Are things getting better, or are they getting worse? Are we transforming this world into the kingdom of heaven, or is our world sliding into the pit of hell? Or maybe things aren’t really changing at all.
The question that I am raising concerns the kingdom of God that Jesus preached and its relationship to the world in which we live. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15), and that it was actually present in his actions (Luke 11:20) in Galilee and Judea 2000 years ago. Where is this kingdom of which Jesus spoke?
History and the Gospel
The Christian liberalism of the 19th century believed that God was working through his church (and through general human progress) to transform this world into the kingdom of God. Things are getting better – or at least they can get better if the church will just be faithful. World War I destroyed much of the optimism of early Christian liberalism, but it still lives on in new forms. There is an echo of this view in the motto: Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.
It’s hard to dismiss the liberal view completely. All things being equal, knowledge is better than ignorance. Health is better than disease. Freedom is better than slavery. Abundance is better than poverty. Creativity is better than drudgery. Order is better than chaos. From my point of view as a free, healthy, educated person with sufficient resources living an interesting life in a stable society, I’d say that there has been real progress. The majority of the world, however, does not yet enjoy these benefits. I also realize that most of our advances are double-edged swords, capable of creating greater mischief as well as greater good. In this tangled world, even good intentions produce disastrous unintended results.
Popularized apocalyptic Christianity, on the other hand, tends to see history in the opposite manner. Typically, in this view, the powers of this world are growing increasingly oppressive. The anti-Christ will arise. Tribulation will occur and all hell will break loose. Then, Jesus will come, crush the oppressor and establish his kingdom forever (or whisk us away to heaven).
There are all sorts of interesting variations among apocalyptic theologies. The most visible forms are highly literal, synthetic and speculative. They are literal in that “on the clouds” means “on the clouds.” They are synthetic in stringing together of passages from a variety of Biblical sources that may have no direct relationship, and in a manner unintended by the original authors. And they are speculative is correlating obscure Biblical images with current events.
I think there are a lot of problems with pop apocalyptic, and yet, the New Testament is undeniably apocalyptic in its outlook. The synoptic gospels and the book of Acts, the letters of Paul, Peter and John: they all use conventional apocalyptic language to portray a sudden, future transformation of reality by God. The gospel of John emphasizes the current reality of God’s kingly activity, but even it is written against a background of apocalyptic expectation (e.g. John 11:24, John 21:22). And then there is the Apocalypse of John. No, it’s not a roadmap of history. To remove its apocalyptic framework, however, is to deny its essential nature. Does God really intend for us to understand all of the New Testament’s apocalyptic references as symbolic allusions to the final outcome of countless incremental events in the present age? I don’t think so.