A couple days ago Scot McKnight (New Testament scholar; prolific author and blogger) posted a review of my book, A New Heaven and a New Earth. This generated a number of comments, some of which seemed to misunderstand what I was saying, so I responded with clarifications. I then got further questions, and I responded again. I’ve highlighted below some of my responses, for those interested.
The Motive for Ethical Living Today
One commenter wondered whether “new heavens and new earth eschatology should be a motive and basis for caring for creation and culture,” since there are people without this eschatology who are, in fact, concerned for this world.
This is how I responded:
I am basically a Wesleyan in orientation. This means that it isn’t some abstract concept of the eschaton that motivates me to care about this world. Rather, as one who passionately desires to be conformed to God’s image and thus to manifest what Wesley called “social holiness” in my life of discipleship, I want to love what God loves.
So I understand the promise of the renewal of creation, which began with Christ’s resurrection, and which can be a reality in the life of the church, to signify the heart of God.
My motivation to love the world (human and non-human) with God’s love, empowered by Christ’s Spirit, and thus manifest the imago Dei, is grounded in God’s unswerving commitment to humanity and creation after sin (see Genesis 9), and to Israel after the idolatry of the Golden Calf (see Exodus 34), and to the disciples after their abandonment of Jesus (and I could keep adding to that pattern, which recurs throughout Scripture), which culminates with the new heaven and new earth or the reconciliation of all things through Christ.
Have Christians Throughout History Always Thought of “Heaven” as Otherworldly?
On of the points that Scot McKnight himself raised in the review is that it is inaccurate to characterize all Christian speculation about the afterlife as otherworldly.
I wanted to comment on your point that the history of eschatology suggests that not all Christian visions of the afterlife have consisted in an otherworldly, ethereal “heaven.” You’re absolutely right there, as I think my survey of eschatology (in the Appendix to my book) verifies.
However, you seem to be claiming more than I do, namely that it has been somewhat common for Christians to envision a new heaven and new earth as the final state (and you mention the history of heaven book by McDannell and Lang). I’m not sure I agree. Or, at least, it may be that I interpret the same data differently.
Part of the issue is that it has been typical to envision “heaven” in concrete earthly terms, while believing that it is some sort of hyper (non-earthly) reality. This is analogous to the point Caroline Walker Bynum makes in her book, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336. She notes that despite the influence of Platonism on Christian visions of the afterlife, the impact of the biblical teaching of the resurrection of the body led even those Christians who shunned a physical vision of the eschaton to conceive of immaterial “bodies” (whatever that means). Likewise, it seems to me that many have transferred concrete elements of the known world to the afterlife, even when the final reality is thought of as immaterial.
Beyond that, however, many Christians (especially in modern times) have envisioned the afterlife as a perfect replica of this world, without thinking of of it as the redemption of this world. Rather, what is envisioned is another, better world. To me, this difference is crucial, since it is the renewal of this world that articulates the vision I am interested in (even a replacement cosmos won’t do).
How Often Does the Bible Speak of New Creation?
One of the points McKnight made is that only Isaiah and Revelation speak of “a new heaven and a new earth,” so we shouldn’t think that this theme is all that common in the Bible. I was not the only person who responded to this point. One respondent pointed out the transformation of the cosmos mentioned in Hebrews 1 and 12, and in Romans 8.
So I joined the discussion:
I would agree that Isaiah 65:17-25 (also 66:22) and Revelation 21:1 aren’t the only places in Scripture that address the new creation. Beyond these two texts that explicitly use the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth,” there is 2 Peter 3:13.
But, of course, as you intimate, new creation is addressed in many more places in the Bible than where the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth” appears.
In the book, I address some of the clearest New Testament texts, such as Acts 3:21 (the restoration of “all things”), Ephesians 1:10 (the gathering up of “all things” in Christ), Colossians 1:20 (the reconciliation of “all things” in Christ), and Romans 8 (the liberation of creation itself from its bondage to decay, so that it might experience the same glory as the children of God). Both the Ephesians and Colossian texts specify “all things” as all things in heaven and on earth, thereby alluding to the cosmos God made in the beginning (when God created “the heaven and the earth”).
But many other texts also address the same reality, using different language. I actually address the text in Hebrews that speaks of the “changing” of the cosmos (parallel to Paul talking about being changed and clothed with the resurrection body, like a new suit of clothes, in 1 Corinthians 15:50-54).
So I think the theme of new creation is much broader than the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth.” Part of the thrust of my book is to show this pervasiveness, which is not limited to specific lexical items. The book is thus an attempt at a biblical theology of the eschaton, where the eschaton is the logical unfolding and natural telos of God’s purposes from the beginning for the flourishing of the world he made.
Richard, your final paragraph above is spot on. The trajectory you point out in your book is not only on evidence in specific biblical texts, but is implicit in some of the most foundational theological assumptions of the Christian church: the triunity and creativity of God, the contingency and plasticity of the created order, and the human person in the image of God as priest of creation.
And I’d have to say that your own book, Persons, Powers, and Pluralities: Toward A Trinitarian Theology of Culture (2011), is a brilliant theological exploration of this topic, as is the wonderful article on contextualization and improvisation that you contributed to A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology (2013), the book I edited with Garnett Roper.