Our Relationship Between Mission and Eschatology (Part II)
"It should come as no surprise that the recovery of the eschatological dimension is manifested particularly clearly in missionary circles. From the very beginning of the Christian church, there appeared to have been a peculiar affinity between the missionary enterprise and expectations of a fundamental change in the future of mankind."
So stated theologian David Bosch in his massively influential tome Transforming Mission. And he was right.
All the more reason to ensure that we have done our thinking in both areas and understand well how one informs the other. When German theologian Ernst Troeltsch said just over a century ago that "The eschatology office is mostly closed these days", he was reflecting a theologically liberal (and very Western) bias. This view held that the world would eventually and inevitably succumb to the civilizing influence of the package of Western modernity that included, of course, Christianity as part of the deal. The urgent eschatological sense captured in the New Testament was "an expendable husk, and in any case an embarrassment".
After the trauma of two world wars and countless smaller ones, the looming nuclear apocalypse, the re-appearance of Israel, and the increasing understanding that all the technological progress in the world cannot make humanity morally better, eschatology came back into vogue as people turned back to God for future hope – clearly humanity was not capable of creating heaven on earth on their own terms. Citing Bosch again, "Eschatology stands for the hope element in religion...If we turn off the lighthouse of eschatology we can only grope around in darkness and despair."If there is hope to be found anywhere in the world, it is in the good news where an omnipotent God lays aside power to walk alongside, suffer and die on behalf of a broken humanity and where that same God defeats death, breaks the power of sin and extends His fullness of life to any and all who would receive it. Furthermore, this God inaugurates a new era wherein His disciples spread this good news to the world while demonstrating its efficacy through living by an entirely different ethic than that which governs the world. Sounds amazing, except for the latter part that His disciples are having a bit of trouble catching hold of!
We are living now between the times. Between Christ's first and second coming. Between the beginning of the new age and the end of the old era. Between the giving of the Great Commission and its fulfilment. Theologian and author N.T. Wright and a host of other scholars have developed Kingdom theology along these lines. It is referred to as inaugurated eschatology; God's Kingdom has been inaugurated, but not yet fully consummated.
The question, missionally speaking, is not so much whether this is the best understanding of Kingdom thinking, so much as "what do we do, then, in the meantime?" Or to quote the apostle Peter, "what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?" (2 Peter 3:11-12). As far as Peter is concerned, it seems that this is not an either/or situation but a both/and. Waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.
Look at Luke 19, the parable of the 10 servants. "Occupy until I come" (verse 13) is the King James rendering of what we would say in modern language "Get on with it until I return". Jesus told this parable because people were expecting the Kingdom of God to manifest itself literally right then and there and He wanted to dissuade them from such error. The amount the master gave to his servants was a substantial but not enormous sum – and he was away long enough for at least one of the servants to see a 1000% return on investment. It is apparent that Jesus was communicating to His disciples that they were in it for the long haul, and that hiding away what the Master gave them was not an acceptable option.
Yet a host of other parables told by Jesus communicate the immanent and sudden end of things such that we are to take measures to be ready for the Master's return!
It is only suitable to conclude this brief line of thought with Bosch's outstanding work, which sums it up so much better than the rest of us could:
"We need an eschatology for mission which is both future-directed and oriented to the here and now. It must be an eschatology that holds in creative and redemptive tension the already and the not yet; the world of sin and rebellion, and the world God loves; the new age that has already begun and the old that has not yet ended; justice as well as justification; the gospel of liberation and the gospel of salvation.
Christian hope does not spring from despair about the present. We hope because of what we have already experienced. Christian hope is both possession and yearning, repose and activity, arrival and being on the way. Since God's victory is certain, believers can work both patiently and enthusiastically, blending careful planning with urgent obedience, motivated by the patient impatience of the Christian hope. The disciples' being sent to the uttermost ends of the earth is the only reply they get to their question about when God's reign would be inaugurated in its fullness."