Colin Day’s article in the May NZ Baptist, “Would a real theologian please stand up,” has prompted theologians to do just that! The discussion continues with this article by Glenn Melville, an elder at Glen Eden Baptist Church who has a Master of Theology from the Tyndale-Carey Graduate School.
The starting point for rethinking how we are to be God’s people today is to revisit our theological understanding of Christian hope in relation to salvation, resurrection and eternal life. It is these beliefs that shape our missiological response to the world today. The following looks at two alternative Christian worldviews and their implications for mission.1. Heaven-bound for all eternity
In this worldview an eternal, trinitarian God, with a nature of creativity and love, creates the heavens and the Earth with humanity as the ultimate creation (Genesis 1:27). The plan was for humanity to live in perfect harmony with God and all of creation. Satan, however, deceived Adam (and Eve) into giving rule to him, and sin and death entered the world (Genesis 3).
Jesus later comes as God’s rescue plan for humanity. Through the cross, Jesus pays the price for sin and provides a way of forgiveness to restore humanity’s relationship with God (2 Corinthians 5:20-21). If an individual accepts Jesus as their personal Saviour, their belief guarantees them entry to Heaven when they die. A Christian’s inheritance, hope and reward is in Heaven (1 Peter 1:3-5; 1 Colossians 1:5; Matthew 5:12). Heaven itself is a disembodied existence spent worshiping God forever. As for the Earth, it will be destroyed as a result of being completely corrupted by sin (2 Peter 3:10, 12 may be interpreted in this way).
While simplified, this is largely the view that I held growing up in a Baptist church in the 1970s and ’80s. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and studying at Laidlaw College that I considered the implications of this view and its implications for mission.
Firstly, the view leads to dualistic thinking – a defining of what is spiritual and what is not, which is actually a Greek idea rather than a biblical one. The things of Heaven, such as prayer and worship, are spiritual. Material things, such as creation and our bodies, are not spiritual and eternal. In fact, creation and material things don’t matter because a Christian’s destiny is to leave this world and spend eternity in Heaven.
Secondly, this worldview reduces the mission of the Church to a particular evangelistic approach. If the purpose of this life is to escape this life, then the mission for Christians is to get people to admit their sin and accept Jesus so they too can go to Heaven. This view is exemplified in the well-known evangelistic approach, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would go?” It is often accompanied by an explanation of “the four spiritual laws.”
I suggest that, while successfully used in the past, in a post-Christian society where the concept of sin is largely a Christian domain (and possibly not even well understood by Christians themselves), this approach is no longer effective in reaching this generation.
Thirdly, this view promotes a rather dim view of this life. Since creation is beyond redemption this life is to be endured until Jesus “takes us home.”
Fourthly, if our bodies and material creation are not redeemable then, in essence, Satan has won a partial victory.
2. Heaven comes to Earth
The first key emphasis of this worldview is Jesus’ physical resurrection. Jesus is the only person in history to be raised from the dead (not resuscitated like Lazarus was). Jesus is described as the “last Adam,” namely the first person in the new humanity (1 Caorinthians 15:49).
Jesus’ resurrected body is both similar to and different from his pre-resurrected body. In John 21, Jesus has breakfast with the disciples (so he is not a disembodied ghost), and yet in another passage he appears suddenly in a locked room (John 20:19-20).
In this view, Christian hope is that at the resurrection of the dead those who have declared Jesus as Lord will receive a resurrected body just like Jesus (Romans 8:18-25; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5; Philippians 3:21; 1 John 3:1-3).
The second emphasis is on Jesus delivering humanity from the rule of Satan. Through his resurrection, Jesus destroys the power of sin and regains the rule over creation that humanity surrendered to Satan at the Fall. Jesus gives this authority back to humanity (Colossians 1:13; 2:15) and empowers them through the Holy Spirit to overcome sin.
The third emphasis is that the nature of Christian hope is not to escape this world but that ultimately Heaven will come to Earth.
If Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21 are read together, a picture emerges of a life after life after death. The Biblical view is, therefore, not that Christians are going to Heaven for all eternity, but that ultimately Heaven (which N.T. Wright defines as “God’s place”) is coming to a new or renewed Earth. This will be God’s supreme act, the restoration of all things. Jesus will come to rule and reign on the Earth (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:10-13; Revelation 21:1-4). Creation will regain the glory that was lost in the Fall (Romans 8:18-21). Eternity will be spent relating, creating and glorying God through our lives.
The implications of this view for our lives now are stunning in their scope. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection signifies that the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on the Earth has begun (the now), and looks forward to the day when Jesus will reign physically on the earth (the not yet).
The Church’s mission is, therefore, to bring the life of Heaven to birth now in actual physical, earthly, reality. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, aspects of Heaven break into our world – healings, casting out of demons, miracles in the multiplying of food, restoring relationships, and righting injustice.
In Matthew 6:10 we read that we are to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” We are called to pray that the reign of Jesus will become a reality here and now. As Jesus was sent into the world by God the Father, so Jesus sends us into the world to restore, address, love, serve, challenge, oppose, protest, and give of ourselves in whatever vocation we find ourselves (John 20:21).
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I suggest that while the first worldview presented has some biblical support, the second worldview is a more accurate reflection of what the whole scope of Scripture teaches.
Furthermore, if Christians could only grasp the richness and scope of God’s salvation plan this would provide the framework and motivation to revitalise missionary effects, particularly in the Western world. So what might this look like in today’s context?
Firstly, one aspect of God’s salvation plan is to address injustice. In the kingdom of Heaven there is no injustice, no discrimination or segregation based on race or gender, no more hatred, and no more physical or emotional abuse.
When communicated in word and deed by followers of Christ this is a powerful vision in a world full of suffering. It is a vision exemplified in the words and actions of the great Martin Luther King Jr, who called his fellow Americans to not only treat blacks as equal but to face opposition and hatred with non-violence and love. In doing so he changed the face of the United States.
Think also of William Carey, the famous Baptist missionary to India, whose great accomplishments included helping to abolish the practice of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands.
While few of us will have the profile of a Martin Luther King Jr or a William Carey, we can all be part of puting right injustice in our world and proclaiming that this is part of God’s salvation plan. We can support organisations like Compassion International that support the rights of children. We can be involved in addressing injustice in our own communities through local politics, central government, lobby groups, school trustees and community boards. In doing so we reflect the character of God’s heart for the marginalised and oppressed.
Secondly, another way to re-imagine mission is to proclaim God’s plan to bring physical and emotional healing to the world. In the kingdom of Heaven there is no more sickness and grief, no more cancer, no more AIDS. The kingdom is about restoring broken families and marriages.
Fish Hoek Baptist Church in South Africa is one such example of bringing this aspect of Heaven to Earth. Ten years ago, this small church started a ministry in response to the huge AIDS epidemic, called Living Hope. It now has a budget of $1.2 million and employs 147 staff. The ministry encompasses nearly every dimension of the impact of AIDS on the lives of the poor.
A sister church was established in the heart of the community they are reaching out to. The ministry encompasses HIV support groups, training in job skills so people can support themselves once they leave the clinic, counsellors, a prenatal clinic and life skills educators who teach prevention.
This church is transforming its culture, reaching across racial and economic barriers and bringing hope. The vision of this church has caught the world’s attention. The pastor has been invited to the White House. USAID has provided financial support and the local state government has asked them to consider taking over the running of parts of the government health infrastructure.
This is an example of Christians who are involved in God’s transformation of this world, actively involved in their community, proclaiming the gospel in word and in deed.
Thirdly, part of God’s salvation plan to put things right includes nature. Plant With Purpose is a Christian humanitarian organisation proclaiming the gospel to help the rural poor. Their three-part environmental, economic, and spiritual approach to sustainable development transforms the communities and people they work with.
By reversing deforestation, Plant With Purpose helps the poor restore productivity to their land to create economic opportunity out of environmental restoration. Since 1984 they have helped more than 100,000 people in some 230 villages lift themselves out of poverty through a holistic approach to sustainable development.
The common theme in these three examples is the holistic way in which the gospel is proclaimed. If Christians are only involved in meeting the physical needs of the world then they are no different from any other secular aid agency. If Christians are only concerned with saving souls then they are simply seen as the world’s moral police with an outdated message of sin.
However, if mission is seen as partnering with God to bring Heaven to Earth now in physical reality, through proclamation in word and deed, then this is a hope-shaped message that I believe people will increasingly respond to.
So let’s take the time to examine which Christian worldview is most biblical. The implications for how we are to be God’s people today have eternal significance.