You Were Made for Earth: My Interview with Michael Wittmer

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51gqWQpj1pL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Dr. Michael Wittmer, the author of Heaven is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God. Michael is associate professor of systematic theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1996. I highly recommend his book as a great introduction into the Christian worldview.

In Heaven is a Place on Earth, you write that humans were created, not for heaven, but for earth. Why would most Christians believe this is the other way around?

Michael Wittmer: Christians who believe that the goal of life is to escape this world and go to heaven typically make two theological mistakes. First, they fail to recognize that the Bible is a unified story of creation, fall, and redemption, and, like all good stories, should be read from left to right. When we begin with creation, we quickly realize that redemption aims to restore creation rather than annihilate it, which is why Scripture often speaks of the earth, not some ethereal heaven, as our ultimate home.

Second, many Christians confuse ontological (literal) with ethical categories. When 1 Peter 2:11 says that we are strangers in this world, they think Peter means that we do not belong here—that Planet Earth is not our true home. But if they read the whole verse, they would notice that Peter is using the terms “stranger” and “alien” in an ethical way, to warn us to “abstain from fleshly lusts.”

Ontologically speaking, this world is our home. We are earthlings, for heaven’s sake! But ethically, the sin in this world should drive us nuts. We must keep this difference straight in our minds, or we will never understand Scripture and God’s purpose for our lives.

Where did this confusion come from?

Michael Wittmer: Historically, the idea that we come from heaven and will return there was espoused by Plato. This notion was passed on to the church by Augustine, who was a Neoplatonist before his conversion. Since Augustine is the church’s most important theologian, many Christians in the Middle Ages assumed his Platonic view of reality. Combined with the dualism present in classical dispensationalism between Israel and the Church and earth and heaven, it is no wonder that many Christians believe the best they can hope for is to go to heaven when they die.

How does developing a Christian worldview help us avoid the dualistic thinking found in so many churches today?

Michael Wittmer: The story of Scripture is simply this:

Creation—everything God made is good; Fall—everything has been broken by sin; Redemption—everything must be restored to its original goodness.

The obvious point of this story is that everything matters to God. Grace must restore everything that sin has destroyed. So every part of our lives and every part of our world must be brought under the lordship of Christ.

In the words of Abraham Kuyper,

“There is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all, does not exclaim, ‘It’s Mine!'”

So whether we are making a meal, tending our lawn, playing with children, or going to work, it all matters now. God cares just as much about what we watch on television as he does about what we do in church. Why? Because every aspect of creation must be redeemed.

How do humans reflect the image of their Maker?

Michael Wittmer: The image of God is a tantalizing, mysterious concept to nail down. It is a rich, provocative idea that overflows any borders we might assign to it. Still, I have found it helpful to think about the image of God in ontological and ethical categories.

Ontologically, our beings reflect God in our higher capacities for language, rationality, community, conscience and free choice. Calvin suggests that even our bodies reflect God (i.e., we walk upright rather than crawl on all fours like other creatures). Ethically, God created us to use these higher capacities in three relationships (described below).

According to Genesis 1-2, why has God put us on earth?

Michael Wittmer: Genesis 1:26-28 gives us the meaning of life, or why God put us on earth. He created us in his image in order to love him (Gen. 1:26), to serve others (Gen. 1:27—we are made “male and female”), and to responsibly cultivate the earth (Gen. 1:28—“rule” and “subdue” creation). This is what it means to be human. We are fully human when we love God, sacrificially serve others in our communities of home, church, and neighborhood, and contribute to the development of culture by diligently conducting our various callings for the glory of God.

How has the Fall distorted God’s original intention for His good world?

Michael Wittmer: The Fall has destroyed all of me, ruining my ability to image God. Rather than love God I serve idols, rather than serve others I selfishly fight with them, and rather than discharge my vocations I become lazy or self-indulgent.

The Fall has also destroyed all of God’s world. Human society is ruined (note how quickly Cain killed Abel), animals now devour one another, and even the ground is cursed. Paul says it well in Romans 8:19-22 when he observes that now the “whole creation groans” beneath the weight of sin and its nasty consequences.

You write about the cosmic reach of the Gospel. What does this entail?

Michael Wittmer: The gospel simply retraces the path of sin. It restores all of me, empowering me once again to love God, sacrificially serve others, and faithfully perform my various vocations (i.e., husband, father, church member, professor, author, neighbor, etc.). It also restores all of creation.

Christians should consciously consider how they might bring the rule of Christ into the various spheres of their lives, and thereby begin to fulfill the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our homes should be havens of refuge, our friendships should be lubricated with grace, and all of our tasks should be done for the glory of Christ (Col. 3:17, 23).

We should also be concerned for the environment. Too many Christians think that this world doesn’t matter because it is all going to burn up someday (an incorrect reading of 2 Peter 3:10 which I discuss in the book). While plants and animals are not as important as people—who alone are said to bear God’s image, yet they still do matter to God, and so they should also matter to us. Remember that it was God’s idea for Noah to build an Ark and to fill up this precious space with elephants, giraffes, and lightning bugs.

Could the embracing of this holistic Christian living be construed as a license to hedonism?

Michael Wittmer: Surprisingly, and even ironically, the answer is no. Many Christians believe that the way to defeat hedonism and materialism is to spend as little time and concern as possible with earthly things so they have more energy to devote on the spiritual things which really matter. While this seems plausible, most of us are too involved with this world to leave it behind. We have jobs, houses, and bodies that need tending. We initially may feel guilty when our pastor encourages us to devote more time to “the things of God,” but we quickly realize that this is impossible for us.

So in time we tune out this admonition, figuring that the spiritual life is only available to priests, monks, or those in “full-time Christian service.” We have now compartmentalized our lives, dividing our spiritual life on Sunday from our secular activities the rest of the week. This division between the sacred and secular now frees us to live selfishly in our secular pursuits, for, after all, this part of our lives is unspiritual anyhow.

Consequently, many Christians are double-minded, claiming devotion to God when they are doing “spiritual things” but expressing the same hedonistic, materialistic values as their unsaved neighbors in everything else.

Is there a better way? What if we understood redemption in light of creation and the fall? Then we would learn that every part of creation—and every part of me—has been corrupted by sin. So rather than live for myself in the secular world and reserve a space for God in my spiritual life, we would recognize that every area of life—from what I say to where I live and everything in between—must be brought under the lordship of Christ.

Here is the irony: the God who is worth more than the world has sent us back into the world to love it for him. Both Christians and hedonists love the world, but they differ in the reason why. Hedonists love the world for their own sake, while genuine Christians love it for the sake of its Creator and Redeemer. Thus, while an emphasis on creation may seem to provide an excuse for hedonism, it is actually the only way to defeat it. The usual approach, which disparages creation in order to praise the Creator, only succeeds in fostering an unnatural division between the sacred and secular, which in turn encourages us to live for ourselves in the part which doesn’t matter to God.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog

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