Jesus clearly and unequivocally announced that the Kingdom of God would soon be coming to the earth (Matthew 16.27-28; Matthew 24.27, 30-31,34; Luke 21.27-28, 33-34 etc).
This was his Good News. According to the synoptic gospels his entire ministry was about announcing the arrival of this Kingdom and demonstrating it was just around the corner (Mark 1.15; Luke 11.20 etc). All of his teaching was predicated on his belief that God was soon to intervene in human affairs to right all wrongs, repair injustices and punish the wicked (Matt 5.3-12; 25.31-46). He had no message other than this.
Yet many – most? – Christians refuse to acknowledge any of this. For Christians, Jesus was about something else entirely. Many of them argue that even though he might have appeared to say that God’s Kingdom was imminent, this wasn’t what he really meant.
When he promised it would happen ‘within this generation’ (Matt 24.34), they say, what he really meant was the generation alive after certain calamities had taken place (Matt 24.15-31), evidently more than 2000 years into the future. As I’ve suggested before, this makes him one heartless bastard, standing, as he did, in front of the meek, the hungry and the downtrodden and promising them all would soon be well, when he was ‘really’ referring to people who wouldn’t be born for another two millennia.
But then he’s more specific about who he intends the promises for, when says in Matthew 16:28, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” ‘Some who are standing here’ – the people who were physically present, there in front of him, being addressed by him. It’s difficult to maintain that he meant people in the far future when he specifies those who are ‘standing here.’ Yet Christians maintain just this.
“Aah, yes,” they say, “but he was clear no-one knew the hour of the Kingdom’s return – not even himself.” Yes, he did say this – in Mark 13.32 – but there’s no conflict between this claim and his insistence the Kingdom would arrive soon. We all do this sort of thing when we say, ‘my parcel is due to be delivered some time today but I don’t know when exactly.’ This is what Jesus is claiming: ‘the Kingdom will be here very soon, though I don’t know precisely when.’ Too right he didn’t.
Nonetheless he thought he had a pretty good idea. In Matthew 10.23 he sends the disciples off to announce its arrival to the cities of Israel and tells them the Kingdom will have arrived before they return. When they get back (in the next verse!) the Kingdom is still conspicuously absent, so he and the gospel writers conveniently forget all about his rash promise. Where’s a good editor when you need one?
And then it all goes wrong for him. Jesus is arrested for his seditious idea that the existing system is about to be overturned and replaced (Matt 19.28), and he’s sentenced to death. Did he continue to hold out hope that God would act before the execution could be carried out? Did he expect his Heavenly Father to carry out a last minute rescue by bringing in the Kingdom with a great show of power? It seems likely, but as he hangs on the cross he realises, finally, that God is not going to act. God has let him down, as he always must, and a deserted and despondent Jesus cries out in dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34). How could he have got it so wrong?
‘No, no, It can’t end like this,’ cry the Christians in return (and indeed it didn’t). But how to explain (away) the great failure of Jesus’ mission heralding the arrival of God’s Kingdom on earth?
Don’t worry, our Christian friends are up to the task.