Questioning Mission

Study 1: The destiny of the lost

For twenty-first century Britons one of the hardest ideas in Christianity is hell. For many people the very idea of it is utterly repellent. It raises all sorts of objections like: “How can a loving God send people to hell?” and “Are you seriously telling me that ‘good’ people of other faiths are also going to hell? Your Christian God is so unfair!” 

I served with AIM for ten years in Africa, working to share the amazing good news of Jesus with those that have never heard. I returned to the UK five years ago. Once again, I was surrounded by our secular, post-Christian culture. Little by little, I too started to wonder whether God is really going to send unbelieving people into eternal punishment in hell. It’s even harder when the general becomes specific and we think of our unbelieving friends and relatives. 

Verses such as Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (see also 2 Thess 1:9, John 3:16 and Rev 20:14) seemed to confirm me in my thinking; perhaps, destruction (or annihilation) is what awaits those that do not trust in Jesus? 

It was only when a colleague suggested to me that annihilation is not an orthodox Christian view of hell that I started to rethink. I read all the different verses I could find that talked about hell and while there are indeed some that speak of a second death the majority talk of eternal fire (Isaiah 66:24, Matt 18:8, 25:41, 5:22, Luke 16:24, Mark 9:43,48, Rev 19:20, 20:10, 20:15, 14:10) and eternal punishment (Matthew 25:4, Jude 1:7, 2 Peter 2:4).   

As I read these verses and read other books I started to think that perhaps I had it wrong and the majority of Christians down through the years had it right. But, what about those verses that speak of a ‘second death’ and destruction?  

Firstly, the Bible also uses the term ‘destruction’ when speaking of other things that no longer function in the way they were designed. So in Matt 9:16 the wineskins are said to be destroyed even though they continue to exist; the holes mean they can no longer be used to hold wine. 

Secondly, thinking back to creation and the fall of humankind. When God warned Adam and Eve to not eat the fruit lest they die, did they actually die? No. Physically, they didn’t die but the result of their sin was separation from God and spiritual death for all of humanity. Spiritually they did die. 

So, those without Christ are already dead (Romans 6:23)! When they die physically they will be judged and will be sent to hell – the place of the spiritually dead. The final judgement will simply be a recognition of their dead status and they will go to the place of ultimate punishment – hell. We can talk about an eternal death or second death because all hope of salvation will have passed, their spiritual state of death is confirmed. There is no longer any hope that they can be what God had originally made them to be.  

Hold on a sec, though. It’s one thing to speak of the spiritually dead going to a place of the dead but that’s very different to God making a place of torment and placing those that don’t trust in him there, for eternity. Isn’t that sadistic and grossly unfair? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently.  

Let’s think about the analogy of a judge. He hears all the evidence against the accused. The evidence is clear; the accused clearly did the terrible crime (think of the worst crime possible, in your eyes). Then the judge declares the defendant guilty. Incredibly, he then says: “Even though you are guilty of this terrible crime, I will let you go free. I want to be fair and loving.” We would all, rightly, react in horror. That judge is not a good judge – the guilty person should be punished! 

When it comes to thinking about God judging humans we don’t expect the same standard! We think God’s love means he should just forgive everyone! 

However, God is the perfect judge! His holiness, justice and goodness demand that there be a consequence for people’s sin. If there were no consequences to people rebelling against the greatest, most perfect, most wonderful king, what does that say about his holiness and goodness? If hell was just a bland, boring place, just a little worse than heaven, it says that God is not God. When people demand that none should go to hell they are showing that they have no idea how holy and good God is! God’s goodness demands he send all rebels to eternal punishment. 

While hell is real and the punishment is eternal, that’s not the last word. While God is totally just and pure – which is another reason for hell – he is also totally loving. His love for us means that he gave himself to save us. By sending the Son, God took our punishment – as a completely free gift so that we might go free! He doesn’t charge anyone for this salvation and he doesn’t demand anything from us. That’s why Christians call the gospel, good news. Actually, it’s amazing news! It’s amazing news that he is calling his children, us, to take to all peoples, tribes and tongues. Hell’s existence and God’s love compel us to go. 


Further reading 

So, the Bible is pretty clear that Jesus is the only way to come to God (John 14:6) “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Many of us have often thought about this and asked: What happens, though, for those people that have never had the chance to hear about Jesus? Perhaps they trust in the expression of God that they know but have never heard the gospel? Will God really send them to eternal punishment even though He never gave them the chance to be saved? That doesn’t sound very fair! 

Some people have responded to that question by suggesting that God will save people “through general revelation (the created order) or through a post-mortem opportunity for decision.” (Trevin, Nov 21st, 2007). That idea is called inclusivism. 

On the face of it that might seem like a helpful work-around. After all, Inclusivists agree with the orthodox stance that Christ is the only way to God, so what’s the big deal? Well, the ‘big deal’ is the fact that both God’s word and the majority of Christians down through the years agree that it’s not true. Secondly, if we really take hold of the inclusivist thinking we suddenly have zero motivation to tell anyone about Jesus. Following Jesus just becomes a slightly more (or less) preferable way to God. After all, if God will judge everyone on ‘the truth that they know’ it’s fine for all Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists to continue in their faith; God will judge them wisely! Does God’s word agree with that? 

As Peter said to those of other faiths (Jews) in Acts 4:12 “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” Peter’s clear stance that trusting in Christ is the only way meant prison and persecution for Peter. Would Peter have done that if he wasn’t totally convinced that the Jews needed to hear and believe the gospel in order to be saved? 

Romans 10 makes it very clear (verses 14-15): “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Some would argue that Paul is talking about Jews who had already heard the gospel but had chosen not to trust in Jesus, rather than those that have never heard. I agree, that’s what Paul is talking about but as you read the full chapter it becomes clear that hearing the good news and then confessing with your mouth is crucial for salvation. Now I’m not saying that unless you can speak you can’t be saved – God is bigger than that – but it does seem to be the general pattern. Proverbs 18:21 and James 3 demonstrates that our words have power. Verse seven of Romans ten reinforces this by highlighting the role of hearing the good news: “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” 

Nicodemus came to Jesus with questions about following God. In response Jesus said (in John 3:3): “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Being ‘born again’ was a tough issue for Nicodemus to get his head around; I feel for Nicodemus! Jesus was basically saying that humans are dead spiritually and we need to be born afresh of the spirit. The only way that we can be born again is by believing – by trusting in Jesus and his work on the cross.  

God has made it very clear how we are saved. While we have many questions about life and death, the frustrating reality is that God has chosen not to give us all the answers! He has told us the important things, however. How we can be saved is one of those important things that he has made very clear. Is it possible, that in God’s goodness and mercy he will save others -especially those that lived before the time of Christ and unborn babies, to mention just two? Absolutely! But we are not told! Knowing God’s goodness, faithfulness and love, I think we can trust those questions to him. In the meantime, we must obey what God has clearly revealed to us, namely, Christ’s clear commands to love our neighbours as ourselves and to go into all nations to share the good news with all peoples. 



Study 2: Why go overseas?

One of the most commonly used verses in the Bible that missionary organisations quote to encourage people to consider taking the gospel to other peoples is Matthew 28 verses 16-20. It has become known as ‘the great commission’. Interestingly enough this term is not in the original gospels but was first coined by a 17th-century Lutheran nobleman, Baron Justinian von Welz. In recent years the idea of taking the gospel to foreign peoples has increasingly come under the microscope. Rightly, we look back at the excesses of colonialism and empire (particularly in Britain) and we wonder whether the Protestant missionary fervour was misplaced. As the world changes about us we might wonder if there is still a place for Christians to leave their homes to take the good news to others?  

In the midst of all this well-meaning Christians have looked again at Matthew 28 and questioned the traditional rendering of verse 19 and 20. It says: 

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matt 28:19-20 

Some people argue that the original Greek has the idea that the word ‘go’ is actually a passive participle– that it’s not the central idea of the sentence and it would be better to translate it: “Being made to go therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” (translation from Patriot, 2018). As you can see from this re-translation it completely changes the weight of the verse. It suggests that making disciples is the central task wherever you are. Ashby (2013) says: “People have good intentions when they insist that the Great Commission is to be done ‘as you go.’  They want people to feel like they can still make disciples even if they are not a missionary in a foreign land…” While that is a laudable aim the effect of this change is to remove any urgency and purpose in taking the good news to those that have never heard it in foreign lands. However, ‘going’- crossing the seas, learning language and culture, leaving family and friends takes sacrificial risks. 

The debate about one little word turns out to have huge implications! So how should we translate the Greek word πορευθεντες (go/going)? What is Jesus actually saying?  

Ashby (2013) pulls out six other occasions when the gospels use exactly the same construction and translates them using the gerund. I’ll just talk about two of them. Matthew 2:8 “And [Herod] sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “[As you go], search diligently for the child…”(Herod speaking to the Magi) and Matthew 28:7, “Then quickly [as you go], tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead…” (the angel speaking to the two women). Either 1st century Holy Land was incredibly laid back – akin to Californian surfers catching a ‘gnarly’ wave, or this is mistranslated. King Herod wouldn’t have subtly made a relaxed suggestion to the Magi to continue into their day but “search diligently” for baby Jesus. Equally, for the angles to tell the women to “saunter off and carry on with their days’ and when you fancy it, tell the disciples that Jesus was raised from the dead”, is laughable! 

Mouce (2008), a Greek grammar specialist says “…while it is true that poreuthentes is a Greek participle it is not true that it should be translated like an English gerund…poreuthentes should be translated “Go.”  

So, our translations of Matthew 28 is correct! Actually, we shouldn’t be surprised. If we look back through the whole Bible, time and time again, God is concerned for the whole world to come to him. Christ’s sobering command to ‘deny ourselves and take up our crosses’ and follow him fits with his command to take the light of the gospel to the whole world. It means we must be purposeful and determined. Yes, we start with our neighbours, colleagues and friends around us but it pushes us to consider those people that we can’t see, over the horizon and across the world. 


Further Reading 

Study 3: Compassion and proclamation

When evangelical British Protestant churches speak of a missionary, they might mean one of a variety of wildly different things. They might mean someone who has been sent by churches in the UK to go to foreign lands to either be involved in some form of evangelism, discipleship, or church work. Then again, they might mean a Christian who works abroad in a medical, educational, or developmental capacity. More recently many people use it to describe anyone who shares Christ and seeks to extend the Lord’s kingdom in the UK. This flows out of the understanding that God is actively working to bring all things under his Lordship; so, it is argued, when we work in the spiritual, social, justice or environment domains we are engaged in God’s mission. Some critics have pointed out that now “everything is mission” and if everything is mission, then the word begins to lose its usefulness. So, what is the point? What does the word ‘missionary’ mean, why do we use it and is it right to say that all Christians are indeed missionaries? 

Surprisingly, the word missionary is not in the Bible! In Matthew 28:19-20 and Mark 16:14-18 Jesus commands the church to take the good news into all the world but Jesus did not call his followers missionaries and neither did the early church. Throughout the early centuries of the church’s existence people that acted to extend Christ’s kingdom called themselves “apostles, bishops, disciples, evangelists, martyrs, preachers, witnesses, fellow-soldiers, ambassadors, and Christians” (Stroope, 2020). Absent from the list is the word missionary! It was not until Pope Paul III established the Society of Jesus (in 1538) that the word ‘mission’ started to be used. Before that, the word missionary was unknown and unused even though Christians throughout the years had obeyed Christ to ‘go’ and share the gospel. It was the Society of Jesuits, who “…grew into a worldwide organization… (that) marks the beginning of mission” (Stroope, p99). 

So, it was the Catholic church that first started to use the words ‘mission’ and ‘missionary’. With the Reformation in 1517 one might be pardoned for thinking that the Protestant church took Christ’s command in Matthew 28 to heart and started thinking about the wider world. Sadly, the Catholic church pointed to Protestantism’s general lack of concern for the outside world as evidence that Protestants were not of God. Even one hundred years later when the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England was established in 1649, they sent chaplains to care for white settlers in America rather than specifically to spread the gospel. It was not until John Elliot, “the apostle to the Indians” gained a concern for the local Indians that he started to reach out to them. Elliot’s work was still not described as mission. 

It was the Moravians that followed on from the Danish-Halle Mission in using explicit mission language. The Moravians’ aim was “to win souls for the Lamb” sending ‘brethren’ in 1732 to the West Indies to work among slaves. They were not religious workers but went as carpenters and potters. It was only later that the Moravian’s leader, count Zinzendorf called their workers, missionaries. 

In the UK it was not until 1792 that the Baptist Missionary Society was founded. BMS was followed in short succession by the London Missionary Society (1795), the Church Missionary Society (1799) and the Wesleyan Missionary Society (1813) amongst others. Why were these societies founded? In part, the world was opening up to Europe as world-wide colonies and trade were being established a greater awareness of the world was growing. The Protestant church, however, had no tradition or facility to do anything about this awareness. They saw themselves as local bodies of Christ loosely connected to other churches. Something separate from the church was necessary. Stroope says: “…while Protestants did not create the language of mission, they innovated the mission society as their unique response to the world.” (p110) 

The word mission and missionary were only used because it was helpful. The Lord raised up the Protestant missionary societies in the eighteenth century because the church did not have the ability to go into all the world. Missionary, as a term, described those Christians who left their families, homes and communities to travel far away to cross many tough barriers (language, culture and geography) to fulfil Christ’s command to the church. The world has changed, are these terms still helpful to us today?  

God’s word makes it very clear that in Christ, we are all his children (1 John 3:1) and we are his ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20). We are all called to share Christ with those around us – in that sense we are all called to be a part of his mission to shine his light, wherever we are. In one way, we are all missionaries.  

As the same time there are many places in the world, particularly places where the governments are actively, aggressively, against the sharing of Christ, that using the term missionary is counterproductive. Just as Count Zinzendorf’s ‘brethren’ went as carpenters and potters, some of the modern gospel workers go as businesspeople, teachers or medics. AIM calls them Creative Access Workers. They might do the work of a missionary – sharing their faith amongst a people who have not yet heard about Jesus – but whilst in their ministry area, they do not want to be called missionary. 

The big elephant in the room is mission’s involvement in colonial history. Stroope says: “What Western Christians label as ‘mission history’ sounds a great deal like ‘colonial history’ in the ears of Africans, South Asians and Latin Americans (2020).” Us ‘Western Christians’ need to deal with our ancestors’ role in colonialization – it’s something we need to consider, understand and where applicable ask for forgiveness. However, what do our African, Asian and Latin American brothers and sisters in Christ think of the word missionary? Different African mission agencies are continuing to use this term and are repurposing it to suit their needs. Who are Western Christians to unilaterally decide that it no longer has any use? Is that just a little bit arrogant? Have we learnt nothing from western missions’ history? Kwiyani says: “…and we can confidently say that there are more black Christians in the world today than there are white Christians” (2021). Surely, we must allow our black brothers and sisters to have a big say in this discussion? 

So where is it helpful to use this term? The British church still has a general understanding that a missionary is someone who goes abroad to share their faith and help people. That is a good start and it is something that we need to build upon. However, while all Christians are a part of the Lord’s mission to share his light with everyone, there is still something special about someone who crosses tough barriers for the gospel. Leaving family, everything that is known and sacrificially going to another people to learn their ways, language, and customs to share Christ is amazing! Not everyone can do that. Those that do so should be respected and honoured. No, they should not be put on a pedestal but their selfless choices should be acknowledged.  

So, I would argue that for non-Creative Access Workers, as well as in conversations within our British churches, there is still a place to use the word ‘missionary.’ If its use spurs people to consider Christ’s call to go to all the world with the gospel, then it is useful.  

The world needs more missionaries not fewer! With seven thousand people groups with their own language, culture and traditions without an indigenous church, the task that Christ commanded the church to do still remains. While helping people with healthcare, education, development and relief is noteworthy, the task of sharing Christ with people is the only task that only the Church can do. Yes, let us send doctors and teachers and engineers – but their principle aim must be to preach Christ! 

Further Reading 

Study 4: The question of calling