I am currently teaching the Gospel of Luke on Wednesday evenings and this week’s text raises issues that those of us who preach and teach an inclusive gospel must deal with. The text is Luke 17:20–37 where the kingdom of God is presented as both a present and future reality. My focus here is on the part that deals with the kingdom as future.
In response to a question raised by some Pharisees as to when the kingdom will come, Jesus tells them that the kingdom of God is in their midst (could be translated “within” them). Either way, the emphasis is on its present reality.
But does this mean that there will be no future realization/fulfillment of the kingdom? Jesus seems to be responding to this implied question in his teaching to his disciples in Luke 17:22–37.
The kingdom formula seems to be: Already here, but not yet in any complete sense; in our midst, but still to come; has come and will come; now and in the future. Many of us have a hard time keeping this balance.
Paul seems to be dealing with an imbalance in his first letter to the Corinthians. His whole discussion of Jesus’ resurrection and the future resurrection of the body in 1 Cor. 15 apparently was needed in view of the overemphasis some in the congregation were placing on the spiritual resurrection disciples experience in the present. Evidently, there was too much “realized eschatology” in Corinth and not enough “future eschatology.”
In my youth, I erred in just the opposite direction. When I was in high school I carried around for a year or so Hal Lindsay’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, along with my New Scofield Reference Bible, looking for Jesus to come back just any day.
I think Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, is, in one way, a reaction to too much “futurizing” by evangelical Christians to the neglect of collaborating and partnering with the Spirit of the living Christ and others to help see God’s kingdom realized now. Many evangelical Christians have certainly invested too much time in the interest of heaven and hell and not enough time helping bring heaven to earth.
In these verses in Luke, Jesus appears to be saying that the future version of the kingdom will come very suddenly and decisively. There will be no mistaking its arrival. For “on the day the Son of Man is revealed” it will be like lightning flashing across the sky from one end to the other.
Also, people will be doing what they normally do. They will be engaged in all their normal activities: “eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage . . . buying and selling, planting and building.” But then, as suddenly as disaster fell upon the victims of the flood and the city of Sodom, so will judgment fall and the kingdom come.
There is a fairly rigorous debate among Jesus scholars concerning what Jesus may have actually believed regarding the when and how of the kingdom’s future coming. There seems to be a growing number of scholars (represented by the likes of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, whom I like very much, but not so much their position here) that Jesus didn’t really believe and teach that the future kingdom was imminent and would come suddenly and decisively. They would contend that Luke 17:22–37 reflects what the early church believed (in this case the Lukan community), but not what Jesus believed. This is appealing, but I do not find it very likely. And though I am not a scholar, it does seem to me that most New Testament scholars do not regard it very likely either. (An excellent resource here is Dale C. Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet.)
At any rate, there's not much debate at all among the scholars on what the early church believed as reflected in the New Testament. They believed in a rather sudden and decisive coming of the Son of Man to usher in the future aspect of the kingdom. And most of these passages (for example: Mark 13, Luke 21, Matt 24, 1 Thess 4–5, 2 Thess 2) are very apocalyptic and dualistic. (For an excellent description and explanation of apocalyptic for the educated lay Christian see Craig C. Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future.) One exception to this is the position of N. T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. His writings have become quite popular here in America, and he takes the position that texts like Luke 17:22ff that speak of the glory and revelation of the Son of Man are actually about his resurrection/vindication, not his Second Coming and the future arrival of the kingdom. I am not aware, however, of any serious New Testament or Jesus scholar who follows his approach.
These apocalyptic, dualistic texts seem to clearly suggest that judgment precedes the arrival of the future kingdom and as a result, some are “in” and some are “out,” some are included while others are excluded. Here in Luke 17:34 “two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left” (“I wish we’d all been ready” as I use to sing).
Does this pose a problem for those of us who believe in an inclusive gospel and universal restoration/reconciliation of all creation? That all depends. In the Bible there are both dualistic and inclusive texts, and it can probably be demonstrated that there are more dualistic ones than inclusive ones. One of my critiques of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, is that he makes no serious mention of the dualistic texts and offers no adequate hermeneutic for interpreting them. And there are a bunch of them in the New Testament, because the New Testament was written in a milieu where an apocalyptic orientation/worldview was dominant.
I interpret the apocalyptic texts this way: The apocalyptic vision of judgment in its different forms and expressions serves as a very colorful and poignant way of saying that there will be vindication. The prophetic cry for justice for the victims of injustice and the oppressed will not go unheeded. God will put things right. But we need to tread carefully here with much grace, because all of us, to one degree or another, are both victim/the oppressed and the victimizer/the oppressor. (For example, most Americans are complicit in the poverty and impoverishment of the “have nots” in our world, simply by being Americans. The world could not sustain our standard of living.)
I spiritualize and de-apocalypticise passages like Luke 17:22–37 that drip with an apocalyptic over coating. Did the early disciples believe in a literal Second Coming? In all likelihood they did. Must we believe in a literal Second Coming? Often the answer is: If you believe the Bible you do! Well, I don’t believe in a literal Second Coming and it doesn’t mean that I don’t believe the Bible. One can take the Bible seriously (which I obviously do or I wouldn’t be conducting a verse-by-verse study through the Gospel of Luke with my church), without having to take it literally.
Here in this apocalyptic, dualistic text are spiritual lessons for all disciples of Jesus. Jesus’ warning against complacency is applicable in all contexts. We always need to be awake to the present moment. The living Christ is present in the here and now. Jesus told his home town folks in the synagogue in Nazareth, just after he read his job description from Isaiah 61, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Today, the living Christ is present and at work, both in our midst and within us, looking for partners, friends, collaborators, sisters and brothers to live in communion with him and in cooperation with his will to bring heaven to earth.
Eternity is now and now is all we have, so let’s live in tune with God’s dream for a new world of peace and righteousness, striving to help create God’s Beloved Community, awake to the Divine Spirit who is with us, in us, and for us, now and forever.