Essay: Christian Activism and New Creation

Here is a short essay I wrote for Dr. John Mark Hicks’ class (God, New Creation, and the Church) in the Missional Church Leadership Graduate program at Rochester:

In his book, The Cross in Our Context, Douglas John Hall opens by making the predictable claim (writing as a theologian) that theology matters.[1] The claim holds enormous validity because in the (post) modern world, what one thinks about god(s) greatly impacts life. Theology is not merely a lifeless discipline for select academicians that bears no relevance for life in the world, but it brushes all of life. In much the same way as theology broadly defined matters, eschatology matters. What one believes about the end of time can have an implicit effect on the way life is lived in the world, but the way in which eschatology affects life is greatly dependent on the nature of one’s eschatology—which is the reason an eschatology that deals faithfully with the trajectory of the Scriptural narrative is so crucial to the Christian community’s life in the world.

The belief that at the end of time God will destroy all things in a fiery ball of fury leads to environmental abuse. The justification is given that “It’s all going to burn anyway,” which makes way for a misuse of resources and an overall neglect for the Creation. An eschatology that portrays the eschaton as a disembodied existence of soul leads to diluted preaching and discipleship, and a devaluation of all things not related to evangelism (viewed as teaching the gospel of penal substitutionary atonement). This disembodied view scorns the physical or bodily aspects of life. Social justice and activism (the working toward human equality and justice), in these expressions of eschatology, are cast outside the realm of Christian mission and orthopraxy. A biblical eschatology, however, breathes life into activism, calls the church out of social complacency, and provides a holistic view of Scripture and mission.

A biblical understanding of eschatology embraces the biblical notion of New Creation—the idea that in the eschaton, there will be a union of heaven and earth, ultimately fulfilling the original telos (end-goal) of creation. There is a soteriological and ecclesiological component to New Creation. Fundamental doctrines like redemption are re-imagined because within the New Creation framework, redemption is, according to Middleton, “the restoration of God’s creational intent.”[2]—and there has always been a developmental aspect to that intent. The flow in Scripture is from a garden (Genesis 2) to a city (Revelation 2)–which is the ultimate dwelling place of the divine with his people. The creation is not destroyed, but is renewed, and God finally dwells with his people.

But what relevance does this New Creation have for activism? Activism and the renewal of creation may at first glance seem to have no relationship whatsoever. But this flows from a misconception about what “creation” is—the equating of creation solely to nature. This happens because, according to Middleton, the “fuller biblical conception of creation—which includes the entire human socio-cultural order—is ignored by many Christians in their reading of Scripture.”[3] Creation includes all aspects of human existence, not just the physical, and redemption involves more than the soul. Eschatology and new creation encompasses all of life in this world God has made—societies and cultures included.

In the New Creation, relationships will ultimately be made right. This is most clearly seen in the restoration of the creation’s relationship with her Creator. The trajectory of Scripture and the purpose of God was always presence with the people God had made. His people were always to be God’s “treasured possession” (Deut 7.6). In the New Creation, this becomes reality. Not only is the relationship between Creator and humanity restored, but relationships among humans are restored as well. Human life is given dignity, as they truly reflect the imago Dei. Oppression ceases to exists. Exploitation is no more. Divisions among humans are broken down ultimately and completely. It is what the Hebrew prophets called justice. In the New Creation, there is no place for the human greed and arrogance that leads to injustice and inequality.

It is also important to note that God is presently working towards that telos of redemption and restoration in the world. He has not removed himself from the milieu of human existence while waiting to redeem creation. Eschatological deism is not an option. The witness of Scripture consistently points to God’s involvement in the world. This begins to point towards the place of activism within ecclesial life. Activism is joining with God in his work of justice, as God pulls us into his future. If God is working in the world and has not left it to its own devices, the church should not either. Activism is important because, as Martin Luther King Jr. said in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

Activism in the name of the New Creation cannot just take any imperialistic form it wishes. The shape of God’s existence in the world must fundamentally mimic that existence. When God came into the world, he came to bear the cross. As the church goes into the world for the cause of justice, it must too bear the cross. “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”[4] The activism of the church must be a cruciform activism.

The activism in light of New Creation is different than activism of left-leaning political ideology because of holistic nature of the New Creation. Redemption is not, as is usually espoused by right-leaning ideology, just a matter of one’s disembodied soul, but it does include the redemption of the soul. New Creation is about the establishment of justice and equality, but it is always a matter of reconciliation between humanity and God. This cannot be ignored in Christian activism.

The prophet Isaiah provides the biblical imperative for work towards justice in light of New Creation: “Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.”[5] Words from N.T. Wright captures the idea perfectly:

“. . . a proper grasp of the (surprising) future hope held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly and, to many people, equally surprisingly, to a vision of the present hope that is the basis of all Christian mission. To hope for a better future in this world—for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world—is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought. And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism in the present. It is a central, essential, vital, and life-giving part of it.”[6]

[1] Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

[2]J. Richard Middletown, A New Heavens and a New Earth: Journal for Christian Theological Research 11 (2006) 74

[3] Ibid., 74

[4] 2 Corinthians 4 NRSV

[5] Isaiah 56.1 NRSV

[6] N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 191-192

2 Responses to Essay: Christian Activism and New Creation
  1. K. Rex Butts Reply

    “The shape of God’s existence in the world must fundamentally mimic that existence. When God came into the world, he came to bear the cross. As the church goes into the world for the cause of justice, it must too bear the cross.”

    Very well said and a very good article. Thanks for sharing!

  2. [...] those are fantastic questions that he just asked.  (Read his thoughts here.)  Questions that I think m...

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