Dr. Bill Brown of Columbia Seminary led two sessions on creation care at the Q3 conference and they were both very inspiring.
One of the themes of his second talk was the danger of the “rapture theology” that seems so prevalent today, thanks in large part to the “Left Behind” series of best-selling end-times novels. But even before those books we had books like “The Late Great Planet Earth,” promoting the notion that God’s ultimate plan is to destroy the earth. The concept, which Dr. Brown called the greatest heresy of our day, originated in the early 20th Century and is unique to North America. It has engendered destructive, irresponsible and irreverent thinking about tending to the earth and even spills dangerously into attitudes about foreign policy, as folks imagine and anticipate a violent, bloody end of our world.
While it is best to be cautious, humble and not overconfident when thinking about eschatology, the notion that Jesus will return twice, once to rapture believers to heaven and a second time to destroy the earth, seems to be based on a misreading of a couple of Bible passages. Never a part of Christian thinking for nearly 2,000 years, it was popularized in parts of America as a result of the publication of Cyrus Schofield’s Schofield Reference Bible in 1909. The doctrine has now become incorporated into “dispensationalism,” a theology prominent among a few American denominations (principally Southern Baptists). As a result of the wildly popular Left Behind novels, it now seems firmly entrenched in some segments of American Christianity.
But although eschatology can be slippery at times, what the Bible seems to anticipate is not the destruction of God’s creation, but rather its renewal and redemption. Christians for 20 centuries have anticipated a general resurrection of the dead and eternal life on earth in a new creation, very much like the original Eden. In the book we call Revelation John describes his vision of a “new heaven and a new earth.” He sees “the holy city” coming down from heaven to earth. John writes, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!‘“
John specifically alludes to the prophecy of Isaiah, whose own vision of God’s plan for the world was its redemption and restoration, not its destruction:
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The LORD has spoken.
The “new creation” as described by Isaiah and other prophets was a restoration to the way things were in Eden. God walks with humanity, there is no death, and there is peace and harmony among God’s creatures.
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 infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
As Dr. Brown put it, “Revelation 21:5 does not say ‘I am making all new things.’ It says, ‘I am making all things new.'”
When that day comes, what a blessing it will be to be “left behind,” to enjoy it forever.