I’m a Scot McKnight fan, and I’ve just received a copy of his latest book Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. (I had to pay for mine.)
And it’s some kind of big deal. I mean, this one is going to be discussed by elders, in minister staff meetings, in academia — and in the blogosphere — because he steps on lots and lots of toes — but in a very good and necessary way.
To put it simply, Scot’s theme is that most of our teaching on the kingdom is messed up, and so we need to rethink it all. And in so doing, we’ll rethink how we do and think about Christianity and church and mission.
Now, my September 29 post on the “Church of the Firstborn” has well over 130 comments, almost all debating the meaning of “kingdom.” And there are plenty of theories and opinions among Christians.
Discussions tend to fit into a few discrete categories:
* Some focus on eschatology, and so the debate is about premillennialism vs. postmillennialism vs. amillennialism. This is NOT the subject of Scot’s book, but we in the Churches of Christ do need some background to understand why we feel as we feel on this subject.
The premillennialist camp believes that the Rapture (the saved meeting Jesus in the sky and proceeding from there to heaven) precedes the Millennium. This is the Left Behind perspective, and those in this camp tend to focus their entire Christian theology on the Rapture, the Thousand-Year Reign, and such matters — so that the Kingdom is largely future tense — and of little current relevance except that we must be good moral people and regular in our church attendance so that we get to be Raptured up to heaven when the time comes.
This was popular in the Churches of Christ about 100 years ago, but was brutally criticized by Foy Wallace, Jr. and, by the 1950s, became a minority view — so much so that for a while it was considered damnable heresy, and premillennial congregations were ostracized from the “brotherhood” and not even listed in Where the Churches Meet.
This hard-nosed, graceless attitude has been repented of my most, and so the issue is no longer considered a salvation or fellowship issue by even most very conservative churches. And it remains a distinctively minority viewpoint that is rarely discussed.
The postmillennialist camp believes the Rapture is after (post) the Millennial Reign of Jesus on earth. This was the view of Alexander Campbell. He believed that the founding of the American republic, the granting of religious liberty to its citizens, and his own Restoration Movement were harbingers of the coming Millennium. And so he called his periodical The Millennial Harbinger.
In the early 19th Century, most American frontier churches were postmillennialist and saw themselves as helping to prepare the way for Jesus to return and reign on earth. In fact, postmillennialism often encourages social justice activity as a means of speeding Jesus’ return. And the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th Century made dramatic social justice gains, in part, for this very reason.
However, this point of view was largely forgotten in the Churches of Christ by 1900. Perhaps the American Civil War made such an optimistic worldview seem unrealistic. It was a sad and terrible time, with millions killed and many more maimed or diseased, with the South left in poverty. It would have been hard to feel the same optimism in the American South in the days following the War.
Most in the Churches of Christ today are amillennialist, meaning that they don’t expect a literal thousand-year reign by Jesus on earth. Most are only vaguely aware of the question. In fact, it would be more exact to call us “don’t know nothing about the Millennium”-millennialists or, perhaps more exactly, I-don’t-care-millennialists.
We really find the whole thing uninteresting and just a bit offputting. After all, what does any of this say to me and my congregation about how to live today? Worse yet, if you’re as old as me, you remember the bitterness and division that the topic brought to the Churches in the mid-20th Century, and so find it all very distasteful.
Therefore, it’s rarely discussed, and when the subject does come up, we look at our watches, announce that we’re late for an appointment, and leave the room.
Surprised by Hope
In his seminal (and very readable) book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N. T. Wright proposed a reading of the scriptures that rejects the Rapture entirely. Moreover, he concludes that at the end of the age, God and heaven — the New Jerusalem — will descend to earth, merging the two so that God will dwell with man, heaven and earth will be one, and the saved will live in the new heavens and new earth prophesied by Isaiah.
(Rev 21:1-4 ESV) “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Others have shown that this teaching is not nearly so new as I and most others imagined. John Mark Hicks finds this same teaching in the writings of Alexander Campbell, David Lipscomb, and James A. Harding! However, once again, it was Foy Wallace, Jr. who treated as such teaching as damnable heresy, driving it from our collective consciousness.
I covered Surprised by Hope and its view of the Rapture in this series of posts, including this post on Wright’s understanding of the Rapture. (And, yes, while I disagree with Wright on the nature of hell and damnation, I think he correctly exegetes the passages about the new heavens and new earth.)
My view, which is pretty much amillennial, is laid out in these posts:
The only reason I wrote those posts is because readers insisted that I take a position. And so I studied up on the topic, explained my conclusions, and upset the readers who disagreed with me.
[to be continued]