From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference
A few days ago I asked “What Made This Dust Into a Meaning-Maker?” Atheists and skeptics, just like everyone else, know that human life has meaning; my question was, how does that work without a transcendent source to give life that meaning? Atheists commenting on that blog have countered by asking what we mean by objective meaning. (d’s comment here is representative.) Here’s part of the answer: what we do, and who we are, matter forever.
I said last time that we live in a God-created, God-inhabited world. Believers in Christ know also that we live in a present that is haunted by the future, and that our future will be haunted by all we do in the present.
For Christianity is founded on the confidence that Jesus Christ lives and reigns. God’s presence is plain now to those who will see him, but the time will come when Jesus Christ will return to reign openly and bring justice and righteousness fully to earth, and all will see and acknowledge him (Phil. 2:9-11). Christians also believe that humans are forever people, so that when Christ returns, all of us will be there. He tells us in John 5:25-29,
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
This changes everything.
Most of the great philosophies and religions of the world have viewed time as cyclical: what has come before will come again, and in the end, what has come before will come again. Hinduism and Buddhism, as I understand them, have a mild component of progress to them, but it’s progress toward escape from the cycle and absorption into impersonality. Their progress is toward an end of personal being. Atheistic materialism borrows a myth of progress from Christianity and from the last few hundred years of science, but it recognizes that there is an end coming. The universe will die its heat death, and that’s it. Sooner than that the sun will burn out. Sooner than that another asteroid could collide with earth and put an end to us all. Sooner than that we all reach our personal end, which is an end indeed.
Yesterday a man who mentored millions, whom I had the privilege to know briefly, passed into the presence of the Lord to receive his reward. That’s a Christian way of saying he died as a believer in Christ. It’s not a euphemism; it is reality. It recognizes that his death was not an ending but a transition, and that his life on earth mattered. It mattered to us who remain, and I write this with tears welling up in my eyes again. It still matters to him, too, for Chuck Colson lives.
The way in which we live will matter forever. Speaking to those who are in Christ, the apostle Paul says (1 Cor. 3:10-15),
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
The “Day” of which he speaks is the Day of Judgment, of which Christ spoke in the passage above. Believers’ works will be tested. Those that are of gold will shine. There are some of us who will be saved, whose works are primarily of “wood, hay, and straw.” A friend of mine once joked that these people “will make it into heaven, but in their spiritual pajamas, and those will be smelling like smoke.” Even the “gold,” however, will be something for which we will give gratitude to Christ. The apostles speak of crowns awaiting us (2 Tim. 4:8, James 1:12, 1 Peter 5:4), but those we will lay down before Jesus Christ, the Worthy One (Rev. 4:9-11). The greatest reward is to enter into the joy of Jesus Christ, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 25:31-46. In that same passage he warns of what will come to those who have not prepared themselves in this life for that Day.
Everything we do matters, and it matters forever, to God, to others, and to ourselves. Christianity has a forward look to it. We do good because it is good to do good, and that is not a passing good. It is a good that remains. Our works last.
There is much more to be said about this: how we can prepare for that Day (and how we depend on Christ for it); what happens to those who are unprepared; how God exercises justice in all of this; what it will be like for all of us. For today, though, I will leave it with this: we live in a present that is haunted by the future, and who we are and what we do matter forever. In this there is great meaning.