Worldview and the Kingdom of God
This is the third of a series of posts about a theology of worldview and world building.
The first is here.
The second is here.
The fourth is here.
The “kingdom of God” is a surprisingly important thing in the ministry of Jesus. I haven’t done the counting myself, but I read somewhere that Jesus spoke as much or more about the kingdom of God than He did about anything else. Yet, you don’t seem to hear much preaching or teaching on the subject. It gets bogged down on esoterica. From a worldview perspective, however, it’s central and straightforward.
1) Teachings of the kingdom of God sometimes appear contradictory
One of the sources of controversy in the study of the words of Jesus is the meaning of His statements about the Kingdom of God.
In some places, it seems like the Kingdom is present in our time on earth. In chapter 12 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus cast demons from a blind man, curing him. The establishment religious officials claimed that Jesus could do this because He was in league with the demons — they were following orders because He was boss. Jesus replied, saying:
… Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I by Beelzebulb cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
So, here, Jesus is saying that the kingdom has arrived. The Gospel of Luke notes of Jesus:
Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
In other places, it seems like its some sort of future construction. In the Revelation of John, there is an implication that the kingdom of God is established upon His return and victory:
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”
Similarly in Book of Daniel,
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.
In some areas it sounds like a physical place, particularly when discussed in prophecy. During Jesus ministry, He specifically notes that it is not physical, but something else.
When He was arrested, Jesus responds to Pilate in the Gospel of John:
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”
Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
That’s what happens when a transcendentalist talks to a postmodernist. The first lives in a fungible reality, and the second believes in fungible truth. But the bottom line is that the kingdom is “not of this world,” but is also “in your midst.” It began existing when Jesus started His ministry, yet will not be established until the end of days. What is up with that?
2) Most of the issues resolve if one views the kingdom of God as an internal one.
2.1) The current kingdom of God is the Christian worldview
Here’s what I think. I think it has to do with building a worldview, and then instantiating it. If you think of the kingdom of God as that model of reality that is approximated by the Christian worldview, then everything Jesus says about it makes perfect sense.
1) You can’t enter into the kingdom of heaven without being born again. Of course not, since being born again can be defined, at least in part, of abandoning your old worldview and accepting the validity of (and building) the Christian worldview.
2) The kingdom of God is in the midst of you. (Luke 17) Because this is a shared worldview, members of the family of God share it, and live in that world, distinct from the dominant worldview of common culture. This population that lives in the Christian worldview also lives in the midst of that common culture.
3) “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14) ” — The joy and righteousness that is derived from living in a coherent, Christ-centered world view is the goal, not concrete issues of dominion.
4) My kingdom is not of this world..” (John 18:36) — Again, the kingdom is not a physical land, but a conceptual worldview. But because it influences everything you see, do, and feel, it becomes the lens through which you experience this world — and the more your worldview is correct, from a Christian perspective, the more your experience of this world becomes like that you will experience when it is finally instantiated (as I discuss below). Thus, the more your worldview is correctly Christian, the more you experience the “taste” of the instantiated kingdom of God.
5) “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6) — Because the kingdom of God is a shared worldview, it doesn’t deal with the physicality of getting food, etc. However, the benefits of the shared worldview can have significant practical benefits (as described in part in my second post on this subject).
There is also a flipping of the secular position. From the secular position, the development of a robust worldview is a tool for success in life in the physical world. For a Christian (particularly a mystic), the opposite is true. Our existence in the real world, and the physical support we receive, is important only to allow us to develop our Christian worldview. This is why martyrdom is (ideally) not a problem, and why material success is not emphasized — and why so-called prosperity gospel is so dangerous. Our material well-being is important only to the degree that it allows us to work effectively in our Christian worldview development — instantiating the kingdom of God as best we can in our lives.
6) “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (John the Baptist talking about the arrival of Jesus — Mark 1) — Jesus detailed the construction of the Christian worldview upon His arrival. Until that time, it’s structure was not available.
7) “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,” (1 Corinthians 6) — The construction and embrace of the Christian worldview will demand that people live according to the “natural laws” of that world not those of the material world. Because every person’s construction will be flawed and to some degree incomplete, we will always break those laws, but we will not *deny* them, and we will not actively make efforts to consistently overcome them.
8) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5) — Just as construction of this worldview demands certain “natural laws” as mentioned above, so it will dictate certain attitudes and the place of the believer in that worldview. One of the demands of the Christian worldview is selflessness. To be able to fully construct the Christian worldview, it is necessary to adopt a perspective that facilitates it. It is also necessary to recognize that, however hard we try, our worldview will not be perfect, and we must not make the mistake of believing it is.
9) ““Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5) — One of the features of a well-constructed worldview is that it is resistant to challenge — it is not built on cognitive sand. But, as they say, “no pain, no gain.” Like most things, it is improved and made stronger by successfully overcoming challenges. Nietzsche may have said “That which does not kill me makes me stronger,” but for a Christian, death in the face of persecution represents the final victory of the Christian worldview over the test of the physical world. Death does make you stronger. A Christian who chooses martyrdom has made it to the point that the Christian worldview is of greater value to him or her than life itself. Death as a martyr is not a victory over physical death, but it is a victory over the death of the “self.” Because this is an ultimate test of the worldview and the ultimate expression of “mortality saliency,” it is no surprise that many Christians whose worldview is not as firmly constructed will abandon the worldview rather than annihilation of the self. It is no wonder that these martyrs have a distinct crown at the Judgement of Saints; it is a test that many, if not most, of us would fail — and one that none of us can be certain of until and unless it happens.
Once again, refer to Hagakure and bushido. The samurai lives by being “already dead,” and through the antemortem obliteration of self, establishes his psychic identity that transcends death within the worldview determined by honor and duty. The Christian is the samurai of faith, but in the opposite sense — through the embrace of eternal life in Jesus Christ, he or she establishes a psychic identity that transcends the threat of physical annihilation, within the worldview determined by duty and service to the Lord Jesus. The saumrai is “already dead” regardless of whether that physical annihilation has actually happened, but we are eternally alive, regardless of whether or not that physical annihilation has happened.
10) Jesus told the crowd another story. “Here is what the kingdom of heaven is like,” he said. “A man planted good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came. The enemy planted weeds among the wheat and then went away. The wheat began to grow and form grain. At the same time, weeds appeared.
“The owner’s slaves came to him. They said, ‘Sir, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then where did the weeds come from?’
“ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The slaves asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?’
“ ‘No,’ the owner answered. ‘While you are pulling up the weeds, you might pull up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the workers what to do. Here is what I will say to them. First collect the weeds. Tie them in bundles to be burned. Then gather the wheat. Bring it into my storeroom.’ ”
There are those who construct a “real” Christian worldview and and those, such as the nominal Christians and apostates described in my previous post who construct worldviews that only appear to be truly Christian to those who do not test it. Eventually, many of these false Christians worldviews will become evident, either because of the behavior of the person or because he or she abandons it. But it may not become evident for years, and at any given time, they may seem no different than someone who is faithfully building his or her worldview. Because even the faithful worldviews are works in progress, and may involve failures, false starts, and faulty construction, there are no real “litmus” tests for being a Christian other than the few simple axioms of the Christian — which may be falsely affirmed. It is only when that worldview meets a final test — in this life or the next, that its true structure can be revealed.
11) And said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18) — As noted in previous posts, adopting the Christian worldview is a choice, and it is an affirmation that requires absolute trust. It is the choice to trust and rely on God in the same way that a child relies on his or her parents.
12) And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” ( Matt 5) — When we begin our life’s journey as a Christian, the worldview we start with is pretty insubstantial, unless we’ve been raised in the church. But, as we mature as Christians, that worldview becomes more substantial, and can deal with anything we come across in life.
… and there are many more places where the kingdom of God is mentioned, of course. All of them, I believe, are consistent with this view. It also explains why the kingdom message was so important to Jesus.
2.2) The coming kingdom of God is an instantiation of the current one
The only fly in the ointment, for me, are the mentions of the concrete kingdom mentioned in prophesy. So what about this fire and brimstone and thrones and real kingdom stuff?
My personal opinion is that the kingdom of God established by the Christian worldview is not just a model of the world we live in now, but a predictive model of the physical kingdom of God that will establish. We live in a “virtual” kingdom of God, but we will eventually live in an instantiated one. By necessity, because we are fallible creatures with limited and inaccurate knowledge, limited intellects, and limited experience, all of our worldviews are wrong in many places. Once again, we “see thought a glass darkly,” and our approximations of the “true” Christian worldview will never reach the mark. But Jesus will instantiate that model — and it will be perfect. Thus, we as Christians build our own kingdoms of God that approximate the one that will be made real by God.
This provides an explanation of one of the more troubling verses that seems to mix the model and the reality, when Jesus tells his disciples, “And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” (Mark 9) – Obviously, He cannot be saying that He will come to establish the physical kingdom in the first century AD. But what He could mean is the Pentecost, when the faithful are truly filled with the Holy Spirit.
This is one of the more common interpretations of this, and not novel to me — but it makes sense within this worldview theology. Another common interpretation, for instance, is that He meant the Transfiguration, which would occur a few days later. And that could be. But I’ll choose to run with the worldview thing for now.
Consider the Pentecost. Here you have a group of people who have been studying at Jesus’ feet and under His direct tutelage learning how to build this new kind of worldview. And then the rug is pulled out from under it all with His death. He returns, but they still are uncertain and don’t know where things are going — the worldview is either in abeyance, or reconstruction. But, what does He do? He sends the Holy Spirit to provide direction and support. Imagine being one of the disciples at Pentecost and immediately afterwards — it was a complete game-changer for them, and I have little doubt it resulted in a radical change in their worldview – and involved the infusion of profound power associated with the Holy Spirit. Thus, the coming of the kingdom of god with great power may represent the reconstruction of the new Christian worldview using the power of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that these first generation Christians may have experienced the closest thing to full instantiation of the kingdom that could be experienced before the Second Coming.
There are a number of kingdom of God scriptures that imply a physical kingdom of God, both in the Old Testament and New Testament. Thus, in Daniel 7, the prophet writes:
And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them.’
and in Revelations 11,
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.
Clearly these do not speak of the kingdom on earth that Jesus mentioned as already present. I believe that it is a physical instantiation of it.
Perhaps the best secular analogy would be the statements by proponents of socialism, which is a very similar situation. The socialist worldview is detailed and has deep structure. There are benefits to having a socialist worldview, and it has important implications towards the socialists everyday life. However, it is an idealized system. It is one thing to work towards that idealized system and incorporate its values into your daily life. It is another thing to try to instantiate it in the real world. For socialism, every time it has been attempted, it has created a hell on earth, and betrays every one of its alleged goals. It is reasonable to ask why this is so. My personal belief is that it because of two things: human nature and the inherent problem of top-down organization.
Socialism believes in the perfectibility of man. A person is the product of upbringing and programming, and if only we could program him or her correctly, he or she would become the perfect socialist. Thus, in every socialist experiment, there is a planned period in which this restructuring of people and society must occur. This is sometimes called the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” It is accompanied by destruction of the previous cultures icons and structures, and rebuilding from a new beginning. This period has variously been called the “Reign of Terror,” “Killing Fields,” “Cultural Revolution,” etc. But it never works, because human nature is innate, not just a social construct. All this accomplishes in real terms is death, horror, and corruption. More important, people are not naturally as altruistic as socialists believe, and they can’t be programmed to be that way. Thus, people will maximize their own benefits. If socialists don’t want to pay on the basis of merit or accomplishment, then workers will do the minimum they can do, and will have no “ownership” of their jobs. As the old joke went in the Soviet Union “We pretend to work, and the government pretends to pay us.”
The second thing that drives socialism is the belief that society can best be managed though a top-down system run by the intellectual elite. However, this has never been the case, for real and practical reasons (for a good description, see Thomas Sowell’s “Intellectuals and Society“). There are real and concrete reasons why nature primarily uses bottom-up self-organization, and why it is always sub-optimal when building a culture. Socialists in leadership positions will become corrupt and autocratic. It will become a police state. Every time.
Thus, while socialist values and ideals may be attractive, the instantiation of them in the real world always ends in tragedy. Socialists keep trying to do it, saying that “it just hasn’t been done right, yet.” But it will never be done right, because of the reasons noted above.
I believe the same is true of religious society. The kingdom of God represents a worldview and ideal that has profound benefits, and as an ideal it is a wonderful way to build an individual life. The values encoded into the kingdom of God are stunningly good. However, the instantiation of that world view into a civil structure always ends up with problems. The problems are not nearly as bad as those associated with instantiation of socialist ideals, but they derive from the same problems — human nature and the arrogance and narcissism of the elites. In general, instantiations of Christian religious governments has not been as bad as socialist ones, but they have not been models of success. The American ideal of a secular government with a religious culture seems to have worked reasonably well, but it takes both the religious culture and the secular government. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The secular government with a secular culture drifts into authoritarianism and state socialism. The religious government with secular culture is unsustainable. The religious government with religious culture also drifts into authoritarianism. The unique combination of a secular government and religious culture creates a tension that avoids the worst of both worlds.
So, like socialism, it is not possible to truly instantiate the kingdom of God until Jesus returns. At that time both impediments will be removed. Human nature will be changed. With our new bodies will come new minds, freed from the bondage of sin, and no longer slaves to our base natures. That removes the first problem. The new kingdom will have Jesus Christ as an autocrat, but in contrast to autocrats on this earth, he will be the perfect “benign dictator.” It is the perfect instantiation of that ideal — and it will mesh correctly with the “new man” that is the result of our perfection after judgment. The model of the kingdom of God we build in our minds, and partially instantiate in the church and elsewhere, will become fully instantiated.
Another way to look at it is to use an analogy with fractal and multiresolution analyses. Fractal measurements are “in between” two dimensions, e.g. not two-dimensional or three-dimensional, but somewhere in-between. The classic example is the ‘coastline of Britain.” One can ask “how long is the coast of Britain” and one might think there is a simple answer. But, in fact, the length is a function of how closely you look. If one brings up a picture of Britain on a computer screen, you will get one measurement. If you magnify it, so you notice small inlets and irregularities of the coast you didn’t see before, it will be longer. If you magnify it more and measure around individual rocks on the coast, it will be longer. If you magnify it more and measure the boundary around every grain of sand, it will be much longer. In the end, the length of the coast of Britain is infinite — somewhere between 2D and 3D. One well known illustration of fractal imagery are images built up of small pieces that fit together to form shapes that are identical to the pieces, but larger. Thus, the image always looks the same, regardless of the scale you are looking at. There are a number of pictures and videos of this property. Many natural patterns have fractal properties. Along with fractal properties, another common property in nature is that of self-organization or “bottom-up” organization where large complex structures spontaneously arise from interactions by smaller structures. As the article in the link just given notes:
Self-organization refers to the emergence of an overall order in time and space of a given system that results from the collective interactions of its individual components. This concept has been widely recognized as a core principle in pattern formation for multi-component systems of the physical, chemical and biological world.
If it works in God’s world here, it may work for the Kingdom. Thus, it may be that the instantiation of the Kingdom in the large sense will be the result of the instantiation of the Kingdom in the small sense in their own lives by the family of believers.
3) This idea of worldbuilding allows a different interpretation of the Judgment of Saints.
This also allows a different view of the idea of salvation “as though by fire” in the Revelation of John. At the judgment of the saints, each of us will present our lives in terms of how well we lived and constructed a Christian worldview. All of those parts and connections of those worldviews that are not in accord with the “real” kingdom of God will be destroyed. Some folk will still have much of their worldview (and thus their identity) intact, while other’s internal worlds (and self-identity) will be in shambles. Those foundational bits will still be there, but the edifice of their lives will be otherwise destroyed.
In the next post — the role of the church in worldview construction.