The Kingdom in the Early Church Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers
Destiny of the Immortal Soul
Major Changes

We saw in Kingdom Redefined that after the Apostles died, the gradual domination of Greek thought over Hebrew brought about changes in understanding about the Kingdom of God. The changes can be seen in the writings of the Early Church Fathers. These are writers of the first few centuries of the Christian era whose written works have been preserved and translated. They are not God-inspired, as the Scriptures are, but they provide historical glimpses into what was believed and taught at that time. By considering some of these writers we can see a reflection of thought patterns that developed from the first to the fifth centuries. (All of these writings can be found online in several locations. Simply Google "Early Church Fathers.")

As seen on the Gathering Data page, the Kingdom of God can have different shades of meaning, but the primary one in the Bible is that of the eschatological reign of Messiah on earth. Some verses refer to enjoying certain aspects of the Kingdom proleptically, some refer to the demonstration of the Kingdom's power in the present day, and still others use the phrase in a general sense referring either to the concept of the kingdom or to its people. These same shades of meaning can be seen in the writings of the Church Fathers, but not always in the same proportions.

The Apostolic Fathers

For the most part the earliest writers, known as the Apostolic Fathers because of their having personally associated with the Apostles, still held the view that the Kingdom is primarily eschatological. Clement of Rome, for example, who lived between AD 30 and AD 97, wrote about the disciples going forth "with the glad tidings that the kingdom of God should come" (1 Clement 42:3) and that "the promise of Christ is great and marvelous, even the rest of the kingdom that shall be and of life eternal" (2 Clement 5:5). The kingdom was primarily future for him. He also spoke of "Awaiting the kingdom" in 2 Clement 12:1, and of entering into His kingdom and receiving "the promises which ear hath not heard nor eye seen, neither hath it entered into the heart of man."

But it was not in an ethereal "netherworld" as later Greek-influenced ideas had it. He wrote specifically of the world's kingdoms being given to Jesus at the judgment.

2 Clement 17:
5. And the unbelievers shall see His glory and His might: and they shall be amazed when they see the kingdom of the world given to Jesus, saying, Woe unto us, for Thou wast, and we knew it not, and believed not; and we obeyed not the presbyters when they told us of our salvation. And Their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be for a spectacle unto all flesh.
6. He speaketh of that day of judgment, when men shall see those among us that live ungodly lives and dealt falsely with the commandments of Jesus Christ.

There were a number of writers that made no reference to the kingdom at all in their writings. Some made very little mention of it, but what they did say did not vary from the New Testament ideas. Ignatius of Antioch (AD 35-107) and Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 69-155) made only a few references to the kingdom, but they all referred to inheriting it in the future. The Didache (written ca. AD 120) mentions the kingdom twice (9:4 & 10:5) and both refer to the Church being "gathered together unto the kingdom."

Barnabas in his epistle (ca. AD 135) spoke of attaining to the Lord's kingdom (7:11) and being glorified in it (21:1), but also seemed to use it in a figurative sense at times. He says, "And why is there the wool and the hyssop at the same time? Because in His kingdom there shall be evil and foul days, in which we shall be saved; for he who suffers pain in the flesh is healed through the foulness of the hyssop" (8:6). Obviously he was not suggesting that in the actual kingdom (whether in heaven or on earth) there would be evil and foul days. He is apparently using "in his kingdom" to refer to people who were on their way to it, similar to Matthew 23:13.

In The Shepherd (date uncertain, but written sometime in the early second century), the author Hermas wrote about a tower and a gate. The tower is stated to be a symbol of the Church, and frequent mention is made of entering into it, in a proleptic sense, but there is a mention of the eschatological sense as well. "But the white portion is the coming age, in which the elect of God shall dwell; because the elect of God shall be without spot and pure unto life eternal" (Hermas 3[24]:5).

The writings of Papias of Hierapolis (AD 70-163) are no longer in existence, but a number of fragments are preserved because they were quoted in the writings of others. From these we learn that he was a strong believer in the literal interpretation of Scripture with regards to end times. Irenaeus wrote:

IV
As the elders who saw John the disciple of the Lord remembered that they had heard from him how the Lord taught in regard to those times, and said: "The days will come in which vines shall grow, having each ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in every one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five-and-twenty metretes of wine. And when anyone of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, 'I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.' In like manner, [He said] that a grain of wheat would produce ten thousand ears, and that every ear would have ten thousand grains, and every grain would yield ten pounds of clear, pure, fine flour; and that apples, and seeds, and grass would produce in similar proportions; and that all animals, feeding then only on the productions of the earth, would become peaceable and harmonious, and be in perfect subjection to man." [Testimony is borne to these things in writing by Papias, an ancient man, who was a hearer of John and a friend of Polycarp, in the fourth of his books; for five books were composed by him. And he added, saying, "Now these things are credible to believers. And Judas the traitor," says he, "not believing, and asking, 'How shall such growths be accomplished by the Lord?' the Lord said, 'They shall see who shall come to them.' These, then, are the times mentioned by the prophet Isaiah: 'And the wolf shall lie, down with the lamb,' etc. (Isa. xi. 6 ff.)."

Another source in which some of the writings of Papias have been preserved is Eusebius’ Church History. He specifically refers to Papias' "chiliasm" - the belief in a literal Millennial reign as mentioned in Revelation. (The word comes from the Greek word for thousand, and is equivalent to Millenarianism or Millennialism, which come from the Latin word for thousand.) In sec. 3, chapter 39, he says of the writings of Papias:

11. The same writer gives also other accounts which he says came to him through unwritten tradition, certain strange parables and teachings of the Saviour, and some other more mythical things.
12. To these belong his statement that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth. I suppose he got these ideas through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures.
13. For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses. But it was due to him that so many of the Church Fathers after him adopted a like opinion, urging in their own support the antiquity of the man; as for instance Irenaeus and anyone else that may have proclaimed similar views.

Here Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, reflects the disbelief in Millennarianism that had come to dominate the church by that time, as we shall see. Jerome, in the same century, wrote of Papias in his "Illustrious Men," Chapter 18:

He is said to have published a Second coming of Our Lord or Millennium. Irenćus and Apollinaris and others who say that after the resurrection the Lord will reign in the flesh with the saints, follow him. Tertullian also in his work On the hope of the faithful, Victorinus of Petau and Lactantius follow this view.

Despite later disbelief, Millennarianism was the norm for the first few centuries of the Christian Church. But subtle ideas would gradually change the meaning of certain basic terms.

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Destiny of the Immortal Soul

Papias, like many of his contemporaries, believed in the literal reign of Christ on earth that was to come. But he also believed that in that period there would be different levels of glory.

V.
As the presbyters say, then those who are deemed worthy of an abode in heaven shall go there, others shall enjoy the delights of Paradise, and others shall possess the splendour of the city; for everywhere the Saviour will be seen, according as they shall be worthy who see Him. But that there is this distinction between the habitation of those who produce an hundredfold, and that of those who produce sixty-fold, and that of those who produce thirty-fold; for the first will be taken up into the heavens, the second class will dwell in Paradise, and the last will inhabit the city; and that on this account the Lord said, "In my Father's house are many mansions:" for all things belong to God, who supplies all with a suitable dwelling-place, even as His word says, that a share is given to all by the Father, according as each one is or shall be worthy. And this is the couch in which they shall recline who feast, being invited to the wedding. The presbyters, the disciples of the apostles, say that this is the gradation and arrangement of those who are saved, and that they advance through steps of this nature; and that, moreover, they ascend through the Spirit to the Son, and through the Son to the Father; and that in due time the Son will yield up His work to the Father, even as it is said by the apostle, "For He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." For in the times of the kingdom the just man who is on the earth shall forget to die. "But when He saith all things are put under Him, it is manifest that He is excepted which did put all things under Him. And when all things shall be subdued unto Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subject unto Him that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all."

Whereas Papias referred to heaven being one of the places where some will dwell, while others dwelled on earth, later Church doctrine held that heaven was the ultimate destination of all Christians. However, humans living on a celestial plane in any sense comes from Pagan thought, not the Bible. Christians to this day still quote, "In my Father's house are many mansions," as proof of a "home in heaven," but we saw in another article that he didn't mention heaven. Assuming "my Father's house" means heaven is unwarranted, and in the same context Jesus says, "I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." Jesus will be reigning on earth, and he has given to us the privilege of reigning with him.

The Bible does speak of God reigning in heaven (I Chronicles 29:11,12; Psalm 22:28; 103:19; 145:13; Daniel 4:3) and Jesus told us to pray, "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2).  From this came the idea that the kingdom exists now in heaven, and will eventually be manifested on earth. This can be seen in the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (ca. AD 130), in which he wrote that "God loved men for whose sake He made the world ... to whom He promised the kingdom which is in heaven, and will give it to those that have loved Him" (10:2).

Due to the loss of Hebraic thought, the distinction was blurred between God's reign in heaven and the "Kingdom of Heaven" of which Jesus spoke. The latter is a uniquely Hebrew expression used exclusively in Matthew, and was synonymous with the Kingdom of God, as the reign of Messiah on earth in the Age to Come. But the Early Church Fathers used the expression more and more to refer to a kingdom in heaven.

Justin Martyr (AD 106-165) and Irenaeus (130-202) quoted extensively from Daniel and referred to the eschatological events of the coming Kingdom. Yet in his Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 80, he indicates that there were also Christians who did not hold to those views.

And Trypho to this replied, "I remarked to you sir, that you are very anxious to be safe in all respects, since you cling to the Scriptures. But tell me, do you really admit that this place, Jerusalem, shall be rebuilt; and do you expect your people to be gathered together, and made joyful with Christ and the patriarchs, and the prophets, both the men of our nation, and other proselytes who joined them before your Christ came? Or have you given way, and admitted this in order to have the appearance of worsting us in the controversies"

Then I answered, "I am not so miserable a fellow, Trypho, as to say one thing and think another. I admitted to you formerly, that I and many others are of this opinion, and [believe] that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.

The notion of death as a freeing of the immortal soul from the confines of the body, came to dominate Christian thought, as seen in The State of the Dead. As time went on, even those who believed in the Millennial Reign at Christ's return began to express different ideas about what happened in the meantime. The article on "Death" in the Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say:

Among early Christians delay in the promised Second Coming of Christ led to an increasing preoccupation with what happened to the dead as they awaited the resurrection and the Last Judgment. One view was that there would be an immediate individual judgment and that instant justice would follow: the deceased would be dispatched forthwith to hell or paradise. This notion demeaned the impact of the great prophecy of a collective mass resurrection, followed by a public mass trial on a gigantic scale.  

This is an important point. William Tyndale even posed the question to the pope of his day: What is the need for a return of Christ or a resurrection from the dead if the dead are already alive with him in heaven? The shift in the focus of Christianity from the return of Christ and the Kingdom on earth, to what happens when you die, is not only a serious misunderstanding of Scripture, but also led to the loss of the Gospel of the Kingdom in the Christian Church.  The Encyclopedia Britannica article goes on to say:

The second view was that the dead just slept, pending the mass resurrection. But as the sleep might last for millennia, it was felt that the heavenly gratification of the just was being arbitrarily, and somewhat unfairly, deferred. As for the wicked, they were obtaining an unwarranted respite.

In the writings of Hippolytus of Rome (AD 170-236), which exist mostly in fragments, can be seen a description of the coming of God’s Kingdom in eschatological terms.  But he believed that in the meantime, man’s imperishable soul went to a place to rest until judgment.

Fragments on Daniel:

Chap. VII.17.
…finally earthly things (shall) end, and heavenly things begin; that the indissoluble and everlasting kingdom of the saints may be brought to view, and the heavenly King manifested to all, no longer in figure, like one seen in vision, or revealed in a pillar of cloud upon the top of a mountain, but amid the powers and armies of angels, as God incarnate and man, Son of God and Son of man--coming from heaven as the world's Judge.

Chap. VII.22.
"Until the Ancient of days come." That is, when at length the Judge of judges and the King of kings comes from heaven, who shall subvert the whole dominion and power of the adversary, and shall consume all with the eternal fire of punishment. But to His servants, and prophets, and martyrs, and to all who fear Him, He will give an everlasting kingdom; that is, they shall possess the endless enjoyment of good.

Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 5:
…it is proper that we take the Holy Scriptures themselves in hand, and find out from them what, …and of what manner, the coming of Antichrist is… and how he shall glorify himself as God; and what his end shall be; and how the sudden appearing of the Lord shall be revealed from heaven; and what the conflagration of the whole world shall be; and what the glorious and heavenly kingdom of the saints is to be, when they reign together with Christ; and what the punishment of the wicked by fire.

Refutation of All Heresies, Chap. 22:
Now the doctrine of the resurrection has also derived support among these; for they acknowledge both that the flesh will rise again, and that it will be immortal, in the same manner as the soul is already imperishable. And they maintain that the soul, when separated in the present life, (departs) into one place, which is well ventilated and lightsome, where, they say, it rests until judgment.

The Encyclopedia Britannica article then presents a third view:

The Carthaginian theologian Tertullian, one of the Church Fathers, outlined the possibility of still further adjustments. In his Adversus Marcionem, written about 207, he described “a spatial concept that may be called Abraham’s bosom for receiving the soul of all people.” Although not celestial, it was “above the lower regions and would provide refreshment (refrigerium) to the souls of the just until the consummation of all things in the great resurrection.” The Byzantine Church formally endorsed the concept, which inspired some most interesting art in both eastern and western Europe.

Tertullian (AD 145-220) wrote of the glories of the coming end of the age in De Spectaculis (literally, "The Shows"), chapter 30.

But what a spectacle is that fast-approaching advent of our Lord, now owned by all, now highly exalted, now a triumphant One! What that exultation of the angelic hosts! What the glory of the rising saints! What the kingdom of the just thereafter! What the city New Jerusalem! Yes, and there are other sights: that last day of judgment, with its everlasting issues; that day unlooked for by the nations, the theme of their derision, when the world hoary with age, and all its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye!

But while he believed in a millennial reign on earth, he believed it to be temporary, lasting until the destruction of the world, after which the faithful become spirit beings and live forever in heaven.  He wrote about it in his work Against Marcion, Book III, chapter XXV:

Of the heavenly kingdom this is the process. After its thousand years are over, within which period is completed the resurrection of the saints, who rise sooner or later according to their deserts there will ensue the destruction of the world and the conflagration of all things at the judgment: we shall then be changed in a moment into the substance of angels, even by the investiture of an incorruptible nature, and so be removed to that kingdom in heaven of which we have now been treating…

The root of such thinking is his belief that man’s soul is immortal, and as such has to go somewhere at death.  In Greek mythology Hades was the god of the underworld, and the name came to be applied to the abode of the dead.  Its New Testament usage, however, makes no mention of rewards, punishments, or even consciousness, with the exception of Luke 16:23 (dealt with here).  The word hades was used to translate the Hebrew word sheol in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), and as such its New Testament usage follows the Hebrew view of a place of unconsciousness.  But Church Fathers like Tertullian had been influenced by Greek philosophy and believed that the soul was immortal and went to a physical place called Hades.  He describes it in his treatise De Anima (On the Soul), chapter 55.

By ourselves the lower regions (of Hades) are not supposed to be a bare cavity, nor some subterranean sewer of the world, but a vast deep space in the interior of the earth, and a concealed recess in its very bowels; inasmuch as we read that Christ in His death spent three days in the heart of the earth, that is, in the secret inner recess which is hidden in the earth, and enclosed by the earth, and superimposed on the abysmal depths which lie still lower down.

Here we see the confusion between the physical grave in which Jesus was buried and hades, the abode of the dead.  This, combined with a misunderstanding of the story of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, led to the notion that the dead go to this underworld.  Some believed that a Christian certainly could not go to such a place, and therefore must go to paradise immediately upon death.  Tertullian speaks against this belief in the same chapter.

How, indeed, shall the soul mount up to heaven, where Christ is already sitting at the Father's right hand, when as yet the archangel's trumpet has not been heard by the command of God, —when as yet those whom the coming of the Lord is to find on the earth, have not been caught up into the air to meet Him at His coming, in company with the dead in Christ, who shall be the first to arise? To no one is heaven opened; the earth is still safe for him, I would not say it is shut against him. When the world, indeed, shall pass away, then the kingdom of heaven shall be opened.

Only at the end of the world would the souls of the faithful go to heaven, with the exception of martyrs.  He concludes the chapter by referring to a treatise of his that has since been lost, entitled On Paradise, “…in which we have established the position that every soul is detained in safe keeping in Hades until the day of the Lord.”

In addition, Tertullian says that the restoration of the Jews to their land must be understood figuratively.  He writes in his treatise Against Marcion, chapter 25:

Yes, certainly, you say, I do hope from Him that which amounts in itself to a proof of the diversity (of Christs), God's kingdom in an everlasting and heavenly possession. Besides, your Christ promises to the Jews their primitive condition, with the recovery of their country; and after this life's course is over, repose in Hades in Abraham's bosom. Oh, most excellent God, when He restores in amnesty what He took away in wrath! Oh, what a God is yours, who both wounds and heals, creates evil and makes peace! Oh, what a God, that is merciful even down to Hades! I shall have something to say about Abraham's bosom in the proper place. As for the restoration of Judaea, however, which even the Jews themselves, induced by the names of places and countries, hope for just as it is described, it would be tedious to state at length how the figurative interpretation is spiritually applicable to Christ and His church, and to the character and fruits thereof; besides, the subject has been regularly treated in another work, which we entitle De Spe Fidelium [On the Hope of the Faithful, another lost work]. At present, too, it would be superfluous for this reason, that our inquiry relates to what is promised in heaven, not on earth. But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem, "let down from heaven," which the apostle also calls "our mother from above;" and, while declaring that our politeuma, or citizenship, is in heaven, he predicates of it that it is really a city in heaven…

While terms like Millennium and Kingdom were still used, one can see that the concept of an immortal soul greatly changed their meaning and significance.  The soul at death goes to another realm to await the final judgment and resurrections.  The ultimate goal of man is an ethereal existence in heaven.  This demeans the significance of the resurrections, judgments, and the reign of Messiah. 

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Major Changes

One of the first Church Fathers to redefine the Kingdom of God as a reign in the heart of the believer was Origen (AD 185-254). In De Principiis, Book I, he wrote:

Moreover, that all men are not without communion with God, is taught in the Gospel thus, by the Saviour's words: "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation; neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! but the kingdom of God is within you." But here we must see whether this does not bear the same meaning with the expression in Genesis: "And He breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul." For if this be understood as applying generally to all men, then all men have a share in God.

The idea that the Kingdom of God which Jesus spoke of was actually spiritual or allegorical began to take hold with Apologists such as Origen. In his writing on prayer, he wrote:

The kingdom of God, in the words of our Lord and Savior, does not come for all to see; nor shall they say: Behold, here it is, or behold, there it is; but the kingdom of God is within us, for the word of God is very near, in our mouth and in our heart. Thus it is clear that he who prays for the coming of God’s kingdom prays rightly to have it within himself, that there it might grow and bear fruit and become perfect. For God reigns in each of his holy ones. Anyone who is holy obeys the spiritual laws of God, who dwells in him as in a well-ordered city. The Father is present in the perfect soul, and with him Christ reigns, according to the words: We shall come to him and make our home with him.

Here we see the abstract idea of the Kingdom of God as the reign of God in one’s soul. He spoke of Christ himself being the kingdom figuratively, with his reign in believers' thoughts.

Commentary on Matthew, Book XIV, 7
"The kingdom of heaven," He says, "is likened," etc. But if it be likened to such a king, and one who has done such things, who must we say that it is but the Son of God? For He is the King of the heavens, and as He is absolute Wisdom and absolute Righteousness and absolute Truth, is He not so also absolute Kingdom? But it is not a kingdom of any of those below, nor of a part of those above, but of all the things above, which were called heavens. But if you enquire into the meaning of the words, "Theirs is the kingdom of heaven," you may say that Christ is theirs in so far as He is absolute Kingdom, reigning in every thought of the man who is no longer under the reign of sin which reigns in the mortal body of those who have subjected themselves to it. And if I say, reigning in every thought, I mean something like this, reigning as Righteousness and Wisdom and Truth and the rest of the virtues in him who has become a heaven, because of bearing the image of the heavenly, and in every power, whether angelic, or the rest that are named saints, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come, and who are worthy of a kingdom of such a kind.

But he also uses the literal sense of a future kingdom, and refers to the prophecies in Daniel.

Against Celsus, Book VI, Ch. XLVI.
The prophecy also regarding Antichrist is stated in the book of Daniel, and is fitted to make an intelligent and candid reader admire the words as truly divine and prophetic; for in them are mentioned the things relating to the coming kingdom, beginning with the times of Daniel, and continuing to the destruction of the world.

Yet we see a blurring of the kingdom and heaven in other writings.

Commentary on John, Book X, 11
…the Passover … awaits its consummation not in this age nor upon earth, but in the coming age and in heaven when the kingdom of heaven appears.
 
First Principles, Book II, CHAP XI.6
I think, therefore, that all the saints who depart from this life will remain in some place situated on the earth, which holy Scripture calls paradise, as in some place of instruction, and, so to speak, class-room or school of souls, in which they are to be instructed regarding all the things which they had seen on earth, and are to receive also some information respecting things that are to follow in the future, as even when in this life they had obtained in some degree indications of future events, although "through a glass darkly," all of which are revealed more clearly and distinctly to the saints in their proper time and place. If anyone indeed be pure in heart, and holy in mind, and more practiced in perception, he will, by making more rapid progress, quickly ascend to a place in the air, and reach the kingdom of heaven, through those mansions, so to speak, in the various places which the Greeks have termed spheres, i.e., globes, but which holy Scripture has called heavens; in each of which he will first see clearly what is done there, and in the second place, will discover the reason why things are so done: and thus he will in order pass through all gradations, following Him who hath passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, who said, "I will that where I am, these may be also." And of this diversity of places He speaks, when He says, "In My Father's house are many mansions." He Himself is everywhere, and passes swiftly through all things; nor are we any longer to understand Him as existing in those narrow Limits in which He was once confined for our sakes, i.e., not in that circumscribed body which He occupied on earth, when dwelling among men, according to which He might be considered as enclosed in some one place.

We see a similar blurring in some of the writings of Cyprian of Carthage (AD 200-258). Like Origen, he spoke of Christ himself being the kingdom.

Mortality, Ch. 2
The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, has begun to be at hand; the reward of life and the joy of eternal salvation and perpetual happiness and the possession of paradise once lost are now coming with the passing of the world...
 
The Lord's Prayer, ch. 13
There follows in the prayer: 'Thy kingdom come.' We seek also that God's kingdom be manifested to us, just as we ask that His name be sanctified in us. For when does God not reign, or when does that begin in Him which both always was and does not cease to be? We petition that our kingdom come which was promised us by God, which was acquired by Christ's blood and passion, so that we who formerly served in the world may afterwards reign with Christ as Lord, as He Himself promises and says: 'Come, blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.' Indeed, most beloved brethren, even Christ Himself can be the kingdom of God whom we daily desire to come, whose coming we wish to be quickly presented to us. For since He Himself is the resurrection, because in Him we rise again, so too the kingdom of God can be understood as Himself, because in Him we are to reign. Moreover, well do we seek the kingdom of God, that is the heavenly kingdom, because there is also an earthly kingdom. But he who has already renounced the world is greater than both its honors and kingdom. And so he who dedicates himself to God and to Christ desires not earthly but heavenly kingdom. Moreover, there is need of continual prayer and supplication, lest we fall away from the heavenly kingdom, just as the Jews to whom this had first been promised fell away, as the Lord makes clear and proves. He says: 'Many shall come from the East and from the West and shall feast with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom will be put forth into the darkness outside; and there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' He shows that formerly the Jews were sons of the kingdom, when they persevered in being also the sons of God; after the name of the Father had ceased among them, the kingdom also ceased. And so we Christians who in our prayers have begun to call God 'Father,' pray also that the kingdom of God come to us.

Nevertheless, there remained some writers who preserved the original, Biblical idea of the kingdom. Lactantius (ca. 240 - ca. 320) wrote in Epitome of the Divine Institutes:

Therefore peace being made, and every evil suppressed, that righteous King and Conqueror will institute a great judgment on the earth respecting the living and the dead, and will deliver all the nations into subjection to the righteous who are alive, and will raise the righteous dead to eternal life, and will Himself reign with them on the earth, and will build the holy city, and this kingdom of the righteous shall be for a thousand years … After these things God will renew the world, and transform the righteous into the forms of angels, that, being presented with the garment of immortality, they may serve God for ever; and this will be the kingdom of God, which shall have no end.

But they became more and more outnumbered, as a flat-out denial of Millennialism became the norm. Victorinus (d. AD 303 or 304) wrote in his commentary on Revelation 21:16:

Therefore they are not to be heard who assure themselves that there is to be an earthly reign of a thousand years; who think, that is to say, with the heretic Cerinthus. For the kingdom of Christ is now eternal in the saints, although the glory of the saints shall be manifested after the resurrection.

More and more, the belief in an immortal soul transformed the view of the kingdom. Aphrahat (ca. 270 - ca. 345) wrote in his Letter of An Inquirer that the dead have not yet received either reward or punishment, and are awaiting the return of the King. But like so many still do, he incorrectly interprets Paul's reference to being "absent from the body and present with the Lord" (II Corinthians 5:8) as meaning that the spirit goes to the Lord until the resurrection. But the Bible does not refer to the spirit as being our consciousness or awareness which lives on in another state after death. Paul made it clear in his epistles that he would be with the Lord at his return. (See The State of the Dead.)

Athanasius (293-373) wrote in his Statement of Faith that Jesus ascended into heaven, "having been created as the beginning of ways for us," and that he showed us "a way up into the heavens, whither the humanity of the Lord ... entered as precursor for us."

John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) usually speaks of the kingdom as synonymous with heaven, as seen by his antithesis of "hell" and "the kingdom." But he adds another element. In The Kingdom of God in the Writings of the Fathers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1903), Henry Martyn Herrick writes the following about Chrysostom:

But in his thought of the kingdom he is profoundly evangelical, and the burden of his splendid eloquence from first to last is, "Realize the kingdom here!" and "Make earth a heaven!" He has reached the social view of the kingdom as the redeemed society on earth, as it were by way of heaven where Christ dwells and reigns. He thinks but little of the return of Christ to earth, the primitive eschatological view of the kingdom having almost faded from sight. Placing the essence of the kingdom in character, in a life well-pleasing to God, his strenuous ethical tone almost obliterates the boundary between things present and future.

Probably the most influential patristic writer with regard to the kingdom of God is Augustine (AD 354-430). Herrick writes of him:

The chief works of Augustine have about 1,300 references to the kingdom, nearly one-third of the whole number in the patristic writings under consideration. In the vast range of his works nearly every phase of the kingdom may be repeatedly met with; but the evangelical view, of the kingdom as the community of souls born anew through the gospel, is ever dominant. In Augustine this view takes its most characteristic form, however, in his explicit, though carefully modified, identification of the kingdom with the church, which is found in several of his treatises, but most fully expressed in De Civitate Dei [The City of God] and in his Tractates on the Gospel of John. This view, occasionally traceable in patristic thought from the time of Hermas, is nevertheless found even in Augustine in close connection with a clear distinction between the church and the kingdom; showing that the kingdom is generic and the church its only distinctive organized form. He thinks also of the kingdom as the celestial abode; but time and place are incidental and uncertain; to be in a state of salvation is to be in the kingdom of God. The reign of God in the soul is always assumed of the members of the kingdom, but the social idea receives the greater emphasis.

In his writing on the Sermon on the Mount, Augustine wrote of the greater precepts of a kingdom in heaven being given to the greater people, while the lesser precepts of an earthly kingdom were given to a lesser people (i.e., the Jews). This idea today forms a part of the Dispensationalist view.

Sermon on the Mount, Book I, ch. 1
The beginning, then, of this sermon is introduced as follows: "And when He saw the great multitudes, He went up into a mountain: and when He was set, His disciples came unto Him: and He opened His mouth, and taught them, saying." If it is asked what the "mountain" means, it may well be understood as meaning the greater precepts of righteousness; for there were lesser ones which were given to the Jews. Yet it is one God who, through His holy prophets and servants, according to a thoroughly arranged distribution of times, gave the lesser precepts to a people who as yet required to be bound by fear; and who, through His Son, gave the greater ones to a people whom it had now become suitable to set free by love. Moreover, when the lesser are given to the lesser, and the greater to the greater, they are given by Him who alone knows how to present to the human race the medicine suited to the occasion. Nor is it surprising that the greater precepts are given for the kingdom of heaven, and the lesser for an earthly kingdom, by that one and the same God, who made heaven and earth.

In Book II, ch. 6 of the same writing, he says that "the expression 'Thy kingdom come' is not used in such a way as if God were not now reigning." Rather than understanding it as coming on earth as though God did not now reign on earth, "come" is said to mean "manifested to men." The idea of a kingdom on earth was, in Augustine's view, an Old Testament concept, now replaced by the spiritual kingdom of the New Testament.

Reply to Faustus, Book IV, ch. 2
No one doubts that promises of temporal things are contained in the Old Testament, for which reason it is called the Old Testament; or that the kingdom of heaven and the promise of eternal life belong to the New Testament. But that in these temporal things were figures of future things which should be fulfilled in us upon whom the ends of the ages are come, is not my fancy, but the judgment of the apostle, when he says of such things, "These things were our examples;" and again, "These things happened to them for an example, and they are written for us on whom the ends of the ages are come."
 
Book XI, ch. 8
"Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself by Christ." What the new creature - that is, the people renewed by faith - hopes for regarding itself, it has already in Christ; and the hope will also hereafter be actually realized. And, as regards this hope, old things have passed away, because we are no longer in the times of the Old Testament, expecting a temporal and carnal kingdom of God; and all things are become new, making the promise of the kingdom of heaven, where there shall be no death or corruption, the ground of our confidence.

In The City of God, Augustine defines the first and second resurrections spoken of in Revelation as being resurrection of the soul first, and of the body second. He bases this in part on his understanding of Jesus' statement, "The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live." He states that this verse "does not speak of the second resurrection, that is, the resurrection of the body, which shall be in the end, but of the first, which now is." (Although the rest of the context of that verse makes it clear that Jesus referred to both a figurative resurrection now and a literal resurrection in the future.)

The City of God, Book XX, Ch. 7
The evangelist John has spoken of these two resurrections in the book which is called the Apocalypse, but in such a way that some Christians do not understand the first of the two, and so construe the passage into ridiculous fancies. For the Apostle John says in the foresaid book, "And I saw an angel come down from heaven … Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years." Those who, on the strength of this passage, have suspected that the first resurrection is future and bodily, have been moved, among other things, specially by the number of a thousand years, as if it were a fit thing that the saints should thus enjoy a kind of Sabbath-rest during that period, a holy leisure after the labors of the six thousand years since man was created, and was on account of his great sin dismissed from the blessedness of paradise into the woes of this mortal life, so that thus, as it is written, "One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day," there should follow on the completion of six thousand years, as of six days, a kind of seventh-day Sabbath in the succeeding thousand years; and that it is for this purpose the saints rise, viz., to celebrate this Sabbath. And this opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that Sabbath shall be spiritual, and consequent on the presence of God; for I myself, too, once held this opinion. But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can be believed only by the carnal. They who do believe them are called by the spiritual Chiliasts, which we may literally reproduce by the name Millenarians. It were a tedious process to refute these opinions point by point: we prefer proceeding to show how that passage of Scripture should be understood.

Later in the same chapter, he interprets the Millennium as figurative, in the following explanation.

Now the thousand years may be understood in two ways, so far as occurs to me: either because these things happen in the sixth thousand of years or sixth millennium (the latter part of which is now passing), as if during the sixth day, which is to be followed by a Sabbath which has no evening, the endless rest of the saints, so that, speaking of a part under the name of the whole, he calls the last part of the millennium-the part, that is, which had yet to expire before the end of the world-a thousand years; or he used the thousand years as an equivalent for the whole duration of this world, employing the number of perfection to mark the fullness of time.

Thus the current period of the Church is considered the fulfillment of many of the prophecies, so that the Church itself is in one sense the Kingdom.

Ch. 9
We must understand in one sense the kingdom of heaven in which exist together both he who breaks what he teaches and he who does it, the one being least, the other great, and in another sense the kingdom of heaven into which only he who does what he teaches shall enter. Consequently, where both classes exist, it is the Church as it now is, but where only the one shall exist, it is the Church as it is destined to be when no wicked person shall be in her. Therefore the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven. Accordingly, even now His saints reign with Him, though otherwise than as they shall reign hereafter.

Peake's Commentary on the Bible, on p. 941, has this to say about Augustine's influence:

Christ is described [in Revelation 20:1-6] as reigning with the martyrs for a thousand years. The interpretation of this statement has caused endless controversy ... Since the age of Augustine, an effort has been made to allegorize the statements of Revelation and apply them to the history of the Church ... [According to Augustine] the thousand years is not to be construed literally, but represents the whole history of the Church from the incarnation to the final conflict. The reign of the saints is a prophecy of the domination of the world by the Church. The first resurrection is metaphorical, and simply refers to the spiritual resurrection of the believer in Christ. But exegesis of this kind is dishonest trifling... To put such an interpretation on the phrase "first resurrection" is simply playing with terms.

John Hick, in his Death and Eternal Life (NY: Harper and Row, 1976, p. 197) wrote the following:

What Augustine was to stigmatize as the "ridiculous fancies" of Millennarianism - an initial selective resurrection inaugurating the 1000 years earthly rule of Christ and His saints, followed by a second general resurrection and judgment - gradually faded from the Christian imagination during the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. Augustine exerted his immense authority against the Millenarianists, arguing not that the expectations expressed in the revelation to John were mistaken, but that the passage in question does not mean what it says … It is interesting to watch him at work reinterpreting scriptural passages whose plain meaning he rejects. In this case he offers a Bultmann-like demythologization of the "first resurrection" consisting in the rising to faith of those souls who believe in Jesus and are baptized in His Name, The thousand years reign of the saints thus becomes the earthly life of the redeemed in the church during the present age ... According to Augustine the second and general resurrection, unlike the first, was to be a literal bodily event.

The ideas of Augustine were to dominate the Church from the time of the Apologists until the Reformation. It can be seen, though, how the original Biblical definition was gradually redefined in light of the belief in an immortal soul. The Hebrew expression "Kingdom of Heaven" was understood as a kingdom in heaven, and then the idea of conscious survival after death caused confusion between the believer's ultimate destination and what happened in the interim. Eventually the goal of heaven replaced the notion of a kingdom on earth, which was considered to belong to the Old Testament and therefore replaced. The truth of the Kingdom of God was thus gradually obfuscated by such teachings, and yet it was still there in the Scriptures where people hundreds of years later began to see it again.

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Mark Clarke
E-mail: mclarke@godskingdomfirst.org