by Matthew L. Halsted
As Christians, we believe in a spiritual realm, a place where God, angels, and demons all exist. Moreover, this spiritual realm is incorporeal; we can’t see it, touch it, or taste it. But we whole-heartedly believe in it. Belief in the supernatural realm is a biblical belief, and it’s been in our tradition for a long time.
Because we believe in a “spiritual realm,” we often forget about this world—the visible, physical world. Ironically, we are sort of like non-believers (naturalists, for example), who wrongly think that all there is to reality is the physical universe. And obviously they choose to live their lives as if there is no spiritual realm, no God, nothing beyond the cosmos (e.g., they don’t go to church, worship God, etc). I say this because, interestingly, Christians make the same mistake, only in the opposite manner. That is, some Christians, with their focus upon the spiritual world, often live in such a way that they forget God also created this world—the physical world. For example, most preachers at funerals rarely talk about the physical resurrection for the person who has just died. In evangelical circles, seldom do you ever hear at a funeral how God will one day cause our loved ones to physically rise from the dead. Eulogies typically only speak to how the dead have found their “eternal home in heaven” and somehow that’s supposed to give us peace. Most Christians fail to hope for the eternal embodied life that is to come. Many evangelical Christians merely hope to “go to heaven” after they die; that is their end, they believe.
What does this have to do with anything? A long time ago, a Christian friend told me, “This world is just going to get worse; there’s nothing we can do about it.” My friend operated from the assumption that the Christians’ only hope was to escape this world and get up to heaven, where we will live forever. One wonders if this mistaken approach to how the world is going to end often leads to such a poor (and hopeless) attitude toward contributing to the goodness of this world. After all, if this world is going to end in despair, then why work toward its good? What use is political involvement, concern for the hungry, and for those who suffer?
Both the modern Christian and the naturalist, each being unable to reconcile claims of both spiritual reality and physical reality, embrace a devastating monolithic attitude toward life–a merely spiritual after-life for the modern Christian and a merely physical this-life for the naturalist. The by-standing public is left between two extremes.
I think, though, that the biblical way forward offers a helpful alternative to both extremes because it accounts for both realities–spiritual and physical. I think Christians like myself would do well to consider how physicalistic (weird word, I know) our faith truly is. In other words, “church” should not merely be “spiritual” but rather enfleshed. That is who Christ is, after all, and that’s what the Christ-ian ought to be as well.
Scripture says that there is both a physical realm and a spiritual realm, and God created both: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16 ESV). It teaches plainly that there is a spiritual and physical realm, and it assumes that both remain married just fine (a marriage that will be consummated at the Eschaton; Rev 21). Furthermore, when God created this world—this physical realm made up of trees, animals, bodies, planets, stars, oceans, lakes—he called everything “good” (Gen 1:31)
What does this mean for us believers? As Christians, we need to live out the biblical worldview, namely, that this physical world matters, too; it’s a good creation, after all. And as God’s people, we are to tend and keep God’s good creation (Gen 2:15). We are promised that, one day, God will recreate the heavens and earth, making all things new (Rev 21). That’s why my friend above was seriously mistaken; the world is actually going to get better in the end. It’s not ultimately going to get destroyed; that’s only penultimate. It’s renewal is ultimate.
Christians are called “exiles” in this world (1 Peter 1:1). But that doesn’t mean we should sit around and do nothing. For example, when God sent his people, Israel, into exile, He told them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7 ESV).
I believe we can “tend and keep,” and “seek the welfare” of, our own community by simply going about our daily, regular lives to the glory of God. You can live out your “this-world” Christian theology by being a stay-at-home mom, a lawyer, a trash man, a teacher, or whatever, to the glory of God. The fact is, this world does matter, and what you do in this world matters, too. God has placed you in “this world” to bring about beauty and goodness by the love of the Spirit that lives within your heart. As God’s image-bearer, you are in a unique position to show forth God’s person.
So, don’t be a Christian who thinks that all that matters is “going to heaven when I die.” Rather, be a Christian who is obsessed with bringing heaven to earth (Matt 6:10). According to John 1:14, that’s what Jesus did, and that’s what He calls his Body–his church–to do as well.