This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
• Maltbie D. Babcock
The world into which we shall enter in the Parousia of Jesus Christ is therefore not another world; it is this world, this heaven, this earth; both, however, passed away and renewed. It is these forests, these fields, these cities, these streets, these people that will be the scene of redemption. At present they are battlefields, full of the strife and sorrow of the not yet accomplished consummation; they they will be fields of victory, fields of harvest, where out of seed that was sown with tears the everlasting sheaves will be reaped and brought home.
• Edward Thurneysen
quoted in The Bible and the Future, p. 281
• • •
His 1979 work, The Bible and the Future, is on my personal “short list” of the books that have influenced me most in my life and ministry. Hoekema was Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, and his book is a comprehensive treatment of the amillennial perspective on eschatology. When I first read it, my doubts about dispensationalism had been growing for some time, and Hoekema’s clear, intelligent reading of Scripture took me a long way toward abandoning it altogether. After having done so, I’ve come back to The Bible and Future time and again to solidify and refine my own thinking about our Christian hope.
Hoekema’s first and greatest contribution to my understanding of the age to come was his emphasis upon the new earth.
The doctrine of the new earth, as it is taught in Scripture, is an important one. It is important, first, for the proper understanding of the life to come. One gets the impression from certain hymns that glorified believers will spend eternity in some ethereal heaven somewhere off in space, far away from earth. . . . On the contrary, the Bible assures us that God will create a new earth on which we shall live to God’s praise in glorified, resurrected bodies. On that new earth, therefore, we hope to spend eternity, enjoying its beauties, exploring its resources, and using its treasures to the glory of God. Since God will make the new earth his dwelling place, and since where God dwells there heaven is, we shall then continue to be in heaven while we are on the new earth. For heaven and earth will then no longer be separated, as they are now, but will be one (see Rev. 21:1-3). But to leave the new earth out of consideration when we think of the final state of believers is greatly to impoverish biblical teaching about the life to come. (p. 274)
N.T. Wright has gone further and greatly enriched our conceptions of the future by locating the early Christians’ hope about the age to come firmly within Jewish expectations regarding the resurrection and the age to come and the disciples’ experience of Jesus being raised bodily from the dead. Wright’s work shows that we who have been long taught that “this world is not our home,” making a spatial division in our minds between “earth” and “heaven,” should instead think in temporal terms and consider life in a world which is our home now and life in a world which will be our home in the age to come.
What matters is eschatological duality (the present age and the age to come), not ontological dualism (an evil “earth” and a good “heaven”). (SPH, p. 95)
Wright teases this out by analyzing the “fundamental structures” of the Christian hope, finding that it:
- Is rooted in the goodness of a God-given creation that God made because of love.
- Recognizes that evil is not rooted in the material nature of the world nor its transience but in rebellion and idolatry. This evil has led to the consequence of “death,” which scripture describes as exile, a separation from the presence and blessing of God.
- Views redemption not as wiping the slate clean and starting over, but liberating creation from its slavery through incarnate means. God chose Israel and made his dwelling among them in the Temple that they might bring his light to all nations. Then, in the wake of Israel’s failure, Jesus came to fulfill what they could not do. The One through whom God created the world became part of that world and himself suffered death. He was then raised up, conquering death so that he might be God’s steward and restore God’s original plan of blessing to the whole world (Gen. 1:26-28).
We now live, as one theologian put it, between D-Day and VE-Day. Christ accomplished the decisive act of victory, and his followers are now engaged in battles that bring us ever closer to the culmination of the war. Together, we regularly pray for the consummation of this hope when we say: “May your Kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The key event which enabled the early Christians to believe that the age to come had begun was Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:20-23)
The ultimate personal hope that following Jesus brings therefore is “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23), not a release from our bodies into an ethereal, celestial realm of glory. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus is the “first-fruits” of the resurrection, guaranteeing that all those in him shall likewise be raised. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).
This personal hope fits into God’s larger scheme that involves the renewal of all creation (Ephesians 1:9-10). Whereas now we experience a sense of separation from God and “heaven” (God’s realm), in the age to come heaven will come down to earth (not us go to heaven!) and God will permanently dwell with his people in a world made new (Revelation 21:1-3).
The bottom line is that heaven is not our home, at least in the way this has been presented. We are not simply “passing through” this world on the way to somewhere different and better, away from this earth. Humans were made for this world, and this world shall be our home forever. Heaven will come to us, not vice versa. God will make his dwelling in our midst, we will not take up residence in dwelling places (much less “mansions”!) in celestial realms. Whatever it means to say that the age to come will be full of God’s glory, we will experience it with our feet planted on terra firma.
Perhaps it would be good for us to spend more time meditating on texts like this one from Isaiah, which describe the terrestrial nature of the new creation:
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (Isa. 65:21-22)
And perhaps, with such visions in mind, we can better define what it means to follow Jesus now, in this time when we are awaiting the consummation of that which began with his death, resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Spirit.
Doesn’t this imply that Christians should embrace a calling to live as full human beings, fully engaged in this world; to be people of faith, hope, and love who affirm the goodness of God’s creation and the common humanity we share with our neighbors, who see being “saved by grace” not as an call to stop working but as an invitation to start participating in God’s work of making a better world?