Can the Great Commision be Fulfilled by the Year 2000?
by Ralph D. Winter
Can the Great Commission be fulfilled by the year 2000? More and more attention is being paid to this question. On Thursday, March 10th, I was asked to speak on this topic to the combined graduate student bodies of Biola University.
I could have spent a lot of time on the statistical dimension of this subject. But that has been amply covered in one way or another in printed materials, notably in the March/April issue of the Lausanne Committees magazine, World Evangelization.
(That section is available on request. Simply ask for it when you order anything from the order page at the end of this issue. It is urgent to see those facts.)
I could have spent a good deal of time trying to bat down the popular misconceptions fearfully reverberating around the Christian world. (One such misconception about the Muslim growth rate is dealt with in the diagram on the opposite page.)
Instead, however, I chose to consider the spiritual problems we all face as we consider the monumental possibility that the END OF THE WORLD may occur prior to our own natural deaths.
This is not a light subject!
The Bible portrays many key events in which the biggest problem was not an intellectual one, not a scientific question:
Noah did not face intellectual doubters.
Caleb and Joshua were not outvoted by people who had superior statistics.
Israel as a nation, and other nations such as our own in our time, have not fallen short of understanding the timetable of God due to a breakdown of information.
In the Bible the most flagrant sins are less serious than the incriminating evidence of deadly disbelief, something we all must face daily.
All through the Bible we see perfectly intelligent and normally decent people who missed it because their faith failed them. People who were not really tracking with God, who were surprised by Him again and again, and were not that helpful to His cause.
One of the overarching themes of the Bible is the tragic failure of the Chosen People to live up to their calling. All too often, both then and now, the people of God have mainly been out of it and have missed it, not due to flagrant sins but to simple dullness of heart, slowness to believe.
We see this even in Abrahams life. He does not always succeed in believing. We see this in Moses life, I say even in Moses life. We see this running down through the centuries of the Old Testament, and we see it stunningly even when God finally sends His Own Son. They stoned the Prophets that were sent to them. They killed the Son. He came to His own and His own received him not.
And that was not an intellectual problem but a spiritual problem. Why should it be different in the shadow of His Second Coming?
Jesus was quite aware of this. He did not attempt to teach on a purely intellectual level. He observed that it is not right to cast pearls before swine. He deliberately spoke in parables so that some would be unable to understand. It is we in modern times who have this zany idea that the Gospel is simply a message to be communicated, rather than an authority to be represented, an authority which is often resisted, consciously and subconsciously rejected and thus misunderstood due to a mind-clouding phenomenon which is no longer a purely intellectual matter.
We do not deliver a message so much as a subpoena, a commission, or in the terminology of the armed forces, we deliver ordersnot our orders, but orders to which we ourselves are subject, orders which do not come from us but from God.
The New Testament employs the term mystery for things like this, things which one might think are perfectly rational matters, but which rational people cannot always grasp. Paul describes the intercultural scope of the Gospel a mystery, not because God has in time past been unwilling to reveal it, but because in time past a veil has fallen down before the faces of an unbelieving generation, and they cannot understand it.
The principal mystery in Pauls letters is the inability of the Jews to understand their obligation to the Gentiles. Paul himself, in the first half of his letter to the Ephesians, approaches this mystery with such great diffidence that many Bible expositors do not grasp the fact that the expansive theological terminology he employs right in the first chapter is already hinting at the inclusion of the Gentiles under the umbrella of Gods concern, rather than just seeking to dazzle the reader with the greatness of Gods grace in an abstract sense.
What the Question is Not
More Fearful Fallacies
We find again and again that sheer fear, and perhaps mistrust, leads to hasty and discouraging conclusions. One of the most dramatic examples is the result of a news item in a foreign magazine which stated that Muslims are growing faster than Christians, a lot faster.
The actual data employed were not far from the truth, had they been simply plotted in a graph like the one below. But the calculations were so biased that it seemed as though enormous gains were being made by Islam by any comparison to Christian growth.
However, reverberations in two different evangelical publications made things even worse. Not only were typographical errors made, but unwarranted conclusions were drawn. Briefly, it is true that the poor people in Muslim countries (like poor people almost everywhere) have a higher birth rate than is the case in the developed countries. The technical facts are that Muslims, in the recent past have been growing, on a world level 1.025 larger each year, while the world Christian community has been growing at a rate of 1.020, that is, one half of one percent less, per year.
Rather than weep about this, we can be truly impressed that despite the very high biological growth rate of the Muslims, the evangelistic growth of a minority of Christians already almost compensates for it! That is, huge sub-communities of Christians are growing twice as fast.
The simple facts are below. Does it look like Muslims are growing 500% faster? That is what the fearful reporting in two evangelical periodicals unwittingly relayed!