Consistent or Realized Eschatology in Matthew

George Eldon Ladd  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 5 - Fall 1962

The pendulum in theological and biblical studies often swings from one extreme to the other. A half century ago, Albert Schweitzer severely jolted the world of New Testament criticism by his interpretation of Jesus in exclusively eschatological terms. This view has come to be known as consistent eschatology. Schweitzer is one of the great minds of our generation, and a noble humanitarian. However, he pictured Jesus as a deluded Jewish apocalyptist who proclaimed an eschatological kingdom which never came and which never can come. Jesus had no message about the rule of God in the world or his divine purpose for mankind in history. He believed, mistakenly, that God was about to break off history and establish his eschatological kingdom in which he, Jesus, would be elevated to the glorious status of the Son of Man. For Schweitzer, the kingdom is altogether future and eschatological. Its only relation to the present was its imminence.

Schweitzer’s consistent eschatology has been one of the most influential interpretations in the modern study of New Testament theology. It has been adopted by Rudolf Bultmann and many of his followers. Bultmann designates as “escape-reasoning” the view that “Jesus saw the presence of God’s Reign in his own person and in the followers who gathered about him. But such a view cannot be substantiated by a single saying of Jesus, and it contradicts the meaning of ‘God’s Reign.'”[1]Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), I, 22. Bultmann sees Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God as no part of the Christian message but as an element to Judaism. Bultmann does indeed find a deeper ex­istential meaning in Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God; but in its form, Jesus was only a Jewish eschatological prophet.

At the other extreme we have the “realized eschatology” of C. H. Dodd,[2]See The Parables of the Kingdom (London and New York: Nisbet and Co., Ltd., 1935); and The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments (London: Harper and Brothers, 1936). who argues that Jesus’ proclamation that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk. 1:15) really means, “the kingdom of God has come.” Instead of preaching the imminent coming of an apocalyptic inbreaking of God to terminate history and establish the kingdom of God as an eschatological order, as Schweitzer thought, Jesus, according to Dodd, proclaimed the present coming of the eternal order into history in his own person and mission. The crisis is not future; it is present. This “realized eschatology” was both the message of Jesus and the heart of the kerygma in the primitive church, in Paul, and in John. All that the prophets had hoped for in the eschatological kingdom of God is now realized in present Christian experience.

This debate between consistent and realized eschatology has gone on, and there is as yet in New Testament scholarship no pre­ vailing consensus. However, Schweitzer has compelled all biblical students to take eschatology seriously; and there is a growing recognition that in some sense of the word, eschatology must be both future and present.

The expression “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of the heavens” in Matthew[3]It is almost universally recognized in New Testament scholarship that the difference between these terms is philological and not theological. They are practically synonymous in meaning. See G. E. Ladd, Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1952), pp. 122f. designates both a future realm into which men will enter at the parousia of the Son of Man, and also a present realm into which men are already entering. The kingdom of God designates the future realm of salvation and of eternal life in the age to come. This is most clearly seen in the discussion with the rich young man who asked the way to eternal life. (Matt. 19:16). His question was not concerned with eternal life as a present possession, as it is expounded in John’s Gospel, but eternal life as an eschatological inheritance in terms of the Old Testament (Dan. 12:2) and contemporary Jewish concepts. In the ensuing discussion, Jesus speaks about entering into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:23), the kingdom of God (19:24), the new world (palingenesia, 19:28), and eternal life (19:29) as though they were synonymous concepts; and in the parallel passage in Mark 10:30, all of these blessings belong not to this age but to the age to come.

The kingdom of God belongs to the age to come. This age will never realize all that the kingdom of God means, for it is marred by evil and inhabited by evil men. The parable of the tares, (Matt. 13:24-30; 37-43) so often mistakenly applied to the church, teaches explicitly that “the field is the world” (13:37). As long as this age lasts, the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one will dwell together in a mixed society. It is not the mission of the church to save the world or to transform the present order so that is becomes the kingdom of God. Only the final judgment will accomplish the separation of the tares from the wheat—the removal of wicked men from a mixed society. Only when the Son of Man sends his angels in judgment will the kingdom be perfected. “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (vs. 43). Then God will bring his kingdom to its perfection, and the righteous will enjoy all the blessings of his reign, untroubled by any evil.

The coming of God’s eschatological kingdom will also witness the destruction of spiritual evil. The New Testament is clear that behind the scenes of human history is a mighty conflict of spiritual powers. Evil is greater than man and greater than all men. Evil has a satanic, demonic source. Only when these evil powers are destroyed can the perfection of God’s kingdom be realized. Matthew’s Gospel has little to say about this final destruction of spiritual evil, but it is clearly alluded to in several passages. The consummation of God’s kingdom will occur at the coming of Jesus as the glorious Son of Man to sit on the throne of his glory. One of the issues of this judgment will be the destruction of the devil and his angels in eternal fire. (Matt. 25:41). Only then will the righteous be able to enter into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (vs. 34) and to enjoy the full blessing of eternal life (vs. 46).

In its ultimate form, the kingdom of God is the eschatological order in which evil is purged from God’s universe and the righteous enter into the blessing of eternal life. Schweitzer is right in recognizing that eschatology stands at the heart of Jesus’ message; and Dodd has not successfully reinterpreted it away. On the other hand, Dodd is right in recognizing that the kingdom of God is indeed a present reality. For side by side with the futuristic eschatological sayings are other sayings in which the kingdom of God is a present blessing into which men are already entering. In fact, Jesus viewed the period being inaugurated by his own minis­ try as one which in some sense could be called the kingdom of God. This is seen in the answer given to the troubled question of John the Baptist as to whether Jesus really was the Messiah (Matt. 11:2-3). John has proclaimed One who would baptize men with the Holy Spirit according to Joel 2:28 or with the fire of judgment (Matt. 3:11). Messiah’s mission was to affect the eschatological harvest. He is likened to a farmer winnowing grain. He will gather the righteous into the kingdom and destroy the wicked with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3: 12). However, Jesus engaged in no such apocalyptic acts. Instead, the “deeds of the Messiah” consisted merely of healing the sick, forgiving sins, gathering outcasts together into a new fellowship and on occasion raising the dead. John could not understand how such deeds constituted a fulfillment of his own prophetic message and could be related to the coming of the kingdom of God. John was not losing the courage of his convictions because he was in prison; rather, he was con­ fused because Jesus did not seem to be the bearer of the eschatological kingdom of God.

In his answer to John’s perplexity, Jesus alluded to Isaiah 35: 5-6 and said in effect, that the blessings of the messianic kingdom are in fact being realized. Then he offered an encomium to John, saying that no greater man had ever lived. Nevertheless, in spite of John’s greatness, “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11). This reference can hardly designate the eschatological kingdom, else John is excluded from it. John is contrasted with the “least in the kingdom”; i.e., John stands outside of the kingdom. Jesus then asserts that “all the prophets and the law prophesied until John” (vs. 13). John is the last of the old order. He is the greatest of the prophets; but with him, the age of the law and the prophets comes to its close. The new era, here called the kingdom of God, stands on so much higher level than the old order that the least in it is greater than John. This cannot refer to personal greatness but to the magnitude of the blessings which are enjoyed in the new order of the kingdom in contrast with the old order. A new era, that of the kingdom of God, has come; and the least person in its enjoys greater blessings than the greatest prophet of the old era.

On another occasion, Jesus spoke sad but hard words to the priests and elders-the religious leaders of the people—because “the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21: 31). In the ministry of Jesus, a divine event has occurred by virtue of which the blessings of the kingdom of God have become available to men and its doors opened. Those who ought to be leading the nation into these blessings of the kingdom—the elders, scribes, and priests—refuse to heed the summons and accept the invitation. Only those were finding their way into the kingdom who were despised by the religious leaders—tax collectors and harlots. In fact, said Jesus, you scribes and Pharisees attempt to “shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matt. 23:13).

Here, in the language of Matthew’s Gospel, is a puzzling fact. The kingdom of God is an eschatological order to be established by the coming of the Son of Man when evil is destroyed and the righteous enter into eternal life. At the same time, it is a realm of blessing introduced by Jesus into which men may now enter to enjoy the blessings of the divine reign. How can it be both future arid present at once? Must we choose one set of sayings and reject the other? Must we decide between consistent and realized eschatology?

The answer is to be found in the basic meaning of kingdom, basileia, malkuth. Our English dictionaries often list as the first, meaning of the English word “kingdom” the terms: “The rank, quality, state, or attributes of a king; royal authority, dominion, monarchy, kingship,” but then add, “Archaic.” However, the ancient meaning of the English word is the primary meaning of the Greek and Hebrew word.[4]See the author’s forthcoming article, “Kingdom of God: Reign or Realm?” in the Journal of Biblical Literature. The kingdom of God is first of all God’s kingship, his kingly rule, his royal authority. It is God’s kingly rule which creates the realm in which his rule may be enjoyed. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we pray essentially for the coming of God’s kingly rule, for the manifestation of his kingship in the destruction of all that opposes his reign. The coming of God’s kingdom means that God will show himself to be what he is: the eternal and sovereign King. This eschatological act will destroy the powers of evil, purge the world of sin, and gather the righteous into eternal life. The coming of God’s kingly rule is the final eschatological victory of the eternal King over all that opposes his will. This manifestation of his kingship will so transform the whole order of human affairs that this age will come to its end, to be followed by the age to come which is also called the kingdom of God. “Kingdom,” then, can mean both God’s reign, and the realm in which his reign is experienced.

The heart of the Gospel is the good news that God has already manifested his kingly reign, his kingdom, in history, in the person and mission of Jesus, and has already brought to men in this old age the blessings of his eschatological kingdom. In other words, the age to come has invaded this age. If we were to use non-biblical terms, we might say that eternity has invaded time, that heaven has invaded earthly existence.

This is clearly seen in two very important sayings. Jesus’ most characteristic act of healing was demon exorcism—the deliverance of men from possession by satanic power. When he was criticized for being in league with the devil, Jesus replied, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). The power resident in Jesus was the power of God’s kingdom, God’s rule. Jesus was able to deliver men from demonic power because of the presence of a greater power, the active power of God’s rule. The powers of God’s kingdom have come to men in the mission of Jesus, delivering them from demonic power and bringing them into the blessings of God’s kingdom. Jesus immediately went on to say that this could be accomplished only because a victory has already been won over the arch-enemy, Satan. No one could enter such a mighty man’s domain and despoil him of his possessions “unless he first binds the strong man” (Matt. 12:29). Here is a clear assertion that the same redemptive act of God’s kingly rule which, at the consummation, will destroy the devil and his angels in the lake of fire, has already invaded the satanic domain to defeat Satan, to bind him and to deliver those whom he looked upon as his “property”-demon-possessed men and women—from his control. This victory can only be accomplished through the presence and dynamic power of God’s kingdom. God’s kingly rule, which at the end will destroy Satan, has acted in advance to break his power, limit his actions, and bring to those in bonds the deliverance of God s kingdom.

Again, in response to the question of John the Baptist, after speaking of the greatness of John but contrasting him with the greater blessings of the new order of the kingdom, Jesus said, “From the day of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven biazetai, kai biastai harpazousin auten.” (Matt. 11:12). This is a notoriously difficult passage and has been vigorously debated. However, Rudolf Otto[5]The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man (London: The Lutterworth Press, 1938). and others have suggested an interpretation which has been adopted by T. W. Manson[6]The Sayings of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1949), p. 133. See The Teachings of Jesus (Cambridge: The University Press, 1935), pp. 124 and 331 where he changed his view of this verse. and which fits the entire Gospel: “From that time the kingdom of God exercises its power and men of violence snatch at it.” Biazetai can be taken as a middle: the kingdom of God “has been coming violently” (RSV mg.) and exercising its force among men. God has been mightily active in Jesus to overcome those forces of evil which degrade and destroy man. The kingdom of God is God’s kingly rule, God’s saving power, which showed itself in the mighty works of deliverance and salvation which attended Jesus’ ministry and which proved that the messianic era, the kingdom of God, had come (Matt. 11:4-5).

Yet there was something enigmatic about the presence and power of God’s kingdom. Jesus added a word of caution: “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me (vs. 6). There was indeed something about him which could cause men to take offense. John was offended. John did not understand how the kingdom could be present in Jesus. The coming of God’s kingdom was supposed to mean the complete destruction of all evil, the shattering of every power withstanding the rule of God, that the earth might be filled with the knowledge of God and God’s kingdom might displace every evil kingdom (Daniel 2:34-35, 44). Jesus exercised no such shattering power. Herod Antipas had committed John to prison because John had rebuked him for a violation of public morals (Matt. 14:3-4). Evil seemed to be on the throne. How then could the kingdom of God be present in Jesus? How could he be the King? The Scripture taught that when the messianic King appeared, he would smite the earth with the rod of his mouth and slay the wicked with the breath of his lips (Isa. 11:4). Jesus did not act like this. On the contrary, Jesus spoke in gentleness. He did not rebuke sinners; in fact, he seemed to seek them out and welcome them into his fellowship (Matt. 9:10-13; 11:19). He called himself the Son of Man (9:6; 11:19; 12:8); but the Son of Man was a heavenly figure who would come with clouds to bring the kingdom of God to his saints (Dan. 7:13-14; 27). How could Jesus be either the messianic King or the heavenly Son of Man when he talked about suffering and dying (Matt. 17:12; 20:28)? The kingdom of God by definition means the triumph of God over all evil and wicked men, not the triumph of wicked men over God’s messianic King (17:22-23).

The enigmatic fact was that the kingdom of God had come into history in the person of Jesus but in an utterly unexpected form, even as the humble suffering mission of Messiah was unexpected. The kingdom and its blessings of life, forgiveness, deliverance from evil were present in the mission of Jesus; but they had come to men in the old age without bursting the mould of history so that it became the kingdom of God. In other words, the presence of the kingdom could be recognized only by the eye of faith; those who were dull of heart could see its signs but could not understand their meaning (Matt. 13:14-17; 11:25).

This is the “mystery of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:11): the fact of its secret coming and quiet working in the world. The unexpected coming of the kingdom was like the sowing of seed. As the seed must be received by good soil or it is fruitless, so must the kingdom of God find a human response or it will be ineffective. The present manifestation of the kingdom is like a field of wheat and weeds. Instead of the destruction of the wicked, the kingdom is to be implanted in a mixed society in the world. The sons of the kingdom and the sons of the wicked one are to be mixed together until the eschatological coming of the kingdom. However, this new working of God in Jesus is indeed the kingdom of God which will one day fill all the earth as the prophets had foreseen. Although in the present, it may be as small as a mustard seed and as imperceptible in the eyes of men as a handful of leaven in a mass of dough, this present enigmatic situation is not God’s last word. One day, the kingdom, now so small, will be like a great shrub in which the birds can roost. One day, the bowl will be full of leavened dough. Indeed, the day will come when this same kingdom, this same kingly acting God, will fill all the earth with righteousness. Therefore, the kingdom, even in its present unexpected and apparently insignificant manifestation is of supreme value. Like a treasure in a field, like a priceless pearl, men should seek to acquire it at all costs. The present state of things will not go on forever. The kingdom will finally effect the separation of man and issue in the salvation of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked.

Thus, in Matthew’s Gospel there is a tension which belongs to the heart of the Gospel-a tension between realized and realistic eschatology. The kingdom of God is indeed an eschatological blessing which will finally effect the complete transformation of human life in the age to come. The kingdom of God will be God’s final act fulfilling his redemptive purpose both in salvation and judgment. The kingdom of God is God’s answer to the contemporary question about the goal and destiny of history. But this goal cannot be achieved by human effort, nor is it produced by powers immanent within history; it will be established by an apocalyptic act of God.

This does not mean, however, that the eschatological kingdom of God has no immediate relevance for the present. It cannot be described by the term “apocalyptic pessimism,” as Professor Bowman has tried to do.[7]John Wick Bowman, Prophetic Realism and the Gospel (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), pp. 34f. The fact is that the same redemptive rule of God has already broken into history and is working in history. Although evil has not yet been destroyed, it has been defeated. Although the kingdom awaits the coming of the Son of Man in glory, its blessings of forgiveness, fellowship, life, and deliverance from bondage to evil have already come to men. This presence and working of the kingdom in Jesus created a new fellowship, the sons of the kingdom (Matt. 13:38), who later become the Christian church. The church still proclaims the gospel of the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed (4:23), indeed, it is God’s purpose that the church shall proclaim the gospel of the kingdom in all the world before the end comes (24: 14).

Thus, the church is the instrument of the kingdom in the world. God has not abandoned history to evil. God is still at work in the world through his church as it proclaims the gospel of the kingdom and displays to a sinful and lost world the righteousness and life of the kingdom. The church is the people of the kingdom, enjoying the life of the kingdom even though it lives in the hostile environment of the old age. The church therefore will always experience tension and conflict. It can never be completely at home in this age, for it belongs to the new age. But until the dawn of the new age at the parousia of Christ, it is the church’s glorious mission to display the life and power of the kingdom and invite all men to receive its blessings and enter into its fellowship.

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