“But I just don’t see how knowing eschatology helps me love Jesus more…” the plaintive voice sounds more and more from the evangelical church. If Biola Torrey grad, Matthew Anderson is the spokesman for his crowd of younger evangelicals he claims, then eschatology for this group is indeed something their parents got way out of balance and should be dumped in lieu of more attention to working out Jesus’ reign in the world now. Ouch — that’s talking about my generation (or maybe my father’s [?!]). But there is some truth to the charge, I must admit. I mean I haven’t been to a good prophecy conference in decades! Still, there is more to eschatology than the dumpster merits, especially if we aim to be about Jesus’ reign in the present, which we should.
The topic is work. Something important for all of us, and it’s one that has interested me in particular teaching already five years now a theology of work course for Biola’s Crowell School of Business MBA program. Work is also a topic that naturally engages the desire for kingdom impact in the culture, because, as Karl Barth says, “human culture is produced in work.” So the Faith and Work movement is right on target for engaging a ready audience in a worthy endeavor. This of course isn’t the only good of theology of work. This relatively new domain for theological reflection has helped me tons to think better about the sources and consequences of a stubborn sacred-secular division of labor we still embrace that robs the Church of virtually 90% of its missional strength because what we do Sunday leaves people thinking what they do Monday doesn’t count for God — or it counts less. I’ve learned better a doctrine of calling and vocation and the intrinsic value of work to just being a human being — it’s part of the image of God, after all! Check it out in the story — you don’t have to go long before Adam and Eve, as the image of God, are mandated work to do (Gen 1:26-28; see also 2:5 and 15).
And speaking of the Bible’s Story, Adam and Eve and human mandates, I’ve also seen how one’s telling of the Bible’s Story, including its ending (that’s eschatology folks!) impacts how one sees the meaning of work in the present. Indeed, every one of the books I’ve encountered — every one — that go at work through a “biblical lens,” telling the story of work from Genesis to Revelation operate with the same version of the Story — the same eschatology, and derive similar conclusions for our work.
That version of the Story R. Kendall Soulen, in his insightful book, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Fortress, 1994), calls the “traditional narrative,” and it’s familiar to us all. It has 4 episodes: creation, fall, redemption in Christ, and re-creation/consummation (Heaven). We use this narrative all the time to systematize everything from the Gospel, to christology, to soteriology, to anthropology, to everything. But Soulen asks, “Is this the right narrative—or is something missing”? His frank answer comes off a little bracing: you don’t need 2/3 of the Bible to tell this version of the Story. Put that way, it just sounds like something is out of whack with the “traditional” approach. “Uh, Houston, we have a problem.”
In the book, Soulen will detail the consequences for Christian theology of not attending to Israel’s place in the Story—past, but especially future as laid out by the prophets. It truncates christology making Jesus the incarnation of the eternal Logos, not the incarnation of the God of Israel; it reduces salvation to the Christ the Lord of hearts rather than His being the Lord of nations also. And etc. For work, better attention to the Old Testament means a better chance to leverage meaning for human work beyond the usual redemptive, “God traces”, foreshadowing of Heaven, or “soul work” most accounts resign our work to now. Andy Crouch’s hugely popular and award winning book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (InterVarsity, 2008), and more recent to me, Tom Nelson’s very well done, Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work (Crossway, 2011) both conclude this way for work. Crouch even dedicates an entire chapter to “Why We Can’t Change the World.”
So this is the end hope for our work? Do your best, but really, it’s about hanging on for Heaven…?
Missing from this account is a Story for work a different eschatology would offer. Missing is the robust Israelite hope of the prophets for human work that one day will bring a bona fide God-culture to this world — not Heaven, but this world — under the patronage of a returned and visible Messianic Servant/Prince. Missing is the Story where human work actually solves the world’s problems of injustice, poverty, scarcity, and war, instead of toiling under them. Missing is an account for work that accomplishes humanity’s original mandate to “expand Eden’s order to the whole earth” by our work, as many biblical theologians are rightly reading Genesis 1-2 these days (e.g., G.K. Beale and Mitchel Kim, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth [IVP, 2014]). A human “ruling” and “subduing” that actually extended the order of Eden’s Garden to the whole earth, in spite of the presence of a hostile foe, is what it means to be in God’s image in the first creation narrative (Gen. 1:26-28). It’s what is held as a full-throated hope to us in the last narrative too (Rev. 2:25-27 and Rev. 20:5), and Israel’s Story still holds this as the hope for human work in this world once Jesus returns for the reward of his sufferings.
In the meantime, yes, work suffers under this world’s system still energized by the so-called “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4). We suffer and groan in our creative culture-making enterprises, and we may never get out alive before Jesus’ return. But that is not the end for our work this side of Heaven. No, Israel’s hope is still the world’s hope and that eschatology says our work’s achievements, our increases of knowledge, discovery and service for the common good of our fellow man will one day contribute to a culture that dominates and rules evil, injustice, inequality, and scarcity God’s way. Now there’s a hope for work to believe in.