by Peter Beyerhaus
in view of the evangelical rediscovery of eschatology, we should not allow our confession of Christ’s return to appear as a piece of high-sounding rhetoric, but rather make it the focus of our total understanding of Christ’s mandate for world evangelization.
When Arthur T. Pierson in his famous address to D. L. Moody’s Mt. Hermon student conference in 1886, "The Bible and Prophecy," coined what became the Student Volunteer Movement’s watchword, "the evangelization of the world in this generation," he did so from his premillennial conviction that the evangelization of all the nations was the condition laid down by Jesus himself for his future coming in glory. Pierson and those whom he inspired to engage in a great venture to evangelize the world believed that the "sooner the entire world heard the good news of the gospel, the sooner Jesus Christ would return to usher in the millennium."
They held a strongly persuasive eschatological hope. Pierson and most of the others in the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) really hoped that the task "could be completed in their life-time and that they would participate in the second coming of Jesus Christ." This hope still burned among the founding fathers of the international missionary movement in 1910. At the end of the famous Edinburgh Conference, John Mott, its chairman, in his closing speech dared to claim the possibility that "some standing here may not taste death until they see the coming of the kingdom in power."
However, the successors of Edinburgh who organized the International Missional Council (IMC) did not maintain this eschatological motivation for world missions. In fact, the German scholar Gustav Warneck, known as the father of the science of missiology, early on had criticized the "Anglo-Saxon eschatological optimism" seemingly contained in the SVM’s watchword and the "superficial" perception of the missionary task derived from it.
During the 1920s and ’30s the IMC fell more and more under the influence of modem theology. The Kingdom of God was still a guiding theme in missionary thinking, but the main stress was laid on its evolution within history. This idea caused great concern, especially within German missionary circles. In fact, after the IMC’s Madras conference in 1938, the German delegation issued a statement critical of the findings. They said that they were "bound by conscience to point to some vital points of the gospel, which must be emphasized in contrast with certain passages in the reports of some sections." They stressed that the kingdom will be consummated through a creative act of God in the final establishment of a new heaven and a new earth. "We are convinced that only this eschatological attitude can prevent the Church from becoming secularized," they said.
A number of German missiologists sought to place the evangelistic task of the church within the framework of salvation history. They understood that mission was the overriding task of the church during the period between Christ’s first and second coming. Among them were Karl Hartenstein and Walter Freytag, who found theological support from dogmatician Karl Heim and exegete Oscar Cullman. For the rest of their lives Hartenstein and Freytag reminded the ecumenical missionary movement about the salvation-historical dimension.
For a time, between the IMC’s 1952 Willingen meeting and the World Council of Churches’ 1954 assembly at Evanston, it appeared that their concern had been attended to, but eventually their thrust was completely discarded by the dominating theology of missions in the conciliar movement. This became obvious at the World Council’s fourth assembly at Uppsala in 1968 and at its eighth world missionary conference at Bangkok in 1972. Both meetings signaled that mission meant humanization, socio-political liberation, and dialogue with other religions, with a view toward finally setting up a "coming world community."
However, the newly invigorated evangelical missionary movement raised the eschatological banner once again. Conservative groups recaptured the battle cry of their grandfathers. They not only proclaimed that a gigantic task of world evangelization remained to be done, but also reasserted the premillennial hope that Pierson and his companions had once attached to world missions.
In recent decades all of the important evangelical affirmations have sounded this eschatological keynote, such as the Wheaton Declaration (1966), the Frankfurt Declaration (1970), and the Lausanne Covenant (1974). However, in view of this evangelical rediscovery of eschatology, we should not allow our confession of Christ’s return to appear as a piece of high-sounding rhetoric, but rather make it the focus of our total understanding of Christ’s mandate for world evangelization.
Why are evangelicals so insistent on biblical eschatology? Because God’s redemptive action in Jesus Christ is past, present, and future. The three are related in the way God in Christ fulfills biblical prophecy about the coming of his kingdom.
Contrary to the Jews’ expectations, God did not establish his messianic reign on earth by one single intervention, but rather by a sequence of stages, of which the first two have already taken place and the third is awaited.
The first decisive kingdom event was the incarnation of God’s Son in the person of Jesus Christ, who revealed the Father’s gracious will and accomplished atonement. The second kingdom event was Christ’s ascension to the Father’s right hand, where he exercises his majestic rule over heaven and earth, directing the course of history in such a way that all people progressively are being faced with his saving message and his royal claim. The third stage-still ahead of us-will be Christ’s return to establish the kingdom in power and glory, thereby abolishing every hostile force that still counteracts his holy will and questions the salvation that he accomplished on the cross.
Evangelical eschatology opposes all types of liberal eschatology, which tries to eliminate the transcendental reality of this third and future stage of God’s kingdom and instead puts it at man’s disposal by giving it an existential, mystical, ethical, evolutionary, or political interpretation and application.
Evangelicals, it is true, differ over whether and how the third stage will be preceded by a millennial reign of Christ on earth, and, if so, in what sequence of events such a future intervention of Christ will take place. That is why their world evangelization congresses, designed to manifest evangelical unity, do not give close consideration to eschatological issues. However, if we really are looking for biblical guidance in our missionary task, we cannot afford to dodge eschatology. Besides, from a higher perspective, we can resolve the particular concerns of each of the three major millennial views.
For example, in his recent book, Today’s Choices for Tomorrow’s Mission, David Hesselgrave shows that we could maintain our crucial evangelical concerns about eschatology and missions from each of the three positions, if their supporters would bend a little in light of the legitimate concerns of the others. To illustrate:
We must heed the amillennial concern to avoid a picture of Christ’s dominion over the present world that looks like one of the historical human empires, thus making it far too small. We must pay attention to the pre-millennial scheme according to which the world will never yield completely to messianic conditions before the demonic rebellion is finally put down by a dramatic encounter between Christ and the Antichrist. We must listen to the postmillennial concern that Christians should not be paralyzed by a dualistic pessimism about possible improvements in the here and now under the leavening influence of the Holy Spirit. Correctly, they warn us against irresponsible abstinence from socio-political involvement.
However, the most important point is that the kingdom in power and glory can and will only be set up by Jesus Christ himself when he returns. This deeply desired event will not take place before all people on earth will have heard the testimony of the kingdom from the mouths of messengers who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to them (Matt. 24:14; Mk. 13:10; Acts 1:8). When we accept this truth, we understand the decisive meaning of our age, the time between Christ’s first and second coming. We also understand the reason for the so-called delay of his coming: this temporal interval is needed to accomplish his Great Commission, to evangelize and disciple all nations.
Our age is marked by the tension between the "already" and the "not yet." Christian missions receive their strength from the spiritual power that has "already" been released by the finished work of Christ at the cross and by his resurrection. He unleashes his power in freeing people from the bonds of a guilty conscience before God, and in liberating them from sin and Satan. We see his power working in the community of believers. Christ’s power permeates society by inspiring believers – and even some unregenerated people – to live according to kingdom precepts set forth in the Sermon on the Mount, thus laying a foundation for justice, social improvements, and peace.
At the same time, evangelical missionaries realize the "not yet" in our present interim. We preach the gospel in a world whose nature and history are still deeply scarred by the Fall, and in which Satan still exercises power over those who have not accepted God’s love in Christ. Jesus and his apostles realistically described the progress of the gospel as an ongoing war between two opposing hosts of spiritual forces, culminating in the final clash between their heads, Christ and Antichrist.
We see the progress of Christ’s kingdom only partly and in signs, without guarantees of permanence. Mean- while, seductive forces tempt the church to disobedience and unbelief. Apostasy culminates as the condition of the majority (Matt. 24:10-13). Only when Jesus comes in holy judgment will his true believers be revealed and glorified. Then the final separation will take place between the Kingdom of God and the place of the wicked ones condemned to eternal punishment.
The terrible reality of ultimate judgment has inflamed and still does inflame many evangelicals with a passion to rescue human souls. When Hudson Taylor in 1894 challenged the Student Volunteer Movement to serve in China, he voiced this appeal: "The gospel must be preached to those people in very short time, because they walk at the path of death. Every day, every day, oh how they sweep over! There is a great Niagara of souls passing into the dark in China…. One million a month in China are dying without God."
In short, we have noted above the main tenets of a biblical eschatology that evangelicals see as pertinent to world missions, touching both motivation and conditions. Now we move on to the relevance of these tenets in the practice of world evangelization.
ESCHATOLOGY’S MISSIONARY RELEVANCE
How does eschatology influence our missionary ministries? First, it gives us joyful assurance, because the outcome of our work is not open-ended and endangered. Christ assures his messengers that he will at no time abandon them, but will be with them until the end (Matt. 28:20). Our work is based on the unshakeable trust that Christ’s historical victory at the cross and in his resurrection will be crowned by his final victory when he returns in glory and finally destroys every antagonistic rule and every authority and power (1 Cor. 15:28).
Second, our eschatological orientation inspires missionaries with a sense of urgency. Since we keenly anticipate Christ’s final victory and the establishment of his kingdom, since their coming to is conditioned by the execution of the universal missionary mandate, no other duty compares in importance with the one to reach those who have not heard the gospel, but who must hear it before Jesus can come back. This urgency has distinguished the genuine missionary spirit ever since the apostle Paul made it his ambition to preach the gospel where nobody had preached it before, and never to settle at any place where he had already preached and established a Christian bridgehead (Rom. 15:20).
Third, our evangelical eschatology makes the gospel a message of hope to those who hear it. Outside of Christ, people are "without God and without hope in the world" (Eph. 2:12), although they might live with various illusions of hope that are bound to end in disappointment and despair. Often, these people lack a sense of history and therefore they find it hard to find purpose and meaning.
Fourth, since the gift of the Holy Spirit to believers is a foretaste, or installment, of our eschatological hope, missionaries are called to and enabled to erect signs of the coming kingdom. Such signs are first of all the renewed lives that show something of the glorious liberty of God’s children. The most important sign is the church as an eschatological community, because the church crosses all social and cultural barriers and anticipates that great crowd of all tribes and nations that will be assembled before the throne of the Lamb.
Therefore, our missionary work does not end with the sowing of the good seed and the conversion of individuals. Rather, we take care to plant vigorous churches that truly exhibit the victorious life granted within Christ’s kingdom of grace here on earth. Church members will behave as responsible citizens and work towards such ethical transformations that show the dignity of men and women created in God’s image.
Fifth, while our eschatology impels us to shoulder our social and ethical responsibilities, it also cautions us to be patient. The proper eschatological hope is God’s kingdom in glory, which will be established only at Christ’s return. He will complete the redemption of our sinful bodies (Rom. 8:23) and he will annihilate the forces of sin and death (1 Cor. 15:24-26). Our eschatology warns us against making empty promises and pursing utopian social projects. When they fail, people can easily think Christianity is a fraud. Above all, this eschatological caution prevents us from changing the gospel into a humanistic ideology.
Sixth, our eschatological understanding makes missionaries watchful to discern the spirit of Antichrist already working. It gives us courage to face Satan’s counter-attacks; after all, he does not freely surrender his strongholds, especially in pagan cults. Therefore, it’s extremely important for our missiologists to develop a theory of religions-and a strategy to meet them-that acknowledges both the demonic component of all non-Christian religions and ideologies and their anti-Christian invigoration related to the coming final conflict.
Seventh, and most important, our eschatological orientation must force us to realize the primacy of prayer and ardent intecession as a prerequisite to the missionary encounter. By prayer, we plead the promises of God given to his obedient people; in prayer, we anticipate the coming of Christ in power and glory. Prayer confident in his coming releases some of God’s spiritual power, by which he will one day subject all creation to the rule of the Lord and make all things new (Rev. 21:5).
THREATS TO THE ESCHATALOGICAL VISION
Evangelicals need to be aware that their eschatological orientation of missions is under attack from several theological perspectives today. First are the Marxist-inspired theologies originating with people like J. Moltmann and J. B. Metz, or the "materialistic Bible reading" school emerging in Western Europe. They are most influential in countries suffering under poverty and political oppression. These so-called "theologies of the people" emerge when suffering people encounter the gospel and "re-read" it within the context of their societies. However, because of their structural similarity, and because of the reoccurrence of certain main affirmations, I suspect that there is a common source of influence and a strategy for ecumenical diffusion.
Marxism can be interpreted as an illegitimate child of Judaism and Christianity, because it shares many of their prophetic views of history. For example: the opposition between good and evil built on the relentless antagonism between the exploiting and the exploited classes; the perspective that divides history into two main stages, the present age of class antagonism and the age to come, the classless society; the message of salvation for the oppressed: the forces of the dialectical process of history have started to work for their liberation, and now is the time to listen to the signals of liberation and to cast off the shackles of economic enslavement and human self-estrangement; a Utopian goal painted in glowing colors, a future state of the classless society described by Marx and Bloch as the "Kingdom of Liberty."
In parts of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, some people-including some Christians and their spiritual leaders-gladly seize these ideas. Of course, seeing that plain Marxism-Leninism has been widely discredited because of its anti-Christian record, those who articulate these views have to make some adjustments. They might dismiss the inherent atheism as irrelevant by saying that there is a difference between Marxism as a scientific tool of social analysis, which is useful, and Marxism as an ideology of salvation, which can be cast aside. However, often they retain these very ideological elements and use them to gain support from Christians by changing their terms and dressing them up in a biblical vocabulary. This works well where the majority of the people are religious and adhere to nominal Christianity.
These Marxist-inspired theologies appear under such labels as "black theology," or "people’s theology," or, in South Korea, "Minjung theology." There are differences, of course, depending on the degree to which biblical concepts are replaced by ideological substitutes. Some simply try to reemphasize the forgotten social dimension of earlier Christian piety.
It is quite clear that Marxist-inspired theologies grow out of an innate tendency to reduce the gift of salvation to an improvement in socio-economic conditions and to substitute the goal of a changed political order for the ultimate hope of the future kingdom of God. For example, in describing the emergence of a "people’s theology" in the Philippines, Sister Theresa Dagdag said, "It is one of the best moments of history, because today the new history is being forged, the Kingdom of God. His reign of justice is being established in this country."
Another threat to our biblical eschatological vision of mission is what I call the theology of dialogue with people of other religions. According to this view, all religions are essentially one, deriving their insights from a progressive universal revelation of the same divine being, and therefore the adherents of all of them will be saved in the end. Those who say this question the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ as the one way to the Father. Such a view paralyzes the eschatological urge of missions.
Another feature of the theology of dialogue also cuts across biblical eschatology. It is the idea that interfaith conversation and cooperation are intended to build a future world order in which all races, cultures, and religions will form one great community, the new humanity. Those who hold this view urge it upon Christians as the only way for humanity to survive in face of the threat of world suicide. Others present it as an inspirational goal, calling it the coming "civilization of love," in which the spiritual resources of the different religions are tapped in order to establish world peace.
Under this program some church leaders have participated in interreligious prayer conventions during which the various deities have been invoked to grant peace and blessing. Of course, the Bible definitely declares how world peace will come under the rule of the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, who first laid the foundation of true peace by making peace between God and sinful man through his atoning death. To expect this eschatological gift of world peace not from the returning Christ but from religious cooperation and joint worship with people of other religions is to break clearly from the messianic prophecies. Worse, it is to set the stage for Christ’s forerunner, the Antichrist.
Such a syncretistic elimination of the truly biblical hope is just cause for alarm about programs like the "conciliar process for justice, peace, and integrity of creation." Of course, Christians share the desire for these benefits, but evangelicals need to understand that the quasi-millennarian enthusiasm with which these goals are presented as the primary task of the church cuts out the church’s evangelistic and missionary mandate. For example, at the World Council of Churches’ World Convocation on Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation (Seoul, Korea, March, 1990), not only were non-Christian religions represented, but evangelical concerns on these subjects were shunted aside. This meeting could very well become an important step toward an ecumenical council of all religions for the establishment of peace.
How shall we confront these concerns? First, we need to see them for what they really are, a death threat to our biblical eschatology and world missions. We cannot dismiss them as just some more liberal nonsense while we pursue business as usual. Second, we need to inform our publics of our own stance on these issues. As a model, this is what we in Germany declared:
In view of the tremendous legalistic pressure that is put on the Christian conscience by urging us to join the conciliar process as the allegedly only possible way to escape threatening world catastrophe, we confess our allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior who has set us free (Gal. 5:1). He alone is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6), who grants us to break through the anxieties of this present age into his kingdom that has already arrived and which will be established in glory (Col. 1:12-14).
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