How Does the Hope of Heaven Drive Missions?
The World War II television series Band of Brothers captures a conversation between a steely lieutenant and a fearful private crouched in a foxhole.
You hid in that ditch because you think there is still hope. But the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you will be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function, without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.
In the face of impossible odds and overwhelming fear, the lieutenant argues that nihilism is the only functional motivation for a dispirited soldier.
The mission field is often described as a battleground for lost souls. What’s our motivation in this warfare? Certainly one is the hope of heaven.
God has entrusted the Great Commission to the local church and its members. In order to bring the gospel to the remaining unreached people groups, we face overwhelming odds, constant opposition, and ever-present danger. What we put in our tank determines how far we will go.
Here are three reasons the hope of heaven ought to drive missions.
1. The hope of heaven establishes the urgency of missions.
Heaven is real. So is hell. Both fuel and mobilize our missionary efforts.
My family served as church planters among an unreached tribal group in the South Pacific. After four years of language and culture study, our team presented the gospel to the tribe in 2012. Several months after the church was born, the first-generation tribal believers faced a dilemma: what should they call themselves? The word “Christian” didn’t exist in the tribal language. After much discussion, they decided to call themselves the “living people.” In turn, unbelievers were referred to as the “dead people.” Over the years, these tribal believers were motivated to share the gospel with their tribal kin as their language reminded them that these relatives were “dead” spiritually.
These tribal believers understood that God’s people are “truly alive.” The gospel doesn’t simply improve our socio-economic status or help us “turn over a new leaf” morally. The cross changes our standing before a holy God—we’re resurrected from death to life. Through Christ’s imputed righteousness, the gospel gives us eternal enjoyment of God’s glory in heaven.
But the opposite of heaven is not the absence of it—it’s an active presence in hell. Christians are sometimes hesitant about seeing the fear of hell as a motivation for missions. Certainly, missions are ultimately about God’s renown and glory among all nations. But the reality of hell is a legitimate motivation for missions. To revel in the hope of heaven without recognizing the reality of eternal suffering is naive at best and a distortion of the gospel at worst. The reality of both heaven and hell establishes the urgency for missions.
2. The hope of heaven secures the centrality of the gospel.
We live in a day and age where everything under the sun is called missions. Digging wells in Africa? Starting a breakfast program in Mumbai? Doing mercy ministry to “show Jesus’ love”? It’s all missions in today’s convoluted evangelical thinking. Of course, none of these ministries are wrong. Mercy ministries help missionaries strategically enter and gain credibility in hostile environments. But missions ultimately aim at gospel proclamation that results in healthy New Testament churches. Everything we do on the mission field should be done with that goal in mind.
When I say the hope of heaven secures the centrality of the gospel, I’m suggesting that a proper theology of heaven reminds us that missions isn’t about building heaven on earth, but reconciling sinful, broken, and spiritually dead people to their Creator God. In Christ, the kingdom of heaven has broken into this fallen world. But we’re not trying to create an earthly utopia. A Christ-less utopia on earth saves no one. That’s why we need to keep preaching the gospel, and the hope of heaven keeps us focused on that task (Rev. 7:10).
The hope of heaven also teaches us that “showing Jesus’ love” demands that we proclaim his greatest act of love: the cross! John 14:6 paints the way to heaven with non-negotiable exclusivity. Nobody gets to heaven without Jesus—without his bloody cross and empty tomb. “Showing Jesus’ love” without explaining his greatest love veils the power of the gospel.
Heaven matters. A clear view of heaven brings us back to the centrality of Christ’s cross and resurrection for everything we do in missions.
3. The hope of heaven teaches us to suffer well.
The primary reason for missionary attrition isn’t the hardened hearts of the unreached but missionaries’ lack of preparedness for suffering. Too many workers are unprepared for high-stress living. They’re not prepared for the strain on their marriage, their children, and all their relationships.
An inadequate attention to heaven magnifies these hardships. But for those who want to take the gospel to the unreached, you must prepare for suffering, and one of the best ways to do so is to start meditating now on the hope of heaven.
Paul contrasted his “light and momentary afflictions” with the “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). Suffering comes. Hardship stings. Trials weigh us down. Paul’s long list of afflictions in 2 Corinthians 11:23–28 really happened—and they hurt. The only reason Paul can put these sufferings in a box labeled “light and momentary” is because he looked forward to “that day” where he will receive his reward (2 Tim. 4:8). Our hope of heaven reminds us of what’s temporal and what’s eternal. The hope of heaven helps us suffer well because our eyes are fixed on “that day” more than “today.”
The hope of heaven motivates us to press on. The hope of heaven—both for ourselves as missionaries and for those we want to reach with the gospel—drives our work. So we can say with certainty that we go to the ends of the earth because we think there is always hope. Every person on the planet will live forever. The sooner we accept that reality, the sooner we will pursue missions with urgency, focus, and perseverance.