What? Who would say that?! Not me, but that is a line of reasoning that I am picking up on from a lot in the evangelical world. The argument goes, if it isn't eternal, it must not be valuable or worthwhile. The corollary, to make work and cultural endeavors valuable we must make them, in our theologies, eternal - get them in, somehow, to the new heavens and the new earth. Well, I'm pretty sure that Jesus said marriage isn't eternal (Matthew 22:30), but I'm pretty sure it still matters. There is no marriage in the new heavens and new earth, the age to come, but we are still to cherish it and treat it as incredibly significant. Ask Paul. Just ask my wife.
It seems to me there are two extremes in thinking about the relationship between eternity and culture (used in the broadest sense possible to include family, work, high culture and low pop culture - in other words, everything humans do). I want to propose a third way. I'm certainly not claiming to be the first to propose it - I've never had an original thought in my life, at least not one I'd want to share publicly.
On the one hand there are some who have asked, "Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?" Popular theologian and radio host J. Vernon McGee use that expression to explain why the church shouldn't be overly concerned with improving this world. For many in this camp, the only vocations deemed worthy were those of pastor or missionary (maybe housewife?). Youth were sent off to Bible colleges and the emphasis was on saving souls. Nothing else mattered. Your job was a mission field and worthwhile/valuable only in that it brought you into contact with unbelievers with whom you could share the gospel. There certainly were groups that refused to polish the brass on the sinking ship.
[As an aside, I don't think this view was as widespread or characteristic of evangelicalism or even fundamentalism as we have been led to believe. It has become a popular caricature but one that applies to a very small group. It's supposed to apply to the old style fundamentalists, but really, they were deeply engaged in culture (though not in the way their detractors would like!). The old fundi's were active in working with the poor through inner city rescue missions, were active in politics (especially after Roe v. Wade), were the leading proponents of temperance and prohibition, served their neighbors, served their country, etc. They were involved, but again, not in the ways their detractors would wish.]
On the other extreme, there are those who would argue that while the ship is in bad shape, it's not sinking. The Master of the Shipyard will restore it, and if we've polished our brass in a truly Christian way, our polished brass will find a place on the restored ship. This is the camp of, say, NT Wright or Anthony Hoekema, and oddly probably Rob Bell and Brian McLaren too. Some may say it slightly differently, like the ship is sinking, but the brass that has been polished in a truly Christian manner will be carried onto the next ship. Still, the implication seems to be that our work and culture building in this world matters only because God will use them as building blocks for the world to come.
Again, I'd like to suggest a third way. I believe the ship is sinking - this earth will pass away. Peter actually uses the word 'dissolve' to describe the perishing of the old heavens and earth (2 Peter 3:10-13). Jesus speaks of the close of this age using cataclysmic language - the sun being darkened, the moon ceasing to shine, stars falling from their places (Mark 13:24-27; Matthew 24:19-21). Also, John, in his Revelation, speaks of the end of Babylon (this present world order) and the passing away of it's cultural endeavors, including politics, commerce, the arts (music and craftsmanship), and family (Rev. 18). These are cultural endeavors Christians pursue alongside the world at large, and they perish. The only point of continuity, the only thing that survives the old earth and exists in the new earth, is us - believers. That may be overstating it, but I think only slightly.
The ship is sinking. But, we should polish the brass anyway. Why? Because we live here! Not permanently. We will be taken away when we die and return to a new earth after Christ returns. But even though we don't live here permanently, we do live here for a while...and our kids for a while after us...and their kids...till the end of all things! Lynn and I knew when we bought our first home that we weren't going to live there forever. Not even that long - four or five years. But, we took care of it. We fixed it, we painted it, we planted trees and bushes and flowers. Why? It made living their better and it served our neighbors. They didn't want an eye sore in the neighborhood.
The NT describes us as believers as sojourners, pilgrims, and exiles. In this we are like the sojourners and pilgrims of the OT - Abraham and the patriarchs. They dug wells, entered into agreements with foreign kings, herded cattle, bought, sold, worked for Pharaoh, made coats of many colors, etc. Like them, we should work to make our world better, though we are just passing through. Likewise, when Israel went into exile they were commanded to "seek the welfare of the city" in which they lived (Jeremiah 29:5-9). He specifically tells the people, through Jeremiah, that 1) you'll be here in exile only temporarily, and 2) its going to be a while, so prosper while you are there. In the end, the homes they build, the crops they planted, etc. had to be left behind when they returned to Israel. But that fact wasn't to keep them from planting and building and working and marrying and seeking the welfare of a city that wasn't their true home. Like Israel in exile, we aren't taking our cultural products with us when our exile is ended, but we work for the good of our city/neighbor nonetheless.
So, though the ship is sinking and the city in which we live isn't our permanent home (mixing metaphors, I know), we still polish the brass - pursue the welfare and work for the good of our cities, our neighbors, the world. Luther quipped, "God doe not need your good works, your neighbor does." He doesn't need our cultural work, our labor, our good works to build his new earth. No, but our neighbor needs them now - and so, in love, we pursue all of these things. And they matter, not because they carry over into eternity, but because they bring glory to God here, serve our neighbor here, express love and compassion here, and maybe win some souls for eternity. That is enough for me.
So, pass the Brasso and lets get to work!