The Kingdom of God: Utopia or Deus ex Machina?

As old as Judeo-Christian religion itself, is the debate over whether salvation is the result of human effort or divine intervention. Does obedience to the law endear us to God, or are we incapable of obeying the law enough to earn God’s favor? And if the latter is the case, does God step in with a heavy hand, or a light nudge? Does God expect, or even allow, us to participate in our own salvation? Should we rather speak of God’s election, or human free will?

I’m not going to take up the space here to cite the relevant Scriptures, but if they don’t automatically pop into your head, you’ll have to take my word that you can use Scripture to support both positions. But then, even the heretics of the early Church used Scripture to support their interpretations. This is not to write Scripture off as the authority, just to say that this short blog won’t be the place to sort out that aspect of the debate.

Behind the question of soteriology (salvation) is the question of anthropology (human nature). Are humans basically good, or is our tendency toward sin so deeply engrained that we can’t redeem ourselves? To put the question another way: Are we building the Kingdom of God, or is the Kingdom of God something that God must establish? I would argue that we get close to an answer when we look in the mirror – and by “mirror” I mean history books, newspapers, television and the internet. World wars, genocide, religious persecution, ecological destruction, Nicki Minaj – all point to the reality that humanity is not, in fact, progressing toward utopia.

In ancient Greek theatre, the stories portrayed on the stage frequently resulted in the protagonists getting hopelessly in over their heads. The only way out was a common device known as the deus ex machina. It means, “a god from the machine,” and it often entailed a contraption that could lower an actor onto the stage from above, or a trap door through which an actor could emerge – in both cases the actor was playing a god who stepped in to save the hero or heroine, “out of the blue,” as it were. The point was that when the humans got themselves into a situation they could not get out of on their own, the gods stepped in and saved them. Salvation by divine intervention.

So, to what extent is the coming of Jesus a deus ex machina? After all, the Word became flesh to save us from a situation that we could not fix on our own. The “machine,” or the mechanism by which God intervened, was the incarnation of Christ.

As a card-carrying Goldiloxian, I’m going to take the middle way here. In fact, maybe to pose the question as an “either/or” is to set up a false dichotomy. Salvation is not all human effort, nor is it only divine intervention. The truth is somewhere in the middle, in the realm of “both/and.” Salvation is an invitation and response, a kind of dialogue between God and humans, in which God takes the initiative to invite us to reconciliation (divine intervention – we call it grace), and humans accept God’s help (you might call that faith), then God changes us for the better (more grace), and we respond in gratitude by doing our best to be the people we were created to be (finally, human effort, or good works).

So then, when it comes to that thing Jesus called the kingdom of God, it’s the same way. It is not something humans will create. If it was, it would be OUR kingdom, not God’s kingdom. In the book of Revelation (which is about the revealing of the kingdom, not the creating of the kingdom), the heavenly city comes down. This is not to be taken literally, of course, but it means that the New Heaven/New Earth is a gift from God – it is not a utopia of our own making. (See my book, The Wedding of the Lamb, for more on that.)

On the other hand, we as the people of God, can and do participate in the revealing of the kingdom, by living our faith, loving our neighbor, and inviting people to reconciliation with God through Christ. So the kingdom of God is essentially the result of divine intervention, but not without human participation. That’s how I see it. What do you think?


Jim Papandrea

About Jim Papandrea

Jim Papandrea is an author, educator, and singer/songwriter. Visit his website at:
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