I am regularly confronted by two very different perspectives on the future. They are, in a sense, conflicting approaches, but they are often expressed by a single individual, sometimes in the same conversation. If we were being hypercritical, we could say that both tendencies represent a certain lack of faith, but since no man’s faith is perfect, both extremes are regularly expressed, even in Scripture.
Sometimes I hear a great frustration at how bad things are, at what a sorry state the church is in, and the likelihood of judgment. On the other hand, those with an optimistic eschatology try to leap forward past generations of necessary Kingdom work and ponder when the fullness of the Kingdom might be realized, or when we will see a certain level of progress, or the West Christianized once again.
The Kingdom of God Is Growing
The second position, idle speculation, may not lead anywhere, but is not as debilitating as the first sometimes is. Pessimism is destructive, and in our theology it can devastate our ability to do the work of the Kingdom because we focus on the City of Man.
Those with an immediate awareness of the law of God and His holiness can be so offended at wickedness that they focus on the presence of the evil they see rather than the power of God they profess. Scripture repeatedly shows us the presence and boasting of evil on a large scale, but in reading these accounts we must take stock of where those men are now, where their empires are now, and what has become of the deities they credited with their power. The anti-God powers of the past are now relegated to history books and museum exhibits, while the Kingdom of God is alive and growing. The evil forces of our day should be seen as headed for history’s dumpster. Their technology and assets will be the inheritance of the righteous.
If we look around us, there is every reason to be encouraged. The church of Jesus Christ is growing in China. It was the communist leaders themselves who recognized the failure of Marxism and allowed some free enterprise, which is merely an application of the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” A very partial application of one commandment has created an economic explosion of unprecedented dimensions.
The church in Latin America has also been growing in recent decades. Africa is now over 50 percent Christian, surpassing Islam as the predominant religion. The northern part of the continent, along the Mediterranean, is largely Islamic, but below that Christianity has made tremendous inroads. Muslims bemoan the ground they have lost in Africa, while Christians fail at times to rejoice in this momentous shift.
There are a growing number of Christian converts in many Islamic countries where there was very little Christian presence a generation ago. Iran is said to have close to 500,000 Christians. The strength of Islam has always been repression by threat of force. When politically or militarily weak, Islam has stagnated. Oil made Islamic nations both rich and militarily strong in the twentieth century. They still buy their technology and lifestyle from others; if they lose their oil reserves, or its production is hampered by war, they will lose their revenue stream. Any new energy source that bypasses the Middle East will break the back of Islam. Islam is vulnerable and it is certainly not the wave of the future.
Military men have knowledge of the techniques of battle and the capabilities of their men and weapons. What separates a competent field commander from a brilliant one is his ability to understand how the battle is going as it unfolds. He must see where he is weak and respond and he must see the enemy’s weaknesses and take quick advantage of that vulnerability. A battle is not a chess match where you can think long and hard about your move. Caution can be the ruin of a field commander and his army. A defeatist, pessimistic commander who only sees the gains of the enemy is unlikely ever to win a single battle, and is likely to respond poorly because his focus is not on victory but the likelihood of defeat.
We must look for the vulnerabilities of unbelief. Where our humanistic, statist culture is faltering, we advance and take ground. Our enemy is still boastful, but our battle line has advanced in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. There is even a strengthened core group in North America that has steeled itself for battle. In the last generation, they fought for Christian education and won. That is a gain we should never deprecate. We are commanded to walk by faith, not by sight, but when we open our eyes, there is great cause for encouragement.
Flawed Theology Will Not Impede the Kingdom
“But the theology of these emerging Christian groups,” some are quick to say, “is very flawed!” This is true, but so was the theology of the early church. It argued for over four centuries over the nature of Christ’s incarnation. It wasn’t officially settled until Chalcedon in A.D. 451, and heresies persist to this day on the issue. The theology of much of the Christian church in the West is so flawed, it is difficult to distinguish which groups should be regarded as errant and which as having departed from the faith altogether despite their claims. A mature theology does not come too quickly or completely to individuals, so we must not expect otherwise in any given Christian community. Even with a sound theology, the more important application of theology that replaces old thought and ways in light of the Scriptures will take time and meet with resistance. The apostles we see in the gospels had, at that time, a very imperfect grasp of the faith. God gave them an understanding to do the job He assigned them. Flawed theology is certainly an issue the church must address, but it is not a problem for the Kingdom of God.
Several years ago Voice of the Martyrs stated that Christianity, not Islam, was the fastest growing religion in the world. Its growth, moreover, comes through conversion, while that of Islam comes by birth rate, so a very different dynamic is at play, one that should encourage us. This should be as exciting to Christians today as the news of D-Day was to our parents and grandparents. We should celebrate, because we are on the offensive now.
Christians once had to fight for their own churches, and even the name Christianity. The Gnostics, who reached the peak of influence in the second century, tried to co-opt the dynamic of Christianity by its wholesale definition. Their extreme dualism caused them to have such contempt for the material world that they decided the God of the Old Testament, being the Creator and intimately concerned with life on earth, was evil.
One group of Gnostics called themselves Cainites (after the murderer of righteous Abel) and declared all the unrighteous men who opposed God to be the real heroes. They manufactured a story of Jesus to promote this same inversion of good and evil called The Gospel According to Judas, in which the traitor was the misunderstood hero. This fraudulent attempt to rewrite the gospel story was always known to have once existed but all copies were thought to have been lost until a version of it was found and published in 2006 as a supposedly new look into the real origins of Christianity. This is the type of battle for the faith which has been faced for hundreds of years. There was never a golden age of pure faith and practice in the early church (as I Corinthians reminds us).
There is Work Ahead
The second tendency I mentioned was the quantum leap forward to speculate when the fullness of the Kingdom might happen or what it would look like. At its best, this reflects a desire to see God’s “will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” At its worst, it is a fruitless daydreaming that ignores the immediate work of the Kingdom in our day and place. Those with a good work ethic do not spend a great deal of time thinking about what life will be like when the work is completed.
Certainly the apostles were given a daunting task. It was one that would totally consume them. They had no resources and very few followers. They were then told to take a message which had limited acceptance in Palestine to all peoples. Rome was at the zenith of its power and their religion was not even recognized as a legal one. They would die as martyrs, seeming failures, with what looked at the time to be very meager results. They had obeyed and done the work Jesus commissioned them to do. Speculation would have done them no good. They could not have imagined the outworking of the gospel that occurred. The cultures that would spread the gospel to Christendom did not yet exist.
In 2013 I visited eastern Turkey, an area that was for millennia the heartland of Armenia and the home of Rushdoonys since the time of Isaiah. While there I visited all that remains of the Monastery of Saint Bartholomew, the ruins of the chapel. The monastery dates to the fourth century and was built on the site of the martyrdom of the apostle, Bartholomew. The chapel was built over his grave. It was once a place of Christian pilgrimages until the massacres of Christians in WWI. The monastery complex is gone; all that remains are the ruins of the chapel. At some point the area was made a military base and placed off limits to all visitors. The dome of the church was still standing there in the 1960s but was destroyed (according to some sources) by Turkish military explosives. The site had only been made accessible a matter of weeks before our visit by order of the Turkish government seeking to encourage tourism. When I was there we passed a group of soldiers and stood inside the church walls on top of twelve to fifteen feet of rubble. Even the grave of Bartholomew has been alternately honored and desecrated, but the importance of Christianity now dwarfs the importance of all those that opposed its spread.
Every saint is impatient. David’s psalms are full of frustration. The prophets expressed it. Even the martyrs in heaven cry to see the time of vindication for the righteousness of God, “How long, O Lord?” (Rev. 6:10). You, too have reason to be distressed at the evil you see, but you must remember we have been clued in to an irrevocable truth of history, that we are on the winning side, and are more than conquerors in Christ. You have good reason also to desire and work toward the fullness of the Kingdom, but you must also be diligent in the hard work set before you.
The Kingdom of God is advancing, but keep working.