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.
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.