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When I recently re-read the booklet, the way we addressed some of the myths seemed a bit outdated to my ears.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 wrote 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 long 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).

Resurrection Ethics

Matthew Davis

Matt Davis is writing an M.A. thesis at Northeastern Seminary on the ethics of resurrection in the New Testament. He kindly agreed for me to post a recent email exchange we had.

Guest Post from Matt Davis—A Student’s Note after Class

I’ve been struggling with how my life should be reflecting my study of resurrection ethics. You write on the last two pages of chapter 7 (“Resurrection and the Restoration of Rule”) in your forthcoming book, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, that the “resurrection turns the world upside down.”

I have been trying to get a better understanding of turning certain habits in my life upside down. I have been thinking more about my income and where my money goes. How much I give, and where I give it, is becoming increasingly important to me.

Also, you say that the cultural mandate and the resurrection “cannot be separated” and I agree. Your understanding of the cultural mandate in association with resurrection (the notion that God will restore the righteous to earth-stewardship) has given voice to my recent interest in ecology and being a responsible person concerning the earth. After discussing the resurrection, Paul says that “in the Lord our labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58). I see people’s everyday ecological choices as laboring in the Lord, knowing they are not in vain.

Using the language of “power” and our “misuse” of that power, I feel an increased responsibility to fulfill the cultural mandate, and, in doing so, “anticipate and embody God’s new world that is coming” (last sentence in chapter 7).

I feel like I’m thinking aloud and most of this is obvious, but thought I would send this off to you since I wasn’t able to speak to you after class Thursday.

Middleton Response to Matt Davis

Thank you so much, Matt, for sharing these profound thoughts with me. I’m glad to see you thinking about (and struggling with) these things.

I certainly don’t have full answers to all your questions. And I can’t say that I fully live out my own ideals. But I think it is important to continue on the journey, and keep on raising questions so we don’t become complacent.

I also don’t believe we should become guilt-ridden and paralyzed over these questions. For two reasons.

First, salvation (including resurrection and the restoration of rule) is God’s gift to us before it is a calling to fulfill in our lives. God is already at work in us by his Spirit before we even begin to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Second, we are part of a body/ community tasked with embodying God’s coming kingdom. Therefore, it is unrealistic to think that one individual could fully embody this kingdom. We are in process together with others, and should be encouraging each other and challenging each other to manifest the kingdom in more and more consistent ways.

One of the things I’ve said for a long time is that I need a church community that is aware they are trying to answer the question of what it means to be the church faithfully in the contemporary context. That I haven’t always found such a community has often been a source of disappointment for me.

As you know, the church I’ve been attending (Community of the Savior) was constituted formally as a Free Methodist Church this past Sunday (and I became a charter member). At that ceremony one of our pastors said explicitly that we are beginning to realize that we need to keep asking the question of how we are to be the church today (rather than just continue on our merry way in acquiescence with the status quo).

This awareness of the question helps me know that “in the Lord [my] labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).

We should talk more about this face-to-face.

My Assumptions for Studying and Teaching the Bible

Here are five assumptions that undergird my own study of Scripture and all my teaching at Northeastern Seminary. I first came up with this list when I was just beginning my tenure at Northeastern in 2011, and I’ve been sharing it with incoming students ever since.

The Bible tells one complex, coherent true story.

The Bible is a complex collection of literature that nevertheless is framed in terms of a coherent story of redemption that is meant to guide our lives. The coherence of Scripture holds true despite many differing theological emphases, and even the presence of dissonant voices. We ignore both the coherence and the complexity of Scripture at our peril.

The biblical story is holistic.

The biblical God is the creator of all and everything that God made is good. While the fall is radical (both deep, to the heart, and broad, affecting every corner of life), Scripture proclaims God’s intent to redeem all creation (human and non-human) and to bring this world to the destiny for which he created it. The biblical worldview acknowledges no sacred/secular split.

The Bible is temporal and contextual.

While the biblical message is applicable to all times and places, revelation is given in particular times and places, and is definitively marked by its historical contexts. Attending to this temporal and contextual character of Scripture is crucial for responsible interpretation.

Humans are granted a significant role in the Scriptures.

Not only is the Bible pervaded by the perspectives of its multiple human authors (through whom revelation has come), but Scripture recounts the decisive role of human characters within the biblical story at every turn as significant contributors to the movement (whether forward or backward) of the story of redemption. We must attend to the complex divine-human relationship in the pages of Scripture.

Serious study of the Bible should itself be a process of transformation and discipleship.

It is not enough to say that studying the Bible should lead to transformation and discipleship. This often means that study about the Bible (or someone else’s summary of the Bible or sermons on the Bible) is substituted for our actual engaged grappling with Scripture. Nor is this reducible to lectio divina, valuable as that practice is, since this can artificially separate our spirituality from our cognitive attempts to understand the Bible, in its full complexity. Rather, it is the process of grappling with the detailed complexity of particular texts (even texts that we find challenging) that draws us into the biblical story as engaged dialogue partners with God and as committed participants in God’s mission to redeem creation.