Friday, December 08, 2006

Earth in the Balance

You may not have noticed, but theology has taken a turn for the earth.

I first noticed this in my first year at seminary. I told my theology professor that I wanted to do a research paper on heaven. He was skeptical. “I think the movement in Scripture is that heaven comes to earth,” he told me. “Not that we go to heaven, but that heaven comes to us.”

Hmm. Very interesting.

He did not mean that heaven is an earthly achievement of mankind. Rather, he meant that the “new heavens and new earth that come down from heaven, as described in the book of Revelation, pictures God restoring this world – this very world we currently inhabit. This fits the terminology of Isaiah 65-66, which also speaks of the creation of a “new heavens and new earth,” and Romans 8 which says that this creation will one day be set free from its curse. It also corresponds to the idea of bodily resurrection; our bodies, as well as this earth, will one day be freed, restored, glorified.

God restoring not only human beings after the Fall, but also the sin scorched earth, sounds pretty cool. But still a bit strange: what happens to the good old fashioned idea of going to heaven one day?

When this was discussed in seminary, my friends and I joked about it. “I can’t wait to go to heaven” becomes “I can’t wait to go to earth.” Our loved one who passed away has “died and gone to earth.”

The truth is that we don’t have a description in the Bible of what the eternal condition of our bodies and of the newly created world will look like. But we know that there will be freedom from sin, restoration, and glorification. That glorification part is important, and means that our eternal state will be far superior even to mankind’s condition before the stain of sin.

On the one hand, it is important to broaden our understanding of the biblical teaching about eternity. If “going to heaven” remains a vague picture in our mind of floating around the clouds, strumming harps, and watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver, we need to improve our mental image of eternity. It will be something far more dramatic, glorious, and concrete. Furthermore, the idea that this creation will be restored gives us needed hope and encouragement in the struggles of our day; it is inspiring to realize that there will be restoration “as far as the curse is found.” This includes the perfection of the creation all around us, and apparently (from a few Scriptures) even its “culture.”

On the other hand, it is also possible to get a bit too excited about the restoration of earth. Some contemporary theologians are pretty excited about the idea that creation will be redeemed, and that the culture will be redeemed along with it, and this can get out of balance. It seems to me that the primary message of Scripture is not about planet earth or its culture but its inhabitants and their souls. Jesus spoke to men and women about their souls. The apostles urged repentance, salvation, and personal holiness.

This is not to say that we should be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good, only that we shouldn’t also be the opposite: “So earthly minded we’re no heavenly good.”

Let’s imitate the Apostle Peter who struck a holy balance between heaven and earth:

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

(2 Peter 3:11-13)

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This post is long but nevertheless abbreviated! I welcome your comments, clarifications...

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