Creation, Violence, and the God of the Old Testament (Google Hangout Interview)

On May 13, I will be participating in a Google Hangout interview on the topic of “Creation, Violence, and the God of the Old Testament.”

Matthew Lynch of the Westminster Theological Center in the UK will interview both me and  William Brown (Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary) on our previous writings on creation. Brown is an excellent biblical scholar who has published numerous books on aspects of OT creation theology and most recently has written Wisdom’s Wonder: Character, Creation, and Crisis in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature (Eerdmans, 2014). I expect that the interview will interact with my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005).

This is how the Westminster Theological Center describes the interview on their website:

In this event, Matt will discuss this subject with two of his favourite OT scholars, J. Richard Middleton and William P. Brown. Creation and the question of violence occupy an important place in the work of these OT gurus. Plus, they’ve both just come out with some fantastic new books that you’ll want to read to help you navigate these topics and open up new worlds. Middleton’s book is A New Heaven and A New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker, 2014) and Brown’s is Wisdom’s Wonder: Character, Creation, and Crisis in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature (Eerdmans, 2014).

The time frame for the interview is 3:00 – 4:00 PM EST (8:00 – 9:00 PM UK time) and you can watch the interview online as it happens or you can watch it later on You Tube.

You can even send in your own questions for either interviewee by Twitter or by emailing Matt Lynch in advance (deanofstudies@wtctheology.org.uk).

Plus, the organizers (the Westminster Theological Center) have stated that you can enter to win a copy of either my eschatology book A New Heaven and a New Earth or William Brown’s book Wisdom’s Wonder by retweeting their original tweet about the interview.

On My Way Home from Jubilee 2015

On Saturday I uploaded a post in the Atlanta airport on my way to speak at Jubilee 2015 in Pittsburgh. Here I am a day later writing this post in the airport on my way home (though I am only posting now, after arriving back in Rochester).

I did have to clear a foot of snow off my driveway just to get into my garage (but enough about winter in Rochester already).

Restoration—The Destiny of God’s Good Creation

I gave my talk on “Restoration—The Destiny of God’s Good Creation” to a group of some 3,000 college students in the final plenary session of the conference Sunday morning. I was honored to have been invited to speak at Jubilee. I had attended the Jubilee conference once in the past when I was an IVCF campus minister, and I have always been impressed with the CCO, the campus ministry group based in Pittsburgh that has sponsored this conference for almost 40 years, helping college students learn how to worship God with their whole lives.

Speaking to a large group like this is always a strange experience, especially when I don’t actually know my audience (and the lights on the stage were so bright that I couldn’t see anyone beyond the front row). I much prefer the back-and-forth of dialogue that you get in a classroom with an interactive group. I love to help students actively process what they are learning; and I love the “aha” moment you sometime see in their eyes.

Nevertheless, I think I communicated what I set out to—the biblical emphasis on God’s love for creation, a love clearly displayed in God’s unswerving intent to redeem heaven and earth. My point was that we should love what God loves. So an understanding of biblical eschatology can lead us to care deeply about this world—both the natural world and the world of human culture and society—since God hasn’t given up on this world, but is in the business of restoring creation to its full glory.

Two Contrasting Views of the World

I opened my talk by contrasting two classic quotes, one by Dwight L. Moody (the prominent evangelist of the Third Great Awakening), the other by Abraham Kuyper (founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, past prime minister of the Netherlands), who introduced American Christians to the idea of a Christian worldview in his famous “Stone Lectures” at Princeton. Both were born the same year (1837).

In an 1877 sermon, Moody explained:

“I look on this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a life-boat, and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’”

This contrasts with what Kuyper said in an 1880 speech:

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign Lord of all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

The Comprehensive Scope of Salvation—Five Key Restoration Texts

This vivid contrast between viewing the world as a wrecked vessel, from which we must escape, or as Christ’s world, even after sin, set the stage for looking at five key New Testament texts that clearly articulate God’s intent to restore creation (click here for a chart).

  • Acts 3:17-21 – the restoration of all things, as foretold by the prophets (v. 21)
  • Ephesians 1:7-10 – the bringing together of all things in heaven and on earth (v. 10)
  • Colossians 1:16-20 – the reconciliation of all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through the blood of the cross (v. 20)
  • Romans 8:19-23 –the liberation of creation from its bondage to decay (v. 21); the redemption of the body (v. 23)
  • 2 Peter 3:10-13the “finding” of the earth after judgment (v. 10); the renewal of heaven and earth (v. 13)

The Biblical Plot—A Coherent Story of Restoration

After we looked at these five New Testament texts, I invited the audience to accompany me on a whirlwind tour of the biblical drama from creation to eschaton, tracing the basic plot structure of the Bible’s narrative (click here for a diagram). I sketched three levels of the biblical plot, beginning with the initial narrative sequence of creation.

  • Level I Creation—The Original Human Calling in God’s Creation
  • Level II Israel—The Mission of God’s OT People among the Nations
  • Level III Jesus—The Climax of a Series of God’s Redemptive Agents
  • Level II The Church—The Community of Jew and Gentle as God’s NT Redeemed People
  • Level I Eschaton—The Renewed Humanity in God’s New Creation

I wanted to show that there is a return to the original narrative sequence (creation) in the eschaton, so that our basic human calling to tend the earth and develop culture to God’s glory is renewed.

I probably tried to accomplish too much, since I combined two topics that I usually divide into two class sessions when I teach this material. The result was that I ended up going ten minutes over my allotted time of 25 minutes.

Toward the end I used this picture of Sean Purcell doodling a quote from my eschatology book.

A video of the talk is now posted on You Tube.

I ended the talk with the title of the conference: This Changes Everything!

You can find a two-minute video montage of the Jubilee 2015 conference here.

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.