What Kind of Kingdom?

When N. T. Wright describes “Kingdom of God” in The Challenge of Jesus, he seems to be defending against two separate views he considers inadequate.  Frequently denies that Jewish expectations were looking for the “end of space and time,” which seems to mean “the end of the world.”  He has in mind here the distinctly American view of the end times found in traditional Dispensationalism (especially through Left Behind type fiction). Wright usually uses words like “lurid” to describe these apocalyptic fantasies. Essentially, most Dispensationalists have argued Jesus came to offer the kingdom promised in the Hebrew Bible to the Jewish people. Whether they know it or not, most Dispensationalists understand Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet and they understand the prophecies for a future kingdom more or less like many in the Second Temple period did.

rapture 1992


But Wright also wants to describe Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom as fairly radical in a Second Temple Jewish context. This means he must avoid the rather bland descriptions of the Kingdom as simply “doing good” or “loving your neighbor” popular in liberal Christianity. For Wright, Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom does refer to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, although how the prophecies are fulfilled are quite different than in pre-millennialism.

I think both sides have a cause to be annoyed at Wright’s characterization of their positions. For example, while Left Behind is one representation of Dispensational thinking, it is a fantasy story not a reasonable presentation of a theological position. To me, judging Dispensationalism by Left Behind is life judging Catholicism by the movie Dogma. This is a straw-man argument at best and an ad hominem argument at worst. Wright regularly points out people in the Second Temple period expected a “real kingdom in this world” not the end of the world. This is exactly what Dispensational writers have said about Jewish messianic hopes. It disappoints me that wild speculation in bad fiction is used to judge a theological system.

On the second front, Wright is correct to chastise protestant liberal interpretations of the Kingdom as “bland.” Most of these descriptions of the Kingdom are certainly not what Jesus 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 too many political and social issues which have to be dismissed if Jesus 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.

A major question to be resolved is “did Jesus think he was going to come back after the ascension?” If he did, what did he image he would be doing “when the Son of Man comes in all his glory, and all his angels with him” (Matt 25:31)?  If Jesus intended apocalyptic elements in his preaching of the Kingdom of God at the end of his life, perhaps there were there when he appeared in Galilee, announcing that the Kingdom of God was near.

I think there is room at the exegetical table for pre-millennialists.

9 thoughts on “What Kind of Kingdom?

  1. Several thoughts come to mind, as overall responses:

    1. Yes, both traditionalist Christians (pre-, post-, a-millennialists… all) and “liberals” tend to not adequately come to grips with just what is “The Kingdom of God”, what was Jesus’ teaching on it, etc… each with perspective biases and a MAJOR lack of wrestling with both history and story (as in careful, complete reading of the texts).

    2. I haven’t read Wright on this, but it seems your criticism is fair. Still, a fair presentation of the actual teachings of leading dispensationalists shows them to be quite implausible (or “impossible”) even in terms of good “biblical” theology. (A good expose can be found in the current issue of the SCP Journal – Spiritual Counterfeits Project – by Lee Penn… although I wouldn’t follow Penn as a guide to good ancient history or theological points.) But it is both fair and I believe important to expose the “errors” of the kind of Christian Zionism linked closely to dispensationalism, with its unthinking, unfiltered support for basically whatever national Israel currently wants to do.

    3. Was there even an “ascension”? There are tons of problems with the linked issues of bodily resurrection in which Jesus appears, teaches, etc., for 40 days, and then the supposed physical ascension. I won’t go into that here, of course… not your main point, but one germane to understanding Jesus on The Kingdom of God. (Hint re. my understanding: Jesus perhaps did “appear” in some sense, and not as “hallucination”, to direct disciples, as corresponding to Paul’s later experience that was obviously profoundly deep, little that we know of its specifics…. The Acts accounts are confusing probably because they are speculative… do NOT come from Paul, who kept the details to himself, as far as any of his writings surviving for us.) But, for a number of reasons, the ascension just doesn’t fit what Luke himself, and other writers present us, in addition to inferred evidence making it highly improbable, lacking support. If people need it as an article of faith, I understand, but don’t try to make it “historical”.

    • There is more in you response that merits comment, but let me comment on this quick before I have to run to class: “The “errors” of the kind of Christian Zionism linked closely to dispensationalism.” It is true some dispensationalists are hardcore Zionists, but that is not a requirement of the system. In fact, there was an article in an SDA magazine accusing dispensationalists of anti-Semitism. I know several people who are dispensational in their approach to the Bible but are not at all pro-Israel.

      • Yes, I realize a wide variety within dispensationalism, and even the pre-trib (vs. mid or post) rapturists… The idea of rapture is, I suppose somewhat separate from a “restored Kingdom”. But Acts itself does lay out a simple scheme of “dispensations” and does link it to when the Kingdom will be “restored” to Israel. Seems the expectation of imminent, this-lifetime expectation of Jesus’ “appearance” (or return) in glory had subsided within roughly 10 – 20 years of the destr. of Jeru. (I think Luke used “Antiquities” as a source, and for other add’l reasons is probably 95, earliest, likely a few years later.) But the Petrine author is still not expecting a long “delay” (also post 70, probably by quite a bit, in my view).

        Doesn’t it seem to you, theological finer points aside, that a relatively literalist reading of the Heb. Bible, with the belief in relatively accurate history in it (and also in the NT), combined with the “God’s Chosen People” concept all adds up to a prominent kind of Zionism? A form that is unique in terms of nationalism, given its claim to tie history and geography with “revealed” truth?

  2. A bit further: Pre-trib, Pre-mill Dispensationalism is a strange bird! (And I was thoroughly versed in it up to at least 1976, age 26 or so, studying it further from a distance much after that.) I realize it is part of what gets considered anti-semitic (really more anti-Judaism) in that it is strongly supercessionist, and many believers try to convert Jews actively, believing it is their only means of personal salvation. Is that the sense of some of the accusations you refer to?

    • Yes, the anti-Judaism is a result of the association of DT with “free grace” style salvation theology. Since 1976, things have changed! In the mid-1980s the Dispensational Study Group at ETS worked over quite a few of the classic positions, most of which were revised and restated in such a way that there were not as radical as Scofield and the traditional Dispensationalists. The results are the several books with “Progressive Dispensationalism” in the titles, more or less theologian who drank deeply at the well of George Ladd. For example, Robert Saucy, Darrell Bock, Craig Blaising are not crazy Left Behind rapture predicting types.

      Contact me privately with your address and I will send you a book, probably the best presentation of contemporary, if not progressive dispensational theology you are likely to read.

      • Thanks… It may well be, btw, that the SCP article by Penn is based on older info. I was kind of shocked that he called Paul the author of Hebrews with no qualification or anything… even for a lay audience this seems kind of dated or out of touch.

        I was generally aware of more moderate positions, begun even while I was at Talbot about ’75, and with some conversation with Robert Saucy a few years after. He (or others) jokingly called themselves “leaky dispensationalists”. Wm. Bass was one of my profs who was creating his own system called “Kingdom Transactionalism”. Unfortunately he died just a couple years later… maybe 4 or 5… at just 50 or so. I’d always enjoyed and learned well from him.

      • I read Clarence Bass in college (early 80s by then), it was a textbook for my dispensational classes. I had Saucy as well, his Case for Progressive Dispensationalism was a textbook, but he was far from an aggressive DT! (there was one OT prof who said “there is nothing progessive about my dispensationalism,” but most everyone was so relaxed about it you could hardly tell they were in the dispensationalist world.

        Darrell Bock wrote an article called “why I am a dispensationalist with a small D” some time ago (I’ll paste a link below). I heard him say at a regional ETS once that he was still in agreement with the article, although he was not really interested in doing “dispensationalist theology” as such. He does turn up in collections or as an editor for DT books, but he is not doing any new work in that area; he went on to work on Luke and Acts and do a great deal of excellent work in Jesus studies. As such, he is a kind of role model for me, since I am not creating new DT, but I work within that world.

        Here is the link:


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