Monthly Archives: January 2009

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What do you think?

In case it wasn’t clear from Part 1 in this short series, I think we should be careful how we interpret apocalyptic texts.  I do believe Christ will come again.  I do believe in the resurrection of the dead.  These are the things all Christians believe, at least according to the Nicene Creed.  When it comes to specifics, though, I’m hesitant to speculate.  So, in this post, I’m attempting to draw together the best picture I can of the new life we will have in new creation once the Kingdom of God has come in its fullness.  So that we don’t get bogged down in debating either literalistic or purely metaphorical interpretations of apocalyptic texts, I just want to survey the “pictures” they give, and draw out the general themes these suggest for life in the new creation.

First, the biblical portrait of what happens to our human bodies at the end of time is resurrection (Daniel 12:1-3; 1 Corinthians 15).  See this post for more on resurrection.  Ultimately, God brings new embodied life to that which was dead, displayed most vividly in the resurrection of Jesus as the first-fruits from the dead. 

Second, consider the picture which Revelation 21 draws:   Jesus calls out “Behold, I am making all things new.” Evil is judged and put away forever – death is put to death.  Then the world continues to exist, and the New Jerusalem is seen coming down from heaven to earth as a city illumined by Jesus and in which the nations of the world will walk.  Chapter 22 goes on to picture “a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street.  On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit in every month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”  The picture given in Revelation 21 and 22 is one of restored creation: clear streams, abundant fruit, healing plants.  Now consider the fact that Revelation 21 draws upon the imagery of the new heavens and earth in Isaiah 65:17-25, which pictures a very tangible, embodied life in the new creation.  There people build homes, labor, have families, and yet it is a peaceful existence where even “the wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and . . . they will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain” (v.25 NASB) . This is what it looks like when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.  We pray for this every day in the Lord’s Prayer, but often miss the order of the words: Heaven comes to us.  And what does heaven come on earth look like?  Startlingly similar to our daily life on earth now, with the exception of all evil and death.

Third, we might now ask, “What does that mean for the created world – for the earth, the plants, the animals?”  Romans 8:19-23 gives us a picture:  “. . . the creation itself will be set free form its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (vv. 21-23 NRSV).   The imagery is of the created world in labor pains, awaiting new birth, which is then likened in verse 23 to resurrection.  Just as followers of Christ are “born again” and “raised to new life” in Jesus, both spiritually in this lifetime and in resurrection to come, so also the creation is raised to a new existence.  It’s resurrection.  As Eusebius put it in the fourth-century, “Like a cloak, every body grows old with time.  But although it grows old, it will be renewed again by your divine will, O Lord.  The heavens will not be destroyed, but rather they will be changed into something better.  In the same way our bodies are not destroyed in order to disappear altogether but in order to be renewed in an indestructible state” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture vol XI p. 159)

So, given these pictures of God’s ultimate desires for the created world, what should our response be to ecological crises, to excessive consumption of natural resources?  I believe that as disciples of the Resurrected One, our call is to constantly choose that which leads to life over death – not just for our own human flourishing, but for all of creationWhen we do this, we become living answers to the prayer for God’s “kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

As said in the previous post, contemporary apocalypticism is more a product of American consumer culture than of sound biblical or theological thought.  Yet this doesn’t mean that scripture hasn’t been twisted to support the view that God created the earth for planned obsolescence.  As a case study, let’s look at one passage that has been used to support such a view, 2 Peter 3:10: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (NASB).  It seems like a pretty straightforward prooftext for the idea that the earth turns into flaming garbage at the end of time. 

But the interpretative problem here comes on two levels.  First, when we read the word “elements” from our modern scientifically-informed perspective, we think of elements like we find on the periodic table.  The Greek word behind this, though, is broader.  It’s stoicheion. In some parts of ancient Greek, the word refers to the four elements, “earth, air, fire, and water”.  In the seventh-century Bede apparently accepted this meaning, but explained it away: “There are four elements, earth, air, fire and water, all of which will be swept away by a great fire.  Yet that fire will not devour them all but only two of them (fire and water), for there will be a new heaven and a new earth after this destruction has passed” (Ibid.)   Elsewhere, the word means stars, which here would be supported by verse 12.  Still elsewhere, it has the connotation spirits, or supernatural beings (i.e. demonic or angelic powers).  The last meaning is most likely that intended by Paul in Colossians 2:8 and 20, and is possibly present also in Galatians 4:3 and 9.   But scholars are divided about what it means in 2 Peter 3:10.  Some lean towards stars (Charles Bigg, ICC; also the translators of the ESV).  Others toward the supernatural powers.  Others note that stars were often associated with supernatural spirits, angelic powers presiding over nature (Bauckham, Word).  This would imply that both the stars and the spirits associated with them are destroyed.  The text of 2 Peter itself may be inconclusive, but in light of verses like Revelation 20:10 and 21:23, I certainly lean toward the latter option, reading it as a reference to the end of celestial bodies and the spirits associated with them.

Second, the NASB’s use of “burned up” at the end of the verse is based on a mistake in the Greek text.  When scribes copied the text of the NT throughout history, they sometimes made mistakes or “corrections”, some as simple as transposing a letter or two, some as big as intentional replacements of words.  This verse is an example of the latter.  At some point, a scribe inserted the word katakaesetai here, which means “will be burned.”  [Excursus on Text Criticism: Skip this part if you don’t care about it. One method scholars use to decide which text is closer to the original involves comparing the variants and thinking about which would logically arise through simple scribal mistakes.  For example, if I write “The dog chased the cat” and someone later slips and changes it to “the dog chased the cut”, we can tell which is more likely the original.  Here, katakaesetai isn’t even similar to the other variants.  It would be like having “The dog chased the cat”, “The dog chased the cut”, and “The dog chased the rock”, and trying to choose the original.  In this case, there are at least eight other versions of this verse, but none would logically derive from katakaesetai.]

Scholars now think that eurethesetai is the version most likely to be the original.  And what does that mean?  It’s from the same root that gave us the word “Eureka!”  It means made to be “found” or “discovered”.  Hence the NRSV’s translation, “the earth and everything done on it will be disclosed”, or the ESV’s, “the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”

So add this up, and 2 Peter 3:10 gives a picture not of the earth being burned up, but of the “heavenly bodies” and “elemental spirits” being destroyed and the earth and the works of humanity being discovered, or revealed – ready for God’s reign to come.  2 Peter 3:11-13 continue a description of the end of the world, but these verses are consistent with the above interpretation.  Verse 12 says the “heavens (ouranoi) will be set on fire” and repeats that the stoicheia will be burned.  Then, verse 13 finally gets to the point: “we wait for a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness is at home” (NRSV).  The end result is new, tangible creation. 

Beautifully, this ties back to the theme of resurrection, now applied to all of creation, not just human bodies.  As  the seventh-century monk Andreas said, “It is not just we, says Peter, but the whole creation around us also, which will be changed for the better.  For the creation will share in our glory just as it has been subjected to destruction and corruption because of us.  Either way it shares our fate” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, vol XI, p. 160).

God recycles.  The Christian experience can be characterized as renewal in Christ, healing that comes from God taking us and makes us into something new, healed of our wounds and freed to serve God.  Why then, when we’re so eager to talk about how God “recycles” our lives, do many Christians assume that God doesn’t want to recycle the created world?  Yes, recycling is a crude metaphor, but what if the creation is to be born-again just as we are? 

I remember reading the Left Behind series in high school.   Naive as I was, I actually believed then that (as the books suggest) the rapture would come during my lifetime, the world would be incinerated, and Jesus would return (though to what I’m not sure).  About six books into the series, though, I started to question its theology.  For some reason the depiction of the “Trib Force” – the faithful Christian heroes of the books – running around with machine guns battling the antichrist’s forces just didn’t seem very . . . well . .  . Jesus-like.   Thankfully, I came to my senses, and now (almost a decade, much reading, and a seminary degree later) I have a much different view of the the end-of-the-world.  Yet books like these, for many in contemporary Christian culture, are still promoting an eschatology that denigrates creation. (Eschatology = fancy word for theology of the end of the world.)

But where do books like that come from?  I think that the Left Behind series is much more a product of American consumer culture than it is of any sound or biblical theology.  Its sixteen volumes, numerous spin-offs, and endless merchandising are indicative of the greed and consumerism that are rampant in American society, religious or non-religious.  But more importantly, its eschatology is reflective of our own consumeristic assumption that once something is used-up, it gets thrown-out. 

For a fun and educational take on American consumerism, please watch this video: The Story of Stuff.  As one portion of the video explains, we’re caught in a cycle of consumption where, held captive to advertising which leaves us working to buy more meaningless junk we don’t need.  Most of that meaningless junk really is junk because it’s designed to wear out in six months.  This is called planned obsolescence.  As a result, we produce on average 4.5 lbs of trash per person per day. No wonder we make God in our own image and assume he’ll throw this used-up piece of dirt into a garbage can at the end of time.  Ironically, that assumption actually speeds the day when the earth will be nothing more than a used up piece of dirt.  In my last year as a Religious Studies major at the University of Colorado, I took a class about apocalyptic thought and its portrayal in contemporary culture.  The most thought-provoking (for me) video we watched in the class talked in all seriousness about the apocalypse being brought on through advertising.  (It’s available here, or in snipits on YouTube – just search for “Advertising and the end of the world”.) 

But the truth is, despite what advertisements tell us, that God did not create the earth with a model of “planned obsolescence”.  Rather, numerous portions of the Bible suggest that the world will be “remade” or “made new” at an end that isn’t so much an end as a new beginning.  Parts 2 and 3, to be posted in the next couple days, will explain more.

What does one pray for when asked to pray for on the inauguration of the President of the United States?  Even more, what does one pray for a president whom many already regard as a messiah-figure?   The Bible has its own set of inauguration prayers: the coronation psalms.  Psalm 72, a coronation psalm for Solomon begins “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the king’s son.  May he judge your people with righteousness and your afflicted with justice.”  I thought of this psalm this morning as the ceremony was going on, but quickly realized it would have been inappropriate to pray for a presidential inauguration.  While I do pray that Obama will lead in a way that reflects God’s desire for righteousness and gives justice to the oppressed, the application of any text like Psalm 72 or 110 (also a coronation psalm), to a present-day political leader is idolatrous:  Christians who believe that those psalms are ultimately fulfilled in the the reign of Jesus should be wary of using them to describe any other person than Jesus.  So again, what should we be praying for President Obama? 

Mark Labberton (of First Pres Berkeley, CA) listed humility, wisdom, and courage as three qualities the new president needs in a short reflection for Leadership Journal.  Interestingly enough, Rick Warren prayed for these three things (and integrity, generosity, and compassion) in his invocation this morning.  The prayer, as Labberton also recommends, avoided party-line petitions and focused instead on seeking the peace of our country and the world, as the exiles were instructed to do in Jeremiah 29:4-7.   Warren’s prayer reflected this same principle: “Help us to share, to serve, and to seek the common good of all. May all people of good will today join together to work for a more just, a more healthy, and a more prosperous nation and a peaceful planet.”   In my opinion Warren’s choice of using the names of Jesus from various languages and traditions (Yeshua – Hebrew; Isa – Arabic) was a beautiful way of including those present from other traditions while still maintaining the integrity of the prayer as distinctly Christian, one prayed in the name of Jesus and concluded with the Lord’s Prayer.  Well done, Rick Warren.  Of course, the fact that Obama is our first African-American president is a sign of the peace, shalom, of God in the breaking down of racial boundaries (Eph 2, Gal 3:28).  (As a young, white, middle-class male, I can’t even begin to understand how meaningful today was for those who’ve fought long and hard in the civil rights movement!  But that’s a post for another time.)

So, on this historic day, I do pray that God will give Obama wisdom, humility and courage; that he will seek the shalom not just of this nation but of the whole earth. And I pray that regardless of political views, American Christians will continue to uphold him in prayer.  As 1 Timothy 2:1-6a says, let “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  This is good and pleases God our Savior who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (TNIV).

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” – Mark 16:15

The long-ending of the Gospel of Mark includes a command from Jesus to preach the gospel to the whole creation.  We’re used to the Great Commission in Matthew, and its command to make disciples of people, but where does this language of the “whole creation” come from and why does it matter?  I think the answers lies in the fact that this is the resurrected Jesus making this command.

1) Resurrection and Creation:  The biblical picture of resurrection is much bigger than the resurrection of Jesus.  Other parts of the Bible (Daniel 12; Matthew 22:23f; Luke 14:13, 20:36; John 5:29, 11:17f; Acts 4:2. 23:6; 24:15; Romans 6:5; 1 Corinthians 15; Rev. 20:4-5) portray a resurrection of all people at the end of time.  The earth-shattering (literally) news of Jesus’ resurrection was that it had happened before the general resurrection.  The Jewish worldview (at least of the Pharisees and their predecessors) at the time of Jesus, anticipated this general resurrection and pictured it in connection to the arrival of the Messiah.   Two months ago, I posted on this, with reference to Jon Levenson’s book Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel (New Haven: Yale 2006). In Chapter 13, Levenson writes about the figure of the “Divine Warrior”, a Messianic figure who judges the world in wrath but then brings forth new vitality in the natural world.  When the general resurrection at the end of time comes, it is a part of this larger Messianic judgment and restoration that “revitalizes nature, bringing life-giving moisture to desiccated land and fertility to dwindling flocks and herds” (p. 214).    He continues, “The flourishing of nature (including human vitality) is the normal state of affairs when the people Israel are faithful to the Lord’s covenant with them” (p. 214).    

A Christians, who see this fulfilled in Jesus, it is then only logical that in a post-Jesus’-resurrection world part of our calling as those united by faith with the resurrected Messiah is to seek the flourishing of nature and the revitalization of the earth. I think we fail to make this connection today because the notion of general resurrection is absent in the minds of typical Christians, and thus many people adhere to a more Platonic view of a heaven with no physical, corporeal reality.  (Yes, there are biblical texts to support the later, but as I’ll explain next week, they aren’t always taken in context.)  N. T. Wright, in his book Simply Christian‘s section on resurrection, writes of the surprise that many Christians respond with when told of the general resurrection.  It’s missing from our worldview, a gap in our education.  But if we go back to scripture and to a study of the early church, we see that a more tangible, physical view of general resurrection was common (Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 [New York: Columbia  1995] p. 11).  Interestingly, this concern for a material resurrection of humanity often resulted in Christians practicing greater degrees of asceticism.  The rationale was that in the resurrection, there will be no more physical change, so people prepared their physical bodies for changelessness by training themselves to avoid eating, sex, and other bodily appetites that led to physical change (Bynum, p. 112-113).  Our rationale for practice of spritual disciplines may be different today, but the overall effect is the same: consumption is decreased and the natural world protected. 

2) Jesus and Creation:  The Greek word used for creation in Mark 16:15 is ktisis.  In Mark 13:19 and Romans 8:20, it’s used with reference to all of the created world, the whole universe.  In Romans 1:25, it’s used to refer to a particular part of the created world (in this case, animals, v.23).  It’s also used in Colossians 1:15-20:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation [ktisews]; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created [ektisthe], things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created [ektistai] through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Jesus is the firstborn of creation, the one in, through, and for whom all things were created.  Not only that, but as verse 20 says, “all things,  whether on earth or in heaven” have been reconciled to God through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Jesus came to redeem all the world, not just humanity, but all of the created world, and as the “firstborn from the dead”, he initiated the process of turning death into life for all of creation.  Those who recognize the new life he’s given them, thus are called to participate in that redemption of the whole creation, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God to all the earth in word and deed.  St. Francis of Assisi was known for literally preaching to the animals (which can’t hurt) but today that proclamation of the gospel to the physical creation takes place in other ways: recycling, planting trees and gardens, cleaning up polluted waterways, reducing our impact upon the earth, etc.   The best part is, when other people who care about the earth ask why we as Christians want to do this, we can say in all truthfulness, “Because of the resurrection of Jesus.” 


This is a quick follow up to the last post, where I mentioned fasting from meat as a practice for Christian stewards of creation.  Today’s newspaper had an interesting article which reports that while “most Americans are not interested in a meat-free lifestyle, meat is clearly moving away from the center of the plate.”  The reporter goes on to quote Michael Pollan, speaking on “Bill Moyers Journal” regarding the effect our consumption of meat has on the environment:

According to Mr. Pollan, if the entire country elimated meat from its diets for just one night a week, it would have an environmental effect equivalent to taking “30 to 40 million cars off the road for a year.”

Today’s Ideal Bite makes a similar point:

Livestock accounts for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 8% of water use – and a meatless diet is 50% more effective at cutting CO2 than switching from a standard car to a hybrid.

 If that’s true, then we really can consider fasting from meat a spiritual discipline that tangibly cares for the earth.  (Great example of this:  My friend John used to be vegetarian, and I’ve always admired the discipline he exercised in that practice, as well as the fact I’ve heard him describe it as a fast.  Read what he has so say about it here.  If you have time, check out his series of blog posts on eco-theology from January 2007.)