Eschatological Business: Recreating the Earth

[Ed. note: This post is part of a guest-series by Nathan Hitchcock. Nathan is Associate Professor of Church History and Theology at Sioux Falls Seminary, and is the author of Karl Barth and the Resurrection of the Flesh. Click here for this series’ description, and it is indexed on the DET Serials page.]



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.

==================================


Comments

Michael Nichols said…
But can't we imagine that if a Christian ethic of work creates a vast number of opportunities for Christians to engage in recreation through purification and cultivation in "King's capacious economy," then the opportunities might become too vast? For example, can Christian doctors provide breast implants? I almost find these inclusive categories of recreation, purification, and cultivation more confusing than helpful. Sure, they give us a vocabulary to talk about work. But do they really help Christians know what to do? I feel as if they create gray areas which make decisions about when and where Christians can engage more ambiguous than prescriptive. Moreover, if the opportunities for work become theoretically infinite (or at least unhelpfully comprehensive) don't we run this risk of confusing the kingdoms of this world with the Kingdom that is to come (which was addressed in a previous post)? You seemed to raise these questions in one of the closing paragraphs only to skirt them. Any clarity you could provide might be helpful.
"Verily, the kingdom is here – but not yet." I'm curious as to why Michael Nichols objects to an a proposal for Christian ethics that acknowledges moral ambiguities. I don't think the main point here is casuistry. As I read these posts -- and Nathan can correct me if I'm off target -- the main point here is not to offer prescriptive (of proscriptive) guidelines for Christian decisions and behavior in the workplace. Rather, I take these examples as more DEscriptive -- that is, they help put Christian behavior into a broader theological context and show how, in their daily lives, Christians try to faithfully reflect the character and activity of the God who remits (or transmutes) debt, raises bodies and cares for the earth. So the potential comprehensiveness of such a project would be one of its strong suits.
Michael, thank you for bringing up the concern about Christian ethics. Anyone who labors in today’s workforce knows how complicated business decisions can be. Recently I spoke with a guy who designs trees for video games. He found the work satisfying first, but found himself wondering about the long-term relevance of the task, especially as his managers started shutting down creative control and demanding unreasonable output (“More trees, peons, more trees!” ). Or what about the guy who does HVAC projects for the mansions of wealthy clientele? Or the tedious labors of a local pastor and his wife, who work evening shifts cleaning carpets for financial institutions of which they know nothing? Or the obsessive cook camped out at Pinterest, needing to show off the latest almond-infused quinoa soufflé? Is any of this eschatological culture-building?

Well, Scott’s defense is better than my own. So, yes: what he said.

Let me add a couple of footnotes. First off, what you say, Michael, makes me realize that I was more successful at pulling together a theology of work than a piece in moral discourse or “occasional theology.” Ethicist, please! Truthfully, someone else might need to take things from here.

But second, I think there is power in speaking the truth about work in Jesus Christ. The descriptive is prescriptive. It is prescriptive in that the declaration of our work caught up in God’s work provides a launch pad for criticism and encouragement. Even if we have to wade through dubious customer requests, legal red tape, unscrupulous stock holders, boring tasks, inept management, and the inscrutable mechanisms of the market, at least we know what we’re looking for. Hope eggs us on through the occupational quandaries.
Michael Nichols said…
J. Scott Jackson, I agree that the intent is to be descriptive and "help put Christian behavior into a broader theological context and show how...Christians try to faithfully reflect the character and activity of God..." But the practical questions still remain. In a concrete world that requires concrete action we must ask ourselves if and when Christians can engage in certain works. Can a Christian doctor provide breast implants? Might that qualify as "raising bodies" and "caring for the earth"? Or can a Christian own a casino if, let's imagine, they give away large sums of money to the spread of the gospel? Can a Christian write for a tabloid company that profits off of selling gossip, even if they don't write the gossip themselves? Or how about being employed by a company that has a branch which produces pornography? By simply describing and putting Christian behavior in a broader theological context to show how Christians can reflect God's character, don't we run into concrete issues like the possibilities I've mentioned which make us ask exactly how we faithfully participate in remitting debt, raising bodies, and caring for the earth? I believe Nathan's comprehensiveness is intentional, and potentially a strong suit. But the comprehensiveness also seems to skirt the fact that Christians' participation, or our penultimate work that awaits the ultimate, is at the very least messy. It doesn't take much to see that when Christians try to faithfully reflect God's character we might very easily hide behind the piety of "remitting debts, raising bodies, and caring for the earth," when in fact we're perpetuating oppressive systems and/or participating (even if indirectly) with sinful actions.
Hi Nathan,

I’m going to bypass the conversation already in process here and ask some other sorts of questions, but by this I do not intend to end that other conversation. So keep at it! 

Right up front you provide these illustrations: “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.” Once again, I feel that I must push you about what is remaining unsaid here vis-à-vis the sort of economic system in play. Why does the manager want to optimize worker productivity? Why does the farmer want to increase soybean productivity (I take it for granted that curbing erosion is a good thing)? On what basis is increased productivity and increased yield a “good” to be pursued by Christians? (And I realize that we might answer that question differently in these two cases.) If these things are to be “goods,” are they so per se, or are they so because of how they can be applied to other problems (i.e., feeding the poor with soybeans)? In other words, this is one of those times that the broader economic system seems (at least to me) to call into question the Christian-ness of your illustrations, and that makes me wish (once again) that you would address such systematic issues head-on.

:-)

I will say that, unlike what I said in response to a previous installment, your eschatology is on full display here and clearly funding the program that you lay out. So well done on that! I will neglect, for the present, to raise a question about the translatability of your eschatology to other modes of discourse.

It seems to me that the issue of sustainability is incredibly important, and it is a credit to your work that you have made such a clear place for it. This will be an important point at which you can use all your theological skill to navigate the already / not yet, which will be absolutely necessary because you emphasize that God’s work is sustainable. You’ll need a very robust account of how, then, Christian work must be sustainable. Otherwise, certain elements might insist on throwing up hands and saying “God might be able to do sustainability, but we can’t, so screw the environment – God will destroy it all in the end anyway.”

I know I’m being a bit cheeky, but I’m sure you take the real point that’s hiding in there somewhere.

“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…Christians are unafraid to decry cultures of corruption. They have beheld visions of the new economy.”

I don’t want to pre-emptively end the conversation but I want to say right off the bat that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your month of residency here at DET. You’ve given us a lot to think about, and it’s been fun to argue about some of it. I’m looking forward to the expanded and in-print version! And you’re welcome back anytime.
Michael, it’s true: Christians can shirk the difficult moral decisions by hiding behind eschatology. They can do so with any –ology, sadly, especially when that -ology is abstract. But a populated eschaton doesn’t let Christians off so easily. What I mean is that when “remitting debts, raising bodies, and recreating the earth” become gritty concepts connected to God’s actual-future work, ethical abuse becomes difficult. True Christian ethics happens only in actual discipleship to Jesus, following the acting, living, triune God.

I know that you are a businessman, Michael, so I want to honor your concern by playing out a practical example. Let’s take the breast implant surgeon, since that example has come up a couple of times.

So Dr. Omega is a man (a man, so we can make this ethical example supremely awkward) who performs plastic surgery, specializing in breast augmentation and reduction. He works at a clinic outside of the Kansas City metropolis area. The clinic was recently acquired as part of a privately run, multi-state hospital system. He is not an owner, just an employee, but he has some administrative authority within the clinic itself. He trained for six years after med school. He is paid base salary plus bonuses, amounting to $250,000 annually.

Let’s say that Ms. A comes into Dr. Omega’s office requesting breast implants. She is 45 years old, a mother of three, who last year was diagnosed with breast cancer. Doctors were concerned enough about a growth that they did a mastectomy. They were unable to do breast reconstruction at that time due to unforeseen complications. Ms. A recovered fully and has been declared cancer-free. However, she had to go to part-time employment during her treatment, and her husband was recently laid off. They are without insurance. Ms. A feels very conscious of her appearance and expresses dismay at the disfigurement of the previous surgery. She is requesting breast reconstruction for one breast and augmentation for the other, which, she feels, would give her “ideal” proportions. Due to various factors the surgery will cost around $14,000 but perhaps up to $20,000.

And let’s say that Ms. B walks into the office later that day. She is 25 and healthy. She is a recent college graduate who is going into real estate. Ms. B is seeking breast augmentation for undisclosed reasons. The surgery will cost around $7,000. Ms. B’s mother accompanies her and mentions that she will gladly pick up the tab.

How should Dr. Omega, a devout believer and eschatologist, think about his job? How should he advise Ms. A and Ms. B? Does patterning his work after God’s final work help here?

I’ll wager some thoughts if you do, Michael.
Travis, you’re entitled to wrap back around to the prolegomena, especially now that the series is complete. I’ve struggled to come up with a targeted response, I think to some extent because the why language doesn’t make sense to me. The why questions I have already addressed theologically: because Christians’ business will and must and can conform to the reality of God’s final business. That theological statement can stand without having to delineate proximate systems and ends. The more pointed question in my mind – which is philosophically related to Michael’s concern – is in which economy?.

May I answer that question instead, viz., In which economy does the farmer want to optimize soybean productivity?
Given that I'm curious to hear you distinguish between different economies, Nathan, please continue. :-)
Hannah Ploegstra said…
After enjoying Nathan's articles and the lively conversations following, I'm chiming in here from the Christian work force. :) I'm a homemaker and also an avid Bible student/teacher. As much as I'm loving the conversation, I'm just a fly on the wall. My comment is merely personal.

It occurs to me frequently that my work here in the home repeatedly plays out a sort of mini-judgment day. Dishes, for example. There they are on the counter, greasy, repulsive, and in a few moments they are plunged into the hot water, scrubbed off, and redeemed for the future's use. Stacks of papers are gone through, some put over here for safe-keeping, and others tossed into the trash because they are of no use. We go through the kids' toys: if a thing has value, it's kept. And if not, we get rid of it. I want to be of this kind of value to God, by his grace and through his Son, found rich in the good works of the Spirit, and gifted to contribute something to his body and his creation. I want to be connected to the everlasting Vine who is his delight, and thus indispensable to God.

In our work as homemakers we are constantly redeeming things by fixing and mending, washing, bleaching, sorting, and pruning. We affirm the coming reality through daily acts of redemption and judgment. The fact that every home requires and demands this work seems to me to suggest that God, in building the work of home into daily life no matter what your employment, is intent on teaching us all this lesson: that our daily work mirrors his coming final work in which he, too, will redeem, cast out, and restore to perfect "working" order the home which he is making for us.

Most crucial of all, the home is the natural and first (though not only) place where the one and only eternal "product" of our work here in this life is conceived, created, cultivated, and finally presented to God: PEOPLE.

It seems to me that the most obvious effect a resurrection-oriented work ethic produces is what Paul puts forth in 1 Cor 15: be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that IN THE LORD your labor is not in vain. When we labor in all the variety of ways possible to get a person one step closer to their own resurrection, our labor is not in vain. And when we labor to care for a dying creation, a dying body, a dying society, we preach the gospel (sometimes if only to ourselves) by affirming that God's final work will not be out there somewhere in some cloud but right here. We care for the terminally ill because one day THAT BODY will be raised. We plunge our tools into the dirt, because, though one day it will be judged, God has plans for it. This earth and these nations are Christ's inheritance. If for only that reason we should get busy. Thanks for YOUR work, Nathan!
Hannah, your response soothes my conscience. I was getting worried that “Eschatological Business” had cut off broad swaths of vocations. There is something of a bias among us who craft theologies of work. We gravitate toward the entrepreneurial, the industrial, the macro-civic. (I myself am almost certainly over-awed by gifted city planners.) How good it is to hear that homemaking can be understood through the eschatological lens. Clearly you too are joining in the holistic work of cultivation with an eye toward the eternal.

I found myself laughing at your apocalyptic toy clean-up sessions. I’ve been there too! Yet you are right on: the task of treasuring, recycling, or trashing suggests something profound.
In which economy does the farmer want to optimize soybean production?

In one which he can freely love God and neighbor.
*chuckles

I knew that if I allowed you to redefine the terms of the question that you'd end up dodging it. ;-)

At the very least you need to draw a line between increased soybean production and love of neighbor. Why does the farmer do this in such an economy?
How does one love God and neighbor? In the key of hope: by remitting debts, raising bodies, recreating the earth. Some economies will be more capable of performing those tasks than others. (Footnote: Here I understand “economy” to be nothing more than a system of exchange between a certain people group. One can participate in multiple economies at once. There is no such thing as the economy, even in this day of global commodities and currency exchanges.) In most economies – though not all – the farmer will seek to maximize his soybean yield.

Consider an economy in which a Christian farmer would not attempt to optimize soybean output. The farmer is in an area where the mafia maintains a heavy presence. They have devised ways to skim profits, especially when yields are high, lest the central government notice. They have also pressured the farmer to use a pesticide company and a grain elevator owned by a Mafioso. The farmer has little control over his debt-relations, and may actually be hurting the bodily welfare of others by enabling a criminal organization. So he intentionally keeps production levels down or perhaps diverts certain amounts into his own “black markets” (e.g., feeding neighbors’ pigs).

Now consider an economy in which the soybean farmers should maximize production: most every other. The reason why: abundance is of itself reckoned a good thing. Abundance amplifies the power to form proper debts and share physical goods. Only when perverted by corruption, ineptitude, and massive market distortion does abundance amplify extraction, unsustainability, peonage, graft, and greed. But a farmer who is basically free to maintain right relationships and promote public health and shape the earth should not hesitate to maximize. Abundance is future reality.

In other words, more soybeans means more love. (Trademark that! T-shirt idea!) If the telos of an economy in which one participates allows for favorable debt remittance, accentuation of bodily welfare, and recreative cultivation, then by all means, optimize the farm and – Crank. Out. That. Soy.
Nathan, if you're into soybean products, you will have a great time when you visit Western Mass.
Nathan Hitchcock said…
Scott, I am all but penning in a tofu get-together with you, the Amherstites, and a copy of Der Römerbrief.
Sounds great, Nathan. Lots of coffee shops to choose from too.

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