To the Ends of the Earth
Proclamation and the Second Coming
An idea commonly held by many evangelical Christians, and often
promoted by some who focus on end-time prophecies, is that the Second
Coming of Jesus cannot occur until every person in the world has been
given the opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel. The logical
conclusion is that there must be some people in remote corners of the
world who have not yet heard the Gospel, which explains why the Second
Coming has not yet occurred. This perception is often used in one of
two ways. Either there is hand-wringing, sometimes with barely
concealed delight, over the fact that modern technology has made this a
much closer reality. Or there is assurance that there is still time to
evangelize the rest of the world, often coupled with appeals for increased
mission activity in remote areas.
However, on closer examination it is easy to identify this idea as a
serious misreading of Scripture. It is a logical conclusion based on
hearing Scripture through the lens of certain assumptions, without
taking seriously enough what the Bible actually says.
This idea is derived from two parallel passages (although in different
contexts within each Gospel; see The Synoptic
Matt 24:14 And this good news of the
kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all
the nations; and then the end will come.
Mark 13:10 And the good news must
first be proclaimed to all nations.
In Matthew, the passage is related closely to the commissioning passage
at the end of the book:
28:19 Go therefore and make disciples
of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit
Based on these verses, as well as the commissioning in Acts (1:8), some
have concluded that every person must hear the Gospel and have a chance to
be saved before the Second Coming can occur. This is usually done in an
evangelical context in which the commissioning passages are interpreted in
the sense of “make converts,” and the proclamation is understood to be
preaching for conversion, usually in a revivalist model. In this mode of
thought, the emphasis in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 is on “Go,”
even though the primary imperative in that sentence is “make disciples.”
When combined with the understanding of proclamation as preaching for
conversion, the conclusion is that every single person in the world must
be presented the Gospel in a form that calls them to respond in a “yes” or
“no” before the “end” can come.
There are problems with this approach on several levels, even beyond
the biblical interpretive issues. This idea is built on a several
assumptions that are grounded in Enlightenment thinking that emphasizes
intellectual assent to reasoned argument, in this case in the form of a
sermon. This places far too much emphasis on the act of conversion as
assent to ideas without a corresponding emphasis on inner transformation
that is the work of God's grace. It is also grounded in the notion
of an almost total autonomy of the individual, by which proper and timely
human activity overshadows the work of God with individuals.
But most importantly, this is not at all what the Scripture passages
say, nor what they mean in context. There is certainly some sense within
the Gospels of an urgency to spread the Good News of Jesus. And there is
no question that there is a missionary impulse to Jesus' instructions to
the Twelve and his other followers (see
Voice Bible Study, Matthew 24:1-51).
Yet, neither Matthew 24 nor Mark 13 can bear the weight given to them in
assuming that they intend to place these kinds of restrictions on when
Jesus can return.
Without going into a lot of detail, in both passages the emphasis is on
the spread of the Gospel beyond the restrictions of Jerusalem and Judaism
so that all people of any race, from any country, will hear the Gospel.
The element of newness in this is that the Gospel of Jesus who is the
Christ is not for Jews only, but is for everyone, “to the ends of the
The book of Acts traces the spread of Christianity beyond Jerusalem and
the confines of specifically Jewish areas (Judea), and even beyond areas
with a history in Judaism (Samaria), “to the ends of the earth.” This is
seen in the commissioning in Acts 1:8 that provides a literary structure
for the Book of Acts:
1:8 But you
will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will
be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends
of the earth.
Paul, writing to the Romans around AD 60 even before he accomplishes
his goal of taking the Gospel to Spain, notes the accomplishment of this
10:17 So faith comes from what is
heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. 10:18 But I
ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for “Their voice has gone
out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”
This is certainly not an assertion that every person in the world has
heard the Gospel, since there were obviously huge portions of the world
where there had not yet been any proclamation. It is simply the confession
that the goal of proclaiming the Gospel to all peoples beyond the confines
of Jerusalem and Judaism was being accomplished even in the middle first
In other words, the New Testament church had already seen accomplished
what Jesus was talking about, that “the good news of the kingdom will be
proclaimed throughout the world.” That is why the early church, as seen
in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, expected the Second Coming to
happen at any time. There are no conditions that have yet to be fulfilled
for the Second Coming to occur, and have not been for nearly 2,000 years.
That should not lessen our desire to see all people come to God through
Christ. But that should be motivated by love and care for others, not by
the sense that we are trying to precipitate the end of all things.