A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 10: End Times)
Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.
Eschatology, as much as any other doctrine, undergirds the theory and practice of mission. As Russ Moore points out in A Theology for the Church, “All of Christian theology points toward an end-an end where Jesus overcomes the satanic reign of death and restores God’s original creation order.” Indeed, “In Scripture the eschaton is not simply tacked on to the gospel at the end. It is instead the vision toward which all of Scripture is pointing-and the vision that grounds the hope of the gathered church and the individual believer. In the face of death, we see faith, hope, and love. This is what we mean when we speak of Christian eschatology-the study of the last things or ultimate matters.”
The doctrine of the end times is broad-ranging, but because of the limited scope of this post, I will address only three aspects of this doctrine, and then point the way toward a missiological appropriation. We will begin with personal eschatology, speaking to the missiological implications of death, heaven, and hell. Next, we will treat cosmic eschatology, speaking to the destiny of the nations and the promise of a new heaven and earth.
The Great Divide
The Christian Scriptures instruct us about death, heaven, and hell. To be concise to the extreme, we may say that death entered the world because of sin (Rom 5:12) and is a tool of Satan’s (Heb 2:14-15). It is appointed to man once to die, and then the judgment. After death, he enters into either eternal damnation or eternal bliss. Eternal torment awaits for those who die apart from Christ (Mt 5:22; 8:12), while eternal bliss is the reward of those who are in Christ (Rev 21:2-4).
This is a difficult doctrine, but a necessary one as it is taught clearly in the Scriptures. Furthermore, it is a great motivator for the Christian and for the church. The Christian must hold three truths together in tension: (1) There is no name other than Christ by which men are saved, and all men who die apart from Christ abide in eternal torment. (2) There are countless millions of people who have practically no access to the gospel, and another two billion who have very little access. They could search for days, weeks, and months, and never find a Bible, a Christian, or a church. (3) We, as believers, have the awesome privilege and responsibility of proclaiming to them the good news. More to the point, those of us in the West have more capacity to proclaim the gospel than Christians in any other part of the globe or at any other time in history.
It is difficult to apprehend and affirm these three truths and choose not to act. Once we hold these three truths in tension, we are faced with a decision. Will we act on the implications of these three truths? There are those who have not heard the gospel; without Christ they will go to Christless eternity; we are able to take the gospel to them. Our response tends to fall into one of three categories: (1) We may change our belief system by rejecting the biblical teaching that salvation comes through Christ alone, in order to ease our conscience. (2) We may ignore these truths, so that our conscience may rest more easily. (3) We may take these truths to heart by offering ourselves to take the gospel to the nations, by building Great Commission churches and seminaries who will take the gospel to the nations, and by praying for and supporting those who do.
The Scriptures also have, as a point of focus, the destiny of the nations. The teaching of Christian Scripture is that the gospel will be proclaimed to the whole world: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Mt 24:14). But it is not only that the gospel will be proclaimed. It is also that this gospel is powerful to save worshippers from among all tribes, tongues peoples, and nations: “You are worthy…For you were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”
Th ingathering of the nations is not a tack-on to Christian doctrine; it is at the heart of God’s promises. The central promise in the Scriptures is that God would send Messiah, and tightly riveted to it is the promise that Messiah would win the nations unto Himself. God put His Son on the cross in order to purchase the nations. The ingathering of the nations is not an issue merely for the missiologists write about, or for professional missionaries to care about, or for churches to nod toward once a year during Lottie Moon. Rather it is central to all who are Christian because it is central to the work of Christ. We are to be instruments in God’s hands as He makes clear to the world that He is not a tribal deity. He is the Creator, King, and Savior of the nations and we will not know Him in His full splendor until we know Him as the King of the Nations.
The New Heavens & Earth
Finally, the Scriptures declare God’s promise of a new heavens and a new earth. Peter instructs us to “look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13). John sees a vision in which there is a new heaven and a new earth, where there remains no pain or tears (Rev 21). And although this teaching does not get much air time in evangelical circles, it is no insignificant doctrine. Indeed, it is the doctrine of creation come full circle. The God who gave us the good creation of the Genesis narrative is the God who will give us a new heavens and a new earth.
In this new universe, God’s image bearers will experience neither sin nor its consequences. No longer will we use our rational capacities to speak falsehoods, or our creative capacities to construct idols. Never again will we use our relational capacities to suppress others and promote ourselves, our moral capacities to slander, rape, or murder. No longer will we live in an environment where tsunamis and floods destroy or where pollution poisons the ground and air. Never again will there be war or rumors of war.
Instead, we will live in unbroken relation with God, with others, with the new universe, and with ourselves. We will be “man fully alive,” man worshipping God in spirit and truth. But what does this doctrine of a new heavens and earth have to do with the mission of the church? Of the many implications, here are three:
First, we may use our God-given human capacities to glorify him in human culture, as a sign of what the new heavens and new earth will be like. We may flesh out the implications of the gospel for the arts, the sciences, and the public square. We may teach our children that it is an honorable thing to be an artist (writer, composer, singer, painter, graphic designer, etc.), a scientist (biologist, chemist, physicist, sociologist, anthropologist), or a participant in the public square (journalist, lawyer, politician, ethicist, educator).
Second, we may seek to glorify God in all of our callings. As Luther pointed out, the Christian has multiple callings, to workplace, family, church, and community. May we speak and live the gospel in all of those contexts so that the glory of God is not limited to the four walls of a church building, but instead is broadcast across every square inch of his universe.
Third, we may demonstrate that if there is anyone who cares about God’s good creation, it is the evangelical Christian. We do not care about it inordinately, or in the wrong way, but we do care. We have a different motivation than do most “environmentalists.” We recognize the creation as God’s good creation. We do not take the gift that God has given us and trash it recklessly. This is an insult to the God who made it and gave it to us to have dominion over it.
The promised Messiah has come, and He will come again to win the nations unto Himself and to reconcile all things unto Himself. He will do this because He loves the world (Jn 3:16-17). In His first coming, He provided the first fruits of that redemption and in the second coming he will provide the consummation of it.
We find ourselves living between those two comings, and the ramifications of this are multiple and significant. First, we must proclaim the gospel not only in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, but also to the ends of the earth. Second, we must seek to glorify him in every facet of creation and culture, and in all of our multiple callings. This is because our God is worthy of worship, and that worship should not be limited or reduced to what happens once a week on Sunday mornings.
We look toward, and hope for, the day when we can join the chorus around the throne and sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!”