Whether it’s a serious illness, chronic pain, mental anguish, family crisis, or job loss, life on planet Earth is sometimes difficult. Even miserable. One typical response to such problems is to long for escape. Christianity is all too frequently portrayed as the religion that exists primarily to sustain us through a difficult, temporary life on this earth until we can finally go “home” to live forever with Jesus. After all, to attain our heavenly home is the real purpose of our lives. Perhaps the old gospel song expresses that conviction best:
This world is not my home. I’m just a-passin’ through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
But if that is really the case, I have to ask this question: Did God make a huge mistake? If the world is not an appropriate place for people to live, then why did God put us here in the first place?
Genesis 1 describes how God carefully fashioned the earth as a suitable place for people to inhabit. God created time marked by light and darkness, the rising and setting sun, and the moon and stars to distinguish months and seasons and years. He created space between the heavenly and earthly waters, and he separated the waters from the dry land so that people would have a place to live. Then God furnished the world he’d made with vegetation for people to eat and animals for companionship. And after God had finished creating the world, he called it good.
All of that was ruined when humanity fell into sin. Human sin, we read in Genesis, perverted and corrupted the beautiful world God had made. God’s curse on Adam and Eve made it clear that the earth, after the fall, had become an enemy rather than a nurturing friend. Thorns, thistles, sweat—and eventually death—became the destiny of men and women on this earth. Their only hope, it seemed, was an escape to a totally new existence.
But God had not given up on planet Earth. Far from it.
The hope and promise of salvation in the Old Testament are centered in a renewal of creation, not an escape from it. Think of the picture of shalom painted in Micah 4:4:
Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
Or imagine the even more dramatic picture presented in Isaiah 11:6-7:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The point isn’t whether or not we should interpret these prophecies literally. At the very least, it’s clear that the prophets are envisioning some kind of earthly renewal rather than an escape to an other-worldly existence.
But what about the New Testament? some might respond. Isn’t the focus of the New Testament a more spiritual one?
First, notice that Jesus spends a lot of his time healing people of their diseases. He preaches about the kingdom of God that is coming to earth through his ministry. Also notice that the decisive event in the New Testament story of Jesus is his bodily resurrection from the dead. This shows that salvation is for the body as well as the soul. And the New Testament closes with the book of Revelation, which describes a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem and a new garden.
I’m not sure how and when Christians became so preoccupied with the idea of going home to heaven. But to me the promise of a new earth sounds a lot more exciting and a lot more consistent with our call to be Jesus’ disciples. Those who hold to traditional Reformed theology talk about an intermediate state in which the disembodied soul exists until the body is resurrected on the day of Christ’s return. It’s a reminder that our primary focus is on our final state—life on the new earth—rather than a temporary sojourn about which we know very little.
I enjoy studying history, and I love traveling to historical places to get a better understanding of different peoples and cultures. But I will never have the time or money and energy to explore all the interesting historical sites on our planet. I like to imagine that the new earth will be restored in such a way that I will be able to visit a fully restored Roman Colosseum—dedicated now not to some gruesome display of human and animal cruelty but perhaps instead to a pageant celebrating the great creatures from various eras in history. Imagine being able to see a real Tyrannosaurus rex brought back to life! And maybe in a renewed earth I’ll be able to visit the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and discover the ancient Mayan temples and sports arenas and marketplaces restored to their former grandeur, and dedicated to the glory of the God who now illumines it with his light (see Rev. 21:23).
Maybe what I imagine will never come to pass. But I’m pretty sure my dreams are consistent with the biblical evidence. God created a beautiful planet to be a home for the people he made. I don’t think God is simply going to destroy it and start all over on the day when Christ returns. I believe God is going to renew the earth he created and restore it and make it even more wonderful than it is today. And I believe it will be the perfect place for our resurrected bodies to live.
If salvation offers a spiritual escape from a physical world, if our world is going to be destroyed anyway, then our present stewardship of the earth doesn’t seem all that important. But what if a building you helped design or build will be included and restored in the new earth? What if a recipe you concoct will someday be used to serve thousands of the saints in a holy feast? What if a song you compose will be sung by a countless multitude of the redeemed in the presence of the Lamb of God?
Some of our present actions may have everlasting results. That means we’d best be diligent and conscientious as we carry out our daily work. Don’t count on leaving all your present projects behind forever! Maybe some of them will be there to greet you when you finally go home.Discussion Questions
- What’s your own picture of heaven—is it more like Boerman’s picture of a renewed earth or as something far, far away, and unlike the world as we know it? What has shaped that view?
- How does Revelation 21:24-26 fit into the picture of a new heavens and earth the author paints?
- Do you agree that we might encounter a Tyrannosaurus rex there?