Debunking a Myth: This World Doesn’t Matter to God

Back in 1983 when I was a campus minister and grad student in philosophy at the University of Guelph, I teamed up with two fellow-students and another campus minister to write a short booklet called Ten Myths About Christianity. The purpose of the booklet was to engage—and debunk—some of the most egregious misconceptions about Christianity that we had encountered.

When I recently re-read the booklet, the way we addressed some of the myths seemed a bit outdated to my ears. Indeed, myth #5 was originally entitled “Christianity is otherworldly and irrelevant to life in the twentieth century,” and we’re now in the twenty-first century! But it struck me that our response to this myth is still a central and much-needed theological affirmation, and it continues to function as a foundation for my worldview.

A few years after we had written the booklet, our response to myth #5 was published under the title “Are Christians Other-Worldly?” in an anthology called Exploring Apologetics: Selected Readings (1992).

What follows is my updated and expanded version of what we wrote thirty years ago.

Is Christianity Otherworldly and Irrelevant to Life in the Twenty-First Century?

There’s no doubt that many Christians seem otherworldly and even irrelevant by their attitudes and actions. Some Christians seem to care nothing for the suffering of others in situations of injustice; others seem to think the earth is a disposable commodity that will be destroyed when Christ returns.

But this does not reflect the main emphasis of the Bible, which is the foundation of Christian teaching. Far from being otherworldly, biblical Christianity emphasizes the importance of this world in three main ways.

Creation

First of all, the Bible claims that the entire universe is created by God and is therefore good and important. Far from negating or devaluing the world, the Bible teaches that God loves his creation and providentially sustains the world as a good place to live. The world (both human and non-human) exists to manifest God’s glory, and God rejoices in what he has made.

Incarnation

But the importance of the world is supported also by the doctrine of the incarnation, the Christian teaching that God became man in Jesus Christ. The authentic humanity of Jesus is constantly affirmed by the Bible. He was not some spiritual manifestation or temporary avatar, but a real-life, flesh-and-blood person, located in a particular time, place, and culture. The coming of God in the person of a first-century Galilean peasant was deeply contextual. Indeed, the incarnation was the culmination of God’s revelation through centuries of Israelite history.

But why the incarnation? Why did God get involved with the world in this way?

Because creation went wrong. Humanity has chosen evil in rebellion against its Creator, and the world is no longer totally good. Corruption has set in, evident both in the individual heart and in the social systems and institutions we have created.

Yet God has not given up on the world. This is the tremendous message of the Christian gospel. God loves us to the point of becoming a human being, even suffering death on a Roman imperial instrument of torture, to free us from evil, to bring salvation.

Salvation

The salvation God offers constitutes the third way in which biblical Christianity affirms the importance of this world.

Though Christianity is often characterized as a pie-in-the-sky religion, concerned with a hereafter of disembodied existence in an ethereal heaven, this is a gross distortion of its message. There is certainly a future hope of the “kingdom of God.” But this kingdom is also present in the midst of history. Jesus proclaimed the presence of the kingdom (God’s coming rule to restore the world) and enacted this kingdom by healing diseased bodies, casting out demons, challenging the oppressive social order of his time, and offering forgiveness and hope to those in bondage to sin.

Beyond the radical in-breaking of the kingdom into the midst of history, the Bible describes the ultimate goal of this kingdom in the most concrete terms. Scripture promises the resurrection of the body and the renewal of the social order—indeed, the renewal of the entire cosmos (“a new heaven and a new earth”).

Biblical salvation is consistently holistic. Christianity’s final vision is of the eradication of evil from the universe. Christ came to restore the created order to what it was meant to be, and that includes every aspect of human (and non-human) life.

Christians must be otherworldly, in one sense

This means that there is an important sense in which Christians must be otherworldly. Precisely because they envision a world free of evil—as God’s intent from the beginning and as the goal of history—they cannot accept this world at face value. They are otherworldly in that they look beyond the distortions and pretensions of this world (the present age) to the world that is to come. They know there is something better.

Christians are called to be fundamentally this-worldly

But that means that Christianity is fundamentally this-worldly. Christians are called upon to oppose evil in all of its individual and socio-cultural manifestations. They are to work toward healing, love, and justice in this world. In the context of our modern (and increasingly postmodern) civilization of violence, oppression, and narcissism, this calling is certainly neither otherworldly nor irrelevant.

Some Background on Ten Myths About Christianity

When we wrote the booklet Ten Myths About Christianity, all four authors were part of Guelph Christian Fellowship, a local branch of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) in Ontario, Canada. We were commissioned to write the booklet for use in a week of Christian outreach at the University of Guelph in Fall 1983.

We kicked off the outreach week with a panel discussion in the Student Centre on four of the myths (one of which was myth #5), and throughout the week we distributed hundreds of copies of the booklet to those interested in reading further. We also had an artist in our IVCF group design a set of ten posters, each representing one of the myths. These posters were on display in a public thoroughfare on campus throughout the week.

The week of outreach, which we called “There Must Be More” (a line taken from a Bruce Cockburn song, “More Not More”), included public lectures and workshops on faith and science, faith and social issues, faith and history, faith and art, faith and philosophy, etc. as well as various cultural/artistic events and a culminating multimedia presentation that used music and visuals to explore questions of ultimate meaning in contemporary culture. The point of the week was to address how the Christian faith could impact life in the real world with integrity and in a holistic way.

The outreach week was so successful in engendering meaningful conversations about Christianity (not to mention some actual conversions) that we did it again the following year, and other campuses in southwestern Ontario followed suit. This led us to revise the booklet in 1984 and we turned the original set of hand drawn posters into a durable set that could be reproduced and owned by different campus ministry groups. Then in 1988 one of the original authors (Gord Carkner, together with theologian Michael Green) expanded the booklet into a short book with the same title (which is now out of print).

Creation to Eschaton—And the Kitchen Sink?

You may be wondering about the title I’ve chosen for this website, “Creation to Eschaton.” Or, to put it in ordinary English, “Beginning to End.” What sort of topics will I cover with an expansive title like that?

Woody Allen commented ironically that the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote a book about everything, called Being and Nothingness. You can’t get more comprehensive than that, he noted.

Well, I won’t be quite as comprehensive as Sartre, though my interests are pretty broad. The title I’ve given this website indicates that I’m interested particularly in theological matters of origins and endings. But I’m also interested in what comes in-between.

In the course of giving a heads-up about what sorts of topics you can expect in this blog in the weeks ahead (I expect to post about once a week), I thought I’d take the opportunity to first look back. What unites the diverse topics I’ve covered in my past research and writing? This is a question I’m often asked.

Unlike some biblical scholars who focus on one particular block of material (such as the Johannine literature, the Pauline epistles, the Pentatuch, or the Book of the Twelve), I seem to have dipped into Scripture at multiple points (and I’ve often gone beyond biblical studies per se, into theology and cultural analysis).

So I’ll try and clarify the rationale for what I’ve been doing.

Then I’ll look ahead.

Creation Theology

Much of my previous work has explored biblical creation theology, including a book on humanity created as the image of God (The Liberating Image), which is dependent on an earlier article of the same title.

Creation theology is also central to essays I’ve written on:

In all cases I’ve been interested in the ethics associated with creation theology. How might understanding God’s original intent for the world direct us to live in the present? This emphasis is found in pretty much everything I’ve written on the topic of creation, but it’s the explicit focus of a short entry on the “Image of God” that I wrote for the Baker Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics.

Eschatology

In theology, attention to endings is typically known as “eschatology” (eschaton is Greek for “end”). In contrast to creation, I’ve written only one article focused on this topic (“A New Heaven and a New Earth”), which has since become the basis of a book with the same title.

But like creation, my exploration of eschatology is driven by an ethical passion. How might understanding God’s telos or goal for the world shape our lives today?

In Scripture, the beginning corresponds to the end, a motif that German theologians have called Urzeit and Endzeit. Thus the eschaton is God’s new (redeemed) creation; it is the fruition of the Creator’s purposes from the beginning, after evil has been overcome.

Creation-to-Eschaton as a Normative Framework

I have found that the narrative arc from creation to eschaton (the biblical metanarrative or macro story) provides crucial orientation for approaching the manifold complexity of particular texts in Scripture (especially problematic texts). And by framing the meaning of human life in the present, the macro story of Scripture provides guidance for thinking about, and living in, the contemporary world.

This creation-to-eschaton framework (the biblical worldview) is central to the first book I coauthored with Brian Walsh—The Transforming Vision, though the narrative character of this worldview wasn’t fully clear to us at the time.

The narrative character of the biblical worldview became more explicit in the later book I wrote with Walsh—Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be (an attempt to contextualize biblical faith in postmodern culture)—and it is central to our stand-alone essay that articulates the core argument of that book.

The creation-to-eschaton framework is especially prominent in my forthcoming A New Heaven and a New Earth, which has a section explicitly entitled “From Creation to Eschaton.”

But, in one way or another, this framework grounds almost everything I’ve written. It would be tedious to list each case, but a recent example is the article I coauthored with Michael Gorman on “Salvation” for the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible.

Evil and Suffering

My interest in the ethical implications of creation and eschaton (God’s purposes for the cosmos) has led me to reflect on the problem of evil and suffering—both in human life and in the Bible. Undoubtedly, my own life experience has lent an existential edge to these reflections.

Awareness of evil and suffering is most explicit in an essay in which I contrasted approaches to theodicy (the problem of evil) in the western theological tradition and in Scripture.

A focus on suffering is evident in an essay on Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn that Brian Walsh and I wrote, and it motivated my proposal for moving beyond a naive reading of Psalm 23 (through interaction with a Cockburn song).

The awareness of evil shaped my analysis of violence in the David and Goliath story and the abuse of power in the narrative of Samuel’s relationship to Saul; both essays anticipate a book for Eerdmans on 1 Samuel plan to work on in the future, where the focus is on human responsibility.

Concern with evil and suffering is also the basis of some shorter pieces I’ve written—on Herod in the Christmas story, on the lament psalms, and on “Violence” (for the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible). And it guides my interest in working on a new book (just in the beginning stages) on Abraham and Job.

Caribbean Theology

One other area of interest that deserves mention is the Caribbean. I grew up in Jamaica and did my undergraduate theological studies there. In the years since, I have continued to visit family and friends and kept professional connections with Jamaica Theological Seminary (my alma mater) and the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology.

My Jamaican heritage has motivated me to explore theology from and for the Caribbean. Thus I’ve written on a spirituality of cultural resistance in the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and I’ve advocated the need for creation theology in Caribbean life; the latter essay appears in an anthology of works by Caribbean scholars that I edited with Garnett Roper, on behalf of Jamaica Theological Seminary.

Looking Ahead

I plan on continuing to explore topics in creation theology and eschatology and much that is in-between.

Look for blog posts on the nature of the world as a cosmic temple, on creation themes in Isaiah, and new light on humans as the image of God—especially what I’ve learned since my 2005 book on the subject.

I plan to post on various topics associated with my new book on eschatology, including:

  • why holistic eschatology (the renewal of the earth) is important for the church;
  • the meaning of “heaven” in Scripture;
  • New Testament texts that seem to contradict the renewal of the earth;
  • what the Bible intends by its description of cosmic catastrophe (including stars falling from heaven);
  • and the loss and recovery of the idea of the “new earth” in the history of Christian thinking about eschatology.

I hope to post my thoughts on various topics connected to the interpretation of Scripture, such as:

  • why I love (and hate) theological interpretation of Scripture;
  • my understanding of Abraham as morally deficient in Genesis 22;
  • the possibility that the book of Job might be an answer to Abraham;
  • the meaning of Sabbath beyond the sacred/secular split;
  • and my assumptions for studying and teaching the Bible.

Other topics I may post on include:

  • why I am neither conservative nor liberal (and loving it);
  • the best way to read an academic book;
  • and the most important questions I’ve learned to ask in my intellectual journey.

Also expect to see my responses to various articles and books I’m reading in biblical studies and theology, including works by Caribbean authors.

And one more thing—which might be just a little bit controversial (for some).

I recently joined a three-year interdisciplinary research project with nine other Christian scholars, focusing on the relationship of the evolutionary origins of humanity to the doctrine of the fall and original sin. We plan to produce a conference, then a book, on the subject.

Given that the entire research team is a bunch of orthodox, trinitatian, Nicean Christians who take both science and the Bible seriously, we’re approaching the topic in humility, but without fear.

As the only Old Testament scholar on the project, I expect to post some of my thoughts on Genesis 3 in light of hominin evolution and the origin of Homo sapiens sapiens. These posts are meant to be exploratory, preliminary to writing an extended essay on the topic.

And the kitchen sink?

Thankfully, I’ll leave that out.