(Hab. 2:14) For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
With this passage, in The Simple Church, N. T. Wright lays out his theory for how the world will be reborn at the end of time. The End, you see, is not about the world ending, but about heaven and earth being merged–God making this new earth his home together with his people.
(Isa. 11:9-10) They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.
The Root of Jesse is, of course, Jesus. “Rest” is used both here and in Hebrews as a metaphor for our existence after the End.
(Heb. 4:4-9) For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” 5 And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.” 6 It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. 7 Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. 9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God … .
Wright argues, “The great drama will end, not with “saved souls” being snatched up into heaven, away from the wicked earth and the mortal bodies which have dragged them down into sin, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, so that “the dwelling of God is with humans” (217).
(Rev. 21:1-4) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 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.”
It’s true. We are not pictured as going to heaven. Rather, God’s dwelling is relocated from heaven to the new earth. (Wright notes that the “sea” is often a metaphor for chaos in the prophets and the Revelation.)
Do other authors say things the same way?
(2 Pet 3:10-13) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. 11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
Notice that Peter envisions us living both in a new heaven and in a new earth.
(Isa. 66:22-23) “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. 23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD.
(Isa 65:17-19) “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. 19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.”
(I apologize for the long quotes, but I just love reading these passages.)
(1 Cor. 15:35-44) But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.
39 All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
The old earth will be destroyed and replaced by a new earth in which God dwells. Moreover, our bodies will be replaced by new, spiritual bodies that are different in kind from our present bodies (thank goodness! I can’t imagine an eternity in my present body!)
(1 Cor. 15:51-53) Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.
Paul speaks of those awaiting the End as sleeping. But those who are alive at the End will not sleep. But both the awake and the asleep will be changed and given imperishable bodies.
(1 Cor. 15:22-26) For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Jesus’ second coming is a coming. We aren’t called into heaven to be with Jesus. Rather, Jesus returns to be with his people.
The old earth will be destroyed, which will certainly put an end to “all dominion, authority and power.” Of course, human government will no longer be needed.
And then Jesus will turn the new earth over to God, who, as we’ve seen, will live in the new earth. And, of course, as only the covenant people will live in the new earth, there will no more death, and so death will have been destroyed.
(Phil. 3:20-21) But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Paul does not await being lifted into heaven to be with Jesus. Rather, he waits the coming of Jesus to earth.
But at least one other passage seems to paint a different picture.
(1 Thes. 4:16-17) For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
Although we see the familiar coming of Jesus from heaven, we are also told that the saved will be caught up into the clouds to meet him. We don’t see the Christians taken into heaven or returned to earth. Surely, we don’t stay in the clouds!
This is, of course, the passage that famously inspires the teaching of the Rapture, with Christians called up into heaven while the lost are “left behind.”
Wright disagrees with this interpretation–
Paul’s description of Jesus’ reappearance in 1 Thessalonians 4 is a brightly colored version of what he says in two other passages, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 and Philippians 3:20-21: At Jesus’ “coming” or “appearing,” those who are still alive will be “changed” or “transformed” so that their mortal bodies will become incorruptible, deathless. This is all that Paul intends to say in Thessalonians, but here he borrows imagery—from biblical and political sources—to enhance his message. Little did he know how his rich metaphors would be misunderstood two millennia later.
First, Paul echoes the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Torah. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses comes to see what’s been going on in his absence.
Second, he echoes Daniel 7, in which “the people of the saints of the Most High” (that is, the “one like a son of man”) are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up to sit with God in glory. This metaphor, applied to Jesus in the Gospels, is now applied to Christians who are suffering persecution.
Third, Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world.
Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.
N. T. Wright, “Farewell to the Rapture” (2001). Well, I’ve never thought the Rapture theory made much sense. Or maybe I’m just tired of the “In case of Rapture, this car will have no driver!” bumper stickers. They just seemed a little smug, you know?
If our bodies are transformed in the twinkle of eye to bodies like Jesus’, and if Jesus was able to ascend into heaven in his new body, then it’s only natural that we would go up into the clouds to meet Jesus as he comes to earth. I would!
This much the passage says. It doesn’t say that Jesus takes us into heaven rather than the new earth promised in the other passages.
(John 14:1-4) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Now, this is my favorite image of the after-life. The King James Version botched the translation. It says that there are many mansions in God’s house–a mixed metaphor and not at all the thought of the passage.
There are “rooms”–not mansions! We will live in God’s house. We won’t live 20 blocks away, hoping for a weekend invitation to visit. We’ll live in the same house. We’ll eat breakfast together! (or whatever people do in these new bodies we’ll have).
Jesus refers to his second coming. He promises a guest room “where I am.” The present tense is confusing as Jesus was on earth as he spoke. Moreover, Jesus promised this dwelling with God after his second coming, long in the future.
Of course, Jesus’ seven references to “I am” in John are all claims to be co-equal with God, and perhaps he violated the rules of grammar to make the point one last time.
But the implication certainly seems to be that Jesus will be in his Father’s house long before his followers. The resolution has to be found in Revelation 21:2, which we quoted earlier–
2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
It’s the same thought. Jesus will be in heaven getting our new rooms ready.
However, there is still an inconsistency. Our dwelling place is called the new Jerusalem, a city, in several passages but it’s called God’s house by Jesus. The solution has to be found in being a bit less literal.
There will be a place lovingly prepared for us where we will dwell in glorious intimacy with God. But it won’t be like this earth. Just as our bodies will be different, so will our dwelling.
OK. Time for a few conclusions.
* The images are figures of speech, but they are given to us to help us understand and anticipate and long for the End. But the End is promised to be a new beginning, incorruptible, imperishable.
* This new earth will be radically different from our own. Paul makes clear it will not be the same. I mean, I personally can’t imagine a perfect earth without a beach, and the Bible says there will be no sea! But that’s thinking way too literally.
* I’ve not quoted the Judgment Day passages, but a separation of the saved from the lost will certainly happen, and the lost will be taken away from the presence of God. 2 Thes. 1:9.
* On the whole, I think Wright has it right. This understanding seems well confirmed by these passages and very consistent with the prophets.
* However, as Wright notes, this leaves us to wonder what happens in between. If we don’t get to live in the new Jerusalem on the new earth until the End, where do we live until then? My speculations on that question will be the subject of the next post.