Sketches of the Three Kingdoms of Christianity

DSC_0966“Our Father in Heaven. Your Kingdom Come.” This familiar prayer has been spoken by Christians for over 2,000 years. But over the span of Christian history, we seem to have directed the longing this prayer expresses in three directions. Maybe there are more, but the way I read it, Christianity longs for a three-fold kingdom of God.

The Kingdom that most first century Jews awaited, was the Kingdom God would establish in this world. The coming of a Messiah, an anointed one, in the line of King David would restore the Kingdom of Israel to its former glory and usher in the return of the Justice of God. The world would be made new, and even creation would be appeased. The whole world would flock to its borders.

With the rise of Christianity, this Kingdom was equated with the church. Early Christians including Saint Paul believed that Christ’s return was imminent, and Paul busied himself preparing the People of God to reign in that Kingdom. After it became clear that Jesus was probably not coming anytime soon, the Church settled into a worldly but watchful stance, awaiting Christ’s return, while expanding God’s kingdom through empire. The imperial Church was to spread the faith and the church far and wide.

In a more contemporary reading, the branch of Christian eschatology sometimes referred to as Postmillennialism, posits that the Kingdom of God, began when Christ appeared on earth, and that it is up to us to fully build up this Kingdom on the earth. As Christians we must establish this kingdom by working for justice, equality and sustainability here and now.

The Second vision of the Kingdom of God, is the one that Christians await after death. Despite an incarnational theology that valorizes the body, many early Christians influenced by Platonism, would celebrate this post-mortal realm of God’s Heavenly Kingdom over and against the kingdom of this world. Some Christians even began to hate the things of this world and even the body, because the things of the spirit and heaven were perfect and undefiled.

The third Kingdom, which seems to be all the rage these days, is the Kingdom within. “The Kingdom of God is within” as Jesus said, and as Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy wrote about in his book The Kingdom of God is Within You. Trappist monk Thomas Merton was one of many voices to popularize this Kingdom in the 20th century, in dialogue with Buddhists, Sufis and Hindus.

It seems that within Christianity, each sect or denomination gravitates toward one of the three Kingdoms as their main emphasis. I wonder if a balanced view between all three is more preferable? Is one of the three more important to faith? Does orientation toward one or the others have consequences for how we live out our Christianity in this world? What do you think of this three-fold assessment? Do you have quotations that support one or more of these categories? Please share in the comments.

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