Is the Kingdom of God present or future? If Jesus defeated Satan at Calvary, why is there still suffering and sin? Why aren’t more people healed when we pray? Does the Bible teach perfectionism in this life? Are believers to be free of all suffering and infirmity in this world?
These are all tough questions which are often being asked by followers of Jesus Christ. And they all tie together in some important ways. They all have to do with how we are to understand the Christian life, how we are to perceive the Kingdom, and how we are to understand Biblical eschatology.
A lot of confusion arising from such questions can be substantially cleared up when we consider what has become a reigning paradigm of New Testament understanding. A lot of debate has gone into how one approaches the New Testament treatment of eschatology in general and the kingdom of God in particular. An ‘already and not yet’ understanding of these issues is now becoming quite widely accepted among evangelicals, and does indeed seem to best account for the biblical data.
This position, sometimes referred to as the ‘living between the ages’ view, argues that the kingdom of God is to be understood as being both present and future: it is already here, but it is not yet fully realised. Thus the kingdom has already dawned but is not yet complete.
In his 1950 book Christ and Time Oscar Cullmann made a helpful analogy from World War II: On D-Day the Allied forces established a bridgehead in Nazi-occupied Europe, on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944. It was a decisive turning point in the history of the war, but it was not won that day. It was not until VE-Day – a year later – that victory finally came. The cross and resurrection are to D-Day what the end of history is to VE-Day.
New Testament scholar Gordon Fee argues that this already and not-yet eschatology is “the absolutely essential framework of the self-understanding of primitive Christianity, including Paul”. Or as he says elsewhere, “It is impossible to understand Paul’s emphasis on the experienced life of the Spirit apart from this ‘already/not yet’ eschatological perspective, which dominated his thinking.”
Or as N.T. Wright observes: “The early church held on firmly to both sides of the apparent paradox: the end had happened; the end was yet to come. Paul writes from prison about his present suffering at the hands of persecutors and also about the triumphant victory that Jesus won on the cross over the principalities and powers. This is utterly characteristic. Both sides must be given the same stress.”
Another way of expressing this is to say that Christ did indeed come to undo the works of the enemy, to roll back the results of the curse. Yet we know that the enemy still has power, that the effects of the curse are still in force. Christ began the counter-offensive at Calvary, but the final mopping-up operation awaits the parousia. In the meantime we are his foot soldiers, reclaiming territory from the enemy.
George Ladd puts it this way: “A key concept about the kingdom of God, which the prophets were not permitted to see, was that the kingdom first must come on the spiritual level in the person of the incarnate Son of God before it would come with power and glory to fill all the earth. Jesus brought the kingdom with Him, and He will bring the kingdom in power and glory when He comes as the heavenly Son of Man.”
Thus we need to keep the balance between the victory we can have in Christ and the failures we do have living in a fallen world. D.A. Carson says this balance is needed “to inform our perspectives on many areas of life still swamped by the curse. Disease, accidents, oppression, opposition to the gospel; none of these is a good thing, and all of them can be traced in one way or another to Satan himself. None of these will find any place in the consummated kingdom. Yet at the same time, none of these ugly things escapes the outermost bounds of God’s sovereignty”.
John Stott offers this helpful remark: “Many Christians choose one or other of these positions, or oscillate unsteadily between them. Some are triumphalists, who see only the decisive victory of Jesus Christ and overlook the apostolic warnings against the powers of darkness. Others are defeatists, who see only the fearsome malice of the devil and overlook the victory over him which Christ has already won. The tension is part of the Christian dilemma between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’. . . . An overemphasis on the ‘already’ leads to triumphalism, the claim of perfection – either moral (sinlessness) or physical (complete health) – which belongs only to the consummated kingdom, the ‘not yet’. An overemphasis on the ‘not yet’ leads to defeatism, an acquiescence in continuing evil which is incompatible with the ‘already’ of Christ’s victory”.
That is a helpful way at looking at these matters. We all know of believers who seem to be constantly discouraged, depressed and defeatist. They need not necessarily be. But we also know of those who seem to expect perfection in this life, and seem to have almost a New Age understanding of faith, which rules out any sickness, any calamity, or any struggle. It is the idea that every success can be experienced now and experienced fully. It ignores the tension of living in two different worlds, of being citizens of two different kingdoms.
Sickness and Healing
Consider the issue of healing in this regard. Even though healing may well be the expected norm in the New Testament, it does not always occur. As one commentator puts it, the “ambiguity of our situation ‘between the ages’ is such that not everyone the church prays for is healed of his or her disease. But this is an ambiguity that makes one realize that he is dealing with a mystery, with a living and willing and sovereign God, and with a situation in which sin, demonic beings, other spiritual and psychological factors, as well as complex physical factors play a part.”
Or consider the words of Ken Blue: “The ministry of healing, like all other aspects of Christian ministry and experience, is partial, provisional and ambiguous. . . . We see the now-and-not-yet nature of the kingdom not just through our ministries but also in our personal experience of salvation. . . . Freedom from sin and sickness is eschatological – that is, it comes finally and fully only with the eschaton, the end of time that comes with the return of Jesus Christ. Full freedom will only come with our resurrection.”
Of course to say all of this is not to deny that God wants to act mightily on behalf of his people. All of this is not to deny the miraculous nor to deny the Spirit’s empowerment in believer’s lives. If over-emphasising the ‘now’ is a danger of the health and wealth gospel, or the word of faith camp, over-emphasising the ‘not yet’ is a danger of much non-charismatic Christianity. Too much powerless Christianity seems to be the norm today. Thus we owe the health and wealth gospellers credit for a revitalised interest in faith and the Spirit’s work in our lives. A balance, in other words, is what is needed. Thus we need to avoid both an under-realised and an over-realised eschatology.
As Fee puts it, on the one side, there is “a strong tendency to leave God’s people to ‘slug it out in the trenches’ more or less on their own, with some lip service paid to the Spirit but with little of the Pauline experience of the Spirit as the empowering presence of God. On the other side lie some equally strong tendencies toward triumphalism, especially in a culture like late-twentieth century America, where pain of any kind is rejected as a form of evil and where suffering is to be avoided at all costs. . . . The result on this side is something of an ‘over-realized’ eschatological perspective, with an unPauline view of the Spirit as present in power which negates weakness in the present as something dishonoring to God.”
Healing then, like any other provision made available from the work of Christ at Calvary, is never fully realised in this life. Not everyone gets healed, and not everyone is fully healed. This understanding of living between the ages should help to explain these realities of life.
An awareness of this living between the times is a helpful answer to various forms of extremism, be it an overly triumphal extremism, or an unnecessarily defeatist extremism. We live in a fallen world, and all that we do is tinged by sin, selfishness, imperfection and finitude. Yet thanks be to Christ that real victory and real overcoming is possible. But we wait, as it says in Romans 8:18-25, for the final and full realisation of our redemption.
It may be frustrating to some that we cannot experience full perfection in this life, but that seems to be the clear teaching of the New Testament. Perfection has come in the person of Jesus Christ, and we can begin to taste some of that perfection, freedom and victory. But we continue to live in a fallen world, and sin, suffering and death still hound us.
Learning to cope with the tension of living between the ages may not always be easy, but it is something we must commit ourselves to. Frustration and discontentment will otherwise result. But such a realisation of living between the times will help to keep us humble and keep us on our knees. We have a perfect saviour who offers us a perfect redemption, but that will not be fully realised in this world. Thus we must constantly acknowledge our need, our finiteness, our sin and our imperfection, as we cling to the hand of our perfect redeemer.