The Kingdom of God: Here and Now
But, Gnostics claimed that since this Christ-Nous is God he was not and could not have been incarnate. So he also could not have been crucified. Instead, they said, Simon of Cyrene (Mt. 27:32) was crucified in his place. It was against this Gnostic view that the Council of Nicaea argued for Jesus' transcendence in immanence. They insisted that he was both fully human and fully divine.
That idea was not an invention of the Council of Nicaea. Nor was it a belief inferred from philosophical reflection on other beliefs. The Council argued for an already-existing Christian belief. Indeed, the Gospels appear to have been written at least partly to testify of Jesus' dual nature, and 1 John may have been written to counter Gnostic ideas. Christianity has preached transcendence in immanence from the beginning.
But what about scriptures that seem to teach explicitly that Jesus comes to us from an other-worldly, transcendent realm? Among the most obvious are John 8:23 and John 18:36. The first says "I am from above . . . I am not of this world." The second says, "My kingdom is not of this world." It is not difficult to see these as proof-texts for a belief in the wholly transcendent realm of God.
But that understanding is anachronistic. The earliest, Homeric meaning of the word translated "world" (kosmos) was "decoration." Well before the first century it had come to mean "good order, good behavior." As Liddell and Scott's lexicon shows us, Stoic philosophers used it with the latter meaning until at least 225 A.D. It also meant "the sum total of things there are." It makes sense to assume that such meanings inform John's use of the word.
Looking at the word in context, we see that John uses it with a twist. For him it doesn't mean "good order." Instead it means "the order or totality in which we are alienated from God." So when John tells us that Jesus said, "I am not of this world," we shouldn't hear Jesus saying that he comes from another sphere, a world metaphysically beyond this one. Instead he denies that he is part of the alienated order of things. By saying that he comes from another world Jesus teaches that he is not part of the sinful, alienated world though he lives in it.
Jesus tells us that the kingdom he promises is "at hand" (e.g., Mk. 1:15; see also Mt. 10:7). Most commonly the word translated "is at hand" (eggizō) means "is near in place" rather than "is near in time," though it can also mean the latter. Jesus teaches that "the kingdom of God is nearby."
The kingdom that he announces is not something distant that we must wait for. The realm above, the world that transcends, is a kingdom of which we can be part if we will repent. It is available to us. Jesus promises a divine ordering of the otherwise chaotic stuff—social and political, as well as physical and spiritual—that makes up our present and any future existence. And he tells us that his divine order is not far from us, not difficult to reach.
Notice also that in many passages Jesus urges us enter his kingdom now, in this world. We cannot wait for some other world beyond this one. Indeed, that is the point of Mark 1:15: "He said, 'The time prophesied has come. The kingdom of God is near. Turn yourselves around and believe the good news!'" Now, not later, is the crucial time.
The New Testament word for repentance, metanoia, means "turning away." The transcendence of the kingdom is nearby and all that entry into it requires is that we turn around and enter the gate that Jesus opens, that we turn away from the order of alienation and sin. And we can do that now.
To the degree that Christians postpone the kingdom of God for another world at another time—or beyond space and time—we fail to understand Jesus. He calls us to enter into a realm that is here and now, a transcendent realm in this world. Not a ladder away from where we are, but a turn within it that changes everything. Not pie in the sky when we die, but pie now.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.