One of the things that has always annoyed me about N. T. Wright’s description of the Kingdom in the Gospels is that he seems to be guarding the idea of the Kingdom on two separate fronts. On the one hand, he frequently denies that Jewish expectations were looking for the “end of space and time,” or the end of the world. Here has in mind the typical American view of the end times as channeled through the Left Behind series. Wright usually uses words like “lurid” to describe these apocalyptic fantasies. (While I do believe in a future rapture, I think that pop-media goes too far, turning what was a “blessed hope” into a post-apocalyptic movie of Schwarzenegger-ian proportions.)
On the other hand, Wright wants to invest the Kingdom with a fair amount of radicalness in the first century. This means he must avoid the rather bland descriptions of the Kingdom as doing good and loving your neighbor popular in liberal Christianity. In Simply Jesus, for example, he compares Jesus to several messianic movements in the Second Temple period. Jesus is in many ways more radical than these, but obviously less militaristic.
I think both sides have a cause to be annoyed at Wright’s regular characterization of their positions. For example, while Left Behind is one representation of Dispensationalist thinking, it is in fact fantasy, a fictional “what if” story and not at all a reasonable presentation of a theology. To me, judging Dispensationalism by Left Behind is life judging Catholicism by the movie Dogma. This is a strawman argument at best and an ad hominem argument at worst. Wright regular points out that the Jews expected a real kingdom in this world, not the end of the world whether (post-apocalyptic or eternal state). This is exactly what Dispensationalist have always said about Jewish messianic hopes. It disappoints me that wild speculation in bad fiction is used to judge a theological system. (There are many good reasons to attack dispensational theology, the popularity of the Left Behind series ought not be one of them).
On the second front, Wright is correct that protestant liberal interpretations of the Kingdom are bland and not at all what Jesus would have meant. Nor would Jesus have been understood if he tried to present a Kingdom which was based on the “Golden Rule” alone. There are far more political and social issues in the teaching of Jesus which have to be dismissed if he was just telling us to be nice to each other. What is more, why kill someone who was encouraging us to love one another? What harm could Jesus have done if that was all he really taught? No, there is something more in the teaching of Jesus, something which was a challenge to the worldview of the people who heard him teach and watched him “act out” the Kingdom of God.
Wright is certainly correct when he states that Jesus was offering a critique of his contemporaries from within, “his summons was not to abandon Judaism and try something else, but to be the true, returned-from-exile people of the one true God” (Challenge of Jesus, 52). Jesus is presenting himself as the voice of Isaiah 40-55 – calling his people out of exile to meet their messiah and to enjoy a renewed relationship with their God.