Our Cultural Engagement Needs More Heaven
On seeing our Christian witness from the perspective of eternity, not Washington.
I’m convinced that the only Christian approach to engaging culture that really matters is a deeply eschatological one. The biblical ideas, the application of natural law, the synthethis of ethical reflection with cultural literacy—these things matter, but they’re not enough. Put it this way: if you try to speak Christianly to a secular society without thinking, talking, or feeling much about heaven, you won’t speak well very long.
To engage a post-Christian culture means to engage a thought-system in which the vast majority of people are formed by eternity-less beliefs. By this I don’t mean that most Western people reject belief in the afterlife. Research indicates a vast majority of Americans believe in some sort of sentient life after death, but this is mostly sentimental optimism. The mass of modern people vaguely believe in some sort of pleasant afterlife for themselves and for those they like. But 99% of these do not incorporate this expectation into their everyday behavior or expectations. Heaven is as abstract to them as the idea of winning the lottery.
Everywhere we see the effects of secularism’s heaven-less worldview. As evangelicals we are mostly tempted to think about this in strictly conversion terms, but there’s so much more to say. Because mainstream culture does not have a functioning eschatology, it puts an enormously punishing burden on itself to achieve final justice and the renewal of all things. This is why today’s progressives so often sound like last century’s fundamentalists. The New Morality of secularism can be understood as a Christ-less, Scripture-less effort to bring a heaven down to earth. As one writer puts it, “Our social and political life is awash in unconsciously held Christian ideas broken from the theology that gave them meaning, and it’s hungry for the identification of sinners...to demonstrate the sociopolitical power of the accusers.”
The punishing, legalistic ethos of contemporary progressivism is a glaring reminder of how important the doctrine of heaven is to genuinely Christian engagement of culture. We evangelicals especially need to broaden our view of heaven to mean more than the capstone of our personal salvation. Heaven isn’t just where saved people go when they die, nor is it just the main thing evangelists hold out to unbelievers while inviting them to Jesus. The Christian view of heaven seeps into our engagement with culture, our public witness, and our social and ethical arguments.
Far from being an ethereal distraction from the hard work of thinking, building, and persuading, heaven makes all the difference for how Christians move about in the kind of society described above.
1) Our doctrine of heaven gives ultimate meaning to our public witness, and this ultimate meaning enables us to engage culture from ahead rather than behind.
I’ve written about this before. Conservative evangelicals have a tendency to reduce cultural engagement to reacting against what elite society is saying or doing in a given moment. This mode of cultural engagement is captured well in the image of the Christian theologian-as-blogger, raking the headlines day after day for various opinions and events that need to be filtered through a worldview lens. What this kind of Christian writer misses is the fact that he is letting the world set the agenda for what he does. In this setup, secular culture—or more accurately, a handful of wealthy journalistic institutions—gets to determine what Christian public engagement means.
A living doctrine of heaven cuts through this. Engagement of culture that is actively conscious of the eternal can raise its eyes above the weekly morass and stare at the perennial. Christians do not need the New York Times or The Atlantic to decide what ethical norms we should be defending in a given moment. Instead, we should and can think about humanity in eternal terms. We are designed with givenness, a givenness that will be glorified but not eradicated. We are destined to be embedded with other people in a kingdom, enjoying Christ and delighting ourselves by echoing back the fulness of his greatness out into the new world. What does this heavenly destiny mean for who we really are now? Fleshing this out will give you an agenda for cultural engagement that anticipates the crises of modern society, rather than always and only reacting to them.
2) Our doctrine of heaven gives assurance of justice to our public witness, and this assurance of justice makes us courageous enough to love.
I cannot say this enough: You will never be able to genuinely love those who reject your deepest values if you believe that their rejection will actually prevent those values from lasting. In other words, our ability to persevere through disagreement, rejection, and even persecution depends on how we think the story will end.
Destroying your opponent makes sense if that opponent really does threaten the final good of the world. In his book How to Think, Alan Jacobs observers, “When you believe that the brokenness of this world can be not just ameliorated but fixed, once and for all, then people who don’t share your optimism, or who do share it but invest it in a different system, are adversaries of Utopia.” This single sentence goes further in explaining Left vs Right dynamics than many books.
Utopia has adversaries that must be plowed over. But heaven’s victory is assured. The kingdom will come, and Christ’s will will be done. Political gains do not make this victory more imminent and political losses do not make it less likely. The marginalization of secularists will not trigger the promise of Christ to dwell with his people forever, and the ascendance of secularists will not thwart or delay the same. That means that tenderness is not weakness, and returning good for evil is not a “losing strategy.” Christians ought to defend civilization, but we are obliged to do it while carrying our cross, and to remember that the cross does not disadvantage us. It is simply astonishing how many professing believers in the Christian eschaton talk, debate, slander, rage, and vote as if they have no idea what their Bible says.
3) Our doctrine of heaven helps us rest well, and this rest makes us strangely appealing to a restless world.
Everyone is exhausted. Everyone is anxious. Everyone is terrified, angry, alienated, or indifferent. Can you think of anything this generation needs more than real rest?
The kind of rest that heals wounded spirits is a heavenly one. “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.” (Ps. 3:5) Modern people fail to rest in part because constant wakefulness is the only thing that staves off the worry that crushes us. Sleep is less numbing than another episode, another scroll, or another argument. Busyness keeps the fear of silence at bay.
But this is a fear that melts in the presence of a good Creator. We accept our limitations, even making peace with them, when we know it’s not ultimately our efforts that matter. Here’s how John Piper put it: “Sleep is a parable that God is God and we are mere men. God handles the world quite nicely while a hemisphere sleeps. Sleep is like a broken record that comes around with the same message every day: Man is not sovereign. Man is not sovereign. Man is not sovereign.”
We need to look out in the modern world and see would-be culture warriors for the anxious, restless, weary souls they are. We need to see public witness from the perspective of heaven, not Washington. Let’s not leave heaven behind when we do the hard work of engaging culture. Don’t just stand athwart history and yell “Stop.” Stand back from eternity and let it do its work.