What Is 'the Kingdom of God'?
By Richard P. McBrien
There was a time when the word kingdomï¿½like fellowship and ministryï¿½was viewed by many
Catholics as belonging to the Protestants and, hence, as being less than center stage in the Catholic
tradition. Many Catholics even today, therefore, may be surprised to learn that the Kingdom of God is at
the heart and center of Jesus' preaching.
If they were asked to summarize the point and purpose of Jesus' life, they would not likely put the
accent on his proclamation of the Kingdom. Instead, they would say that he came "down" from heaven
to pay the price of our sins and then went back "up" to heaven after the Resurrection. They might add
that we have the Church to keep alive the teachings and instructions of Jesus and to make available the
treasury of grace which he won on Calvary.
But Jesus did not come among us primarily to establish the Church. His main mission was to promote
and manifest the Kingdom of God. He entered our midst to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is close at
hand (Mark 1:15), to call us to conversion and repentance (Luke 10:13-15; Matthew 11:20-24; Luke
13:1-5, 19:41-44), and to urge us to be watchful and ready for the Kingdom (Luke 12:35-40; Matthew
What is this Kingdom of God that so preoccupied Jesus? Certainly not a kingdom in the worldly sense.
"My Kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36), Jesus insisted.
The word kingdom nevertheless does have something to do with power and authority. Even in ordinary
human conversation we give it that meaning. "Don't interfere with Mrs. Wilson's operation," a new
employee might be advised. "That's her kingdom." What the warning means is that Mrs. Wilson's will
reigns supreme in a given sector of an office. What she says goes. Anyone who tries to do things in a
different way will have to contend with her.
The Kingdom of God has a similar meaning. It exists wherever God's will is at work. And God's will is at
work wherever people are faithful to the command that we love one another as God first loved us.
But we know that we can only love when God, who is Love, is present to us. One "who abides in love
abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 John 4:16). The God of Love empowers us to love. Therefore,
the Kingdom of God is present whenever God's power is making love, reconciliation and healing possible.
The Kingdom Is 'God's Redemptive Presence'
We can define the Kingdom of God as the redemptive presence of God. This redemptive (or saving)
presence of God can be found in everyday personal experiences. Whenever people love one another,
forgive one another, bear one another's burdens, work to build up a just and peaceful community—
wherever people are of humble heart, open to their Creator and serving their neighbor—God's
redemptive and liberating presence is being manifested. God's Kingdom and loving rule is in operation
Jesus indicated this when he told the crowds, "Happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the Kingdom of
heaven.... Happy are those who are persecuted in the cause of right; theirs is the Kingdom of heaven"
(Matthew 5:3, 10). God's redemptive presence is surely at work in them.
In a sense, the word redemptive is unnecessary in our definition because God's presence is redemptive
of its very nature and the Kingdom of God is in reality Godï¿½God insofar as God is present and at work
in the created order.
Because there is no limit to the presence of God, the Kingdom of God has no boundaries. The Kingdom
may exist in the individual human heart, in groups, in institutions, in nature and in the cosmos as a
whole. The Kingdom of God is as broad and as overarching as the presence of God which renews and
transforms and recreates everything touched by it.
Not Just for the Future
And just as there is no limit to the spatial boundaries of the Kingdom, so there are no limits to its
temporal boundaries. The Kingdom is not just for the future. It is not to be identified only with heaven,
in other words. When we pray, "Thy Kingdom come," we are hoping also for the inbreaking of God's
powerï¿½right nowï¿½in our daily lives. Our God is a living God. God's power is a present power.
But God has not just begun to be, nor just begun to act on our behalf. The presence and power of God
have been manifested from the beginning, from the moment of creation itself. Insofar as God has
always been at work breathing life and movement into the world, the Kingdom of God has a past as well
as a present and a future dimension. The Kingdom of God broke in upon us in a decisive way, of course,
in Jesus Christ.
As the Second Vatican Council put it: "In Christ's word, in his works, and in his presence this Kingdom
reveals itself to us....Before all things. . . the Kingdom is clearly visible in the very person of Christ, Son of
God and Son of Man, who came 'to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Mark 10:45)"
(Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #5).
The Church Proclaims the Kingdom
This threefold dimension (past, present, future) of the Kingdom of God shapes the mission of the Church
which, according to Vatican II, "has a single intention: that God's Kingdom may come..." (Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #45).
The past. The mission of the Church is, first, to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has already come, and
most definitively in Jesus Christ. The Church proclaims this conviction through its various preachings of
the Word and through the sacraments which commemorate and celebrate God's intervening in our
history through Jesus.
The present. Secondly, the Church is called to be a living and vibrant modelï¿½or signï¿½of the reality of
the Kingdom of God so that people today, both inside and outside the community of faith, might look at
this model and know that God still lives and that the presence of God is always a presence for healing,
for reconciliation, for justice, for peace, for freedom, and so forth.
The Church "becomes on earth the initial budding forth of that Kingdom" (Dogmatic Constitution on the
Church, #5), for by its relationship with Christ, "the Church is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate
union with God, and of the unity of all humankind. It is also an instrument for the achievement of such
union and unity" (#1).
The future. Thirdly, the Church is "like an arrow sent out into the world to point to the future," to use
the famous phrase of Jurgen Moltmann in his Theology of Hope. The Church is to focus the eyes, the
mind and the heart of the world on what yet lies ahead, upon that promised Kingdom where God "will
wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor
crying nor pain any more, for the former things will have passed away" (Revelation 21:4).
And, more than that, the Church is meant to be a servant to the world in doing all it can to narrow the
gap between the Kingdom-as-now-only-partly-begun and the full flowering of that Kingdom. Part of the
Church's mission in the unfolding of the Kingdom is to help set the world free of oppression and
promote human development on all levels. Pope John Paul II expressed the Church's role as servant
when he told the crowds at Boston Common, October 1, 1979, "I want to tell everyone that the Pope is
your friend and the servant of your humanity."
In summary then, the Church is meant to be:
1. a proclaimer of the Kingdom of God already begun;
2. a sign revealing God's Kingdom or redemptive presence now;
3. a servant of the continuous unfolding of the Kingdom.
The Church fills this last role by acting on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the despised and the
persecuted as Jesus did and as he instructed us to do as his disciples (Matthew 5:1-12).
Whether or not we ourselves enter the final Kingdom will be determined by our response to the
neighbor in need. Those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and comfort the
sick are those who inherit the Kingdom (Matthew 25:31-46), thus manifesting God's redemptive
presence on this earth.
Church Is Not Equal to the Kingdom
It is one thing to insist, as we have, that the Church is the servant or instrument of the Kingdom of God.
It is another matter entirely to suggest that the Church is itself the Kingdom of God.
Before Vatican II many Catholics said precisely that. We automatically assumed that whenever the New
Testament speaks of the Kingdom of God, as in the many parables of the Kingdom (the net cast into the
sea, the mustard seed that grows into a large tree, and so forth), the New Testament was flatly
identifying it with the Church. Actually, it was not.
The Kingdom is larger than the Church. After all, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter
the Kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). Or, in
the words of St. Augustine as adapted by Karl Rahner, S.J., "Many whom God has, the Church does not
have. And many whom the Church has, God does not have."
When the Church identifies or equates itself with the Kingdom, the Church is declaring that it is the
saving presence of God on earth and at least implying that God is not present as a saving God anywhere
else except in the Church. This is what some of the Council fathers called "triumphalism."
"What's the harm in it?" one might ask. Apart from the danger of idolatry, i.e., of confusing something
finite with the Infinite, the identification of Church and Kingdom makes any meaningful renewal and
reform of the Church almost impossible. If the Church is regarded as the Kingdom, then a person who
criticizes the Church and calls for institutional and structural change is, in effect, criticizing God and
calling for change in the way God chooses to deal with us and be with us.
The Church Strains Toward the Kingdom
But everything, including the Church, is subject to the Kingdom. In other words, the Church is
answerable to the Kingdom, and gets its credibility by manifesting the Kingdom and not vice versa. It
was to make this exact point that the Second Vatican Council added the material contained in article 5
of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Because many of the bishops still seemed to be making the
equation between Church and Kingdom even after two or three sessions of the Council, it was decided
that some further clarification was needed.
The Council document makes it clear that the Church is at most "the initial budding forth" of the
Kingdom. In the meantime, "the Church strains toward the consummation of the Kingdom and, with all
its strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with its King" (#5). The completion of that union
between Church and Kingdom is yet to be realized.
If the Church is not itself the Kingdom, then at least three things follow: (1) the Church as a community
and as an institution is not above criticism and reform; (2) the primary mission of the Church is not
precisely to bring people into the Church but to bring them into the Kingdom; and (3) God also works
outside the Church and even in other religions.
This third item is particularly jarring to a Catholic whose religious formation occurred long before
Vatican II and who has not had the advantage of an explanation of how and why this change in
perspective took place.
"Whatever happened to the 'one true Church' formula?" First, we understand now that Church applies
to the whole Body of Christ, to all Christians, and not just to Catholics alone. As the Decree on
Ecumenism declares: ". . . all those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ. They
therefore have a right to be honored by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers and
sisters in the Lord by the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church" (#3).
All Are Called to the Kingdom
But ecumenism requires even greater breadth of vision than seeing the Church as including all Christians.
Ecumenism demands also that we see the Kingdom of God as including, at least in principle, all human
beings. Humankind has responded in various ways to God's universal call to salvation and to the
Kingdom. "The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions" for they "often
reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men and women" (Declaration on the Relationship of the
Church to Non-Christian Religions, #2).
Again, it is not the one who says, "Lord, Lord," who shall necessarily enter the Kingdom of God
(Matthew 7:21). The parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates our point. God's Kingdom, or redemptive
presence, was not revealed in the priest or Levite (representatives of the institutional religion) who
ignored the wounded traveler, but in the Samaritan, the outsider, who was a good neighbor to the
person in need. The Good Samaritan was part of the Kingdom even though he was not part of what was
considered the one true religion. We know that everyone is called to the Kingdom even if we can't say
for certain who has been called to the Church.
If the Church can bring many to confess that Jesus is their Lord and their God, so much the better. But
another real measure of the Church's missionary effectiveness is its capacity to bring the world closer to
the Kingdom. The Church is doing God's work if it brings men and women to the point where they are
being good neighborsï¿½where they are doing God's will and manifesting his saving presenceï¿½even if
they never say, "Lord, Lord" (see also Matthew 25:31-46). If other religions serve this same purpose and
seem to be authentic instruments of the Kingdom, we Christians can only rejoice in the triumph of God's
grace and power wherever God is at work.
The Kingdom's Worldly Dimension
The Kingdom is meant to have a worldly, fleshly, social, even political dimension. Some of us who grew
up before Vatican II are familiar with a theological outlook that stressed the "future" or "other worldly"
aspect of God's Kingdom. We may have been taught to accept the suffering and oppression and
injustices of this life because in the next lifeï¿½in God's Kingdomï¿½we would have our reward and be
set free of our afflictions. It didn't matter so much whether our earthly community flourished or not,
because our true home was in heaven.
The Church today is not telling us to reject this vision of a final Kingdom, but to broaden it. God's
Kingdom is not simply something to be sought in the future. We are called to help bring it about now. By
removing oppression, poverty, disease, discrimination from the world, we are allowing God's Kingdom
and redemptive presence to be manifested now. When we pray, "Thy Kingdom come," we are praying
that the human family be transformed into a more just and loving community now as well as in the
world to come.
Recent Church teachings have stressed the Christian mission of liberating the world and humankind
from all that keeps it from its full flowering as intended by the Creator. These teachings underscore the
connection between the Kingdom of God and the political order. The 1971 World Synod of Bishops
emphasized this very point when it declared that the pursuit of justice and transformation of this world
are essential to the preaching of the Gospel. In his apostolic exhortation On Evangelization in the
Modern World, Pope Paul affirmed that teaching, saying, "The Church .. . has the duty to proclaim the
liberation of millions of human beings, . . . the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving
witness to it, of assuring that it is complete" (#30).
The Kingdom Is God
The Kingdom of God is brought about by God and is God's gift. But it does not come about without
human collaboration. It is proclaimed by the Church in word and in sacrament. It is signified by the
Church in its very life. And it is enabled to break into the world more fully through the various efforts of
the Church on behalf of justice, peace and human reconciliation.
When all is said and done, the Kingdom of God is God: God insofar as God is present to us and to our
world as a power that heals, that renews, that recreates, that gives life. To recognize that abiding
presence of the Kingdom of God in our midst and to work always to remove obstacles to its inbreaking
are our fundamental missionary responsibilities. God's gift is our task.
Rev. Richard P. McBrien is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and chairman of its
department of theology. He was formerly professor of theology at Boston College and director of its
Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. Past president of the Catholic Theological Society
of America, Father McBrien is also a prize-winning syndicated columnist in the Catholic press and is the
author of 12 books, the latest of which is a two-volume work entitled Catholicism (Winston Press). A
longer version of his article appeared in St. Anthony Messenger (June 1980).
Kingdom's Coming Depends on an Attitude of Heart
This Kingdom and this salvation, which are the key words of Jesus Christ's evangelization, are available
to every human being as grace and mercy. And yet at the same time each individual must gain them by
forceï¿½they belong to the violent, says the Lord (Matthew 11:12; Luke 16:16), through toil and
suffering, through a life lived according to the Gospel, through abnegation and the Cross, through the
spirit of the beatitudes. But above all each individual gains them through a total interior renewal which
the Gospel calls metanoia; it is a radical conversion, a profound change of mind and heart.
Pope Paul VI
On Evangelization in the Modern World (#10)