Sunday Sermon: The Kingdom of God Is Within You (Some Assembly Required)

The difference between the Christian doctrine and those which preceded it is that the social doctrine said: “Live in opposition to your nature [understanding by this only the animal nature], make it subject to the external law of family, society, and state.” Christianity says: “Live according to your nature [understanding by this the divine nature]; do not make it subject to anything—neither you (an animal self) nor that of others—and you will attain the very aim to which you are striving when you subject your external self.”

—Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You

There is a vigorous debate among New Testament scholars about what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God.” Unlike most debates within the rarefied realms of academia, this one is actually fairly important, at least for Christians, because the different sides represent two very different ways of being Christian in the world.

Very roughly stated, the debate is between 1) those who see Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who preached that the world we know would soon end and be replaced by an ideal society created and imposed by God; and 2) those who see Jesus as a wisdom teacher who told people how they could create an ideal society through their own efforts.

The apocalypticists are the clear majority among biblical scholars. Albert Schweitzer articulated this position more than a hundred years ago in his masterwork, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, and it has been upheld and expanded upon by such luminaries ad Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman, who conclude, on the available textual and historical evidence, that Jesus preached that the end of the world was near and that God would soon impose a kingdom of righteousness by the force of celestial arms.

Perhaps the central figure on the other side of the debate is John Dominic Crossan, the prodigious scholar and former Catholic priest who has spent much of his career arguing that Jesus saw the Kingdom of God as sapiential, or as something that people could have any time they wanted:

The sapiential Kingdom looks to the present rather than the future and imagines how one could live here and now within an already or always available divine domination. One enters that Kingdom by wisdom or goodness, by virtue, justice, or freedom. It is a style of life for now rather than a hope of life for the future.[i]

Once we move this debate away from the purely historical questions that most scholars are concerned with, and into the realm of religious practice, it becomes enormously important for practicing Christians. Are we supposed to wait for the end of the world? Or should we get busy trying to create the Kingdom of God right here and right now? The apocalyptic-kingdom model is essentially conservative (in the classical, not the contemporary political sense). It sees humans as too flawed and fallen to create a good society through their own efforts. The sapiential-kingdom model is classically liberal: it sees human nature as perfectible and the Kingdom of God within our reach.

This huge debate in the Christian world, however, should not be a debate at all for Latter-day Saints, as the Book of Mormon clearly settles the question in favor of the sapiential kingdom. We know that human beings can create the Kingdom of God through their own efforts because, in Fourth Nephi, they do precisely that. Even though they do experience an apocalyptic event that destroys the world as they knew it, along with a visit from the resurrected Christ—both of which match the traditional Christian eschatological expectations more closely than we have usually acknowledged[ii]—the people still have to create a good world by putting into practice Jesus’s sapiential teachings:

And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people. And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God. There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God. And how blessed were they! For the Lord did bless them in all their doings; yea, even they were blessed and prospered until an hundred and ten years had passed away; and the first generation from Christ had passed away, and there was no contention in all the land. (4 Ne 1: 15-18)

This is actually the second time, according to Latter-day Saint scripture, when human beings, through their own efforts and through ordinary grace, created the Kingdom of God on earth, the first being the City of Enoch described in the Book of Moses. That city became so righteous that it was taken into heaven, in effect, creating its own eschatological event through its righteousness.

The Nephite/Lamanite society was not so fortunate, as one of the consequences of a sapiential kingdom is that, just as it can be created by human action, it can be lost by human action. Perhaps the great tragedy of the Book of Mormon is that the people created the Kingdom of God on earth through their own efforts, and then they lost it when they stopped making those efforts—when they stopped having their goods in common (4 Ne 1:2,5) allowed class divisions to emerge between rich and poor (4 Ne 1:26), and reasserted the tribal and national categories that had lain dormant for hundreds of years (4 Ne 1:36).

Most of the great lessons of the Book of Mormon come from the failures of God’s chosen people to create God’s Kingdom—or, in 4 Nephi, from their failures to keep the Kingdom once they created it. But, in that failure, we also learn some extremely important things about that Kingdom that might just help us avoid their mistakes.

Perhaps the most important lesson that we learn in all of the scriptures is that the Kingdom of God is ours to create. It is not something to wait for, nor is it something we earn through transactional obedience. Heaven is not a reward for good behavior; it is a consequence of the way that we treat each other. The sapiential ministry of Jesus Christ was an instruction manual on how to build the Kingdom: treat all people as fundamental equals, forgive them often, go out of your way to serve them, see them as God sees them, and love them as you love yourself. Heaven is nothing more, or nothing less, than a world in which people do these things all the time. And hell is a world in which they do not.


[i] John Dominic. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins, 1992, 292.

[ii] Heather Hardy, “Saving Christianity: The Nephite Fulfillment of Jesus’s Eschatological Prophecies,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 23.1 (2014), 30.

Comments

  1. As an historical matter about what the Gospels have to tell us, I’d argue both in different ways (see Marcus Borg, for example). As a present matter I’m all-in for the sapiential view.

    What interests me most about Fourth Nephi is how we read with respect to inclusion/exclusion. When I read “No contention in all the land” I put weight on “all the land” as a highly inclusive concept. When some of my fellow Saints read “no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness” they assume all the people inclined that way were dead or banished.

    I know what I want and what I want to believe (I’m on the highly inclusive goods in common reduced classism side), but I think it’s a hard question when we come to present day real world efforts to build the kingdom.

  2. Loursat says:

    First Nephi gives more evidence for the sapiential reading. When the “Holy One of Israel” will “reign in dominion, and might, and power, and great glory,” Satan will be bound because of the people’s righteousness, not because God restrains Satan independently of what we do. At least that’s how I understand 1 Nephi 22:26:

    “And because of the righteousness of [God’s] people, Satan has no power; wherefore, he cannot be loosed for the space of many years; for he hath no power over the hearts of the people, for they dwell in righteousness, and the Holy One of Israel reigneth.”

  3. Loursat says:

    Following on christiankimball’s point, the inclusion-or-exclusion problem seems to be the great question of the Church’s current historical era. We’re not close to figuring out the answer yet. It seems obvious that we need to be more inclusive than we were during our insular time before World War II. Our struggle is figuring out how to preserve a unique identity that allows Latter-day Saints to remain part of the in-group in a productive way. As an institution, we are trending very dangerously close to political and culture-war definitions of what makes Latter-day Saints distinctive. Chris astutely mentions the absence of contention as a marker of Zion. Our mistake so far is striving for an absence of contention within the in-group while stoking political and cultural contention to distinguish ourselves from the out-group. That won’t work.

  4. Heaven is heaven because a heavenly people dwell there.

  5. Geoff - Aus says:

    There is a world happines index and the countries that are at the top of it are working to remove homelessness, and reduce inequality. No poor among them….
    They are doing a better job of creating a zion society than those who claim to believe it for religious reasons but are constrained by their politics.
    We are having a federal election in Australia and one of the issues is housing affordability, and rental affordability.
    Finland has 1 person/ 10,000 homeless, Australia 5, and America 17.

  6. Geoff - Aus says:

    Presumably if there had been a happiness index in 50 ad the nephites would be close to the top. I see that Utah is about 10 homeless people/ 10,000.

    Jader, How do you define heavenly people? The way 4th Nephi defines them or might there be some republicans there?

  7. sjames says:

    It seems to me both ‘contentions’ ignore the fact that nothing heavenly (Zion or the Kingdom of God) is achieved without “divine aid”.
    The claim: “We know that human beings can create the Kingdom of God through their own efforts because, in Fourth Nephi, they do precisely that.” – ignores the fact that the Kingdom of God is not achieved without the grace and gifts of God bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son – no Christlike love, no Kingdom (at least no entry into it).
    Christ’s atonement, spiritual endowments, and other spiritual transformations are conditionally ‘gifted’ as ultimately is the Kingdom of God.
    The only mention of the Kingdom of God in Fourth Nephi I could find reads: “but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God”. 4 Nephi 1:17, which I understand to point to a future condition/circumstance, not yet attained.

  8. Sjames (and Michael),

    I don’t I think I agree with your claim that “Christ’s atonement, spiritual endowments, and other spiritual transformations are conditionally ‘gifted,’” depending on what you mean by “conditionally,” but contra Michael, I fully agree with your claims that “nothing heavenly…is achieved without ‘divine aid'” and that, in the case of Fourth Nephi, it’s important to note that the received record does not say that they built the Kingdom of God, but rather that, through their Zion existence (no contentions or poor among them, etc.), they became “heirs to the kingdom of God.” The terminological/theological point here has, I’m sure, no clear resolution solely within the scriptural record, but my reading (one shared with, among others, Hugh Nibley) is that we are called to repent and work and shape our lives so as to build Zion…which is preparatory for the spiritual transformation which we call the Kingdom of God. The legend tells us that Enoch–after having been granted a great deal of heavenly aid–built Zion, as perfect a city as humans can build, which then (rather than eventually succumbing to humanities inevitable flaws, as the post-destruction Book of Mormon peoples did?) taken up into God’s presence. Surely the latter, rather than the former, is God’s “kingdom,” yes?

  9. Roger Hansen says:

    I’m all in on sapiential Christianity. But I think most Mormon are more into Apocalyptic Christianity. Which is one of my problems with contemporary Mormonism. I love Christ as a social rebel. His antiestablishment message. It is so relevant in the modern world.

    Yet the current temple building craze and the emphasis on genealogy seem Apocalyptic. As do the messages of President Nelson. The Church programs to help refugees and the poor seem very secondary compared to other Church activities. Given that half the Church membership now lives in developing countries, this is unfortunate.

    It seems like Albert Schweitzer ended up getting a medical degree and moving to Gabon. Maybe he had a change of heart.

  10. Mormon says it was “the more righteous part of the people” who survived the destructions of 3rd Nephi 8, but the bar doesn’t seem to be all that high: basically those who didn’t kill “the prophets and the saints.” I don’t doubt there was mob violence and many people with blood on their hands, but it sounds like a lot of pretty average citizens of the wicked society of 3rd Nephi 6-7 successfully became citizens of Zion in 4th Nephi. A lot of hearts must have changed, by a lot, and in a fairly short time.

    From my observations of human nature, including my own, I suspect that before the mighty change relatively few of them actively or effectively opposed the sins of their society, most acquiesced in them, and some actively supported them. The societal sins they tolerated include great inequality, making education the key to socioeconomic advancement but limiting access to the rich, widespread contention and anger, and overthrowing a divinely-inspired democratic government and replacing it with autocratic governments rooted in tribal affiliations.

    This gives me hope that members of the Church today, including myself, can also change.

    The great questions then are what made this change happen, and how can we make it happen again today? I suspect Mormon sees it as just the pride cycle writ large, and that the destructions of 3rd Nephi 8 were a necessary prerequisite not because they killed the wicked, but because they humbled the survivors. It’s a gloomy analysis, but who can blame Mormon for being gloomy? I wish I had a more optimistic answer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: