JOPLIN, Mo. —
Unlike ourselves, the earliest Christians lived in imminent expectation of the consummation of history, when Jesus would return to usher in the kingdom of God. They thought heaven was right around the corner. This expectation explains their fervor.
Clearly, this hope was not fulfilled in their lifetimes or in ours 2,000 years later. Nevertheless, Christians through the centuries have retained their confidence.
From time to time, pious Christians have attempted to reconcile the delay by pretending that the church itself is God’s kingdom. French theologian Alfred Loisy insisted he was not being cynical when he wrote, “Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and what we got was the church.”
Nevertheless, it is apparent that the church, although animated by God’s Spirit, is not the consummation that believers await.
While Christians practice patience, some others demand paradise now. For example, international communism established oppressive political regimes as interim arrangements that would eventually dissolve, yielding a utopian “dictatorship of the proletariat” Ñ a kind of heaven on Earth. It never happened.
By contrast, the church proclaimed from the outset the permanent reality of the reign of Christ. His resurrection was the sign that his reign had begun, and that reign continues two millennia later. Still, it is not the consummation, so the faithful still pray together Ñ “thy kingdom come” Ñ as an expression of hope and eager anticipation.
As long as Christianity was a sect with Jerusalem as its home base, the church was tied to its Jewish roots. But two early developments won the church its freedom.
The first took place in A.D. 49 and has since been labeled the Council of Jerusalem. While Jesus’ death and resurrection were vivid memories, the apostles assembled to debate whether gentile converts to Christianity should be required to convert to Jewish practices as well.
The prevailing notion was that converts must submit to painful circumcision and agree to arcane dietary and other restrictions. But St. Paul, himself a Jew, argued that one could become a Christian without converting to Judaism. Single-handedly, he won his argument with the original apostles, with but one concession Ñ that the gentile churches would help to support the church in Jerusalem financially.
Then, in A.D. 70, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem after putting down an insurrection. Because the local Christians were pacifists and refused to join in the fight, they were branded traitors by the conquered Israelites and were forced to flee the city.
Thereby, Jerusalem was lost as the center of the new faith, and the Christian split with Judaism became irreparable. Within just one more decade, all serious attempts to convert the Jews to the new faith were abandoned.
No longer pitted against Judaism, Christianity became perceived as a threat to Rome, but persecution strengthened the church and, within three centuries, the Roman Empire itself became Christian.
David Yount is the author of 14 books. He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and firstname.lastname@example.org.