The Life of Jesus
by Ernest Renan


The Life of Jesus > Chapter XVII



Definitive form of the ideas of Jesus respecting the Kingdom of God
WE Suppose that this last phase of the activity of Jesus continued about eighteen months from the time of his return from the Passover of the year 31 until his journey to the feast of tabernacles of the year 32. During this time the mind of Jesus does not appear to have been enriched by the addition of any new element; but all his old ideas grew and developed with an ever- increasing degree of power and boldness.

The fundamental idea of Jesus from the beginning was the establishment of the kingdom of God. But this kingdom of God, as we have already said, appears to have been understood by Jesus in very different senses. At times we should take him for a democratic leader desiring only the triumph of the poor and the disinherited. At other times the kingdom of God is the literal accomplishment of the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and Enoch. Lastly, the kingdom of God is often a spiritual kingdom, and the approaching deliverance is a deliverance of the spirit. In this last sense the revolution desired by Jesus was the one which has really taken place -- the establishment of a new worship, purer than that of Moses. All these thoughts appear to have existed at the same time in the mind of Jesus. The first one, however -- that of a temporal revolution -- does not appear to have impressed him much; he never regarded the earth or the riches of the earth, or material power, as worth caring for. He had no worldly ambition. Sometimes by a natural consequence, his great religious importance was in danger of being converted into mere social importance. Men came requesting him to judge and arbitrate on questions affecting their material interests. Jesus rejected these proposals with haughtiness, treating them as insults. Full of his heavenly ideal, he never abandoned his disdainful poverty. As to the other two conceptions of the kingdom of God, Jesus appears always to have held them simultaneously. If he had been only an enthusiast, led away by the apocalypses on which the popular imagination fed, he would have remained an obscure sectary, inferior to those whose ideas he followed. If he had been only a puritan, a sort of Channing or "Savoyard vicar," he would undoubtedly have been unsuccessful. The two parts of his system, or, rather, his two conceptions of the kingdom of God, rest one on the other, and this mutual support has been the cause of his incomparable success. The first Christians were dreamers, living in a circle of ideas which we should term visionary; but, at the same time, they were the heroes of that social war which has resulted in the enfranchisement of the conscience. and in the establishment of a religion from which the pure worship, proclaimed by the founder, will eventually proceed.

The apocalyptic ideas of Jesus, in their most complete form, may thus be summed up. The existing condition of humanity is approaching its termination. This termination will be an immense revolution, "an anguish" similar to the pains of child-birth; a palingenesis, or, in the words of Jesus himself, a "new birth," preceded by dark calamities and heralded by strange phenomena. In the great day there will appear in the heavens the sign of the Son of man: it will be a startling and luminous vision like that of Sinai, a great storm rending the clouds, a fiery meteor flashing rapidly from east to west. The Messiah will appear in the clouds, clothed in glory and majesty, to the sound of trumpets and surrounded by angels, His disciples will sit by his side upon thrones. The dead will then arise, and the Messiah will proceed to judgment.

At this judgment men will be divided into two classes according to their deeds. The angels will be the executors of the sentences. The elect will enter into delightful mansions, which have been prepared for them from the foundation of the world; there they will be seated, clothed with light, at a feast presided over by Abraham, the patriarchs and the prophets. They will be the smaller number. The rest will depart into Gehenna. Gehenna was the western valley of Jerusalem. There the worship of fire had been practiced at various times, and the place had become a kind of sewer. Gehenna was, therefore, in the mind of Jesus, a gloomy, filthy valley, full of fire. Those excluded from the kingdom will there be burnt and eaten by the never-dying worm, in company with Satan and his rebel angels. There, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. The kingdom of heaven will be as a closed room, lighted from within, in the midst of a world of darkness and torments.

This new order of things will be eternal. Paradise and Gehenna will have no end. An impassable abyss separates the one from the other. The Son of man, Seated on the right hand of God, will preside over this final condition of the world and of humanity.

That all this was taken literally by the disciples and by the Master himself at certain moments appears clearly evident from the writings of the time. If the first Christian generation had one profound and constant belief, it was that the world was near its end, and that the great "revelation" of Christ was about to take place. The startling proclamation, "The time is at hand," which commences and closes the Apocalypse; the incessantly reiterated appeal, "He that hath ears to hear let him hear!" were the cries of hope and encouragement for the whole Apostolic age. A Syrian expression, Mayan atha, "Our Lord cometh!" became a sort of password, which the believers used among themselves to strengthen their faith and their hope. The Apocalypse, written in the year 68 of our era, declares that the end will come in three years and a half. The "Ascension of Isaiah" adopts a calculation very similar to this.

Jesus never indulged in such precise details. When he was interrogated as to the time of his advent, he always refused to reply; once even he declared that the date of this great day was known only by the Father, who had revealed it neither to the angels nor to the Son. He said that the time when the kingdom of God was most anxiously expected was just that in which it would not appear. He constantly repeated that it would be a surprise, as in the times of Noah and of Lot; that we must be on our guard, always ready to depart; that each one must watch and keep his lamp trimmed as for a wedding procession, which arrives unforeseen; that the Son of man would come like a thief, at an hour when he would not be expected; that he would appear as a flash of lightning, running from one end of the heavens to the other. But his declarations on the neamess of the catastrophe leave no room for any equivocation. "This generation," said he, "shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled. There be Some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." He reproaches those who do not believe in him for not being able to read the signs of the future kingdom. "When it is evening, ye say, it will be fair weather, for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to-day, for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky, but can ye not discern the signs of the times? "By an illusion common to all great reformers, Jesus imagined the end to be much nearer than it really was; he did not take into account the slowness of the movements of humanity; he thought to realize in one day that which, eighteen centuries later, has still to be accomplished.

These formal declarations preoccupied the Christian family for nearly seventy years. It was believed that some of the disciples would see the day of the final revelation before dying. John, in particular, was considered as being of this number; many believed that he would never die. Perhaps this was a later opinion suggested towards the end of the first century, by the advanced age which John seems to have reached; this age having given rise to the belief that God wished to prolong his life indefinitely until the great day, in order to realize the words of Jesus. However this may be, at his death the faith of many was shaken, and his disciples attached to the prediction of Christ a more subdued meaning.

At the same time that Jesus fully admitted the Apocalyptic beliefs, such as we find them in the apocryphal Jewish books, he admitted the doctrine, which is the complement, or rather the condition, of them all -- namely, the resurrection of the dead. This doctrine, as we have already said, was still somewhat new in Israel: a number of people either did not know it, or did not believe it. It was the faith of the Pharisees, and of the fervent adherents of the Messianic beliefs. Jesus accepted it unreservedly, but always in the most idealistic sense. Many imagined that in the resuscitated world they would eat, drink, and marry. Jesus, indeed, admits into his kingdom a new passover a table, and a new wine; but he expressly excludes marriage from it. The Sadducees had on this subject an apparently coarse argument, but one which was really in conformity with the old theology. It will be remembered that, according to the ancient sages, man survived only in his children. The Mosaic code had consecrated this patriarchal theory by a strange institution, the levirate law. The Sadducees drew from thence subtle deductions against the resurrection. Jesus escaped them by formally declaring that in the life eternal there would no longer exist differences of sex, and that men would be like the angels. Sometimes he seems to promise resurrection only to the righteous, the punishment of the wicked consisting in complete annihilation. Oftener, however, Jesus declares that the resurrection shall bring eternal confusion to the wicked.

It will be seen that nothing in all these theories was absolutely new. The Gospels and the writings of the Apostles scarcely contain anything as regards apocalyptic doctrines but what might be found already in "Daniel," "Enoch," and the "Sibylline Oracles," of Jewish origin. Jesus accepted the ideas, which were generally received among his contemporaries. He made them his basis of action, or rather one of his bases; for he had too profound an idea of his true work to establish it solely upon such fragile principles -- principles so liable to be decisively refuted by facts.

It is evident, indeed, that such a doctrine, taken by itself in a literal manner, had no future. The world, in continuing to exist, caused it to crumble. One generation of man at the most was the limit of its endurance. The faith of the first Christian generation is intelligible, but the faith of the second generation is no longer so. After the death of John, or of the last survivor, whoever he might be, of the group which had seen the Master, the word of Jesus was convicted of falsehood. If the doctrine of Jesus had been simply belief in an approaching end of the world, it would certainly now be sleeping in oblivion. What is it, then, which has saved it? The great breadth of the Gospel conceptions, which has permitted doctrines suited to very different intellectual conditions to be found under the same creed. The world has not ended, as Jesus announced, and as his disciples believed. But it has been renewed, and in one sense renewed as Jesus desired. It is because his thought was two-sided that it has been fruitful. His chimera has not had the fate of so many others which have crossed the human mind, because it concealed a germ of life which, having been introduced, thanks to the covering of fable, into the bosom of humanity, has thus brought forth eternal fruits.

And let us not say that this is a benevolent interpretation, imagined in order to clear the honor of our great Master from the cruel contradiction inflicted on his dreams by reality, No, no; this true kingdom of God, this kingdom of the spirit, which makes each one king and priest; this kingdom which, like the grain of mustard seed, has become a tree which overshadows the world, and amid whose branches the birds have their nests, was understood, wished for, and founded by Jesus. By the side of the false, cold, and impossible idea of an ostentatious advent, he conceived the real city of God, the true "palingenesis," the Sermon on the Mount, the apotheosis of the weak, the love of the people, regard for the poor, and the reestablishment of all that is humble, true, and simple. This reestablishment he has depicted as an incomparable artist, by features which will last eternally. Each of us owes that which is best in himself to him. Let us pardon him his hope of a vain apocalypse, and of a second coming in great triumph upon the clouds of heaven. Perhaps these were the errors of others rather than his own; and if it be true that he himself shared the general illusion, what matters it, since his dream rendered him strong against death, and sustained him in a struggle to which he might otherwise have been unequal?

We must, then, attach several meanings to the divine city conceived by Jesus. If his only thought had been that the end of time was near, and that we must prepare for it, he would not have surpassed John the Baptist. To renounce a world ready to crumble, to detach one's self little by little from the present life, and to aspire to the kingdom about to come, would have formed the gist of his preaching. The teaching of Jesus had always a much larger scope. He proposed to himself to create a new state of humanity, and not merely to prepare the end of that which was in existence. Elias or Jeremiah, reappearing in order to prepare men for the supreme crisis, would not have preached as he did. This is so true that this morality, attributed to the latter days, is found to be the eternal morality, that which has saved humanity. Jesus himself in many cases makes use of modes of speech which do not accord with the apocalyptic theory. He often declares that the kingdom of God has already commenced; that every man bears it within himself; and can, if he be worthy, partake of it; that each one silently creates this kingdom by the true conversion of the heart. The kingdom of God at such times is only the highest form of good. A better order of things than that which exists, the reign of justice, which the faithful, according to their ability, ought to help in establishing; or, again, the liberty of the soul, something analogous to the Buddhist "deliverance," the fruit of the soul's separation from matter and absorption in the divine essence. These truths, which are purely abstract to us were living realities to Jesus. Everything in his mind was concrete and substantial. Jesus, of all men, believed most thoroughly in the reality of the ideal.

In accepting the Utopias of his time and his race, Jesus thus was able to make high truths of them, thanks to the fruitful misconceptions of their import. His kingdom of God was no doubt the approaching a Apocalypse, which was about to be unfolded in the heavens. But it was still, and probably above all the kingdom of the soul, founded on liberty and on the filial sentiment which the virtuous man feels when resting on the bosom of his Father. It was a pure religion, without forms, without temple, and without priest; it was the moral judgment of the world, delegated to the conscience of the just man, and to the arm of the people. This is what was designed to live; this is what has lived. When, at the end of a century of vain expectation, the materialistic hope of a near end of the world was exhausted, the true kingdom of God became apparent. Accommodating explanations throw a veil over the material kingdom, which was then seen to be incapable of realization. The Apocalypse of John, the chief Canonical book of the New Testament, being too formally tied to the idea of an immediate catastrophe, became of secondary importance, was held to be unintelligible, tortured in a thousand ways, and almost rejected. At least, its accomplishment was adjourned to an indefinite future. Some poor benighted ones, who, in a fully enlightened age, still preserved the hopes of the first disciples, became heretics (Ebionites, Millenarians) lost in the shallows of Christianity. Mankind had passed to another kingdom of God. The degree of truth contained in the thought of Jesus had prevailed over the chimera which obscured it.

Let us not, however, despise this chimera, which has been the thick rind of the sacred fruit on which we live. This fantastic kingdom of heaven, this endless pursuit after a city of God, which has constantly preoccupied Christianity during its long career, has been the principle of that great instinct of futurity which has animated all reformers, persistent believers in the Apocalypse, from Joachim of Flora down to the Protestant sectary of our days. This impotent effort to establish a perfect society has been the source of the extraordinary tension which has always made the true Christian an athlete struggling against the existing order of things. The idea of the "kingdom of God," and the Apocalypse, which is the complete image of it, are thus, in a sense, the highest and most poetic expressions of human progress. But they have necessarily given rise to great errors. The end of the world, suspended as a perpetual menace over mankind, was, by the periodical panics which it caused during centuries, a great hindrance to all secular development. Society, being no longer certain of its existence, contracted therefrom a degree of trepidation, and those habits of servile humility, which rendered the Middle Ages so inferior to ancient and modern times. A profound change had also taken place in the mode of regarding the coming of Christ. When it was first announced to mankind that the end of the world was about to come, like the infant which receives death with a smile, it experienced the greatest access of joy that it has ever felt. But, in growing old, the world became attached to life. The day of grace, so long expected by the simple souls of Galilee, became to these iron ages a day of wrath: Dies irae, dies illa! But, even in the midst of barbarism, the idea of the kingdom of God continued fruitful. in spite of the feudal church, of sects, and of religious orders, holy persons continued to protest, in the name of the Gospel, against the iniquity of the world. Even in our days, troubled days, in which Jesus has no more authentic followers than those who seem to deny him, the dreams of an ideal organization of society, which have so much analogy with the aspirations of the primitive Christian sects, are only in one sense the blossoming of the same idea. They are one of the branches of that immense tree in which germinates all thought of a future, and of which the "kingdom of God" will be eternally the root and stem. All the social revolutions of humanity will be grafted on this phrase. But, tainted by a coarse materialism, and aspiring to the impossible -- that is to say, to found universal happiness upon political and economical measures -- the "socialist" attempts of our time will remain unfruitful, until they take as their rule the true spirit of Jesus, I mean absolute idealism -- the principle that, in order to possess the world, we must renounce it.

The phrase, "kingdom of God," expresses also, very happily, the want which the soul experiences of a supplementary destiny, of a compensation for the present life. Those who do not accept the definition of man as a compound of two substances, and who regard the Deistical dogma of the immortality of the soul as in contradiction with physiology, love to fall back upon the hope of a final reparation, which, under an unknown form, shall satisfy the wants of the heart of man. Who knows if the highest term of progress after millions of ages may not evoke the absolute conscience of the universe, and in this conscience the awakening of all that has lived? A sleep of a million of years is not longer than the sleep of an hour. St. Paul, on this hypothesis, was right in saying, In ictu oculi! It is certain that moral and virtuous humanity will have its reward, that one day the ideas of the poor but honest man will judge the world, and on that day the ideal figure of Jesus will be the confusion of the frivolous who have not believed in virtue, and of the selfish who have not been able to attain to it. The favorite phrase of Jesus continues, therefore, full of an eternal beauty. A and of exalted divination seems to have maintained it in a vague sublimity, embracing at the same time various orders of truths.

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