I am pleased to present a guest post from friend-of-the-Jesus-blog Wayne Coppins:
Status updates on Facebook are dangerous these days. My most recent Facebook update “just read Dale Allison's excursus on the Kingdom of God in Constructing Jesus - remarkable: wish I could go back and tell various undergraduates that they might not have been as incorrect as I led them to believe” resulted in a surprising invitation from Anthony Le Donne to do a guest post about the kingdom of God with a few insights from my recent reading of Constructing Jesus. This is a kind offer, which I shall take very literally, sharing only “a few insights” that will hopefully direct others to Allison’s characteristically insightful discussion.
It is not uncommon to find students equating the kingdom of God with a notion of “heaven” in the sense of “a place up there” or “a place that Christians will go to after they die”, and I have tended to respond by saying something like “we shouldn’t think of the kingdom of God as ‘a place that is somewhere else up in heaven’, but as a way of speaking of God’s kingly rule, as a way of speaking of what things look like when God rules as king”. I still hope that such words are not completely off target, but my reading of Dale Allison’s excursus on “The kingdom of God and the World to Come” in Constructing Jesus (pp.164-203) leads me to believe that my students might not be as wrongheaded as I suspected. mea culpa.
Rather than attempting to summarize Allison’s argument, let me pass on a few choice quotations from his excursus as a way of conveying something of its character:
“In Luke’s account of the passion, a repentant criminal crucified with Jesus entreats him, ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom … Jesus responds, in the next verse, with the comforting promise ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ … Now given that Jesus does not correct or reject the criminal’s request, given that ‘paradise’ seems to be Jesus’ substitute for ‘your kingdom,’ and given that ‘paradise’ is always, in Jewish literature, a place—the garden Adam and Eve lived in, the garden the just enter at death, the garden that the redeemed will enjoy in the world to come—we have here evidence that Luke, like Matthew, could think of the kingdom as a locale, indeed as something akin to what later Christians meant by ‘heaven.’” (183-184; for Matthew see Allison’s affirmation/appropriation of Jonathan Pennington’s interpretation of the kingdom of heaven on p. 182)
“My judgment, then, is that hē basileia tou theou is, in the Synoptics, a realm as well as a reign; it is a place and a time yet to come in which God will reign supreme.” (201)
“So even though I have come to the conclusion that hē basileia tou theou is more often than not, in the Jesus tradition, God’s new world, that does not exclude other meanings. The term in fact is polysemous, so that in some verses we can scarcely decide whether basileia means ‘realm’ or ‘reign’ or both or perhaps even something else. Ulrich Luz recognizes this when he writes that the kingdom of God ‘is not only the sovereignty of God in a functional sense; it is also a particular place, in which one can be … or into which one can enter.’ Although I would prefer to turn this around—the kingdom ‘is not only a particular place … it is also the sovereignty of God’—the inclusive formulation ‘not only … also’ is right.” (202)
As this last quotation shows, Allison does not attempt to squeeze all the hē basileia tou theou texts into a single mold. What he does do, however, is provide strong arguments for the view that a good number of them mean something like God’s new world, which has at least some points of contact with what my students mean when they associate the kingdom of God with “heaven”. And so I must return to the drawing board and think about how best to talk about this key phrase, how best to discuss its continuities and discontinuities with what Christians have referred to as “heaven”, and how best to relate it to what happens on earth.
Dr. Coppins is the Founder, CEO, and Supreme Commander of Awesomeness of this wonderful blog: http://germanforneutestamentler.com/