Building for God’s Kingdom (Gnosticism & Evangelicalism Part 4)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Earlier in the year I wrote three articles in which I alerted readers to the creeping influence of Gnosticism within the evangelical community. These articles can be read at the following links:

In the first of the above articles I defined Gnosticism and suggested a number of areas where the tentacles of this ancient heresy reach down to us today. In the second article I focused on the Gnostic tendency to denigrate the created order and to detach spirituality from our experience as embodied beings. The third article took a closer look at the Bible’s teaching on bodily resurrection and how this challenges some of our Gnostic assumptions.

This article will seek to build on the discussion of resurrection by asking, “So what? If we reject Gnostic assumptions about the body and assert hope in a future resurrection, what difference does this make to our lives now?”

Abounding in the work of the Lord
One of the interesting things about Saint Paul’s great defense of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is that his tightly reasoned argument ends with a practical exhortation: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

The key word here is the “therefore.” Paul realized that what we think about the future effects (or ought to effect) how we live in the present. This is why, following his lengthy discussion of the Christian hope, Paul basically says, “Therefore get on with your job.”

Working for new creation
It’s easy to slip into the Gnostic assumption that our spiritual work is purely personal and private, or that it relates merely to securing a heavenly future for ourselves and others. Now personal salvation is crucially important, and that is why we should never neglect the work of evangelism. However, the Christian hope involves more than simply the renewal of individuals: God is also working to renew the earth itself (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

Just as belief in our own personal resurrection should spur us to righteous living in the present (1 Corinthians 15:29-34), so belief in the future renewal of the whole earth (Revelation 21:1) should act as a catalyst for us to work to make the world a better place in the present. The doctrine of new creation therefore has cultural, economic, ecological and political consequences. As Wim Rietkerk points out in his now out-of-print little book The Future Great Planet Earth:

“…at his return, the Lord will ask us, ‘What did you do with my creation to renew it?’ Then he will multiply our finite achievements into the promised total renewal. To use Paul’s image of changing clothes in 1 Corinthians 15, He will take the tiny and weak threads and weave them into new garments with which He will clothe the world. There is a reason why the Holy Spirit is called the firstfruit of the new creation (Romans 8:23).

So there is a challenging and important relationship between the works we are called to do now in order to save nature—to purify the water, to preserve the ozone layer, to plant trees instead of cutting them, to care about safe forms of energy—and the future renewal of the earth. God does not need our works to accomplish that; He could do it without us. But He will use our work and He will certainly rebuke us if we have not produced the work he expected. He will ask for them and He will make them the core of a renewed world.”

Continuity or discontinuity?
At this point the following question often arises: if God is planning to create a new heavens and a new earth, then what’s the point of laboring for new creation now? After all, I wouldn’t give my Ford an oil change today if I’m planning to take it to the junk yard tomorrow and buy a Dodge? So what’s the point of planting trees or working to clean up pollution, not to mention our cultural endeavors, if God is just going to start over?

The problem with this question is that it assumes the work we do in the present age is not going to last for eternity. But Saint Paul describes our work as enduring (1 Corinthians 3:14) and he says it is “not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15.58) Moreover, we know from elsewhere in Scripture that there is an organic continuity between what happens in this age, on the one hand, and the age to come, on the other. Thus, the relationship between the present age and the age to come is not like the relationship between a Ford and a Dodge; it’s more like an old beaten up Ford compared to the same car after it’s been renovated and renewed.

Because of this, we shouldn’t think of the new heavens and the new earth as being completely new. C.S. Lewis gets it right in The Last Battle when he describes the heavenly Narnia being built on the template of the original Narnia. The “new earth” described in Revelation 21 will be new only in the sense that we say a lady is “a new woman” when she has had her hair made over and put on a new dress.

This is a point that my friend Dr. David Field has done an excellent job emphasizing. (I strongly recommend his excellent discussion of New Creation or his Not the Least Lash Lost.) One of the things Dr. Field frequently points out is that just as Christ’s resurrected body had continuity with the body He possessed prior to being resurrected (after all, those who saw him still recognized him, and He still bore the marks of the cross on his hands), so we should expect there to be continuity between the work that we do now, on the one hand, and the new earth that God is in the process of making, on the other hand.

God’s scaffolding
Some Bible scholars have used the analogy of scaffolding to make this same point. What we do now as ambassadors of reconciliation is like the scaffolding God will use to construct the new (renewed) earth. As Dr. W. Van Brugeen put it, “It is dangerous to identify our cultural achievements with the kingdom of God, but we should say that the kingdom of God is present in the signs that precede it. They are the milestones, bricks, ingredients, the scaffolding of the coming empire, real foreshadowings as demonstrations of the things to come.” N. T. Wright makes a similar point in his excellent booklet New Heavens, New Earth:

“…the Christian hope…gives us a view of creation which emphasizes the goodness of God’s world, and God’s intention to renew it. It gives us, therefore, every possible incentive, or at least every Christian incentive, to work for the renewal of God’s creation and for justice within God’s creation. Not that we are building the kingdom by our own efforts. Let us not lapse into that. Rather, what we are doing here and now is building for God’s kingdom. It is what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15: there is continuity between our present work and God’s future kingdom, even though the former will have to pass through fire to attain the latter. It is also clearly implied in 1 Corinthians 15:58: the conclusion of Paul’s enormous exposition of the resurrection is not an outburst of joy at the glorious life to come, but a sober exhortation to work for the kingdom in the present, because we know that our work here and now is not in vain in the Lord. In other words, belief in the resurrection, the other side, if need be, of a period of disembodied life in the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 15:29), validates and so encourages present Christian life, work and witness.”

(Some other books which make similar arguments are Plowing in Hope: Towards a Biblical Theology of Culture, by David Bruce Hegeman, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N.T. Wright and Raised with Christ: How the Resurrection Changes Everything, by Adrian Warnock.)

The goodness of creation
Christians living in the first and second century understood these important truths often better than we do today. One of the Church’s earliest theologians, Saint Irenaeus (c. 130–202), constantly emphasized the connection between creation and redemption. Unlike the Gnostics, who argued that God the Creator is different from God the Redeemer, Irenaeus taught that the God who made the world is also the God who has been carefully overseeing it, bringing His plan to fruition through everything that happens. That plan, Irenaeus proclaimed, culminated in the redemptive work of Christ and will be consummated when God renews the earth.

In my recent book Saints and Scoundrels, I show that the confidence Saint Irenaeus and other second century Christians had in God’s new creation gave them a public vision. I show how this public vision is precisely what brought the early church into collision with the political authorities of their day.

At the heart of their vision was the understanding that the God who declared that everything He made was very good (Genesis 1:31) is the same God who promises to complete the work of creation. The early Christians understood this, but they also understood that God does not work alone, but uses His Church as the primary vehicle for bringing new creation to the earth. By contrast, the Gnostics had no hope that God is renewing the world, and thus they had very little incentive to labor to make the world a better place.

Since the world was made by a good God, not a lesser demi-god as Gnosticism claims, and since this God promises to one day put the world to rights, we have hope. This hope assured us that nothing we do for Christ’s kingdom will ever be wasted, even when we cannot see any visible fruit in this life. Unlike unbelievers who can only judge their success by their results, we know we are building for God’s Kingdom whether we see anything or not.

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV)

Further Reading