God speaks to us about heaven and judgment and the Second Coming in metaphors. The goal of this brief series has been to get the metaphors right — at least, closer to right than our usual readings. But of necessity, when it comes to the next age, the scriptures don’t answer every single question we wonder about. Our brains just aren’t wired to understand something so far beyond our present reality.
That’s not to say we can’t draw conclusions. We can. Just not as many as we might like.
Jesus will descend to earth along with heaven itself, in which God has prepared a new Jerusalem (the city in which God dwells), and heaven and earth will be joined as one. The separation of man and God, heaven and earth, Savior and the saved, will be ended. And the creation itself, built to be a temple for God, will become exactly that, except the Holy of Holies will be everywhere. No curtain will separate God from his people.
And everything will have been made new — again — except better. The original creation could fall into corruption and accursedness. The kainos heavens and earth will be immune from such things. Finally, unlike Satan, God’s children will not be able to fall away. Heaven will be ours forever and ever.
Here’s Wright’s explanation (and well worth the time to listen) —
Our understanding of the Bible’s language is greatly enriched by this understanding. For example —
The OT and NT constantly promise God’s people an “inheritance.” In the Torah, the inheritance is a strip of land called the Promised Land or Canaan or Palestine. Num 26:52-65; 34:13-29. But this concept is expanded in the NT.
(Mat 5:5 ESV) 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
(Mat 19:29 ESV) 29 “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”
Under traditional teaching, these two passages are entirely inconsistent. The Christian inheritance is heaven, while the earth will be destroyed by fire. But in reality, both passages speak of the same thing: the earth is our inheritance. It’s where we’ll enjoy eternal life — the earth renewed, redeemed, transformed, and merged with heaven — but nonetheless, the earth.
“Eternal life” to traditional ears sounds like “everlasting life.” But it’s more. “Eternal” refers to the next age. The Greek is aiōnios, from aiōn, meaning “age,” often used for “the age to come.” Now, why refer to “eternal life” as an “inheritance” when “inheritance” refers to land? This only makes sense if our eternal lives will be tied to the earth in the same sense that Israel’s reward was tied to Palestine.
Israel was taken from their inheritance and into exile. The prophets promised an end of exile and a return to their “inheritance.” This inheritance is no longer merely Canaan-land. It’s the entire world. But not just the world. It’s the renewed heavens and earth.
The reign of the Christians
(Rev 5:9-10 ESV) 9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
In Revelation, the 24 elders sang a new song declaring that God’s people “shall reign on the earth.” How is this a blessing if the earth will be destroyed? On the other hand, it makes perfect sense when we realize that in Gen 1, God created male and female humans to “have dominion” over his creation (Gen 1:26-28). The new song promises that the reign of God’s people will finally come to fruition in the next age, when God’s children will reign over the earth just as was intended from the very beginning. See also Rev 22:5.
And so we see that part of the Second Coming and Judgment Day is fulfillment of the promises of Gen 1 and 2, when mankind was given dominion over God’s good creation and —
(Gen 2:15 NIV) The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
Reigning over the environment
It’s a small step from here to a theology of environmentalism. Man is charged by God with both working the land — cultivating it to be productive for human use — and caring for the land. “Take care” can also be translated “maintain” (NET).
Psalm 104 speaks of God’s constant care for the creation —
(Psa 104:10-16 ESV) 10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills; 11 they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. 12 Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches. 13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. 14 You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth 15 and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart. 16 The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
If man is called to live in God’s image, then man should care for the creation as much as God himself does. That hardly means that Christians must worship at the altar of the Sierra Club (or the Tea Party). Rather than politicizing environmental concerns, the result should be that we Christians take environmental concerns out of politics and instead ask the hard questions in God’s terms, not the terms of the powers of the world.
The scriptures clearly distinguish God from the creation. We worship God, not what he made. Nor are we to pursue Rousseau’s dream of nature untouched by man. God called on Adam to cultivate the Garden for the good of man. But neither are we allowed to use up and destroy the earth, assuming that it’s all going to be burned up anyway! No, the earth is our inheritance, and we must protect it as such.