What the new creation teaches about the old

The Christian doctrine of creation is incomplete without a consideration of the concept of the new creation. Not only is Christianity inextricably linked to the idea that, in Christ, the whole cosmos will soon be renewed, but that renewal has been revealed as the end towards which the old creation was always headed. 

Now, in the context of the question of whether God is actively involved in the changes we now see in the created order, the eschatological hope of “a new heavens and a new earth” actually intrudes quite significantly. That it does not mould our views on creation more than it does (which is, I contest, not much) is because we have tended to relativise or suppress the implications of eschatology.

The most blatant attempts to defuse the new creation have come, obviously enough, from the demythologising liberals of the previous century. I have never found convincing the attempts to “tame” apocalyptic imagery like the second coming of Christ on the clouds, or lightning flashing from east to west, or the heavens rolling up like a scroll, as merely Jewish literary metaphors – that requires a downgrading of second temple apocalyptic hopes that doesn’t seem at all to square with its prevalent supernaturalism.

But the attempts to demythologise really come adrift in the light of the fact of Christ’s resurrection. I think it’s fair to say that the denial of the empty tomb, since the notorious “spiritualisation” of the resurrection by David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham, has become increasingly sidelined¬†within the faith, and is now much more often seen in the domain of atheist apologestics. If Christ truly is risen, and is as described in the New Testament the “firstfruits of the new creation”, then it has implications for the nature of material reality.

In a scientistic age, though, there have been other ways of relativising eschatology than denial. The least obvious, perhaps, is the development of the belief, in much popular Christianity, that the end of faith is the removal of the individual soul from the lowly earthly realm and its translation to a disembodied existence in heaven – the harp-strumming angels-on-clouds scenario, accessed through St Peter’s cartoon gates. This concept owes more to Plato and platonic Gnosticism than the Bible, for as N T Wright points out in his writings on the resurrection, the hope that early Christianity universally embraced was that held by the Pharisaic branch of Jewish faith (as Paul repeatedly said at his trials) – that there would be a general physical resurrection of all the dead, a judgement separating the righteous from the unrighteous, and an ensuing golden age when the godly reigned in the presence of the Lord.

If anything, Christian teaching radicalised this hope by clarifying that the new heavens and the new earth – the home of righteousness – would be a place free of all suffering and death, of eternal duration and in character “spiritual” rather than “earthly”. Like its Jewish precursor, it had some continuity with the present creation, exemplified most dramatically by the visible wounds of the risen Lord and his eating of ordinary food (flesh, at that). But there was also a radical discontinuity, shown in the apocalyptic imagery of both Old and New Testaments. The historic Christian hope, then, is not the creaming off of saved spirits from the ruined earth to a disembodied realm, but the fusion of heaven and earth so that God himself – and the risen Christ – will dwell with the saints raised to a new bodily life like his.

In Evangelical circles (in my experience, at least), the infiltration of materialism into the Church most commonly comes from ignoring the eschaton altogether. Most of us simply don’t have a very clear notion of what our future is, because it’s seldom preached.

Now there’s some little excuse for this in that Scripture repeatedly warns us that what is in store hasn’t been seen by anyone, and is maybe even unimaginable. Accordingly, visions of the future are steeped in symbolic and prophetic imagery which is too often taken literally, leading to bitter controversies and some silly or even dangerous notions. But that should encourage good teaching, not lack of teaching: I think there’s an element of embarrassment at drawing attention to stuff that flies in the face of all experience and science. Here, I want only to claim that even what is pretty clear has a tendency to shake up our views of this world and its science.

Most central to eschatology is the reality of eternal life for human beings, because it is already demonstrated in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. He is the firstfruits of the new creation, and it is pretty clear that he breaks most of the rules of the old. For a start, his risen body could enter locked rooms and travel distances in unrealistic timescales. Furthermore, he has torn up the textbook on entropy – Jesus has lived for two thousand years in the resurrection body, and will reign for eternity – as, it is said, will the risen saints. Apart from the question of corruptibility, some dramatic changes in the arrow of time seem to be tied up in this.

Now many of us have problems with any idea of dramatic (supernatural?) changes occurring at the creation of mankind, notably in the persons of Adam and Eve. Genetic continuity with evolutionary predecessors is used to cast doubt on specific divine action here. But we believe in a risen Jesus who is still human, embodied in flesh and bones, scarred from crucifixion – and yet eternal. Does he still have DNA with Neanderthal or Denisovan traits as well as David’s Y-chromosome? It’s foolish to speculate on such things, but not to accept that there is undoubtedly both continuity and discontinuity in this act of new creation: Christ either has inherited genes or some new organising physical principle, as will we in our turn. Can we therefore confidently deny on principle a comparable, if lesser, divine hand in the original creation of mankind in God’s image? Or of life itself?

Other changes we can confidently expect include Jesus’s own assertion that marriage will have no place in the new age, but that we shall be “like the angels in heaven.” That alone is quite a dramatic change to the status quo, but is it limited to the human realm? In the past I’ve argued that the creation we have is “very good”, and not ruined by man’s sin, except in the obvious sense of its being damaged or bent to evil use, and that therefore there’s no intrinsic reason why the new “nature” might not be quite similar to the old. But that’s probably overstating the continuity. For quite apart from the visionary imagery of the heavens being rolled up and the earth destroyed by fire before a completely new cosmos comes to be, Romans 8 speaks of the “groaning of creation” and its “hope” (metaphorical, of course) of liberation from the bondage of decay to the “glorious freedom of the children of God”.

Personally I take this to mean not a release from evil as such (unless it is the stain of human sin that ritually pollutes the whole creation), but as some total change in the nature of the physical world analogous to the “spiritual” and “incorruptible” nature of the resurrection body. But the details don’t matter so much as the reality that God will radically transform nature along with humanity.

Such a dramatic change must surely occur for the promise of eternal life to have any meaning. Currently scientists make gloomy predictions of the sun’s failure in just a few billion years (they should worry!), and the heat death of the universe in a few billion more. You’ll agree that eternal, rather than “prolonged” life requires major changes either the nature of matter, or the nature of time, or both.

All these changes will happen not only universally, but instantaneously, according to Scripture. If one doesn’t like to believe that God could, or would, ever buck physical laws or the principle of uniformity, then you have a problem here. The eschaton is an entirely saltational event with no conceivable causes within the natural order as we know it. No cosmologist predicts it. Its timing may be unknown, but it is set to occur within human history – within the scientific world that we all know. If it happened today, as we are exhorted by the Lord to anticipate, all our science will instantly become an historical curiosity.

Furthermore, if one is drawn towards the “free process” school of thought, that God has on ethical principle left the cosmos alone since the original creation so that it is “free” to work out its own destiny, then you also have a problem. For God’s new creation will transform, it seems, every atom, molecule and joule of energy in the universe without so much as a period of consultation. We will all be transformed, man, beast and star, in the twinking of an eye, and have no more “co-creative” role in our re-fashioning than traditional Christian teaching says we had in the first place. God is the Creator, and he alone. It’s all very hands-on.

None of this, of course, tells us how hands-on God has been, and still is, in the present creation. But many objections to ongoing divine action in the world arise not from evidence, or lack of it, but from convictions that, for whatever reason, God would not or should not “interfere” with things. The doctrine of the new creation, however, suggests strongly that at some stage God both will, and must, make all things new under Christ. If change is “interference”, then that’s interference on a grand scale. That surely has some bearing on how we view the here and now, doesn’t it?

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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6 Responses to What the new creation teaches about the old

  1. pngarrison says:

    The Greek influenced ideas of heaven are silly, but as such, they do result in some good cartoons.

    • Edward Robinson says:

      I don’t agree that all “Greek influenced ideas” of heaven (or of anything else in Christian theology) are “silly,” but I do agree that much of the popular conception of heaven is silly — angels as beautiful Hollywood blondes, etc. And of course the perception of modern Christians (and even of modern non-Christians who don’t believe in Hell, but are sure they know what it is like if it does exist) that if Hell exists, no one will be there but Hitler and suicide bombers etc. is part of parcel of the general liberalization of religious belief that makes God into a sort of benign and gentle TV sitcom grandfather rather than a holy and demanding lord of creation.

      The Catholics on one side of my family were brought up to fear “the pains of Hell” and that subject was part of their rosary prayers every day. The Calvinists of the other side of my family were brought up in churches that preached hellfire and damnation. Of course, I’m speaking of the religious world of 120 to 80 years ago. Things have changed since then, in both Catholic and Protestant churches, if not in the formal theology, at least in the popular theology.

      Nobody fears Hell any more because nobody thinks of sin as an offense against God. Sin — where the concept is acknowledged at all — is thought of as some little human weakness that God easily overlooks, and that God would be really mean-spirited to hold against us. It’s only the really “EVIL” people who are thought of as offending God. So when we commit adultery or deliberately contrive to prevent an academic rival from getting a tenure-track job, thus destroying his career, we expect God to treat us as a schoolmarm would treat a mischievous nine-year-old boy who put a frog on her chair, and we think that God’s anger is sufficiently placated when he roasts Hitler or Judas in the flames, and that he will be gentle with everybody else who knowingly did wrong — because after all, we’re “only human,” and didn’t Jesus cover all those “little” infractions for us? We aren’t ASHAMED of sin any longer. And among the thought leaders who have told us not to be ashamed of sin are clergy and seminary professors.

      By the way, PNG, I responded to you on another thread here the other day — about your bad undergraduate experience with philosophy. If I misunderstood your earlier remarks (which I read a year or two ago on BioLogos) about the lack of compelling interest philosophy had for you, my apologies, but anyhow, my response to your current remark about analytical philosophy versus theology is here, for whatever value it has.

      • Jon Garvey says:

        What’s sad is how we all (I speak of myself) take on the theological spirit of the age even when we recognise it, both intellectually and spiritually, to be wrong.

        To give a different example, I was reading some correspondence of bereaved relatives of an 1859 shipwreck. These were the families of tough gold-mining colonists, but were full of talk of submission to God’s providence, of his giving and taking away, of trust despite the pain, etc.

        I would wager that nowadays even the educated believers would be more prone to write, “Why would a good God allow such meaningless tragedy.” Sadly we’re deeply involved in our society even when we don’t like it much!

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    I’ve told a few of those – even drawn one, for some forgotten purpose (with a forgotten punchline too, unfortunately).

    It’s a slightly equivocal ethical issue, though, in a way – like feature films, jokes have a way of bypassing the critical faculties. Everyone “knows” that Braveheart or The Da Vinci Code are fiction, but somehow it’s an uphill struggle to get them out of people’s minds if you want to discuss Scottish history or the early Church. Likewise it’s pretty hard to get people seriously to consider the afterlife when the lampoons aren’t even related to the doctrine.

    But I suppose it’s like the caveman-with-dinosaur stereotype, as in the Flintstones. And nobody believes dinosaurs co-existed with mankind, right?

  3. pngarrison says:

    What’s your feel for what proportion of people in your part of the world take an afterlife seriously? I think it’s quite common over here, but my impression is that most don’t think there will be any judgment that applies to them (you know, maybe Hitler, Stalin and Nixon, but not me.)

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Interesting – it’s a more secular country than US, so I suspect a somewhat higher proportion of “When you’re dead, you’re dead, I reckon”.

      But apart from them and established religious members, wishful thinking reigns supreme – we shall all be happy in some Better Place, just beyond the door etc. Mum is still watching me, Dad would approve of my girlfriend, Junior is now free of his illness and playing heavy metal guitar, and so on.

      That proportion goes up around funerals – as, thankfully, does serious thought about what really happens. Those close to death are as keen to make amends for past wrongs as in any age past. These, I think, are human givens.

      But generally, the idea of judgement is not to be borne, except for paedophiles, suicide bombers and Hitler, of course. My neighbour’s daughter was disciplined at a Christian camp for suggesting such a thought to her unbelieving friend.

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