The Kingdom in the Early Church Fathers
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.
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:
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 3:5).
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:
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.
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.
Destiny of the Immortal Soul
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:
Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 5:
Refutation of All Heresies, Chap. 22:
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.
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:
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:
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.
But he also uses the literal sense of a future kingdom, and refers to the prophecies in Daniel.
Yet we see a blurring of the kingdom and heaven in other writings.
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.
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:
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:
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:
Probably the most influential patristic writer with regard to the kingdom of God is Augustine (AD 354-430). Herrick writes of him:
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.
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.
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.)
Later in the same chapter, he interprets the Millennium as figurative, in the following explanation.
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.
Peake's Commentary on the Bible, on p. 941, has this to say about Augustine's influence:
John Hick, in his Death and Eternal Life (NY: Harper and Row, 1976, p. 197) wrote the following:
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.