The Bible’s Best Kept Secret

I remember once, on a climbing trip to Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point on the island of Jamaica, watching 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.

Tracking a Worldview Shift

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 non-human) in order to bring it to its authentic and glorious destiny, a destiny that human sin had blocked.

It was especially the writings of New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd who most helpfully clarified for me the interconnectedness of what the Bible taught on the redemption of creation, and he explicitly contrasted this teaching with the unbiblical idea of being taken out of this world to heaven. Ladd’s work on biblical theology prompted me to do my own investigation of the theme of the kingdom of God in the Bible in relation to what we euphemistically call the “afterlife,” to see what role there was for heaven and/or earth in God’s ultimate purposes.

As a result of this investigation, while still an undergraduate student, 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 (in Canada, the U.S., and Jamaica); 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 Vision of Cosmic Redemption

Central to the way the New Testament conceives the final destiny of the world is Jesus’ prediction (in Matthew 19:28) of a “regeneration” (KJV, NIV) that is coming; Matthew here uses the Greek word palingenesia, which both TNIV and NRSV translate as “the renewal of all things,” correctly getting at the sense of cosmic expectation in Jesus’ prediction.

Likewise, we have Peter’s explicit proclamation of the “restoration [apokatástasis] of all things” (in Acts 3:21), which does in fact contain the Greek for “all things.”

When we turn to the epistles, we find God’s intent to reconcile “all things” to himself through Christ articulated in Colossians 1:20, while Ephesians 1:20 speaks of God’s desire to unify or bring together “all things” in Christ. In these two Pauline texts, the phrase “all things” (tà pánta) is immediately specified as things in heaven and things on earth. Since “heaven and earth” is precisely how Genesis 1:1 describes the world God created, this New Testament language designates a vision of cosmic redemption.

This cosmic vision underlies the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth” found in both Revelation 21:1 and 2 Peter 3:13. The specific origin of the phrase, however, is the prophetic oracle of Isaiah 65:17 (and 66:22), which envisions a healed world with a redeemed community in rebuilt Jerusalem, where life is restored to flourishing and shalom after the devastation of the Babylonian exile. The this-worldly prophetic expectation in Isaiah is universalized to the entire cosmos and human society generally in late Second Temple Judaism and in the New Testament.

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.

The Logic of Redemption in the Bible

While this is not the place for a full exposition of the biblical teaching about the redemption of the cosmos, some clarification may be in order. It is particularly helpful to trace the roots of the New Testament vision in the Old Testament, in order to understand the inner logic of the idea.

A good starting point is that the Old Testament does not place any substantial hope in the afterlife; the dead do not have access to God in the grave or Sheol. Rather, God’s purposes for blessing and shalom are expected for the faithful in this life, in the midst of history. This perspective is grounded, theologically, in the biblical teaching about the goodness of creation, including earthly existence. God pronounced all creation (including materiality) good—indeed “very good” (Genesis 1:31)—and gave humanity the task to rule and develop this world as stewards made in the divine image (Genesis 1:26-28; Genesis 2:15; Psalm 8:5-8).

The affirmation of earthly life is further articulated in the central and paradigmatic act of God’s salvation in the Old Testament, the exodus from Egyptian bondage. Not only does Israel’s memory of this event testify to a God who intervenes in history in response to injustice and suffering, but the exodus is manifestly a case of sociopolitical deliverance, whose fulfillment is attained when the redeemed are settled in a bountiful land and are restored to wholeness and flourishing as a community living according to God’s Torah.

Indeed, the entire Old Testament reveals an interest in mundane matters such as the development of languages and cultures, the fertility of land and crops, the birth of children and stable family life, justice among neighbors, and peace in international relations. The Old Testament does not spiritualize salvation but understands it as God’s deliverance of people and land from all that destroys life and the consequent restoration of people and land to flourishing. And while God’s salvific purpose narrows for a while to one elect nation in their own land, this “initially exclusive move” is, as Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim puts it, in the service of “a maximally inclusive end,” the redemption of all nations and ultimately the entire created order.

Although the Old Testament initially did not envision any sort of positive afterlife, things begin to shift in some late texts. Thus in Ezekiel’s famous vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) the restoration of Israel is portrayed using the metaphor of resurrection, after the “death” they suffered in Babylonian exile. But this is arguably still a metaphor, not an expectation of what we would call resurrection.

Then, a proto-apocalyptic text like Isaiah 25:6-8 envisions the literal conquest of death itself at the messianic banquet on Mt. Zion (where God will serve the redeemed the best meat and the most aged wines); this text anticipates the day when YHWH will “swallow up death forever” (cited in 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54) and “wipe away all tears” (echoed in Revelation 21:4).

But the most explicit Old Testament text on the topic of resurrection is the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 12:2-3, which promises that faithful martyrs will awaken from the dust of the earth (to which we all return at death, according to Genesis 3:19) to attain “eternal life.”

It is important to note that this developing vision of the afterlife has nothing to do with “heaven hereafter”; the expectation is manifestly this-worldly, meant to guarantee for the faithful the earthly promises of shalom that death had cut short.

The Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 3 is particularly helpful here. This text (which is in the Septuagint, though not in the Protestant canon) specifically associates “immortality” with reigning on earth (Wisdom 3:1-9, esp. 7-8); that is, resurrection is a reversal of the earthly situation of oppression (the domination of the righteous martyrs by the wicked, which led to their death) and thus is the fulfillment of the original human dignity and status in Genesis 1:26-28 and Psalm 8:4-8, where humans are granted rule of the earth.

These ancient Jewish expectations provide a coherent theological background for Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which he construed as “good news” for the poor and release for captives (Luke 4), and which he embodied in healings, exorcisms, and the forgiveness of sins (all ways in which the distortion of life was being reversed).

These expectations also make sense of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that the meek would “inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5) and later in Matthew that “at the renewal of all things” the disciples would reign and judge with him on thrones (Matthew 19:27-30).

Paul’s description of Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead as the “firstfruits” of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20) signifies that the harvest of new creation has begun, the expected reversal of sin and death is inaugurated. This reversal would be consummated when Christ returns in glory climactically to defeat evil and all that opposes God’s intent for life and shalom on earth (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). Then, in the words of Revelation 11, “the kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Revelation 11:15). At that time, explains Paul, creation itself, which has been groaning in its bondage to decay, will be liberated from this bondage into the same glory God’s children will experience (Romans 8:19-22).

The inner logic of this vision of holistic salvation is that the creator has not given up on creation, but is working to salvage and restore the world (human and non-human) to the fullness of shalom and flourishing intended from the beginning. And redeemed human beings, renewed in God’s image, are to work towards and embody this vision in their daily lives.

In a follow-up post (“Singing Lies in Church”) I examine how the hymns of the church have contributed to an other-worldly hope.

10 thoughts on “The Bible’s Best Kept Secret

  1. I follow your logic here but want to know if those who have already died will have eternal life. Is the new heaven and the new earth only something that is going to happen at a certain point in history affecting only the then current generation and future generations, or will those who have already died be resurrected to this new heaven and new earth.

    • Hi Phil, I like your statement: that you “want to know.” There’s a lot I also would like to know about the future, but I have recourse only to the same Bible you do. The logic of Scripture is that resurrection is promised to all the faithful who have died (I think that’s implied in the analysis of the blog post above). According to 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, at Christ’s coming the dead shall be raised and the living will be “changed” (presumably without undergoing death).

      I hope that helps. 🙂

      • Hi Dr. Middleton.
        How do the passages like 2 Peter 3:7-11, which speak of the heavens and the earth being destroyed by fire, fit in to your eschatology? In my current thinking I see God as wiping this present material reality out -“destruction of the heavens by fire,” and the “elements will melt in the heat.” After which He will recreate a new heaven and earth 3:13. I want to know if this means God will reconstitute the present material reality or will he create again ex nihilo?

      • Hi Kerry, I have two extended sections in my eschatology book on 2 Peter 3, since it is such an important text. I am considering posting an analysis of this text on my blog. For the time being, however, two points should be kept in mind. First, while the heavens will be subject to fire in 2 Peter 3, the earth isn’t (instead the earth will be “found,” to translate the word literally). Second, it is important not to read the modern scientific idea of “elements” into the word “stoicheia,” since this word is typically translated as “elemental spirits” (that is, demonic forces in the heavens). So, basically the text is referring to God’s judgment on the principalities and powers, which paves the way for the judgment/cleansing of the earth (note the analogy of the flood, and the phrase “the destruction of the ungodly”). There is actually no precedent in Second Temple Judaism for the idea of the obliteration of the cosmos and its replacement.

  2. Interesting! I always thought that we catch a glimpse of this “heaven” in our daily lives. Didn’t Paul say that we “see through a glass darkly”?

  3. Your story at the beginning was always one of my favorites that you have repeated in many of your classes at Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary. Thank you for the great work you are doing to uncover this “secret” that really changes how we look at scripture, view salvation, and what to expect when the Kingdom of God is fully ushered in. I cannot wait!

    • Thanks, Dan. One of the pieces of that story that I don’t think I’ve ever told is that I actually brought typed copies of various creation psalms (this is before computers) to read on that hiking trip (I didn’t want to carry a heavy Bible, since we were hauling our food and bedding, etc.). So my consciousness had been soaking in Psalms 8, 19, 29, 96, 97, 104, 148, etc.

  4. Pingback: Singing Lies in Church | CREATION to ESCHATON

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