In Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, a shipwrecked old Gonzalo tries to cheer his master with the observation that now is a good time to build a utopian society: “I would with such perfection govern, sir, to excel the golden age.”
It is not uncommon to think about ideal circumstances long in the past or somewhere in the future. Almost every society at every time in history has devoted time to building what amounts to “castles in the air.”
Plato, putting words in the mouth of Socrates, was able to exploit legends about Atlantis, a wondrous port city west of the Pillars of Hercules, in order to spell out his plan for the ideal city-state—the world as he thought it should be.
Thomas More, Henry VIII’s chancellor and man of conscience, wrote the volume Utopia, which fleshed out his vision of a better government in a better world. His name for it is a poignant reflection that such ideals seldom exist in this world: utopia is classical Greek for “nowhere.”
Nineteenth-century writer and musician Samuel Butler started his satirical career with the novel Erewhon (provocatively, “nowhere” again, nearly backwards). His was a utopia in reverse. Utopias have been so commonly seen in novels that their usually satirical opposite has its own noun, dystopia, a literary phenomenon well known: Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Huxley’s Brave New World, Wells’s Time Machine and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four all exploit our longing for an ideal world by showing one that has gone horribly wrong. (Dystopia, with the prefix dys, meaning “bad,” was actually invented mistakenly, coined as if the first syllable of utopia were eu, a Greek prefix meaning “good.”)
One of the earliest fictional utopias in the history of theater was Cloud-Cuckoo-Land, the improbable city resulting from the synergy of all species of birds (along with some demi-divine advice and planning), in the comic play The Birds by Aristophanes, the Woody Allen of the fifth century B.C.
Such dreams of superlatives realized—and nightmares of fears actualized—have been a part of every culture. Native Americans, for example, spoke of “the happy hunting ground”; the Vikings, of Valhalla. In the consummately American musical Finian’s Rainbow, the denizens of a rural community crave a materialistic utopian age, “That Great Come-and-Get-It Day.”
In most versions of the utopian dream there is the expression of recapturing a tragically lost ideal; for example, the peaceful, productive society of Atlantis as pictured by Plato, and Camelot in T.H. White’s Once and Future King. The entire concept of utopia is in many respects a summary of humanity’s hope to recapture innocence and peace.
In His Own Image
The Bible speaks of utopia in different terms. It records the creation of Adam, whom God placed as custodian of the Garden of Eden. The ancient Hebrew sages understood plainly that the specific purpose of humankind was to care for God’s creation. For them the Garden of Eden account was not just quaint folklore. Rather, it was a clear reminder of humanity’s intended purpose—and dismal failure.
Yet it does not stop there. The Bible also says that God created humans “in His own image” (Genesis 1:27). A spark of Godhood, which to the Hebrew separated humanity from the animals, links mankind to God. This explains our species’ yearning for past glory and our anticipation of future glory—our fascination with nostalgia and our predilection for utopia. Animals do not perceive glory.
Over scores of generations, throughout the history of the Hebrews as recorded in the books of the Bible, we see this vital relationship with God developing. God told Moses that He had prepared for His people a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7–8)—a real-life utopia—theirs if they did not rebel; theirs if they would carefully rebuild this relationship with God.
The prophet Zechariah, living about 2,500 years ago, envisaged a time when this relationship would reach a climax. He wrote, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Behold, I will save My people from the land of the east and from the land of the west. . . . They shall be My people and I will be their God, in truth and righteousness’” (Zechariah 8:7–8).
The apostle John, too, was shown a vision of the future, as recorded in the book of Revelation. He reported hearing “a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God’” (Revelation 21:3). John saw what he described as a “holy city” with 12 gates: “The twelve gates were twelve pearls: each individual gate was of one pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass” (verse 21).
Millions of people the world over, thinking themselves heirs to John's vision, expect that they will assume a place in heaven when they die.
Millions of people the world over, thinking themselves heirs to that vision, expect that they will assume a place in heaven when they die. Few of these people stop to realize that the Bible on their bookshelf does not teach that, though many have read that meaning into this and other scriptures. But God has nowhere promised mankind a place in heaven. This is but a variation of the dream of utopia.
What the Bible does describe as being in store for mankind is much more astounding. No “pie in the sky” when you die; the grave is not an open door to a life beyond (Psalm 6:5; Ecclesiastes 9:10). Instead, Christ will return and impart permanent new life to His people (1 Corinthians 15:22–23), and together they will set up a just and beneficent government of perfect service on this earth for a thousand years (Revelation 5:9–10); it will be physical, historical, actual (Revelation 20:4–6).
At the conclusion of that one-thousand-year period, Christ will conquer all evil, corruption and even death, and offer to all human beings who ever lived an opportunity to rid themselves of failure and suffering and turn instead to Him (Revelation 20:5–14; John 11:25). Finally God Himself will establish His new Capital City on a renewed, fully restored earth (Revelation 21:1–4). The apostle John made it clear that in his vision, this holy city with its gates of pearl and streets of gold was coming down out of heaven.
“Heaven” on Earth
Rather than the nebulous picture of harps and fluffy clouds in children’s tales, we see in the Bible vivid scenarios of a very real and practical world in which mankind will be privileged to live forever (1 Corinthians 15:12–24). The United Nations borrows as its dedicatory objective the well-known description of this peaceful society: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Micah 4:3).
Jesus lived in a time when the expectation of this coming kingdom was strong yet controversial. His home country, Judea, with severely limited home rule under a foreign-born king, was subject to the Roman Empire. The Jews themselves were divided into several factions, including the Zealots, who advocated insurrection against Rome in order to hurry the coming of God’s kingdom, and the Sadducees, who reinterpreted their own religious doctrines so they could comfortably discard any expectation of that kingdom. Many of those who followed Jesus actually believed He would march into Jerusalem and stage a coup, restoring the fortunes of the Israelite royal line.
Christ Himself taught that this coming kingdom would not simply be a contemporary political victory for Israel but instead a historical climax for all mankind—the true utopia for which everybody had yearned, and still yearns today. The real battle has never actually been between nations, but between humankind and the deficiencies that keep us from God.
The New Testament is full of encouragement about this very real, practical utopia and what it will mean to all people everywhere, regardless of the ideals they cling to in today’s imperfect world. Even the model prayer that Jesus taught His disciples addresses the subject: “[May] your kingdom come, [may] your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The inevitability of this eagerly anticipated new society is called, in the original Greek text, euangelion—literally “good news,”—and appears in our English Bibles as “gospel” (Matthew 4:23).
How did this strong hope—a very foundational principle of the early Church—become so diluted that few who call themselves Christian today even know about this “good news of the kingdom”? Instead they hold out hope for going to heaven when they die—an idea that is simply not in the Bible. Though the Sadducees rejected this teaching of the coming kingdom, Jesus Himself clearly and unequivocally corrected them about this (Matthew 22:23–29). Yet their weak compromise seems to have won in the long run: much of modern-day Christianity believes as the Sadducees did and has substituted the doctrine of going to heaven as its gospel.
Much of modern-day Christianity believes as the Sadducees did and has substituted the doctrine of going to heaven as the gospel.
Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354–430) held the view that the early Christians had grown so eager in their anticipation of the coming kingdom that they had lost sight of the practicalities of living a Christian life. Using his considerable writing and teaching talent, he wrote books that aimed to divert attention from what he judged to be a pointless waste of Christian faith.
In particular, his City of God gave practical cues on how a Christian believer, surrounded by nonbelievers, should behave in his or her own lifetime. He developed the notion that there was a strong division between the ultimate fate of ordinary people (whose souls would await final judgment) and of Christians (whose souls would achieve instant reward for faithfulness). In his attempt to make Christ’s moral teaching applicable to everyday life, Augustine robbed the church of God’s original promise.
Augustine’s “heavenly reward” became the new paradigm for utopia—one that has little or no direct relevance to life on earth. Many of the images of this supposed reward became fixed in people’s minds with the publication in the early 14th century of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, along with famous illustrations of this fantasy by artists like Sandro Botticelli, Gustave Doré, William Blake and Salvador Dali.
The apostle Paul saw things in a very different way from Augustine. He pointed out that living as a Christian in this age is impossible by ourselves, and that the very attempt points out the need for rescue (Romans 7:14–25). Apart from anticipation of the coming kingdom of God—the real utopia—living as a Christian is aimless. Paul also saw that neglecting the original vision—resurrection, a return to life to participate in the kingdom of God—makes being a Christian utterly nonsensical (1 Corinthians 15:12–24).
The very worth of much of Christ’s message is discarded when we accept the bizarre notion of humans being rewarded with a place in heaven. It is no surprise that Paul alerted his coworker Timothy to the danger of the false doctrine that the resurrection had already occurred (2 Timothy 2:16–18). A return to the original teaching of the real utopia—the good news about the coming of God’s kingdom to this earth—makes sense of living according to the example of Christ, and it restores hope to all mankind.