Work and the Destiny of the World
Our view of the destiny of the world should deeply influence how we understand work.
In the renewed Jerusalem, there is a river flowing from “the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city,” (Rev. 22:2). And on both sides of river is “the tree of life, bearing crops of fruit.” The tree of life, from which humanity was exiled after the Fall in Genesis, is now at the heart of the city. The culmination of history includes both the divine (throne, river, and tree of life) and the human (the city). The great hope of the Christian faith is for a renewed human city, a day in which God will reign over human life, including our cultural production that comes from work.
This biblical vision of the future is radical, especially when we compared to other worldviews:
- The traditional fundamentalist vision is that this world will be burned up in judgment and believers will live with God in a disembodied state in heaven. The idea here is of a wholly other-worldly eternal state with little to no connection with this world. Yet the Bible states that “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor” into the heavenly city (Rev. 21:24), including their finest work (like the camels of Midian, the ships of Tarshish, and fir trees of Lebanon – see Isaiah 60). In God’s grace, he brings actual human culture, though purified by fire, into a renewed earthly city. There will be real overlap between our work here and its redeemed state in the new Jerusalem.
- The liberal vision is of establishing God’s kingdom here and now through social and political action. Outlined masterfully in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, in the 1960s and 1970s accomodationists, both liberal Protestants and Catholics, emptied traditional theology of its other worldly elements and equated social justice and politics with God’s kingdom. However, the historic Christian faith teaches the heavenly city comes down out of heaven as a gift from God (Rev. 21:2). It cannot be built, nor can we transform this world into God’s kingdom. Each generation equates some social program with God’s kingdom – and in so doing is eventually disappointed as the reality of sin disappoints all our utopian ventures.
- The secular vision is perhaps the most depressing. The generally accepted public philosophy of secular materialists sees a distant future in which humans will be long forgotten, the sun will continue its expansion and eventually burn up the earth. The great tension in the secular mind is how to balance the view of the scientific materialists with the myth of progress, still espoused by lovers of technology, despite the horrific events of the 20th century (and the stark suffering of places like Syria). Businesses and even government entities rally behind “mission statements” even though their universe has no mission other than extinction.
- The Eastern vision of the future is cyclical. Humanity is caught in a never ending cycle of life, death and reincarnation. The world, as well as human culture, has no real ultimate purpose. This view leads to such desperation that Buddhism was born, and it’s great hope was placed in attaining nirvana – freedom from the wheel of samara and the ultimate extinguishing of each person’s light (the definition of nirvana). The statue of the Buddha, with his eyes turned inward, is the paradigm of this worldview. Free yourself from suffering through meditation – let your light burn out in the darkness.
Each of these visions of the destiny of the world ultimately influences our view of work:
- Fundamentalist eschatology devalues work. Why build a house or start a business when all that matters is saving souls? This view leads to a stark division between spiritual work and secular work – a view all too common in conservative American churches.
- The liberal view overvalues work. It equates human triumphs with God’s own kingdom, and both denies the reality of sin that has infected work, and tends to make human achievement an idol. This slippery slope of accommodation also tends to lead to empty churches, as people start question why they should attend a this-worldly congregation that is essentially no different from the rest of culture.
- The secular view is so dark, people tend to look other places to find meaning in work, such as prestige, innovation, power, or wealth. Work here becomes a slave-driver as people put unrealistic expectations on creation rather than the Creator, and can slip into hopelessness.
- Eastern religions have a similarly dim view of work. Not only is there no human city in the future, but each person must try to earn good karma on his or her own. Work may provide an income, but it is not connected with any objective goal for human history. History, just like work, has no culmination. It’s an inescapable cycle.
The biblical view is that the heavenly Jerusalem is a gift, and it cannot be earned or built by men. Yet, in God’s grace, he includes elements of our work and cultural production in God’s new world.
If we truly embrace this view, we’ll be work with both tremendous hope as well as deep humility. Because God is making all things new, we won’t join the fundamentalists who undervalue the nature of God’s good creation, nor will we join the secularists who look into the future and only see a dark universe. Nor will we will join liberals who believe God’s kingdom can be built through only political action. (Nor will we join those who attempt to “transform culture” through their work and cultural engagement. Jesus clearly gives us a picture of the world growing in both good and evil as The Day approaches [Matt. 13:24-30]. For those who espouse of view that Christians should “transform culture”: can you point to a single culture in all of history that has been transformed by the gospel?)
The key way to view our work today – whether it be selling ads or teaching second graders – is as a sign, or a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. Christians are called to be representatives of a new world, who are yet living in this age, and to tell the good news through both words and actions. The key creative task is this: how can I take my work and make it a banner that points people to the hope of a renewed heaven and earth?
Perhaps the key image here is not the developer who paves over the earthly city, nor hermit who retreats from the city’s confines, but instead the farmer, who plants the seeds of new life through the work of his hands. And perhaps some of those seeds will grow into strong trees, whose leaves will be for the healing of nations (Rev. 22:2).
Discussion question: What is your view of the destiny of the world? How do you think it influences your work?
(Photo: The Farmer)