STUDIES IN ESCHATOLOGY No. 10
“The Renewal of the Cosmos”
September 14, 2003
Because so many weeks have intervened since the last installment in this study in the biblical doctrine of the future, I want briefly to review what we have covered so far. We pointed out, as we got started in this study, that the Bible is shot through with eschatology, that, not merely at the end but all along the way, Christianity is eschatological, forward moving and forward looking. It is future driven. Everything we believe as Christians depends upon and takes its shape from the conviction that things are going to develop in a certain way and conclude in a certain way. And that has always been so. Throughout the Bible God’s people have been looking forward: to taking possession of the Promised Land, for the appearance of the Messiah, for Christ’s second coming and the end of the world.
We also noticed, as a fundamental perspective on the Bible’s teaching about the future, that it characteristically partakes of what has been called prophetic foreshortening or, sometimes, the prophetic perspective. That is to say the future is characteristically presented to us and described to us as a whole, as a single event and that we learn only as history unfolds that that future, in fact, will come to pass in steps and stages, over time. The very first prophecy in the Bible, the famous protoevangelium of Gen. 3:15, is marked by this prophetic foreshortening. We are told that the serpent would strike at the heel of the seed of the woman and that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. But we cannot tell from that broad and general account that Christ would come, deliver the death-blow to Satan on the cross and in the resurrection, but that the final destruction of Satan’s kingdom would not occur until thousands of years later when Christ came a second time to the earth. Many of the prophecies of the future in the Bible are of this type, seeing the future as a single whole. The Messiah will come, establish his kingdom, vindicate his people, judge the nations. Only later do we learn that all of this occurs in steps and stages. Many of the prophecies of the Bible thus mix together the forecast of events that were future to the prophet but are now past to us and, at the same time, the forecast of events that are still to come to pass.
This prophetic perspective is often illustrated by likening it to seeing a mountain range from a distance. From a distance one sees simply a range of peaks stretching along the horizon. Only when one gets into the mountains can one tell that some of those peaks are many miles closer than others and that deep valleys separate one range of peaks from another, that seemed to be the same range from a distance. Much of biblical prophecy is like that. The future is given to us in its great meaning and nature, as a single event yet to come, but the specific details of the unfolding of the ages are not revealed until the events themselves unfold.
We found this true in our study of a number of the motifs or recurring thematic elements in which the Bible casts its doctrine of the future. We have so far considered the seed, the land, the Day of the Lord, the salvation of the nations, the last days, the servant of the Lord, the salvation of the Jews, and the judgment of the wicked. In each case we discovered that the Bible characteristically mixes together the forecast of the future that has now already been realized and the future that is still to come. In each case we saw that the same language is used of what was predicted but which by now has already come to pass and that which is still future to us and yet unfulfilled. The “already” and the “not yet” is found together in the Bible’s forecasts of the future. Of course, those prophecies of the future were given when what has now already come to pass was still to come. The seed has come but is still to come; the nations have been saved but are still to be saved, the Day of the Lord has come and yet the greatest Day of the Lord still awaits its coming. The last days have arrived and yet are still to arrive in their finality and consummation.
Tonight I want to consider one more of the Bible’s eschatological motifs or themes. There are others but one must make an end somewhere and there are other subjects to consider in our series on the Bible’s doctrine of the future. But before we leave this series of eschatological motifs, there is one more I want to consider, namely, that of the renewal of the cosmos.
It is not human beings alone that await the consummation of history and the fulfillment of God’s plan for history. Paul makes a point of this in Romans 8:18-23:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory
that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of
God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own
choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself
will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom
of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as
in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so but we
ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait
eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
When man sinned and fell from the original righteousness and blessedness in which he had been made, the world was cursed along with him. As God told Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you…”
We live in a disordered world. Most of that disorder, of course, and the worst of it, is produced directly by human beings giving vent to their sinful natures: selfishness, cruelty, stupidity, laziness, greed, lust, anger have made this world a vale of tears. The human race groans Paul says. It has the idea of something far better, but it cannot find or produce it. Efforts to right the ship either prove futile or, in many cases, make matters worse, sometimes much worse. This is a drama played out in every individual life as well as in the life of the world as a whole. For all of modern man’s vaunted sophistication, it is hard to deny that the 20th century, of all centuries on record, was the hardest yet for the human race to endure. Man’s inhumanity, his cruelty, the refinement of his evil reached unprecedented degrees.
But it is not only human life itself, it is not only the human soul that has been disordered so profoundly by sin and by the curse visited upon it because of sin. We live in a disordered creation. It is a fundamental question, clamoring for an answer, how the world in which we live can be so startlingly wonderful and so terrible at the same time. The glories of nature are such as ought to take our breath away. Florence and I were in Victoria the other evening and we went to see a documentary on the migration of birds that had been given rave reviews. It is called Winged Migration. What makes the movie so astounding is that by means of motor powered para-gliders the filmmakers were able to get remarkable footage of migrating birds flying; you watched them flying in their formations up close and personal. You were above them and beside them and below them and, so it seemed, you were right next to them as they made their remarkable journeys thousands of miles north or south. You were close enough to them, so it seemed, that you could reach out and touch them or feel the air pushed by their wings. What birds do is really too amazing to grasp: the vast distances they travel, the precise navigation which takes them to precisely the right destination, sometimes over thousands of miles of ocean, the ability of the young to fly the route, and so on. The creation declares the glory of God who made it. On our way home, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, whales were breaching alongside the ferry.
“How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number –
living things both large and small.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works –
[Ps. 104:24-25, 31]
But, it is not all so wonderful. Drought, earthquake, storm. A storm is approaching the East Coast that forecasters fear may become a category 5 hurricane; as strong as Camille that devastated the Gulf Coast in the early 1960s. And what of weeds, wildfires, pests. And, then, there is the damage that human beings have done and are doing. One of the poignant scenes in the movie on migrating birds was of one member of a flock, having already flown hundreds of miles, getting stuck in an oily mess around a factory in eastern Europe when the flock descended to rest, and being unable to escape it as the rest of the flock returned to the air and to their journey. Being the home of fallen man has been very hard on our world.
But, take my point: the world is a wonderful place and a terrible place at one and the same time. It is a creation gone wrong. It betrays in a thousand glorious ways the hand of the genius who made it and it betrays in other ways the curse that lies upon it.
So, it is not impossible to believe that God would destroy this world altogether and create something entirely new for the world to come. There are Christians who have thought this because there are texts that could be taken to mean this. Isa. 51:6 is one example:
“Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will
vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment.”
Or the Lord in Luke 21:33:
“Heaven and earth will pass away; but my words shall never pass away.”
But, that is not all that the Bible says. There is something more about this earth and heaven in biblical prophecy. The earth is not groaning for its destruction, Paul says, but for its rebirth, its renewal. So the destruction of the earth that is prophesied in the
Bible is not total and permanent, but that form of destruction that leads to renewal, as the flood that destroyed the earth but did not destroy it, or as a fire that destroys but not so that new life can not spring up after.
All through the Bible we are reminded that God cares not only to redeem his people, but to redeem his creation as a whole. Just as God redeems sinful man through Jesus Christ to grant him eternal life, life that is both never ending and morally, spiritually, physically perfect, so the Bible promises that God will redeem creation and restore it to its proper condition and purpose.
The vision of the restoration and consummation of the kingdom of God in the OT prophets is regularly the vision of a redeemed mankind in a redeemed and renewed earth.
In his great forecast of the future triumph of God’s gracious kingdom, Isaiah says,
“As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,”
declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure.” [66:22; cf.
This is language that Peter takes over in his second letter. In speaking about the Second Coming he writes in 3:10-13:
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear
with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything
in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind
of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look
forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the
destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But
in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new
earth, the home of righteousness.”
Isaiah’s language is also found in Rev. 21:1:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first
earth had passed away.”
The word “new” is often used in the Bible for something that is renewed, and that seems to be the case here. As a case in point, believers are “new creatures” in Christ. There is continuity with our former selves – the same body, the same personality, the same life history – but we have been renewed and become, as Paul puts it, a new creation. The same people but now made perfect, made fit for eternal life. Well, in the same way the new earth will be one with the old earth but wonderfully renewed and perfected.
Jesus himself on one occasion speaks of the future renewal (literally the regeneration) of all things (Matt. 19:28) and Peter of the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21). As Augustine summarizes the point: “The judgment having been finished this heaven and this earth will cease to be when a new heaven and a new earth will begin to be. For by a change of things, not by an entire destruction, will this world pass away.” [In Turretin, XX, v, 17] There is an element of continuity and of discontinuity. It is the earth, but the earth made over again.
And in several places Isaiah describes how different the renewed earth will be.
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead
them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together,
the lion will eat straw like an ox. The infant will play near the hole of
the cobra and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will
neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be
full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” [11:6-9; cf. 65:25]
It is a picture of the earth in which death, disharmony, and suffering has been removed. It is a beautiful image and one that connects the very beginning of the Bible (the Garden of Eden) to the very end (Heaven itself). It is interesting, for example, that the Tree of Life is mentioned only in Genesis 2 and in Revelation 22. It is a kind of inclusio, connecting the Paradise that existed before the Fall to the Paradise that will exist for the people of God at the end of time.
[I should perhaps just mention here that millennial views differ at this point as they do at so many others. Post-mils and a-mils do not, as a rule, see the renewal of the earth as something that happens until the end of history. It is not a feature of their millennium. The earth will continue to be as it has been during the millennium of the post-mils. But for pre-mils, it is often expected that there will be a great anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth during the millennium. Christ having come and established his reign upon the earth, the earth itself will be subject to his rule in a new and wonderful way. It is not yet the new heavens and the new earth, but it is something much more like it than anything known in history since the Fall.]
The prospect of a renewed earth as man’s eternal home is a powerful confirmation of the Bible’s doctrine of the goodness of the human body and of physical life. The body is not an abstract existence having nothing to do with the earth. The body is something designed to live in the earth and to fulfill its purposes on the earth. So, if the body is to rise, so must the earth which is the home of human beings. Here Christianity parts company with philosophies (such as Platonism) and religions (such as Buddhism) that imagine the fulfillment of all things to occur as a result of the end of the material aspect of life and the disembodied and immaterial part of life being absorbed into a world soul. The prospect of a renewed earth is likewise a powerful affirmation of creation itself: that it is good and that it is worth renewing. What God made is, in the nature of the case, worth being remade!
Now, much of course remains unsaid. The Bible’s interest never seems to be to satisfy our curiosity. Precisely how the new earth will differ from the old we are not told. Precisely how the change will come about we are not told. Rather Holy Scripture tells us what we must know about the future to live faithfully in the present. But it is clear that this is the promise of the gospel to those who believe. “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,” Jesus says in a series of statements that look forward to the consummation of all things. What the meek inherit is not something that is passing away, but something that will last forever and be wonderful beyond the power of words to describe.
So we may ask what is so important about this fact, that our eternal home will be a renewed earth and not some other place or condition?
Well, it is, of course, one of several ways the Bible has of reminding us of the greatness of our salvation. We mistake that greatness anytime we allow ourselves to be too much taken up with our own deliverance and forget not only the world of mankind that participates in the salvation of God, but the entire cosmos as well, the heavens and the earth. Individual salvation is a great, great thing, but God’s grace and power in salvation have gone far beyond that: to the complete renewal and restoration of all things.
And, at the same time, the fact that the cosmos itself participates in the redemption of Christ means that our entire lives fall under the spell of that redeeming love. Creation and redemption belong together in God’s mind and plan and so in human life, at least that life that is united to Christ by faith. All of our lives are renewed by Christ, every part of them now to be given to him and lived for him. “…not only with his thought and his feelings, but with the sole of his foot and the tip of his finger as well” the believer is renewed and reborn to God. [Martin Buber in Berkouwer, The Return of Christ, 229] The entire richness of human life as God created it and now as Christ renews it will be taken on into eternity. So, when in Hebrews 11 we read about believers seeing “from afar” the eternal country, the city with foundations, we are reminded that the world to come, however more wonderful than we can imagine, is not wholly unfamiliar to us. Everything good and wonderful in this world is a signpost to the world to come. Gary Larsen notwithstanding, let’s forever get out of our heads the image of people sitting on clouds playing harps. That there will be a new earth reminds us that the life we will live in the world to come will be an authentic human life, a life of work, of accomplishment, of relationships, of all that we know is good, rich, satisfying, and pleasing to God in our lives in this world.
But there is something more for us in this vision of a new heavens and a new earth. There is a summons and a calling to love and care for this world. We have other reasons to do that, to be sure. The Bible teaches that mankind has been given the stewardship of the earth and it is the duty of a steward to be faithful. We have a responsibility for the earth as God’s vice-regent over it. What is more, the Law of Moses was careful to remind God’s people that their own wellbeing depended upon their careful husbandry and conservation of the earth. In Deut. 20:19-20, where Israel is commanded not to deforest the ground unnecessarily, and in Deut. 22:6-7 where Israel is permitted to take the eggs from a bird’s nest but not the mother because of the importance of preserving the long-term potential for reproduction, we are taught that the concerns of modern ecology and conservation, however misshapen by a lack of reverence for God and for man made in the image of God, and however mis-motivated, are nevertheless based on legitimate concerns. We all depend for life and prosperity on the health of this earth that God has made our home.
But, there is this also. The human body is precious in large part because it will rise again. It is for that reason, it is because of the Christian’s hope in the resurrection of the body, that in the Bible such care was taken to show respect for the body after death and to bury or to entomb it, not to cremate it. In this way believers embodied their faith in the future of the body. Cemeteries everywhere are signposts to the promise of resurrection and future life in the body. The single most important fact about the human body is that it will live forever. Christian reverence for the body, even in death, bears powerful witness to that most important fact.
Well, in the same way, the care of the earth, respect and regard for its beauty, its fruitfulness, its goodness as God made it, is a testimony that Christians should bear to the fact that the earth is eternal and shall always be. It will be razed and rebuilt, it will be scorched and then renewed, but it shall exist forever, this earth and heaven that God has made.
Christians should be friends of the earth not because they think it their mother, nor because they are animated by some fear of an environmental Gőtterdammerung, but because God made the earth for them, because he made it so precious, wonderful, because it is cursed because of their sin and not its own, and because it will live forever as their eternal and happy home. Just as Christians bury their dead to bear witness to their future hope, so they should be careful stewards of the earth to bear witness to its preciousness, to the future as God has promised it, a future that contains the renewed world as well as they, renewed in body and soul, in that world.
Here once more is our eschatology, our understanding of the future and the consummation of the kingdom of God bearing in on our daily life and our ethics. We bury we do not cremate because we believe in the resurrection of the dead at the last day. And in the same way, we take care of the earth, we revere it as God’s creation, we conserve and guard it, because it too has a future to which we are to bear our witness. The Christian who throws a pop can out of the car window, who is careless about what he pours down his storm drain, who catches fish he does not care to eat, and is careless with the life of animals, is not simply a boor – he is that to be sure, but not only a boor – he is a Christian who is not practicing his faith, who does not revere the world God made as his own everlasting home, as God’s great gift, as a masterwork that God made for man’s eternal blessing. To tread carefully upon the ground, to look with delight at a flower, a mountain scene, or a seascape, to wonder at the behavior of birds and animals, to rejoice in the beauty and the fruitfulness of this earth, to care that the earth is not ruined or even a small part of it disfigured or harmed for no adequate reason, is to take your faith in a new heavens and a new earth seriously and to practice that faith in the future now, in the present. And that is, in one way or another, the way a Christian is to live his or her life in every part. To bring the future to the present and live accordingly.