When discussing a Christian view of nation-states, we must first acknowledge their historical novelty. While the biblical authors knew well of people groups and political powers, the concept of modern, democratically-oriented nation-states would have been foreign to them. With this in mind, we can begin to look at what scripture says about the place of nations (people groups) and states (political entities in general), the historical precursors to our nation-states, in God’s Providence. I will look at three main points pertaining to the way that the biblical text refers to both nations and states. These will be (1) the nature of these entities in a fallen world, (2) how they can work to good ends in the course of God’s Providence and how they are often bent toward evil ends by humans, and (3) their eschatological destiny in New Creation.
First to the nature of nations and states. Almost every socio-political structure in history has been enacted in the wake of the Fall. Regardless of how one reads Genesis, the rest of the biblical narrative views all political and social structures as affected by the fallen nature of the world. The only form of governance that we can see before the Fall is that of a pure theocracy, with the Creator God as rightful ruler over creation, and humanity as his image-bearing vice-regents. Indeed, it is only after Cain’s murder of Abel that the biblical narrative introduces the concept of cities and political groupings of people, where their hearts were dominated by wickedness (Gen. 4:17—6:7).
This brings me to my second point. Even as humans continue to destroy God’s good world, he continues to bring good out of our mess. After the Flood God provides laws against murder and brings forth many nations out of Noah’s sons’ descendants (Gen. 10). Again, regardless of how one reads Gen. 1–11, the point is the same: out of humanity’s mess God brings forth good. But nations and states still go wrong. The Tower of Babel story ends with people gathering into a proto-empire (“Babel” in Hebrew is the same word for Babylon) trying and elevate themselves to the level of the one true Ruler. God does not let this stand. This pattern continues on throughout the course of the Old Testament. Nations and states can be used by God to bring about good out of our fallen mess. And yet if they stop listening to the Creator, the pattern of oppression and power seizure repeats. Israel is rescued from Egypt so that they might be led by the Creator who cut a covenant with their forefathers. Yet Israel calls for a human king just like all the other nations. The kings of Israel end up becoming just like the evil empires they were rescued from. And so it goes through the course of the biblical narrative. We twist socio-political structures, which God granted as a concession for good, to evil ends. It is only when God himself arrives on the scene in the person of Jesus of Nazareth that the world’s first truly good human king is seen. The point of this summary is simple. Nations and states are brought forth in the course of God’s Providence for good ends. Indeed, no matter what evil we bring forth in our selfishness and short-sightedness, God will always bring good out of it. Nations and states (and by logical extension, modern nation-states) can be used for good ends; it is a tragic truth of history, though, that more often than not they are bent to serve fallen cravings.
What then of the fate of these structure in biblical perspective? As far as nations go, we are told that they will carry on into the New Creation, albeit redeemed in worship of the Triune God. In Rev. 7:9–10, John the Seer sees “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (NRSV). Likewise, near the end of eschatological vision, John sees the New Jerusalem characterized by the nations and the kings of the earth “walking by its light” and “bringing their glory into it.” The takeaway of this is that both nations and states (in one form or another) will remain into the New Creation. However, they are redeemed, reoriented, and subordinated to the just rule of the Creator God and Christ upon the throne.
These principles remain the same for our modern nation-states, including America. God can and does bring good out of them, especially when they are acting and operating justly. However, human fallenness can and does all too often warp these structures and groups into systemic oppressors of the weak and powerless. Christians then must always have a tentative relationship toward nation-states. They are finite entities that came into being out of historical contingency and, barring Christ’s return, will fade back into the annals of history. It is Christ and his Kingdom alone that are everlasting. As long as we keep that at the forefront of our minds, we might just be able to engage properly with modern nation-states as they were meant in God’s Providence.
Taylor Brown holds an MDiv and ThM in biblical studies from Asbury Theological Seminary. He writes on topics related to the Bible, theology, culture, and science at The Christian Revolution on Patheos.com. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.