February 5, 2012

Paul Marshall: Heaven Is Not My Home

     Heaven Is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God’s Creation by Paul Marshall with Lela Gilbert (1998). 4 out of 5 Stars.

This is a book about being human in this world, specifically what it means for a Christian to live in this world as a creature of God in light of what Christ has done and ultimately what he will do. The underlying premise behind this work is the theological notion that “grace restores nature.” In other words, the creation has fallen into ruin because of human sin, but God did not just wipe it all out and start over. Instead, he redeemed it through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This event marks the beginning of a new humanity, a new creation, one in which the true nature of humanity is restored or finally revealed in its fullness. While the consummation of this new creation awaits the end of history and the return of Christ, the restoration has already begun in history. Those who have placed their trust in Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit are already beginning to be renewed according to the pattern of this new humanity. Even in the midst of this fallen world, Christians are called to live in light of the resurrection, to live as redeemed humans in a creation that is still very much love by its Creator. This is the message that Paul Marshall seeks to expound and apply.

He begins by confessing that the book is very one-sided. The Bible teaches that the world as created by God is both good and, as a result of sin, profoundly bad. However, Marshall’s intention is to focus on the good, not to the exclusion of recognizing the effects of the bad, but with an emphasis on the good that remains. In terms of the distinction between the “already” and the “not yet” of our redemption, Marshall is seeking to expound upon the “already.” However, his reason for doing this is very much related to the “not yet.” The destination of the redeemed is not to some disembodied existence in a heavenly realm, but is very much an earthly, physical existence in a new earth. At the resurrection, we will be humans living in right relation to God and his creation and we are called to begin living that way now.

Our Place in the World

Humans were created in God’s image and given responsibility to rule over the rest of creation as God’s representative. We are called to “image God in our ruling, forming, and caring for God’s creation.” This responsibility is not removed by sin, but the fall has made it much more difficult to carry out. As a result of sin, our relationship with each other and with creation itself has been corrupted. God’s judgment against Adam and Eve results in the ground itself being cursed. As Marshall says, “Sin is not the reason we have to work, but it is what makes our work miserable ‘painful toil.’” This corruption spread to all of Adam’s progeny and has affected all of life. So why talk about this if creation is so wrecked? Why not just get as many people into life boats as possible and wait for heaven? Marshall answers,

A truly Christian viewpoint is not “lifeboat theology,” but “ark theology” instead. Noah’s ark saved not only people, but it preserved God’s other creatures as well. The ark looked not flee but to return to the land and begin again. Once the flood subsided, everyone and everything aboard was intended to return again and restore the earth…The story of Noah demonstrates that God has not given up on the world. God said to Noah, after the fall, what he had said to Adam and Eve, before the fall: “multiple and replenish.”

Following the description of humanity’s descent into sin, the Bible tells the story of how sin “has been, is being, and will be overcome through Jesus Christ.” Through the Old Testament and into the New, God reveals that he is concerned not just with the people of Israel, but with the whole world, and this is who Jesus has come to save. In the book of Romans, after recounting the wonderful work of salvation brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Paul describes the creation itself as groaning and eagerly awaiting the resurrection and being set free from the bondage to corruption. The redemption of Christ is truly cosmic in scope.

Our Response to the World

In the next section, Marshall outlines four fundamental aspects of our life in the world:

  • Learning – We are called to be always learning, using the light of God’s word to illumine our understanding of the world around us. We study the scriptures, but not just to know them for their own sake, but to use them to know God and his world rightly.
  • Work – Our work is part of who we are as humans, and this is not limited to paid employment but includes “repairing the faucet, helping the kids with their homework, taking our the garbage, or making the bed.” In contrast to the medieval elevation of the contemplative life, the Protestant reformation emphasized that the priesthood of all believers means not only that all humans have equal access to God in Christ, but also that all work is equally service to God. As Tyndale said, “to wash dishes and to preach is all one, as touching the deed, to please God.” We must also oppose society’s attempt to consider work antithetical to fulfillment or to elevate some professions above others. We must view work as the responsible activity of God’s image bearer and seek to cultivate that mindset in our workplaces, granting people the responsibility and the opportunity to serve their neighbor and God and not treat them as a commodity.
  • Rest – God has made his view on rest know in the fourth commandment. It is vital to healthy life in this world, and serves as a curb against the inherent tendency to make an idol out of work. It also forces us to place our trust in God and resist the desire to consume and produce without limits.
  • Play – This is simply being “at home in the world and at peace with God.” It is “what we do for no reason at all. Play is not done for any reason outside of itself.”

Our Tasks in the World

Some areas of life where our responsibilities are played out:

  • The natural world – The biblical approach to the environment is neither idolatrous nor destructive. God condemns those who senselessly destroy the earth, and we should exercise responsible stewardship.
  • Political responsibility – “Politics is not simply a fight about who gets what. It is not merely a realm of struggle and sin. It is also a ministry, protecting the lives of human beings, God’s image bearers. It is a means of bringing justice and dignity. The restoration of decent politics is a Christian ministry. It is a hard and necessary ministry and we need to take it up.”
  • Imagination and the Arts – God is the master artist and we are called to imitate him with our imaginations. We should see to do so in our art, our dress, our cooking, and anywhere else we can.
  • Creativity and Technology – Technology is not a savior, but is a reflection of the desires and priorities of a culture and can promote the flourishing of humanity or can have a dehumanizing effect. We should break the idols of technology but pursue technologies that encourage holistically improving human life.

Our Hope for the World

The last section ties up the ways in which Christians impact the future of the world, and the hope that awaits:

  • Worship and idolatry – All humans are religious and are worshipping something, whether it’s the gods of pagan religions, the idols of our hearts, or the true God. In many ways, Christians are also susceptible to idolatry – whenever we’re putting our trust or confidence in something other than Christ. The pattern of an idolatrous society involves serving gods with out lives, being transformed into the image of the god, and creating structures and forms of society in its own image and into the image of its idols. When Christ transforms a culture, the idols become de-idolized and the good which had been corrupted to idolatry is restored to proper use in serving Christ.
  • Evangelism – The great commission calls the nations to obey God. “When men and women turn to Jesus Christ in real, concrete repentance from sin and, by grace through faith, are restored in God’s favor, they are called to being to live out the healing and restoration of Christ’s redemption, taking up their Christian responsibility for the direction of human life and culture.” We need a much deeper view of evangelism and consider how all of our work, art, and actions in the world are a potential testimony to true reality even when they’re not explicitly “evangelistic.” This is a powerful witness to the world, when Christians produce good families, good businesses, good art, good books, and good politics. Quoting C.S. Lewis: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects –with their Christianity latent…Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.”
  • Patience and Longsuffering – There remains evil and suffering in this world, and our God bears patiently with wickedness until the final judgment. We are called to perseverance in hope, knowing that the suffering is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory.
  • The New Creation – Our hope is for the resurrection, and we get a picture of how real it is in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. He was no ghost. He walked, he cooked, and he ate – we shouldn’t expect to be any different. All that is good in this creation, and all that has been redeemed will be welcomed into the new creation. The fires of 2 Peter 3:7 are not fires of destruction that destroy all of creation, but purifying fires of judgment that destroy the sinful and the wrong. In the meantime, Christians are called to hope and joy in the midst of pain, seeking to patiently do God’s will while they await the blessed hope of the Lord’s return.

In 1 Corinthians 10:31, the apostle Paul exhorts believers that everything they do should be done for the glory of God. That is the message of this book and one that needs to be heard in our churches. So many Christians live a compartmentalized existence, where there is little relationship between what they do on Sunday and what they do on Monday. There are a few things to quibble about throughout the book, but overall the heart of it is right where it needs to be. All of Christ, for all of life, for all the world.

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