July 22, 2019

Another Look: Our Terrestrial Hope

Spring Emerging (2012)

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

• Malt­bie D. Bab­cock

The world into which we shall enter in the Parousia of Jesus Christ is therefore not another world; it is this world, this heaven, this earth; both, however, passed away and renewed. It is these forests, these fields, these cities, these streets, these people that will be the scene of redemption. At present they are battlefields, full of the strife and sorrow of the not yet accomplished consummation; they they will be fields of victory, fields of harvest, where out of seed that was sown with tears the everlasting sheaves will be reaped and brought home.

• Edward Thurneysen
quoted in The Bible and the Future, p. 281

• • •

Long before N.T. Wright caught the attention of so many with his teachings on eschatology in Surprised by Hope, my own views were transformed by the teaching of Anthony Hoekema.

His 1979 work, The Bible and the Future, is on my personal “short list” of the books that have influenced me most in my life and ministry. Hoekema was Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, and his book is a comprehensive treatment of the amillennial perspective on eschatology. When I first read it, my doubts about dispensationalism had been growing for some time, and Hoekema’s clear, intelligent reading of Scripture took me a long way toward abandoning it altogether. After having done so, I’ve come back to The Bible and Future time and again to solidify and refine my own thinking about our Christian hope.

Hoekema’s first and greatest contribution to my understanding of the age to come was his emphasis upon the new earth.

The doctrine of the new earth, as it is taught in Scripture, is an important one. It is important, first, for the proper understanding of the life to come. One gets the impression from certain hymns that glorified believers will spend eternity in some ethereal heaven somewhere off in space, far away from earth. . . . On the contrary, the Bible assures us that God will create a new earth on which we shall live to God’s praise in glorified, resurrected bodies. On that new earth, therefore, we hope to spend eternity, enjoying its beauties, exploring its resources, and using its treasures to the glory of God. Since God will make the new earth his dwelling place, and since where God dwells there heaven is, we shall then continue to be in heaven while we are on the new earth. For heaven and earth will then no longer be separated, as they are now, but will be one (see Rev. 21:1-3). But to leave the new earth out of consideration when we think of the final state of believers is greatly to impoverish biblical teaching about the life to come. (p. 274)

N.T. Wright has gone further and greatly enriched our conceptions of the future by locating the early Christians’ hope about the age to come firmly within Jewish expectations regarding the resurrection and the age to come and the disciples’ experience of Jesus being raised bodily from the dead. Wright’s work shows that we who have been long taught that “this world is not our home,” making a spatial division in our minds between “earth” and “heaven,” should instead think in temporal terms and consider life in a world which is our home now and life in a world which will be our home in the age to come.

What matters is eschatological duality (the present age and the age to come), not ontological dualism (an evil “earth” and a good “heaven”). (SPH, p. 95)

Wright teases this out by analyzing the “fundamental structures” of the Christian hope, finding that it:

  • Is rooted in the goodness of a God-given creation that God made because of love.
  • Recognizes that evil is not rooted in the material nature of the world nor its transience but in rebellion and idolatry. This evil has led to the consequence of “death,” which scripture describes as exile, a separation from the presence and blessing of God.
  • Views redemption not as wiping the slate clean and starting over, but liberating creation from its slavery through incarnate means. God chose Israel and made his dwelling among them in the Temple that they might bring his light to all nations. Then, in the wake of Israel’s failure, Jesus came to fulfill what they could not do. The One through whom God created the world became part of that world and himself suffered death. He was then raised up, conquering death so that he might be God’s steward and restore God’s original plan of blessing to the whole world (Gen. 1:26-28).

We now live, as one theologian put it, between D-Day and VE-Day. Christ accomplished the decisive act of victory, and his followers are now engaged in battles that bring us ever closer to the culmination of the war. Together, we regularly pray for the consummation of this hope when we say: “May your Kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The key event which enabled the early Christians to believe that the age to come had begun was Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:20-23)

The ultimate personal hope that following Jesus brings therefore is “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23), not a release from our bodies into an ethereal, celestial realm of glory.  As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus is the “first-fruits” of the resurrection, guaranteeing that all those in him shall likewise be raised. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

This personal hope fits into God’s larger scheme that involves the renewal of all creation (Ephesians 1:9-10). Whereas now we experience a sense of separation from God and “heaven” (God’s realm), in the age to come heaven will come down to earth (not us go to heaven!) and God will permanently dwell with his people in a world made new (Revelation 21:1-3).

The bottom line is that heaven is not our home, at least in the way this has been presented. We are not simply “passing through” this world on the way to somewhere different and better, away from this earth. Humans were made for this world, and this world shall be our home forever. Heaven will come to us, not vice versa. God will make his dwelling in our midst, we will not take up residence in dwelling places (much less “mansions”!) in celestial realms. Whatever it means to say that the age to come will be full of God’s glory, we will experience it with our feet planted on terra firma.

Perhaps it would be good for us to spend more time meditating on texts like this one from Isaiah, which describe the terrestrial nature of the new creation:

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
   they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
   they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
   and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (Isa. 65:21-22)

And perhaps, with such visions in mind, we can better define what it means to follow Jesus now, in this time when we are awaiting the consummation of that which began with his death, resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Spirit.

Doesn’t this imply that Christians should embrace a calling to live as full human beings, fully engaged in this world; to be people of faith, hope, and love who affirm the goodness of God’s creation and the common humanity we share with our neighbors, who see being “saved by grace” not as an call to stop working but as an invitation to start participating in God’s work of making a better world?

Comments

  1. Whatever it means to say that the age to come will be full of God’s glory, we will experience it with our feet planted on terra firma.

    I’m almost as uncertain of what we mean by terra firma as I am by what “it means to say that the age to come will be full of God’s glory”. This world in its transience, its subjection to change, is anything but firm or solid; the very ground beneath our feet is a roiling ocean of shifting lava, with only the thinnest crust over its surface, ripe for eruption at any time. The Latin term which would call it solid or firm may be conventionally serviceable, but it is also extremely inaccurate. Along with the Creed I affirm that “I believe in…. the resurrection of the body”, yet the body, and matter itself, those always changing realities, remain mysterious and resistant to any completely accurate or adequate definition; I do not really know what they are. However we may envision it the resurrection of the body and the new creation, we should hold onto our visions with humility, recognizing that in many ways we know not whereof we speak. Since I understand so little about these things, I’m in no position to correct those who think in terms of Heaven and afterlife and a material world which is “not our home”. It is important as Christians to affirm the value of creation, of the material world and the body in resistance to any Christian theology that would despise them. The reason, however, for valuing them in our theology and practice is not because we really understand what any of these terms mean, or we have a good grasp of how all this plays out after personal death or the death of the planet, but because it is God’s creation, not ours, it belongs to him, not us, and Christ holds it, along with his own body, at the right hand of God.

    • David Greene says

      Yes, and how can “this world shall be our home forever” when the sun is scheduled to burn out in a few billion years?

      • It may be that the sun and its maker have no intention of keeping that scheduled appointment. Who knows? That’s my point — no one knows what the body is or what or where heaven is or if the sun will burn out or if there is an interim state or etc., but God himself. We’ll have to wait and see.

  2. That certainly is a radically different thought than what has been taught. Do the physicists say that the planet is essentially eternal or would their models predict decay and final degradation in something like 200 trillion years or some absurd number like that? If so, would the future union of heaven and earth, the undegradable with the degradable, the the eternal with the temporal, be the “New” combined form that changes that calculus. It does seem that that is what God has been after all along. The combining of eternal with temporal, spirit with flesh.

    • I guess matter is thought to be eternal right? Doesn’t degrade, just changes form. It turns into energy.

      • Dana Ames says

        Chris,

        If God truly is the source of life, his energies (as we say in Eastern Christianity) will hold it all together. It doesn’t matter “what the physicists say” – God understands how physics works better than the physicists and will uphold everything in love 😉

        Christ “himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1.17) – even when he was on the Cross.

        Dana

        • Wrote that this morning and went off to work but was thinking in a similar vein. Yes, the physicists play second fiddle but they play nonetheless. I’m curious about the science of an eternal earth in and of itself but certainly do not rely on science alone to elaborate the ins and outs of eternity. That’s not their job. Neither is it ours frankly but still curious.

  3. Noted theologian Fred Astaire thought that “Heaven Was Dancing Cheek to Cheek” with the very lovely Ginger Rogers in 1935. At the same time we do not know what Ginger Rogers thought at the time, it may have been hell as she was in high heels.

    Like all questions related to the other side, we will not know until we get there but the article is well reasoned. Pray like everything is up to God and work like everything is up to you , is one of my favorite sayings but so is , do not eat yellow snow , so I am not that deep.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    We now live, as one theologian put it, between D-Day and VE-Day.

    Not repeat not in the prequel to Left Behind, about to be Raptured up into Fluffy Cloud Heaven where we can watch the world burn as a spectator sport (any minute now… any minute now… any minute now…).

  5. Christiane says

    Beautiful photograph!

    For some reason, this discussion reminds me of the words of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapter 58

    “10 And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day:

    11 And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.

    12 And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.”

    whether this applies specifically or not, it has meaning for me when I think about the ‘if’ we reach out to those who suffer, there is a ‘then’ that follows that is something that affects Creation itself

    . . . . . I wonder if ‘grace’ helps us to reach out with loving-kindness to those who suffer,
    and this powerful ‘grace’ then overflows on into the world around us , because maybe our response of ‘loving-kindness’ amplifies the expression of grace in a broken world . . . . so that we are invited to participate in ‘the healing of the breach’
    (?)

  6. Dana Ames says

    More fundamental than the idea of “heaven and earth” being time-related is how both Willard and Wright explain it: that “heaven and earth” is a shorthand phrase meaning “all of reality” – “earth” being that which our senses apprehend and “heaven” all that is presently invisible to us.

    Reality is One Thing.

    Dana

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      As we say in the Creed every Mass:
      “All Things, Seen and Unseen”.

    • johnbarry says

      Dana, I appreciate your comments of Willard and Wright about reality , it seems real to me , thanks. I love this life and all that entails , including the faith that there is a better one

      . I wish my name were Wright as then I would always be Wright instead of just thinking I am always Wright, except when I spel. I do not reley on spel chek, I know I am wright. That is my reality.

    • Dana, I had a professor in OT and Jewish culture who kept reminding us of the Hebrew word “nephesh,” which refers to the whole person, body and soul—not the western dichotomy of body versus soul, as in the popular belief “this world’s not my home.” He also said that the Jew is taught to look for the olam ha-ba (the world to come) with a Bible in one hand and a copy of the New York Times in the other.

      When we claim “this world’s not my home, I’m just passing through,” or “I’ll fly away” we unwittingly subscribe to Gnosticism, dualism, Manichaeanism. That’s the stuff of Zoroastrians and Hindus that we’re supposed to avoid as Christians.

      • Zoroastrianism is actually not dualistic, nor does it denigrate the material world or the body. That is an undeserved bad reputation that has been unjustly pinned on the religion. In fact, asceticism is eschewed by Zoroastrianism exactly because the way to holiness is not considered to be compatible with denying the self any good material thing. Zoroastrianism affirms a final redemption of all human beings, resurrection of the dead, and the renovation of the entire creation, including the material and physical.

        • I checked my memory against the sources, and confess that I was mistaken in some of what I said. Zoroastrianism posits two principles, two gods, one of good and one of evil, that have always existed — its cosmological origin story is dualistic. Each god has created its own world, but the world we human beings live in is the creation of the principle of good, the good God, and itself is good. Evil from the evil god’s world has infected our good world, but at the end of time the evil god and its world will be destroyed, while our world will be purified and restored. At the end, only the good god and his good world, purged of all evil and including all human beings, will exist — so the at the end of the story, the dualism no longer exists.

          • That sounds a bit like the Christian story.

            I remember in a class on the Inter-testamental Period (different OT prof) about some of the shifts in the Hebrew religion as a result of the Babylonian captivity. Some of that influence seemed to be dualistic, the sons of light warring against the sons of darkness, apocalyptic literature emerging, etc. I remember it jarring my faith quite a bit. Another, older student, said, “That’s how it is with Dr. Carr. He’ll tear your faith down and let you build it back up again.”

            Dualism or not, there’s no question that good and evil co-exist. The question becomes whether they are equal, whether the one God created evil or merely allows it, and whether evil will be destroyed one day. These ideas are at least in common.

            In Pete Seeger’s version of “That Old Time Religion” he gets a little heretical:

            We will pray with Zarathustra,
            We will pray the way we us’ta.
            I’m a Zarathustra booster!
            And it’s good enough for me.
            Give me that old time religion,
            Give me that old time religion,
            Give me that old time religion,
            It’s good enough for me.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              “The Pete Seeger version” is either the origin or a variant of “Gimme That REAL Old-Time Religion” from SF fandom’s novelty-song tradition of “Filksinging”. The filk version has at least dozens of verses, each one covering a separate religion and pantheon (historical or fictional).

              • I just looked at the lyrics on a page that said the writers were Cisco Houston and Woody Guthrie.

                We will pray with those old druids,
                They drink fermented fluids,
                Waltzing naked though the woo-ids,
                And it’s good enough for me.

    • Dana, Orthodoxy does affirm that the Saints exist in an intermediate disembodied (meaning they do not possess their own individual bodies ) state after death, and that they are conscious and active in the world’s affairs via responding to intercessory prayers of living Christians directed to them, correct?

  7. Christiane says

    for those who ‘separate’ the material world and the world of the spiritual, they might have inherited some of the thinking of an old heresy from the time of the Albigensians (Cathars). For them, the material world was ‘evil’.

    How wonderful to think that the afterlife will be lived in ‘the world’ as we know it that IS material, but will be transformed and renewed . . . .

    some already have a sense of the ‘sacred’ in this world, and it is not so difficult for such people to understand a sacramental approach to Christianity, where transformations even in THIS life are possible in Baptism and in Eucharist . . . .

    I suppose there must be some kind of continuum along which we can place the extremes of how Christian people can think of the spiritual and material realms, but Headless is right, for many Christians, the belief is that God is the Creator of all that is seen and unseen . . . . no ‘separation’ of origin, both realms existing at the pleasure of God Who brought them into existence and maintains that existence . . . . and so the material realm, by virtue of its origin is endowed with a sacredness that may be temporarily wounded, even broken, but can also be made whole again by a ‘word’ or a touch of the One who created it, so I can see ‘a new Earth’ happening, sure

  8. Sometimes I think that body is memory and the ability to re-member, and that memory itself is not only or even primarily cognitive or conscious, but somatic — something like muscle-memory, but more than that.

    • anonymous says

      do we carry memories in our DNA? genetic memories?

      • I saw a friend on Friday who was on his way to a lecture about that very idea. I’ll have to ask him how it went.

      • I think it’s more like memory carries us, and provides the boundaries against which our personal identity pushes and finds itself. Resurrection would then be restoration of the memory, which would also be re-membering of our body. All highly speculative, and borrowed from C.S. Lewis, though I can’t tell you exactly where he said it.

  9. Christiane says

    ” … come . . .
    And re-create me. . . . .
    that new-fashioned, I may rise up from death before I’m dead. ”

    (from ‘Litany’, by John Donne)

  10. Probably one of the best posts I’ve ever read here on IM. Thank you, thank you. A friend and I used a book club format as we read SBH two years ago. Loved it. The only thing I didn’t like about the book was when we finished, I felt all fired up as in “OK! Now what?”.

    My husband and I made this change in our thinking about ten years ago. It was absolutely mind-blowing when we came to the realization of a new earth…which is spelled out so clearly in Scripture, and yet, even though I have attended evangelical church my whole life, never heard it explained or even really mentioned. It’s getting harder and harder to keep our mouths shut when pastors or people in general refer to a loved one being greeted at the gates of heaven by their wife or having their grandmother look down on them every day from heaven, etc.

    We feel as if we can’t even mention these beliefs in church or at Bible Studies. So thankful for an online community!

  11. Recommended reading: John Ortberg’s “Eternity is Now in Session.”

    One of the blurbs:
    “In Eternity Is Now in Session, bestselling author John Ortberg dispels the myth that eternal life is something way out in outer space that we can only hope to experience after we die?and that being saved is merely about meeting the minimal entrance requirements for getting into heaven. Instead, John unpacks the reality that the moment we trust Christ, we are initiated into “eternal living” with God as a here and now reality, one that will continue beyond our life on this earth.”