Anticipating the New Heavens and New Earth pt. 3
God wins. That is the Christian hope put as succinctly as possible. While on the surface, this is a straightforward statement, it has profound and wide-ranging implications. You see, to say God wins is to say that sin and Satan loses, and quite demonstrably at that. This is no stalemate, draw, or gridlock where both parties retreat home. No one is flipping over the monopoly board and calling it a victory. It is a total trouncing. At every turn, God emerges triumphant. This means that in every sphere in which the battle is being waged, God wins. That includes the theological, anthropological, ethical, sociological/relational, physical/mortal, and ecological arenas. While we readily admit God’s victory in the first 4 arenas, it’s the latter two that we often fail to consider. Yet these are distinctly part of the Christian hope, not as something extra and unnecessary tacked on at the end, but part of the very center. Let’s explore this claim further.
One surefire way to see what God is up to and where the story is ultimately going is to look at what He did in the life and the ministry of Jesus. Again I think it is easier for us to see God’s victory in the theological, ethical, anthropological, and sociological/relational (though this last one may be murky for some). It is the physical and ecological victories that we need help seeing. First, consider how closely the theological issue of sin is tied to the physical issue of sickness/bodily ailments. When Jesus heals a man of his paralysis in Mark 2, he directly correlates His ability and authority to heal with His ability and authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12). One is evidence of the other because, in reality, they are part of the same battle, both consequences from the fall and the domain of the devil and thus both messes that need mending. Secondly, notice how often curing diseases were tied to defeating the devil in the ministry of Jesus (this list is not exhaustive but see Lk. 8:2; 26-39; 9:1-2; 37-43; 10:17-19; 13:32 esp. Lk. 13:10-17 and Acts 10:38). According to 1 Jn. 3:18, the reason Jesus came was to destroy the works of the devil. As we’ve seen, this clearly includes diseases, but it also includes that which diseases and disabilities are a symptom and precursor of... Death. Death, physical, bodily death is a direct result of the fall and a consequence of the devil’s deceit. And thus, to some degree, death is the devil’s domain, an arena in which God must attain victory. Thanks be to God the Father that He accomplished this through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:14).
Much of the locus of the Christian hope lies in the hope for resurrection. Resurrection, by definition, is physical and bodily. A newly transformed body that is both continuous and discontinuous with the old, but a body none the less (1 Cor. 15:35-57; there is too much in this passage to flesh out fully here, especially because it is often ready through escapist, Platonic lenses. However, suffice it to say that if Christ was the first to rise from the dead, then we may look to His resurrection to inform our own). Indeed, it is Jesus’ bodily resurrection that gives life to the Christian hope that we too will rise from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20-23; Rom. 6:5-9). Risking redundancy for the sake of clarity, I repeat, the Christian hope is no less than bodily resurrection (Rom. 8:11; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Co. 15:50-57). This is not just souls continuing to exist for eternity, spirits floating along in some ethereal, non-physical realm. The early Christians longed for something more, Paul hoped for something more, the souls before the throne in Revelation 6 pleaded for something more. Yet this has long been the popular view of eternity. We leave our bodies behind and escape from this world. If this material world and everything in it is all shot to hell (to use the popular expression quite literally), what does that say about our God? Was He unprepared, incapable, or unconcerned to purpose otherwise? In this scenario, death is not defeated, just skirted by. God ties, not triumphs. But death must be, (and praise be to God that it will be), swallowed up (1 Cor. 15:26, 54-57; Rev. 20:14). God will be truly victorious in the end. God will have a monopoly overall. There will be no divine game-board flip.
But if we will have newly transformed bodies, where will we live? Jesus, in His newly resurrected body, ascended to Heaven, so when our bodies are raised and transformed we will go back to Heaven with Him, right? Actually, no, not quite. Rather than us ascending to heaven with Jesus, the Bible pictures Jesus coming back to earth to raising us from the dead and dwelling with us here on earth (1 Cor. 15:23-27, 51-54; Phil. 3:20-21; cf. 1 Thess. 4:16-17 which at first glance appears to say the opposite. This texts warrants further discussion in a future article). To be sure, the earth that Jesus comes to will be newly transformed just as our bodies will be, but it will be earth none the less. There is creation, and then there is new creation. This hope for the new creation is actually tied up with our hope for newly transformed bodies. Notice, especially Rom. 8:18-24. We suffer now; we await the glory to come later. Hardly shocking. This is pretty standard stuff from Paul. But perhaps we have read over what he says next without understanding its gravity. Creation is awaiting our glory as well because creation itself longs for redemption and freedom from corruption. Paul rounds out this section by emphasizing again, as we have been wont to do, that the Christian hope is for resurrected bodies (Rom. 8:23-24). But let us not miss this point, the redemption that creation longs for and the glory that awaits it is analogous to our own redemption and glory (Rom. 8:21-22). Thus, it just won’t do to suggest that the physical world will pass away while our bodies will be renewed, restored, and transformed! Paul seems to suggest that what happens to one will happen to the other. Indeed, this is what the Biblical writers refer to when they speak about the New Heavens and the New Earth (Isa. 65:17-25, 66:22-23; 2 Pet. 3:1-13 - this text warrants further discussion at another time; Rev. 21-22). Just as God is victorious in the physical/mortal realm, so too will He be victorious in the ecological realm.
The story that began in a garden in Genesis 1 ends in a garden in Revelation 21-22. In fact, the whole of the Biblical story has been tracing God’s journey to bring us back to that state of blissful relationship with Him, harmony with one another, abundance of life and love, fulfilling our God given roles to the praise honor and glory of God. Go back and explore the garden of Genesis 1-2, ponder the fallout from the fall of Genesis 3 and import those into your reading of Revelation 21-22. How many similarities do you notice? Do you see the blissful harmony? The lavish abundance? The life-giving tree and waters? Notice the presence of the unescapable light without the sun, moon, or stars just like Gen. 1:3? And yet, do you get the sense that what your reading in Revelation 21-22 is of a different magnitude? It is paradise but to a much greater degree! Notice also what’s not there. The sea (the place of chaos and death - Rev. 20:13) is gone (Rev. 21:1). All those pesky results of the fall like death, sadness, sickness, and pain are all gone (Rev. 21:4); evil is non-existent in this reality (Rev. 21:8, 27; 22:3), social and relational tensions will have been erased (Rev. 22:2). A return to the garden has been God’s plan from the beginning. This is His way of righting all the was wrong and fixing all that had been broken. Our hope for eternity is not so much that we will go off to God’s space and be we with Him for eternity but that He will break into our space, transform our brokenness, and dwell with us in the new reality He is creating (notice that John’s vision is of the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven not the other way around and God dwelling with us where we are Rev. 21:2-3). It is about God’s space and man’s space combing to become one. You see, as we suggested at the outset of this series, the where and the what of eternity where not just something extra tacked on at the end. The “but wait, there’s more” is what it is all about! This will be the answer to the prayer Jesus taught His first followers to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Let us pray for this, plead for this, and prepare for this. This is the Christian hope. Cosmic redemption. Total victory. Never-ending glory.
To be continued...