Culture, creativity, growth and learning will take place in the next life:
Culture matters. It did when God created the world, it matters now, and it will matter in the next life. Let me discuss all this by way of two introductory thoughts. The first is a bit autobiographical. All my life I have hated to waste anything. I just don’t like seeing things go to waste.
I take it this is something I got from my parents – they grew up during the Great Depression so they knew all about the need to always be frugal and never wasteful. It wore off on me obviously. I even dislike leaving the last grain of rice on my plate!
But bigger things also concern me. I think of various great cultural artifacts that have been lost or are under threat of being lost. It might be a great work of architecture destroyed in war, and an entire library that goes up in flames, or famous statues pulled down by militants, or wonderful paintings that deteriorate with age. I care about culture in other words and hate to see aspects of it disappear.
And that relates to my second prefatory remark: some non-Christians or atheists complain that heaven will be a real drag, and all the things that they love here on earth – literature, art, food, music, architecture, poetry, culture, etc. – will be absent in heaven. So they have no interest in going there. Well, two things can be said about their concern:
One, God will be there, which will be more than sufficient. As he is the author and source of everything that is true, beautiful and wonderful, there will be more than enough things to wonder at and be amazed by. But two, who says all these aspects of culture that we love now will be absent then?
I believe the concerns God first had when he created this world – all of which he pronounced as being very good – will be continued in the next life. It will be different and better and perfected, but it will reflect God’s original intentions when he first made man and his surroundings. That is, God is the creator of human culture.
His job description to our first parents continues not only now – even after the Fall – but will do so in the future. God wants us to be sub-creators as Tolkien put it, and continue to be creative as we develop and cultivate the world around us. For more on why I believe this is a thoroughly biblical position, see my recent piece on the cultural mandate: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/07/19/on-the-cultural-mandate/
And see also my recent piece on common grace: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/07/18/jordan-peterson-and-common-grace/
So let me take all this further. I often think when I hear a beautiful piece of music, or read a wonderful work of literature, or see an amazing painting or a marvellous piece of architecture that these are all good and great things, and I would hate to see them disappear altogether – to go to waste.
Sure, nothing will last forever in this life, but the cultural processes and interests, the yearning for creativity, and the eye for beauty and wonder – all of which God put into us – will continue. I really do not think we will just sit around quite bored as disembodied spirits, floating around on ethereal clouds forever.
I believe the work of culture making and civilisation building that Adam and Eve were first tasked with will always be with us – not just now, but in the new heavens and the new earth. Of course much of the next life is not clearly known – Scripture only tells us so much about it – so we must make do with some speculation and conjecture here.
But knowing what we do about God’s good plans and intentions at creation, it makes perfect sense to see this emphasis on culture and civilisation as being an ongoing project – from here to eternity. This has always been God’s plan for us, and the Fall notwithstanding, he will accomplish his eternal purposes – what he first set out to achieve.
If all of this sounds rather new and radical – even heretical – to you, I urge you to read the pieces I linked to above. They will give you much more of a background, as well as a feel, for what I am talking about. As is evident in those earlier articles, I am certainly not alone in thinking this way, with a number of noted Christian writers and theologians – out of so many – also saying the same sorts of things.
Let me return to some of these writers – along with a few others. First, consider two important books by Anthony Hoekema. In his 1979 volume, The Bible and the Future, he has a chapter on the new earth. He says this:
The doctrine of the new earth, as taught in Scripture, is an important one. It is important, first, for the proper understanding of the life to come…. Second, the doctrine of the new earth is important for a proper grasp of the full dimensions of God’s redemptive program. In the beginning, so we read in Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth. Because of man’s fall into sin, a curse was pronounced over this creation. God now sent his Son into this world to redeem that creation from the results of sin. The work of Christ, therefore, is not just to save certain individuals, not even to save an innumerable throng of blood-bought people. The total work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem this entire creation from the effects of sin. That purpose will not be accomplished until God has ushered in the new earth, until Paradise Lost has become Paradise Regained. We need a clear understanding of the doctrine of the new earth, therefore, in order to see God’s redemptive program in cosmic dimensions. We need to realize that God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s fall.
And then in his 1986 volume, Created in God’s Image, he says this:
The possibilities that now rise before us boggle the mind. Will there be ‘better Beethoven in heaven,’ as one author has suggested? Shall we see better Rembrandts, better Raphaels, better Constables? Shall we read better poetry, better drama, and better prose? Will scientists continue to advance in technological achievement, will geologists continue to dig out the treasures of the earth, and will architects continue to build imposing and attractive structures? We do not know. But what we do know is that man’s dominion over nature shall then be perfect. God will then be magnified by our culture in ways that will surpass our most fantastic dreams.
Andy Crouch, in his valuable 2008 volume Culture Making, has a chapter on eschatology and the book of Revelation. He says this:
Work, in the sense we know it in human history, will not be the same in the new Jerusalem either. Yet if there is no work, there will surely be activity. Perhaps some of the ‘glory and honor of the nations,’ like a fine painting or sculpture, will be able to be simply enjoyed without new human effort. But much of the glory and honor of the nations, whether epic poetry or baroque fugues or fine cuisine, can be realized only when people ‘perform’ it—when singers sing, chefs cook and dancers dance…. It seems likely to me that part of the activity of eternity will be endlessly creative improvisations upon the ‘glory and honor of the nations’—human beings using their creative capacities to their fullest to explore the depth and breadth of all that human beings made in their vocations as cocreators with God. So culture will ultimately fulfill Genesis 1’s mandate—humanity will ultimately comprehend and have our proper dominion over all of creation.
Consider also William Edgar. In his very helpful 2017 book Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture he has a chapter on “Culture in the Afterlife.” He begins by quoting Bill Pratt: “Yes, human culture has been horribly tainted by sin, but that doesn’t mean that everything humans have created will be tossed in the garbage. There are elements of human culture that glorify God, and why shouldn’t those elements continue on with the creation of the New Heaven and New Earth?” Edgar says this:
The cultural mandate of Genesis thus has its ultimate accomplishment in the new heavens and new earth, by way of the fulfillment of the Great Commission. While finding the continuity and discontinuity in the different versions of the cultural mandate may not settle all the questions about the relation of spiritual growth and cultural activity, it goes a long way toward understanding God’s plan for the whole person in the whole of human society, and argues persuasively against any worldview that dichotomizes the holy and the profane.
Finally, something near to my heart. In his superb 2004 book Heaven, Randy Alcorn has a chapter on “What Will We Know and Learn?” He believes we will keep learning and even keep reading. Sure we will then be able to talk directly with our fave authors, be they Augustine or Aquinas, Chesterton or Colson, Tolkien or Tozer, etc. But he says this:
There’s so much to discover in this universe, but we have so little time and opportunity to do it. The list of books I haven’t read, music I’ve never heard, and places I haven’t been is unending. There’s much more to know. I look forward to discovering new things in Heaven—forever. At the end of each day I’ll have the same amount of time left as I did the day before. The things I didn’t learn that day, the people I didn’t see, the things I was unable to do—I can still learn, see, or do the next day. Places won’t crumble, people won’t die, and neither will I…. We’ll contemplate God’s person and works, talking long over dinner and tea, on walks and in living rooms, by rivers and fires. Intellectual curiosity isn’t part of the Curse—it is God’s blessing on his image-bearers. He made us with fertile, curious minds so that we might seek truth and find him, our greatest source of pleasure. In Heaven our intellectual curiosity will surely surface—and be satisfied—only to surface and be satisfied again and again.
Hey, that sounds like my kinda place! In sum, heaven will be many things, but it will not be boring. Just because the redeemed go there with new resurrection bodies does NOT mean we become like God: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and so on. We may well keep on growing and learning and developing – but only in one direction. Sin will no longer be an option, so we can only get better and not worse.
So when I often speak about there being books and libraries in heaven – or rather, the new earth – I am actually being quite serious. There very well may be! And many other things as well. Who knows, maybe even some of your beloved pets as well. That is speculation of course, but I did once pen an entire article musing about it: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/06/will-our-pets-be-with-us-in-heaven/
So if you are like me, and you have a hard time seeing some things go to waste, and you have a real passion for great music or wonderful literature or inspiring art or ongoing learning and development and creativity, you may be pleasantly surprised in what awaits you in the next world.