Kingdom Come

Humans desire an ideal kingdom, a longing that Scripture promises to fulfill both spiritually and physically.
on Oct 2, 2013 · No comments

file0001006582285Everybody wants an empire.

Some overachievers actually manage to get one, temporarily. We who are less ambitious carve out a tiny niche of our world to reign over, even if it’s just the arrangement of the medicine chest’s contents.

If I were to tell you that the kingdom theme is the basis of a great many storylines, you’d be justified in saying Duh.  Fact is, it’s hard to think of a title in any medium (literary, film, video game) that doesn’t involve, at its essence, the striving of one kingdom for supremacy over another (or others).

One might even say this theme is genetically hardwired into the human psyche.

I’m hardly the first to point this out. Nor is it novel to suggest the reason for the constancy of this theme is our innate knowledge that this world is a battlefield with a throne as the prize.

Illustrations abound, both fanciful and serious, of this kingdom and the battle to possess it. But what, exactly, are the spiritual forces vying for? What does this kingdom look like? I suspect it’s so essential and obvious we can’t see it, like air. But in the Bible, God gives us the general idea.

One thing we should grasp is that His kingdom is—as are his human creations—both spiritual and physical. Take a look at the story the Bible tells. It begins in Genesis 1:1 with the creation of heaven (spiritual) and earth (physical), the dominion of which the serpent earthtries to usurp. It ends with a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1), with God forever seated on the throne. What unfolds in between is an outline of the events that bring this everlasting kingdom into existence.

In relation to this, we find two phrases in the gospel accounts: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. Most commentators say these are one and the same, just two ways of conveying one thought. But a careful reading of the passages in which these phrases appear reveals a clear difference between them. The kingdom of God refers to the spiritual dimension of the kingdom, which Jesus ushered in at the time of his first appearance. The kingdom of heaven speaks of the physical aspect, for which creation still waits (Romans 8:19-25).  (Easy way to remember which is which: God is spirit/the kingdom of God is spiritual; heaven is a literal place/the kingdom of heaven is a literal, physical kingdom.)

file000824249444The Bible explains this in rather plain language. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, He tells His hearers that it cannot be seen (Luke 17:20-21) and that it’s entered spiritually (John 3:3-5). Romans 14:17 tells us it’s intangible, not a physical thing. 1 Corinthians 15:50 declares flesh and blood cannot inherit it. If you do a search for kingdom of God throughout the Bible, you’ll find no contradiction to this understanding.

The kingdom of heaven is found in the gospel of Matthew and nowhere else in all the Bible.

As you probably know, Matthew’s target audience was the Jews of his day, and he wrote to demonstrate to his brethren that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah. Their scriptures promised that, when He came, He would usher in the kingdom. They understood this kingdom to be of the physical sort. God’s promises to Israel throughout the Old Testament involved actual real estate, military victory, bodily health, financial prosperity—all physical things. So when Matthew wrote of the kingdom of heaven, it was the flesh-and-blood dominion that he spoke of. And this perspective is why, in Luke 1:68-75, it was a purely physical kingdom that Zacharias believed his son John would be the herald of, according to prophecy.

Matthew shows Jesus declaring that this kingdom was “at hand” (Matt. 4:17 and Matt. 10:7). Indeed, in Acts 7:56 He did stand poised to return and establish His earthly kingdom immediately after His resurrection. But when His people rejected Him one last time, He sat down to wait (Colossians 3:1).

We tend to forget that, for now, God has given the devil control over the physical kingdoms of this world (2 Corinthiansfile8611287524854 4:3-4).

The days of the wicked one’s reign are numbered, of course. At just the right time (which day and hour no man can know), his dominion will be taken from him (Revelation 20:1-3), and the physical and the spiritual aspects of the kingdom will be united under Christ’s headship. But that’s still in the future. At present, it’s only the spiritual kingdom that’s established on this earth. We who follow Christ are citizens of it (2 Corinthians 5:17) with Christ as our Lord, though we remain physically in the devil’s realm.

All this is not merely academic; it matters in a vital, practical way. Failing to embrace these realities can lead to our trying to take from the devil something that, for now, is rightfully his. (Rightfully because God has ordained it, not because the devil is righteous!) Notice our Lord’s response in Matthew 4:8-10, when Satan offered Him all the kingdoms of the world. Though Jesus turned down the offer, He never contradicted that the kingdoms were, in fact, Satan’s to parcel out as he chose.

What God has given, only God can take away. Trying to wrest the physical world from the devil does Satan a favor, as the effort misdirects our attention and resources from what Christ has commissioned us to do. That is, bringing lost souls into the spiritual kingdom He’s already established for us.

It’s not rare for fiction to deal with the spiritual realm, but it’s usually sensationalized in Peretti-esque horror scenarios. Few stories reflect the scriptural distinction between the spiritual and physical aspects of Christ’s kingdom, and we don’t often see realistic portrayals of the sort of spiritual warfare believers actually face in this world.

Some years ago, I expressed reservations to a writer friend about the subject matter of her story, which involved demonic powers. Her reply: “Spiritual warfare is a very real thing, and people need to know that.”

SONY DSCTrue. But as mortal beings, our comprehension of the spirit world has severe limitations. Moreover, the Bible gives strong cautions against believers venturing into these areas. Satan’s power is such that no one but Jesus Himself is able to face him; not even Michael the archangel dares to go toe-to-toe with him (Jude 9). It’s foolish and  presumptuous to think we can jab at the Leviathan (Job 41:1-8).

As eternal citizens of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, we’re to be aware of the enemy’s wily devices (2 Corinthians 2:11)—but not run forward to meet him. Rather, we arm ourselves with the protection God has provided and stand—merely stand—in Christ (Ephesians 6:10-17). The battle is His, not ours.

It might sound contradictory to say Christian speculative fiction should be realistic. But in view of the kingdom truths as revealed in the Scriptures, the literary world might do with less pulse-pounding entertainment and more solid spiritual realism.

Yvonne Anderson writes fiction that takes you out of this world. Her first novel, The Story in the Stars, debuted in June 2011 and is an ACFW Carol Award finalist in the Speculative Fiction category. Her second, Words in the Wind, released August 1, 2012. Two additional titles will complete this Gateway to Gannah series. She is contest administrator for Novel Rocket's Launch Pad Contest for unpublished novelists. You may follow her wise words on the blog YsWords, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.
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  1. >>>t might sound contradictory to say Christian speculative fiction should be realistic. But in view of the kingdom truths as revealed in the Scriptures, the literary world might do with less pulse-pounding entertainment and more solid spiritual realism.<<<

    Lots of genres do. The Mitford books are a lovely, quiet, spiritual walk through one man's life and how it affects everyone in the town. But Mitford is contemporary, not speculative.

    Speculative is the playground of the imagination. I've experienced spiritual warfare, and it's horrifyingly real. But there's no demons lurking in the dark corners of the room, sulfur boiling out from between clenched fangs. It's a battle of thoughts, moods, that one email that shows up at just the wrong time.

    It's a relief to pick up a book and read a story of a man grappling with demons he can see, of visible evil and visible good. Real life is so very gray that a book that draws the battle lines is refreshing. If the baddies are orcs or aliens or fallen angels or witches or trolls or vampires or werewolves, so much the better!

    It's a monster to represent the monster in my mind. In a book I can get outside my own problem, walk around it, and see how to defeat it.

  2. I like that, Kessie (“Speculative is the playground of the imagination”). There’s certainly a place for letting one’s imagination explore possibilities. Personally, I don’t find relief in the type of story that portrays spiritual forces in physical manifestations, though I can enjoy one that pits the hero against a fantastic but mortal sort of enemy, like ogres and aliens. In my mind, however, the only book that draws the battle lines clearly and accurately is the Bible.

    • Yvonne: I know what you mean about only the Bible portrays spiritual warfare accurately. Like when Jesus casts out demons, and the different Greek words used for the different kinds of demons (like “hairy ones”). Or the angel being delayed 21 days while trying to get through to Daniel with God’s message.

      At the same time, those tiny glimpses fire the imagination. What is really happening? Who are the principalities and powers? Are there good ones and bad ones? Why are we an object lesson to them?

      Ephesians 3:10 in the Amplified: [The purpose is] that through the church the complicated, many-sided wisdom of God in all its infinite variety and innumerable aspects might now be made known to the angelic rulers and authorities (principalities and powers) in the heavenly sphere.

      So we fallen humans write stories where we grapple with these concepts, imperfectly, of course.

      Sometimes it’s easier just to couch the conflict against enemies we can imagine, like werewolves or hostile aliens. But I’m not going to knock people who try to write about spiritual warfare in human terms (unless their writing really stinks). Frank Peretti himself said that he was under spiritual attack while writing Present Darkness, but it was the attack of depression.

      Depression isn’t as exciting to read about as lizard demons and angels with fiery swords.

  3. In what sense do you mean that the physical world belongs to Satan? Yes, Jesus calls him “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), but what, effectively, does this mean? Does the phrase “this world” refer in this instance to the entire physical universe? I think not. In fact, I think we can stray into deceptive territory here if we’re not careful to interpret Scripture in light of its totality.

    When Satan wished to obliterate Job’s family and then physically afflict Job himself, whose permission did he have to receive? (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7) When Paul wrote that “for those who love God all things work together for good,” did he refer only to the workings of spiritual things? (Rom. 8:28) When he wrote that God “will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,” did he speak only of spiritual temptations? (1 Cor. 10:13) I think not. It’s clear from the totality of Scripture that God always has been and always will be the ultimate Lord of heaven and earth. (Isa. 37:16; Matt. 11:25) Satan can do nothing without first receiving God’s authorization. To claim that Satan controls the physical universe is to give him immeasurably more credit than he’s due.

    • I absolutely agree, Austin, that God unequivocally and irrevocably has all authority over all things. The Scriptures are clear about this. It’s also apparent, both from the Bible and from our observations of history and the present world, that God has given Satan the power to run things. For now. And with limits. He doesn’t rule the whole physical universe, but he has been given the “princedom” of the kingdoms of the earth. When the King returns and puts that snake in his place, He’ll set everything to right that the prince has been mucking up.

      I also agree that, although the devil has no power to harm a Spirit-indwelt believer spiritually, his power to harm us physically is limited as well. As you point out, he can only touch us when God gives him leave. But the physical world is his realm by and large.

      Let’s use Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon as an example. He was an idolater and a godless man, ruler of all the then-known world; and the scriptures tell us that he had this position because God gave it to him. Nevertheless, his power was not absolute, and despite his far-reaching authority, he was still ultimately subject to God.

      One of the things I’d hoped to convey through this is that when we focus on the physical, we play into the devil’s hand. The idea of fighting demons with swords might be exciting, but it has nothing to do with our actual circumstances. When we see the devil as an entity we can physically battle (a political movement we can overturn, a military force we can engage in, a human face we see the devil behind), we’re not only doomed to fail, but we’re failing to engage in the spiritual battle Christ has called us to fight.

      Every human face with the devil behind it has an eternal soul God died to save. That should be our focus.

      • I’m glad we agree on the sovereignty of God, and I understand how an obsession with political movements or other temporal concerns can sidetrack Christians from things that matter in an eternal sense, but your claim that we “play into the devil’s hand” when we “focus on the physical” doesn’t make sense to my mind. As Kessie astutely pointed out above, physical representations of “inner demons” or external spiritual forces allow us as writers and readers to draw such nebulous elements out into the light of the three-dimensional world where they can be confronted and dealt with. “Realistic” spiritual warfare can be incredibly tedious to witness — think The Screwtape Letters without the letters. But my indictment of that ideal (that “the physical shouldn’t stand in for the spiritual”) goes beyond its severe lack of entertainment-value. Whence comes this notion that our physical-world circumstances aren’t influenced by spiritual forces? Are political movements and military conflicts and personality cults not things with which spiritually-aware Christians must oftentimes do battle? Does the spiritual warfare which rages around us not manifest itself in physical symptoms? Should we ignore those symptoms? The very idea seems frankly Gnostic to me. Would you say that Tolkien “played into the devil’s hand” by representing the devil as a physical Dark Lord and by representing the temptation to inordinate power in the form of a physical ring? Would you say that Lewis played into the devil’s hand by manifesting a demonic power bent on world domination as a possessed, disembodied Head in That Hideous Strength? Would you call the White Witch a shallow distraction from real threats? How ’bout the Beasts of Revelation?

        I appreciate that there’s always the danger of falling into a detached “us versus them” mentality when allegorizing internal struggles through scenes of external conflict. We can forget that, in the real world, the battle rages in our hearts and minds instead of on oceans, across plains, and through forests. But that doesn’t mean the literary technique of fictional representation is of the devil. Does not Christ Himself use allegory after allegory to construct His parables? I see a disturbing correlation between this discussion and a concurrent one occurring elsewhere on this site, wherein the value and definition of allegory is under fire. If what you say about the physical representation of spiritual forces is true, then allegory is a tool of Satan, pure and simple. And if that’s the case, then what shall we say in response? Is it better to write and read fiction which bears absolutely no resemblance to the real world than to attempt to couch the real world in fictional terms?

        In addendum, I’d like to take a moment to defend Frank Peretti. I know you’re not a fan of his, and I’m not interested in turning you into one. But at least criticize him for supposed transgressions that he’s actually committed. In his most influential and speculative novels — This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness — spiritual entities never once assume physical form. Yes, there are angels and demons aplenty, and they’re certainly described in vivid visual terms, but they remain in their realm and we in ours. In Peretti’s fiction, demons don’t influence humans by threatening them with bodily harm; they do so by injecting them with sinful thoughts or destructive emotions. There’s a strict separation in effect between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the physical, and in that sense there’s absolutely no danger of a reader walking away from Peretti’s vision of spiritual warfare with the sense that there’s no need for personal, inward-focused alertness every moment of every day.

        And that’s about as ambitious as Peretti gets. Most of his other novels are either stories of spiritual warfare in which the inter-realm curtain’s never pulled back for the reader (i.e. The Prophet, The Visitation) or just straight-up sci-fi (i.e. Monster, Illusion). Whatever genre he’s employing, I’d never think to describe him as irresponsibly sensationalistic.

        • You ask “wherein comes this notion that our real-world physical circumstances aren’t influenced by spiritual forces?” I don’t know; where DID that come from? Same with that bit about allegory being a tool of Satan. It must have slipped in from another discussion, because none of that was ever in my mind, even remotely.

          It appears we’re misunderstanding one another. Let me try again:

          Yes. The world is broken. Badly. It’s a terrible mess. But it’s not up to Christians to fix it. Our job is to take the gospel to the lost and let Jesus handle saving the world. Most fiction–speculative and otherwise–fails to recognize that.

          Further affiant sayeth not.

          • “Trying to wrest the physical world from the devil does Satan a favor, as the effort misdirects our attention and resources from what Christ has commissioned us to do.”

            “Failing to embrace these realities can lead to our trying to take from the devil something that, for now, is rightfully his.”

            “… when we focus on the physical, we play into the devil’s hand.”

            “When we see the devil as an entity we can physically battle … we’re not only doomed to fail, but we’re failing to engage in the spiritual battle Christ has called us to fight.”

            Those are direct quotes from your post and from your comments. They lead me to the conclusion that, “If what you say about the physical representation of spiritual forces is true, then allegory is a tool of Satan, pure and simple.” I can’t figure out another way to interpret your perspective. Why would it be okay for us to fantasize about righting physical wrongs in fictional worlds when you apparently believe we’ve no business doing so in real life? You say that “It’s not up to Christians to fix [our broken world],” but what, practically, does that mean? You can choose to take the Fifth if you want, but these are questions with pretty important ramifications.

            • Perhaps you’ve given me a topic for my next post, Austin. I’ll try to speak more plainly at that time. For now, thank you for your impassioned response. I do, truly, appreciate your honest input.

    • Satan can do nothing without first receiving God’s authorization. To claim that Satan controls the physical universe is to give him immeasurably more credit than he’s due.

      Thanks Austin: you said exactly what my first heated reaction wanted to be, but would not have articulated half as well.

      This false belief is my main problem with demonic/spiritual warfare stories: often they give way too much credit to the devil/demons/dark forces and way too little credit to the real source of Power in the Universe. It’s similar to my distaste for Paradise Lost, where the angels feel like Keystone Kops and God appears to not know what’s going on in His own creation, all the while Satan gets the upperhand on everyone. I also feel that putting too much emphasis on Satan (who actually gets very little “screen time” in Scripture) is a way of absolving of ourselves of culpability. The wages of sin is death due to our own sin, not someone else’s.

      Plain and simple: hell is hell not because of physical torture, brimstone, or even psychological terror (though, possibly, all our part of it, we simply don’t know exactly). Instead hell is hell because it is the only place where a created being might experience complete and total separation from God (which is NOT true on Earth, even for someone who does not believe). Conversely, heaven is heaven not for what we get out of it, our potential mansions or crowns or bodies or whatever may be, but because a created being will finally experience complete and total immersion in God (which is also NOT true on Earth, even for believers).

      To borrow from The Princess Bride, “Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

  4. Galadriel says:

    That’s an intriguing distinction I hadn’t considered before…kingdom of heaven as subtly different than kingdom of God…but it does make sense

What do you think?