This article on teaching systematics was written by Alistair Mackenzie, Teaching Fellow at Laidlaw College and member of the Theology of Work Project Steering Committee. It was originally published in the Oikonomia Network newsletter in September 2016.
It is surprising that few systematic theology texts or courses demonstrate interest in exploring the meaning of work from a theological perspective. Every category in systematic theology offers a lens for examining the meaning of work. Our daily work, both paid and unpaid, is a reality that consumes most of our time and energy in this life, so making these theological connections is imperative.
This article suggests some themes that might be developed to help students think about the meaning and purpose of work from an eschatological perspective. Is our work only about sustaining physical life in this world, or does it have spiritual and eternal value that continues into God’s new creation?
Many popular conceptions of eternity with God – the end point of Christian eschatology – are built around glimpses of eternal rest or eternal worship services. For many Christians, these are not particularly compelling or attractive futures if they are isolated from activity and accomplishment. People can’t imagine how they will find fulfilment in a purely passive future, or singing worship songs that go on forever. We have been created to contemplate and worship God, yes, but also to be actively involved in God’s creation. People want more from a vision of the future if it is to be worth looking forward to and working toward.
Questions Worth Addressing
Some questions related to work that teachers might want to make reference to in a course covering eschatology include:
- Does the phrase “eternal rest” imply that there is no work in the end, or just that work will no longer include drudgery and struggle?
- If there is work in the end, what sort of work might it be?
- How much continuity and discontinuity is there between work in this creation and in the new creation?
- Does our present work have eternal significance?
- Is any of our present work, or the fruit of our work, carried forward into the new creation?
- In what ways is work impacted by our understandings of the resurrection of the body and the final reconciliation of the cosmos to God?
Theology of Work Project Resources
The Theology of Work Project has developed a number of resources that can help correct popular misconceptions and provide students with a compelling and scripturally-grounded vision of what Christian eschatology means for our work now and eternal life with God:
- The TOW Theological Foundations provides a condensed outline for a theology of work, including a section on the New Creation.
- Commentaries on the following passages address a number of the questions above
- 1 Corinthians 15:58 – Part of a section titled “Our work is not in vain,” which looks at continuity and discontinuity related to resurrection.
- 2 Peter 3:13 –The 2 Peter commentary examines “Work and New Creation.”
- Isaiah 65:17-23 –The section on Isaiah chapters 60 to 65 looks at “Work’s Ultimate Meaning.”
- Revelation 17-22 – The last two sections of the Revelation commentary offer numerous reflections under the headings “A Tale of Two Cities” and a final summary about “The Meaning of Revelation for our Work.”
Of course you can also search for other topics on http://www.theologyofwork.org by ty,ping in phrases like “new creation” or “future hope” or “work and resurrection,” or by viewing articles that have already been tagged in our alphabetical search listing with tags including “Work in the New Creation,” “Kingdom of God – Restoration of the World,” “Eternity,” “Eternal Perspective,” or “Material World, the Spiritual Value of.”
Nathan Hitchcock, associate professor of Church History and Theology at Sioux Falls Seminary, has previously addressed the issue of “The Resurrection of the Body in Our Work” in the May 2015 edition of the Oikonomia Network newsletter. Hitchcock says:
How then shall Christians work? By imitating the healing God in their own creaturely way. They cannot raise the dead, but they join in the anticipatory work of elevating bodies. By the Spirit of resurrection, in anticipation of the final day, Christians work to see thriving bodies.
Darrell Cosden’s scholarly work A Theology of Work: Work and the New Creation and his more popular The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work offer helpful introductions to these issues. A more condensed essay exploring similar concerns is offered by John Jefferson Davis in “Will There Be New Work in the New Creation?” You can find it in Evangelical Review of Theology, Vol 31, No.3 (2007) pp 256-273; or in J.J. Davis, Practicing Ministry in the Presence of God, Wipf & Stock, 2015.
Possible Eschatology Assignments
Here is a possible two-part assignment or exam question that teachers might use:
Does the work that we do, or the fruit of our work, survive into the New Creation? If so, explain in what ways you understand this to be true. If not, is there any eternal significance in our present work?
Identify key scripture passages and themes that have influenced your thinking and conclusions. Also demonstrate that you have considered the work of Darrell Cosden in The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work and at least one other prominent theologian of your own choosing who has addressed this topic.
If you have used, or can think of, other assignments in this area, the Oikonomia Network and the Theology of Work Project would love to hear from you!