More than ten years ago, when I served as the editor of this magazine, we produced an issue devoted to the theme of rage. It was, I suspect, something of a surprise to our readers when they saw the conflagration, the consuming fire that bedecked that issue’s cover. I suspect in turn, however, that our readers were still more surprised to find that my opening article sought not to instruct our readers in how to fight against rage, but rather served to encourage them in their spiritual duty to cultivate potent and righteous indignation.
I explained, as I recall, in my opening essay that there were two paradoxical emotions that I wanted to cultivate in my then very few and very young children. I wanted them to be characterized by a God-honoring disapprobrium. I wanted them to see the world for what it had become, to throw off the all too common evangelical complacency with sin and its destructive power. It is wrong, foolish, sinful, even perverse that we can go through our days content when the world is full of husbands who are unfaithful to their wives and thus break the hearts of their children. It is wrong, foolish, sinful, even perverse that we can go through our days tickled that our favorite ball club won its game while brutal tyrants the world over terrorize their own citizens. It is wrong, foolish, sinful, even perverse that our mood is affected more by the weather on any given day than the reality that in America four thousand mothers will murder four thousand babies. We are quite content, and so need to seek the forgiveness of our Father in heaven. We need to learn to enter more fully into the brokenness of our world. We need to enter more fully into the not yet.
It is one more sign of our own intellectual frailty and our worldliness that the eschatological view which dominates the church in any given time is driven by how optimistic the broader world is about the future. Postmillenial eschatology a hundred and fifty years ago dominated the scene not because of careful exegesis by biblical scholars, but because of the Enlightenment optimism of the broader culture. The spread of the folly of Darwinian evolution helped spread the notion that the world was inexorably and daily getting better and better. Progress was the savior of the world. Science, we were led to believe, would soon eliminate disease and toil. Education would rid us of the scourge of poverty and of crime. Social manipulation of the culture at large would in the end bring us to paradise, social engineers promised. Inside the church, as prosperity did in fact spread, as disease was in fact driven back, we embraced the same notions. The kingdom, it seemed, was just around the corner. We joined the world in its great bootstrapping effort to scale the heights of heaven.
Modernist confidence, however, was dealt a mortal blow with the first World War. On its heels soon came global economic calamity, the fruit of the prideful economic machinations of those in power here and abroad. Not long after, we witnessed the break out of World War II, a conflict dominated by the battle between two modernist utopian schemes, National Socialism and International Communism. It ended with the staggering manifestation of the fruit of our scientific progress, mushroom clouds over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Modernism and Enlightenment optimism likewise went up in smoke. Ideologically, our schemes led us to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The church, once again following the world, suddenly had a more pessimistic view of the future. Dispensational eschatology came to dominate the evangelical church. We were still following the world.
Of course, we are called to understand the kingdom of our Lord in light of the Word of God, not in light of the day’s headlines. If Jesus has determined for His purposes that Babylon should be shaken, that Rome should fall, we are called to remember that we reside in a city whose builder and maker is God. And if Jesus is pleased to make known here and now the glory of His reign, we are called to rejoice with Him, to press His crown rights. In neither case ought we to lose sight of these two realities. Jesus reigns. And He has not yet made fully manifest the glory of that reign; He has not yet fully destroyed all His and our enemies.
Christian television in our day, however, is dominated not by men and women caught up in dispensational despair. Neither are the majority of television preachers theological and political liberals who confuse the kingdom of God with their own foolish political notions. Instead, Christian television is dominated by those whose understanding of the not yet is decidedly weak, and whose understanding of the already is decidedly selfish. I speak of the prosperity preachers. Here they are so confident of the coming of the kingdom that they end up promising and promoting what Jesus has not promised.
The prosperity gospel affirms that God’s revealed will for all of us is that we would enjoy health and wealth. Sickness, death, and poverty are not the bitter fruits of the remnants of the fall, entrenched strongholds of a retreating satanic army. They are instead the utterly unnecessary result of our own failure to believe. Because Jesus has already overcome the Devil (and He has) we are told that we can have all that we want, if we only have sufficient faith.
It is not merely true, it’s gloriously true that Jesus has already overcome the world. Such requires of us in turn that we be of good cheer (John 16:33). The problem with the prosperity preachers isn’t that they have too much of a sense of the victory of Jesus. We do not solve the already/not yet problem by affirming instead some sort of almost/sort of schema. We do not seek to have the right percentage of already to match the right percentage of the not yet, unless that percentage in both cases is 100 percent. Jesus reigns fully now. The selfishness and crassness is answer enough for the prosperity preachers. We need not negotiate away the fullness of the kingdom to silence them.
This brings us back to my children. I mentioned that there are two paradoxical emotions that I aspire to encourage my children toward. I suggested that I wanted to cultivate in them a healthy, God-honoring indignation, because the world is not as it should be. The second emotion I pray for besides this is an utterly unshakeable peace. I want them to go through their days without a hint of worry, without succumbing to fear, without surrendering to despair. I want them to wake up every morning and to go to sleep each night completely at ease knowing that Jesus Christ reigns over heaven and earth. I want them to understand that things not being as they ought to be is how things ought to be.
The not yet of the kingdom exists precisely because of the already. Sickness, death, and poverty still assault us precisely because the Lord of lords has determined that they should. The failure of the prosperity preachers isn’t the affirmation that Jesus reigns but the affirmation that what Jesus wants for us is that we should all be healthy and prosperous. Would it be a hard thing for Jesus to make this so? Could Jesus, if He so desired, overcome our unbelief? Of course. He’s already done so in bringing us into His kingdom in the first place. So why doesn’t He finish the battle? Why doesn’t He wipe out every pocket of resistance? Why do we wait for the consummation? For our good and for His glory.
The hardship and travails we suffer through on this side of the veil are not, in the end, the result of the incompleteness of the kingdom of God. They are not evidence of a still potent resistance. They are instead weapons in the hand of our Lord in the one great battle, to make us more like Him. His glory isn’t that we should be rich and healthy, but that we should be like Him. The not yet is the evidence of the already.
Consider John’s Revelation. Here is a book written less to tell twenty-first-century Christians how history will end, and more to tell first-century Christians why they were having to endure such suffering. The message was not, “Be patient. One day Jesus will reign.” It was instead, “Rejoice, for Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, reigns on high, now and forever.” As we watch Western culture continue its march into decline, we need to remember that calling the cadence is He who sits upon a white horse. He is called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He judges and makes war. We, like our fathers before us, must protest the not yet, from the perspective of the peace of the already. And we must teach our children to do the same.