Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt
My economist friend recently commented that while he certainly believed that we were called as Christians to care for the earth, this was somewhat akin to polishing the Titanic (apologies for any liberties my paraphrase took with the actual comment). At some time in the future God is going to do away with the earth and create something new in its place that will be perfect and not subject to the death, decay and problems that we face, in a word “heaven”. This way of thinking about the earth, creation care and heaven is often prevalent among Christians. So it prompted me to try and sum up why I believe that creation care matters for eternity and why this attitude toward the planet is dangerous spiritually and environmentally.
I owe a lot of my thinking on this subject to two gentlemen named Wright (though not brothers and not involved in aviation), Christopher Wright, who wrote an excellent book called The Mission of God, and N.T. Wright, who (even though he seems to write books as often as Roger Olson) wrote a small article for The Green Bible called “Jesus is Coming–Plant a Tree!” (I did find a couple articles online that touch on some of N.T. Wright’s points in the aforementioned article from which I quote.) Certainly other scholars have written a lot on this subject, perhaps some better than either Wright I mentioned. These happen to be the two that influenced me.
There are three questions that frame how we understand this issue: 1) What does the Bible say about the earth? 2) What does the Bible say about heaven? and 3)What does the Bible say about the relationship between heaven and earth?
What On Earth?
The first and most obvious thing is that the creation is “good.” Although brokenness enters the picture when Adam and Eve trust the serpent instead of God, there is no declaration that now creation is “bad”. In Genesis 3:17-19 God tells Adam that the ground is cursed because of him and that “through painful toil you will eat of it” revealing that creation and humanity’s relationship to it are affected by this brokenness. The fact that creation is affected by (or maybe participates in) the brokenness of sin is important to remember when we read Paul’s words to the Corinthians that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor 5:19). Lest we think that by this Paul meant that God reconciled all of the atomistic individuals in the world (which he certainly did), he goes cosmic in what N.T. Wright considers the apex of Romans.
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:19-22)
This passage clearly refers to nature (in contrast to human beings) being involved in the work of redemption through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It might help to think about what the work of redemption means for human beings as we are transformed into “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). While there is a transformation that takes place in which we can contrast the “old person” from this “new creation”, the newness is not completely discontinuous with the old. We maintain our unique identities even though our relationships are also transformed (Lk 20:2740). If the creation is also involved in Christ’s work of redemption, why wouldn’t it also be transformed in a similar manner? The “new heavens and new earth” envisioned by Isaiah and later picked up by John’s Apocalypse (Isaiah 65; Revelation 21) are not necessarily discontinuous with the earth that we know today. Nothing in the text demands that this be the case. On the contrary, as we will see, there is evidence that the vision of the future kingdom is one that is intimately connected to this earth.
Since I won’t have access to the internet soon, I will stretch this into a four part series.
Next… Heaven Help Us
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