Whatever Happened to the New Earth?
J. Richard Middleton
My book, A New Heaven and a New Earth, has been a long time coming.
I wrote it over the last few years. But I’ve been working on it most of my life.
I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, and enjoyed the beautiful Caribbean Sea ever since I was a toddler. But it wasn’t until I was nineteen that I began to go on hiking trips to Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point on the island.
On one such trip, I watched a breathtaking sunrise at seven and a half thousand feet above sea level. After some minutes of silence, my friend Junior commented wistfully, “This is so beautiful; it’s such a shame that it will all be destroyed some day.” I still remember the dawning awareness: I don’t think it will be. It did not make sense to me that the beauty and wonder of earthly life, which I was coming to embrace joyfully as part of my growing Christian faith, could be disconnected from God’s ultimate purposes of salvation.
This basic intuition or theological insight was confirmed by my study of Scripture during my undergraduate studies at Jamaica Theological Seminary.
Most contemporary Christians tend to live with an unresolved tension between a belief in the resurrection of the body and an immaterial heaven as final destiny. Many also have in the back of their minds the idea of the new heaven and new earth (from the book of Revelation), though they aren’t quite sure what to do with it.
I myself started my theological studies with this very confusion. But as I took courses in both Old and New Testaments and tried to understand the nature of God’s salvation as portrayed in the various biblical writings, it became increasingly clear that the God who created the world “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and who became incarnate in Jesus Christ as a real human being, had affirmed by these very acts the value of the material universe and the validity of ordinary, earthly life.
More than that, I came to realize that the Scriptures explicitly teach that God is committed to reclaiming creation (human and nonhuman) in order to bring it to its authentic and glorious destiny, a destiny that human sin had blocked.
It was during my junior year of theological studies that I came to the startling realization that the Bible nowhere claims that “heaven” is the final home of the redeemed. While there are many New Testament texts that Christians often read as if they teach a heavenly destiny, the texts do not actually say this. Rather, the Bible consistently anticipates the redemption of the entire created order, a motif that fits very well with the Christian hope of the resurrection—which Paul calls “the redemption of the body” (Romans 8:23).
It was after this startling realization that I first challenged an adult Sunday School class I was teaching at Grace Missionary Church (my home church in Jamaica) to find even one passage in the New Testament that clearly said that Christians would live in heaven forever or that heaven was the final home of the righteous.
I even offered a monetary reward if anyone could find such a text. I have been making this offer now for my entire adult life to church and campus ministry study groups and in many of the courses I have taught; I am happy to report that I still have all my money. No one has ever produced such a text, because there simply aren’t any in the Bible.
The Bible’s Best-Kept Secret
After my theological studies in Jamaica I moved to Canada to pursue graduate studies. During this time I coauthored a book with my friend Brian Walsh on developing a Christian worldview entitled The Transforming Vision. This book not only advocated a holistic worldview, without a sacred/secular split, it also explicitly grounded this worldview in the biblical teaching of the redemption of creation, including both the physical cosmos and human culture and society.
After writing The Transforming Vision together, Brian and I teamed up some ten years later to address the implications of this same holistic vision for postmodern culture in Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, which, like the former book, combined biblical studies with cultural analysis.
Since that time the focus of my research has shifted more and more toward biblical studies, particularly Old Testament, the primary academic field in which I teach and write. In all my teaching and writing the consistent background assumption has been the same basic vision of holistic salvation that I have been working with since my undergraduate days in Jamaica—though in recent years I have been able to flesh this out in much more detail.
This holistic vision of God’s intent to renew or redeem creation is perhaps the Bible’s best-kept secret, typically unknown to most church members and even to many clergy, no matter what their theological stripe.
Having had to explain that the Bible envisions a new earth as the final destiny of the redeemed in many different settings and to different audiences, I finally decided to write an article that would marshal the central biblical evidence (as I understood it) for a holistic understanding of salvation, with a focus on eschatology. The article, entitled “A New Heaven and a New Earth,” was published in 2006.
The Time Is Ripe
Soon after its publication Rodney Clapp, who was then senior editor of Brazos Press/Baker Academic, suggested that I turn the article into a book. “The time is ripe,” he said, over a spicy dinner of Thai food, for an accessible and clear book-length statement of holistic eschatology. This book is my attempt to respond to Rodney’s eschatological-sounding challenge.
Whereas earlier centuries have attempted to clarify theological topics such as the incarnation, the Trinity, or justification by faith, the twentieth century has seen more intense focus on eschatology than ever before. Yet much of this eschatological reflection has been confused and inchoate, conflating an unbiblical impetus to transcend earthly life with the biblical affirmation of earthly life. This is true among both professional theologians and church members, and also among Christians of differing theological traditions.
The time is ripe, therefore, for a clearly articulated Christian eschatology rooted in responsible exegesis of Scripture, which is also attuned to the theological claims and ethical implications of the Bible’s vision of salvation. This eschatology will also need to be serviceable for the church, pointing the way toward faithful living in the here and now.
This book is one small contribution toward such an eschatology. Its primary purpose is to clarify how New Testament eschatology, rather than being a speculative add-on to the Bible, actually coheres with, and is the logical outworking of, the consistently holistic theology of the entirety of Scripture. It is the primary purpose of this book to sketch the coherent biblical theology (beginning in the Old Testament) that culminates in the New Testament’s explicit eschatological vision of the redemption of creation.
Along the way the book also explores some of the ethical implications of holistic eschatology for our present life in God’s world. And it investigates what happened to the biblical vision of the redemption of the earth in the history of Christian eschatology, tracing the loss of this vision and its partial recovery in recent times.
J. Richard Middleton (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, NY. He is the author of The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005), and (with Brian Walsh) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (IVP, 1984) and Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP, 1995). He has written articles on the music of Bob Marley, creation theology in the Old Testament, the problem of suffering, and the dynamics of human and divine power in biblical narratives. His blog on biblical theology is entitled “Creation to Eschaton” (jrichardmiddleton.wordpress.com), which suggests the range of his interests.
For more information on A New Heaven and a New Earth, click here.