Like many churches, my evangelical denomination has work to do to rethink the motives of church mission on the other side of colonialism. Some of this work might be done at the level of eschatology, where it continues to hold exclusively to the view that there is eternal conscious punishment awaiting those who meet death unreached and unpersuaded by news of Christ. My goal here is not to contend with this view in full, but is to see how the ancient hope of Christian apokatastasis, or full restoration, might offer a framework for decolonizing the motive of such missions.
To do this I will outline the motivations conveyed by the Missionary Messages of my denomination's founder, A.B. Simpson, expand them with the picture of apokatastasis provided by 4th century theologian Gregory of Nyssa, and gesture at some suggestive results.
A.B. Simpson (1843-1919) was admirable for many things, not the least of which being his break with the class structures of his church in order to bring prayer and preaching into touching distance with social work among the urban poor. As this extended to distant lands, while it continued to carry the motive of compassion, it also shifted in emphasis.
In Simpson's Missionary Messages we see the motive for mission is to hasten the return of Christ, and the means is to reach every nation with the gospel in the hope that some individuals will be saved. For this he draws on Jesus’s statement in Matthew 24:14, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world for a witness unto the nations and then shall the end come," which is interpreted to mean:
We are preaching the Gospel not for the conversion of the world, but for a witness to all nations. WHEN WE SHALL HAVE ACCOMPLISHED THIS, HE WILL COME. He has given us the key to the future. He has put in our hands the secret of ages. God’s great chronometer does not measure time by days and years, but by preparations and conditions, and the hour of the Marriage of the Lamb may be fixed by the bride (36, emphasis original).
The analogy is to think like a fiancé who must get all the wedding invitations out as a prerequisite to getting married, but need not wait to receive back all the RSVPs. That is not to say there is no concern for a répondez s'il vous plaît. For Simpson, the Great Commission “contemplates a world-wide evangelization so glorious and so complete that no nation, no tribe, nor tongue shall be overlooked” (24). When unpacking this in terms of missionary urgency, however, Simpson says
It calls us, especially, to look at the nations rather than the individuals of the race, and to see that the unevangelized peoples are the first objects of our care. We are never to rest until this glorious Gospel shall have been proclaimed in every tongue spoken by man, and from every nation there shall be some representatives to herald the coming of the Son of Man (24, emphasis added).
On one hand, this sounds like a cosmopolitan vision of the kingdom of God. On the other hand, the goal is not full reconciliation but personal reunion with Christ, and the method prioritizes proclamation over reception to the potential detriment of the missiological imagination. Potential missioners are led to picture a cause-effect relation between the fulfilled duty of gospel proclamation and the personal return of Christ, such that this task is to be pursued regardless of how many receive the gospel, and any notion of transformation on the part of the sending church is displaced by the imagined transformation of other nations into western ideals (see 87, 95-6, 103-8).
Despite appeals to compassion and unselfishness in these missionary messages, the good will tends to get subsumed under self-concern for hastened salvation. The question that arises is similar to that which Abelard raised in the 11th century when, in his Commentary on Romans 3:26, he said a fuller understanding of the atonement “kindles [us] in love more than a hoped-for benefit [does],” because “our redemption” is not only that we can be freed from sin but is also “that we may complete all things by [Christ’s] love.”
My goal here is not to jump to the conclusion that an eschatology such as Simpson's is inherently or inevitably colonialist, but is to re-imagine this within apokatastasis. When Simpson observes an alternate eschatology in his Missionary Messages he looks not to the ancient view of universal restoration in Christ, but looks disparagingly at the "New Theology" of "liberal Christians", which he describes as a religious pluralism with no need for Christ at all (84-5).
But what happens if the "end" is not only the proselytization of all nations, but entails a fuller reconciliation to God and one another in Christ in the new creation?
For those in the early church who taught it, the hope of apokatastasis rested not in abstracted religious pluralism or in human entitlement, but in the fulfillment of God’s goodness in Christ. As William Moore explains in the introduction to volume 5 of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers:
“Their infinite hopes” and “their absolute confidence” rested “in the goodness of God, who owes it to Himself to make His work perfect." They thought that “humanity was not originally perfect, except in possibility,” such that the grace of God “consists [not in their return to a primal state but] rather in the purging” of sanctification (22-23).
For Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), this “purgation” takes place both here and now and in the “hereafter,” where “the soul is purified of every vice” to “be in the sphere of Beauty” (449). Because only one thing must be annihilated, namely evil, everything God made good will be perfected in the end (452-3).
Explaining this with reference to Hebrews 11:40, Gregory says the ancients from Abraham onward “ceased not to seek the heavenly country” but remain “even now in the condition of hoping for that grace," because God is providing something better, that they should not be made perfect without us (412). After almost four centuries, Gregory understood the delay in Christ's returning as a time of expansion whereby all that are made to inherit the Kingdom of God will be able to give it its final shape.
When it comes to the question of mission, then, it is worth noting that for Gregory the hope of apokatastasis leads not to missional apathy but to patient persistence (as per the original context of Matthew 24:14, which was a text about enduring persecution):
"It would be a foolish man who should seek to hurry on the coming of the fruit-time, when he ought to be sowing seeds and preparing the crops,” since it is only “one’s duty” to place “confidence in the things expected as a prop to lean on, and to purchase for himself, by good conversation, the grace that is to come” (413).
If there is a hint of selfish motivation here, it is curtailed by a recognition that the proselytizer stands in need of further purgation and perfection, which carries on until “the generation of [humankind] is completed,” when there “should take place the restitution of all things” (412). In another text Gregory imagines a divine enlarging wherein “each grows along with each” (453) until the plenitude of souls is reached and there is nothing “deficient" in the human race.
Gregory does not carry the discussion further, but I wish to suggest that this puts the “healing of the nations” of Revelation 22:2 in an interesting perspective, because not only is one's salvation hopeful of some partial form of it, but remains imperfect and incomplete without the entirety of it.
On this reckoning, Christ is only fully known with the healing of the nations at the end of history, such that those who seek Christ in the meantime must participate in that reconciling work, not only by preaching but also by learning to hear the wonders of God declared in other tongues (as Willie James Jennings has argued in his commentary on Acts 2:11). This puts the missionary in the position of a receiver, and not just a giver, because God in fully known only in the reciprocity of that long-term exchange. The motive for mission is not solely to make Christ known, but to learn Christ from the other.
Reflecting from a “Maskoke postcolonial perpective” on 2 Corinthians 5:17, which says "if we are in Christ, we are becoming a new creation," Marcus Briggs-Cloud writes: "I become excited knowing that as Indigenous Peoples” we might actually look for “an emerging New Creation where our identities as Indigenous Peoples are reaffirmed” rather than "fragmented", as took place under “colonialism and its apparatus, missionization” (Coming Full Circle, 89-90).
As Janet Soskice writes in The Kindness of God, because “our future is convivial and not solitary” (187), we need an “eschatological anthropology in which we are loved, we will love, and we will be made lovely in our Lord Jesus Christ” (181). “We may acknowledge that we are loved by God, but it is more difficult to accept that we will be made lovely; yet this too is implied by the bridal imagery of Revelation” (187). Because mission is participation in the transformative work of Christ to the reconciliation of us all, the "bonds of love" which develop “are not means to [an] end, but constitutive of” that loveliness (187).