In the beginning, everything was whole and pure. Out of his infinite self-possession, God diffused goodness into being, and created this cosmos with human beings at its apex, in a Garden for their first home. In the Garden human beings had everything they needed: food and land, each other, access to the gift of eternal life, and most importantly, fellowship with the Creator himself.
But we all know how the story goes. We listened to the serpent’s lies, and so found ourselves dispossessed of the good we once had. We corrupted our heart and our nature, and our impurity, being repulsive to God, fated the loss of his blessings. The fall of man took away ease in labour and childbearing, harmony in interpersonal relations, and brought in war with the serpent and his seed. Further, it cost us access to the Tree of Life, and ultimately to God himself. For the Garden was also a temple, and the temple was God’s home. To be excluded from his home was to be cast out from his presence.
Outside, in the wilderness east of Eden, we found the opposite of all those good things. We found murder, and we found death. We found sin crouching at the door of our heart as an enemy seeking to destroy us, and along with that sin Azazel, the spirit who presides over the realm of exile, the Adversary who wanders upon the face of the earth, seeking to persecute God’s people.
This world fell into deep corruption, until God could stand it no more, and called Noah to preserve humanity through great cataclysm. He obeyed, and preserved humanity, but even after the deluge, human nature had not changed, and human beings still had not returned to their original home. What they received instead was a mandate to maintain a basic level of decency and order in society by force if necessary. Along with this they received Adam’s vocation once again: to take dominion over the earth, and fill it with a human society reflective of God’s goodness and justice. Of course, with the fall of human nature this was no longer achievable in perfection, but a less than perfect approximation of God’s ideal was possible thanks to God’s ongoing grace, including the grace of civic justice.
Later, God confused and divided the nations to prevent another total corruption of the earth, and then out of one of those nations called Abram to be his vehicle of restoration to the world. Nevertheless, while God promised one day his descendants would return to a land with God’s presence in it, he never received that land. When the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, he began to restore a semblance of the Edenic order in the Tabernacle. But even while, in a way, bringing Israel closer to that order, the Tent nevertheless did not bring them all the way back. It also reminded them that they were still east of Eden. Only one day a year could one human being return to God’s presence and to the life and light he gives, and only under specific circumstances, including bringing a shield of blood for himself. Whatever else that ceremony tells us, it reminds us that the deepest problem that caused humanity’s original exile had not been fixed.
This dwelling for God became more glorious under Solomon, but the same principle continued to apply. For the centuries in which Israel dwelled in its land, they were continually reminded that they were still ultimately in exile. They had still not really returned to their true home, the home that Adam once had, in God’s direct presence. Instead, they continued to dwell in the valley of death, in a world where human beings continued to sin against God and each other, and continued to face the fatal consequences.
When Israel’s sin became unbearable as humanity’s once had in the days of Noah, God removed even this small taste of his presence, and dispersed the descendants of Jacob into the nations. A little later he brought them back and rebuilt the temple, but the people recognized even then that they were still in exile from their true home.
Then God came to us as a human being, and opened the door back into paradise. But he didn’t do it all at once. He died and rose again in order to secure future blessing, but then he ascended into heaven and left us here on earth. We have still not returned to the state we once had, in the beginning. We do have his Spirit, and because of that we are renewed inwardly. Yet this renewal is not total; we also still struggle with the consequences of our fallenness, and the worldliness remaining in our minds. We all feel the drag toward sin; we all must still face death. And we all still have a common enemy, the spirit of the world who still wanders the earth, seeking to persecute God’s people.
And so we are still in exile; still seeking God’s face, and still waiting for the day when we will see him as our first father once did.
What does this mean for our vocation as Christians in this age, before the king finally restores us to, and even beyond, the blessings of our original state? Though we are sojourners, and still waiting for our true land and the fullness of God’s rule, there’s no reason that we cannot participate in that ancient Noahic call to maintain social order, even by force if necessary. The reasons for the use of force to maintain that order are still present: we still carry sin within us, and we are in danger of plunging into a war of all against all if we as a society allow it free rein. Further, because we are mortal, the potential consequences of doing evil remain as permanent as ever. Though a severe blessing, the maintenance of social order is indeed a blessing, a sign of God’s justice and goodness. It is not unfitting that those with the Spirit, with the renewed inner man directed toward the blessing of humanity, participate in bringing this good thing to others.
Given this biblical theology of exile, could there be a “Christian state”? It of course depends on what one means here.
No, if it means something like Israel was, or even wanted but never had, which is a land occupied by a people with God’s permanent presence and blessing. Christ remains bodily absent, in heaven, which has yet to descend to earth, and while his Spirit dwells within us, that is not the same as dwelling permanently in any geographic territory. Further, the continued presence of sin in the hearts of all human beings, of death, and of the great persecutor the Devil, ensures that the answer is “no” if one imagines a Christian state to be a realm where those things are not present.
But yes, if all one means is one or both of the following: (a) that the majority of inhabitants of a given politically defined territory have the Spirit dwelling in them, and/or (b) that professing Christians might rule such a territory, even perhaps where a majority of its inhabitants are not Christian in any way (as in the case of Constantine after his conversion, or an hypothetical non-Christian democratic society electing a Christian leader for reasons other than his faith). At least, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to rule these out as possibilities, given what we have said above.
Nevertheless, such a “Christian state” would still exist under the fundamental condition of exile relative to Adam’s original condition and the condition that Christ will establish at the end of all things. We still lack a permanent holy territory, we still must deal with sin in the hearts of every human being. Death continues to stalk us. And so does the devil. Indeed, the devil continues to seek to persecute the people of God, and continues to have access to human instruments for this purpose. Further, due to incomplete nature of sanctification, even those who have the Spirit dwelling in them can at times become instruments of the devil and live according to the principles of “the world”. Even truly regenerate Christians can give the devil a foothold in their lives. Thus those seeking to live a godly life even in a politically defined territory populated by a majority regenerate society will inevitably face persecution of one kind or another. The devil lives to do nothing else, and as long as he is free to do so, he will.
This means that in this age any “Christian state” will remain a distant reflection of the perfect home Christians truly seek. Christians are still mortal, and are still sinners. Even if a Calvinist doctrine of perseverance of the saints is true, there is no particular sin or social disorder that could not afflict such a polis (perhaps excluding the sin of final apostasy on the part of those truly regenerate). As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, what sanctification does is ensure someone will be better than they would have been as unregenerate, not better than some arbitrarily chosen imperfect level of holiness. Further, given that a hypothetical geographically defined polis with a majority of regenerate subjects will reproduce in the normal way, there’s no guarantee of a perpetually regenerate population in an officially Christian state. For there is no guarantee that the children of regenerate people will persevere to the end as regenerate, even if (hypothetically, according to a Lutheran or Wesleyan theology) the children have faith at one point.
Even the best of Christian states will ultimately only exist under a condition of exile, and those regenerate people living in it would still have to recognize their pilgrim condition. What they truly seek is not any relatively good but imperfect order; it is the heavenly Jerusalem itself they long for, come down to earth. They desire the end of the curse, and the permanent arrest of Satan’s persecution. They desire eternal life. They want to see God face to face. Until that day they will be restless, for they only have one true home, and they will suffer until they find it.