This article is part of my ongoing series on Gnosticism. For a complete list of these articles, see ‘Full Links to Gnosticism Series.’
God and the Problem of Creation
Camille is a sophomore in college, majoring in theater with an emphasis in dance. Earlier in the year she was introduced to Jesus through friends with Campus Crusade, leading to what she describes as her “salvation experience.” Now Camille is only interested in serving Jesus. She wonders if perhaps she should switch her major in Bible, for she is unsure how “secular” pursuits like theatre and ballet fit with her newfound faith.
Rodrigo recently became uncomfortable when a group at his church got involved in local politics to try to address issues of homelessness and poverty. Although Rodrigo does not have a problem helping homeless people, he has a strong intuition that the church should not become involved in politics. Didn’t Jesus himself say that His kingdom is not of this world?
Trevor was excited when he first took over his uncle’s horticultural design business. The job afforded him the opportunity to work outdoors with trees, flowers, and hedges. But over the past year he has begun to feel stagnant at his job, which offers very few opportunities to witness for Christ. Although Trevor believes the work he does has real value, he recognizes the value as only temporal compared to the eternal value of saving souls. He is thinking about quitting work to go into full-time ministry.
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson believe that their primary calling as parents is to keep their children sheltered from worldly influences. This is one of the reasons they decided to homeschool their three daughters and one son, as well as to carefully monitor their social interactions. Now that the Johnson children are teenagers, they are pushing back against these restrictions. The boy wants to know why he isn’t allowed to have an iPhone or listen to rock music, and the girls want to know why they are not allowed to wear make-up. In each case, the Johnson parents give the same answer: “Those things are worldly. We should act and look differently to the world around us, for Romans 12:2 tells us not to be conformed to this world.”
The above accounts wrestle with vastly different issues, from the doctrine of vocation to the proper relationship between faith and politics and culture. Yet all these individuals are struggling in some way with how we should (or should not) relate the spiritual realm to our lived experience in the physical world. In very different ways, they are all asking a similar set of interrelated questions, including questions such as:
- What relationship does my spiritual life have with my life as an embodied human being?
- How does my relationship with Jesus relate to my physical experience as someone who must go to work, live in a community, and be part of the broader culture?
- Can anything of lasting value come out of the present space-time universe, or is this world simply a waiting room for the life to come?
- Is there a hard and fast dichotomy between the sacred and the secular?
- Does the kingdom of God have anything to do with this-worldly progress?
Is it a waste of time for Christians to invest too much attention in so called ‘secular’ pursuits—whether culture, art, politics, ecology, or our various jobs—since everything of ultimate value is directed towards the world to come?
In wrestling with such questions, some believers have maintained that the most effective Christian witness occurs when we withdraw from the world. Animated by Christ’s words that His kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36), they have conceived the Christian life in terms of escape from this present order.
Within this isolationist perspective, Christian institutions like family, church, and school form important institutional barriers against the world and its cultures. Because the world is passing away, the best we can hope to do is to focus exclusively on the life to come, occupying ourselves with pious activities designed to underscore the transient nature of our present life.
Moderate expressions of this isolationist posture have an honorable pedigree going back to early Christian monasticism. When Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD ending the persecution of Christians, many were concerned that it was too easy to be a Christian. As the Roman culture was gradually Christianized there was a danger of the faith becoming identified with the structures and institutions of this world. These concerns only increased in 380 AD when Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Suddenly, being a citizen of Rome was the same as being a Christian. The sharp spiritual vision of Jesus was in danger of being conflated with the temporal order. To push back against this new state of affairs, many believers began retreating into the desert to struggle as monks or nuns. These “desert fathers and mothers”, as they have come to be called, believed in taking literally Christ’s command to leave this world to pursue the kingdom of God (Mt. 19:21 & 29, Lk. 18:22). Their writings often emphasized the transitory nature of the present life and sometimes even appear to disparage physical things.
One of the first monastics was St. Anthony the Great (c. 251–356) who forsook the world to live as a hermit in the Egyptian desert. St. Anthony, who became a role model for countless other men and women, reflected his anti-world outlook by declaring that he did not need any books. St. Anthony was echoed by the church father Tertullian (ca. 160 –220) who famously declared “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian’s statement, though typically associated with a pious anti-intellectualism, reflected a wider unease about too closely identifying the kingdom of God with this world.
On the other side of the spectrum, many church fathers taught that Christians have a duty to embrace the cultures of this world wherever possible, and to work to bring progress to the temporal order. St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215) was particularly optimistic about integrating the sacred with the secular. Believing that everything had been infused by Christ, Clement worked to systematically integrate the gospel with the high culture of his day, including the latest literature, philosophy, science, law, etiquette, and the mythology of Greece and Rome. His project echoed a wider concern among most of the patristics for critically appropriating all that is good and true within worldly culture. The template for this project of appropriation had been set by St. Justin Martyr (100-165) when he argued that pagan culture contained within it “seeds” of Christianity. Building on this idea, St. Justin argued the believer not to uncritically reject the cultural products of paganism.
Since the time of the early church, Christians have continued struggling how to relate our heavenly citizenship with our lived experiences in this world. Sometimes these questions get caught up in broader issues, such as how properly to understand scriptural phrases like “the kingdom of God,” or “the new heavens and the new earth,” or the scriptural teaching on progress.
I would submit that the most effective way of addressing these and similar questions is not to confront them head on, but to first back up and explore what we already know about creation itself. If we do not properly understand creation—including the Genesis creation account—then we will have a hard time navigating the complex range of issues surrounding God’s purposes for this world, let alone our own part in the fulfillment of those purposes. Thus, I want to invite you to travel with me back in time with me, deep into the ancient past to the time when Genesis was written. Our journey into the ancient past will take a whirlwind tour from First Creation to New Creation, with key points during the journey in between. This overview of redemption history will shed fresh light on some of the questions that Camille, Rodrigo and many other believers have been struggling with about what it means to live as citizens of God’s kingdom in the modern world.
How to Read Ancient Texts
When we study texts from the ancient past, it is always a challenge to reconstruct how the original audience would have understood the texts in question. Words, phrases, and concepts that meant one thing to a contemporary American may have meant something very different to people at another time and place. For example, in 1852 Charles Dickens wrote to his friend Mrs. Watson to express regret at the death of her husband. Referring to her late husband, Dickens said, “We looked forward to years of unchanged intercourse.” Nowadays the word intercourse has a rather restricted meaning, but when Dickens was writing it simply meant conversation and social exchange. To interpret Dickens’ use of the word intercourse based on contemporary meanings of the term would be absurd. This is an example of how a good historian must try to submit to the mindset that persisted at the time a text was written. This is especially true when we are studying texts from cultures that are far removed from our own in both time and language.
The creation account in the book of Genesis is no exception to this general principle. Genesis is an ancient document that dates from thousands of years ago. It was probably written by Moses during the Bronze Age, compiled from earlier written and oral sources, reaching final form around the time of Ezra. The Bronze Age context is crucial, for the text draws on cultural meanings arising from the heritage of Babylonian, Egyptian, and Canaanite environments, which we call the Ancient Near East (ANE). Thus, while the creation account described in Genesis has timeless spiritual application that can be appreciated on many levels, it also had a very specific meaning within the original historical and cultural context in which it was first transmitted and received. That specific historical meaning is simply how the original readers or hearers would have understood the text. Although God is not limited to any particular culture, He speaks to people in terms they can understand, drawing on the religious imagination of the time—a religious imagination was often a memory or corruption of original truth.
But can we really know how the original readers of Genesis would have taken the text to mean? Well, think back to the Dickens’ quote for a minute. The reason we know Dickens was not talking about sex when he used the word “intercourse” in his letter to Mrs. Watson is because of the context of the letter, a context that includes numerous other documents from the same period in which “intercourse” is used to refer to conversation. In much the same way, when we approach the text of Genesis, it is important to avail ourselves of the wealth of archaeological and textual evidence from the same period that can help us reconstruct what the text would have meant to the original readers and hearers.
Discoveries from archaeology and historiography have given us a plethora of information about the culture of the Ancient Near East during the time when the Genesis narrative received final form. Within these collections of sources, certain key themes keep recurring, including themes that help create an important context for understanding Genesis. Among these is the important role that temples, images, and priests played throughout this ancient culture. Let’s look at this more closely.
Images in the Ancient World
One of the things we know about the culture of the Ancient Near East is that it was typical for a king to erect as many images of himself as he could. He would do this as a way of establishing the extent of his kingdom. The closest parallel we have today is a nation’s flag. Just as the presence of an American flag overhead let’s us know that we are in the United States, so people living in the Ancient Near East could tell whose dominion they were in based on the images. At a time before mass communication, the geographical extent of a king’s images played a very important role in establishing the extent of his territorial sovereignty. For the most powerful rulers, such as the Pharaohs of Egypt or the Emperors of Babylon, their images would extend over tens of thousands of miles. If a rival ruler wanted to challenge the king’s authority, then he would deface the king’s images, replacing them with images of his own.
In addition to this geographical focus of images, there was also a numerical focus. The amount of images a king could erect was crucial for establishing his wealth. In the bronze age, it was expensive to construct images. A wealthy king might be able to spread ten images over five miles, whereas a pour king might only be able to afford three. Thus, the number of images, and also the material out of which they were constructed, testified to the ruler’s wealth. Wealth, of course, was related to power, since the greater a king’s wealth, the more armies he could afford to amass.
Kings in the Ancient Near East were often believed to represent their nation’s particular god. For example, the pharaohs of Egypt were associated with their god Ra. Similarly, many Mesopotamian and Babylonian rulers justified their political authority by claiming to be substantiations of particular deities. This practice continued up to the times of the Roman Emperors, many of whom claimed divine honors. Thus, when a king received glory by placing his images throughout his land, this also reflected back to the prototype, namely the god that the king was associated with. By being associated with their god, kings were believed to stand between heaven and earth. With this came the special task of learning the will of the gods and then using royal power to enforce that heavenly will on earth.
Temples in the Ancient World
Images were closely tied to temples. In the religious imagination of the Ancient Near East, a god’s temple was usually associated either with a garden or a mountain. Ziggurats in ancient Mesopotamia are examples of a mountain temple, while something like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are an example of an attempt to combine garden and mountain symbolism into a single structure. A nation’s god was believed to be enthroned in a central temple, which symbolized his reign in the heavens over the gods of the other nations. The building of a temple would culminate in a ceremony to place the god’s image inside, thus enabling the god to descend from heaven to dwell within that image (while also continuing to live and rule in the heavens). Once the god came to rest in the temple, this served as his earthly dwelling from which he exercised dominion over the world. This worldwide sovereignty would find expression in the dominion of the god’s favored nation. John Walton, a scholar of the Ancient Near East, likens the functions of ancient temples to a god’s “control room.” Here’s how Walton explains it:
“The role of the temple in the ancient world is not primarily a place for people to gather in worship in modern churches. It is a place for the deity—a sacred space. It is his home, but more importantly his headquarters—the control room. When the deity rests in the temple it means that he is taking command, that he is mounting to his throne to assume his rightful place and his proper role.” (From The Lost World of Genesis 1).
Garden, Images, and Wilderness
Readers familiar with the Genesis narrative will probably already be connecting many of the dots. Genesis 1 and 2 drew on numerous features of the Ancient Near Eastern religious imagination, but in a way that subverted those very ideas. Let’s look specifically at the passage in Genesis 1:26-28 where the Lord creates man:
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth..’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26-28)
To the original readers and hearers of Genesis, this passage would have been a clear reference to a god-king finding substantiation in an image. But instead of men building a temple and then placing an image of their god in it, the Lord created a garden to be His temple and then places His image (mankind) in it. This would have been clearer in the original Hebrew since the wording is that God literally creates man into His image. Literally, we are not in the image of God; we are the image of God. Just as it was believed that a god would rule the world through his image in the temple, so the true God intended to rule the world through his images, men and women. This elevates the dignity of human beings in a way that subverted many of the dehumanizing practices of the wider Ancient Near Eastern culture.
In keeping with Ancient Near Eastern ideas, this vocation to image God had both a numerical and geographical focus. The command to fill and subdue the earth, and to take dominion over every living thing, would have been understood as a clear reference to the geographical expansion of a king’s images. Remember that the geographical expansion of a king’s images was key in establishing his territorial sovereignty. The idea was that Adam and Eve’s descendants would spread out, so that the wilderness outside the Garden of Eden would eventually be subdued and cultivated by men and women acting as God’s vice-regents. In fulfilling the dominion mandate, the entire world and its cultures would take on the quality of the “sacred space” of the Garden, where God walked and talked with man. The importance of cultivating the earth (Gen. 2:15), and naming the animals (2:19-20), fits within this larger vocation of asserting divine authority over every aspect of territory and worldly experience. That is why the dominion mandate of Gen. 1:28 is sometimes called “the cultural mandate.” Although this command is for both men and women, Genesis associates it particularly with the man.
In addition to the geographical and cultural aspect of the image-bearing vocation, there was also a numerical aspect. The command to be fruitful and multiply was a clear reference to the numerical expansion of God’s images. The more people are faithfully living out their image-bearing vocation, the more glory goes to God, the prototype behind that image. This command to expand numerically is given to both men and women, but the text associates it particularly with woman and her child-baring abilities.
By fulfilling both these tasks (geographical expansion and numerical expansion), God intended for mankind to bring order and population into the formless void outside the garden. This is a continuation of the process God started during the creation week when He began filling the great void with life and order, and populating it with living things like fish and stars. Adam and Eve’s family were meant to serve as God’s vice-regents in the process of continuing creation. As their descendants explored, expanded, and developed the earth’s resources, then more and more of the wilderness would be filled with beautiful gardens, and peaceful well-ordered societies.
In order to fully understand the significance of continuing creation, some more pieces from the Ancient Near Eastern puzzle need to be put in place. In our modern worldview, we tend to think of creation as juxtaposed to non-existence. We thus suppose that the opposite of being is non-being. For example, when we read in Genesis 1:1 that God created the earth, we assume this means He created it out of non-existence. Yet the very next verse tells us that the pre-creational state was an earth “without form, and void: and darkness was on the face of the deep.” (Gen. 1:2) Whatever this actually meant, it was clearly a world without the order, structure, and form that God created for the Garden of Eden. This reflects a more ancient understanding in which the opposite of being is not non-existence but chaos and disorder. God’s creative work had involved filling the primal elements with order, while instructing His images—men and women—to continue bringing form, structure, and light into the wilderness outside the garden. This is implied in the very word God uses when He tells Adam to “subdue” the earth. (Gen. 1:28). ‘Subdue’ is kabash in Hebrew, which is almost always used to refer to violent military conquest. Adam’s job was to conquer creation.
This same point emerges from the clear temple symbolism embedded in the Genesis narrative. Remember that in the Ancient Near East, it was believed that a god’s temple was his control room for reigning over the whole earth. The temple was also the place where heaven and earth intersected. The garden temple that God created for His images is no exception to this, as Eden was a place where God’s presence dwelt, where heaven and earth intersected, and from whence God’s dominion would flow throughout the rest of the earth. Significantly, after God placed His image in this temple, we read that God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7). This wording is significant in light of Ancient Near Eastern customs. In the Ancient Near East, when a temple was complete and it was time for the god to come and dwell inside the image, there would be a ceremony whereby the mouth and nose of the image would be opened, allowing the god to come and inhabit it. Through such ceremonies, people in the ancient world believed they could manipulate their god to meet their needs. The Genesis story is drawing on this same symbolism but inverting it. Here’s how Biblical scholar and Eastern Orthodox priest, Fr. Stephen De Young explains this symbolism:
“After its installation, a ceremony was performed in order to open its mouth and nose, so that the spirit of the god could enter into it…. What we see in Genesis is precisely the reverse of this pagan practice. Upon the completion of his own temple, his own sacred space, God then creates his own image. After creating a human person as his image, God himself breathes into him the breath of life, opening his nostrils, and causing him to live, and to function as God’s image. The gift which is here given to human persons is to be the means by which God is going to act, to work, in his creation. This is a gift and a privilege, as God does not need humanity in order to act in Creation, any more than he needed a creation in which to act.… Here we see the inversion of the pagan view that God is desirous of humans to fulfill some need, in return for which he gives blessings. Rather, God desires that human persons share in his life by participating in his working in the world.” (From “Man as the Image of God in Reverse.”)
It should be clear by now that while the Genesis creation narrative draws on Ancient Near Eastern cultural understandings, it did so in a way that was deeply subversive. The Genesis account would have rightly been perceived as a challenge to the gods of the other nations, as well as a challenge to their rival creation accounts. In the Ancient Near East, each nation used their creation myths to establish the authority of their particular god over the gods of the other nations. The origins of Genesis—written by Moses at a time when the children of Israel were asserting Yahweh’s authority against rival Egyptian and Canaanite deities—is a direct challenge to these competing narratives.
Brian Godawara reflects on this political aspect of Browns Age creation myths.
“One of the functions of ancient creation narratives, is to literarily encode the religious and political overthrow of one culture by another. When a king or kingdom would rise to power in the ancient world, they would often displace the vassal culture’s creation stories with their own stories of how their deities triumphed over others to create the world in which they now lived…. Genesis 1 is the legitimation of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and his authority and power over all things, including the gods of Canaan, who are in fact, reduced to nothing.” (Biblical Creation and Storytelling: Cosmogony, Combat and Covenant)
A Defaced Image
Any discussion of the Genesis narrative would be incomplete without reference to the fall, when Adam and Eve fell into disobedience and sin entered the world. The Ancient Near Eastern context of mankind’s primordial vocation creates a context for properly understanding the nature of sin. The problem with sin is not simply that mankind took on a fallen nature, but that human beings became defaced images of God, unable to properly flourish in their vocation. This led to God placing curses on both the geographical and numerical aspects of our image-bearing vocation. By increasing a woman’s pain in childbirth (Gen. 3:16), the task of multiplying God’s images throughout the earth became much harder. This curse reflects more than simply a woman’s pain at childbirth, for the job of raising faithful sons and daughters now becomes a struggle, as Adam and Eve discovered all too soon through the sad experience of their son Cain. The numerical expansion of humankind over the earth also became disordered, with all sorts of vices growing up around the means for reproduction, including vices that eventually made necessary the flood.
The curse on the ground brought hardship to man’s task of tilling, subduing and ruling the earth (Gen. 3:17-19). This curse involved more than weeds and thistles, for the task of bringing order to the earth becomes complicated by rival ways of ordering the world and substitute notions of what constitutes human flourishing. Sin broke the divine ordering of things, bringing into the experience of human beings the darkness, void, and formlessness that existed prior to creation. One example of this darkness was the emerging temptation for man to use his stewardship over the world as a means to dominate and control others, and to exploit nature’s resources in disordered ways. The vision of a wilderness populated with beautiful gardens and well-ordered societies starts to look impossible.
Despite the curse, men and women remain images of God, just as a cracked pot remains a pot. Accordingly, human beings retained vestiges of the prototype in whose image they were created, and thus they remain responsible for their original image-bearing vocation. We see this in the fact that even after the flood, the Lord continued to reiterate the dominion mandate (Gen 9:1-3 & 7) and continued to use the language of men and women being images of God (Gen. 9:6).
Abraham and the Story of Israel
God still looked to men and women to function as His images, to take dominion in His name, to expand geographically and numerically, and to bring order and light out of chaos and darkness. This continued vocation sets the context for the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. When God called Abraham, He promised to give His descendants a land (Gen. 26:4; 28:13-14; 35:11-12), to make his descendants into a mighty nation (Gen 12:2; 18:18; 22:17), and to make them a blessing to the rest of the world (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:4; 28:14). These promises were reiterated to Abraham’s immediate descendants, Isaac and Jacob (later called Israel).
The rest of the Old Testament is basically the story of this people. But in another way, it is also the story of the whole world and a continuation of what began in the Garden of Eden. This is because the call of Abraham, the giving of the law, and the whole history of God’s people through exodus, conquest, empire and exile, are all God’s way of showing humanity how to be faithful to their image-bearing vocation. Through the Torah, the Lord provided detailed instructions to Abraham’s descendants how to cultivate the earth and its materials, how to reproduce and populate the earth, and how to bring divinely-ordered structure into the wilderness. As such, the physical land of Israel was meant to serve the same function as the Garden, as a base for God to extend His rulership throughout the whole earth. What would this look like in practice? The prophetic corpus makes clear that the end goal of the Israel project was the same goal the Lord had when Adam and Eve were placed in the garden: an earth filled with men and women worshiping Him (Micah 4). Thus, the world’s fate became inextricably linked to Israel’s story. The Lord called the children of Israel, not at the exclusion of everyone else, but in order that this people might bring life into a world that had descended back into its pre-creational condition of darkness, void, and formlessness.
The election of Israel is essentially creational work. Remember that the original creation brought order out of chaos, form out of void, and structure out of futility. Also recall that God gave men and women the task of extending the sacred order of the garden throughout the entire earth. This same vocation is recapitulated in the story of Israel. By the time God called Abraham, the world was fraught with gross immorality, idol worship, child sacrifice, greed, injustice, and gross exploitation of the earth’s resources and exploitation of other human beings. By making Abraham’s descendants into a mighty nation, God was creating a mechanism for bringing justice and judgment to the earth. Once again, God was using His images to bring form, order, and structure into a realm of chaos, futility, and emptiness. For example, by giving the children of Abraham the law, the Lord was showing this people how to begin having rightly ordered relationships with each other and with the world. Or again, by giving detailed instructions how to worship Him, the Lord was showing this people how to have a right relationship with their Creator. In this way, the call of Abraham is a recapitulation of the creational task of bringing light into the darkness, bringing order into disorder, bringing form into formlessness, and bringing structure and content into the void. To put things in Ancient Near Eastern terms, the revelation God gave to the children of Israel showed them how to achieve being, how to live, how to exist, and how to be human.
The difference is that because of sin, men and women can no longer perform this work from a point of access to God’s presence, as had been the case before Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise. What happens now is that God brings his dwelling place to humanity from outside, by descending into a world that had the spiritual characteristics of a wilderness. We see this in Mt. Sinai, and in the tabernacle, and in the temple. The garden symbolism within the design of the tabernacle and temple (1 Kings 6) explicitly link them back to Eden, whereas later references to the Eden being a mountain (Ez. 28:14) explicitly link it to Sinai. To the ancient Israelites, the message couldn’t be clearer: God is bringing Paradise back to man. The heart of this new Eden was the ark of the covenant, which was carefully guarded by cherubim (Ex. 25:10-22). Again, the Edenic symbolism is clear since cherubim were the guardians of the way back to Eden.
Even as God was bringing Eden back to His people through the law, the temple, the tabernacle, and the ark, this access to God’s presence remained carefully regulated. Thus, Moses was only allowed to ascend the holy mountain into God’s presence (Ex. 19), while the High Priest was only allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the temple once a year (Lev. 16). The point is clear: sinful man can no longer have unmediated access to God like Adam and Eve had in the Garden. Even so, God’s mediated presence in Sinai, in the law, in the Tabernacle, and in the Temple, all served the same function as the original Garden of Eden, namely as operating hubs for God to rule the earth through His images. Just as Adam and Eve were meant to cultivate the wilderness so it could become a point of access to God’s presence, so the children of Israel were meant to bring God’s presence to the rest of the nations. Through one nation having mediated access to His presence, God promised to reach all the rest of the world (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:4; 28:14), so that all creation might realize its primordial purpose. God’s ultimate purpose is nothing short of a renewed creation, where the wilderness has been tamed (Is. 35 & 61) and where heaven and earth once again intersect (Ez. 47:1-12).
Those familiar with the story know that God’s chosen people did not exactly turn the world into the Garden of Eden. The descendants of Abraham were just as faithless as Adam and Eve. They frequently turned to the gods of the other nations, the very gods that Yahweh had asserted His dominion over with the Genesis creation narrative. As a result of their sins, Abraham’s descendants ending up in exile, which essentially means being cast into the wilderness. This happened first in B.C. 712, when the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity in Assyria following the destruction of their capital city, Samaria, as the hands of Shalmaneser. Then in BC 586 the people of Judah were taken to Babylon in exile after being conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar. Before taking the people away, King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed and plundered Solomon’s temple.
The tragedy of these defeats was not simply that God’s people suffered, but that it reflected badly on their God (Ez. 36:20). Remember that in the Ancient Near East, each nation believed that their god was sovereign over the gods of the other nations, and that their god would demonstrate this sovereignty through the supremacy of his favored nation. That is why passages like Psalm 64 link glory in battle to the work of God being proclaimed among the Gentiles. Conversely, if your tribe or nation lost in battle, or became enslaved to rival tribes, then you might conclude either that your god let this happen because he is angry at you, or that your god is not actually supreme over the gods of the other nations. If the former, then perhaps you need to make more sacrifices; if the latter, then perhaps it’s time to switch to worshiping the god of another nation. During the exiles, faithful Jews and Israelites believed that God was still supreme, but that He had let His people suffer as a punishment for their sins. Still, in keeping with the ANE worldview assumed throughout the Old Testament, they knew that the story had to end with Yahweh vindicating Himself by redeeming his people. If He did not do that, then Yahweh would not truly be supreme over the gods of the other nations.
It was during the period of the exile that many of the Psalms were written. They were written simply as prayers for the Lord would restore His people, forgive their sins, and remember the promises He made to Abraham and David. Psalm 53 is a good example of an exilic Psalm. It ends with these moving words,
Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion!
When God brings back the captivity of His people,
Let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad. (Ps. 53:6)
Many of the exilic prophets expanded on this theme by speaking about a new covenant the Lord would make with His people in the latter days. The description of the New Covenant is Edenic in its symbolism, since the descriptions include such things as worldwide justice and peace (Isa. 9: 2-7, 11:1-5, 42:3-4; Zech. 9:9-10; Mic. 4:2-3), and a reversal of the curse placed on Adam (Isa. 11:6-9; 35:1-2 & 7; 43:19-20, 65:17-25; Ezek. 34:25-31, 34-35, 47:8-12; Hos. 2:18). Equally, important, the prophesies said that God would inscribe His laws on the hearts of his people (Jer. 31:31-33; Ezek. 36:16-38). When God’s people were put right, then the heavenly Eden would flow throughout the entire earth. This was encapsulated in a marvelous vision in Ezekiel’s prophecies, where rivers of healing waters flowed out of the temple at Jerusalem to restore all the nations.
This vast array of prophecies were bound up with the idea of God’s kingdom, which simply meant the rule of Israel’s God on the earth. During the exile, kingdom theology evolved in some new directions that had only been implicit previously. There emerged an idea that a Messiah would come to sit on David’s throne, and that through this kingdom, Yahweh would reverse the curse of Adam, bring worldwide judgment against evildoers, and institute justice and peace from sea to sea.
The people of Judah did eventually return from their Babylonian exile. The return began in B.C. 536 under the decree of Cyrus. Yet back in their homeland, God’s people were occupied by one foreign power after another. And although they eventually rebuilt the Temple, the Lord’s presence had not returned. All the wonderful promises associated with return from exile seemed far from being fulfilled. In fact, writings from the time show that God’s people still considered themselves to be in exile (that is, the spiritual wilderness) even though they had returned geographically.
What this continuing exile made clear was that Israel herself was in need of redemption—not just physical redemption from her enemies, but redemption from the sin and unfaithfulness that had brought about the exile in the first place. Through their sin and compromise, the people of the solution had actually become the people of the problem. It is ironic that in the first century we find the temple—which was supposed to epitomize Israel’s vocation of bringing healing to the rest of the nations—had become the very symbol of her corruption. The temple was controlled by a power-hungry elite who used religion as a means to oppress the poor and advance their own self-serving agendas. The very ones who were meant to be God’s source of renewal to the world were themselves in need of blessings, forgiveness, and renewal.
The Second (New) Creation
When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman. When St. John introduces Jesus, He does so in a way that significantly parallels the creation account in Genesis 1.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. (John 1:1-5)
This passage in John 1 echoes the description in Genesis 1 of an earth covered in darkness. Both Genesis 1 and John 1 describe light penetrating the darkness with divine order. Luke’s parallel gospel account similarly draws on imagery from Genesis 1 when the angel Gabriel announces to the Holy Virgin that “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee” (Lk. 1:34). This is a direct echo of Genesis 1:2 where the Spirit of God overshadowed creation and moved upon the face of the waters to bring forth life. Putting all of this together, the implication could not be clearer: through Christ, God is recreating the world. The work of continuing creation that had formed the theological backdrop to Israel’s vocation, is now being fulfilled in Christ.
Significantly, the goals of New Creation are the same as the goals for the first creation: an earth filled with images of God—images that mark out all of creation for God’s glory. But whereas the first creation depended on Adam and Eve for achieving this, in this second creation God Himself takes responsibility for fulfilling mankind’s vocation. Jesus thus becomes the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15) who achieves for the earth what Adam and Eve did not (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-22). He is called the second or last Adam (2 Cor. 15:45), while His mother goyim. All of this points to the reality that in Christ the story of Genesis 1 and 2 is receiving a great and wonderful recapitulation.
Just as Jesus is the new Adam, He is also the new Israel, achieving for the world what Israel could not. By bringing in a new covenant, He begins to write His laws on His people’s hearts (Jer. 31:31-33; Ezek. 36:16-38; Heb. 8:7-13) so that they can begin fulfilling their image-bearing vocation. Moreover, by judging the temple and applying its functions to Himself and His ministry (Mt. 24:2; Jn. 2:13-17; 4:21-24), Jesus is proclaiming that He is the new Eden, the place where we can go to have access to God. Once again, men and women can walk and talk with God as Adam did in the garden. Through Christ, paradise comes back to man, but unlike the mediated access to Eden at Sinai and in the temple, Christ brings unmediated access straight to God’s presence (Heb. 4:14-16; 8-9). As a result of being brought back into God’s presence, men and woman can rule over creation (Eph. 2:6; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 5:10; 20:6; 22:5) as Adam and Eve were meant to do.
Taming the Wilderness
We recall that God had always intended for His images to expand His divine rule from the Garden to the wilderness. This wilderness is represented in Scripture by numerous images, including the desert, the sea, and the goyim (Gentiles). One of the reasons the Gentiles represented the wilderness is because they lived outside the divine structure that God brought to His people through Torah. The clean-unclean distinctions throughout the Bible represented this larger dichotomy between a people whose communities were structured around Torah (the heart of which was the temple with its Eden symbolism) vs. those peoples who were outside Torah and therefore in the spiritual wasteland. Although the purpose of the covenants had always been to extend God’s reign to the Gentiles in the wilderness, this project had stalled through the unfaithfulness of God’s people. But as the Edenic function of the temple came to rest on Jesus and His ministry, this made it possible for the rule of God to extend into the wilderness. That is why Jesus could explicitly invoke Isaiah 61 (a chapter about the wilderness being tamed by God) and apply it to His ministry (Lk. 4:17-21). Jesus is telling people that the exile is over, and the way to paradise is being thrown open.
The idea of extending the reign of Israel’s God into the wilderness comes into clearer focus with four landmark events that occurred after Christ’s ascension. The first of these is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon all the nations (Acts 2). Remember that throughout the Old Testament, the nations of the world (the goyim) symbolized the wilderness. The second landmark event was when Peter was told that God is making wild beasts clean, followed by the Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized (Acts 10). Remember that wild beasts and the world of unclean things had always been associated with the wilderness. The third landmark was the missionary journeys of apostles like Paul, Silas, and Barnabas, as the reign of Israel’s God was brought to desolate places and spiritual wastelands. All of this reached its climax in the fourth landmark, which was Paul’s robust defense of justification by faith. The doctrine of justification pointed to the same reality as Pentecost, namely that God’s covenant community is no longer defined by Israel-only boundary markers like Torah with its symbols of circumcision and temple worship; instead, the people of God are now defined by faith in Christ. When you put all of these landmarks together—Pentecost, the cleansing of Gentiles and wild beasts, the missionary journeys, and the doctrine of justification by faith—they all point to the reality that the place of God’s presence is being extended into the wilderness, in fulfilment of God’s original design.
The extension of Eden into the wilderness is both quantitative and qualitative. It is quantitative in so far as God’s renewed images are progressively coming to include every tribe, tongue, and nation. This reflects the numerical and geographical aspect of mankind’s image-bearing vocation that had played such a crucial role in the opening chapters of Genesis. But there is also an important qualitative aspect reflecting the dominion-taking aspect of the image-bearing vocation. Recall that the importance of cultivating the earth and naming the animals had fit within the larger vocation of asserting divine authority over every aspect of territory and worldly experience. By bringing the rule of God into all aspects of human endeavor, Christ’s people continue God’s work of bringing order, form, and structure into the spiritual void. Through Christ, the God of Israel is claiming dominion over the gods of the other nations, bringing all of creation out of exile in fulfilment of the Abrahamic promise that his seed would be a blessing to all nations.
Celebrating New Creation With Divine Liturgy and Renewed Communities
Asserting Christ’s dominion over all of life is not something political, though it may sometimes include that. Fundamentally, it is much more basic. In the same way that all the nations are being captured for Christ through evangelism (Mt. 28:19-20), He also instructs us to bring every activity into His kingdom through discipleship. This means that all of life—from our eating to our breathing—is to be offered up to God in worship (1 Cor. 10:31). (I have further explored this idea in my article ‘Eating and Breathing Sacramentally‘, and in my series on the sacramental imagination.)
Conversely, any earthly activity that is not pursue for the glory of God, represents a type of wilderness waiting to be brought into the Eden of Christ’s space. This notion received extensive development in the teachings of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390). “As far as Gregory is concerned,” Sigurd Bergmann observed, “no part of creation goes untouched by the Creator’s work of redemption…. It is this world and no other that is to be drawn up to God.” (Creation Set Free, by Sigurd Bergmann, pp. 97-98).
The doctrine that all creation is redeemed and offered to God in worship finds fulfillment in early Christian worship, particularly with the Divine Liturgy when all of life is brought into the Holy of Holies and then offered up to God in praise. In the Divine Liturgy, the way to Eden is thrown open to all, in one continuous celebration of new creation.
Remember that in the Ancient Near East, a god’s presence in his temple served as the operating hub for ruling the earth through His images, as expressed in their geographical and numerical expansion. Adam and Eve had lost direct access to God’s presence and, consequently, they lost the ability to effectively rule the earth. Although their descendants did expand geographical and numerically, they did so as defaced images, without direct access to God’s presence. Instead of humans bringing structure, form, and order into the wilderness, the reverse occurred: the futility and chaos of the wilderness came to define the experience of human beings. But all of this is reversed in the Divine Liturgy. Human being are brought back into God’s presence, and in boldness they can approach the unapproachable glory. Through Christ, the way to the holy of holies is thrown open for all.[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””][/perfectpullquote]
In the Slavonic tradition, they have a custom during the Vespers service that powerfully illustrates this. While Psalm 103 is being read (Psalm 104 in the Latin tradition), the priest stands outside the alter with the royal doors closed. This symbolizes Adam being outside of Paradise. However, afterwards as the priest goes into the altar to represent paradise being recovered through Christ. In this service, as in the other services, the opening of the royal doors show that the gates of Paradise have been opened to us. (Fr. Demetrios Carellas has a wonderful talk about the Holy Liturgy where he explains about this. See link on the right.)
As in Genesis, God’s presence remains the operating hub for bringing structure, form, and order into the wilderness. Accordingly, the service of the Divine Liturgy ends not with the Eucharist but with the dismissal, when Christians are sent back out into the world to continue bringing paradise into the wilderness. Through the sacramental life of the church, Christians are empowered to go out into the world and fulfil their primordial vocation of bringing order and structure into the realm of chaos, futility, and emptiness.
What does it look like in practice for Christians to bring paradise into the wilderness? It’s very practical. Thieves will cease stealing and start working (Eph. 4:28). Husbands will treat their wives with gentleness (1 Pet. 3:7; Eph. 25-29) and wives will submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-23; 1 Pet. 3:1). The church will provide counseling for those whose lives and relationships are in disorder (Gal 6:1; Phil. 4:3). People will replace filthy speaking with gentleness (Col. 3:8 & 12). The rich will help the poor (2 Tim 6:18-10), and the poor will be content with what they have (1 Tim. 6:6-10). Relationships that were previously characterized by suspicion and backbiting will be replaced by brotherly love and peace (Rom. 12:10-21).
But new creation is not just about ethics, as if Jesus came to simply make us better people. After all, the problem with sin is that it severed the connection between the image (mankind) and its prototype (God). What is needed to rectify the fallen human condition is for the divine life to personally unite with human nature. What is needed is for human nature to be re-enlivened with the divine life, for God to once again breathe His life into the nostrils of men and women. Only in this way can human nature actually be healed (“saved”) to begin realizing its proper end. Jesus taught that this is exactly what was happening in and through His own ministry. Through descending down into death, the God-man was able to lift out of death those who were perishing. The most obvious manifestation of this is how Christ’s life-giving death gives life to those in the graves (Mt. 27:52-53, Eph. 4:8-10, 1 Pet. 3:19). But Jesus also defeated the death-principle through actually reuniting human nature to the divine nature. This is a theme that would later be developed through the writings of church fathers such as Athanasius of Alexandria (296- 373). Even as early as the New Testament writers, we find the recurring idea that through Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection, the life of heaven has become injected into human nature, making it possible for humanity to begin realizing its primordial vocation. This is the background to Christian ethics. The natural result of our nature being healed and us being incorporated into the divine life, is for communities of virtue to spring up. (I have discussed this in more detail in my article ‘Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 1: Historical and Theological Background.)
This sets the context for understanding what early Christians meant by “salvation.” Within the first-century context, saying that “Jesus saves” referred to more than simply the fact that Jesus made it possible for believers to go to heaven when they die. Rather, Jesus saves humanity in the sense that He reunites human nature to the life of God. Instead of mankind being defined by death, men and women can now be defined by life and thus to fulfil their vocation to image God throughout the earth. Thus, in one of St. Basil the Great’s pre-communion prayers, he talks about how Christ’s blood “didst renew our nature corrupted by sin.” In the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, the uniting of man with God that began at the incarnation continues as the life of God is mediated to mankind through the sacramental life of the Church. The ministry of the Church thus becomes the means for men and women to experience salvation, in the aforementioned sense of being reunited with the divine life. The incarnation of Christ—made present to men and women through the sacramental life of the Church—is the medicine of immortality through which the human soul is healed.
All this has ethical ramifications, to be sure, but the ethics are the result and not the cause of new creation. By defeating death and bringing new creation life to His followers, the Lord is creating a people who can once again use their image-bearing vocation to assert His rightful authority over all false gods. This results in restored relationships and rightly ordered communities, as a continuation of the historical process that began at Genesis and which will reach fulfilment in the eschatological future (more about that in a minute).
God’s Kingdom is a Process
In actual practice, the history of God’s new covenant people is messy. All too often, the church resembles the wilderness instead of Eden. We must not forget that for the Biblical and Patristic writers, salvific healing is a process, both for the individual Christian and for the earth. In both cases, the process remains incomplete until resurrection. Christ’s kingdom is still in the process of being built, and it is the vocation of the church to help build for it.
Many people are uncomfortable with this historical aspect of Christ’s kingdom, let alone the idea that we can build for God’s kingdom. The idea that God’s kingdom is subject to the contingencies of historical process can be difficult. As one pastor recently put it in a blog post interacting with my views,
“…we cannot ‘build the Kingdom.’ You cannot build what is and always has been complete. The Kingdom is divine. Divine things only come in ‘complete.’ If it is divine, it is whole and has its own fullness.”
This is an attractive position, for instead of God’s kingdom being closely associated with the messiness of time and historical contingencies, it enables us to emphasize that the fullness of God’s kingdom is to be found in eternity. But here again, we must try to see things through the lens of an ancient reader.
In the classical world that formed the backdrop to the New Testament, political rulers would often assert dominion over lands that were still enemy occupied territory. “I’m the new ruler now,” they would essentially declare, “so it’s time to bow the knee or be conquered.” Even when the ruler’s ascendancy to the throne was initiated by overthrowing the previous king, there would still follow a period of time in which the new ruler would have to assert his authority, both among those who had not yet heard the news, as well as among those who were defiant and still clung to the previous regime. He would have to put down rebellions, and bring order and rule to the lands that were now rightfully his, or which he considered to be rightfully his as a result of conquest.
This political context helps us to understand a tension we see throughout the New Testament. Through His incarnation, death and resurrection, Christ made a spectacle of Satan and defeated him (Col. 2:15). Yet not everyone has heard the news (Rom 10:14). Much of the world carries on as normal, while others consciously defy Christ. New Creation has burst onto the scene, but it remains small to begin with, even as the Garden of Eden had been but a small part of God’s entire creation. Just as Adam and Eve were given the job of extending Eden into the wilderness, so the church has been tasked with spreading the new Eden into the wilderness. Christians can pursue this work in hope, for Scripture promises that when Jesus returns, He will finish whatever is left, subduing all opposing authorities and powers (1 Cor. 15:24). This helps us to understand why the New Testament sometimes describes God’s kingdom as fully present, but elsewhere describes it as still future. For example, Jesus declares that the Kingdom of God has come upon the people (Lk. 11:20) and that it is “at hand” (Mt. 4:17), and yet He also instructs them to pray “Thy Kingdom come,” (Mt. 6:10) as if it is something they are still to be realized. Similarly, Paul proclaims that Jesus is raised above all principalities and powers (Eph. 1:21) with “all things under his feet” (Eph. 1:22), and yet elsewhere he writes that Christ must reign until all things are put under His feet (1 Cot. 15:25). Paul taught that Jesus is the king of this world (2 Tim. 6:15), yet also says that the powers of darkness rule this world (Eph. 2:1-3; 6:12).
This tension between the already and the not-yet would have been perfectly intelligible to a first century reader given the process ancient kings went through in establishing their kingdom following their coronation. We have an example of this with Herod the Great. In 40 BC, the Roman Senate officially declared that Herod was “King of Judea.” There followed a period in which Herod mercilessly established his rule by going after Jewish nationalists, rebels, and brigands. (I have recounted this period of history in my book Saints and Scoundrels chapter 1.) The authority that Herod was given de jure needed to be established de facto. A comparatively modern example of this same principle occurred with Charles Edward Stuart (1720–1788), known popularly as Bonnie Prince Charlie. In 1745, the Jacobite rebellion declared that Prince Charles was the rightful king of Britain, but this did not mean that he could simply walk into the houses of Parliament and demand allegiance. First he had to capture London, which of course he failed to do. Legally he was the rightful king because of his pedigree, but that meant little if he could not actually establish his authority in practice.
In these examples of human rulership, including the base and perverted rulership of Herod, we catch a glimpse of a legitimate principle. The principle goes back to mankind’s earliest experience. Remember that in the creation account, God had delegated to Adam and Eve authority over all lands, plants, and animals. But they were also tasked with going out and implementing that authority through their dominion-taking activities, not least through tilling and subduing the earth and multiplying. In other words, there was to be a progressive enactment of mankind’s authority over all the earth. This same principle of progressively enacted authority plays out in Jesus’ kingdom. Through His death and resurrection, Christ has been seated at the right hand of the Father (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1), and is now engaged in a process of subduing lands to Himself. St. Irenaeus makes this point by describing the incarnation as an actual of judgment against the usurpers. (Against Heresies Book 5, chapter 27.)
Paul describes the process whereby God will subdue all contrary rule and authority to Himself. In the Pauline description, Christ’s progressively enacted authority follows three stages. The first stage is Christ’s resurrection from the dead as a firstfruits of those who will later follow.
“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.” 1 Cor. 15:20-21)
Paul then describes the next stage, when God will give resurrection bodies to the faithful throughout all of history.
“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.” (1 Cor. 15:22-23)
Elsewhere Paul expanded on this by clarifying that those who have died in the faith will be given resurrection bodies before those who are alive at the time of the second coming (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
The third stage is when Christ finally subdues all contrary authority and power, including the power of death itself.
Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
Another way of talking about this progression is to use the language of inauguration, continuation, and culmination. During this period of continuation, Christ is subduing lands to Himself, in anticipation of the final culmination when he throws down all contrary rule and power.
But how does Christ subdue lands to Himself? Is it something political, as in the case of human pretenders like Herod? Or is it through evangelism? Or are the postmillennialists correct when they say that between now and the second coming the earth will gradually come to experience a golden age with Christians in positions of ascendancy?
To answer these questions, we have to understand something else about ancient kingship. When a king ascended to his throne, it was customary to celebrate this ascension by giving gifts to those who were near his throne. For example, he might offer one person lands, while he might give another person a high position in the army. Still another person might be given noble titles and the estates attached to them. After a king’s ascension, you wanted to be near his throne to receive gifts. These gifts were not just mere generosity, but were part of the process whereby a king would assert his authority de facto.
Paul tells us that when Christ ascended, and led captive his ancient foe, He ascended to His throne and gave gifts to men (Eph. 4:7-16) It is important to pay attention to the nature of these gifts, for remember that the gifts given by an ascended king are part of the process for establishing His dominion. Here’s what Paul writes:
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says:
“When He ascended on high,
He led captivity captive,
And gave gifts to men.”
(Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Eph. 4:7-16)
To an ancient reader, this passage would have evoked the image of a king recently ascended to his throne showering gifts upon those who were near—gifts which helped establish his rulership. When Paul says that the gifts that flow from Christ’s throne are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, he is making a very clear point that it is through the entire apparatus of the church that Christ’s authority is progressively enacted. Unlike with human kings, Christ’s kingdom does not advance through political means, through warfare, or through force. Instead, Christ’s kingdom is built through new creation communities and the infrastructure of offices within those communities. At the heart of these offices is sacramental life of the church, when the manna from heaven comes straight to the worshipers via the Sacred Mysteries. The Holy of Holies, once carefully guarded by Cherubim, is thrown open to the entire worshiping community. In the sacramental life of the church, the barrier between God and man begins to be broken down. This means that human beings are empowered to extend Eden into the wilderness and build for God’s kingdom through the work of the church. It does not matter how successful this work is when judged by purely worldly standards, because when Christ returns He promises to complete whatever is left undone.
Christians living in the first and second century understood these important truths better than we do today. One of the Church’s earliest theologians, St. Irenaeus constantly emphasized the connection between creation and redemption. 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. At the heart of this 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. Early Christians like Irenaeus understood that the Church is the primary in this ongoing process of new creation. The key word here is “ongoing.” We do not yet live in the final stage of new creation when there will be no more death. We do not yet live in the third stage of the three-fold process Paul describes in 1st Corinthians 15. Creation still groans for full liberation from bondage, but it is a groaning in hope (Rom 8:19-24).
The church’s liturgy recognizes these present and future aspects of God’s kingdom. Consider the following line from the Liturgy.
“It was You Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away You raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with Your kingdom which is to come.”
Notice that there is both a present and future aspect of God’s kingdom that is being described. The kingdom “which is to come” (future) has been endowed upon us (present). This is consistent with the Biblical emphasis that we have been endowed with the firstfruits or down-payment of a kingdom whose fullness is yet to come. Through Christ and the ministry of the church, the life of the age to come has rushed forward into the present. We live in the eighth day—the continuous Pascha—which still anticipates the more glorious Pascha when Christ returns.
Building on this, the church fathers constantly explored this tension between the already and the not-yet. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) particularly emphasized that the economy of salvation is divided into key stages in the ongoing progress through history. Within the present age, he taught, human beings have the key vocation of connecting the material and the spiritual realms. For St. Gregory, human beings serve the material world through guiding its encounter with God. (Bergmann, p. 101). Here St. Gregory echoes the historical approach adopted by St. Irenaeus, who emphasized that the final end (telos) of creation is still to be realized. St, Irenaeus speculated about the events things leading up to a new earth (Against Heresies, 5.35.2). While the church has generally rejected some of St. Irenaeus’s speculations, they were consistent with the teaching of Christian theology that there is an incompleteness to the realization of God’s kingdom in space and time. Within the space of this incompleteness, the church is tasked with building for God’s kingdom.
The precise language we use here is important. We are not “building God’s kingdom,” because God’s kingdom is already here. New creation burst onto the scene with Christ’s resurrection. But during this interval when Christ is progressively enacting His authority, we are called to build for God’s kingdom. Through our small and feeble efforts to join God in His work, we can play a small part in bringing His kingdom to culmination. The kingdom-building work we do now is like the scaffolding God will use to construct the new heavens and the new earth, and this remains true regardless of whatever theory of the end-times we might hold. Here is how N. T. Wright explains this 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.”
Since the world was made by a good God, not a lesser demi-god, and since this God promises to one day put the world to rights, we have hope. This hope assures 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. And when the New Heavens and the New Earth finally arrive as the final culmination of new creation, it will be built on all the work of all the faithful men and women throughout history who have lived and died for Christ. Later we will discuss what this looks like in practice, but it will be helpful to pause and recap the ground we have covered so far.
Interlude and Summary
At this point it may be helpful to recap the scriptural ground we have covered so far.
- The doctrine of the image of God points to the responsibility given to men and women of enacting God’s reign throughout the entire earth. A key aspect of this vocation involved the geographical and numerical expansion of God’s images, so that the wilderness outside the Garden of Eden could take on the characteristics of Paradise.
- After the fall, men and women lost access to God’s presence and were cast into the wilderness. Even so, human beings remained responsible for fulfilling their image-bearing duties.
- Through the call of Israel, the image-bearing vocation of human beings received a recapitulation, although God’s presence was carefully regulated and mediated.
- Jesus is the true Israel who sets God’s people free to begin fulfilling their original vocation. He achieves this is through healing our nature and incorporating us into the divine life.
- The church is tasked with turning the wilderness into Eden. She does this through offering all of life up to God in worship and the formation of communities centered around Christian virtues.
- Christ’s authority over all the earth is being progressively implemented over a period of stages.
- Insofar as new creation has been inaugurated but not yet reached culmination, we can talk about Christ’s kingdom being incomplete.
- In the interval between inauguration and culmination, Christ looks to His church to help build for His kingdom.
Christ’s kingdom will be complete at the second coming, when His people are given resurrection bodies and He institutes the new heavens and the new earth. The new earth will have continuity with the present space-time order.
Where do we Go From Here?
Having reviewed the scriptural story of fall and redemption, we are now in a position to return to some of the practical questions represented by our opening vignettes. We recall that some Christian saints like St. Anthony the Great and Tertullian favored pious withdrawal from the cultures of this world, while others like Clement advocated for a more integrated approach? Who is correct? And what about cultural pursuits? Should Camille quit working in “secular” pursuits like theater and dance and instead switch her major to Bible? Are the Johnson’s correct to ban rock music and smartphones simply because these things are “worldly”, whatever that means? And what about politics? Should Rodrigo join the politically active group in his church, or continue to maintain that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world?
Let’s look at each of these questions through the lens of what we already know about God’s purposes for the earth. We have seen that the Christian finds himself suspended in the already and the not-yet, with one foot in the present age that has been inaugurated by Christ, and another foot in the age to come that will reach completion when He returns. Thus, we should expect a certain element of tension in the middle space between these two realities. Throughout the history the church, men and women have endeavored to celebrate the truth that God’s kingdom is transforming this world, but to situate this celebration in terms that do not wholly conflate the kingdom of God with the present order. The witness of spiritual giants like St. Anthony the Great and Tertullian remind us of this “not yet” and stand as a caution against too closely identifying God’s kingdom with the present order of things. On the other hand, the witness of men like Clement and Justin Martyr remind us to take seriously the “already,” as they urge us to take seriously that the mustard seed of Christ’s kingdom is already at work transforming this world, and that God enlists men and women as his vice-regents in taming the wilderness of society with the light of His kingdom. We are not forced to choose between one or the other of these visions, because they are both true.
Consider another important point. The future transformation that we look forward to—which will be complete in the new heavens and the new earth—gives every reason to work for progress in the present order of things. Just as Adam and Eve were given a job to do in the first creation, so we have been given jobs to do within the renewed creation. Sometimes these jobs will include work that we think of as “spiritual,” but most often it will simply involve going about our daily tasks in a way that honors our image-bearing vocation. This is a lesson that Camille will need to learn. For redeemed images of God, there is no such thing as a “secular” realm outside Christ’s all-encompassing kingship. Indeed, the dominion mandate of Genesis incentivizes us to colonize all areas of life and culture as God’s vice-regents. Thus, whether we are studying the Bible or performing ballet, all is to be done from the reference point of glorifying God; every lawful activity in our life is to be taken up and offered to God as a type of worship. Camille will still have to use wisdom in discerning which direction God is taking her in, and she will still need to clarify her career goals. However, she will be helped in this process by viewing her career decisions in light of God’s larger purposes for the earth in general and for human beings in particular. Whatever task a human sets herself to do, she can do it as an outworking of her royal task to connect heaven and earth.
This perspective can also help Trevor as he struggles to relate his horticultural design business to his faith in Christ. Recall that Trevor wonders if there is eternal value to the work he does trimming hedges and mowing lawns. A similar problem plagues Rodrigo (of which more will be said in a minute) as he struggles with the notion of bringing progress to the earth and trying to improve society. If God’s kingdom will be made complete when Christ comes again, then what is 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 while there may be temporary value in our earthly endeavors, doesn’t this pale in comparison to the eternal work like saving souls?
The problem with this question is that it assumes the work we do in the present age will not last for eternity. But St. Paul describes our work as enduring (1 Cor. 3:14) and he says it is “not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15.58) Moreover, we know from elsewhere in Scripture that there is an organic continuity between what happens in this age and the age to come. 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 has been renovated and renewed. 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. 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 and the new earth that God is in the process of making. This has practical implications, for just as belief in our own personal resurrection should spur us to righteous living in the present (1 Cor. 15:29-34), so belief in the future renewal of the whole earth (2 Cor. 5:18-20; Rev. 21:1) should act as a catalyst for us to work to make the world a better place in the present. As Wim Rietkerk pointed out in his 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.”
Now here’s the really cool thing for someone like Trevor: even the work of trimming hedges and mowing lawns is, in some sense, working for God’s kingdom. Remember the message of the Divine Liturgy: all of life is to be brought into the Holy of Holies and then offered up to God in praise. If this can be true of any task the Christian performs, it is especially true when our work involves bringing order out of chaos, harmony out of discord, purpose out of futility, organization out of disorganization, form out of formlessness, patterns out of confusion, knowledge out of ignorance, substance out of nothingness, or beauty out of ugliness and disorder. Thus, even in going about common everyday work like mowing the lawn or cleaning the house, we are allowing the divine order to be manifested in a small part of the earth, in anticipation of the final renewal when there will be no more chaos and wilderness.
In his book Creation Set Free: The Spirit as Liberator of Nature, Sigurd Bergmann explains how the early Christians strove to live their lives in a way that reflected the divine order of creation, and thus to prepare the way for God to be manifested. Bergmann, who teaches at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, observed that
“Because Christian cosmology in the early church was concerned with understanding the world as a manifestation of the divine order, the Christian’s task was to conduct their lives such that by enhancing the order of the world they also prepared the way for God to be manifest through that order.” (Sigurd Bergmann, p. 107.)
What then are we to make of parents like the Johnson who have banned make-up, rock music and iPhones on the grounds that these things are “worldly”? Here again we should start by backing up to review what we already know. We have seen that the people of God are still in the process of being perfected even as they work to bring kingdom values to the world, and we have also seen that the rest of mankind still retain vestiges of the divine image. When we put these two facts together, it should be obvious that the line separating God’s kingdom from the world is not institutional, nor is it to be found in external things. Even as defaced images of God, unredeemed human beings still retain something of the prototype. Consequently, unbelievers are capable of producing artifacts and art that have a qualified good to them. This means that we do not need to reject cultural artifacts simply because they are the products of unbelievers. Still, there is the concern about certain things being “worldly.” It is noteworthy, however, that when the New Testament writers talk about “this world” in a negative sense, they are referring to the ungodly order that is passing away in Christ. In other words, something is “worldly” if it represents the values of the wilderness rather than Eden. This being the case, the solution offered by the Johnson’s is too simple, since it removes us from the challenging work of assessing the intrinsic quality of each item and activity, and then asking questions such as the following:
- Will this thing or activity help or hinder me or my child in our image-bearing vocations?
- Will this thing or activity draw me or my children into the wilderness of chaos and futility, or help us grow closer to the presence of God that we approach every Sunday in the Liturgy?
- Will this thing or activity lead towards greater or lesser flourishing as an image of God?
- Will this thing or activity bring order and harmony to us and our relationships, or discord and emptiness?
- Will giving greater freedom and autonomy to my children as they get older help or hinder them in their lifelong work of building for God’s kingdom?
The message of Genesis, and its recapitulation in Christ, challenges the Johnson parents to carefully assess each issue, as well as their general parenting style, in light of these broader concerns. As the Johnsons begin appreciating some of the Big Picture themes of redemption history, they may come to understand that believers are not to retreat from the world but to engage it. Indeed, this world is the very material with which God is building His kingdom. With this new perspective, the Johnson’s may or may not still favor caution towards rock music, iPhones, and make-up, but they will be doing so from a healthier theological perspective.
And what of Rodrigo, who has become uncomfortable when a group at his church got involved in local politics? “Didn’t Jesus himself say that His kingdom is not of this world?” he asked, referring to John. 18:36. If anything should be clear of our survey of redemption history, it is that God’s kingdom is very much of this world. Christ’s kingdom is certainly of and for this world, but it does not arise out of or (from) this earth. The RSV gets closest to the original Greek by rendering John 18:36 as “My kingdom is not from this world.” Remember that the message of Eden was that God’s presence came from outside and then was intended, through his temple and images, to permeate throughout the whole earth. That is why Jesus taught us to pray, ‘thy kingdom come on earth…as it is in heaven’ (Mat. 6:10). The phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ in the gospels has this same underpinning, referring to the rule of heaven (that is, the reign of God), being brought to bear in the present space-time world. This draws on the theological backdrop of passages like Daniel 7: 26-27 and is the same crowning vision we find in Revelation 11:15 (which is not a future description, by the way, but a present reality) where we are told that “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ…”
Does this have political implications? You bet. For starters, Christ’s ultimate lordship on the earth serves as an important limitations on earthly power. All earthly power is derivative rather than ultimate, a point that New Testament writers clearly explicate (Jn. 19:11; Rom. 13:2). As such, God requires earthly rulers to use their positions to promote kingdom values such as justice, order, and peace, instead of wilderness values like chaos, greed, and exploitation. As renewed images of God, the church has an important prophetic voice in proclaiming this fact, and showing what human flourishing looks like for individuals, for cities, and for nations. This comes across very clearly in the interactions that St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) had with the governor of Nazianzus, regarding the latter’s unjust use of political power. “Gregory suggests that in relating to his subjects the regent should consider that as the image of God he is actually ruling over what might be called co-images of the divine, and that certain consequences follow from this situation.” (Sigurd Bergmann, pp. 101-102.) The backdrop to St. Gregory’s political vision was the Genesis doctrine that man’s stewardship over the earth is not a means to dominate and control others, but a means for building ordered and peaceful societies. For St. Gregory, this stewardship is situated within an historical movement that is evolving towards a final eschatological climax.
“Gregory thus describes the unique function of human beings within creation from several perspectives: ontological, theological-iconic, political, liturgical, cosmic-doxological, and cosmic-eschatological. Most importantly, he does not understand the commission to ‘have dominion over the earth’ (Gen. 1:28) as unqualified dominion over creatures, but rather as the exercise of a special function within God’s overriding cosmic redemptive history. What the Cappadocian sees as the uniquely human quality of this function is the human ability to rule justly and to serve, worship, glorify, witness, manage, and sanctify, and especially to incorporate the image of God—imprinting that image, as it were—in this world. One might even say that for Gregory, being human means to be the image of God in and for the world. As such, the life of human beings constantly moves within history toward the goal of having the world itself be with God. In trying to describe this eschatological condition of being, Gregory employs the metaphors of the cosmic spring of all life and that of the song of rejoicing that the cosmos itself sings during the eternal Christmas.” (Bergmann, p. 103)
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