“Christianity is not only about getting one’s individual sins forgiven so we can go to heaven. That is an important means of God’s salvation, but not the final end or purpose of it. The purpose of Jesus’ coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it.”
— Tim Keller in The Reason for God
This past week, we gained a new reason to long for Christ’s return. A dear friend died suddenly, and our friends are left without a husband and a father. As last week was the first week of Advent, it was a deep and painful a time to long for Christ’s return and the restoration that He will bring. As we move into this second week of Advent, my heart, still heavy with this loss, is turning to think about hope. What is the Christian picture of hope? When a person you love dies, we immediately hear talk of heaven. Certainly those who are in Christ go to heaven when they die. But is that it?
People like to say that “heaven is our home”, but if that’s the case then why did God make earth? Why did He make Adam and Eve and place them on earth to reign over it? Both of those things occurred before the Fall. Moreover, after the Fall, God had the perfect opportunity to destroy the earth and start over. In Genesis 9, sin has reached a boiling point and the effects of sin have already begun to have devastating consequences. Yet God goes through great lengths to preserve His original creation, down to instructing Noah to get two of each animal.
Is it possible that “new heavens and new earth” is renewed heavens and renewed earth? That would be closer to the Jewish idea of “new”, as in “new covenant” which really means “covenant renewal.” What if the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, actually is faithful to His covenant with His creation (Genesis 9) and to His people (Genesis 12)? God’s faithfulness means not scrapping the original and creating again ex nihilo, but rather renewing it, redeeming it, rescuing it.
Maybe, as St. Paul argues, Jesus’ death and resurrection is not just an illustration of what will happen to the cosmos; it is the firstfruits of it (1 Corinthians 15). Jesus’ physical body didn’t remain in the grave while God gave Him a glorified, resurrection body. It was the same body that passed through death that was transformed. This earth and heaven will “pass away” just as Jesus’ body died. But they will come through death and be renewed just as Jesus’ body was. What if, as N. T. Wright suggests, God really will “do for the cosmos what He has done for Jesus at Easter”, that He will bring about the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:19-21)? This new heaven and new earth will be joined together as one, much as things were in the beginning (Ephesians 1:10, Revelations 21).
The current heaven that believers are in now, then,– the “paradise” Jesus said the thief would join Him in– is a temporary place of rest with God. “Paradise”, in fact, as Wright and others suggest, is a word used to connote an oasis, or a roadside inn. Perhaps this is what Jesus referred to as a house in which “they are many rooms.” In a sense, those who are with Christ in Heaven are longing along with us and all creation for Christ’s return. They long from a place of rest; we long from a world in exile. But we both have the same final hope. For the Christian, our final hope is not evacuation; it’s restoration.
“Heaven is important but it’s not the end of the world.”
— N. T. Wright in Surprised by Hope