Point of View
The biblical mandate for social justice
by Paul Otto
"Christ's work is not to save us so that we can escape to heaven. His work is to forgive our sins so that we can go about our task ordained at creation."
Many Christians live as though the aim of Christ’s death and resurrection was to save us so that we can escape to heaven. This mind-set, at times, has led to wholesale neglect of temporal concerns — social, economic, and ecological justice on earth.
Is this as God intends? If not, how did we come to this understanding, and how should we view the world instead?
Evangelical Christians tend to see their world from a post-fall perspective. They see the world as all sin and evil. Redemption, in such a scenario, is usually understood as saving people from their sins, escaping from the earth, and living forever in heaven. Heaven is good, earth is bad; our mission is to save souls and forsake the earth.
But what happens when we adopt the scriptural perspective that begins with the creation, rather than the fall? Scripture teaches that as God created the world, he “saw that it was good.” God delights in his creation and extends his rule and loving care over it — “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” In fact, the creation continues “to declare the glory of God.”
Sin entering the world did not end the creation’s significance in God’s plan. As Paul wrote, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration . . . in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” And Isaiah and John prophesied the coming of a “new heaven” and a “new earth.”
God clearly values his whole creation. He has given people a special place and task in that creation, a task established before the fall and not eradicated by it. God commanded Adam and Noah, as his image bearers, to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “fill the earth and subdue it.” We see this creational mandate fulfilled by Adam’s descendants. Despite the evil of the times, they nonetheless lived out their calling to develop God’s creation, to be culturally active — to create, sustain, and build up human social institutions: Jabal developed livestock production, Jubal became a musician and craftsman of musical instruments, and Tubal-Cain fathered bronze- and iron-work.
So sin and evil need to be understood in the context of the creation order. Sin is the misdirection of the power God gave people — his image bearers — to develop his creation. Evil is the corruption of God’s good creation — a corruption that brings pain and suffering in the world and which those made in his image struggle against.
With this understanding of the creation order, and the effects of sin and evil, redemption takes on a whole new meaning. Christ’s work is not to save us so that we can escape to heaven. His work is to forgive our sins, renewing us and freeing us from sin’s corrupting and enslaving power, so that we can go about our task ordained at creation: to oversee, care for, and develop that creation; to flourish as human beings, creating human culture that brings honor and glory to the maker of all things.
Our calling as those washed in the blood of Jesus is to spread the good news, indeed. But what is that good news? That God is triumphant, that the world is his and he cherishes it, and that through Christ’s redemptive power, all things are made new. This is good news for those dead in their sins; it is also good news for the suffering and the oppressed. Surely for individuals to be saved from their sins, which they desperately need, we as Christians are called to witness to Christ’s redemptive work on behalf of their souls. But being washed in the blood of Jesus, empowered to fulfill our God-given calling as God’s image bearers, we are also called to care for their bodies. Those created in God’s image, along with all of the creation, need the loving attention of Christ’s followers.
Paul Otto is associate professor of history at George Fox University.