Surprisingly, almost all New Testament scholars today are convinced that the Kingdom of God is the center of what Jesus was talking about during his life. While it might not be the most important thing Jesus did, almost all New Testament scholars, Conservative, Liberal, Protestant or Catholic, agree Jesus mostly wanted to talk about the Kingdom. Seriously. And if you’re going to ask “almost all” New Testament scholars, across the ideological spectrum, almost anything, they’re not going to agree on much. But they do agree on this. So if that’s the case, we need to think more carefully about what exactly the Kingdom of God is. Spoiler: It’s not a synonym for dying and going to heaven.
In the last few posts in this series, we talked about the way eschatology can be empowering to your youth. Instead of being something to fear, eschatology is a source of hope. It encourages missional action, helps develop discipleship, and helps youth wrestle with doubt. This week, I want to share some important developments in the theology of eschatology in the 20th century. There were momentous shifts in theology of the end in the 19th and 20th centuries across the ideological spectrum, and one of those shifts could have tremendous impact in your youth program.
Just a heads-up: the last couple of posts applied fairly well to most of our churches, but this week’s idea might be a bit more dependent on your context. The idea I’m advocating (Inaugurated Eschatology) has become widely accepted across the ideological spectrum, but that doesn’t mean every church or denomination has embraced it.
For centuries, there has been a tension between parts of the New Testament that talk about the Kingdom/New Creation as if it already happened, and parts that leave space for these things to take place in the future. Mark 1:15 (“the kingdom of God has come near,” NRSV) is an example of the more immediate, while 2 Peter 3 suggests Christ will return in the future. You might reflect on how you have resolved this tension in your own mind, or if you have ever even noticed it!
In the mid-20th century, a few scholars proposed an innovative solution that has proven helpful. Oscar Cullman, a German Lutheran theologian, suggested an idea we have come to call Inaugurated Eschatology. This idea is that the Kingdom of God was kicked-off (inaugurated) in Jesus’ life, ministry, and resurrection, and continues to grow like a mustard seed. The Kingdom (or New Creation) started small 2000 years ago in the work of Jesus, and continue to expand in the work of the church. In this way, the promises of the new creation or Kingdom are both Already Here and Not Yet here.
Already, but not yet
You might have heard the phrase “already, but not yet” before. You get extra bonus points if you remember it from Switchfoot’s “I Turn Everything Over!” This is how, even though the New Creation hasn’t arrived, Paul can say “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here (2 Cor 5:17, NIV)!”
This idea helps tremendously with youth ministry. First, it resonates easily and deeply with the eschatological chart I suggested in the last post. You might have noticed the second chart in that post had an angled line up towards the New Creation. That’s the Inaugurated Kingdom at work! That’s the mustard seed growing.
How Inaugurated Eschatology Affects Youth Ministry
For youth, Inaugurated Eschatology can open lots of helpful possibilities for holy living and missional living. One, it might open the possibility we can participate with Jesus in the spread of the Kingdom. It seems to demand active participation. If you have been trying to move your youth from just converts to disciples, this can help. Two, it asks them to expand the Kingdom in themselves. It is a call to holiness. If you have been struggling against what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” working with the Inaugurated Kingdom is remarkably helpful.
Human History as a Play
N.T. Wright says, for the Christian, all human history is like a lost Shakespearean play. The script is thrilling, but missing Acts 4 and 5 (except the last few paragraphs are intact), so the world debates what to do. They decide to have the best Shakespearean actors in the world perform the show each night. So each evening, they follow the written scripts from Acts 1, 2, and 3 exactly, then improvise their ways through Acts 4 and most of 5, before resuming the written script at the very end. Some nights, this goes poorly. Either it seems inauthentic to Shakespeare, or the transitions are jarring. Other nights, on the best nights, it is wonderful. Everything seems faithful to the author, the transitions are smooth and coherent, and a new world is revealed even though slightly different from the night prior.
Wright argues that this is where we are in human history. We know a tiny bit about the coming Kingdom/New Creation, and we have Scripture to tell us about the first few acts. But we are in that fourth and fifth act, trying to act out the Author’s heart faithfully. If this is seen through the lens of Inaugurated Eschatology, your youth are invited to work with Jesus, trying to be faithful to what God is doing in the world right now. Your youth are invited to help spread the Kingdom, to see His “will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
Does this inaugurated eschatology grow into the Kingdom directly, or does Jesus have to return to a world that has basically not changed much after all that work? Different Christians think differently about these questions, and your theological tradition will have much to say about that. Many of our churches (especially Protestants, we’re very touchy about this!) will have some concern that this bumps up against working for our salvation. That’s a question for another post, but certainly worth monitoring in your group.
However, despite the questions and tensions Inaugurated Eschatology raise, it can encourage youth to participate in missions. It encourages them to go into the world, see where God is already working, and participate in that work. I believe there is a God who is still at work in the world, and I hope to participate in what that God is doing. Talking about eschatology with your youth can help encourage them to feel the same way!
Stephen Hale is Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church Redondo Beach. He is also Director of International Programs for Inalienable, a non-profit working for the dignity of migrants. He received a BA in Social Sciences from BIOLA, an MA in Theology from Fuller, and is finishing an M.Div from Claremont School of Theology in May (he hopes). You can keep up with him at stephenphale.wordpress.com.