In this recent CT article, J. Todd Billings talks about the shift in Evangelical theology from an emphasis on heaven as an escape from earth to a place of bliss where we all participate in a never-ending worship service to an emphasis on heaven as a continuation of Kingdom work begun in this life.
Sounds about right to me.
He cites Richard Middleton @JRM and N.T. Wright as people who focus on the Eschaton as a place where we work and where our valuable work done in the here and now will be culminated not abandoned. However, Billings takes issue with the idea that some people’s work counts more than others and that it ultimately results in “small, individualized versions of paradise” instead of something grand and cosmic.
He advocates seeing the Sacraments as a vehicle for cultivating hope and vision for what is to come in the New Creation, and against the focus on “doing” in the New Creation.
He thinks the emphasis on work is misguided.
As someone who generally resonates quite a bit with the view of heaven that Billings is somewhat countering in this article, I’m interested in what people think. Is it a false dichotomy to pit worship against work? Have we gone too far emphasizing “Kingdom work” in the present to the neglect of a proper hope of heaven? How do we poor low-church folks cultivate our hope of heaven if we don’t regularly celebrate the Sacraments?
I think Billings has a really negative view of work, and has a false dichotomy between sacred and secular.
Consider this Messianic passage, which has always struck me as not like the heaven people talk about at church…
Isaiah 65:17-25 "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.” (18) "But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing and her people for gladness. (19) "I will also rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in My people; And there will no longer be heard in her the voice of weeping and the sound of crying. (20) "No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his days; For the youth will die at the age of one hundred And the one who does not reach the age of one hundred Will be thought accursed. (21) "They will build houses and inhabit them; they will also plant vineyards and eat their fruit. (22) "They will not build and another inhabit, they will not plant and another eat; for as the lifetime of a tree, so will be the days of My people, And My chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. (23) "They will not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they are the offspring of those blessed by the LORD, and their descendants with them. (24) "It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear. (25) “The wolf and the lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain,” says the LORD.
In the days of Isaiah, it was foreign powers that came and physically carted people off to exile, so that they couldn’t enjoy the fruits of their own labors and gardening.
In modern days, it might be other forms of economic slavery… slaving away at lower-than-poverty-line jobs while the CEO rakes in $30M a year… doing good work and sending most of your paycheck to the Visa bill (whether through hardship spending or foolish spending)… families that work hard their whole life and lose their entire savings to a battle with a rare cancer.
I see this as a promise that you can work, and then enjoy an honest reward for the labor you put in… unlike in the current unjust systems of the world (Babylonian or Westernized globalist). How will that work? I have no better idea of that than I know how the resurrection will work. It’s miraculous economics.
If your work life is also in some sense sacred, then it’s actually a wonderful thing to imagine having a heightened sense of God’s presence filling you with joy, strength and love as you work for a good, guaranteed wage.
So yeah… I think Billings is wrong. I mean, maybe I should read his article to know for sure, but I’m not sure I want to, based off your quotes.
I think the question may be distilled down to “what is the meaning of life?” Does life have a different meaning if it’s eternal life? Is it what you do with that life, or what you feel in that life that matters? What does perfection look like?
Good question. When the priests and Levites served the Lord in the tabernacle and temple, was it work, or worship? In the Eschaton, when God’s people are both a kingdom of priests and the temple of the Holy Spirit, will our continuing service to God be considered work, or worship? I suppose there is an even prior question, which is whether we will serve God in some way, or spend eternity in contemplation of the beatific vision. Personally, I am persuaded by Middleton, Wright, et al., that Gen. 1:26-28 is a statement of God’s purpose for mankind, which includes the “cultural mandate.” The consummation is not a restoration of an original paradise, but a restoration of our true vocation and an opportunity to fulfill the destiny that the Lord envisioned for us from the start.
I like that you mentioned the passage from Isaiah. Notice that he symbolically depicts the future consummation as a “greater version” of the present. For example, the lifetime of God’s chosen will be as the lifetime of a tree. (Of course, dispensationalists read this literally, as conditions in the millennium, but that’s another discussion.) I actually think this sheds a little light on the “primeval history” of Gen. 1-11, as well. We see the same phenomenon there – the author symbolically depicts the distant past as a “greater version” of the present. In any case, the main point of the passage is as you say – God’s people will enjoy the fruit of the labors in joy and gladness, without fear. This, to me, reinforces the idea that service to God in the Eschaton will include work, in some form or fashion.
I have no better idea than you how this “work” will work out, but that won’t stop me from speculating! The “miraculous economics” starts with the fact that the “spiritual body,” to borrow Paul’s term, is freed from the bondage and fear of death. Just trying to imagine what that might look like, I thought of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
Consider that everything below the dotted line is no longer applicable. Food, shelter, safety – no longer a concern. Belonging, being loved, being appreciated and respected – no longer a concern.
What, then, is left? A society in which greed, envy, fear, and exploitation have come to an end. A society – or, should I say, kingdom – in which all know the Lord (cognitive) in the beauty of holiness (aesthetic) and are free to develop their God-given talents to their fullest extent.
I am planning on writing a blog post in response to Billings. I think I understand where he is coming from, but I want to clarify why I think his understanding of the eschaton is derived more from the history of theology rather than from the Bible’s own indigenous theological categories.
I think @JRM’s promise of a blog post of his own in response inspired me to think a little bit more on one particular angle…
Bach labored in obscurity all of his days, keeping up with his required number of original compositions to fit the liturgical calendar. He signed his works S.D.G., or Soli Deo Gloria, sometimes adding “and that my neighbor be edified” (or words to that effect, relying on my memory). His genius was not “rediscovered” until 100 years after his death…
Truly, Bach was one of many faceless “auto mechanic” composers in his time, known only to friends, relatives, and parishioners. Who knows how many other Bachs may reveal their genius in the light of eternity, finally freed to pursue their God-given talents?
It is true that Bach worked in relative obscurity, composing for his church in Leipzig. (He had other duties as well, such as teaching Latin.) And he had a large family. But he also traveled and wrote secular cantatas as well as a great body of instrumental compositions. And he didn’t stay in one position for his entire life. (btw, in those days, a composer didn’t apply for a different “job” --he simply stopped working and hoped that his “boss” would dismiss him!)
Bach’s music was almost forgotten for a time, except that music students had always studied it. The thing is, the complex contrapuntal style of the Baroque period fell out of favor in the Age of Enlightenment/classical period. It was the composer/conductor Felix Mendelssohn who “rediscovered” Bach’s works and reintroduced them to the public. He staged a performance of Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion” for the first time in a long time. It is arguably the greatest piece of music ever composed, and definitely my favorite. The historic performance was marred by some anti-Semitic nastiness, as some didn’t thing Mendelssohn, with his Jewish background, should be conducting this Christian work. Unbelievable!
Anyway, it’s hard to imagine that Bach would decide to stop composing in the next life, as he is called the Fifth Evangelist.
…which is why it may be important to not think of worship as only being a regimented, pew-sitting discipline.
Just as prayer isn’t limited to the activity of sitting with eyes closed, head bowed, and hands folded – we are told to pray without ceasing. That means it happens during work and play too, and the same should probably be said of worship too.
Enjoyed your essay very much. You hit the nail on the head with this: So “worship” is important; but not when it is separated from the rest of life. Indeed, Paul describes the transformation of the mind and our doing the will of God as true worship (Rom 12:1–2).
In your section on “Ethics is lived eschatology,” you also pointed out that the primary purpose of the Bible’s metaphorical language about the afterlife “is not to satisfy our curiosity about the world to come, but to motivate us in the present to be faithful to God in all that we do.” Well said.
The neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg observed that human cognition is primarily forward-looking. Even in human plans, we begin with the end in mind. I think we can safely say that God did the same. He stated his purpose for mankind at the beginning, “Let us make adam in our image …” The end of the story is a humanity in union with the Trinitarian God, living out its original purpose of representing God on a renewed earth.