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 creation. When we do this, we become living answers to the prayer for God’s “kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”