by Lowell Bliss
Some passages of Scripture are such a part of missions to unreached people groups that we are just as likely to quote them in the King James Version, such as Acts 1:8: “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the EAARTH.”
For the Great Commission itself, Matthew 28:19-20, a translation like NIV works just fine: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the ANTHROPOCENE.”
Okay. What’s going on?
What’s going on is that the world changes. When is the last time you received a missionary prayer letter post-marked from “Asia Minor?” (When’s the last time you received a prayer letter that was post-marked at all?!) Modern workers, for security purposes, might use the name “Asia Minor” to refer to a modern Euro-Asian country that separates the Black Sea from the Mediterranean, but they still aren’t writing from the same fields in which Paul preached, nor from where the Cappadocian Fathers prayed. For that matter, they aren’t even writing from the same field that existed in 1968. Times change. Geography changes.
Missionaries were once called, as per Acts 1:8, to the “uttermost part of Earth.” Now, for the sake of adjusting to new realities, we are advised to take Bill McKibben’s lead and talk about the “uttermost part of Eaarth.” That’s the title of his 2011 book, Eaarth: Making Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He starts his book, similar to how Al Gore starts his slide show, by describing the Apollo 8 photo of the planet called “Earthrise” taken on Christmas Eve of 1968. Then he writes:
“But we no longer live on that planet. In the four decades since, that earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has—even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth” (2.)
But what about time? Jesus has still promised to be with us to the end of the age, right? Yes, but it’s now a new age that he has promised to unfailingly shepherd us through. In 2002, geologist Paul Crutzen writing in the journal Nature first suggested that we live in a new epoch. He wrote, “The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the late eighteenth century when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.” Last week, Nature reported an important decision. A panel of 34 scientists, a working group convened by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, has issued their committee report: they will indeed propose to the ICS that “the Anthropocene” be officially recognized as the epoch which brought an end to the Holocene. For many of us, our missionary careers began in one geological age and is concluding in another.
I don’t know about you, but I want to finish strongly in my time and I want to work with “what is there,” not with what I remember or what I wish was still there. Called to the ends of the Eaarth in the Anthropocene means making myself aware of the impacts of environmental crisis on my people group and adjusting my compassion, my strategies, even my preaching accordingly. Of course, to say that "the world is changing" goes without saying for missionaries, but we often apply that thought only to modernization or globalization. New terminology like Eaarth or the Anthropocene simply opens our eyes to the environmental issues which affect our witness (Acts 1:8), which affect the making of disciples (Matt 28:19-20).