I picked up a discounted copy of Roger Olson’s A-Z of Evangelical Theology (SCM, 2005) in the London School of Theology book shop earlier in the week. A central theme of the book that I am currently working on will be the kingdom of God and how to live with it, so I had a look at Roger’s brief article on the topic (226-27). He notes, first, that some evangelicals take the Augustinian view that the kingdom of God “exists secretly in the world wherever the true church of Jesus Christ worships and serves”. The kingdom is spiritual, not to be identified with any “historical socio-political arrangement”, and will only be fulfilled “in the eschaton, when Christ returns triumphantly to establish it in the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem”. So the kingdom is “already”, exhibited in the life of the church, and “not yet”, to be fulfilled in the “visible rule of Christ over creation after his return to earth”.
Then he gets on to discussing the standard views of the millennium.
- For amillennialists, who do not expect a “literal one-thousand-year sociopolitical rule and reign of Christ within history”, the kingdom of God is spiritual now but will become visible in the new heaven and new earth. That’s pretty much the mainstream Augustinian-evangelical view.
- Postmillennialists think that the kingdom of God will be a thousand year period of peace and righteousness prior to the return of Christ, brought into effect by the evangelistic proclamation and social action of the church.
- Premillennialists expect Christ to return and set up a literal thousand year reign of Christ over the whole world, which will be the kingdom of God.
- Dispensationalists are a species of premillennialist who believe that the kingdom of God will be fulfilled when Christ comes to rule bodily over this world from Jerusalem; the temple will be rebuilt, and restored Israel will serve as “Jesus’ administrators over his worldwide kingdom”.
I used to think that I was a modified amillennialist: the thousand years is a symbol for the indefinite era of the church, only beginning not with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost but with the overthrow of pagan imperialism—the thousand year period begins right after the judgment against Babylon the great.
That still works up to a point, but I would be more inclined now to stress the political dimension to Christ’s rule. So as a realized premillennialist I would say that, historically speaking, the kingdom of God came when the arch pagan enemy of the people of God was overthrown and Christ was confessed as Lord by the nations. Christendom was the political fulfilment of the conviction expressed both in the Old Testament and the New Testament that Israel’s God would eventually inherit the nations:
Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations! (Ps. 82:8)
What the New Testament adds to this is the belief that this will surely come about because Jesus was obedient unto death on a cross, was raised from the dead, was exalted to the right hand of God, and was given
the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9–11)
So the kingdom of God was “now and not yet” up until the moment Jesus came to deliver the persecuted church from its enemies, and the Son of Man came on the clouds of heaven to receive the kingdom that had been taken from the demonically inspired pagan empire which was the fourth beast, reinterpreted in the first century Jewish-Christian imagination as Rome. In this regard, at least, the kingdom of God was very much a ”historical socio-political arrangement”: God demonstrated his sovereignty in the world, as in the Old Testament, through the historical events that constituted the transformation and vindication of his people.
Since then we have lived with the consequences of the fact that the kingdom has come—that through the faithful, long-suffering witness of the early churches the nations recognized the public, political fact that the God whom Israel had struggled to stay loyal to for hundreds of years had made his “Son” ruler over all things. And we will live with these consequences, even though the concrete political embodiment of Christ’s rule over all things has collapsed, until the creator God remakes heaven and earth. The amillennialist tendency to conflate the final coming of the kingdom of God and the renewal of creation is, in my view, a mistake.