Work & the New Creation

March 01, 2010

Work & the New Creation

As a general truth, Christians should feel themselves irresistibly straining towards the future. The act of putting one’s trust in a resurrected Lord Jesus (1 Cor 15:20-23), and receiving the downpayment of God’s Spirit (Eph 1:14) inevitably means embracing a passionate hope for the age to come. Christian faith is eschatological faith. The best is yet to come.

            This kind of hope naturally puts the whole of our present into some kind of relative perspective. We are inevitably forced to ask the question: how does what I am doing now align with what I will be then? These questions are often accompanied with a deep-seated dread and anxiety, a kind of generic fear that substantial connections cannot be made between now and then, thus rendering one’s present activities meaningless. All too often, Christian talk about the present becomes a discourse of ‘endurance’, in which we are waiting for the day when the present will be terminated by the arrival of an eternity that will cancel out all that has preceded it.

Perhaps in no area is this kind of anxiety felt in greater measure than in the arena of work. Most work is an inherently mundane enterprise, a secular business. After all, it stands to reason that most Christians are not paid pastoral workers, engaging in the business of the ‘cure of souls’. On the contrary, they are everything from accountants to abattoir workers. But apart from the earning of wages (which enables financial provision and provides opportunities for evangelism), is there any value to one’s present work, particularly in light of the future which is to come?

Learning the End from the Beginning (and vice versa)

Within the Christian story, the End and the Beginning are organically related. What we will be in the future is bound up with what we were made to be in the first instance, although the relationship between the two is not cyclic, but linear. Contrary to popular belief, the Garden of Eden, very good as it is, is not presented to us as a static and perfected world. To be sure, Genesis 2:2-3 tells us that God completes his work of creation and rests accordingly. But at the same time as his own resting, God also chooses to delegate a series of tasks to humanity, who then becomes a participant with him in his creation project. In Genesis chapter 1, these tasks are understood in terms of ‘filling’,‘subduing’, and having ‘dominion’ over the earth (1:26-28). In Genesis chapter 2, the task(s) are encapsulated in terms of ‘tilling’ and ‘keeping’ the garden (2:15). It is vital to note that these verbs cannot be describing just maintenance functions, as if humanity is simply called to the conservation of the already perfected. Rather, the various imperatives of Genesis 1-2 represent a mandate for humanity to develop and cultivate the earth in such a way that creation will achieve its ultimate end.[1] Thus, from the very beginning of the story, creation is understood as an entity in need of completion, and humanity has a crucial agency in the fulfilment of that end. As John Goldingay has said: ‘Even before [creation] went wrong, it was a project still on the way’.[2] It was from this seedbed that the eschatology of the Bible would later develop.[3]       

Eschatology as the Completion of the Creation Project

In light of the above, it is unsurprising that when eschatology makes its later appearance within the Old Testament, the ‘end-time’ visions of the prophets are notable for the way they depict the future in terms of the redemption and completion of the creation project. In texts like Isaiah 11:1-9 and 65:17-25, the hope is for a world where the earth has been subdued, such that humans and animals can dwell happily together, where labour is no longer futile, and there is long life in the land. Similarly, the variegated promises of renewal and restoration in works like Ezekiel (34:25-30; 36:1-15; 47:1-12), Hosea (2:14-23) and Amos (9:11-15) depict a world of lush fertility, creational harmony, and human flourishing. Although the character of these various images is ‘Edenic’ in overtone, it is incorrect to understand these as hopes for restitution of the original garden. A better description is that they incorporate the idea of progression towards a telos.[4] Thus, whilst Isaiah might hope for the wilderness to bloom like Eden (51:3), his larger focus is on the renewal of Jerusalem (65:19), a place of houses and a large community of people. And unlike Eden, the future will see the serpent confined and constrained (65:25), unable to exercise the power of despoliation.

This trajectory of seeing eschatology in terms of creation perfected and completed continues in the New Testament. To be sure, the New Testament places a far greater emphasis on personal eschatology, both because the New Testament assumes much of the Old, and because Christ’s death and resurrection bring an advanced insight into God’s eschatological purposes for the individual (2 Tim 1:10), far more than is found in Old Testament accounts of death and the afterlife. Nevertheless, despite this personal emphasis, there is sufficient evidence that New Testament ideas of resurrection are ultimately embedded within a much larger complex of cosmic eschatological hopes. Hence, nestled within Paul’s discussion of human salvation in Romans 8, we find a brief reference to creation as a personified subject, who waits with eager longing, desiring to be set free from futility and attaining to its appointed freedom (8:19-22). By speaking in such terms of creation’s longing and liberation, Paul configures the eschaton as an event of cosmic significance, in which the goals of the original creation project are realised in and through the salvation and glorification of the believer (8:21).[5]

Similarly, the eschatological scenario of Revelation 21 and 22 is filled with images that speak of the created world brought to fulfilment. The New Jerusalem is portrayed as a garden city (22:1-5), which in one sense returns us to Eden, with the reappearance of the tree of life (22:2), but it is Eden in an escalated and urban form. Thus, the boundaries of Eden have escalated to encompass the whole earth, and the population of Eden has escalated to include representatives from all peoples.[6] The progression is evident. Here is an earth completely subdued and made fit for the presence of God.


Signs of Continuity and Discontinuity

Prima facie, if the new creation is understood as the completion of God’s creation project, then it would be reasonable to assume some kind of material continuity between present and future. But such a general statement is frustratingly vague in its specific implications. Do we have any clues as to how much of the present world persists into the next? Within Christian theology, these questions have usually been debated at the level of individual bodies (how much of my present corporeality is part of the future), the question of nature (does Fido belong in heaven?), and the question of human culture (will there be Rembrandts and iPhones in the New Jerusalem?). It is the final item which concerns us here, because the persistence of human culture goes to the heart of the question of work.

On the one hand, there are some very good indicators that at least something of present human culture is included in the eschatological age. A first indicator of the persistence of human culture rests on an educated inference. As we saw earlier, Romans 8 suggests that creation itself will participate in the eschaton, by being liberated from futility. But what do we mean by creation here? Most scholars regard Paul’s word here, ktisis, as being a reference to the nonhuman creation, in distinction from human beings.[7] But should we understand the nonhuman creation only in some sort of pristine sense – an unspoilt river, an unsullied beach? Or should we understand the nonhuman creation in terms of how it has been shaped and developed by human culture? Paul, of course, had no interest in specifically answering this question, and so anything we might say here is speculative. But within the wider biblical framework of both creation and eschatology, nature and culture are not to be regarded as enemies, insofar as human development of creation is explicitly mandated. And therefore, it is legitimate to suggest that the liberated creation of Romans 8 could be a ‘culturally impacted’ creation.[8]

A second potential indicator of cultural continuity lies in the fact that so many visions of the ‘End’, in both Old and New Testament, have cities as a prominent part of their scenarios. This is intriguing, because it reverses the traditional value accorded cities in the Bible, where the city is usually understood as being of human design and origin, and where it mostly functions as a symbol for human pride (e.g. Gen 11:1-9).[9] The eschatological inclusion of the city seems to suggest that God takes up the human project of city-building, and therefore, in some way, he affirms the products of human culture by redeeming them for his purposes.[10] To be sure, the final biblical image of the city involves God’s gift of a city, which means the New Jerusalem is not Babel redivivus, but notwithstanding its heavenly origin, the notion of an eschatological city can be seen as ‘taking account of the totality of the work of man.’[11]

A third potential indicator of continuity, and one which is much commented upon in various Reformed circles,[12] is the strange detail recorded in the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:24-26. Here it is stated of the New Jerusalem that ‘the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it’ (21:24), whilst verse 26 states ‘the glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it’. It must be said at the outset that the primary point of this image is to demonstrate that the ‘End’ will bring a transference of sovereignty over the earth, in that the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of God (Rev 11:15).[13] This is because within the narrative world of Revelation, both the nations and the kings of the earth have frequently been portrayed as at enmity with God, standing in solidarity with the city of Babylon.[14] Thus, their appearance in the New Jerusalem represents a scene of transferred allegiance, as the former enemies of God become pilgrims offering tribute to earth’s true sovereign. But given that this is the primary meaning, are there any secondary implications to this image? In particular, is there any significance to be assigned to the products they bring into the New Jerusalem? Drawing upon precedents from Isaiah 60, the broad rubric of the ‘glory of the nations’ probably includes within it the notion of cultural artifacts, which are now offered up in service to God. Hence, the overall point is that whereas the nations, kings and merchants of the earth previously used to offer their products in service to the whore of Babylon (Rev 18:9-19), they are now depicted as yielding their cultural artifacts to God and the Lamb.[15]

            Alongside this positive evidence of cultural continuity, there are plenty of biblical texts which seem to suggest the eventual annihilation of human culture, inasmuch as all human products are inevitably tainted by our propensity to sin and idolatry. For example, in Isaiah’s ‘Little Apocalypse’ (24-27), we hear the general announcement of the earth being laid waste, but what this specifically means is the end of wine-making, the silencing of musical instruments, the destruction of city gates, and much more besides. For similar Old Testament scenarios, one could consult Isaiah 19:1-15, Ezekiel 26-28, or Ezekiel 29-32.

            Perhaps the ultimate vision of cultural annihilation comes in the New Testament, in Revelation 18, with its announcement of doom for the city of Babylon (by which is meant Babylon as a symbol, be it Rome, or the idea of the ‘evil city’ in general). This entire chapter appears to take great delight in noting the laying to waste of wealth, the silencing of music and the cessation of trade. Importantly, its far-reaching critique is more than merely spiritual; it extends to encompass even the cultural and economic spheres.[16]

One other text worthy of comment is the tricky eschatological scenario found in 2 Peter 3:10, in which it is said that ‘the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.’ Part of the conundrum of this text lies in the fact that many centuries of English translation have rendered this final clause as reading ‘the earth and its works will be burned up’, which naturally seems to suggest a cosmic incineration of pretty much everything.[17] But this translation is based on a later variant in the manuscript tradition, and most textual critics now argue that the original verb is heurisko (to find), rather than katakaio (to burn up).[18] As a consequence, this final clause of the verse likely depicts not so much the incineration of all earthly things, as the moral exposure of all deeds to God’s penetrating gaze.[19] 

In light of the above, if we draw together the different lines of evidence, we see that the Bible presents us with an ‘End’ which is depicted in terms of both cultural destruction and renewal. In a similar fashion to the way it speaks about the future of the human body (1 Cor 15:35-58), both continuity and discontinuity belong in the eschatological scenario. To emphasise one or the other is to miss something altogether. Hence, the completion of God’s creation project means both negation and affirmation of human cultural enterprise.

The Significance of Eschatology for Human Work

The domain of human work has often been defined in terms of protology, that branch of theology which focuses on ‘first things’ like the creation of the world or the creation of humanity, and the original intentions behind such actions. But because eschatology (the study of ‘last things’) pictures the end or goal of God’s creation project, it provides an ultimate clarification to the significance of our work in a way that protology alone cannot.[20] As Volf has said, the ‘significance of secular work depends upon the value of creation, and the value of creation depends upon its final destiny.’[21]

Within Christian thinking, there has been a tendency towards polarization along the continuity/discontinuity spectrum. Those who see the eschaton in terms of complete dissolution and disintegration often, but not always, have a reduced estimation of the value of secular work, emphasizing its value only as a mission field, or as a source of revenue. At the other pole, some of the biblical visions of cultural continuity have inspired an attitude that all human culture will somehow be redeemed and included within God’s new creation. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

One must remember in all of this that eschatological language and imagery is intended to be both descriptive and rhetorical. Imaginative pictures of the future function not only to testify to what will happen, but also to persuade the reader to recalibrate their behavior in the present.[22] One way in which biblical texts do this is by portraying both the positive and negative aspects of God’s eschatological intervention, often without resolving all of our questions with regards to the logical interrelationships between the two.  

For example, the knowledge that the eschaton will see the judgement and destruction of Babylon should force us to ask serious questions of our working lives. Our projects and our products must constantly be assessed according to the index of idolatry – the sinful tendency to become consumed with created things and to ignore the Creator. Moreover, the frequent reference to cities being destroyed in Scripture should remind us that there are some ways of doing economics, and some ways of developing the earth, that are completely out of character with God’s promised future. It is an oft-neglected point that within the book of Revelation, God’s judgement of Babylon is because she is a destroyer and corrupter of the earth (see Rev 11:18; 19:2). Similarly, 2 Peter 3:10 reminds the reader that there will be an exposure of all that is done upon the earth, a fact which should chasten us into considering the rightness and value of our labours.

 At the same time, the knowledge that eschatology is understood as the completion of God’s creation-project brings dignity to our work, because though the future is different from the present, it is not so discontinuous that its patterns of living and cultural products are otherworldly or alien. The demonstrable continuities between the present and the new creation suggest that one can work now in ways that, at the very least, anticipate the future. This does not require one to believe that this or that particular piece of human culture will necessarily be a part of the new creation. Perhaps an analogy from the biblical idea of bodily resurrection is helpful here. It can be well argued from Scripture that resurrection involves some level of bodily continuity between the present and future (see Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 15:42-44).[23] That fundamental insight functions as an important encouragement for the believer to treat their body with respect and dignity in the present, in light of its final redemption (1 Cor 6:12-20). But it is taking things much too far to argue that things like present day exercise must be the beginnings of the new creation in my body. To be sure, such aspirations towards bodily fitness might well be conducted with one eye towards the future, but as to what aspects of my body God chooses to ‘keep’ in the resurrection – that is entirely up to him. In this respect, we remain agnostic when it comes to getting specific about cultural continuity. Scripture deliberately provides us with diverse images of the future of human culture, all of which have meaning and relevance. We do not know for sure which of our endeavours will persist, how they will persist, and which will be destroyed entirely. Consequently, what we are given in Scripture is a complex of eschatological pictures which enables both the affirmation and humbling of our working history. We find ourselves both critiqued and encouraged by the future of culture. Until that Day, we see in a mirror dimly.

Above all, we must not give up on our work. Instead, we must seek to align our work, as best we can, with the broad contours of God’s eschatological completion of creation. What we know about the future inspires our present labours. As Richard Mouw has said:

We must train ourselves to look at the worlds of commerce and art and education and technology, and confess that all of this…belongs to God. And then we must engage in the difficult business of finding patterns of cultural involvement that are consistent with this confession. If, in a fundamental and profound sense, God has not given up on human culture, then neither must we.[24]

[1] See Michael E. Wittmer, Heaven is a Place on Earth: Why Everything you Do Matters to God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), pp123-26.

[2] John Goldingay, Israel’s Faith (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006),  p729. See also Terence Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), p53.

[3] Goldingay (ibid., p728) makes the point that Genesis 1-3 is not eschatological in the normal sense of the word, but that its representation of creation as project in process was a source of inspiration to the prophets of Israel.

[4] Cf. ibid., ‘So the renewed world is not merely a world restored to its Edenic state, but one taken to the destiny that God intended when creating it’ (p729). See also the reflections of Miroslav Volf in ‘Eschaton, Creation and Social Ethics’, in Calvin Theological Journal 30 (1995), p137.

[5] See James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (WBC 38A; Dallas: Word, 1988), p487; Harry A. Hahne, The Corruption and Redemption of Creation: Nature in Romans 8:19-22 and Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (London: T&T Clark, 2006), pp196-197; C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans: Volume 1: Introduction and Commentary on Romans 1-VIII (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), pp413-414.

[6] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), p135; Gregory K. Beale, Revelation (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp1109-1111.

[7] See Cranfield, op. cit., Vol. 1, p411; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans (AB 33; New York: Doubleday, 1993), p506; Hahne, op. cit., pp176-181.

[8] Darrell Cosden, ‘Eschatology Goes to Work’, in S. Holmes & R. Rook (eds), What are we Waiting For? Christian Hope and Contemporary Culture (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), pp177-80.

[9] Jacques Ellul, Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation trans. G. W. Schreiner (New York: Seabury, 1977), p223. See also Ellul’s expansive discussion in The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).

[10] Bauckham, op. cit.,  p135; Grant Osborne, Revelation (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), p769; Ryan S. Schellenberg, ‘Seeing the World Whole: Intertextuality and the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22)’, in Perspectives in Religious Studies 33 (2006), p475.

[11] Ellul, op. cit. (1977), p221.

[12] See Richard Mouw, When The Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem (Rev. edn; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[13] David Mathewson, ‘The Destiny of the Nations in Revelation 21:1-22:5: A Reconsideration’. in Tyndale Bulletin 53 (2002), p136.

[14] The nations are occasionally represented in a neutral sense (e.g. 5:9; 7:9), but most often in a negative light (e.g. 11:2,18; 13:7; 14:8). The negative portrayal of the kings of the earth is near universal (e.g. 16:14; 17:2; 18:9; the one possible exception is 1:5).

[15] See Chris Wright, ‘Following Jesus in the Globalized Marketplace’, in Evangelical Review of Theology 31 (2007), p324; David Aune, Revelation 17-22 (WBC 52C; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), p1173. This point needs much fuller argumentation than can be given here. For an alternative perspective, which sees little to no reference to the material products of culture, see Beale, op. cit., pp1094-11.

[16] Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies in the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), pp338-383.

[17] For example, this tradition of translation appears in the KJV, NASB, and NJB. For the more recent alternative translation of ‘will be disclosed’, or something similar, see NIV, NRSV, ESV.

[18] See the summary discussion in Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2d ed; Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1994), pp636-37.

[19] Given the earlier language in verse 10 that ‘the heavens will pass away’, the basic idea of the ‘earth’ clause is that the dissolution of the heavenly bodies leaves the earth and its works laid bare before God, exposed and awaiting judgement.  For more on this see Richard Bauckham, 2 Peter, Jude. (WBC 50; Waco: Word Books, 1983), pp 319-321; Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), pp286-287.

[20] Volf, op. cit., p137.

[21] Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991; repr. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), p93.

[22] A particularly helpful resource on how eschatological language and imagery ‘works’ is D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Leicester: InterVarsity, 2002).

[23] See, for example, Christopher Marshall, ‘This mortal body must put on immortality’, in Stimulus 5 (1997), pp67-69.

[24] Mouw, op. cit., p43.

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