Evangelism, loosely defined as trying to get others to believe and practice a particular religious faith, has received a bad reputation in many circles in the last century. David Livingstone, the famous 19th century explorer-doctor-missionary in Southern Africa, reflected his times in his belief that Civilization, Commerce and Christianity would help Africa and the undeveloped world out of poverty and into relationship with Christ. He did not support European colonialism but others in his era did, and the association of the “3 Cs” with colonialism generated a backlash against missionary work in the post colonial era.
Evangelism also presupposes that the evangelist knows the true religion and the one being evangelized does not. Such a claim to knowledge cuts against the grain of moral relativism (“there is no true religion”) and can suggest that one man is inherently superior to another. It is difficult for any man to preach a belief system without importing his unseen cultural biases into his message, and the inherent conflict in trying to change another’s way of thinking can result in violence.
As a result of these dangers, some have questioned the need and even the rightness of Christian evangelism in the modern world. Whether within or between cultures, believers in Jesus Christ must know what God’s will is regarding spreading the gospel to all mankind.
There are many verses in the Bible which tell believers that God is concerned for the whole world, the first of which is Genesis 1:1. How can any man or woman consider the mystery of creation, the astounding complexity of life and the beauty all around us and not see the hand of a wise, beautiful and good Creator? As Christians we are captured by the love of the Sovereign Lord of the Universe, chosen by Him through no virtue of our own. How then could we not understand that others would be blessed to know Him? How then, if we have Christ’s love in us, could we not want to introduce others to the One who gives us all blessings? Simply, our love of God and gratitude for what He has done for us compels us to world missions. We cannot hold it in (cf. Jeremiah 20:9).
Genesis 12:1-3 is the paramount text in the Old Testament stating that Abraham’s call was not just for his own benefit, nor even for his family, but for the entire world. Because Israel is such a focus in the Old Testament we commonly forget God’s love and attention for other nations, even those He punished. During the Exodus, Pharaoh could have obeyed God and Egypt would have been blessed rather than destroyed. Many nations, not just Israel, left with the Hebrews after the plagues (Exodus 12:38). In Jonah, Nineveh did obey the Lord and was spared. In Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar ultimately discovered the true God. Joel promises that God’s spirit will be poured out on all nations and He will also judge all nations (Chapters 2, 3). Between the promises in Genesis and the examples throughout the Old Testament, the mandate for world evangelism is strong.
The classic New Testament passage that mandates world evangelism is the Great Commission. The reformers understood Matthew 28:18-20 to apply only to the Apostles, but this is difficult to sustain in the face of Scripture. In the context of John 17:20-21, it seems artificial to draw a line of responsibility between the first Christians and those from all other eras regarding world evangelism. We are one in the Church, and it makes no sense that Jesus would only want His immediate followers to spread His marvelous message to the ends of the earth.
Revelation 7:9 also teaches that the message of Christ must go to the whole world. How can saints from every nation, every tongue, and every age make it into heaven without the witness of those who already know? Paul asks in Romans 10:14, “How can they hear without a preacher?”
There are many other verses in the Bible which mandate world evangelism.
Genesis 3:15 states that the seed of the mother of all mankind would destroy the serpent, suggesting that all mankind would benefit.
Foreigners (non-Jews) were expected to worship and pray in God’s house along with the Jews (Leviticus 19:33-34, 1 Kings 8:41-43, Isaiah 56:6-7).
Psalms has many chapters alluding to God’s concern for the whole world, including 2, 33, 66, 72, 96, 98, 100, 117, and 145.
Jesus commands world evangelism in Acts 1:8.
Time and space are insufficient for an exhaustive study, but one thing is clear. Despite the hazards and abuses of the past, and despite the unpopularity of Christian missions in the present, the command of God is undeniable. Christians must share the gospel of Jesus Christ with all mankind.