A defective eschatology
Eschatology, the study of the end or end times, is crucial to how we act in the present. There are 31,124 verses in the Old and New Testaments, and of these 8,352 are predictive prophecy, almost one third! In fact only four biblical books contain no predictive prophecies: Ruth, Song of Songs, Philemon and 3 John. Is this not ample reason to take eschatology seriously? And yet so often it is relegated to the last chapter in books of systematic theology.
How we see the future winding up affects how we respond in the present. If at the end of this age Jesus returns to whisk the Christians away to heaven and to destroy this ‘wicked evil earth’, then any environmental involvement can, at best, only be regarded as patching up a dying man’s coat, and effectively a waste of time.
However, God’s final glorious consummation at the end of this age and at the beginning of the age to come is to include the physical world. For the Old Testament prophets, their eschatological hope included the earth. The redeemed earth is to be the scene of the kingdom of God.
There is, throughout the scriptures, a theme of destruction, often coupled with the theme of a new heaven and earth. However, a closer examination of the Scriptures reveal that Jesus will not return to destroy the earth - rather he will renew it. At first - but only at first-there appear to be two contradicting concepts in the scriptures: that of the renewal of the earth and the destruction of the earth.
There will be a renewed heavens and earth [Gk: kairos = fresh, renewed, rather than new in time]. Jesus talks of the renewal (literally rebirth) of all things, and Paul writes about the creation being liberated - there seems to be no room for a destruction of the earth here.
And yet, on the other hand, Peter describes the consummation as the earth being destroyed. The writer to the Hebrews, echoing the psalmist, talks about the earth and heavens perishing and being rolled up like a garment, and Jesus says that heaven and earth will pass away.” So how do we reconcile these conflicting accounts? Is it restoration or destruction?
The first thing we need to remember is that these passages are apocalyptic and therefore may not necessarily have to be taken literally; they may well be metaphors to describe the catastrophic and cataclysmic event the return of Jesus will be. I will look at three passages that talk about an apparent destruction of the earth.
(i) Matthew 24:35: ‘heavens and earth will pass away’ (cf Mk 13:31; Lk 21:33).
The Greek word ‘pass away’ is the same word that occurs in 2 Corinthians 5:17, where Paul describes the person in Christ as a new creation, saying ‘the old has gone’ (literally passed away). This implies not total destruction but transformation. Hence we could legitimately paraphrase Jesus as saying ‘heaven and earth will be transformed but my word never changes’.
(ii) Hebrews 1:12
In this passage, as in the Matthew passage, there is a contrast. In Matthew 25:35 the contrast was between the creation (i.e. heavens and earth) and Jesus’ words; here it is between the creation and the creator. The thing that both writers want to emphasise is the unchangeableness of God compared with his creation; this is the context of both passages, so to use them as proof texts for a theory of destruction is inappropriate.
The word translated as ‘changed’ in v12 is allagesontai; this same word is used in 1 Corinthians 15:51 and 52. Here the context is the resurrection of believers: ‘we will all be changed’. Yet again the meaning can be understood as transformation. When we receive resurrection bodies we shall not be destroyed but changed or transformed; in the same way the earth will be transformed.
(iii) 2 Peter 3:10
Richard Bauckham, in his excellent commentary on 2 Peter and Jude describes this passage as a crux interpretum: it is crucial to our reading of the entire subject of the earth’s destruction. The majority of contemporary commentators translate the key passage as ‘the earth and all its works will be found. [See in particular Al Wolters ‘Worldview and textual criticism in 2 Peter 3: 10’ Westminster Theological Journal 49 (1987) pp. 405-13] This reading is arrived at for textual and contextual reasons: the majority of Greek texts have ‘will be found’ (heu rethestai) rather than ‘shall be burned up’ (katakaesetai). So yet again there is no ground for supposing the earth will be destroyed. The sense here is that the purging fires will enable the earth and all its work to be ‘found’, that is revealed or discovered for what they are (cf 1 Cor 3:15).
From these three passages, often put forward to propound the theory that when Jesus returns the earth will be destroyed, we have seen that there is no basis for such a theory. Rather they confirm the view that the earth will be transformed, which, as we have seen, is also the view of the Old Testament authors (see, for example Is 2:4, 11:6,8 and Is 35:6, and extra-biblical evidence, cf Enoch 45:5). In addition, there is the recurring theme in Revelation of partial, rather than complete, despoliation and destruction. One tenth of the great city collapses (Rev 11:13); the pale horse and its rider, Death, is given power over a quarter of the earth to kill by sword, famine, plague and wild beasts (Rev 6:8); and repeatedly one third of the earth, trees, grass, seas, sea creatures, ships, rivers, sun, moon and stars are variously destroyed, burnt up, corrupted or killed (Rev 8:6-12). This seems to speak of purification and purging: all that is worthy of destruction will be destroyed, but all that remains pure and untarnished will remain.
We can reasonably conclude that any time that we put into caring for the earth will not be wasted. This is, indeed, beginning the task that will be completed when Jesus returns to renew, restore and transform the face of the earth. Then the meek will indeed be able to inherit it (Matt 5:5) and rule upon it (Rev 5:10).
As the fall had repercussions for the earth, so too has the consummation. The eschatological Day of the Lord, as we have seen, involves the transformation of nature, rather than its destruction. The cursed earth produced thorns and thistles (Gen 3:17) and meant food production was difficult (Gen 3:18). But the consummation brings renewed fertility (Ezek 36) and, in that day, ‘the reaper will be overtaken by the ploughman’ (Amos 9:13), ‘they will not toil in vain’ (Is 65:23), ‘the mountains will drip with new wine’ (Joel 3:18), and ‘instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briars, myrtles will grow’ (Is 55:13). The curse will be undone.
The earth will be renewed (Is 66:17) and there will be a return to more than paradise conditions; what started as a garden will end as a city: there will be no war and killing (Is 2:49, 9:5, 11:9), there will be harmony in the animal kingdom (Is 11:6-8, 66:25), no more deserts (Is 35:1, 6-7) and the earth will respond to the Lord (Hos 2:21).
This is the earth we are to inherit, the earth we are to care for now; hence, what we do now is worth it, and of eternal significance. Our involvement is not futile because God will not destroy his creation.