Monday, September 14, 2009

What is the Kingdom of God?

It is an easy question to ask and a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Of all the topics Jesus touched on, he talked about this one the most. So it's not surprising that how we, as Christians, answer this question can have a profound impact on our theology. How we understand the Kingdom of God impacts our understanding of God, the gospel, eschatology, faith, politics and a whole range of issues. So, how do we answer this question? Today I'd like to talk about a few of the most common answers to this question.

First answer: The Kingdom of God is a political kingdom. According to this view, the Kingdom of God is a place where God exerts his power and authority, either directly or indirectly. A common aspect of this view is the expectation that God will reward the righteous and punish the wicked. This is a view that often motivates Christians to seek political power. Interestingly, this view was also foremost in the mind of Jesus' original audience and many of Jesus' teachings are meant to address this viewpoint. Jesus wanted his followers to understand that the Kingdom of God is not primarily a political Kingdom.

Second answer: The Kingdom of God is a religious group. People who hold certain beliefs or identify with a certain religious group are members of the Kingdom of God. This group might be large (everyone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God) or small (everyone in my particular sect). Either way, in this view, the emphasis is on evangelism and conversion. If the Kingdom of God consists of everyone who belongs to your religious group, then you want to bring more people in so the Kingdom can grow. This view also tends to place an emphasis on the individual. The Kingdom comes one person at a time as people convert, so individual decisions to believe are important.

Third answer: The Kingdom of God is a moral condition. In this view, the Kingdom of God consists of people who do what God wants them to. In this view, the emphasis is on people's behavior. This usually means that you want people to uphold some kind of moral code. This code can be simple, like, "Love God and love one another," or it can be very complicated with a lot of seemingly arbitrary rules, like, "Women must wear hats." In either case the goal is to convince people to uphold this moral code. This is also pretty individualistic, although the moral code usually addresses how we treat others, so it's less individualistic than the previous answer.

Fourth answer: The Kingdom of God is a social condition. In this view, the Kingdom of God consists of people treating each other fairly. This is similar to the theory that the Kingdom of God is a moral condition. To explain the difference, let me tell a story. Imagine that a dictator of a small country is oppressing millions of people. One day, the dictator sees the error of his ways and decides to stop oppressing all those people. If the Kingdom of God is a moral condition, then the dictator entered the Kingdom by acting morally. If the Kingdom of God is a social condition, then his formerly oppressed subjects entered the Kingdom because they're now being treated fairly. In contrast to the earlier views, this view is pretty collective. It is also a view that is mostly concerned with the condition of the world.

Fifth answer: The Kingdom of God is a spiritual outpouring. The Kingdom of God is the place where God's Spirit resides. In this view the Kingdom of God is characterized by the work of the Holy Spirit. This can include things like signs and wonders, miraculous healings, people speaking in tongues, and other strange phenomena. It can also include more subtle things like feelings of joy or an awareness of God's presence. This view tends to emphasize experience over reason and, from the viewpoint of outsiders, is one of the strangest.

Considering each view on its own, I think it's pretty clear that none of them offers a complete picture of the Kingdom of God. Most Christians hold a view that is a combination of the above views. For example, groups like the Moral Majority hold a synthesis of the political view and the moral view. They use political power to try and elect representatives who will legislate their moral code. Liberation theology, on the other hand, represents a synthesis of the political view and the social view. They seek political power to correct social injustice in the world.

This week, I'd like to ask two different questions. If you're a Christian, what view of the Kingdom of God do you think best reflects your views? If you're not a Christian, which view seems the most reasonable (or the least crazy)? I look forward to your responses.

1 comment:

  1. In retrospect, I realize that I missed one other common answer to the question, "What is the Kingdom of God?" In fact, the answer I missed is probably the most common/traditional answer out there. For many churches "The Kingdom of God" is a place where people go when they die. In this view, the Kingdom of God is an entirely spiritual reality that has very little bearing on present day earth.

    In omitting this answer I'm giving away my biases. It's not that I don't believe in heaven or in an afterlife. I do believe in those things, but I tend to think of the Kingdom of God in terms of how it impacts our present lives.

    Now, this view can impact the present, in that it motivates people to do or believe things so that they can go to heaven when they die. But the focus is entirely on the next life and on the age to come. I think it's just as important that we focus on the present age and on our lives now.