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Material prosperity and the afterlife

Christians and non-Christians alike have interpreted Christian theology as a renunciation of the physical world. Friedrich Nietzsche was the philosopher who made that idea a central tenet of his unbelieving philosophy. Ayn Rand held essentially the same view, and used it to construct her philosophy of capitalism as antithetical to Christianity (taking the side of capitalism and putting Jesus with the socialists).

Sometimes Christians have been all too ready to agree. Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones’ question is often quoted approvingly: “Do we all realize that the most important thing we have to do in this world is to prepare ourselves for eternity?”

This formulation seems fraught with problems. Did the Apostle Paul ever indicate that the most important thing he had to do is prepare himself for eternity? It might be possible to spin his words in that direction, but it is much more likely that he would say that eternity would take care of itself if one trusted God through Christ and remained faithful to Him. Thus:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing”

(2 Timothy 4:7–8 ESV).

So loving God seems to be enmeshed in carrying out tasks in this life.

Indeed, Paul assures Christians that eternal life, far from devaluing the mortal life we now possess, actually gives it meaning. After writing to the Corinthian Christians about the certainty of the future resurrection and it’s importance, Paul caps off his message thus:

“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain”

(1 Corinthians 15:58  ESV).

Work or labor includes mundane things like loving our neighbors and providing for our families. Yet somehow the view persists that Christianity is unconcerned about earthly concerns such as the standard of living.

A parallel mistake can be found in how people think of fitness trends. In his interesting book Lift: Fitness Culture, from Naked Greeks and Acrobats to Jazzercise and Ninja Warriors, Daniel Kunitz claims that “the Christian denigration of the body as inherently sinful, the doctrine that worshiping and developing the figure is a sin and that one’s attention should be focused on the spirit and the afterlife, certainly contributed significantly to the deterioration of athletics in the Roman era as well as in the Middle Ages. Paul writes, In his first epistle to Timothy, ‘For bodily exercise profiteth little, but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.’”

Kunitz is simply wrong that Christianity denigrates the body and regards as any more inherently sinful than the mind or soul. The doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection should settle the matter. Remember, Paul’s message in Athens lost traction with his audience when he mentioned the resurrection of the body (Acts 17:32). Greeks simply did not conceive of bodily existence being a possible mode of a blessed immortality.

I won’t argue with Kunitz about how major Christian influencers might have affected the culture, because that simply opens up the question of who, at the time, influenced them. There were plenty of pagan philosophical schools of thought that denigrated the body. But his archaic rendering of Paul’s statement (the KJV) says the opposite of what he thinks.

Paul’s argument that the value of training in godliness surpasses the value of physical training only works if physical training is, indeed, of value. If it had no value, then godliness could not be of much value either. Thus, the English Standard Version has Paul exhort Timothy to “train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7–8). In any case, is Kunitz really going to argue that one’s bench press or  performance of a WOD is more important than learning basic ethical behavior? I realize Kunitz wouldn’t agree with aspects of Christian morality and piety, but that’s different then criticizing a movement for advocating morality more than athletic culture. And, again, that would not mean that athletic training had no place in a moral society.

Similarly with the economy, Christians have a reason to work and save that corresponds to their hope in God. One might ask if secular people have much reason to do the same. With inflation and many other problems hammering us, it's easy to want to give up. Why work for a better future when there are immense forces at work that can reduce our efforts to nothing? Where's the hope in that? But the Christian response is always to work and pray.

“Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep”

(Psalm 127:1b-2 ESV).

“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain”

(1 Corinthians 15:58  ESV).

Mark Horne has served as a pastor and worked as a writer. He is the author of The Victory According To Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel, Why Baptize Babies?,J. R. R. Tolkien, and Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men. He is the Executive Director of Logo Sapiens Communications and the writer for SolomonSays.net.

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