The many and varied, Spirit-inspired interpretations of the Kingdom of God

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For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16.27–28).

Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24.34)

See also Matthew 24.27, 30-31; Luke 21:27-28, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 15.51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17; 1 John 2:17-181; Peter 4.7

The Kingdom of God. What does it look like? When will it happen? Has it happened? You’d think that with the Kingdom of God being a central part of Jesus’ teaching, the central part, in fact – his ‘good news’ is about nothing else – that these would be questions Christians would find easy to answer.

They don’t. The Holy Spirit inspires a variety of incompatible responses from the faithful to the what, when and where questions. The most popular is, of course, that the Kingdom of God equates with Heaven: the saved are all going to heaven when they die. Post-mortem bliss, most Christians would tell you, is what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. After all, doesn’t Matthew refer to the Kingdom as the Kingdom of Heaven? Yes… but no: an after-life in Heaven is not what Jesus and his scriptwriters meant by the Kingdom. If it was, they would have said so, rather than promising, as they do, that God’s Kingdom was coming to the Earth real soon.*

So, when Jesus says the kingdom is just around the corner, which he does repeatedly in the synoptic gospels, he can’t have meant Heaven. Let’s try another favourite: Jesus meant that God’s Kingdom on Earth would manifest itself thousands of years in the future – in our time, no less. It’s all to do, you see, with Jesus’ return and the final judgement. As these have yet to happen then the final part of God’s plan – his reclaiming of his creation – will be in the (far) future too. A neat solution to be sure, but one that runs counter to everything in the gospels and in Paul. Admittedly it’s an idea that was taking shape in 2 Peter (3.8), a forgery written about 150CE, long after it had become apparent the Kingdom was running way behind schedule. However, you won’t find it in the synoptic gospels or the Pauline epistles because it isn’t what Jesus, Paul, the gospel writers or the earliest Chrsitians believed.

Where does this leave Jesus’ devotees today? With a Jesus who didn’t really mean the Kingdom would be manifesting itself in the physical world. This Jesus proclaims the Kingdom as something that exists inside his followers as an internal state of being. It’s true some of his pronouncements appear to fit this interpretation; the Kingdom is within you and all that, but what these statements are about in context is the Kingdom’s immanence at the time; what Jesus was saying was, ‘the Kingdom is arriving now; look at the signs – it’s all around you.’ A gnostic flavoured restructuring of what he actually claimed is yet another Spirit-led interpretation we can dispense with.

Consequently, some Christians accept that, yes, Jesus preached a Kingdom that would dramatically materialise in the real world close to the time he was speaking. That it didn’t in any observable way creates a dilemma: as God Incarnate, perfect and infallible, Jesus can’t have been wrong. This must mean the Kingdom did arrive when he said it would and we are living in it now. The Kingdom, these Covenantists say, is another term for the Christian era; the reign of the church, the Age of the Holy Spirit. We’re living in the Kingdom and have been for two thousand years!

How’s that working out?

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Yes, this looks exactly like the Kingdom of God Jesus promised: An eternity of peace with death and illness banished and the meek having inherited the earth; the social order reversed, God in charge and Jesus and his pals running the show. Or not.

So, however the faithful (re)interpret his words, however much they twist, cherry-pick or just plain ignore them, Jesus was wrong. The Kingdom of God did not arrive on the earth in the first century as he predicted. It’s definitely not here now. It won’t be coming in the future and it doesn’t await in an after-life; these were never the deal. (See my earlier series, Making Excuses for Jesus, for more detail.)

Whatever Christians do, wherever their imaginary Holy Spirit leads them, they end up with implausible and incompatible ways of explaining (away) the non-arrival of the Kingdom of God that Jesus promised. It’s a fallacy, a fantasy, another delusion sustained by the wilfully ignorant.

*John 18.36 does have Jesus say that ‘his’ Kingdom, as it’s become by the time of the fourth gospel, is not of this world. John, however, bears little relation to the other gospels and was written at least 70 years after Jesus lived. In any case, it doesn’t say or mean that common-or-garden believers are going to Heaven when they die.

Can you be a Christian and … a Realist?

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If you’ve been reading this series of posts, you’ll pretty much know how this one’s going to go. You can’t really be Christian if you have, as the old song goes, half a brain. Still, it won’t hurt to see how compatible faith is with reality as we know it. You never know, we might be surprised.

Speaking of songs, I always liked Billy Joel’s ‘An Innocent Man’ from the album of the same name. Of course, by Christian reckoning there’s no such thing as an innocent man, nor woman or child – no, not one – because all have fallen short and are worthy only of death (Romans 3:23 & 6:23). All the same, we’ll give Billy the benefit of the doubt. In a song of insightful lyrics, the lines I particularly like are

Some people hope for a miracle cure
Some people just accept the world as it is
But I’m not willing to lay down and die
Because I am an innocent man

Christians seem to have such difficulty accepting the world as it is. They’re constantly upset that the world, which I’m taking to be synonymous with reality, does not and will not conform to what they expect of it. And when it doesn’t, it’s the world that’s at fault, that has it all wrong.

When the evidence is presented for climate change and our contribution to it, some believers announce, with no hint of irony, that God will never let it happen. He’ll step in, just like he always does, to prevent it. So take that Australia with your bush fires, Java with your floods and all you polar bears with your melting icebergs: God’s got it all in hand.

When a Hollywood movie depicts a same sex couple in the background of a scene for a nano-second, the born-again are apoplectic about the world’s immorality. When two female performers wiggle their bits, Franklin Graham – arch-supporter of the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief – has the hypocrisy to claim, ‘I don’t expect the world to act like the church, but our country has had a sense of moral decency on prime time television in order to protect children.’ Clearly he does expect the world to act like the church (which as we know is both spotless and sinless.) All these modern-day Jeremiah’s do.

Reality doesn’t, and won’t, conform to what Christians want it to be. So what to do? Either join with Graham and those other evangelicals railing pointlessly against reality, like Don Quixote and his damn windmills, or (and this a much more comfortable position to adopt) be like those climate change deniers and tell yourself that whatever sort of state the world is in, God will be step in any time soon to sort it all out. After all, this is what Jesus believed. He didn’t rant and rave about the state of things, brutal Romans and all, he just had a simple, smug faith that his Father was going to set everything right real soon and put him in charge.

Christianity demands that Jesus’ disciples deny the world; reject it, despise it. The faith has denial at its core, even of oneself. It demands reality be replaced with a fantasy version of the world.

As I’ve written before:

Christians, even moderate ones

Those older links could easily be replaced with up-to-date, reality-denying ones. This is what it’s like in the Christian bubble; with all this denial taking up space, there’s no room for accepting the world as it is, and trying to change what needs changing and improve what needs improving.

Again as I’ve said before, truth, reality and other people are the casualties of religion’s life-denying efforts at self-preservation. Fantasy and reality are just not compatible.

Christians’ Favourite Delusions 4: Heaven Awaits

Heaven2Quite a few Christians are now following this blog and I’d like to issue them with a challenge: show me where Jesus or the gospel writers or St Paul or any of the New Testament authors promise you that you’ll go to Heaven when you die.

Because, you see, the Bible doesn’t make any such promise.

Jesus was adamant that ‘the righteous’ (he’s not even talking about Christians!) would soon transfer into God’s new Kingdom on Earth. When you say the Lord’s prayer, Christians, this is exactly what you’re asking for: ‘Thy Kingdom come – on Earth as it is Heaven.’ As the former bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, puts it, ‘at no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, “Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven.” It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation’… in the first century, we might add.

Paul, with a version of Christianity that bears little resemblance to Jesus’ own, doesn’t teach that the believer will go to heaven either. In attempting to explain why the Kingdom is late in arriving – so late, in fact, that Christians were dying without seeing it – he invents the idea that the deceased will be woken up by Jesus when he returns to Earth (1 Thessalonians 4.14-16. And yes, he really did make up as he went along).

And after Paul? It was becoming increasingly apparent to later Christians that Jesus really wasn’t coming back any time soon. So they invented the idea that they would go to be with him. As Bart Ehrman puts it ‘with the passage of time, the apocalyptic notion of the resurrection of the body becomes transformed into the doctrine of the immortality of the soul’. But this is not what Jesus himself promised – and you’d think as ‘the Son of God’ he’d have known how it all worked – it’s not what St Paul taught and it’s not even what the trippy writer of Revelation claims. He too insists that everything is going to happen here on a recreated Earth (Revelation 21).

So the choice for you today, Christians, is whether you believe ‘God’s Word’ where, for once,  Jesus and Paul say much the same thing, or you go along with those later, post-biblical believers with their altogether different idea of what happens when we die.

Of course, you opt for the latter – even you have doubts that the Kingdom will come at this late stage – instead of facing the fact that when we die, we are just that: dead.

Ehrman D. Bart (2009) Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions of the Bible. Harper Collins: New York, page 266.