Did Jesus announce the arrival of the kingdom here and now? Did Jesus see the kingdom coming gradually within human history? Or did he see it coming at some future time, appearing suddenly and bringing the end of history? Is the kingdom found in the present or in the future, or both?
This topic is subject to as much disagreement as is the nature of the kingdom. In fact it is usually intertwined with the nature of the kingdom. If the kingdom is a future reality created by God through some dramatic event, such a Jesus’ second coming, then we don’t have to take the kingdom seriously today. But if the kingdom of God is a present reality, then Jesus’ call to enter the kingdom has immediate importance to us.
Eschatology is the study of future things. The Greek root means “ideas about the end.” Eschatology is that branch of theology that deals with death, resurrection, judgment, and immortality. It often focuses on the Bible’s message about the last days and the last judgment. It speculates on the end of the world and the end of time.
Because some of Jesus’ words link the kingdom to the future coming of the “Son of Man,” eschatology has also been concerned with how the kingdom will come. Since Jesus taught his followers to pray “may your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” it is no wonder that for the last century theologians have debated whether the reign of God is already in our midst or will be arrive only when trumpets sound at the last day.
Just after the turn of the century, Albert Schweitzer, the German biblical scholar, theologian and musician who became a medical missionary in Africa, popularized the idea that Jesus had a “futurist” eschatology.
He suggested that Jesus held the same expectations as Jewish apocalyptic writers. According to Schweitzer, Jesus believed God was about to intervene immediately and dramatically in the affairs of humanity, and that his own life’s work was to be the decisive climax of history—a climax that would come within his own lifetime. This is what Jesus meant when he declared that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The last days have now begun. The end is at hand.
This is an ancient view that has its roots in inter-testament times (that is, the time between the writings of the Old Testament and the writings of the New Testament). A body of literature that we call apocalyptic grew up during the three centuries preceding Jesus. The writers of apocalyptic literature saw history as divided into two ages: this present age and the age that is to come.
Apocalyptic writers believed that the present age was wholly evil and could not be reformed. There was therefore no solution for this present age other than total destruction and obliteration. The age that is to come would be wholly good and wholly righteous. In it God’s chosen people would at last be vindicated, and would receive the place that was theirs by right.
The Jews believed this could never happen by human agency; and therefore, they looked for the direct intervention of God. God would directly descend into the arena of events. God would come striding onto the stage of history. God would blast this present world out of existence and bring in God’s own golden age. The day of the coming of God was called the Day of the Lord. And the Day of the Lord was to be a terrible time of terror and destruction and judgment, in which things as they now are would be shattered out of existence, and the new age tempestuously born. The Day of the Lord would be the birth pangs of a new age.
According to Schweitzer, Jesus pictured himself as “the messiah designate,” who would assume a position of full authority once the kingdom had actually arrived, reigning over God’s kingdom. Jesus saw his role as one who announced the coming of God’s reign. He confidently told his disciples that the “Son of Man” (an image from the apocalyptic book of Daniel) would come on the “clouds of heaven” within days. Schweitzer postulated that when the Day of the Lord did not immediately arrive, Jesus went to Jerusalem, the center of political and religious power, to create a crisis that would initiate God’s action. Jesus’ dream of glory ended in defeat on the cross, abandoned by God.
Thus, a futurist eschatology pictures a Jesus who was clearly wrong in his understanding of the coming of the kingdom of God. At least he was wrong on its timing. The Apostle Paul had the same problem. He too saw the coming of the reign of God as immanent. Over two millennia later, we are still waiting for the trumpets of heaven to blow, signalling and end to this world.
Charles Harold Dodd, a British theologian, proposed an alternative view to the futurists. Jesus was really saying that the kingdom was realized in himself—it arrived in his own person. The signs of God’s rule were present in the words and deeds of Jesus himself. Therefore the coming of Jesus was also the coming of God’s reign. As compared to Schweitzer, Dodd seems to be saying that the ministry of Jesus was not a prelude to the kingdom of God, it is the kingdom of God.
What made Jesus so unique in the first century was his conviction that the kingdom of God had already started happening. “The kingdom of God is among you,” Jesus says (Luke 17:22). God is acting now, in our midst.
To the eyes of the world, however, the presence of the kingdom remains hidden, unrecognized. It has broken into our world unnoticed, like a thief in the night. The signs of its activity are only visible to those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Jesus’ healing and eating with sinners were signs that God’s kingdom had arrived.
Jesus stood more in the tradition of a prophet than an apocalyptist. The prophet, a religious enthusiast who spoke truth to power, thought in terms of this present world. The prophetic message was often a cry for social, economic, and political justice. It was always a summons to people to obey God and to serve God within this present world. It was especially directed to the rich and powerful in society who make the rules and bias the sytem in their favor. To the prophet, it was this world which was to be reformed and to be remade. It was in this world that God’s will would ultimately be done. It was in this world that God’s kingdom would be established. The world was not entirely evil. It did not have to be destroyed to make way for the reign of God. The world could be transformed by the actions of committed people willing to die for their convictions.
The prophet believes in history. A prophet believes that in the events of history, within time and within the world, God’s will and God’s purpose are being worked out. In one sense, the prophet was an optimist, for, however sternly he condemned things as they are, he nonetheless believed that they could be mended, if people would accept the will and the commandments of God and would commit their lives to the healing and transformation of the world.
The apocalyptist, on the other hand, believed the world was beyond mending. To them, it was wholly given over to evil. The apocalyptists believed that reformation was not possible. They prayed for the creation of a new world, when this world had been shattered into destruction by the avenging wrath of God.
John the Baptist was an apocalyptist; Jesus was a prophet. Jesus preached a God of compassion, not one of wrath and judgment. And rather than the restoration of political and religious power through external action, Jesus painted a vision of God working to change the world from within.
Realized eschatology works well with many of the sayings and parables of Jesus. But there are still parts of the gospels that indicate there will be a future judgment and a winding up of things. The contradictory nature of these two strands are difficult to reconcile.
Because of the two strains of contradictory messages in the gospels, neither Schweitzer nor Dodd seem to have a solution that fits all of the pieces. A third type of eschatology tries to find a compromise. Inaugurated eschatology says that the kingdom did come in the person of Jesus, but its complete fulfillment is still in the future—it is inaugurated but not consumated.
The question remains, will that future fulfillment require an apocalypse—a cataclismic destruction? Many biblical scholars now agree that Jesus rejected the notion that God will act momentously on the Day of the Lord or that God intends to bring about the end of the world.
But the kingdom still has elements of both present and future—a present reality and a future reality. Jesus not only promised this new reality but already began to realize it, showing that it is possible in this world.
John Dominic Crossan refers to the kingdom of God as sapiential eschatology. The adjective sapiential means wisdom. According to Crossan, the reign of God is an alternative wisdom about how the world works. It presents an alternative vision to the prevailing conventional wisdom of the domination system which is the fundamental paradigm of most societies since the rise of civilization. It challenges our most basic beliefs about reality.