“Reign” or “Realm”?

For a very long time interpreters of the New Testament have puzzled over the Greek expression basileia tou theou, which can be translated in various ways. The most common, and most literal, are “the Kingdom of God” and “the Reign of God.” As Jesus used the phrase (in his native Aramaic, subsequently translated into Greek), the basic idea is “lordship”: full dominion and authority over creation and human life.

The difference between Kingdom and Reign, though, raises the question as to whether Jesus was speaking of a fixed, transcendent domain into which the faithful will enter at a future time following the general resurrection and last judgment (a heavenly Kingdom or Realm), or whether he was referring to a dynamic movement already present and active within the framework of human history, a sphere in which the “divine economy” or plan for salvation is being presently worked out in the here and now (Reign). In fact Jesus uses the expression in both ways, to indicate that kingdom and reign are two aspects of the same reality.

Why is this important for us? Because the tension between the two terms, kingdom and reign, actually defines the nature of the world and our vocation within it. Recalling the ancient Jewish notion of the “two ages,” we are invited to submit ourselves in this present age to God’s Reign, his sovereign rule or lordship, in order to enter fully into the life of his divine Realm or Kingdom in the age to come.

This does not mean, however, that the Kingdom is a strictly future reality. In the reign of God over the world and his participation in human events, the Kingdom itself is already present. With the resurrection of Christ and his victory over the power of death, the present historical age has in fact become, invisibly and mysteriously (sacramentally), the age to come. The basileia of God is thus both present and future, historical and transcendent. However we may translate the expression in any given context, it signifies God’s saving activity in our day to day life, which leads those who long for its fulfillment toward a future life in eternal communion with the Holy Trinity.

At the beginning of St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his post-baptismal ministry with proclamation of the “gospel of God.” “The time is fulfilled,” he declares, “and the basileia tou theou is drawing near; repent and believe in the good news!” The “time” that has come is expressed by the term kairos: a critical moment in salvation history, when God’s saving activity reaches its climax. That “time” reached its ultimate fulfillment with Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The basileia drew near in Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, as it did in the birth of the Church and its mission to the world. And it continues to “draw near” and be realized today, as God’s lordship or reign: sovereign divine authority over human life and activity. In St Mark’s Gospel especially, that reign also involves Jesus’ overcoming of demonic power. With the approach of the “reign of God,” Satan is defeated, and the faithful children of God are freed from his corrupting power. The approach, however, is not the fulfillment. The reign has not yet completed its purpose of leading the world into the eternal realm of the Kingdom.

There is ongoing tension between what has been accomplished and what is still to be done, between the “already” and the “not yet.” The “end time” is already present; the Kingdom is in our midst in the person and work of the Son of God. Yet its fulfillment lies in the future, when the Lord’s reign will summon all people to a final judgment, and lead the “righteous” into that eternal Realm in which God is “all in all.”

This perspective, offered by Jesus, invites us to return to a vision of the basileia that for the most part we have lost. If we think at all about “the Kingdom of God,” it is usually in terms of “realm” rather than “reign.” God is in his heaven, and our life unfolds in its familiar secular domain from day to day. In a liturgical service, in moments of intense prayer, or in accompanying a dying loved-one, we can sense God’s presence with us. But this does little to place the whole of our life in the biblical perspective of movement that characterizes the reign or saving action of God within the world, a movement that calls forth an active response on our part. The very purpose of our life is to enter into that divinely orchestrated movement. With the apostle Paul, we are called to assume the rigorous training of an athlete, to “strain forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13). As the desert fathers so often stressed, Christian life is not a static condition; it is and should be a passionate and breath-taking adventure.

The basileia as the reign of God, therefore, is a continuing dynamic, a work in progress. It is still approaching. It indeed drew near in the person of Christ. Yet we, with the risen Lord, are still engaged in a struggle against demonic power. There is still death and destruction in the world. There still exists innocent suffering. This can only be adequately explained by understanding that while Christ’s death and resurrection accomplished everything necessary to make possible the world’s salvation, we continue, from generation to generation and from moment to moment, to wage spiritual warfare against our tendencies toward sin and its consequences. In fact, the entire creation, St Paul tells us, is “groaning in travail,” awaiting what is yet to come, awaiting “revelation of the children of God” (Rom 8:19).

The work of redemption is complete, fulfilled by Christ’s victory over death, which grants us freedom from the consequences of our sin and mortality. Yet the struggle continues, to be completed only with his Second Coming in glory. The reign of God, like our personal struggle, is a continuing reality in our life, leading us progressively toward the transcendent realm we speak of as the Kingdom. From now until our own death in the flesh, our spiritual struggle will continue. From now until the end of the world, when Christ comes in glory, the cosmos itself will experience the tension between the reign of God and the ongoing corrupting influences of evil, of the Evil One. Only at the very end will Death and Hades be thrown “into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:13-14). Only then will there come an end to innocent suffering, together with fulfillment of the innate longing for God that lies in the secret heart of every human being.

We need, then, to abandon the popular static notion of the Kingdom as “up there,” situated in a realm above and beyond all that makes up our daily life. We need to hear in Jesus’ initial words in the Gospel of Mark a call to behold and bear witness to the reality of God’s reigning presence in our midst, in the here and now.

“The Kingdom is among you!” Jesus declares in Luke 17:21. The meaning of his words may well be that the Kingdom is within us. In either case, the basileia tou theou is present with us now as God’s reign. Even now it is actively working on our behalf to lead us out of death and corruption, to defeat the lingering presence and destructive works of Satan, and to guide us toward the glory of God’s eternal Kingdom and the joy of everlasting life.