Recently, I had the privilege of joining my good friends at the ABC Conference in Dallas. The theme of the conference was “The Groaning Cosmos” taken from Romans 8. My last session on Saturday dealt with one of my favorite passages, Romans 8:18-25. Below is the gist of what I said (explained in much more detail in my book Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different).
For a long time now, I’ve been convinced that the way most Christians think about redemption is influenced more by ancient Greek philosophy than by the Bible. We think of ultimate redemption as being redemption from the body, not of the body; redemption from the world, not of the world; redemption from the material, not of the material. This, however, goes against what the Bible clearly teaches about redemption.
In the Lord’s Prayer we see that God’s ultimate goal for earth is that it become like heaven.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9-10)
God’s mission is to bring heaven to earth—this planet!
There are many people who believe that God will destroy this present world—all of it—and start over, creating a new world from scratch. As I’ve talked to people who believe this, most base their conclusion on 2 Peter 3, where the apostle Peter says, “The heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (verse 7). He goes on to say, “The earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (verse 10).
In wrestling with this passage, one pastor recently concluded, “There is virtually no continuity between the present and the new creation. The new creation is truly new. The old passes away; it is burned up and dissolved.” Like this pastor, many have tended to see in that last sentence (verse 10) more than what’s there, a misunderstanding fueled in part by a questionable translation.
Let me explain.
In the King James Version this verse reads, “The earth . . . and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” The same “burned up” phrase appears in some modern English versions rooted in the King James tradition. New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner points out that, indeed, “some Greek manuscripts have this wording (Greek kataka setai),” but that “the earliest and most reliable manuscripts” have a different Greek phrase, heureth setai, carrying the idea of being “found” or “found out.” This is what’s represented in other English versions, such as these examples:
• “The earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” (ESV)
• “The earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” (NIV)
These translations indicate, not the obliteration of the earth, but rather a type of purging. Notice, too, that the earthly destruction mentioned in 2 Peter 3:6 (from the flood in Noah’s day) is cleansing rather than annihilating.
Schreiner then looks at the bigger picture:
Scholars have debated whether the NT speaks of an annihilation of the present cosmos and the creation of a new universe, or whether it indicates the transformation of the present cosmos, including the earth. The latter seems more likely in light of: (1) the preferred reading of this passage . . . ; (2) Rom. 8:18‑25; (3) many OT prophecies about the renewal of the earth; (4) Christ’s resurrection body being in continuity with his earthly body; and (5) the fact that Christ’s resurrection body is a pattern for the resurrection bodies of Christians (1 Cor. 15:12‑58). God seems always to renew, not destroy and recreate, parts of his creation that are marred by sin.
The Romans passage referred to in the above quote speaks explicitly about all of creation waiting for its ultimate liberation:
The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:19‑21)
God doesn’t plan to utterly destroy this present world and build a brand-new world from scratch. Instead he plans a radical renovation project for the world we live in today. The Bible never says that everything will be burned up and replaced. Rather, it says that everything will be purged with fire and restored. God won’t destroy everything that now exists, but he will destroy all the corruption, brokenness, and chaos we see in our world, purging from it everything that is impure and sinful.
Matthew 24:37‑41 is another passage some use to justify an escapist theology, approaching this world with a “Why shine the brass on a sinking ship?” attitude. In this passage Jesus likens “the coming of the Son of Man” to the time of Noah, when people “were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away.” Then Jesus gives two brief pictures of the effect of his coming: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.”
These verses have been employed to support the idea that God will one day evacuate, or “rapture,” all the righteous people, leaving behind an evil world destined for annihilation. Therefore, the thinking goes, Christians should focus exclusively on seeking to rescue lost souls rather than waste time trying to fix things that are broken in this doomed world. This perspective is evidenced in a comment I read not long ago from a well-known Bible teacher: “Evangelism is the one reason God’s people are still on earth.”
But a closer look at the context reveals that in those pictures Jesus gave of men in the field and women at the mill, those “left behind” are the righteous rather than the unrighteous. Like the people in Noah’s day who were “swept away,” leaving behind Noah and his family to rebuild the world, so the unrighteous are “taken,” while the righteous are left behind. Why? Because this world belongs to God, and he’s in the process of gaining it all back, not giving it all up.
When it comes to this world’s future, God will follow the same pattern he engineered in Noah’s day, when he washed away everything that was perverse and wicked but did not obliterate everything. God will not annihilate the cosmos; he’ll renew, redeem, and resurrect it. As Randy Alcorn writes, “We will be the same people made new and we will live on the same Earth made new.”
Moreover, the comparison between the floodwaters in Noah’s day and the fire that Peter wrote about is significant. The wicked things that are “swept away” by water can grow back (as happened in Noah’s time). But the wicked things burned up by fire can never come back. The burning-away effect of fire is permanent; the sweeping-away effect of water isn’t. Fire, in this case, is better than flood.
One thing all of this means is that God intends to bring redemption into every arena where sin has brought corruption—and that’s everywhere! As the beloved Christmas hymn “Joy to the World” puts it:
He comes to make his blessings flow, Far as the curse is found.
In these remarkable lines we broadcast in song a gospel as large as the universe itself. The blessings of redemption “flow as far as the curse is found.” This hymn reminds us that the gospel is good news to a world that has, in every imaginable way, been twisted away from the intention of the Creator’s design by the powers of sin and death, but that God, in Christ, is putting it back into shape.
Understanding God’s mission fuels our hope and summons our engagement in a world that desperately needs to hear that one day the fraying fabric of our world will be perfectly rewoven. That for those who have found forgiveness of sins in Christ, there will one day be no more sickness, no more death, no more tears, no more division, no more tension. For the pardoned children of God, there’ll be complete harmony. We’ll work and worship in a perfectly renewed earth without the interference of sin. We who believe the gospel will enjoy sinless hearts and minds along with disease-free bodies. All that causes us pain and discomfort will be destroyed, and we will live forever. We’ll finally be able, as John Piper says, “to enjoy what is most enjoyable with unbounded energy and passion forever.”
It’s true. God is making all things new!
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