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To the Ends of the Earth
Proclamation and the Second Coming

Dennis Bratcher

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 Problem).

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 world.”

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 goal:

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 century.

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.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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