09 May 2011

What is the final, permanent state of God's people?

First, what it isn't.

We tend to think of our future as Christians in terms of 'heaven,' by which we generally picture a disembodied, ghost-like, shadowy existence that is nice but boring. We think of this present life as our only chance to enjoy peach cobbler, a beautiful sunset, a game of basketball with the kids in the driveway, giving a friend a non-awkward hug, sleeping in, skiing, the beach, backrubs, the smell of a rose, and Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

We think: this world is our only shot at any joys that are experienced as embodied creatures. The next life will only be spiritual/disembodied pleasures, so this is our one shot at physically mediated joys.

Now it is true that our temporary state as believers will be a disembodied one, in the presence of the Lord, which is better by far (Phil 1). But this is an interim, less-than-ideal, not-the-ultimate-goal kind of existence. It will only last until Christ's second coming.

Second, what it is.

The final goal, the permanent state, is Eden restored, or new creation.

The immediate, temporary future after death is disembodied. The ultimate, permanent future is embodied. The final state is not the popular notion of heaven but the new heavens and the new earth--by which the biblical writers mean, this earth, restored.

We tend to think God created the world in Genesis 1–2, we screwed it up in Genesis 3, and God is tolerating the whole thing till one day when he scraps it all and brings us to heaven, leaving earth behind like a one-way space shuttle.

But the Bible--especially the final chapters of Isaiah and the final chapters of Revelation--describes our final destination as a restoration of creation. Creation regained, as Al Wolters puts it, and as our Dutch friends have been saying for so long. Taking us back to Genesis 1–2, only this time even better than the first time around. This is the great hope of the prophets, picked up in a myriad of ways both explicitly and implicitly by the NT writers. (Note also Ben Merkle's article in WTJ last year rightly arguing that the ones 'left behind' in Matt 24 and Luke 17 are the believers, not the unbelievers).

Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) said:
It would have been much simpler if God had destroyed the whole fallen world and replaced it with an entirely new one. But it was his good pleasure to re-establish the fallen world, and to liberate from sin the same mankind that had sinned.
One last thing to make the point. I see three sustained places in Bible where we see humankind in a state untainted by sin:
  1. Genesis 1–2
  2. Jesus
  3. Revelation 21-22
All three portray an embodied, physical humanity enjoying life on earth. Would we not expect our own future, likewise untainted by sin, to continue this trajectory?

The supreme joy of the new earth will be the exquisite delights of perfectly restored fellowship with the Triune God, the one for whom our souls were made. And this supreme joy will be mediated through bodies.

1 comment:

John Thomson said...


Can't agree that new creation is Eden restored. Yes there is continuity but there is significant discontinuity. And it is the discontinuity, the 'change' that gets the most emphasis in the NT.

New creation is glorification. Glorification is much more than Eden restored. Jesus in resurrection and ascension is much more than Jesus in incarnation. He now has a humanity that can exist quite happily in a non-physical place. I am not saying that new creation will be non-physical (Christ is physical) merely that we cannot easily compute what new creation will be. Eden had a man and woman married. There will be no marriage in new creation and all will be as the angels in heaven.

There is a growing trend to make new creation not much more than old creation restored and it fails to do justice to the 'change'.

Incidentally Rev 21 (a picture of course) does not say the New Jerusalem came down to earth (as is sometimes asserted) but that John saw it 'coming down out of heaven from God'. Here is a people/culture whose origin/life/character is sourced in heaven. At the very least this should stop us imagining the new creation in too this-worldly a sense.