The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth

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"ArtIm:

About halfway through his new book, Dual Citizens, Jason Stellman makes the following observation: "Perhaps you've been haunted by the inexplicable feeling that your very environment, the only environment you have ever known (namely, time) is foreign. Could time, the very stuff of life and building block of society that greets us every morning with the buzzing of the alarm clock, then pushes us through each day, actually be an enemy? As bizarre as it sounds, I suggest that it is, and as the Preacher argues in the book of Ecclesiastes, this enemy adversely affects all of our toil under the sun. In a word, time renders all of man's earthly pursuits utterly pointless" (emphasis in original). One would be forgiven for asking, as I did, "Why didn't he put this paragraph on the first page? Why did Stellman wait until page 104 to tell me that all earthly pursuits—and this would include reading his book—are utterly pointless?" Unfortunately, this question is never answered. In fact, this is a recurring theme in Dual Citizens—it raises more questions than it answers. When I finished the book I wanted to turn it upside down and read it backwards, hoping that—like a cassette tape—the end was really only the middle. But, alas, the end was the end, and no further insight was to be found.

This is not to say that the end wasn't a good end; it certainly was. It was inspiring, encouraging, and orthodox. It would actually make a great prayer with which to begin each new day (of pointlessness). The only problem with it is that, like the rest of the book, it is all style and no substance. Judge for yourself:

May God give us the faith, therefore, to walk as pilgrims and exiles through the wilderness of this world, strengthened by an assurance that this passing age, despite its manifold temptations, will never win the battle to define us. It is God who provides us our narrative and tells us our story, for it is His story, the history of redemption, the divine drama according to which man was made and then lost, found and then remade in the image of the second Adam, whose faithful obedience insures our acceptance by God and whose glorious resurrection guarantees our own. (p. 176-177)

Theologically and historically, this paragraph is dead-on-center. It is absolutely true that the history of redemption is God's unfolding narrative of covenant faithfulness to His children. In fact, God's story of redemption is THE true history. Man's telling of history as a series of causes and effects is a lie; God rules this world sovereignly, ordaining whatever comes to pass. It is only because of God's sovereign control that history has any meaning in the first place. And despite Stellman’s closing prayer, our own personal redemption is not the end of God’s story of redemption; it is only the beginning. God redeems us to redeem. He redeems us and commissions us to "go and make disciples of all nations." The sanctification process is not simply a prep-course for heaven. In order to "make disciples" we must first have been discipled ourselves.

This does not mean that Stellman believes that the Gospel has no ramifications for life in this world. He writes: "It is not that Christianity is irrelevant and has nothing to say to contemporary culture, for it certainly does. The problem is that contemporary culture is deaf to the things that Christianity has to say, and deaf ears must be unstopped not with drum sets and drama, but with 'the glorious gospel of the blessed God' (1 Tim. 1:11)" (p. 27). In this quotation he is primarily criticizing the megachurch mentality of making worship more "relevant" by making it more worldly, but his thought process is right on: Christianity is relevant to contemporary culture. But this relevancy should not stop at the four walls of the church building. When Christians are "out" in the world, shouldn't their conduct, attitude, and view of history be making a difference? Apparently not, because in the very next chapter, Stellman writes this:

Therefore, the insistence that our religion is valuable only insofar as it makes an easily discernible difference in the affairs of everyday life is false. Demands for "Christian" art, music, or dentistry are both an elevation of those legitimate pursuits above their proper station and a debasing of the label Christian by applying it to areas concerning which it has little or nothing to say. Hence, culture is sacralized and cult is trivialized, all in the name of a notion of relevance that God has nowhere promised to bestow. (p. 32)

Aside from the fact that this is a complete straw-man argument, the Bible also never calls dentistry a "legitimate" pursuit. How does Stellman know that dentistry is legitimate? I agree with him, it is legitimate, as are plumbing, auto sales, and TV repair. But Stellman paints with such a broad brush that the reader is left to assume that the Bible has nothing to say about how dentists, plumbers, artists, or musicians should live their faith out in the workplace. Should we visit a particular dentist just because he has a fish emblazoned on his business card? Absolutely not. But a dentist who is a Christian should be the best at what he does, making everybody in the town WANT to go to him. The Gospel should not only be irresistible when it comes to salvation, but when it displays itself any number of ways through the daily activities of Christians "out" in the world. In fact, Stellman seems to agree with this: "If it is true that all men and women share an inexplicable ache for eternity, how much more ought the believer to recognize this longing and give expression to it?" (p. 119). This is how God unstops deaf eras: with the truth of His Word being translated by His children to those around them, both in and out of the church.

Ironically, Part 2 of Dual Citizens takes a completely different approach to the "world," than does Part 1. Stellman’s false dichotomy between the scared and the secular world is exactly what has modern Christians so completely confused about what being a Christian means. While Part 1 comes across as a holy condemnation of being "worldly," Part 2 acts as the corrective, focusing attention back on the world and how Christians should "now live." I found myself tearing my hair out as I read Part 1, mentally screaming "Why don't you get it?;" but as I read Part 2 I began to realize that Stellman does get it. The problem is his eschatology. As an amillennialist, Stellman finds himself trapped in a world of frustration and "pointlessness," yet can't quite square this with a Bible that seems to place great emphasis on what we do with our time here on Earth. Michael Horton's "Foreword" to the book assures the reader: "Digesting this book will lead you to sing with greater gusto those closing words of another hymn: 'Solid joys and lasting treasures, none but Zion's children know.'" Thankfully, Stellman offers the perseverant reader something more substantial than "gusto" in Part 2—however at odds it may be with his amillennialism.

In the "Preface,” Stellman approvingly quotes Dutch theologian Geerhardus Vos, who "famously said that 'eschatology precedes soteriology." "But," Stellman continues, "I would go so far as to say that eschatology (looking at the present from the standpoint of the future) precedes everything." There is plenty of truth in this statement, not just in the fact that I think Stellman is absolutely correct in his belief that our view of the future colors everything we think and do in the present, but also in the fact that everything in Stellman's book is indeed an outworking of his own view of eschatology. In other words, the "Preface" is a disclaimer of sorts, one that should be included in the "Preface" of every theological work. Stellman admits that he sees the world as he does because of his view of the future; and it should be quickly added that so do I, and so do you. Eschatology indeed "precedes everything."

It is Stellman's amillennialism that forces him to make some of the strange divisions that he does. For instance, speaking of the situation immediately following Adam's Fall in the Garden of Eden, Stellman writes: "Once man declared his rebellious sovereignty, his kingdom became distinct from God's kingdom, causing an unnatural separation between cult and culture" (p. xx). Apart from the fact that this a physical impossibility—God's kingdom includes the entire created order—it seems to indicate that man's kingdom was now somehow outside of God's jurisdiction, a truly crazy notion. Stellman knows that this is not the case, because God still commanded men to live by His rules, and judged them when they disobeyed. If man's kingdom was truly distinct, God would have no say over how men lived in "their" kingdom. But it is this kind of divided thinking—what Stellman calls cult and culture—but what could also be referred to as sacred and secular, or spiritual and physical—that is forced by the "already but not yet" of amillennialism.

Although this review is not meant to be a primer on eschatology, a short summary of amillennial thought is necessary at this point. Although it is difficult to say exactly what flavor of amillennialism Stellman holds, I think he would basically agree with Anthony Hoekema, who summarized his own views this way:

[Amillennialists] eagerly look forward to to the new earth as part of a renewed universe in which God's good creation will realize finally and totally the purpose for which he called it into existence: the glorification of his name. All this implies that regarding world history, amillennialists adopt a position of sober or realistic optimism. Belief in the present rule of Christ, in the presence of God's kingdom and in the movement of history toward its goal is accompanied by a realistic recognition of the presence of sin in this world and of the growing development of the kingdom of evil. Amillennial eschatology looks for a culmination of apostasy and tribulation in the final emergence of a personal Antichrist before Christ comes again. Amillennialists do not expect to see the perfect society realized during this present age.[1]

Read Hoekema's last sentence again and I believe you will begin to see where amillennialism's biggest problem lies. Hoekema tries to put a positive on it by saying, "Amillennial eschatology, therefore, gives us a realistic, yet basically optimistic world-and-life view." And that's exactly what amillennialism is: "basically optimistic." But, it is difficult to build a worldview on "basic optimism." This is why Stellman has such a difficult time commending activities in this world as being good, right, and proper. His "basic optimism" only takes him so far. Stellman, like all amillennialists, believe that no matter how much progress the Church and individual Christians make, this world is still facing a tyranny from the "kingdom of evil." In fact, Hoekema claims that amillennialists are actively looking for the "culmination of apostasy and tribulation" in an Antichrist figure. How can one possibly claim optimism is the face of this? Only by retreating into the "spiritual" things, where Christ has "already" won the victory; even though His ultimate victory over evil is still a future event, in the "not yet." Because living in the midst of these two realities is such a paradox (for amillennialists at least), Stellman subtitled his book: Worship and Life between the Already and the Not Yet.

This is why Dual Citizens is such a frustrating book to read. On one hand, Stellman seems to be annoyed that he is still here on earth, when all of the "real action" is in heaven with God. This attitude is understandable and even commendable to some degree. All Christians should have a longing, like the Apostle Paul, to "depart and be with Christ" (Philippians 1:23), but the mere fact that we are still here indicates that we have God-ordained work to do. It reminds me of the title of David Crowder's book, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, but Nobody Wants to Die. This is where we find ourselves—hungry for heaven but commissioned with a job here. And because amillennialism offers nothing in the way of good news for this earth—unless the fact that it is going to be subject to the kingdom of evil for a time before it is destroyed and re-made is somehow comforting for you—Stellman's chapters in Part 2, where he discusses life in the here and now, ring a bit hollow.

It is not for lack of trying though. Stellman valiantly calls on Catholic thinkers like G.K. Chesterton and Peter Kreeft for a few encouraging words. He includes this quotation from Chesterton: "Sin is in a man's soul, not in his tools or toys." Taking Chesterton to heart, Stellman writes this: Whether we are beholding the majesty of Mount Rainier, rejoicing over the birth of our first child, or simply savoring a good pale ale or single-malt Scotch, a world-affirming Christianity does more justice to both the incarnation of Christ and the imago Dei [image of God] in man than does the world-avoidance of much of the American church" (p. 128). I couldn't agree more. The problem with this quotation though, is that earlier in the book (a mere eight pages earlier to be exact), Stellman castigates modern evangelicals for having a "fixation" with earthly things:

As hesitant as we may be to admit it, when we compare contemporary evangelicalism's fixation with earth to contemporary paganism's frustration with it, the seemingly inescapable conclusion is that, sometimes at least, the latter does a much better job of imaging the God it denies than the former does of imaging the one it confesses. (p. 120)

I understand what Stellman is trying to say, but, again, it is his eschatology that causes him to say contradictory things like this. On one hand, he says "enjoy the world and its simple pleasures," but on the other he says, "But don't let your enjoyment become a fixation." Well that should pretty much go without saying. The problem is that Stellman sets heaven and earth up as somehow antagonistic to each other, but they aren't. Because of his amillennial view of the world, Stellman can't understand—like Chesterton could—that a full-on love and enjoyment of this world is completely compatible with a longing for and a full-on expectation of the next. Hating the earth, or at least throttling our enjoyment of it to a respectable level, will not make us love heaven more, but it will make us miserable. Imagine a father who teaches his children to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly" (Micah 6:8), and then on the day that they strike out on their own tells him that all of that "justice, kindness, and humbleness" stuff will have no effect. "In fact," the father says, "you will not succeed at all. All of your work and life will be meaningless, because we will one day be subject to the kingdom of evil. Now go enjoy your lives!" It may be extreme, but this is effectively what amillennialism teaches.

Stellman gives an analogy on page 121 that I think marks the ultimate example of the entire book. Paraphrasing an article by Kreeft, Stellman writes:

The charge that heavenly-mindedness diminishes earthly goodness is not necessarily true...who is more likely to quit smoking during pregnancy, the mother who plans for an abortion or the one who plans to give birth? The answer should be obvious. Roads that actually lead somewhere are usually maintained better than dead-end ones, and likewise, when we see our earthly sojourn as just that—a sojourn on the way to our heavenly home—it is reasonable to assume that we will take this pilgrimage with great seriousness and care. If death is not the end of the road, but actually ushers us into the presence of the God who gave us life and demands an account of how we lived it, is it not to be expected that the pilgrim with an eye on his destination will live more purposefully than will the tourist, the goal of whose is to get as much bang for his buck as possible? (p. 121-122)

This clever bit of rhetoric tries to direct the reader’s attention away from the fact that it is Stellman himself who is the tourist on the dead-end road or the mother planning for an abortion. Stellman believes that this world is bound for destruction—an abortion, not a birth. He can't square his pessimistic view of the earth with his "basically optimistic" view of the future. Stellman's book is confused because his eschatology is confused. Christians are not dual citizens, we do not live in two worlds; Jesus said as much when he told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this realm (John 18:36). We are citizens of heaven who have been given an earthly job to do. We are stewards of God’s property, not citizens of it. Because we serve a higher Authority, we obey the laws of men only insofar as they do not contradict the laws of God. We obey our heavenly King by obeying (or disobeying if necessary) the earthly king. Because we have been born again (or “born from above” [John 3:3-8]), we are heavenly expatriates, not dual citizens.

In what we refer to as the “Great Commission,” Jesus told His disciples: "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18). Since His resurrection, Jesus is the King of earth and heaven. Christians are not dual citizens, but singular citizens; we are citizens of the Kingship and Kingdom of Jesus Christ, whose rule and power and authority knows no boundaries. Our life lived on earth is merely a reflection of our willingness to submit to our King—in all we think, say, and do. Because He is King, and because all authority has been given to Him, Jesus commands us to "go." Our earthly work is not subject to frustration, but coronation; Jesus will receive the glory for both our earthly and our heavenly obedience to Him. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

 

Endnote:[1]Anthony A. Hoekema, "Amillennialism," as found in Robert G. Clouse (Ed.), The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1977), 187.

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