Wright argues that New Heaven and New Earth (NHNE) theology leads to the conclusion that every good and holy thing we do will survive into the next age. If I were to write a beautiful poem in praise of God, somehow that poem would survive the destructive fires that purge the world of all that is unworthy of God and be even improved — redeemed — to be a part of the world made new by God.
And that may be true. I just can’t find biblical support for that position. And having read too many bad Christian poems, I’m not going to miss the doggerel.
(As powerful as God is, I have trouble imagining even the Maker of the Universe redeeming some Christian poetry. I still have nightmares from a certain Advent “poem” we read about 50 times in my church. But maybe God needs to redeem my distaste for bad poetry. It’s my own fault, I’m sure. Really.)
So let’s start in 2 Pet 3 —
(2 Pet. 3:9-12 ESV) 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. 11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!
Amazing! Peter says we can hasten the Second Coming! How? Well, why is the Second Coming being delayed? So that “all should come to repentance.” God is delaying the return of Jesus to give more people time to repent. So it would seem that we hasten the return of Jesus by bringing more people to repentance. Evangelism and missions will hasten the return of Jesus.
Notice that the redemptive work that will hasten the return of Jesus is the repentance of unbelievers. There’s not the slightest suggestion that other good works will bring about Jesus’ hastened return (except to the extent they help bring about repentance, of course).
We next consider the verse Wright himself focuses on —
(1 Cor. 15:58 ESV) 58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
“Labor” (kopos) is always used by Paul of labor as a missionary or otherwise as an evangelist. And in 1 Cor, “work” is always used of the work of a church planter (except in 5:2, which is about sin that might destroy a church). And both “work” and “labor” are used by Paul in 1 Cor 3 in his description of building a church on the foundation of Jesus. Paul’s use of the singular “work” and “labor” further suggests that he had a particular kind of work or labor in mind.
“Not in vain” is a reference back to —
(1 Cor. 15:1-2 ESV) Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you– unless you believed in vain.
— which is a reference to the conversion of his readers. The parallel is: you Corinthians have not believed in vain, because the resurrection of Jesus assures you of your salvation, and your labor in the Kingdom is also not in vain because the resurrection of Jesus assures you that those you convert will be with you at the resurrection.
Therefore, he is not speaking of writing poems and digging wells — unless the poems are written or wells dug to help plant or build a church.
Therefore, Paul assumed that the Corinthians engaged in evangelistic efforts, just as he and Apollos had done for them. He didn’t command them to go door knocking, but as many errors and problems as the church in Corinth had going on, Paul still assumed that they were active in evangelism.
We need to take a moment to reflect on —
(1 Cor. 3:12-15 ESV) 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Here Paul is speaking of the construction of a local church, as though it’s a temple. In the ancient world, the gold, silver, and jewels were used in temples. But these stand here for people. The “work” that survives the fire of God’s wrath is the people, the members of the church. Just so, the “work” that is burned up by the wrath of God would be church members who are ultimately damned.
Paul bases his metaphor on Malachi 3:2-3, where the same construction materials (gold and silver) are referenced and refer to the priests serving at the temple. So it seems clear that Paul is speaking of the salvation of people, not the redemption of good works and such like.
Now, Paul’s image of gold, silver, and jewels can’t help but bring to mind Jesus’ several sayings about our having treasures in heaven.
(Matt. 6:19-21 ESV) 19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
(Matt. 19:20-22 ESV) 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Closely linked with the eschatological call to cut loose from family ties was the similar call to sit loose to possessions. For most people in the ancient world, the most basic possession was land; for Jews, the land was of course the holy land, promised by YHWH to his people. It was because of the Roman registration of the holy land that Judas the Galilean had started his revolt in AD 6. Just as Israel had ‘inherited’ the land in the first place, land would be the most basic inheritance that a father could leave to his children; the latter phenomenon, indeed, would be given religious depth and significance by the former. This, then, rather than an attack on the first-century equivalent of twentieth-century materialism, is what was most deeply at stake when Jesus summoned people to give up their possessions:
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), 403–404.
Wright sees “treasures” on earth as land inherited by the Jews as part of God’s promise to Abraham. Give that up in order to receive the inheritance of the NHNE, that is, the cosmos. They’ll have a room in God’s mansion, a residence in the New Jerusalem.
This might be Jesus’ point in some of these sayings, but in general, I don’t buy it. Thieves don’t break in and destroy land. Moths and rust destroy personal property, clothing, furniture, that sort of thing. Not land.
So what was Jesus really talking about as treasures in heaven? It could be argued that Jesus is discussing degrees of reward. All saved people go to the NHNE, but the better you are in this life, the greater your reward. However, it’s hard for our minds to picture degrees of reward. We’re much better at imagining degrees of punishment. After all, just what would the reward consist of? Better cuts of meat at the wedding feast of the Lamb? A bigger room in God’s house? Not that it can’t be true. It really could be exactly what Jesus has in mind. I just have trouble visualizing it.
The commentators are remarkably and consistently silent on what the nature of this reward might be. But fools rush in … and I have a theory. I think it’s the same idea as we find in Paul in 1 Cor 3:12-15 and 2 Pet 3:12. I think Jesus is saying that we’ll find ourselves at Judgment Day greeted by all the men and women that we helped bring to Jesus. It will, one hopes, include our children and grandchildren, but also those converted by missionaries we helped to support, those whose hearts were opened to Jesus by wells we dug and houses we painted. Maybe even a few people touched by a poem we wrote. I think it’s in that sense that our good work survives the fires of God’s purification and so our labor is not in vain.
Now, as I’ve explained in several other posts, because God exists outside of earthly time, I believe Judgment Day exists apart from earthly time. Therefore, when we die, we pass straight to Judgment. To those who remain alive, we appear to sleep, but from the perspective of the deceased, we go straight from earthly death to the gates of the NHNE. And at those gates, we’ll meet our grandparents — who will be just then arriving — and our grandchildren — who will be just then arriving, too.
And then we’ll be greeted by people who may have died 300 years after us but who can credit their salvation to a missionary that we helped support. Some of us may be greeted by millions of both earthly and spiritual descendants — and we’ll be blessed to be thanked by countless droves of people whose lives we indirectly touched.
If I’m right, and I can’t prove it, that would be a glorious way to begin the afterlife — and give great depth to the thoughts that our labor will not be in vain and that we’re storing up treasures in heaven.
And while I usually agree with Wright, and I have no real problem with the idea that every good thing we do for Jesus will survive into the next age, this thought is enough for me. And while evangelism is just so out of fashion, I think there is nothing more precious that a human rescued from death and gehenna and provided a room in God’s mansion. (And I’m thinking I might make more generous donations to missions.)