A Primer on Missional Theology §3.6: Eschatology
3.6. Eschatology: the eternality of mission
We come finally to the subject of eschatology. It is widely held as self-evident that mission is only something God engages in as part of salvation history. Mission is the task God accomplishes in order to bring humanity into a reconciled relationship with God, and once this task is complete, mission will end. Most people simply take this idea for granted. But again we have to notice that this position depends upon the same disjunction between being and act in the life of God. God’s act of mission is limited to the space of world history, while God’s eternal being continues throughout eternity. If, however, we accept the notion that God’s being is in act, and thus God’s being is in mission, then we cannot hold the position that mission ends with the world history, because then God’s own being would end.
Missional theology answers this dilemma by understanding the historical actualization of God’s mission as the temporal manifestation of who God is from all eternity. The word “missionary” is descriptive of God’s eternal being, as I argued above in the first subsection. And in the second section, I argued that God is missionary precisely because God is defined by this divine orientation toward the historical event of Jesus Christ. God is missionary by nature, because God is the one who goes into the far country by nature. God is the one who goes to the cross. This attribute of God is not limited to temporal world history; on the contrary, this is descriptive of God’s eternal reality, including both pre-temporal and post-temporal eternity.
The eschatological implication for reconciled humanity is that we are not finished with mission when we are finished with our earthly lives. If we were, then the gap between worship and mission in the church would be perfectly acceptable. Our ecclesial worship would be a proleptic realization of what we will experience throughout eternity, while our ecclesial mission is limited to what the church accomplishes within time and space. And this is precisely what churches like Eastern Orthodoxy assert: their eucharistic liturgy is a participation in the divine worship in the heavens, while mission is the institutional expansion (or “diffusion,” to quote Sanneh) of the church. By contrast, missional theology asserts that our eternal destiny is mission. Our participation in God now takes the form of mission, and so our participation in God in eternity will take the form of mission. The problem most people have with this view stems from the fact that we naturally identify “mission” with “conversion,” as if the two are essentially synonymous. But conversion is only a subset within the larger framework of mission. If we understand “mission” in terms of cultural translation and centripetal and centrifugal actions, then perhaps we might begin to sketch an alternative missiological eschatology.
Missional theology interprets our eschatological participation in God as the consummation of our apostolic existence. Since conformity to Christ takes the shape of mission, our being-in-eternity will involve the fulfillment of this conformity. We will become what we are in Jesus Christ. In him, we are all apostolic witnesses to the good news of our reconciliation; in our eschatological being, we will become the image of the Son and thus our identity as God’s adopted children will become manifest in the eternality of our missional existence. Mission is thus never completed. Instead, mission continues throughout eternity as the unfolding of the inexhaustible plenitude of the gospel. We are eternally sent out into the new creation and gathered together in the New Jerusalem. The eschaton does not nullify but rather glorifies the cultural particularity and diversity of God’s redeemed creation. The concrete, indigenous particularities of our earthly existence are taken up into eternal fellowship with God. In the same way that the resurrection eternalizes the humanity of Christ in the context of his being-in-mission, so too the general resurrection of the dead eternalizes our own culturally diverse human nature in its being-in-mission. We are not resurrected into some generalized reality. The same specificity seen in the incarnation is evident in the resurrection as well. Jesus remains a unique human person. The resurrection is another instance of the translation principle, one in which human particularity is now elevated and exalted into its proper mode of existence in communion with the triune God. Our eschatological resurrection dignifies each distinct cultural community, ushering each person into the repletion of God’s mission. A missional eschatology recognizes that apostolicity does not end with temporal history; rather, in eternity, we become truly apostolic. We enter into the fullness of our faithful obedience as witnesses to the glory and grace of God. And like the four living creatures of John’s Apocalypse, we will proclaim throughout the new heavens and new earth: “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”