When Christians go to work, they do so to recreate the earth. They shape businesses to be more efficient and equitable, as in the manager who optimizes workers’ productivity with a wise employee manual. They develop the land with new technologies, as with the farmer who increases soybean productivity while curbing erosion. They contemplate the future of humanity with social critique and compelling embodiment, as with the dance artist’s inspiring performances. In anticipation of eternal life Christians exercise their “eschatological imagination,” hoping for “the world transformed in future time” (Garrett Green, “Imagining the Future,” in Future as God’s Gift, 82). In all their activities believers follow the lead of God, who recreates the world in His final work.
Looking forward to life in the world to come is the culminating hope professed in the Nicene Creed, and rightly so. Forgiveness and resurrection are unthinkable apart from the new earth. Personal redemption is unthinkable apart from a redeemed cosmos. In the coming Day, God’s grace will ripple through the universe, providing a suitable home for His saved people. While the Scriptures make provision for preservation in the intermediate state between one’s bodily death and resurrection, “going to heaven” is by no means the final destiny of the saints. The righteous dead come back to earth with Jesus at His return and are given resurrection bodies (1 Thes 4). Their eternal home is not heaven, but earth (Psa 37:11; Matt 5:5; Rev 20-21).
God’s final work involves the purification and cultivation of the earth. That is what the Nicene Creed means by “the world to come”: this world fully annexed by the kingdom of God, this world re-formed and rejuvenated so as to be the saintly habitation. When the Bible speaks of the new heavens and new earth (Isa 65:17; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1), it refers to this present created space refined and renewed. Creation abides as it is purified and cultivated anew.
The first aspect of God’s recreative work is purification. The world, wallowing in personal and social wickedness, requires cleansing from its perverse culture. The coming fire descends on all. The saints will have their works exposed (Rev 20:12). Even the works of the clergy will be tested by fire to see which parts of their ecclesiastical culture is suitable for the Christ-foundation (Mal 3:3; 1 Cor 3:10-15). And what will become of the godless, who invite the destruction of their works and their very person (Isa 66:24; Jude 13)? Nevertheless, the intent of God’s purification is not wholesale annihilation of the visible realm. That is why 2 Pet 3:10-13 speaks of the earth being “dissolved” so that it may be a place “where righteousness dwells.” Again, recreation does not mean incineration so as to establish a wholly new, immaterial abode. Rather, the fires of judgment prophesied in Scripture will come to refine the world, exposing all of its impurities so that the Holy One may skim off its dross.
The divine work of purification will leave intact various cultural artifacts of the present age. Significantly, the New Jerusalem will be the place where “the kings of the earth,” formerly subject to their own desires and the whore of Babylon, must bring their wealth (Rev 21:14). Apparently even some “secular” culture will be kept in place as acceptable human productions, for “[i]f the ships of Tarshish and the camels of Midian can find a place in the New Jerusalem, our work, no matter how ‘secular,’ can too” (Andy Crouch, Culture Making, 170).
Other artifacts will be utterly destroyed or radically repurposed, however. Weaponry is a good example of this, which has its end in destruction, as with the war-boots of Isa 9:5, or radical repurposing, as in the prophecy of Micah 4:3 (RSV): “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” War-culture itself is dross, and ultimately an activity contrasted with productive work. (One wonders what the Lord will make of the u-boat fortress at Lorient. The world’s largest espresso bar?) Likewise, Micah 4:4 hopes for the day in which “each man will sit under his own vine,” namely, a world in which ownership of production is restored to the worker. A purified economy frees workers to own the fruits of their works unhampered by war, extractive governments, and unjust business structures.
Purification is but the necessary precondition to the true expression of recreation, namely, cultivation. The new earth will teem with life, with wealth, with cultural riches. The agrapha found in Irenaeus captures well the sense of abundance: “In the coming days vines will bear 10,000 branches, each branch 10,000 twigs, each twig 10,000 clusters, each cluster 10,000 grapes, and each pressed grape will yield 25 measures of wine” (Ad. Haer. 5.33.3). Only God can supply and guarantee such bounty.
Furthermore, the Scriptures speak of the Lord Jesus, the master architect, revealing His masterpiece, the New Jerusalem. The “house” He constructs during His session (John 14) will come down from heaven to rest on earth (Rev 21:2). Around this architectural masterpiece a vineyard will sprout up. God’s cultivation means harmony. At the center of the recreated world stands a city in which conservation and development are brought together. “Notice how nature flourishes in the middle of the New Jerusalem, how nature is incorporated into the eternal city,” says Ben Witherington. “We will not have to choose between urban and rural, here and there, now and then. It will all be present at once and available to all” (Work, 122). God constructs a park system of monumental proportions. The Garden of Eden is recapitulated and improved upon in Christ’s city. Harmony triumphs.
The Scriptures make a point of God’s final work as sustainable, as that which last forever. In contrast to the corrosion and obsolescence of present human culture, the divine opus will endure. It will be beautiful forever: “The new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD” (Isa 66:22). The new world will endure forever because, to intone one of Daniel’s refrains, “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom.” The Lamb has secured for the saints a beautiful future, and He will soon reveal that beautiful habitation which shall last unto the ages.
Once more: How then shall Christians work? Beginning with the Church as such, Christians practice recreation through purification and cultivation. The purifying of the saints happens chiefly through word and sacrament, though also through discipline (cf. Belgic Confession, art. 29). Idols must be done away with. Lives must conform to the holiness of the Holy One. Therefore the churches practice repentance and confession, fasting and self-purification, knowing that “judgment must begin at the house of God” (1 Pet 4:17, KJV). Yet the various means of cleansing exist for the cultivation of liturgeia: the music arts, homiletics, educational courses, sanctuary aesthetics, theological texts and devotional writings and prayers, just to name a handful. Diaconal expressions of worship join in the recreation, from date night childcare to building programs to extraordinary potlucks. The Church cultivates all manner of beautiful things because it is itself “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:10).
Going out into the world, Christians exercise the vocation of purification. This goes beyond a vote or serving as a holy example. They cannot help but be salt and light (Matt 5:13-16), flavoring, disinfecting, sanitizing, preserving. Believers cooperate with God by refusing to make substandard products. They dare to be whistleblowers where they see systemic crime or oppression of the weak. They move into positions of power to influence company and governmental policies. They align to protest the powers. Not many years ago American Christians performed the costly Christian work of the Montgomery bus boycott, in which women and men exerted economic pressure to declare the righteousness of God against a discriminatory business. Could not the same be done against corporations systematically denying employee benefits, or against database server providers catering to porn syndicates, or against national governments unrepentant of war crimes? Christians are unafraid to decry cultures of corruption. They have beheld visions of the new economy.
More important, ultimately, is what Christians cultivate. They are possessed by a kind of entrepreneurial spirit, hungry for foretastes of the day in which “Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit” (Isa 27:6, ESV). They desire to see the world enriched by every standard: median income, life expectancy, access to goods, productive output, reported happiness. Christians possess in their very worldview the impetus for innovation. They need not apologize for their general optimism about the market, a buoyant energy which stems not from confidence in price mechanisms or state structures but by the hope of the King’s capacious economy.
In imitating God’s coming work Christians match output with harmony. Thus a developer of a new condominium complex in Tempe, Arizona addresses the needs of residents while working with the native desert environment. Thus a human resources executive imagines space on a college campus that best facilitates interaction between students, faculty and administrators. Thus a code enforcement officer works with contractors to promote long-term usefulness through better window installation. Thus an enterprising congresswoman works a minor miracle by actually simplifying a law to make it more effective. Christians are passionate about answering these kinds of questions because they anticipate the harmonious layout of the New Jerusalem. Admittedly, conservation plays a part in the Church’s agenda insofar as there are places and things on earth which cannot be improved upon. Yet the vast majority of things on earth invite stewardship that goes beyond protection: accentuation, recombination, restructure.
Worthy of attention is a worker specially ordained for the task of recreation: the artist. Often this laborer’s craft is diminished because of a perceived lack of constructive output, i.e., tangible goods or quantifiable capital. On the contrary: the artist’s aesthetic imagination is critical to discerning the hidden dynamics needing to be addressed in a given society. Art is always an act of seeing, and, in that seeing, an act of purification and cultivation. The visual arts inform a people how to see futurely, the musical arts how to hear futurely, the kinetic arts how to move in the world to come. In their own non-linear, supra-rational way, artists called by the name of Christ are equipped to help others imagine well.
On account of the not-yet of this age, Christian work will constantly run up against the ambiguity of cultivation. When does an attempt to purify society become puritanical? When does entrepreneurial progress degenerate into the worldly vicissitudes of business-as-usual? And how do disciples of Jesus expect to recreate a world which so regularly marginalizes them? Verily, the kingdom is here – but not yet.
Even so, Christians enact the recreation of the earth in anticipation of God’s final opus. They know the God who means to forge the new earth, the very same God who means to raise the dead and remit debts. In the Spirit, believers join Him in purifying and cultivating the world, preserving and transforming human bodies, eliminating bad debt and establishing good debt.
Christians sing as they go about their business. And why not? They work with the joy of those who know the end of the story.