This is Part 2 of a blog series. Here's part 1:
I wrote previously about Gnosticism - a story that sounds like the biblical story, but in fact is very different. I wrote about my concern regarding the threat of this alternative worldview: that I'm concerned that many Christians subtly, unconsciously subscribe to the wrong storied worldview, and thus inhabit and 'live into' the wrong story. This is not just my little theory. It's my conclusion from engaging with many respected scholars, as well as many enthusiastic and zealous followers of Jesus.
So, this follow up post is a look at the Biblical story. My conviction of the Bible is that it forms a 'metanarrative' - a big story that attempts to make sense of all other sense-making stories. Believing that this big meta-story is true then means it increasingly becomes the story which we inhabit - like characters or 'actors' conscripted into a certain story. The more we truly believe the Bible story to be real, the more this biblical meta-narrative becomes our own personal worldview, and the more we naturally 'live into' this story.
Thinking of things like this shows why it's so important to interrogate the story we subconsciously believe in our hearts.
Of course, there’s lots we can explore in the Bible to shape a distinctively biblical worldview. There's lots of different ways of outlining the 'metanarrative' of the Bible - each with their pro's and cons. One helpful framework of the biblical worldview is Creation, Incarnation and New Creation.
The Bible depicts the entire world as created good by a good, loving Creator. Genesis depicts a world made teeming with life, full of untapped potential waiting to be realised. God placed humanity in a Garden which was not purely a product to be consumed, but a project to participate in. God tasks humanity with taking care of all of creation: working it, cultivating the raw materials of creation in order to draw out its potential.
Genesis describes humanity’s vocation as ‘ruling and reigning’ here on earth as kings and queens in ways that reflect our generous, loving creator and that bring flourishing out of the untapped potential.
Tim Keller defines the task of human work as “rearranging the raw materials of God’s creation in such a way that it helps the world in general, and people in particular, thrive and flourish.”
One Hebrew scholar describes this ‘ruling’ as “actively partnering with God in taking the world somewhere”.
This creative commissioning from God is a cultural mandate: We’re called to work with God to make the world a better place, to produce goods and services and systems and societies that benefit people to the glory of God.
I've started referring to this mandate as 'Culture creation' and 'creation cultivation'. These two phrases both refer to the same mandate but connote this mission in slightly different ways. Using them together, I think, helps us link both how we relate to other humans, as well as how we relate to God's entire good creation: It's all bundled up into the same mission and mandate from Genesis 1&2.
In the Bible, this mandate (of culture creation and creation cultivation) is not just a sideline project to keep us busy while the main 'spiritual' deal goes on. We see in the way the Bible story starts that this mandate is the central aim and purpose - to work to release potential through creative and complex endeavours – turning sand into silicon chips, children into confident adults, plants into gardens, words into languages, languages into libraries, disparate individuals into productive teams and flourishing communities. And, very importantly, the Bible calls us to fulfil the mandate in ways that reflect and honour the good, loving, generous and just God.
This original mandate for humanity extends to the very ends of the earth. There’s no school or farm or boardroom or kitchen or university or train that sits outside the scope of this cultural mandate. They’re all a part of God’s original purposes for humanity and the cosmos.
Sadly, however, we know that very early in the Bible’s story humanity goes off track. We have rebelled against God and God’s plans. Too often, in all sorts of ways, that which we have created and colluded with does not reflect our Creator. We were made to be image-bearing reflections of the good Creator God, but our sin is seen in our misguided worship and straying from our human vocation.
It’s not that we need to be saved from this world. We need to be saved for this world.
As Christians, we’re endlessly grateful that Jesus steps into this story to rectify and redeem all things. In Colossians 1, Paul affirms that all things were created by Jesus and for Jesus (v 16), that Jesus is the perfect image of the invisible God (just as we were intended to be), and that Jesus’ sacrifice is not only intended to offer all human beings the opportunity for reconciliation with him, but to reconcile all things, the entire cosmos, to himself. Jesus’ work on the cross serves to bring all things back into proper relationship with him:
‘to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross’ (Col. 1:20).
The Bible shows that God has not abandoned his plans for the flourishing and cultivation of creation, or his plans for humanity as creative, loving rulers. Counter to the Gnostic perspective, the Creator God is faithful to this world he made, and he became flesh in the person of Jesus to affirm the material world we live in, to deal with our sin, to make peace and restore humanity to our royal responsibilities.
Jesus shows us that God is committed to redeeming all things.
Jesus calls us to be and make disciples. When we’re infected with a gnostic worldview, discipleship is restricted to overtly ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ aspects of our lives: it is a 6-week church course, or it is mentorship regarding our ‘spiritual’ life, or it’s not much more than 'conversion' or 'justification'.
Being a disciple begins with conversion, but in this big Bible story, it is so much more than just personal, individual conversion or salvation. Discipleship to Jesus is intentionally reshaping our whole lives (and church communities) around God’s whole plans for the whole world.
This means our discipleship includes our poetry, our prayers, our road rage, our bodies, our shopping, our eating, our daydreaming, our dancing, our clothing, our parenting, our relationship with God, and our relationship with our phones…
In the biblical paradigm, we’re not to try and divide these things into important ‘sacred things’ and unimportant ‘secular things’. All these parts of our lives find their place in God’s big story – where God might be shaping us, and working through us to shape the world around us.
Please, I beg of us all... Please can we followers of Jesus extend the notion of 'mission' beyond Christian recruitment. It's like we're trying to play a song on a piano, but only pressing one key. Please can we see all of life within God's cosmic, redemptive, creative plans, and see all of our creative, cultural, 'cultivational' endeavours as our mission.
In the closing chapters of the Bible, we’re presented with an extraordinary vision of New Creation. The vision shows heaven coming to earth in a final and absolute way. In this vision, it is sin and evil that is judged and eradicated – not the material world!
In Revelation 21:5, he who is seated on the throne says, ‘I am making all things new!’ There are two words for ‘new’ in Greek. If I said to you: “I’m getting a new kitchen”, I could be describing moving to a new home where I’ll have a ‘new’ kitchen. That means there’s one old kitchen that’s not so important anymore, and one new one that is the focus of my attention and affection.
But I could also be talking about staying in my current home and renovating my existing kitchen. At the end of the renovation, I would have a ‘new’ kitchen that had emerged from the old through a transformative (and probably costly!) renovation.
It’s this second meaning of ‘new’ that’s used in Revelation. Our hope for New Creation is not that God plans on annihilating or abandoning this creation and shipping us all away to a different, immaterial realm forever – that’s the Gnostic worldview. But rather, God will transform our material universe through his creative, resurrection power and love into a new heaven and earth.
That is, the story of the Bible is not about escape from earth to heaven. While I fear that that's the story many Christians have in their heads and hearts, I graciously want to challenge that perception as the Gnostic story - not the biblical one. The biblical focus is on heaven coming to earth. Heaven is God's rule and reign - or, to put it a little less imperialistically, heaven is a realm of reality where that which is created is in the state it was created to be: just, fruitful, loving and beautiful.
In Gnostic Christianity, God is not seen to be too bothered about this world and what happens here on earth. But the Bible shows that God cares supremely for our whole world. While it is currently imperfect and marred by sin and evil, God will one day fully transform and restore all things here on earth. While this New Creation will be transformed and renovated, it will still be a physical, material place, in which we will live with resurrected bodies.
Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, puts it like this:
“The gospel does not begin with matter and then gradually get refined into spirit. The revelation of God does not begin with a material universe and a flesh and blood Jesus and then, working itself up through the grades, finally graduate into ether and angels and ideas…. Creation, heaven and earth, is God’s workspace… All dematerialised spiritualised are vacant lots”
The Bible story starts in a garden, rich in raw materials, brimming with opportunity and untapped potential, awaiting to be taken somewhere. And the story ends with a vision of a future where the centre-piece of the New Creation is a glorious, stunning city where the raw materials of Genesis have been put to creative use: The precious jewels are chiselled and glimmering, and the carefully crafted walls and buildings are glowing in the rich, warm light of the presence of God.
But what will we do in the New Creation? Are we to expect that the New Creation will just be one really long church service? Are we only going to be singing songs unendingly for all eternity? If so, maybe that would mean that our worship services are really the main things we should be focusing on now. We’d better start building up that vocal endurance!
Or will the New Creation be more like a long holiday – the final retirement for humanity? Is the final goal about getting to a moment when we can clock out from work and tap out of our (royal) responsibilities?
Well, in Revelation 5, there's a climactic scene of God's cosmic throne. Notice what this Slain Lamb has achieved through his death:
“You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:10)
And in the scene of the New Creation:
“…and they will reign for ever” (Revelation 22:5)
It seems that, even in the New Creation, humanity’s royal responsibilities persist! It seems that our task of working to create culture and human flourishing is not just something to keep us busy while we wait. Rather, this ruling and reigning is so central to God’s purposes that it extends, in some form, even into the New Creation!
When the prophets Isaiah, Joel and Amos envisage the New Creation, they see us building and farming and planting vineyards and working with our hands and eating and drinking…
As we live now, between Jesus’ resurrection and our future resurrection in the New Creation, we are called to whole-life discipleship – cultivating creation, ruling and reigning, creating culture, making disciples - as service & worship to God, but it is also as a witness: a signpost that points towards what God is like and what God will one day finally do with all creation.
In the Bible’s worldview, all the way from Creation, to the Incarnation, to the New Creation, we’re invited to see that all of life is included in God’s sacred purposes. There’s no divide between that which is important to God, and that which is not.
This means that God cares about your Monday just as much as your Sunday. It means what we give ourselves to - vocationally, financially, with our hearts and schedules - really matters.
It means that our whole lives, and indeed the whole creation, find their place in this cosmic story of God. This story speaks to the decisions we make, big and small, and what type of world we're building together. This story shines its light on all our actions and inaction, inviting us to rethink our lifestyles, our consumer habits, our relationships, our heart's desires, our jobs and businesses, our schedules, our hopes and dreams, our neighbourhoods, our preaching, our parenting... in light of the character of God, our cosmic mandate, and the big, compelling story of the Bible.