#5 God’s Main Desire for the World is the Realization of the Kingdom of God

WHY DID GOD CREATE human beings and what is God’s desire for the humans created in God’s own image? The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) is “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” It is interesting to find that on www.IslamWeb.net a similar answer is given: the “essential purpose for which humankind was created is the worship of God.” But was that really the purpose of creation and does that continue to be God’s main desire for us humans?

I have serious doubts that God’s purpose in creation was having an ever-growing bunch of people who would worship God. The Creator does not need human worship. Moreover, in spite of the appealing way the Creation is depicted in God’s Trombones, the oft-cited sermon of James Weldon Johnson.[1] God did not create the world because of loneliness. Nor did God make this world in order to have creatures to worship God forever.

In keeping with what we know of God through Jesus Christ and the witness of the Holy Spirit, we can say that God created the world because of love and only because of love. God created the world because God desired for there to be a realm of existence filled with persons who would love God and each other. God is love, and for love to be fully realized there must be a loving relationship.

Perhaps we can understand this idea by thinking of an ideal human family. When a couple marries and decides to have children, ideally that decision is not because of anything they hope to get from the children. In the best of couples, their greatest desire is to have a child with whom they can enjoy mutual love, although they know well that at first the love will mostly flow from them to their child.

When the same “ideal” couple decides to have an additional child, their greatest desire is that the mutual love between parent(s) and child will also come to characterize the relationship between the siblings. Having a domicile of full and mutual love among all those who live together is the highest hope for human homes.

So, if that is the ideal in a human family, can’t we think that perhaps that is what God had, and has, in mind for all Creation? Is there anything God desires more for his creation than for it to be a realm in which there is mutual love between God and those God has created as well as mutual love between all of God’s children? We can, and should, think in such a manner, and that is why I say that one of the true things that everyone needs to know now is that God’s main desire for the world is the realization of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is best understood as a community of love.

Is There a Better Term?

The words “kingdom of God” have become a problem for some people. Actually, there are two problems. One is the “sexist” connotation of the word kingdom. By definition, a kingdom is ruled by a king, and a king is always male.[2] In this day and age, many people, for good reason, object to masculine language being used for God. It is argued, validly, that God transcends all gender differentiations, so to refer to God by the use of masculine terms is inappropriate. Thus, to talk about God’s kingdom is likewise inappropriate.

The second problem is that a kingdom presupposes ruling with power, and that is not an appropriate way to think of God, either. This argument is less convincing. Certainly, in the long history of the world some earthly kings have been despotic or tyrannical, but it is not necessary for kings to act in such a manner and many have not. And if God is not only almighty but also all-loving, why should this be a problem? Still, to talk about the kingdom of God is off-putting to some people.

Moreover, it is argued by some that the whole idea of kingdom is outside the personal experience of all of us who have lived only in the United States, so it is either a word that applies only to a few foreign nations or to an archaic term that needs to be replaced with some word that reflects the current social context of those of us who live in a democratic republic.

For the above reasons, some suggest that we should talk about the realm of God rather than the kingdom of God. And it is true that the Greek word basileia can correctly be rendered realm as well as kingdom. There are some churches, particularly those affiliated with the United Church of Christ, who regularly use realm of God as an alternative to kingdom of God. I find that change of terminology appealing.

Nevertheless, because of its having been used for so long and because English translations of the Bible, even the newest ones, continue to use kingdom of God, perhaps it is necessary to continue using those words. Unless, or until, Bible translations change troublesome terminology, it is difficult to change those terms in writing about biblical concepts, except for explaining or clarifying their meaning.

God’s Kingdom is Present and Future

In many Christian circles there has been a widespread belief that the kingdom of God is primarily an eschatological concept, that is, one related to the end times, after the conclusion of human history on this earth. There have long been more nearly accurate views, but unfortunately, they have not been accepted by many Christians.

Understanding the Kingdom of God by Georgia Harkness is an excellent book about the subject at hand. She cites words that were written for the Madras Conference of the International Missionary Council in 1938, and I have often quoted those words to my theology students and others:

The Kingdom of God is both present and future; both a growth and a final consummation by God. It is our task and our hope—our task which we face with the power of Christ; our hope that the last word will be spoken by God and that that last word will be victory. The Kingdom means both acceptance and action, a gift and a task. We work for it and we wait for it.[3]

A century ago, one of the most important theological movements in the United States was called the Social Gospel movement, and one of the main leaders in that movement was Walter Rauschenbusch, a seminary professor.[4] He placed strong emphasis on the idea that the kingdom of God is both here now and also coming in the future. A characteristic phrase he used is “the kingdom is always but coming.”[5] By that somewhat awkward phrase, Rauschenbusch, as did Harkness later, emphasized both the present reality and the future fulfillment of the kingdom of God.

Harkness goes on to explain, though, that there are really three ways in which we should understand the meaning of “the kingdom of God.”[6] First, the kingdom of God means “the eternal, ultimate sovereignty of God.” As the Creator, and in spite of all the opposition to God because of the sinful use of freedom, God is and has always been the ultimate ruler of the world.

Second, the kingdom of God is present wherever God’s will is accepted and obeyed. Here in this present world, people enter the kingdom of God whenever they give God their loyalty. If we correctly understand what we mean when we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we recognize that God’s kingdom has not fully come on earth, but we are also expressing our desire and hope that it will come on earth. That is why, as Harkness emphasized, we work for it.

In the third place, though, the kingdom of God is also future. It will only be complete with the final establishment of God’s rule in the age to come, at the final consummation of this world when God’s will is fully done. While this may come about after a long process of change, a gradual movement toward a more nearly Christian society on earth, in the end it will be God’s act in bringing the world to its final consummation.

In keeping with this threefold understanding, Christians are called on to acknowledge the kingdom of God in the first sense, to participate in the kingdom of God and seek its expansion in the second sense, and to wait for the kingdom of God with hopeful anticipation in the third sense. But God’s main desire for this world now is the realization of God’s kingdom.

God’s Main Desire is Not Our Happiness

If God’s main desire for creation is the realization of the kingdom of God, beginning now, it should be evident that God’s primary desire for us humans is not our individual happiness (although the latter may be an important spinoff).

When I was a college student, I read with great appreciation a book which was already a classic of Christian devotional literature. That book was Hannah Whithall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.[7] Partly for nostalgic reasons, I recently read that book again—and was rather amazed at how much differently I evaluate that book now than when I first read it. Part of the difference is my current understanding of Christianity being about far more than individual happiness.

Smith writes about visiting “a wealthy house, where there was one only adopted child, upon whom was lavished all the love and tenderness and care that human hearts could bestow or human means procure.” And then she commented, “And as I watched that child running in and out day by day, free and light-hearted, with the happy carelessness of childhood, I thought what a picture it was of our wonderful position as children in the house of our Heavenly Father.”[8]

Smith’s words do express part of the truth about God’s care for each of us as individuals, but they are misleading for they fail to indicate that God wants us to be contributing members to the total well-being of all the people in God’s kingdom and not just behave like pampered children in a wealthy house.

The New Testament really says little about happiness; it says a lot about service. The beatitudes are found at the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and some have suggested that rather than the usual “blessed,” those beatitudes could each begin with the word “O the happiness of . . . .” And Robert H. Schuller, the popular founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, has a book about the beatitudes in which he refers to them as the “be happy attitudes.”[9]

Those beatitudes, however, are not about happiness in the way that term is generally used. In that introduction to his famous “sermon,” Jesus speaks about “those who mourn” and about people being “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”[10] If God’s primary desire was our happiness, could God not and would God not act in ways that would keep us from mourning and from being persecuted for any reason at all?

John Hick has been one of the most prominent Christian philosophers of religion over the last half-century, and I have profited much from, and questioned some of, his little book called simply The Philosophy of Religion.[11] In his chapter on “The Problem of Evil,” Hick refers to this world as being a “vale of soul making” rather than something like a comfortable cage for a beloved pet—or, we might say returning to Smith’s words, like a wealthy house for a pampered child.

Why Is This Important?

Much of Christianity over the centuries, especially in the United States, has had a warped understanding of the kingdom of God. That pivotal concept, especially among evangelicals, has been much too other-worldly and much too individualistic. So it is quite important to grasp a more nearly correct idea of God’s kingdom.

Other-worldly Christianity has not placed enough emphasis on life in this world and the responsibility of Christians to wrestle against sinful societal structures. Often so much emphasis has been placed on the life to come that the sanctity of life in this world has been downplayed for many people, such as American Indians and the African slaves and their descendants. (Fortunately, there have been some Christians who did give considerable attention to the dignity and freedom of oppressed people.)

There were serious attempts to “convert” the Indians and the slaves to Christianity. The motives of the evangelists were largely to save (for Heaven) the souls of the slaves and Native Americans, while often at the same time accepting or even abetting their maltreatment on this earth. The kingdom of God was seen only as that which was to come at the end of earthly time, not something which meant the rule of God in the present world. This almost exclusive focus on the other-worldly nature of God’s kingdom was a serious theological mistake.

Similarly, focus on the kingdom of God traditionally meant focusing on one’s “soul” being saved for eternal life in Heaven after death. Not only was the idea of God’s kingdom ideally being on earth now, but the communal nature of that kingdom was also largely overlooked. There was, to be sure, some lip service given to being part of the church, the community of faith. But there was, in practice, little emphasis upon the church actually concerning itself with the physical or temporal needs of its members. The church was thought of as a spiritual fellowship of individual believers rather than a real community of love.

If we understand, though, that God’s main desire is the realization of the kingdom of God, beginning now and culminating in the realm beyond earthly history, then we are freed from the errors of excessive other-worldliness and of individualism.

There were those, certainly, such as Rauschenbusch mentioned above and even ecumenical leaders like those of the International Missionary Council, who had a more nearly adequate understanding of the kingdom of God. But, alas, their numbers were much too few. Thus, one thing that every Christian needs to know now is that God’s main desire for the world is the realization of the kingdom of God.

Next, we need to consider the primary characteristic of the kingdom of God, which is shalom (peace), the main topic of the next chapter.

[1] Johnson (1871-1938) was the author of God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927), a book of poems patterned after African American folk sermons. “The Creation,” the second of those sermons, begins, “And God stepped out on space, / And he looked around and said: / I’m lonely – I’ll make me a world.”

[2] Strangely, “kingdom” is sometimes defined as “a monarchical form of government headed by a king or queen,” so it can be said that a queen ruled a kingdom. But this seems to be a confused expression. When there is a queen, her realm ought to be called a queendom.

[3] Pp. 61-62, citing The World Mission of the Church (1939). Harkness (1891-1974) was one of the first prominent female theologians in the United States—and in the world. Understanding the Kingdom of God was first published by Abingdon Press in the year of her death.

The International Missionary Council, which grew out of the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh in 1910, was formed in 1921 and held several significance assemblies before it was fully merged into the World Council of Churches in 1961.

[4] Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was a Baptist pastor who served as a professor of church history at Rochester Theological Seminary in New York from 1902 until his death.

[5] Christopher H. Evans is the author of a superb introduction to both Rauschenbusch’s life and his thought. His book is titled The Kingdom is Always But Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch (Eerdmans, 2004). Rauschenbusch used the somewhat awkward phrase “the kingdom is always but coming” in his Christianizing the Social Order (1912).

[6] See Understanding the Kingdom of God, pp. 62-63.

[7] Smith (1832-1911) was reared a Quaker, but in 1858 she and her husband both left the Quakers and became leaders in the Holiness movement. The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (1875) is a book on practical Holiness (Wesleyan) theology.

[8] These words are from the third chapter of Smith’s book, which is available online in the “Christian Classics Ethereal Library” (www.ccel.org).

[9] The Be Happy Attitudes: Eight Positive Attitudes That Can Transform Your Life! (Word Books, 1985).

[10] Matthew 5:4, 10.

[11] Hick (b. 1922) first published Philosophy of Religion in 1963, and the fourth edition was issued by Prentice Hall in 1989.