John the Baptist, the Precursor to Christ, called the people of Judea to repent of their sins, that the Kingdom of God is “at hand.” Thousands, moved by his words, came to him to be baptized in the Jordan River...but what did they think he was telling them was “at hand?”
A lot of folks alive today have trouble with it. Can we expect that the Judeans of the First Century found it crystal clear?
Among the more interesting divergences between the doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and those of orthodox Christianity is this one: the Witnesses maintain that the Kingdom of God is to be achieved in this world. Given human free will and its implications for the persistence of evil, I can’t see it. Then again, I’m not a Witness, so perhaps I’d need to steep myself in the whole of Witness theology to get a purchase on it. At any rate, the more traditional Christian sects hold that the Kingdom of God, a.k.a. Heaven, is a supra-physical realm to be attained only after passing from this life. Even the Revelations of St. John are interpreted thus.
However, it’s easy to imagine, especially given Judaic traditions concerning the Messiah, that many of those John baptized might have thought that a temporal Kingdom of God would soon be upon them. When Jesus began His public ministry and told of the Kingdom of God through parables, the clash with traditional Judaic belief were considerable. When He said to Pilate that “My kingdom is not of this world,” the clash became absolute: either Jesus was not the Messiah the Jews of Judea had expected for centuries, or the prophecies concerning an eventual Messiah were an enormous distance from the reality, for the Messiah had left them in thrall to the Roman occupiers and assorted evildoers.
Given the Judaic scriptural tradition, it’s easy to see why many Jews were unable to accept Him as the one they had been promised.
Just as with the First Century Judeans, the human desire for relief from predation and privation in this world is enough to persuade many persons that the Christian promise isn’t good enough for them. God’s love is all very well, they might say, but what about my mortgage, my property taxes, and my kids’ orthodontia bills? Can’t we have a little Divine relief while we’re still alive to enjoy it?
Ultimately, it’s an argument over premises. Those who accept the Christian Covenant are unable to satisfy those who won’t be satisfied with anything short of Heaven on Earth; the premises of the two camps are diametrically opposed. And as I sit here pondering it, it occurs to me that there just might be some value in that for both groups.
It’s a tenet of Christian faith that no good man will be denied his just reward in the afterlife. That’s a fairly recent revision of Christian doctrine, but an important one. If Christians can bear that firmly in mind, especially in our dealings with good men who don’t share our premises, we can be more effective in this world – and not merely as evangelists. It underlines the importance of living the faith. Saint Francis of Assisi’s possibly apocryphal exhortation – “At all times preach the Gospels; when necessary, use words” – improves the world around us as it improves our souls.
Whether or not he actually said it, Saint Francis certainly lived it.
Though the Kingdom of God is not to be realized under the veil of Time, it remains an ideal toward which to strive. The Advent season, during which we prepare ourselves for the Feast of the Nativity, should remind us of that.
Secularists, unpersuaded that a Creator and a supra-temporal realm exist, are nevertheless as susceptible as anyone to the lure of the admirable. Everyone is naturally drawn toward those he admires. Admiration breeds emulation, in deed if not in creed. Evoking such emulation is the most positive thing anyone could do for the world around him. It’s a notion we should bear in mind at all times, not just in the four weeks before Christmas.
May God bless and keep you all.