The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The Coming of the Kingdom

A reasoned analysis of the collected sayings of Jesus in the gospels shows that the central theme of the teaching of the historical Jesus was the announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God. [1] [a] In fact, the good news or glad tidings [b][2] preached by Jesus is that this kingdom is at hand (i.e. soon to arrive). The synoptics contain ample evidence of this preaching:

Mark 1:14-15
Jesus went in to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news."

Matthew 4:17
From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near."

Luke 4:43
But he said, "I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that was why I was sent."

But what does the "kingdom of God" mean? And, more importantly, what did the contemporaries of Jesus understand that to mean? The Jewish contemporaries of Jesus, the people he preached to and the scribes and priests he supposedly debated had an essentially eschatological world-view. That is to say, they believed God created the world with a definite purpose in mind. And that since this creation, man, tempted by the forces of evil, had deviated form this purpose. There will therefore be a definite point in time when God will overthrow the forces of evil and establish on this world his originally intended purpose. For the select few of God, this new world will be a life of unending happiness, which is their reward for holding on to God's words. The Kingdom of God is this new order. (Whether this Kingdom will be on earth or in heaven has always been debated.)

Many of the Jews living during the time of Jesus believed that this kingdom will be inaugurated soon. Just exactly how it will be inaugurated, no one knows for certain but most believe it will be done through an earthly vassal, the messiah (Greek: Christos), which means "the anointed one". [3] Whatever the case may be, this kingdom of God will be inaugurated, with or without the messiah, by divine action which will result in actual physical changes to this world. In all contemporaneous Jewish teachings this external and material kingdom is what is meant. There was no hint that the kingdom was to be understood in the spiritual, non-material, sense. [4]

It is important to note that the gospels have no record of Jesus ever attempting to redefine the meaning of the term Kingdom of God. From this we can conclude that he meant this term to have already been familiar and understood by his audience. In other words, the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus was the one expected by his contemporaries, the great eschatological transformation of the world. [5]

In the parables attributed to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is compared to a great banquet where all the righteous shall be invited (Mark 12:1-9; Matthew 22:1-4; Luke 14:15-24). The coming of the kingdom is not a gradual process but a sudden one. This is made clear by Jesus teaching as depicted in Mark:

Mark 13:32-37 (Also see Matthew 24:42-50; Luke 12:35-40; 13:25)
"No one knows about the day or the hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the father. Be on guard. Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It's like a man going away: He leaves his house in charge of his servants, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. So you must also keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back-whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, don't let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone."

That this idea was understood by, and indeed dominated, early Christianity we have ample evidence of. We find the coming of the Kingdom being equated with the sudden and unexpected arrival of a thief:

II Peter 3:10 (Also Revelation 3:3; 16:5)
the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Although Jesus stressed the suddenness and unexpected nature of the coming of the kingdom, he obviously believed that it was to happen soon, we have seen above in Mark 1:14-15 where Jesus said the Kingdom of God was at hand, that is very close indeed. In fact there are several passages in the gospels where Jesus set an upper limit for this eschatological transformation:

Mark 9:1 (Matthew 16:28; Luke 9:27) And he said to them, "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come to power."

In another passage after describing the events that will accompany the coming of the kingdom, Jesus again reminded his followers of this time limit:

Mark 13:24-30 (Matthew 24:29-34)
"But in those days, following that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens...when you see these things happening you will know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened."

The passages above show that Jesus expected the kingdom to be inaugurated within the lifetime of the generation of his disciples, [6] perhaps no more than a hundred years or so after AD30. It is also obvious that the early Christians and the authors of most other early New Testament books share this same opinion about the imminent coming of the kingdom. In fact, Luke tells us that some of Jesus' followers thought that the Kingdom of God would appear during Jesus' trip to Jerusalem [7]:

Luke 19:11
While they were listening to this, he went to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the Kingdom of God was going to appear at once.

During the lifetime of Jesus, his teaching was that he would announce the coming of the Kingdom and accompany its advent. After the death of Jesus, the expectation of the coming of the kingdom was transposed slightly into the parousia, that Jesus would return to bring about a new world order. As was stated above all the early New Testament documents, those written in the first century AD, contain this expectation of a speedy coming of the kingdom. Paul, the author of the earliest documents in the New Testament, said in no uncertain terms that he expected the parousia within the lifetime of his followers:

I Thessalonians 4:15
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.

Paul believed that the time of the parousia was so near that he advised his followers to eschew worldly things:

I Corinthians 7:29
What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as though they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as though they are not; those who buy something, as if it is not theirs to keep; those who used the things of the world, as if not engrossed in time. For this world in its present form is passing away.

The author of the tract to the Hebrews is also of the same belief:

Hebrews 1:1-2
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his son...

Hebrews 9:26
But now he [Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.

Hebrews 10:37
For in just a little while, He who is coming will come and will not be late.

The authors of the first epistle of Peter and the epistle of James are also of the same opinion:

I Peter 1:20
He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.

I Peter 4:7
The end of all things is near.

James 5:9
Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The judge is standing at the door!

The conclusion is inescapable, Jesus taught that the end of the world would come during the lifetime of his followers, and the first century Christians, with some minor modifications believed that it will be so. We know, of course, that the world did not end. Jesus, was thus a failed prophet, his prophecy did not come true. The next two millennia of Christianity was to be spent trying to explain away what was so obviously the central teaching of its nominal founder.

Of course Christianity had to move on despite of this failure of the coming of the kingdom. In the second and subsequent centuries Christians theologians had spent many hours and expended much thought in trying to modify or reinterpret the clear-cut references of Jesus to the kingdom and its imminent coming to suit their new theology.

These explanations and rationalizations can be divided into three basic categories. The first is the attempt to reinterpret the sayings of Jesus about the imminent coming of the kingdom as not references to the eschatological event at all but references to other happenings. The second is to reinterpret the literal time limit set by Jesus in an allegorical or other imaginative ways. The third rationalization is to deny that the coming of the Kingdom was a physical event and to assert that it was a spiritual one! It is obvious that Mark 9:1 and 13:30 are consistent with each other. Both verses had Jesus saying that the Kingdom of God would come during the lifetime of his followers. To avoid this obvious and natural interpretation some theologians had tried to assert that the two verses were referring , not to the kingdom of God but to two entirely different things.

In the fourth century, some Christian theologians hit upon the idea that Mark 9:1 could be interpreted as referring, not to the parousia, but to the Transfiguration! [8] We have already discussed the Transfiguration elsewhere. It is obvious that the explanation is absurd in the extreme and amounts to no more than theological wishful thinking. There are two reasons why this why this explanation is absurd. Firstly, if we look at the Transfiguration account as depicted in any of the gospels, it was an event that could hardly have been interpreted as "the kingdom of God come to power". And secondly if someone says "some of you will still be alive when such-and-such a thing happen" the time lapse he is thinking about would be around a few years or a few decades. According to Mark 9:2, the Transfiguration took place six days after Jesus said that some of those listening to him will still be alive during the coming of the kingdom. To ask a rhetorical question: how many of the hearers did Jesus expect to drop dead within that six day span such that only some of them would be alive at the time of the Transfiguration? [9] No the transfiguration hypothesis simply does not hold water.

The same can be said for the other explanation for Mark 13:30. Theologians have tried to identify this prophecy (Mark 13:5-30) with the fall of Jerusalem; hence representing a fulfilled prophecy of Jesus. This explanation of course is scarcely more credible or believable. [10] Just looking at verses 24 to 27, where Jesus prophesied about a sun which fail to shine, about stars falling from the sky and about him coming in clouds with great power and glory, should suffice to show that there is no way these events can be tied in to the fall of Jerusalem.

Undaunted by the failure of the first attempts at reinterpretation the theologians tried another explanation. This time, instead of focussing on reinterpreting the saying of Jesus as referring to something other than the coming of the kingdom, which they had to accept, they tried to reinterpret the time limit set by Jesus. The theologians tried to reinterpret "this generation" in Mark 13:30 to mean not Jesus' contemporaries but the "generation of the faithful for all time"! [11] St. Jerome (c342-420) even went to the absurd length of interpreting "this generation" to mean the whole of the human race! [12] Guignebert's comments sums up the second type of attempt:

Once the literal sense of the passage is abandoned, any interpretation is possible, but it is only the preconceived ideas of the expositors which obscures the plain meaning of the words. [13]

It is thus impossible to deny that Jesus was talking about the coming of the kingdom and he was setting a speedy time limit for its occurrence. The only recourse left to the theologians was to reinterpret the "coming of the kingdom" in a non-material sense. So they admitted that Jesus was talking about the kingdom and predicted its rapid advent. And then, they add, Jesus was not wrong, because the kingdom had come! Some of the readers may be doing a double take just at this moment: what the kingdom had come?? We are living in the new world order? No, of course not. The explanation of the theologians involve shifting the meaning of the "kingdom of God" from a material to a spiritual plane. That is, the "Kingdom of God" Jesus was talking about meant a "spiritual state" which was established by Jesus during his lifetime on earth. These theologians based their explanation principally on the passage below:

Luke 17:20-21
Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied " The Kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, 'Here it is', or 'there it is', because the Kingdom of God is within you.

Unfortunately for the theologians, we have good reasons for believing that the above passage as not being authentic. Jesus could hardly have told the Pharisees (who was presented throughout the gospels as Jesus' opponents) that the Kingdom of God was within them, or in their hearts. Moreover, the isolation of the above passage (for nowhere else is the idea of a spiritual kingdom of God repeated) is incredible. Furthermore, Jesus' words a few verses later totally contradicts this passage:

Luke 17:24
For the Son of Man in his day will be like lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.

In fact Luke 17:22-37 all serves to show the sudden and violent coming of the kingdom. The 21st verse is, therefore, in its present form unauthentic. [14]

In summary, Jesus was a Galilean prophet who taught (and thought) that the Kingdom of God would come within a hundred years or so of his lifetime. He also probably believe he would be the instrument to bring about this transformation. He was executed and the Kingdom of God never came. A sad but true story of a mistaken prophet.

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Notes

a.There is a group of scholars (main proponents: John Kloppenborg, Burton Mack, and Leif E. Vaage) that alleges that Jesus was originally a cynic philosopher. Their research is based on their claims of being able to get to the earliest layer of the Q material. This layer, called Q1, apparently consists of pithy aphorisms typical of itinerant cynic philosphers of that period. This has been challenged by schoalrs such as EP Sanders. The main problem is that while there were cities that were deeply influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, there was simply no evidence that Jesus actaully went to any of those places. Furthermore the sayings in Q1 might not even have been derived from Jesus. Since there were ample sources of cynical sayings that could have been attributed to Jesus by the "Q people." [15]
b.It is from the Anglo-Saxon word for "good news" (God-Spell) that our word for gospel was derived. Godspell originally meant, literally, a story from God, but has always been understood in a popular sense as "glad tidings".

References

1.Cuppitt & Armstrong, Who was Jesus?: p58
Guignebert, Jesus: p325
2.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p94
3.Nineham, Saint Mark: p43-46
4.Guignebert, Jesus: p329
5.Ibid: p329-330
6.Ibid: p344
7.Ibid: p332
8.Ibid: p344
9.Nineham, Saint Mark: p236
10.Guignebert, Jesus: p344
11.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p335
12.Guignebert, Jesus: p345
13.Ibid: p345
14.Ibid: p339-341
15.Price, Deconstructing Jesus: p162

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