Thursday, April 24, 2008

Missions and the Millennium (or, Why You Should Be Excited that You're Living in the Endtimes)

I've been thinking lately about eschatology. Next year I'll have to write and defend a paper outlining my personal theological convictions, so I have to start deciding what I actually believe about some of these debated details of theology. Am I a Calvinist or an Arminian? Do I think that women should be in ministry-leadership positions? Is communism the preferred political theory of the early church? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Overall, I haven't been terribly convinced that these questions are quite as important as they are sometimes presented. That's not to say that they aren't important. But they're probably not important enough to merit severe breaches in the unity of the Body of Christ.

Anyway, lately I've been probing into the Scriptural teachings on the last things. Like most American evangelicals, I started off, back in my junior high years, as a dispensational premillennialist (which takes as literal everything that can possibly be taken literally in apocalyptic literature and which devises systems and timetables for the endtimes, such as the theory that the rapture will occur before the seven-year tribulation). I took this route mostly because one wouldn't know that there are actually any other options unless one started reading systematic theologians. Unfortunately, dispensational premillennialism has a monopoly on the popular Christian market. 

In high school, disenchanted with the absurdities perpetrated by some of the prominent voices for that position, I stepped toward a spiritual/historical reading of eschatological passages. Basically, this takes the descriptions of Revelation not as specific, identifiable future-historical events. It makes no predictions for where the "Beast from the Sea" will come from, or which country Gog and Magog will represent. Rather, it interprets the symbols of Revelation as true portrayals of the circumstances of the church age, the tribulations that extend from the time of Christ to his return, with the potential for some specific, future fulfillments.

This reading of Revelation fits well with the Amillennialist position, which I was first pushed toward by the writing of John Stott (Amillennialism holds that the "millennium" of Rev.20 represents the entire church age, in which Satan is being bound and Christ is reigning through his church). Recently I've been reading about Postmillennialism, which is a rather vague category that, depending on one's definitions, can be a belief anywhere from an optimistic Amillennialism to a conviction that the millennium is a definite future age that will actually be ushered in by the work of the church. The most appealing aspect of an optimistic amillennialism / postmillennialism is that it takes seriously the power and authority of the church as the Body of Christ. It claims for itself, with great hope, the promises of Scripture that this kingdom will spread and grow until it fills the entire earth. It dares to dream that God's promise to bless every nation through Abraham's seed is not limited to a tiny fraction of a percent of the people whom God loves. It believes that the church is the incarnation of Christ in this world, and that we truly are God's chosen instrument to do his work. We will never fully overcome sin and death in this age, but neither are we limited to a mission of snatching just a few people, here and there, from the flames of damnation. We are actively involved in the great work of God in the world, a work of redeeming all things and reconciling them to himself. The church is not merely God's side-plan to save a few Gentiles. It is the fulfillment of the great promises of the New Covenant in the Old Testament. It is the means by which God has chosen to fill the earth "with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, just as the waters cover the sea." Ours is not a mission doomed to large-scale failure, from which we must be rescued by a history-ending intervention of Jesus Christ. Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is already here in his church, and God has determined to found his kingdom through history, not apart from it. There will still be pain and death and sin, and Jesus will certainly return to judge and to usher in the final fullness of his kingdom, but we must not overlook the incredible work that he is already doing through us.

Optimistic eschatological assertions like these have gotten a bad rap lately, mostly because they were used extensively by the "social gospel" movement, and so fell out of favor with broader evangelicalism. But they have deep roots in the traditions of evangelical Christianity. While premillennialism was articulated in the very first centuries of the church, those early voices also acknowledged that there were other opinions on the matter within the camp of orthodoxy. Traces of an incredibly optimistic perspective on the church age are found in the writings of Athanasius (who articulated the progressive binding of Satan within the church age) and, to a degree, in Augustine. It's interesting to note that none of the major sixteenth-century Reformers (Luther, Calvin, and so on) were premillennialists. Most used a historical (rather than a futuristic) interpretation of Revelation, pointing out the papacy as the fulfillment of the prophecies that indicate the rise of the antichrist. The Puritans, almost to a man (including such theological giants as Jonathan Edwards), followed an optimistic eschatology. So did the Princeton school of theology in the 19th and early 20th centuries, represented by the Hodges and J. Gresham Machen. Many of the great missionaries of the "Golden Century" (1793-1900) of missions also held an optimistic eschatology, which gave fuel to their passion and their hope for the world. Today amillennialism remains the preferred eschatological perspective of many Reformed theologians, and a more optimistic take, which may fit the label "postmillennialism," is articulated by a number of prominent teachers, such as R. C. Sproul.

Such a position doesn't necessarily hold that evil won't increase or that there won't be a rebellion at the end of time. But it does hold great hopes for the present age and for the work of the church in the world. Being able to articulate this eschatology felt, in a very real way, like I was coming to my theological home. Driven by a passion for global missions, I have always clung to the hope that I might live to see the day when people from every tribe and tongue and nation go up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. And here's the question that this theological adventure set me to thinking: on the level of the layperson, what effect does each eschatological position have on one's motivation for missional activity? Does premillennialism, which concedes that the earth will grow progressively worse and worse until Jesus rescues us, lend itself to an active ethic of evangelistic desperation ("Repent, for the end is near")? Or does it allow us to watch the growth of evil and sit back, because we believe that such things must happen? Is it any coincidence that the greatest expansion of Christianity occurred when postmillennialism was in full tide, and that that movement began to fade away in the West when premillennialism began it rise? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I have my suspicions.

I would encourage you, whichever millennial position to which you may ascribe, to take seriously what the Bible says about the church. Claim as true the promises that God will fill the whole earth with his kingdom. Remind yourself what Jesus told us about the power of faith and prayer. Remember the promise to Abraham that the whole earth would be blessed. Dare to believe that we may live to see a world where Satan is bound in our country, where revival can spring up in a moment's time. Dare to believe that just as Greco-Roman paganism crumbled before Christianity, so too Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism can collapse, and that its followers, for whom God yearns, can stand up and embrace the true life of Christ. Pray for such things. We show great faith in God when we ask great things of him. Dare to step out into the adventure of mission, knowing that God may use you to do great things. He is already working powerfully through his church. Christianity is stampeding across the globe even now. Why can't it continue to do so, even here in America? Why can't it do so through you and me? I can close with no better exhortation than that of the great missionary to India, William Carey: "Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God."