I’ve been writing about a vision for work and society in my last two blog posts. I started out by casting a vision of society and community (which if you haven’t already read it you can read here) based on what Scripture says about a new heaven and a new earth. Then I connected that vision to our work by stating that some of what we do in the here and now has the potential to be refined and retained in the new reality (you can read that post here). Now I am going to tie it all together in this third part of a loosely related triad of blog posts by returning to the very beginning.
While I provided a Christian justification and defense of meaningful work in the last post by connecting it to the next world, it should also be noted that work does not arise after humanity’s descent into sin. Rather, God tasks the first inhabitants of creation when it states, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth'” (Genesis 1:28). From a “theology of work” perspective, God’s tasks are referred to as a creation or cultural mandate. It’s generally acknowledged that not only were people meant to take care of and steward God’s creation (which clearly we have departed from as the recent chemical spills in the water of West Virginia indicates) but also that we were to cultivate it through our creation of culture. The terms “fruitful”, “multiply”, and “fill the earth” are not just referring to procreation of the human race but also to our ability to build, create, and innovate.
I love how Andy Crouch, in his recent book Playing God, describes the initial state of creation and humanity’s role. In describing how God does not use the phrase “very good” to describe things until after God tasks the first humans, Crouch writes in his typically elegant way:
The first truth about the world is that it is good.
And once God’s image bearers are present in the creation, then and only then the world is declared “very good.” For the essential function of the image bearers is, through tilling and tending, attention and intentionality, to cultivate the world in a way that unfolds its potential.
Nature is good. Culture – human beings acting with creativity and care upon the good gifts of the natural world – is very good…
This is the essential pattern of all culture at its best. Eggs are good, omelets are very good. Trees are good, a beautifully wrought wooden chair is very good. Sound is good, music is very good. When human beings do what they were created to do, the latent possibilities in creation come to fruition, a flourishing reality that would never exist without the application of human intelligence and intentionality. 1
That is what we were created to do. That is what philosophers call our telos, or purpose. And that is why the gleaming city I mentioned two posts back, based on Scripture but graced with human imagination and ingenuity, can be a genuine source for a common vision. For you see, we were meant to live in community and develop creation’s latent potential all along. We were not purposed to remain within the confining borders of the Garden of Eden, but to expand it’s borders and develop it.
Clearly, we do not live in such a utopian state. And Scripture pinpoints the problem early on as the result of the introduction of sin into the world. If you have issues with the concept of sin, consider that sin accounts for everything from the aforementioned chemical spills in West Virginia, the slums of our inner cities, the global slave trade (which is far greater in scope than the trans-Atlantic African slave trade), as well as the artificial inflation and burst of the housing bubble crisis and the subsequent economic recession.
I would not go so far as to describe myself a postmillennialist because of the aforementioned consequences of sin 2 (although my humanist tendencies, couched though they may be in a Christian framework, cause me to be quite enamored with that perspective). But I do believe that the heavenly city described in Revelation, which we have now explored was God’s intention for us all along, is our telos. It is a reality worth pursuing here on earth if we are to live consistently with the claim that Christ’s kingdom is already being fulfilled.
Neil Finn, a New Zealand rock artist, sang the lryics for “Song of the Lonely Mountain” in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Just recently, I was listening to that song and realized that some of the lyrics described perfectly what I have been trying to convey in this three-part exploration. “What was before we see once more/Is our kingdom a distant light.” Like the dwarfs in that movie who had their gleaming kingdom stolen from them by a fire-breathing dragon, so too the introduction of sin into God’s good creation has taken what was rightly ours as God’s image bearers. While sin, death, and the devil have stolen what was meant to be ours all along, Christ came so that our image bearing abilities might be restored and so that “what was before” might be once more.
1 Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013), 104-105.
2 Postmillenialism is the view that Christ will return after a literal millennial reign of Christ spoken of in Revelation. The church will inaugurate it as the Christian faith spreads around the world and people live out the morals and teachings of the faith. This view is responsible for many of the reform movements in the late 1800s and early 1900s. My views are probably closer to amillennialism, which views the 1,000 year reign of Christ as symbolic and already present in history, albeit in a spiritual sense, and that it was inaugurated at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon Christ’s followers. This does not preclude a literal and physical return of Christ when His kingdom will be fully and physically established. The third view is premillenialism. Many evangelicals are premillinialist and believe that Christ’s second coming occurs before a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ. This view is represented by the Left Behind books which write about the period after the tribulation. While all tribulationists are premillenialists, not all premillinialists believe in the tribulation.