The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Heaven

A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 12: Why Does This Even Matter?

This post is part of an ongoing series. You can find links to all the posts here.

Throughout this series, we have been examining the idea of renewed eschatology from a variety of perspectives, and in this final post, we are going to consider different reasons why all of this matters.[1] This is the discussion that many people want from the very beginning. When they hear the arguments for a renewed creation, they may be intrigued or skeptical, but often, regardless they somewhat dismissively state, “Why does this even matter? I know that I want to be with God for eternity; I don’t care where that is!” 

I understand that sentiment—I shared it myself for several years—but I wanted to wait until the end to address it, because I really do not think the implications of renewed creation make sense until you really understand the position. So, stated more precisely: if Scripture teaches that God is going to redeem and restore His good creation and the hope for believers is to live eternally in glorious, resurrected bodies with God in a New Heaven and New Earth, why does that matter? How does that affect my life?

I will warn you in advance: in this post we will respond to that question in multiple ways, and at the end, some readers are not going to get it. At the end of this whole series and all of the digital ink that has been spilt in its production, it still won’t seem like a big deal. And I will not judge you for that response, because it’s exactly where I was for years. Even as I gradually became more convinced of the NHNE perspective, I just didn’t think it mattered that much. For me, it was a long process.

Others will get it immediately. Some of you already do; I have heard responses as I have taught and blogged through this from people who have found this illuminating, and for whom this has helped to connect dots throughout Scripture and enhance their hope and anticipation of eternity. 

From my own perspective, although it has taken a while for me to get to this point, I can say that understanding my future (and really, the future of the universe) differently has greatly changed my present as well. It changes the way I live day to day, and the way I anticipate the future.

In this post, as we look at the implications of a redeemed creation, we’re going to look at four different implications of this, and we’re going to look at all of them through the lens of Story.



The Story Itself—What does the Bible say?

As many of my readers know, I work and worship within the fellowship of churches of Christ. One of the

things I love about our heritage is that we value Scripture highly and think it is really important to know what the Bible says and teach it and live accordingly. From this perspective, what we have been talking about in this series matters, because either it is what the Bible teaches, or it’s not. 

At this point, we have spent a lot of time going over what the Bible teaches, and from my perspective, it is clear that the “traditional” view is off—the idea of God destroying the world and us flying away to an ethereal heaven for eternity is simply not what the Story is about.

Now, I am not claiming that you have to believe what I do about the New Heavens and New Earth to be saved (and, ultimately, to experience the New Heavens and New Earth someday!), but we don’t have to think that a certain belief is necessary for salvation in order to think that it is important. 

So, in the first place, what we have been talking about matters because it is a central teaching of Scripture. It’s what the Story is all about.

The Author of the Story—What is God like?

We have talked about this already, but just as a way of reminder, the way we interpret the Story will also influence the way we view and understand the Author of the Story—what is God like?

If we believe that the Story is about God destroying creation because it is broken, then it’s no wonder that so many people question if God really loves them, or doubt that they will ever be able to be “good enough” to be saved. But that’s not what the Story is about! God is the Fixer of the Broken. He loves His creation and wants to redeem it! It’s not about you being good enough to be saved, it’s about God being loving enough to save you even though you’re not good enough!

If we believe that the Story is about us going up to be with God on His level, then it’s no wonder that so many people tie their salvation to getting everything exactly right—we obsessively try to meet God on His level by perfectly interpreting and intuiting every single thing. This becomes the basis for our assurance and confidence. But that’s not what the Story is about! God is the One Who Comes Down. He reveals to us who He is and what He is like, so that we can faithfully live in covenant relationship with Him. God is not asking for our perfection but for our commitment.

The way we understand the Story influences the way we understand the Author of the Story.

Living Out the Story—Agents of New Creation

Our actions are influenced by the story that we believe ourselves to be a part of. Let me try to illustrate that principle with two imperfect and wildly different examples:

  • Let’s say that you are a young woman who goes to college and earns a degree, but your real desire in life is to be a stay at home mom—that is your story. This is who you are; it is the narrative around which you have constructed your identity. So, at the end of college you get married and start a career for a couple of years, but then you decide that you are ready to start your family. You get married, and have a child. A couple of years later, you get a very lucrative job offer to go back to work—what do you do? Well, if your story is that you are a stay at home mom, it’s not even a question: you stay at home! Your actions are influenced by the story that you believe you are a part of!
  • Let’s say that you are a young man growing up in Germany in the 1930s. You are a member of the Nazi party, and you firmly believe that you are part of a master race—that is your story. This is who you are; it is the narrative around which you have constructed your identity. A few years later, you find yourself in a position where you are ordered to execute a Jewish person simply because of his race—what do you do? Well, if your story is that you are a Nazi who firmly believes you are a member of a master race, it’s not even a question. You execute the person you consider to be inferior! Your actions are influenced by the story that you believe you are a part of!

In regards to what we have been talking about—renewed eschatology—how does this Story influence our actions?

As we have seen, the Story of the Bible is that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and called it good. But God’s space (heaven) and humanity’s space (earth) were driven apart by sin. God’s good creation was tainted. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that through Jesus, God is reconciling all things (including creation) to Himself. This happens through the death of Jesus on the cross, and His subsequent victory over death through His resurrection. 

At His resurrection, Jesus becomes the firstfruits of a new kind of creation, and likewise, when we are placed into Christ at baptism, we too are raised to walk a new kind of life, as agents of new creation:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 

(2 Corinthians 5.17-20)

So Jesus, through His resurrection, brings about New Creation and reconciliation, and we become agents of that New Creation and ambassadors of His reconciliation. This means that we currently live in the shadow of the impending return of Jesus, and the redemption of all things that will accompany that return. Knowing that we are a part of a future reality, we live as if that reality were already present now. 

This is reflected in passages in Philippians and Colossians that speak of us having citizenship in heaven or setting our minds on things above. In a sense, as Christians, we bring heaven to earth—anticipating what will happen when Jesus returns, the dwelling place of God is with man, and all things will be made new—by living now as we will live then. This is what the Sermon on the Mount is about too. Jesus tells His disciples how to live in ways that seemingly make no sense in our world as it is. But that’s the point: as Christians, we are agents of New Creation, living according to God’s Kingdom, which continues to grow and expand and will one day cover all that is.

The first stage of this new creation process happened at the resurrection of Jesus, and the second stage will occur at His return. We live in-between, but we live as agents of New Creation, living according to our heavenly citizenship, and according to the principles of God’s Kingdom. As we do that, we seek to counteract the effects of sin in our world:

  • In a world of theological brokenness, we tell people about Jesus and how to have a relationship with God. That means it is important that we have people who serve as ministers, missionaries, and Bible class teachers. People who devote their lives to studying the Bible, biblical languages, and history, and share that knowledge with other people. People who help us to process current events and trends from a heavenly perspective in an effort to live as God would have us to.
  • In a world of social brokenness, we act as peacemakers, seeking to reconcile people who are at odds with one another and to rectify the injustices caused by our mistreatment of one another. That means it is important that we have people who serve as social workers, lawyers, judges, teachers, civil rights activists, and elected officials. People who work to limit the abuse that happens to the weak at the hands of the powerful, to take care of those who have been cast aside, and to provide resources that people need to survive.
  • In a world of personal brokenness, we help people see that they are valuable, created in the image of God. That means it is important that we have people who serve as counselors, therapists, coaches, trainers, and educators. People who help others deal with the feelings of inadequacy and insecurity that we all feel and helping them to become productive members of society.
  • In a world of ecological brokenness, we live out our intended function as stewards who tend and tame God’s creation. That means it is important that we have people who serve as conservationists, environmental scientists, and farmers. People who encourage us to take care of God’s good creation and prod us to reconsider and change some of our behaviors that have been damaging to it. People who study the way our world works and help us to predict when tornadoes will hit and how to prevent the introduction of invasive species that damage natural habitats. People who cultivate the earth so that its bounty can provide nourishment for humanity.
  • In a world of physical brokenness, we seek to alleviate the physical suffering of people while pointing forward to the day when mourning, crying, and pain will be no more. That means it is important that we have people who serve as doctors, pharmacists, researchers, physical therapists, and hospice nurses. People who seek to treat and alleviate the effects of disease, who help people deal with their decaying bodies, and who bring dignity to people as they take final steps toward the sad reality of death.

Living as an agent of new creation is much bigger than having a Bible study with someone (as important as that is!). It is living right now as part of a future reality. In a dark and broken world, we create pockets of God’s kingdom everywhere we go by living according to the principles of that kingdom now, wherever we are.

We bring light into a dark world and sprinkle principles of the kingdom into everything we do, and since the biblical picture of eternity has points of continuity with our current existence, it suggests that what we do now matters moving forward![2]

Anticipating the Story’s “Ending”—Looking Forward to Eternity

Let me share a fairly common experience that perhaps you can identify with. Maybe you have heard discussions of heaven in the past and about how great it will be (better than we can imagine!), but then when an effort is made to describe what it will be like, it basically sounds like a never-ending worship service.

Does that fill you with excitement?

Don’t get me wrong—worship is extremely important. I love to sing praises to God, and I believe we will worship in eternity. But is a never-ending worship service something we really look forward to?

I work with teenagers a lot; let me tell you, it does not sound super exciting to them. It certainly seems like a better alternative than hell, but still, not amazing. I can’t help but think…if this is our view of all that we will be doing for eternity, is it any wonder that we have a lot of people who get more excited about summer vacations to Florida than an eternity with God?

But the ending of the Story that we have been talking about is much more than this. Certainly, there is worship: we will be in the presence of our Creator! We’ll be so overwhelmed with the desire to worship that we won’t be able to help it. But there will be much more than that!

  • From the beginning, humanity was created in God’s image to function as God’s representatives on earth. Scripture teaches that in the eschaton, we will live in a new creation, and there are plenty of verses that reference our reigning with God. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but doesn’t it sound exciting?
  • From the beginning, humanity was also given a job to do, caring for and cultivating God’s creation. This work was not a part of the curse, but a fundamental part of our identity as humans. When we are placed in an environment that is pictured as a marvelous city and a beautiful garden, it strikes me that there will still be work to be done—but work that is free of pain and sorrow, where nothing is wasted. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but doesn’t it sound exciting?
  • And touching on something that I mentioned earlier, given the continuity between our current existence and eternity, what you do for the Lord right now is not in vain. As one author writes:

“You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.”[3]

How does that work? I don’t really know, but doesn’t it sound exciting? Somehow, just as the Father, through Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, will gather up the molecules of our wasted-into-dust bodies and recreate them into glorious, incorruptible resurrection bodies, so He will also take the work we have done, building for His kingdom, and incorporate that into His new creation. 

This is an “ending” to the Story that I can get excited about and eagerly anticipate.

Renewed Eschatology is not some esoteric theory best left to the debates of ivory tower theologians; it is a powerful and practical teaching of Scripture. It helps us to better understand the Story itself, the Author of the Story, and the way we live in response to the Story, and in conjunction with those other aspects, it heightens our eager anticipation of the day when Jesus will return and bring the Story to a never-ending conclusion.


This concludes our series. For some readers, this has been a collection of new and challenging ideas that have been exciting, alarming, or a mixture of both. For others, these posts have strengthened and affirmed views that you already held or at least were leaning toward. 

If this series has led you toward appreciating or even accepting the renewed creation perspective, that is great, but ultimately, that wasn’t my goal for this series. Echoing back to the introductory post, it was my hope that we would be able to study Scripture with an open mind, challenge ourselves, and, at the end, respect one another regardless of whether or not we agree. If we have been able to meet these goals, then I believe our Father is well pleased. 

May we yearn for the day when Jesus returns and rights all wrongs. 


[1] Although this is the last post in the series, I do not mean to imply that I have exhausted all of the arguments for and elements of the NHNE perspective; I certainly have not. In particular, this series would ideally include a discussion of Old Testament prophecy. When I originally taught through this material, I did have such a lesson, but it was so context specific to some other studies we had engaged at that congregation that I didn’t think it worked well removed from that context and placed into a blog series. 

Additionally, the study could be further fleshed out and enhanced with discussions of what it means to be created in the Image of God, the biblical teaching of our eschatological reign with God, the continuing motif of God’s promise of land to His people, the biblical motif of Jubilee, and more. 

[2] This is the point that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 15.58 at the conclusion of his discourse on resurrection. Because of resurrection and the continuity it represents between the present and the future, what we do now matters: our labor is not in vain!

[3] N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 208.

A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 2: Distractions

Introduction

Last week, we introduced renewed eschatology, the idea that at the return of Jesus, the entire cosmos will be made over into a “New Heaven and New Earth”, and that God will dwell there with His people forever.

This differs from the more traditional spiritual heaven view that emphasizes that we will in some sense “fly away” to be with Jesus in heaven, and the earth will be burned up at His second coming.

In this series of posts, I will be explaining and supporting the renewed earth position, and as I mentioned last time, it has taken me a long time to come around to this perspective. If you think I am crazy for believing this, that’s okay at this point, because I haven’t tried to biblically support it yet. We’re going to spend the next several weeks doing that; don’t worry!

Today, we’re actually going to spend our time talking about some ideas that don’t really have anything to do with renewed eschatology at all, which is why I titled this post “Distractions”—these ideas distract us from our purpose of examining the renewed earth argument, but it is still important that we talk about them, because in my experience, anytime NHNE is discussed,[1] people immediately think of these other things. So, my hope is that we can address these ideas in this post and get them out of the way so we can then proceed with our study and not worry about them anymore.



What Renewed Eschatology is Not

Renewed Eschatology is not premillennialism. In my context (churches of Christ), premillennialism is generally looked down upon, and anything that remotely sounds like premillennialism is regarded with suspicion. The NHNE perspective is not premillennialism, but to better establish that point, we first need to discuss premillennialism a bit. So, what is it?

Premillennialism falls into two basic categories:

  • Historic premillennialism is a very old view (dating back to early Church Fathers) that interprets Revelation 20.1-6 as a period of time when Christ will literally reign on this earth before final judgment. I disagree with this view and this interpretation of Revelation 20, but I don’t find it to be particularly harmful.
  • Dispensational premillennialism is a relatively young view (1800s) and is the version of premillennialism that you are likely more familiar with. Like historic premillennialists, dispensational premillennialists also interpret Revelation 20 to refer to a literal reign by Jesus on earth, but this is no minor point of doctrine; rather, it becomes a controlling lens through which they look at all of Scripture. When Jesus came to earth, He intended to set up His kingdom but was rejected by His people and had to set up the church instead.[2]

There are many different teachings associated with dispensational premillennialism (the rapture, the Left Behind books, a literal battle of Armageddon, etc.) and also many different variations (pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, post-tribulation, etc.), but ultimately, this isn’t a study of premillennialism, so we don’t need to get into all of that. What is important to emphasize here is that all of this (the 1000-year reign of Jesus on earth) happens before the final judgment and an eternity in heaven.

Really, the only element in common between renewed eschatology and premillennialism is that both have something to do with the earth. But in premillennialism, the millennium is a temporary time of Jesus reigning before the end. NHNE is about a renewed earth and heaven united, and God dwelling with His people there forever.

Renewed Eschatology is not what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe. Jehovah’s Witnessed believe that God will extend His heavenly kingdom to include earth, and earth will be transformed to a paradise similar to Eden. But they also believe a lot of things that, from my perspective, are way out there:

A central teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that the current world era, or “system of things”, entered the “last days” in 1914 and faces imminent destruction through intervention by God and Jesus Christ, leading to deliverance for those who worship God acceptably. They consider all other present-day religions to be false, identifying them with “Babylon the Great,” or the “harlot” of  Revelation 17, and believe that they will soon be destroyed by the United Nations, which they believe is represented in scripture by the scarlet-colored wild beast of Revelation chapter 17. This development will mark the beginning of the “great tribulation”. Satan will subsequently use world governments to attack Jehovah’s Witnesses, an action that will prompt God to begin the war of Armageddon, during which all forms of government and all people not counted as Christ’s “sheep” will be destroyed.

After Armageddon, God will extend his heavenly kingdom to include earth, which will be transformed into a paradise similar to the Garden of Eden. Most of those who had died before God’s intervention will gradually be resurrected during the thousand year “judgment day”. This judgment will be based on their actions after resurrection rather than past deeds. At the end of the thousand years, Christ will hand all authority back to God. Then a final test will take place when Satan is released to mislead perfect mankind. Those who fail will be destroyed, along with Satan and his demons. The end result will be a fully tested, glorified human race on earth.[3]

Commonalities

Renewed eschatology does hold that Jesus will return to “earth”, but it is not this earth, but rather, a renewed earth. Also, this will not be part of a millennium, but is the eternal state of things.

Renewed eschatology has some similarities to the Jehovah’s Witness view of some sort of Edenic, recreated earth, but these similarities were not borrowed from Jehovah’s Witnesses. NHNE is a much older view, and if anything, it lies in the background and had elements borrowed from it by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Furthermore, the biblical vision of the “new earth” is not simply a return to Eden, but rather, the potential of Eden fully realized, with God, humanity, and creation living in harmony with one another.

Neither of these views—dispensational premillennialism nor Jehovah’s Witness eschatology—is what I am advocating in this series, but it is important that we discuss them, because as we move forward, there may be a temptation, at least with some, to think “this sounds like __________” (especially premillennialism). It’s not. I don’t believe in any of the views that we just described. Speaking candidly, from my perspective:

  • Historic premillennialism misinterprets Revelation 20.1-6, but isn’t really a big deal.
  • Dispensational premillennialism is a hot mess that leads to a lot of theological problems.
  • Jehovah’s Witness eschatology is crazy.

The Intermediate State

The intermediate state is the time period between an individual’s death and the second coming of Christ. In this series, we are most interested in what happens at the return of Jesus rather than our individual deaths, but we will address the intermediate state here because many people conflate these two issues.

There are different perspectives of what the intermediate state will look like. Here are some of the most common ones:[4]

  • Hadean Realm: This is the view that when we die, we go to “Hades”, the realm of the dead, and experience a conscious existence either in a place of bliss or a place of torment. This is based significantly on the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus that Jesus tells in Luke 16.19-31. After death, Lazarus finds himself in a place of comfort at “Abraham’s Bosom”, while the Rich Man is in Torment. Some find further support for this perspective in Luke 23.39-43, where Jesus tells the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.”

But what if the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is actually a parable (as the vast majority of New Testament scholars believe) rather than Jesus trying to give a sheet-sermon description of what happens after death? The point of the parable seems to be that our actions in this life influence our destination in the next life, and that once we have died, it is too late to change that destination.

Furthermore, should we equate “Paradise” from Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross with “Abraham’s Bosom” without explicit biblical teaching telling us that they are the same?

Finally, in some sense, doesn’t this view suggest that judgment has already happened as opposed to judgment being what happens when Jesus returns? It seems disingenuous to say that Lazarus and the Rich Man are awaiting judgment when they are already experiencing reward and punishment, respectively, as they await the formality of additional judgment.

  • Entrance Into Eternity–Heaven: This is the view that, at death, the faithful immediately enter into the presence of God and live with Him in heaven. Supporters of this perspective point to passages from Paul in Philippians 1.21-24 and 2 Corinthians 5.1-9, where he seems to say that it is better to be with the Lord than to continue living. But does Paul mean that this (being with the Lord) will happen immediately at death, or is he just looking forward to being with God in eternity, and he knows that death is, in a sense, the first step toward that?

Some proponents of this view believe it to be supported by the “thief on the cross” passage mentioned above (Luke 23.39-43), only in this view, “paradise” is “heaven.” But was Jesus really in heaven “today”—the same day He was crucified? Jesus was raised on the third day, and on that day, He told Mary Magdalene, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20.17). It doesn’t seem to me like Jesus went to heaven at death.

Furthermore, there is the passage in Revelation 6.9-10 where martyrs surround God’s throne crying out, “How long?” They are wondering how long evil will continue on earth; do they actually seem to be at peace? This seems to cut against the traditional idea.[5]

Plus, if the Hadean Realm perspective seems to cut against the notion that judgment occurs at the return of Jesus, this view, which places the faithful dead in heaven already, certainly does so.

  • Entrance Into Eternity–Soul Sleep: What if we’re only aware of the passing of time because we are living on earth? What if we die and for us it seems like we immediately enter judgment because we have no concept of time? Thousands of years pass on earth, but we have no knowledge go it? This view is largely based on the notion that in the Bible, death is frequently described as “sleep.” A good example of this comes from the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28.15, where the spirit of Samuel is summoned and he complains about being “awakened” from his rest.

But should “sleep” be taken literally here, or is this (and other places in Scripture employing the same terminology) simply a metaphor for death, and a suggestion that death brings about a rest from the toils of life here on earth?

Furthermore, what about Hebrews 12.1 and the great cloud of witnesses mentioned there? How can they witness what we are doing and cheer us on if they are asleep?

Ultimately, we can debate these back and forth.[6] As you have probably discerned, I am not entirely sure what I believe about this because I think there are problems with each perspective.

But here is the real point: regardless of what you believe about this, it is a “distraction” from the topic of this study on renewed eschatology in the sense that it’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about what happens when Jesus returns, not what happens in the time in between when you die and when Jesus returns. So we can debate these different views and have interesting discussions about them, but it really doesn’t have to do much with renewed eschatology.

Except…it is a good example of how distracted we have become from the actual Christian hope.

We have long talked about going to heaven when we die, but there is not even one passage in the Bible that talks about “going to heaven” after we die. The phrase “go to heaven” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Old or New Testaments in relation to death.[7] Not once. If that was what Christian hope was all about, don’t you think we’d find that in there somewhere?

There are passages that talk about getting to be “with Jesus” after death, and we have mentioned them above (Luke 23.42-32; Philippians 1.21-24; 2 Corinthians 5.6-9), but this really isn’t the focus of our hope.

The hope for Christians isn’t about life after death—a temporary condition until the Second Coming of Christ where, regardless of which view you take, we are, in some sense, with God and taken care of. Instead, the hope for Christians is about life after life after death—what happens when Jesus returns, we are resurrected and given new bodies, and live with God for eternity.[8]

So, why the change? If the Bible teaches that our hope is based on what happens when Jesus returns, why do we focus so much on what happens when we die?

I don’t know the answer to that question; there are probably several reasons. I do wonder, though: it has been nearly 2,000 years since the New Testament was written and these promises were made, and I wonder if we get tired of waiting. The return of Jesus can seem so uncertain and far off in the future, while death seems much closer and much more certain. Perhaps it is easier for us, impatient as we are, to focus on what happens to us at death than what happens when Jesus returns, and death is defeated.

And I do want to reassure you: whatever happens after death, whichever of the views above is the correct one, for those who die in Christ, we will be taken care of, and we will in some sense “be with the Lord.” We can rest assured of that. But that is just temporary. It is the intermediate state. It’s not what we hope for.

With these “distractions” out of the way, next time we can dive into Scripture, and begin looking at several passages that are generally used to “refute” the renewed earth perspective. When considered closely, I don’t think they do.


[1]As a reminder, NHNE is short for “New Heavens and New Earth.” Throughout this series, I will use “NHNE”, “New Heavens and New Earth”, “renewed eschatology”, and “renewed earth” interchangeably.

[2]This makes the church, and really, the crucifixion and atonement, a back-up plan. Those who subscribe to this position would disagree with the characterization I just used, but theologically, I think it is unavoidable.

[3]Wikipedia contributors, “Eschatology of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eschatology_of_Jehovah%27s_Witnesses&oldid=898880289 (accessed October 28, 2018).

[4]This discussion of the intermediate state is influenced by Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994): 589-98, and J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014): 227-37.

[5]In “Waiting With Us,” John Mark Hicks suggests that these saints, though in the presence of God, share with those of us on earth the lamenting over sin and injustice, and yearn for God’s redemption of all things. So, just because these martyrs are not entirely blissful does not mean the notion that the faithful enter into heaven upon death is incorrect.

[6]For an excellent overview of these different views, see Scott Elliott, “Where Do We Go When We Die.” Scott leans toward the “heaven” view, though rightly asserts that there isn’t enough biblical data for us to be dogmatic about it.

[7]Timothy Mackie and Jonathan Collins, When Heaven Meets Earth: A 12-Part Biblical Study on Heaven (Portland: The Bible Project, 2017). This resource is available for download on The Bible Project website here.

[8]For “Life after life after death” see N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 148-52.

A New Heaven & A New Earth: What the Bible Teaches about Eternity

Introduction

A major part of the hope that we have as Christians—a hope that gives us motivation to live faithfully—is that we trust that God will raise us from the dead and that we will live with Him for eternity. 

This should give us peace, confidence, purpose, and boldness.

But there are different ways of viewing what this eternity with God, this paradise, will look like. In fact, an entire branch of Christian theology called eschatology is devoted to the study of eternity and the end times.[1] I’d like to spend several blog posts talking about eschatology, and looking at what the Bible says about it. 

I want to warn you up front: this will be a very challenging study for some. The view that I am going to propose in this series of posts I will refer to as renewed eschatology or NHNE.[2] I believe this to be the biblical view, but it is not what I would call the typical view of eternity that most American Christians hold.

Before we get any further, I want to quickly give you two different perspectives to help frame what we are going to be talking about in this series. These are two different views of what the Bible is about and what our future looks like.

The first view, which I will call the spiritual heaven perspective, says that we live in a world that was created good but became tainted after Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden. Things are bad and broken and we are lost in our sin.

The Good News is that Jesus came to die for our sin and save us, so that when we die, we can forever leave this broken world (which is bound for fiery destruction) and enjoy a spiritual existence with God forever in heaven. The people that reject God will spend eternity in hell.

In the meantime, we are basically running out the clock, doing our best to survive in a broken world, waiting for Jesus to come rescue us, and hopefully, trying to help other people to be rescued as well. You might think of the Titanic going down: as Christians, we are in the lifeboats, going around trying to save people from drowning…but the ship is going down.



I think this is what much of the non-Christian world believes that Christians believe,[3] and furthermore, I think it actually is what many Christians believe. I believed it myself for a long time. In many ways, it is the traditional Christian perspective.[4]

The problem is, I don’t think the Bible actually teaches this. It certainly teaches parts of it: heaven and hell are real, judgment is real, Jesus came to save us, etc.—but the overall presentation of this view is not, in my opinion, what the Bible teaches.

(Some of you are thinking that I am nuts, and at this point, that is okay.)

The second view, the renewed earth perspective, also says that this world was created good as the dwelling place of people. Earth parallels heaven, the dwelling place of God (Genesis 1.1), and at the beginning, these two realms overlapped: God was able to dwell with people and walked in the Garden with them. But we sinned. The earth became tainted. Our close relationship with God was destroyed. Our sin separates us from God, forcing the close union of heaven and earth to be driven apart. Things are bad and broken, and we are lost in our sin. And more than that: our accumulated sin multiplies and continues to defile the earth—there is a sense in which we have created hell on earth with our cumulative rebellion against God.

The Good News is that God is not content to leave things this way. Jesus came to reconcile all of creation to Himself, including humanity, and to specifically confront the problem of sin. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus has brought about a new order of things, or as Paul says, “new creation.” One day Jesus will return and sin, Satan, and death will be fully defeated, the entire cosmos will be made over into a “New Heaven and New Earth”—a unified whole—and God will dwell with His people forever, while those who reject Him will be separated from Him forever.[5]

In the meantime, rather than running out the clock, waiting to be rescued, or even frantically rowing around in our lifeboat picking up survivors while the world sinks around us, we are actively involved as citizens of God’s kingdom and agents of new creation in taking back the world that rightly belongs to God and inviting others to join us in that project. We do this by living according to the principles that Jesus lays out for His followers, and seeking to counteract the effects of sin in our world.

Now, these two views share a lot of terms and concepts, but when you look at them as a whole, they are two very different perspectives on the story the Bible is telling, and what eternity will look like.

Background of this Study

Over the last couple of years, I have seen more and more discussions about eschatology in the Christian blogosphere and in various Facebook groups, and, honestly, I have been concerned at times by the tone I have witnessed in some of those discussions (where those who hold to renewed eschatology are written off as false teachers or heretics) as well as the general level of ignorance (where some who have sought to refute the NHNE perspective reveal that they don’t actually understand it at all). Perhaps this series of posts will add something constructive to those conversations, but really, I did not write all of this material in response to the recent interest that I have observed about this topic.

Actually, this topic is one that I have been personally wrestling with for about ten years. When I first heard the renewed earth perspective, I was in graduate school and, well, I thought it was crazy. I had several immediate objections based on some specific passages of Scripture, and I wondered if my professor had ever read them! But, as it turned out, my teacher had read the Bible (more thoughtfully than I had), and had answers to my objections.

Time passed and I continued to read and study, and this idea of God redeeming and renewing all of creation at the return of Jesus continued to pop up over and over. I realized that a lot of respected biblical scholars held to this view, and I also came to realize that this wasn’t a “new” interpretation, but actually a very old one, and one that had also been held by my ancestors in the Restoration Movement. I gradually came to think, “This isn’t so crazy…I can see it either way.”[6]

Later, I began to study some of the specific passages that I used to think refuted the renewed earth view, but I realized that when I studied them in context and did the linguistic and historical legwork, they actually seemed to argue against the spiritual heaven (“traditional”) view rather than for it. I grudgingly thought, “Well, this renewed eschatology view seems more biblically accurate to me, but I’m not sure it really matters that much.”

Eventually, at the church where I worked, we started this project called The Story of the Bible. This was a long Bible survey study for our adult Bible classes using videos from The Bible Project as a companion resource. As I had never done before, I sat down and studied the Bible, writing dozens of lessons (and editing dozens more) about different biblical books and drawing main ideas from them. When we started that project, I had zero intention of teaching a different view on eternity (or really, emphasizing anything related to eternity) but as we studied, this idea of God redeeming all of creation just hit us over and over again…because this is what the Story of the Bible is about.

As we went through this study in our adult classes, it became clear to me that our church leadership needed to discuss eschatology (and specifically, the renewed earth perspective) more, so I went to our Elders and they agreed. We had a great study together for several weeks and wrestled with a lot of Scripture and talked back and forth and challenged one another. By the end of the study, they no longer thought I was crazy (I think a couple of them did when we started!), and they wanted me to teach an adult Bible class specifically on renewed eschatology. And that class is the source of the material you are reading now.

Goals for this Series

I believe that Scripture teaches that when Jesus returns, the cosmos will be renewed and redeemed and that the faithful will live with God eternally in a New Heaven and a New Earth. If, at the end of this series, you agree with me—great! But that is not my primary goal for this series.

Instead, here are my goals:

First, I want to look at what the Bible teaches about eternity with an open mind. This will be very difficult for some, and I get that—this material was very challenging for me when I was first exposed to it. I am stubborn and I give up the positions I hold with great reluctance; as I mentioned previously, I have been wrestling with this for ten years. 

Ultimately, I don’t ask that you agree with me, but I do ask that you have an open mind and honestly consider what we discuss. Read the biblical passages that are mentioned. Look at the extra material I link to that lays out certain arguments in greater detail. If you want to respond to something that I say (and I welcome that!), make arguments based on Scripture, not on tradition. Ultimately, what I am going to present in this series of posts is correct or incorrect based on whether or not it lines up with what the Bible teaches. With that in mind, counter-arguments to what I am presenting that start with, “I always thought…” or “I’ve always heard that…” aren’t the best.

Second, I want to provide an opportunity for us to challenge ourselves. Some of the ideas that we’re going to discuss will be challenging. It will require looking at certain passages very carefully and learning some things about Greek, about history, and about textual criticism.

From my perspective, we have decades and decades of confusion and misinterpretations that we have to peel back to see what the Bible teaches on this subject, and that is going to require hard work. I will do my best to make everything as understandable as possible, but I am sure that I will not be as clear sometimes as I would like to be. Having said that, if you feel like some of this material is difficult, that’s okay, because it is supposed to be.

I’m not sure where we got the idea that we can become mature Christians by never challenging ourselves to dig deeper into God’s word, but it’s not true. 

Finally, at the end of this study, I want us to respect one another regardless of which conclusion we come to. I think this is an important topic, and at the end of all this, I will explain why I think it matters, but ultimately, understanding how eternity works is not necessary for you to enjoy it. Getting this right or wrong is not a “salvation issue” (I dislike that terminology), although I would argue that you will appreciate and anticipate your salvation more if you hold to the view that I am going to teach in this series.

I mentioned earlier that I have witnessed some unfortunate conversations over the last couple of years where people who hold to renewed eschatology are branded as false teachers. I would find that to be laughable if writing someone off as a false teacher was not such a serious act—one that Scripture doesn’t take lightly. Suffice it to say, if at the end of all this you arrive at a different conclusion than I do, I will still respect you for it; I hope you can reciprocate that feeling.

What does the Bible teach about eternity? I hope you’ll join us as we seek to answer that question.


[1]The Greek word εσχατος means “last”, so literally, “eschatology” refers to the study of the last things.

[2]Short for “New Heavens and New Earth.” Throughout this series, I will use “NHNE”, “New Heavens and New Earth”, “renewed eschatology”, and “renewed earth” interchangeably. 

[3]I think many non-Christians also fundamentally misunderstand the notion of God’s grace, and think Christians believe that we get to heaven by being “good enough”. To be fair, many Christians misunderstand this as well!

[4]I really hesitate to concede the term “traditional” to refer to this view, because as we will see later, the alternative view—renewed eschatology—has a long and storied place in the historical Christian tradition. But nevertheless, the spiritual heaven perspective has been the dominant view among evangelical and fundamentalist churches (and certainly churches of Christ as well) for as long as any of us have been alive.

[5]Much of the language in this description is drawn from Timothy Mackie and Jonathan Collins, When Heaven Meets Earth: A 12-Part Biblical Study on Heaven (Portland: The Bible Project, 2017). This resource is available for download on The Bible Project website here.

[6]I will have a post later focusing specifically on this, but as many readers of this blog know, I am deeply interested in the history of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, and seeing that many of my spiritual forebears believed in renewed eschatology was very significant to me.

Serving God Without Hope of Reward: The Example of Josiah

A while back, I wrote a research paper on King Josiah, and ever since then he has been one of my favorite biblical characters.

Josiah came to power in the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 640 BC. This is a long time after the time of David and Solomon: the kingdom had been divided for almost 300 years, the Northern Kingdom of Israel has already been conquered by Assyria, and the Southern kingdom isn’t too far behind—a long series of mostly unfaithful kings (including Josiah’s father, Amon) have led Judah away from God, and before long, Babylon will begin to conquer them.

This is the situation when Josiah comes to power at the age of 8. Even though he’s young, and even though he had a wicked father, the Bible tells us in 2 Kings 2.22 that Josiah was a good and faithful king:

“He did right in the sight of the LORD and walked in all the way of his father David, nor did he turn aside to the right or to the left.”

According to 2 Kings 22, in the 18th year of his reign, Josiah begins a project to repair and restore the Temple, and during the construction project, the book of the law is found. Scholars and commentators disagree on exactly what this means, but basically, the Law of Moses has been found—either the entire Torah (the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy), or at the very least, the Book of Deuteronomy on its own. Either way, what this means is that the Law of Moses—the record of the covenant that God made with His people and the laws He gave them to follow—has been found and is read to King Josiah for the first time. It shows just how bad things had gotten under Josiah’s wicked father that Josiah apparently hadn’t been exposed to the Torah before now!

A covenant is an agreement or a promise made between two parties. To put it simply, in God’s covenant with the Israelites, God promised to be their God and protect them, and in return, the people were to be faithful and obedient to His commands. When Josiah hears the words of the Law, he tears his clothes because he realizes just how unfaithful Judah has been—they haven’t followed the commands of the Law of Moses, and they’ve worshipped gods other than Yahweh. In short, they haven’t kept up their part of the bargain.

So Josiah sends to Huldah the prophetess to inquire of the LORD—what does God say about the situation? Huldah responds in 2 Kings 22.15-20, but it isn’t good news:

“‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the LORD, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.

But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD.

Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.’’

And they brought back word to the king.”

So basically, God says that for all their wickedness, the people of Judah will be punished, but because Josiah humbled himself before God, he won’t have to witness the destruction of his country and will die before it happens.

Put yourself in the place of Josiah: what do you do next? No matter what you do, it’s too late for Judah and they’re going to be punished for their past sins after you die. It seems like whatever you do doesn’t matter, because the same negative consequence will happen either way. This is Josiah’s situation; what will he do next?

And this is why Josiah is one of my favorite Bible characters, and why he is such a good example for us: even when he knows that there’s no reward coming his way, he still does the right thing because of his devotion to God.

In 2 Kings 23, Josiah goes out and reads the Book of the Law in front of all the people and along with them, reestablishes the covenant with God. Then, he sets about in a systematic way to make things right. He goes throughout Judah and even into the northern territory of Israel and does away with unauthorized worship practices, destroying idols and pagan altars and getting rid of idolatrous priests. He removes the mediums and spiritists from the land as well, and also re-institutes the Passover feast:

“For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.”

Josiah does all of this despite the knowledge that Judah is going to be punished no matter what, and sure enough, after Josiah is killed in a battle against Egypt, Judah is quickly overthrown.

•    •    •

Josiah’s life underscores how important it is to serve God because we love Him, not because we’re hoping to get something for doing so. I think a lot of times people get the idea that as Christians, we spend our lives doing good things for God and that He then pays us back by granting us eternal life.

To be clear, the Bible does speak of eternal life as a reward and the hope of living eternally in God’s presence should help to motivate us to keep going, especially when times get rough. But if the only reason you’re serving God is so He’ll pay you back with eternal life, then you really have the wrong perspective on things. Serving God will seem like a chore and, before long, you’ll fool yourself into thinking that God owes you something, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Abortion: A Lament and a Remembrance of the Faithfulness of God

It’s been 40 years since abortion became legal in this country. The legacy of that decision is beyond heart-breaking—there have been approximately 55 million abortions in the U.S. over the last four decades, and in our greatest city, 40% of all pregnancies end in abortion.
This is incredibly depressing stuff to me, as it represents the chilling disregard for life that we have developed in our culture. But last night, as I was thinking about it, something else dawned on me for the first time:

A sizable contingent of those who will dwell for eternity with God in the new heavens and new earth will be those who never experienced this earth in the first place.*

As Christians, that should not diminish our abhorrence for the premeditated destruction of unborn infants, but it should provide us with hope and comfort.

Blessed be our God, who provides for His children!

*Remember, the 55 million are just babies aborted in this country over the last 40 years. World-wide, that figure is much, much higher.

© 2020 The Doc File

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑