The First Century Church had no notion of inevitable human progress, nor did the early church consider the creation evil or something to be escaped. Rather, the early church taught a very different view. Wright traces three major themes —
The goodness of creation
God is separate from the universe, and yet God made the universe good. Indeed, the creation was an act of love. Humans were made in God’s image and so reflect God’s goodness. The natural role of humans is to worship God.
Nature of evil
Nature is not evil because it’s not made of spirit or because it’s different from God. Moreover, the fact that nature is, at times, transient or subject to decay does not make it evil. Rather, this decay or transience points us toward a future in which the corruptible becomes incorruptible.
Evil is rebellion against God’s will. In fact, evil is particularly the worship of the wrong thing — created things rather than the Creator. And idolatry throws the world askew, leading to all sorts of wickedness, enslaving the worshiper.
Plan of redemption
Redemption isn’t scrapping the creation but liberating that which is enslaved. The coming of Jesus is the moment all creation had been awaiting. “Humans were made to be God’s stewards over creation, so the one through whom all things were made, the eternal son, the eternal wisdom, becomes human so that he might truly become God’s steward, ruler over all his world.
(Col 1:15-20) He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Moreover, in some mystical way, this redemption that Jesus brought affects the entire universe —
(Col 1:23b) This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
“Every creature” is literally “all creation” as in the ESV. When Colossians was written, the gospel had not been preached to every person, or even all in the Roman Empire. Rather, the point is that the gospel had been proclaimed not just to men but to everything God had made and all things were being redeemed.
(Rom 8:20-22) For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
Metaphors for the redemption
To explain this redemption, Paul uses certain metaphors.
In 1 Cor 15, Paul refers to Jesus as the “firstfruits” —
(1 Cor 15:20-24) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 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.
Passover was the time the firstfruits of barley were offered to the Lord. Pentecost was the offering of the firstfruits of wheat. Passover is, of course, the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Pentecost was the founding of the church.
After the firstfruits comes the entire harvest. The firstfruits are sacrificed to God, but they announce the coming of something far greater.
Just so, Jesus’ own resurrection must be of a type with our own. Indeed, Wright argues, if we live in disembodied bliss rather than in resurrected bodies, like Jesus, death will not have been defeated. We’ll still be dead.
Citizens of heaven
(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.
Philippi was a Roman colony, founded by retired soldiers of Rome. The citizens of Rome who lived in Philippi left Rome to live in Philippi. Thus, being a citizen of heaven doesn’t mean living in heaven, no more than the citizens of Rome in Philippi lived in Rome. Rather, it means owing allegiance to heaven. “Savior” and “Lord” were terms used of the Roman emperor.
Notice the image. We aren’t going to Rome to be with the Lord. Rather, we await a Savior “from there” — from heaven. Not in heaven.
God will be all in all
(1 Cor 15:28) When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
“All in all” can also be translated “everything in everything.” The tense is future, meaning that God’s reign is not yet fully realized. Much of the universe is still in rebellion.
(Isa 11:8-9) The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. 9 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.
“How can the waters cover the sea? They are the sea!”
It looks as though God intends to flood the universe with himself, as though the universe, the entire cosmos, was designed as a receptacle for his love. We might even suggest, as a part of a Christian aesthetic, that the world is beautiful not just because it hauntingly reminds us of its creator but al because it is pointing forward: it is designed to be filled, flooded, drenched in God, as a … violin is beautiful not least because we know the mustic of which it is capable. (102)
(Rom 8:20-21) For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Paul uses imagery of the Exodus to describe the cosmos. It’s been enslaved in hopes of being freed.
(Rom 8:22) We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
The image of birth pains is common in Jewish apocalyptic literature. Paul says there is an expectation of a dramatic, sudden birth of a new creation.
There is no sense of slow, steady, inevitable progress. Rather, it will be dramatic.
The marriage of heaven and earth
(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.”
Notice that we aren’t going to heaven. Rather, heaven is coming to us! We aren’t going to God, but God is coming to us.
Indeed, heaven and earth will be joined as a husband and wife. They were made for each other.
This is the fulfillment of the Lord’s Prayer. God’s will will be done on earth as in heaven.
(Rev 21:22) I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
The Temple was symbolic of God’s dwelling, his presence. But when he fills everything, there’s no need for a temple.
(Rev 22:3-5) No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
We aren’t told quite what we’ll be doing in the New Earth, but it seems we’ll have a task — we’ll serve God and we’ll reign.