In Paul’s famous words, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile …”[1] Can we say the same for work that Paul says about faith? Without the resurrection of Jesus do our earthly endeavors amount to nothing in the grand scheme of existence? As Darrell Cosden asks in The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work, “Is there any real lasting or ‘eternal’ value in our work?”[2] Cosden answers, “Our everyday work (whether paid or unpaid) actually matters and makes a difference—not just in the here and now, but also for eternity. Work, and the things that we produce through our work, can be transformed and carried over by God into heaven.”[3]

In making his case, Cosden echoes insights that Dutch theologian and former prime minister, Abraham Kuyper made over a century ago in his seminal work on Common Grace. Says Kuyper:

If nothing of all that developed in this temporal life passes over into eternity, then this temporal existence leaves us cold and indifferent. ... By contrast, if that rich and variegated development of our human life contains something that passes over into eternity, then the temporal obtains abiding significance.[4]

Cosden also joins rank with the more recent work of N. T. Wright who concludes:

Jesus is raised, so God’s new creation has begun—and we, his followers, have a job to do! ... What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future.[5]

Neither Wright, Kuyper, or Cosden argue that our work in the here and now will hasten or bring about God’s future.[6] All three argue from Scripture that only Jesus has the sovereignty and mandate to usher in the New Heavens and the New Earth. But each argues that our work “actually matters” (Cosden), “obtains abiding significance” (Kuyper), and “will last into God’s future” (Wright), and this hope, for all three, is anchored in the historic reality of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.[7]

To appreciate Wright, Kuyper, and Cosden’s point, imagine that they are wrong. Imagine that Jesus never rose. What then? Atheist Bertrand Russell answers,

[Humanity’s] origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.[8]

Note well the devastating logical consistency of Russell’s point and its implications on our work lives: If there is no God and, therefore, no possibility of resurrection, then, indeed, as Russell says, “the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”[9]

A Time magazine article entitled “How It All Ends” agrees with Russell’s bleak eschatology, that the universe “will become an unimaginably vast, cold, dark, and profoundly lonely place.”[10] Assume that Cosden is wrong and Russell and Time are right about “How It All Ends.” What would it mean to do work in that kind of cosmos? It would mean that we are working at cross-purposes with the entire universe. We are on the wrong side of the future. We are polishing brass on the Titanic, painting pin-up girls on a falling bombshell, planting flowers at Chernobyl while the reactor core heats up.

If, however, Jesus rose from the dead, then the universe is not destined for extinction but redemption. To work, build, create, and labor, then, is to step into the forward flow of the universe, to work toward rather than against its final destination. It is to join what Paul calls “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”[11] The empty tomb teaches us that the material world matters to Jesus and it will always matter to him, so it should matter to us.

This is the precise point, according to Cosden, where many miss the meaning of the empty tomb and its implications on our work lives.[12] There is a widespread belief that Jesus died and rose only so that we can go to heaven when we die. It is as if Jesus lifts our spirits into the clouds to strum harps while God dumps kerosene and turns this whole godforsaken planet to ash.[13] But if spirit is all that matters to Jesus then there is no compelling reason for the tomb to be empty. A spiritual resurrection would have done the trick. It is precisely this attitude—this failure to reckon with the bodily resurrection as a bodily resurrection—that inspires so much uninspired Christian work. If God doesn’t care about the material world, then why should we bother to make something of it in and through our work? Such inadequately Easter-based theology also creates a false hierarchy, argues Cosden, between the soul-saving vocations of “first class Christians” (e.g., missionaries and clergy) and the eternally meaningless daily work of “second-class Christians.”

The New Testament tells a very different story, one with far better prospects for our work lives. Cosden builds his case from Luke’s account of the first Easter in which Jesus’ friends “found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.”[14] Cosden observes, “the risen Son has not discarded his genuine physical and material existence and become a ‘spirit’ … This fact demonstrates the essential place of the created physical realm in God’s salvation purposes.[15] The New Testament is emphatic on this point: just as he was born in the flesh, lived in the flesh, and died in the flesh, so Jesus resurrected in the flesh to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” Because of him “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay.”[16] Thanks to his resurrection, God will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”[17] Jesus was born, died, and rose in matter because matter matters to him. Back in the eighth century, John of Damascus asked a rhetorical question about the resurrected Jesus: “Is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable.”[18]

This is a mark of good work. Look at a Dürer or Rembrandt woodcut. Study the tiny, elegant details in a hand, a beard, a wing, a rhino, a rabbit, or a tree trunk. It is clear that matter mattered to the artists. Taste the edible work of a good chef. Savor the care put into each ingredient and the precision at every stage of the cooking process. It is deliciously clear that matter matters to the culinary artist. Look at a well-made automobile, a well built fence, a well designed shoe, a well groomed garden, a well crafted computer, an so on. Christian work that treats the material world as immaterial, that is, unimportant[19] sends a profoundly anti-Christian message. It does not tell the truth of the empty tomb. It tells the old Gnostic lie that the spiritual trumps the material. But we must remember that when Jesus worked as a craftsman, he did not glorify the Father by etching fish symbols into wobbly tables or chiseling his favorite torah verse on crumbling walls. He glorified his Father by making good tables and building sturdy walls.

Jesus describes his own resurrection as an original work of craftsmanship: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”[20] And in his bodily resurrection, Jesus launched his most epic building project ever—to renovate and beautify and ennoble all of creation.[21] And, as Cosden argues in his concluding chapter, God invites us into that grand creative work as his apprentices. Where, then, do we start? We start in whatever spot of the vast cosmos he has positioned us and with whatever resources he has given us in our jobs. We can start in the kitchen, in the backyard soil, in the dirty neighborhood, behind a camera, in front of the piano, in the cubicle, at the blinking cursor on a blank screen. Wherever we are, we can start living in and toward the new creation. Whatever we have, we can tell the truth of the empty tomb, the truth that Jesus is Lord of all and that, therefore, matter matters.[22]

In conclusion, we are justified in saying that if Christ is not raised, not only would our faith be futile, but so would our work. Thankfully, because Christ is risen, not only is our faith eternally meaningful, so is our work.

NOTE: For further insight into the impact of Jesus’ resurrection on our creative work, as well as our intellectual, emotional, and relational lives see Dr. Williams’ latest book, REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:17.

[2] Darrell Cosden, The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 15.

[3] The Heavenly Good, 2.

[4] Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace, ed. Jordan Ballor and Stephen Grabill, trans. Nelson Kloosterman and

Ed M. van der Maas (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2016), 543).

[5] See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 193.

[6] See The Heavenly Good, 2.

[7] See, in particular, Cosden, Ch. 3.

[8] Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic (London: Longman’s, Green, 1925), 47–48.

[9] Mysticism and Logic, 48. French Existentialist, Albert Camus, echoes, “… when it comes to man’s most basic questions of meaning and purpose, the universe is silent … [When] I wrote the Myth of Sisyphus…[and] my first novel, The Stranger, I tried to show that all human attempts to answer the questions of meaning are futile…In a word, our very existence is absurd … So, what do you do? For me, the only response was … to commit suicide, intellectual suicide or physical suicide … To lose one’s life is only a little thing. But, to lose the meaning of life, to see our reasoning disappear, is unbearable. Its impossible to live a life without meaning” (Albert Camus, Albert Camus and the Minister).

[10] Michael D. Lemonick, “How It All Ends,” Time, June 25, 2001.

[11] Ephesians 1:10.

[12] See The Heavenly Good, Ch. 1.

[13] 13 Robert Farrar Capon counters, “the Bible is concerned with the perfecting of what God made, not with the trashing of it — with the resurrection of its native harmonies and orders, not with the replacement of them by something alien” (The Parables of the Kingdom [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985], 16).

[14] Luke 24:1–3.

[15] The Heavenly Good, 57.

[16] See Cosden’s helpful exegesis in Ch. 3.

[17] Philippians 3:21; Colossians 1:20; and Romans 8:21.

[18] John of Damascus, Defense of Icons, trans. Mary Allies (London: Thomas Baker, 1898), 16–17.

[19] Art professor Deborah Sokolove relays the story of young art student in her course who wanted to work in stained glass. The student, inspired by Amos 5:24—“let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream”—made several attempts at turning his complicated drawings into a stained glass reality. He failed again and again and was finally told that “glass could not always be made to do what you wanted to do. You had to work with its properties.” Then came the student’s epiphany: “I was oppressing the glass ... trying to make it accept my own agenda.” The professor comments, “When he worked with the properties of the glass with respect, something else emerged—a remarkable combination of symbols and designs, drawn from Amos but taking a fluid flowing shape.” See Deborah Sokolove, Sanctifying Art: Inviting Conversations between Artists, Theologians, and the Church, Art for Faith’s Sake series, vol. 9, ed. Clayton Schmit and J. Frede Jasper Davison (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 90.

[20] John 14:3. Scripture describes the Father and the Holy Spirit as raising Jesus from the dead, just as it describes the creation of the universe as a Trinitarian act. True creative work happens in community.

[21] See John 14:3.

[22] Robert Farrar Capon says it far better in a toast he loved to give at parties: “The road to Heaven does not run from the world but through it. The longest Session of all is no discontinuation of these sessions here, but a lifting of them all by priestly love. It is a place for men, not ghosts—for the risen gorgeousness of the New Earth and for the glorious earthiness of the True Jerusalem. Eat well then. Between our love and His Priesthood, He makes all things new. Our Last Home will be home indeed” (The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection [London: Macmillan, 1989], 180-181.