Should Hell Motivate Missionaries?


Guest article by Paul Schlehlein

When two years of appeals for South Sea missionaries failed, John Paton’s Scottish denomination succumbed to desperate measures: the casting of lots. The congregation sat in hushed silence as the elders examined the paper votes. The results were so indecisive that the organizers were once again left empty handed.

Meanwhile, Paton—though happy and successful in his Glasgow pastorate—had become convinced that life among the cannibals was his lot:

“I returned to my lodging with a lighter heart than I had for some time enjoyed, feeling that nothing so clears the vision, and lifts up the life, as a decision to move forward in what you know to be entirely the will of the Lord.”[1]

When it seemed nothing could spur the church toward missions on the New Hebrides, what was it that stirred the heart of Paton? What pushed and propelled and prompted him to preach and plead and plod? More broadly, why do missionaries do what they do?

A Summary of Motives

In 1956, Johannes Van den Berg wrote a book identifying ten major motives of the missionary awaking in Great Britain in the 18th century. They were: (1) politics, (2) humanitarianism, (3) asceticism, (4) guilt, (5) romance, (6) God’s glory, (7) love, (8) the church, (9) eschatology, and (10) Jesus’ command.[2]

While some of these are more valid than others, it is clear that the impetus for world missions is many, not few. Correct motives in missions are vital, as they will lead to greater endurance and less discouragement. Conversely, wrong motives make short-term missionaries. A romantic feeling, for example, wears off quickly. What the foreign field is and what we thought it to be are not always the same.

Upon his arrival on Tanna, Paton admitted:

“My first impressions drove me, I must confess, to the verge of utter dismay. On beholding these Natives in their paint and nakedness and misery, my heart was as full of horror as of pity. Had I given up my much-beloved work and my dear people in Glasgow, with so many delightful associations, to concentrate my life to these degraded creatures?”[3]

It took Paton all of one minute for the second-guessing to begin. Yet, he gave the rest of his life to these islands. Among his chief motives: the destiny of the lost.

Damnation: a Driving Force for Paton

Lost souls were the visitors endlessly knocking upon Paton’s conscience. He spoke often of “the wail of the perishing heathen in the South Seas.” The claims of the cannibals sounded in his ears. Hell motivated him as it has legions of others throughout church history. Hudson Taylor, for example, spoke to his listeners about the “great Niagara of souls passing into the dark in China. Every day, every week, every month they are passing away!”[4]

But by the turn of the twentieth century, eternal damnation was far from, shall we say, dernier cri. The judgment from God had lost its grip as a chief impetus for missions. Scotland’s capital held the World’s Missionary Conference in 1910, just three years after Paton’s death. It was supposed to be a high-water mark in the evangelization of the world. Instead, liberalism took root and the gathering was a flop. Missionary fervor is housed in the womb of biblical revelation and the veracity of divine retribution. Kill the mother and the baby dies.

Observing the conference from afar in Calabar, veteran missionary Mary Slessor was not surprised:

“Where are the men? Are there no heroes in the making among us? No hearts beating high with the enthusiasm of the Gospel? Men smile nowadays at the old-fashioned idea of sin and hell and broken law and a perishing world, but these made men, men of purpose, of power and achievement, and self-denying devotion to the highest ideals earth has known.”[5]

The greatest evangelists of the New Testament preached Christ because of judgment, not in spite of it. The first words of John the Baptist: “Flee from the wrath to come” (Luke 3:7). The first words of Paul’s Evangel: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Rom 1:18). The first action of Jesus as he bolts from heaven on a white steed: “He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev 19:15).

D.A. Carson is right. “If we refuse to see what the Bible says about the wrath of God, we will certainly fail to see what the cross achieves.” Ignoring offensive portions of Scripture is a refusal, not an alternative hermeneutical technique. Hell discarded on the scrapheap of evangelistic incentives is hell denied upon the clear reading of Scripture.

If Jesus was willing to use hell as an incentive to reject anger (Matt 5:22), lust (Matt 5:29-30), and hypocrisy (Matt 23:15), it’s not surprising he also uses hell to spur thought about a sinner’s eternal destiny (Matt 10:28).


Perdition outside of Christ is not a carrot missionaries use to coax their converts to heaven. It is a lens through which we see the justice of God, the sinfulness of man, and the splendor of the cross.

Sooner or later, those ashamed of the doctrine of hell will cower in compunction before the demands of the Great Commission. If we lose the doctrine of damnation, gone not only is a powerful stimulant for world evangelism but the glory of the gospel itself. “If we turn away embarrassed from what the Bible teaches of God’s wrath, we will never glimpse the glory of what the Bible says about God’s love, supremely manifested in Christ Jesus.”[6]

[1] John Gibson Paton, Missionary Patriarch: The True Story of John G. Paton, Evangelist for Jesus Christ Among the South Sea Cannibals (San Antonio, TX: Vision Forum, 2002), 54.

[2] Cited, Martin I Klauber and Scott M Manetsch, The Great Commission : Evangelicals and the History of World Missions (Nashville: B & H, 2008), 58–63.

[3] Paton, Missionary Patriarch, 66.

[4] Quoted, Paul A. Varg, “Motives in Protestant Missions, 1890-1917,” Church History 23, no. 1 (March 1954): 71.

[5] Quoted, Iain H. Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 2006), 225.

[6] Klauber and Manetsch, The Great Commission, 187.

Paul Schlehlein

Paul, his wife, and five children are missionaries near the border of Zimbabwe in rural South Africa. They are planting churches among the Tsonga speaking people. For more, visit

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