Wednesday, March 16, 2011

End of the World? Or the Beginning of a (re)New (ed) One?

I thought I would add to my comments especially in the final paragraph concerning the end of the world in the previous blog post.

There is an assumption among many Christians that when Jesus returns it is the 'end of the world.' The idea is that Jesus returns, plucks his beloved people out, and then either the world dissolves into war, chaos, and destruction, or comes to an abrupt and destructive end (depending on how you think the 'end' fits together). Saved humanity then lives on with God forever in a new heaven and/or on a new earth. This perhaps involves a secret rapture, with all the believers plucked out leaving the rest of the world in chaos. There are popular novels and movies built on this scenario. Such thinking often leads Christians to have less concern for the world, and want the church to focus on evangelism to save people from the horror to come, that they can live with God forever. This can lead to lack of concern for the transformation of society, the poor and needy, the environment etc.

The main bible text that has moved me to reject this idea is Romans 8:19-23. These verses give a view of the world that differs from the above scenario. The context is about suffering and hope to the Romans who face very real threats from persecution and natural disasters in a pre-industrial 4th world (worse than the 3rd world). Paul explains the inevitability of suffering, but the hope of glory (v.18). He writes of the creation awaiting eagerly the revelation of God's children, something that will occur at the culmination of the age when Jesus returns. He speaks of the creation subjected to frustration. As 8:20 unfolds, this frustration is related to its 'bondage to decay.' 'Decay' is phthora meaning 'breakdown of organic matter, dissolution, deterioration, corruption'
(BDAG). It is thus enslaved to decay and death. Paul speaks of the hope of liberation 'from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.' This tells of the creation ultimately being set free from its enslavement to the effects of Adam's sin, which subjected all of humanity and the world to decay. In v.22 Paul states that the 'whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of the childbirth right up to the present time.' Paul here reinforces the picture of a whole creation held captive to the effects of sin, corruption and evil. It recalls Jesus' use of birth pains in Mark 13:8 of global events including natural disasters.

The picture here is not of a world being blown up, or coming to an end, but of it being set free. It is enslaved, and Jesus will redeem it. It is the picture of the end of the age not as a cataclysmic end, but of renewal, of a restored world. It is not the end of the world, but the beginning of a new one. The experience of redemption the children of God will experience is the same experience that the creation will have. This implies that, for Paul at least, the sin and corruption of humanity beginning with the first pair, has not only caused human relationships to be marred, but the whole created order prone to decay, death, and destruction. When Jesus comes back, he will set it free.

There are a range of things in Scripture that support this idea. First, in the prophets the hope of a new heaven and earth (Isa 65-66) is not so much a complete obliteration of this one and a new one, but this world renewed.

Second, the similar hope in Rev 21-22 is the same picture. The world involves nations as this one does, and there is healing through the tree of life for all. This is a renewed earth, not a new earth.

Thirdly, the other chapter that is helpful in Paul is 1 Cor 15. In the chapter Paul is addressing false ideas of resurrection in Corinthian church, likely that they denied bodily resurrection (cf. Wright). In v.v.25-28 Paul speaks of Jesus reigning until his enemies are squashed, recalling Ps 8:6 and 110:1. The last enemy to be defeated is death (not the world), the very problem that corrupts the world referred to in Romans 8 (cf. 5:12-13). After this, God will be all in all in his creation. At the end of the chapter Paul describes the transformation of people at the resurrection from corruption to incorruption, from mortality to immortality, from death to eternal life (vv.50-55). He quotes two OT verses from Isa 25:8 and Hos 13:14. Both OT passages are set in contexts about healing of this world, not being whisked away to another one.

Fourthly, when we read Jesus' words about the second coming in Matt 24:36-44 it speaks of the coming as the coming of the flood at the time of Noah. It was not the believers who were washed away at that time, but the unbelievers. As such, it is likely that when Jesus comes, he will cleanse and purify his world after judgment, and his people will live with him forever, amen! (by the way the verses in 2 Pet 3 say a similar thing, have a read).

Fifthly, the idea of millennium for those who hold the view that Jesus will return and establish a millennium fits sweetly with a restored world. In this time, Jesus will restore his world. I am sure he will put us to work for him in the project. For amillenialists, this works as well, with the world coming to a climax at Jesus' return, and the world then being restored.

Finally, theologically, the idea of God as a restoring God is far more appealing than him as a destroying God who will demolish what he has created. Evil is the corruption of good, and it works out in the violation of God's world. It is far more compelling to consider God as a God who restores, he heals, he purifies. He will remove evil from his world.

Whereas once I believed in a completely new world in heaven into which we will be squirreled away as the world implodes and is finally wiped away, I now believe that I was sincerely wrong. I believe that the end of this age is not the end of the world, it is the beginning of a new one. I find this very exciting. Just as we will be free, so will the world and indeed the whole creation. We will no longer face the terror of natural disasters that shake the earth destroying violently, or of tsunamis that with terrifying force, wipe out whole towns. We will not have to fear human evil, wars, despots who want to take over the world. We will be safe and secure living in a world of peace (Shalom). It is a compelling vision. Our job is to work for this world today. We are God's hands and feet to restore. No matter how weird and seemingly insignificant our passions are, they are part of the glorious whole of God's mission, what I call God's kosmission (mission to the kosmos, the world). At the heart of the mission is the healing of every human heart, that begins when we are united with God in Christ and filled with the glorious Spirit who works gently and lovingly in us bringing healing. There is a lot to do, so we better get on with it.

So we should stop freaking out, living in fear and terror that the end is nigh. Rather, we should live full on for God and good. We should not allow anything to paralyse us in this. We can spread hope of this new age that is to come. And even if it is imminent, we can rejoice that the renewed earth is about to dawn. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.

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