism whose goal it is indeed to conquer the world. Worst of all it practically denies the Messiahship of Jesus, who according to the popular notion, never actually comes to earth as the Messiah, the ultimate occupant of the throne of David (Luke 1:32,33), to bring about the Restoration of all things, which is the theme of all Old Testament prophecy (Acts 1:6, 3:21).
Lamentable also has been the Church's subsequent attempt to bend the teachings of the NewTestament to fit its own version of the goal and purpose of Christianity. For the New Testament is largely incomprehensible when read with the presupposition that a Christian is to "go to heaven" as a disembodied soul when he dies. The biblical view is that he is to rise from the sleep of death at the resurrection (Dan. 12:2) and rule in the Kingdom of God when Christ comes (Rev. 5:10). The two systems cannot be harmonized. We must accept one or the other. It is the age-old choice between the faith once delivered to the saints and the traditions of men. We would do well to ponder the perceptive words of a distinguished Church of England theologian who pointed out that from the second century the Greek and Roman mind, instead of the Hebrew mind, came to dominate the Church's outlook: "From that disaster the Church has never recovered, either in doctrine or in practice" (Canon Goudge, The Calling of the Jews).
It is for the individual believer, seeing the scandal of our departure from Apostolic Christianity, to strive to recapture the Hebrew mind which dominates the original faith. This can only be achieved by paying close attention to the New Testament, and laying aside the traditions which have made such nonsense of the apostolic writings.
Summarizing the Data
It will be useful to provide a complete survey of the New Testament use of the term Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven), allowing the facts to show the prominence which the biblical writers give to the Kingdom as the future Reign of Christ.
The following passages in the Gospels refer to the Coming of the Kingdom, as being the Great Event of the future. Included are the references to Christ "coming in the Kingdom" (i.e., coming to inaugurate the Kingdom). This same climax of history was seen in a visionary "preview" at the transfiguration:
Matt. 6:10, Matt. 6:13: the coming Kingdom associated with power and glory, cp. Mark 10:38, "Kingdom" = "Glory."
Matt. 24:30: the Coming of Christ in power and glory to establish the Kingdom. Matt. 16:28, Mark 9:1, Mark 11:10 ("the coming Kingdom"), Luke 9:28, Luke 11:2, Luke 21:31, Luke 22:18, Luke 22:30, Luke 23:42, 43 (Kingdom equated with future paradise).
The following verses describe the saints as being "in the Kingdom," but not until Christ comes: Matt. 5:19 (associated with entry into the Kingdom, v.20), Matt. 8:11, Matt. 11:11, Matt. 13:43 (the Kingdom at the end of the age), Matt. 21:21, Matt. 26:29, Mark 14:25 (parallel to "that day"), Luke 7:28, Luke 13:28,29, Luke 14:15, Luke 22:16.
The following speak of "entering" or "inheriting" the Kingdom and are associated with gaining salvation in the future: Matt. 5:20, Matt. 7:21, Matt. 18:3, Matt. 19:23,24, Matt. 21:31, Matt. 25:34, Mark 9:47, Mark 10:15,23,24,25, Luke 18:17, Luke 18:24,25.
The following equate the Kingdom with the future goal and reward of the Christian life: Matt. 5:3,10 ("Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven = inherit the earth"), Matt. 6:33 ("Seek first the Kingdom"), Luke 6:20-23 ("Yours is the Kingdom of God, parallel to "You shall be filled, you shall laugh, rejoice in that day"), Luke 9:62 ("fit for the Kingdom of God"), Luke 12:31.
The following refer to the future Kingdom as the activity of Christ as Ruler with His Saints: Matt. 19:28, Luke 22:28.
The following describe a "waiting for the Kingdom" after the Ministry of Christ is complete: Mark 15:43, Luke 2:25 ("waiting for the consolation of Israel" = "hoping for the redemption of Israel" = "waiting for the Kingdom of God", Luke 23:51).
In addition to these specific references to the Kingdom, there are many passages referring to the Kingdom under different, but associated terms—"Life", "Glory", "Salvation", "Hope", "Inheritance", "Life of the Coming Age" (AV "Eternal Life"): Matt. 5:5, Matt. 18:18, Matt. 19:17,25, Matt. 19:28 ("Regeneration", = "New Age"), Matt. 21:43, Matt. 22:2 ("Wedding-Feast"), Matt. 25:31,46, Mark 9:43, Mark 10:30, Mark 13:26, Luke 18:26.
Luke 19:11 shows that it was a mistake to expect, during Christ's ministry, the immediate appearance of the Kingdom.The Kingdom is to be associated with the "return", (v. 12), "until I come" (v.13), and "coming back having received the Kingdom" (v. 15).
The following describe the Kingdom as "at hand": Matt. 3:2 (John the Baptist places the gathering of the wheat into the barn at the same time as the destruction of the wicked), Matt. 4:17, Matt. 10:7, Mark 1:14. If these passages refer to the Ministry of Christ in Palestine, they may be claimed by those wishing to emphasise the Kingdom as present then. They are by far outnumbered, however, by the references to the Kingdom as future.
The following passages speak of the Kingdom as, in a different sense a present reality: Matt. 11:12 (being taken by violence), Matt. 12:28 (the Kingdom has come upon you), Matt. 23:14 (entry must begin now), Luke 10:11 (the Kingdom has drawn near to you, i.e., in the preaching of their message by its representatives), Luke 17:21 (the Kingdom is amongst you), Mark 10:16, Luke 18:16 (receive the Kingdom, i.e. accept the message), Luke 16:16 (the Kingdom is being preached), Matt. 19:12 (renunciation of marriage for the sake of the Kingdom).
In Acts and the Epistles the Kingdom remains the central subject of the preaching of the Gospel, with the addition, following the resurrection, of the "Name of Jesus Christ." The full description of the Apostolic preaching is thus "The Good News of the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12), but this is abbreviated throughout the New Testament to "The Message (AV "the Word") of the Kingdom" (Matt. 13:19), "the Message of God" (Luke 8:11), or simply "the Message" (Mark 4:15). Another term is "the Truth". A sparing use of the words Kingdom of God or Reign of God is understandable, since the mention of a Kingdom too explicitly had serious political implications to which a sensitive Caesar might react unfavorably.
In the Acts the Kingdom is first discussed at length by the Risen Christ and His Apostles (Acts 1:3). It remains the center of interest in the Messianic Community. This is proved by the all-important question put by the Apostles to Jesus as to the time of the Restoration of the Kingdom (Acts 1:6). This, however, was not to be revealed. Yet there is no question that it will ultimately be restored (Acts 3:21). (Restoration was the appropriate term, since the Kingdom of God had existed in a provisional form under David, the ancestor of Jesus, II Chron. 13:8). Jesus was ultimately to sit on the throne of David, according to the prophecies (Acts 2:30), and as announced by the Angel (Luke 1:32). It is absolutely clear that the Restoration was a future event, quite distinct from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which was to occur in the (then) immediate future, "not many days hence" (Acts 1:5). The Message of the Good News of the Kingdom (appearing as "the Message", AV "the Word") is the constant theme of the Apostolic preaching and can be traced through the Book of Acts, along with the other central theme of the Resurrection of Jesus. The Message is still about a future Kingdom as is shown by Paul's important statement that "it is through much tribulation that we must enter into the Kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22).
In the Epistles, the Kingdom is likewise the future reward and goal of the faithful church (I Cor. 6:9 ,10, Gal. 5:21, Eph. 5:5). Christians have been invited into it (I Thess. 2:12), and must now walk in a manner befitting their high calling (I Thess. 2:12). The Reign of the Saints is constantly thought of as future: "The Saints shall rule the world" (I Cor. 6:2). The comments in the International Critical Commentary are important here, as showing that "rule" is the proper sense, not merely "pronounce judgement on". (Moffatt translates: "govern the world".) The future rule of the Saints is paralleled a few verses later by the statement that "the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God" (I Cor. 6:9,10). This confirms what we have found throughout the Gospels:
that the reward of the faithful is rulership with Christ in the Kingdom of the Coming Age. It will also explain the Apostolic insistence upon the central importance of that "future inhabitable world of which we speak" (Heb. 2:5).
An examination of Luke 22 will show that the appointment of the Apostles to rule in the Kingdom is the very essence of the New Covenant, ratified by the blood of the Lord. (Luke 22:20) The Greek word meaning Covenant (v.22) is found in its verbal form as "appoint" (v.29). The connection is unmistakable, and shows that the early Christians thought of themselves as the Community of the Messianic Reign, those appointed to rule with Christ in the Kingdom: "If we endure with Him, we shall reign with Him" (II Tim. 2:12); "if we suffer with Him, we shall reign with Him" (Rom. 8:17). Here, as in Mark 10:37 and Matt. 20:21, we find glory and glorification parallel to Kingdom and Reign. We will therefore be able to understand the frequent references to the future manifestation of the Glory of Christ as alternative descriptions of the future manifestation of His Kingdom. We may also compare the expression "riches of glory" in Ephesians 1:18, which is yet another circumlocution for the Kingdom which is the inheritance of the Saints (cp. the German word "Reich," which is the root of the words Kingdom and Riches). In one of Paul's final statements the Kingdom is again associated with the "appearing", that is the Coming of Christ (II Tim. 4:1).
It may be felt that Paul sees the Kingdom as in some way present when he says that the Kingdom of God is "not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the spirit" (Rom. 14:16). Here the term Kingdom of God refers to the whole process of Christian salvation; the present life of the church should reflect the Life which will be granted in full measure when the Kingdom is finally manifested at the Second Coming.
Finally, in the Book of Revelation the Reign of the Saints is future: As the Community of the New Israel, "Kings and Priests to our God" (Rev. 1:6), "they [the faithful] shall rule on earth" (5:10). "The Kingdoms of this world become the Kingdoms of our God" at the Coming of the Messiah in glory (Rev. 11:15) and this arrival (Rev. 19:6-21) inaugurates the millennial Kingdom (Rev. 20). The treatment which this passage continues to suffer at the hands of those for whom the prospect of the Reign of Christ and the Saints is apparently unacceptable, is evidence of the wide-spread rejection in church circles of the central Apostolic hope for the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. The surprize and indignation which prompted Paul to question the ignorance of the Corinthians - "Do you not know that the Saints shall rule the world?" deserves a serious hearing among contemporary believers. In a dark world, nothing could be more calculated to inspire hope and endurance than the prospect of the Return of Christ to inaugurate a golden era of peace and justice: yet where shall we find that hope being proclaimed?
The statistical evidence of the New Testament occurrences of the term Kingdom of God points unquestionably to the fact that the Kingdom is essentially the Grand Event of the Coming Messianic Age "of which we speak" (Heb. 2:5). There are about seven times more references to the Kingdom as future than to its presence in the ministry of Christ and the church. These findings are confirmed by the remark of Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 97: "But far more frequently [than references to its presence] the Kingdom of Heaven is spoken of as a future blessing."
The Kingdom is the substance of the Hope which is to sustain the believer in the present life of trial and suffering, in preparation for the Life of the Coming Age. Lest any doubt should remain in the reader's mind, a simple piece of research will clear up all difficulties. It is admitted by all authorities that the inheritance which Christians are to possess is everywhere in the New Testament said to be still in the future. The faithful are now "heirs", not yet "inheritors" (James 2.5, etc.). "What is this inheritance?" asks the Theological Word Book of the Bible (p. 113). "'Kingdom of God,' 'the earth,' 'eternal life,' 'salvation'.... 'Kingdom of God' is the most characteristic description of the Inheritance." If the inheritance is future, and designated as the Kingdom of God, then beyond all question the Kingdom is primarily and essentially in the future, as the manifestation of the Reign of Christ and His Saints on earth. This is the great Hope of all the Hebrew prophets, confirmed by Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:8), as the heart of the Gospel of the Kingdom. Since the faith is founded on the words of Jesus (I Tim.6:3), the Church should be busy with the proclamation of the Kingdom (Matt. 24:14).
A look at where this concept of "souls separating from the body at death" comes from:
Most people are not aware that it is a Greek philisophical idea and not a true Christian teaching.
The celebrated Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible:
"No biblical text authorizes the statement that the soul is separated from the body at the moment of death" (Vol. 1, p. 802).
Christian Words and Christian Meanings, by John Burnaby (pp. 148, 149):
"Greek philosophers had argued that the dissolution which we call death happens to nothing but bodies, and that the souls of men are by their native constitution immortal. The Greek word for immortality occurs only once in the New Testament, and there it belongs to none but the King of Kings…. The immortality of the soul is no part of the Christian creed, just as it is no part of Christian anthropology to divide soul and body and confine the real man, the essence of personality, to supposedly separable soul for which embodiment is imprisonment…. Jesus taught no doctrine of everlasting life for disembodied souls, such as no Jew loyal to the faith his fathers could have accepted or even understood. But Jewish belief was in the raising of the dead at the Last Day."
(Why then do churches constantly say that disembodied souls have gone to heaven or hell?)
Companion Bible by E.W. Bullinger, on II Cor. 5:8:
"It is little less than a crime for anyone to pick out certain words and frame them into a sentence, not only disregarding the scope and context, but ignoring the other words in the verse, and quote the words ‘absent from the body, present with the Lord’ with the view of dispensing with the hope of the Resurrection (which is the subject of the whole passage) as though it were unnecessary; and as though ‘present with the Lord’ is obtainable without it."
Law and Grace, by Professor A. F. Knight (p. 79):
"In the Old Testament man is never considered to be a soul dwelling in a body, a soul that will one day be set free from the oppression of the body, at the death of that body, like a bird released from a cage. The Hebrews were not dualists in their understanding of God’s world."
Families at the Crossroads, by Rodney Clapp (pp. 95, 97):
"Following Greek and medieval Christian thought, we often sharply separate the soul and body, and emphasize that the individual soul survives death. What’s more we tend to believe the disembodied soul has escaped to heaven, to a more pleasant and fully alive existence. We mistakenly envision the Christian hope as an individual affair, a matter of separate souls taking flight to heaven. But none of this was the case for the ancient Israelites."
Martin Luther: "I think that there is not a place in Scripture of more force for the dead who have fallen asleep, than Ecc. 9:5 ("the dead know nothing at all"), understanding nothing of our state and condition — against the invocation of saints and the fiction of Purgatory."
DO SOULS GO TO HEAVEN?
While the Jehovah’s Witnesses and others are labeled cultists because they say that the soul does not go to heaven when a person dies, the records of early church history are testimony to the fact that "orthodoxy" is the real culprit.
Did the early church teach the separation of a conscious soul from its body at the moment of death and its departure to heaven?
Here are the words of Irenaeus of the mid-second century (Against Heresies, Bk. 5):
"Some who are reckoned among the orthodox go beyond the prearranged plan for the exaltation of the just, and are ignorant of the methods by which they are disciplined beforehand for incorruption. They thus entertain heretical opinions. For the heretics, not admitting the salvation of their flesh, affirm that immediately upon their death they shall pass above the heavens. Those persons, therefore, who reject a resurrection affecting the whole man, and do their best to remove it from the Christian scheme, know nothing as to the plan of resurrection. For they do not choose to understand that, if these things are as they say, the Lord Himself, in Whom they profess to believe, did not rise again on the third day, but immediately upon his expiring departed on high, leaving His body in the earth. But the facts are that for three days, He dwelt in the place where the dead were, as Jonas remained three days and three nights in the whale’s belly (Matt. 12:40) . . . David says, when prophesying of Him: ‘Thou hast delivered my soul from the nethermost hell (grave).’ And on rising the third day, He said to Mary, ‘Touch me not, for I have not yet ascended to my Father’ (John 20:17). . . . How then must not these men be put to confusion, who allege . . . that their inner man [soul], leaving the body here, ascends into the super-celestial place? For as the Lord ‘went away in the midst of the shadow of death’ (Ps. 86: 23), where the souls of the dead were, and afterwards arose in the body, and after the resurrection was taken up into heaven, it is obvious that the souls of His disciples also . . . shall go away into the invisible place . . . and there remain until the resurrection, awaiting that event. Then receiving their bodies, and rising in their entirety, bodily, just as the Lord rose, they shall come thus into the presence of God. As our Master did not at once take flight to heaven, but awaited the time of His resurrection . . . , so we ought also to await the time of our resurrection.
Inasmuch, therefore, as the opinions of certain orthodox persons are derived from heretical discourses, they are both ignorant of God’s dispensations, of the mystery of the resurrection of the just, and of the earthly KINGDOM which is the beginning of incorruption; by means of this KINGDOM those who shall be worthy are accustomed gradually to partake of the divine nature."
The protest of Justin Martyr against what later became orthodoxy, and remains so to this day, is no less incisive (Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 80):
"They who maintain the wrong opinion say that there is no resurrection of the flesh. . . As in the case of a yoke of oxen, if one or other is loosed from the yoke, neither of them can plough alone; so neither can soul or body alone effect anything, if they be unyoked from their communion . . ." [i.e. the soul can have no separate existence]. For what is man but the reasonable animal composed of body and soul? Is the soul by itself man? No; but the soul of man. Would the body be called man? No; but it is called the body of man. If then neither of these is by itself man, but that which is made up of the two together is called man, and God has called man to life and resurrection, He has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and body. . . Well, they say, the soul is incorruptible, being a part of God and inspired by Him. . . . Then what thanks are due to Him, and what manifestation of His power and goodness is it, if He purposed to save what is by nature saved. . . . but no thanks are due to one who saves what is his own; for this is to save himself. . . . How then did Christ raise the dead? Their souls or their bodies? Manifestly both. If the resurrection were only spiritual, it was requisite that He, in raising the dead, should show the body lying apart by itself, and the soul living apart by itself. But now He did not do so, but raised the body. . . . Why do we any longer endure those unbelieving arguments and fail to see that we are retrograding when we listen to such an argument as this: That the soul is immortal, but the body mortal, and incapable of being revived. For this we used to hear from Plato, even before we learned the truth. If then the Saviour said this and proclaimed salvation to the soul alone, what new thing beyond what we heard from Plato, did He bring us?"
Justin is here refuting the arguments of Gnosticism which denied the resurrection of the flesh. Traditional Christianity has taken a similar, but slightly different tack by including in the creed a belief in the resurrection of the body, while also teaching an immediate salvation of the soul alone in a conscious disembodied state. This is said to be the real person, albeit disembodied. Such an idea is flatly contradicted by Justin and Irenaeus and is identified by them as pagan.
Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho:
Trypho : "Do you really admit that this place Jerusalem shall be rebuilt? And do you expect your people to be gathered together, and made joyful with Christ and the Patriarchs...?"
Justin: "I and many others are of that opinion, and believe that this will take place, as you are assuredly aware; but on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith think otherwise. Moreover I pointed out to you that some who are called Christians, but are godless, impious heretics, teach doctrines that are in every way blasphemous, atheistical and foolish. . . . I choose to follow not men or men’s teachings, but God and the doctrines delivered by Him. For if you have fallen with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit the truth of the resurrection . . . who say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls when they die are taken to heaven, do not imagine that they are Christians . . . But I and others who are right-minded Christians on all points are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned and enlarged, as the prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah and others declare. . . . We have perceived, moreover, that the expression, ‘The Day of the Lord,’ is connected with this subject. And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the Apostles of Christ, who prophesied by a revelation that was made to him that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general and the eternal resurrection of all men would take place."
Justin’s statement on the Intermediate State (in full) (ca 150 AD)
"For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit the Truth of the resurrection and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; who say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls when they die are taken to heaven: do not imagine that they are Christians; just as one, if he would rightly consider it would not admit that the Sadducees, or similar sects of the Genistae, Meristae, Galilaeans, Hellenists, Pharisees, Baptists, are Jews, but are only called Jews, worshipping God with the lips, as God declared, but the heart was far from Him. But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned and enlarged, as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare." (Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 80, Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, Eerdmans, p. 239)
The Latin church father Tertullian (often known as the father of Western Christianity) is another who would disagree strongly with modern orthodoxy about what happens to the soul at death. He protested against the idea that the soul leaves the body at death and goes to heaven:
"Plato...dispatches at once to heaven such souls as he pleases.... To the question, whither the soul is withdrawn [at death] we now give the answer.... The Stoics place only their own souls, that is, the souls of the wise, in the mansions above. Plato, it is true, does not allow this destination to all the souls, indiscriminately, of even all the philosophers, but only those who have cultivated their philosophy out of love to boys..... In this system, then, the souls of the wise are carried up on high into the ether.... All other souls they thrust down to Hades.
By ourselves the lower regions of Hades are not supposed to be a bare cavity, nor some subterranean sewer of the world, but a vast deep space in the interior of the earth, and a concealed recess in its very bowels; inasmuch as we read that Christ in His death spent three days in the heart of the earth, that is, in the secret inner recess which is hidden in the earth, and enclosed by the earth, and superimposed on the abysmal depths which lie still lower down. Now although Christ is God, yet, being also man, "He died according to the Scriptures" (I Cor. 15:3) and "according to the same Scriptures was buried". With the same law of His being He fully complied, by remaining in Hades in the form and condition of a dead man; nor did He ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth, that He might there make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself.. This being the case you must suppose Hades to be a subterranean region and keep at arm’s length those who are too proud to believe that the souls of the faithful deserve a place in the lower regions. These persons who are "servants above their Lord, and disciples above their Master," would no doubt spurn to receive the comfort of the resurrection, if they must expect it in Abraham’s bosom. But it was for this purpose, say they that Christ descended into hell, that we might not ourselves have to descend thither. Well, then [they say], what difference is there between heathens and Christians, if the same prison awaits them all when dead? How, indeed, shall the soul mount up to heaven, where Christ is already sitting at the Father’s right hand, when as yet the archangel’s trumpet has not been heard by the command of God. When as yet those whom the coming of the Lord is to find on the earth, have not been caught up into the air to meet Him at His coming, in company with the dead in Christ, who shall be the first to arise? To no one is heaven opened. When the world, indeed, shall pass away, then the kingdom of heaven shall be opened...." (Treatise on the Soul, Ch. 55):
Another "Church Father," Hippolytus (ca 170-236), certainly did not think that souls were in heaven:
"But now we must speak of Hades, in which the souls both of the righteous and the unrighteous are detained…. The righteous will obtain the incorruptible and unfading Kingdom, who indeed are at present detained in Hades, but not in the same place with the unrighteous…. Thus far, then, on the subject of Hades, in which the souls of all are detained until the time God has determined; and then He will accomplish a resurrection of all, not by transferring souls into other bodies, but by raising the bodies themselves" (Against Plato, on the Cause of the Universe, 1, 2).
Modern scholars realize that the view of death which has prevailed (and is now promoted in church constantly) is not biblical . Far from it, it is, amazingly, actually "pagan" and "Gnostic." In a standard text of Christian Dogmatics we read:
"...the hellenization process by which Christianity adopted many Greek [PAGAN] thought patterns led in a different direction as the eschatological hope came to be expressed in Hellenistic categories. Irenaeus said: ‘It is manifest that the souls of His disciples also, upon whose account the Lord underwent these things shall go away in the invisible place allotted to them by God. and there remain until the resurrection, awaiting that event. Then receiving their bodies and rising in their entirety, that is bodily, just as the Lord arose, they shall come into the presence of God.’ Irenaeus’ statement contains the concept of an abode or purgatory in which the soul of the dead remains until the universal resurrection. We should not denounce this as a deviation from biblical teaching, since the point of the assertion is antignostic. Irenaeus wanted to reject the Gnostic idea that at the end of this earthly life the soul immediately ascends to its heavenly abode. As the early fathers fought the pagan idea that a part of the human person is simply immortal, it was important for them to assert that there is no rectilinear ascent to God. Once we die, life is over" (CHRISTIAN DOGMATICS, BRAATEN/JENSON, VOL. 2, p. 503, section written by Hans Schwartz, Professor of Protestant Theology, University of Regensburg, Federal Republic of Germany)
There is a further impressive protest against the popular idea that the dead survive as conscious "souls" in heaven. One might expect that such protest would initiate a wide-scale reform amongst the clergy. Alan Richardson writes in A Theological Word Book of the Bible (pp. 111, 112, emphasis added):
"The Bible writers, holding fast to the conviction that the created order owes its existence to the wisdom and love of God and is therefore essentially good, could not conceive of life after death as a disembodied existence [as millions of sincere believers now do] ("we shall not be found naked" — II Cor. 5:3), but as a renewal under conditions of the intimate unity of body and soul which was human life as they knew it. Hence death was thought of as the death of the whole man, and such phrases as ‘freedom from death,’ imperishability or immortality could only properly be used to describe what is meant by the phrase eternal or living God ‘who only has immortality’ (I Tim. 6:16). Man does not possess within himself the quality of deathlessness, but must, if he is to overcome the destructive power of death, receive it as the gift of God who ‘raised Christ from the dead,’ and put death aside like a covering garment (I Cor. 15:53, 54). It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that this possibility for man ((2 Tim. 1:10) has been brought to life and the hope confirmed that the corruption (Rom. 11:7) which is a universal feature of human life shall be effectively overcome."
The fundamental confusion about life after death which has so permeated traditional Christianity is brilliantly described by Dr. Paul Althaus in his book, The Theology of Martin Luther (Fortress Press, 1966, pp. 413, 414):
"The hope of the early church centered on the resurrection of the Last Day. It is this which first calls the dead into eternal life (I Cor. 15; Phil 3:21). This resurrection happens to the man and not only to the body. Paul speaks of the resurrection not ‘of the body’ but ‘of the dead.’ This understanding of the resurrection implicitly understands death as also affecting the whole man.... Thus the original Biblical concepts have been replaced by ideas from Hellenistic, Gnostic dualism. The New Testament idea of the resurrection which affects the whole man has had to give way to the immortality of the soul. The Last Day also loses its significance, for souls have received all that is decisively important long before this. Eschatological tension is no longer strongly directed to the day of Jesus’ Coming. The difference between this and the Hope of the New Testament is very great."
That difference may be witnessed in contemporary preaching at funerals which, though claiming the Bible as its source, reflects a pagan Platonism which both the New Testament and the early Church Fathers rejected.
Can belief in pagan ideas, promoted in the name of Jesus, lead to salvation?
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