Missiology refers to the mission of the church — what the church does, or aims to do, in the world in the present. Eschatology is the doctrine of the ‘last things’ — where the church thinks the world is heading and what the future holds.
And the important thing to recognize is that the church’s understanding of the future absolutely dictates the church’s mission and ministry in the present.
However, it is also important to recognise that the church often approaches mission without any clear or coherent view of the future. How, then, (someone might ask) can this dictate the church’s mission? The answer is simply that if there is a lack of clarity about the future, there will be a lack of clarity about the present. A missiology without a clear eschatology will lack focus and coherence.
Nevertheless, just as Abraham Lincoln once said we cannot escape history, so we cannot escape eschatology either. The end of all things is heading towards us at the pace of sixty seconds a minute, sixty minutes an hour.
Leaving aside any theological considerations, and barring other occurrences, the Earth is going to be destroyed in some 5 billion years time when the Sun becomes a ‘red giant’. This will be global warming on a grand scale — in fact the Sun will expand in size to embrace the Earth’s orbit. It may, however, have become uninhabitable before then, not because of the ‘global warming’ about which we currently exercise ourselves but because of things like the fact that the Moon is moving away from us and eventually our tides will cease and our planet will be free to tilt on its axis to the extent that we don’t have any seasons either.
These are just raw, inescapable, scientific facts, and if anyone thinks they’re a long way off, I used to think being 57 was a long way of as well, but here I am! Time will take care of everything eventually.
Others may dismiss this as an irrelevance. What matters, they will say, is the problems we are facing now: ecological disasters, HIV, poverty, injustice, starvation — indeed all the things and more that are covered by the Millennium Development Goals. But the problem here is that, to a greater or lesser extent, we in the West have already achieved six of these goals: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combatting HIV, malaria and other diseases. Yet no one is seriously suggesting that the church’s work is done or that we have in some sense ‘arrived’.
To define our eschatology, therefore, we have to go beyond these issues and ask, “Even assuming these goals could be met, what happens next?”
The reality, one suspects, is that no one is really asking that question at all, because no one really thinks it is going to happen. Our tacit assumption (unspoken, but widely assumed) is that the poor will indeed always be with us, and that surmounting one set of problems will merely reveal another set — like Western obesity, for example.
Under these circumstances, we may expect the church to focus on achieving short term goals of ‘improvement’, but not to be looking too far into the future — in fact, this is precisely what we do find in many situations.
At the same time, however, the church will generally couch its mission in biblical terms, primary amongst which is the notion of the Kingdom of God. The problem is, of course, what we mean by this expression, and here we find a wide divergence.
For many in the church, this ‘Kingdom’ is coterminous with achieving the Millennium Development Goals and whatever will succeed them as the next set of problems reveal themselves.
Biblically, however, it is something else. In biblical terms, we see three exemplars of the Kingdom. The first is the idealised situation in Eden: mankind in harmony with God, with themselves and with nature. The second is the geo-political nation of Israel: every man dwelling under his vine and under his figtree all the days of king Solomon. The third is the person of Jesus: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
Yet there is still a future Kingdom, quite distinct from, though foreshadowed by, these particular instances. Moreover, the biblical witness shows that each of these other instances is inadequate as expressions of the coming Kingdom. The Garden of Eden is lost through the Fall, the kingdom of Solomon is lost through idolatry. The incarnate ministry of Jesus is terminated by the powers of this world. If the Kingdom is to arrive, rather than always be a future hope, something must change.
This also means that the church must not mistake the present manifestations of the Kingdom, which share the character of these earlier manifestations, with the Kingdom itself. Eden is lost. The kingdom of Solomon proved unsatisfactory. The ministry of Jesus is a foretaste. We may plant our gardens, we may fight in the political arena, we may heal the sick and bring good news to the poor. But the Kingdom is still to come.
And the other aspect of this future Kingdom, in biblical terms, is that between us and it lies individual judgement and divine wrath.
It should be obvious, then, that if this is our eschatology, it will give a particular shape to our missiology. On the one hand, we ought to be concerned with how we can live the life of the Kingdom in the present, just as Jesus did. On the other hand, we ought to be concerned, just as Jesus was, with how people, including ourselves, can be saved from the coming wrath.
A ministry which treats the present as an irrelevance in terms of our engagement with life is failing to understand what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom in the present. A ministry which treats the future as an irrelevance in terms of judgement, wrath and salvation is failing to understand what it will mean to be a citizen of the Kingdom in the future.
How we understand these things will then shape how we proclaim Christ. If our understanding of the future is hazy about judgement and dismissive of wrath, we will focus on those aspects of Christ which relate to life in the present. In short, we will downplay the cross, despite our emphasis on the life of Jesus. The justification for evangelism will become the benefit to the individual, in terms of a life made fuller, and to society in terms of a world made better. We will want to see people converted, but the unanswered question will be, “What happens to those who are not?”
It is, however, possible to forget that Jesus’ own ministry shows that the life of the future Kingdom is to be lived in the present. And when this happens the church’s ministry is again distorted. Then we find there is no real difference between the believer and the unbeliever — except that the believer believes that they are saved! And this, we must recognise, is just as much a false gospel, and just as serious a threat to salvation, as ignoring future salvation entirely.
It is much to be doubted whether the church currently has a good grasp of these issues. Some of us live as though there were no judgement in the future. Others live as if there were no purpose in the present. The answer, however, is not to ‘get the balance right’. It is to get the right perspective. Christ is coming again, but when he comes, will he find faith on earth (Lk 18:8)? Getting that right should be enough to keep any of us occupied until he returns.
Revd John P Richardson
26 June 2007