This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “King & Country: The Story That Changes Everything,” coming in summer 2017. Pre-orders start soon!
In the beginning, humanity was created in God’s image, as his representatives and regents on earth. We were tasked with the “cultural mandate”– to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. While our original purpose has been warped and burdened by sin and the fall, it is still intact and still in force. Humanity’s mission to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” remains the same today as on the day it was instituted. We’re still tasked with recreating and reestablishing the bounty and blessing of Eden in every corner of the globe. This human project, launched in Genesis 1, is still wired into our DNA today.
So what does the cultural mandate look like today? Think about how humanity has taken the raw potential of the planet and built it into blessing: We’ve scooped up sand, refined it into silica, and shaped it into iPhones and supercomputers and solar panels. We’ve harnessed the power of explosive oxidation (aka, fire) and built foundries, nuclear plants, and internal combustion engines. We’ve explored inaccessible rainforests and returned with exotic plants that have been distilled into life-saving antibiotics and cancer treatments. We’ve settled every continent, planted flags on the moon, and sent probes into the farthest reaches of the solar system and beyond. When you step back and take in the whole scope of humanity’s achievements, it really does take your breath away. This is what image-bearing looks like.
And what’s more, we don’t just make useful things, we make beautiful things. We take pigments in nature and turn them into paintings. We craft syllables into stories, sounds into symphonies, stone into statues, letters into literature. We decorate our bodies and our homes and our cities. We have filled our world with vibrant and varied culture, color, music, art and architecture. Look around and you’ll see overflowing evidence that something deep within the human spirit longs for beauty and craves opportunities to create it. This is what image-bearing looks like.
And yet, as we should probably expect, a cultural mandate muddied by sin has not turned out to be an unqualified good. With selfishness and shortsightedness now inextricably woven into all our efforts to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” most of our acts of creativity and industry have far-reaching collateral damage. We have found ways to twist nearly every innovation in history into more efficient engines of war, death, and destruction. We’ve done more than create beauty; in our never-ending, desperate thirst for fulfillment, we have also dug out landfills, cut down our forests, dumped toxic waste into rivers, pillaged our limited natural resources, polluted our skies, warped our climate, and driven thousands of species into extinction, without a thought for the consequences for ourselves, our children, and our world. In many ways, humanity’s footprint on the planet, which was meant to be a blessing, has turned out to be a blight. It will take a massive work of divine redemption—both in the hearts of rebel humanity and in the tattered fabric of our broken world—to fix everything that has gone wrong.
The beauty and destruction of human dominion extends from the depths of our souls to our farthest reach into deep space. Take a moment to examine your heart and the secret longings of your soul, peel back all the accumulated layers of hurt and self-doubt and pride and brokenness, and what you will find pulsing down in the very fiber of your being is the cultural mandate: “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it.” Think of the things you love—your job, your hobbies, your family. Why do you love them? Because you have an inconsolable ache for greatness, a driving desire to contribute (even when it’s medicated and locked away under self-protective fortresses like “laziness” or “apathy” or “insecurity”). Your heart beats with a burning need to build and expand and be known and loved and celebrated and admired. This is why you climb the corporate ladder, get that promotion, create that family, paint that masterpiece, ace those classes, watch that movie, love that music, start that new business, write that story, play with your kids, hang out with your friends, make love to your spouse, whatever. Because wired into your DNA is the echo of Eden, the knowledge that you were made to do more and be more. This is what drives all human relationship and creativity and industry and culture. And it is also the very thing that drives our most persistent, destructive sins: the cultural mandate gone haywire and warped in on itself, a desperately short-circuiting hunger for significance. As Christians, we try to apply the biblical salve of humility to this ache, with some success (because there is nothing that pride has not twisted and corrupted in our hearts), and yet while we can experience some measure of victory in redirecting and sanctifying the ache, it never fully goes away. It can’t; that hunger is what it means to be human, to be an image-bearer. It is, as the philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, the ache of a deposed king longing for the greatness that once was his.
That’s why there’s one more element of image-bearing to consider. In a broken, rebellious world, the fully-realized cultural mandate must begin with redemption, the reunion of human and divine dominion. Humans must first submit to the Creator in order for all of our acts of fruitfulness to truly be an experience and extension of God’s blessing. We must wave the white flag over all our futile attempts at kingdom building, and join forces with God’s King to build his true and lasting kingdom. And so the cultural mandate, at its deepest level, finds its fulfillment in the missionary mandate of Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Author Harvie Conn draws the connection between Great Commission and Genesis 1:26: “The so-called ‘missionary mandate’ is the cultural mandate’s anticipated fulfillment in redemptive grace.” Jesus, wielding the lost authority of image bearing mankind, commissions his followers to extend the reign of the God-Man King, to reconquer a rebellious world and re-establish the human project. Only the God-Man can unite all of God’s purposes for mankind by being both the presence of God that we crave and the human king we need. Theologian John Frame writes, “If the world is to be filled with worshipers of God, subduing the earth as his vassal kings, they must be first converted to Christ through the preaching of the gospel.” On this side of the incarnation and resurrection, the meaning of life is found in joining Jesus’ kingdom and becoming a whole person once more. The gospel is the way back into being fully human.
Everything good and beautiful in the world today is a distant echo of the greatness that once was ours, the original design, humanity’s heritage. Everything broken and ugly in the world today is a testament to the insurrection that wrecked the universe, our birthright stolen. But the story of the Bible doesn’t leave us with only the regret of paradise lost and the ache of a kingdom fallen. It leaves us with a promise: though the ancient serpent usurped our crown and destroyed our realm, he will not long endure. This world, just like Narnia, was only right when a son of Adam sat on the throne, and the promise of the Bible is this: Adam’s children will get the throne back one day, and everything will be made right. Redemption, not regret, will have the final word.