the beginning and the end

As we enjoyed our complementary cookies and punch after Udo Middelmann’s economy lecture on Saturday night (which was a better value than Dave Ramsey, who charged at least $40 for his talk on Thursday and made people buy their own food), his wife Debbie said something which I’ve been thinking about all weekend.

Debbie said that her father, Francis Schaeffer, was adamant that Christians believe in God’s literal restoration of this creation.  He feared that if Christians went wobbly at the end of the story, spiritualizing Scripture’s emphasis on the new creation into some Platonic version of going to heaven, then what would keep them from doing the same thing with the opening chapters of Genesis?  And if there is no historical, cataclysmic fall from a previously good creation, then the gospel of the redemption of this good creation makes very little sense.

I was thrilled to hear this, and I told her and Udo that some people in some conservative churches think that I am a heretic when I tell them about the new heaven and new earth.  The irony is that if Schaeffer is right, and I think that he is, then I am the conservative, and those who spiritualize the new creation into some otherworldly heavenly destination are in danger of falling into liberalism.

Here’s my added thought.  Aren’t liberals in danger of making the same mistake, but from the opposite direction?  In his book, On Niebuhr, p. 233-34, Langdon Gilkey says that all of the great theologians of the 20th century believed in evolution, which led them to treat the opening chapters of Genesis as non-historical myth.  So Genesis 3 does not describe the “sin of the first man,” but rather “the first sin of man,” or the universal human condition.

Is it a coincidence that those theologians who spiritualized the beginning of the biblical story also spiritualized its end?  The 20th century theologians whom I have studied, such as H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, were panentheists who didn’t take Scripture’s new creation literally (the 20th century’s greatest theologian, Karl Barth, did not develop a specific eschatology).

Something similar seems to be going on with Emergent leaders.  Many take the opening chapters of Genesis as myth (e.g., see Tony Jones’ current blogposts on original sin in Genesis and Paul), and, to my knowledge, those who do have not espoused a literal restoration of this creation. 

Some are extreme, such as Pete Rollins, who even Kevin Corcoran chastises for saying that the kingdom is always coming but never arriving.  But even among those who speak about reuniting with God, I have not heard them articulate belief in a literal new creation, as say, I do in Heaven is a Place on Earth.  According to R. Scott Smith of Biola, this may be because they are panentheists (and panentheists typically believe that our final destiny is to join the One in some ineffable, nondescript union).

Here are my questions: 

1. Do you know of emergent authors who do teach that our destiny is to live forever on this restored earth?  Brian McLaren comes close at times, but leaves me with more questions than clarity about his view (there’s a surprise).  I haven’t read everything written or blogged by emergents, so I’m open to learning what I may have missed.

2. More to the point:  Is it consistent to take the opening chapters of Genesis as non-historical and yet believe that the new earth will be a historical, earthly place? 

Note:  I am not saying that every statement in the opening chapters of Genesis should be taken as a scientific description of how God made the world, for we must take the Bible on its terms rather than as a modern statement against evolution.  But I am saying that we lose something essential if we don’t believe that Genesis 1-2 describes a golden age of creation and Genesis 3 describes this good world’s cataclysmic but reversible fall.

3. Are emergents who don’t think there was a first man who ruined the world with his sin in danger of losing the Christian hope?  If the world has always been fallen, then why should we think that it will ever be fixed?  Among emergents who rightly believe that we will be joined with God, doesn’t their spiritualized view of the end risk being just as Platonic as the conservatives they oppose?



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17 responses to “the beginning and the end”

  1. Q. #1
    A. #1
    1. Will & Lisa Samson, Justice in the Burbs
    2. Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In
    3. Jeremy Bouma, the (un)offensive gospel of Jesus
    4. Mark Scandrette, Soul Graffitti
    5. Me –

    Q. #2
    A. #2
    You answer your own question. But since you left the door open – From a reformed post-Barth perspective, I’ll argue the baptist tradition takes Genesis as word-for-word historic fact and then creates a fairy tale (i.e. Left Behind) out of Revelation to such a point the Christian story looses any connection with reality. {I believe you argue along those lines in “Heaven is a place on Earth.”}

    Q. #3
    A. #3
    Mike, your question doesn’t seem to be about ‘a first man who ruined the world.’ It’s a question about right thinking.

    Frankly, I don’t know if Adam was historic, myth, wives tale, or whatever. I’ll take it at face value of being God’s story with his creation and his created order.

    I factually know that all of the people listed in A.#1 above believe (thought and life) with their entire being that a physical renewed heaven and earth are God’s hope for his creation. They live with this hope as their reality.

    I submit this may be the biggest difference between evangelical Christians and ’emergent’ Christians. We (emergents) live with a hope that requires a different way of living than simply making moderate lifestyle changes… the hope becomes bigger and more real… and calls us into deeper discipleship.

    To satisfy your question though, perhaps it doesn’t matter what one ‘thinks’ about the facts of Genesis so much as one experiences the living God? An encounter with the living God over right thinking seems to be the biblical trajectory for faithfulness. [Hebrews]

    Either Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is the center of our faith and the rest is details to help us understand and better follow our Creator (Daryl Underwood’s ‘centered set’ understanding of the biblical text), OR we end up with beliefs that need to be followed to get us to God.

    If this is the case, Peter Rollins rightly states that we then have created an idolotry all its own: The ‘set of beliefs’ becomes what is defended and worshipped more than the Yahweh.

    IF we follow the set of beliefs, we defend our theological system over and against faithfully following. Then we have indeed lost Jesus Christ as Lord.

    Perhaps it is fair for me to ask this of you: If ‘right belief’ is required to be a Christian (a.k.a. follower of Jesus), is Jesus really Lord? Or does the particular belief system become the lord to which God is subservient?

  2. Mike, you say,…”some people in some conservative churches think that I am a heretic when I tell them about the new heaven and new earth.”

    I am wondering how it feels for you to be outside of their ‘orthodox’ box. To look from the ‘outside in’ or if you maintain you are right and they are wrong… ‘the inside out’.

    If they brand you a heretic are you still ‘brothers in Christ’? When and where do you cross the line in their thinking? I’ll be interested in your thoughts on this.

  3. Good questions. Here’s my take:
    1. I haven’t read as much as Randy, but I have a hard time finding a discussion of new earth in emergent literature. I think the reason for this is their emphasis on the kingdom here and now, which is a good emphasis (as you’d agree). I’ll cite two popular examples: in the Manifesto of Hope, “hope” is all justice today. In McLaren’s Secret Message, the kingdom is all about today. I appreciate this emphasis of emergent, even though some cross into an overrealized eschatology. But I think that is why we don’t see an extended treatment.

    2. I think you can hold to Gen 1-3 myth and a literal new heavens/new earth. Afterall, to hold Gen 1-3 as myth is not to deny God’s intent for a material world (it is not “spiritualized”). Rather, to hold it as myth is to hold it as, for lack of a better term, “unscientific.” I would guess that most who hold it as myth simply accept evolution as the process of how God created the material world but also acknowledge in the continuation of the material world when Christ returns. Jones comes close to this in The New Christians (124 and 154).

    And Randy is right, the dispensationalists are probably the most inconsistent in going from material (Gen) to immaterial (Rev).

    3. I don’t know that they are Platonic. But I do think there is a risk in losing the Christian hope when hope is defined as justice today. We will never achieve perfect justice today, our only hope for ultimate justice is the literal return of Christ and the creation of a new heavens/earth. This is the hope that they miss sometimes.

  4. mikewittmer


    Thanks and I agree with your take. I think it is the emergent’s focus on the here and now that is the main reason they rarely articulate a hope in the new creation. Their largest outstanding problem is how we can have hope that God will ever fix this world if he made it broken to begin with.


    I think that they think I’m still a brother in Christ, just very confused about our everlasting home. At least to my knowledge they have never accused me of denying anything essential to the faith. It’s not fun being suspected of bad theology, whether that criticism is coming from my conservative or emergent friends, but ultimately as I study the Scriptures I think that my view is right and so I try to humbly explain it to them. Sometimes they agree and sometimes they don’t.


    You artificially separate Jesus from the truth about him. I do not understand how believing that “Jesus is Lord” can be an obstacle to the Lordship of Jesus. That is just weird.

  5. The ’emergent’ focus of the kingdom of God as partially, but not fully realized eschatology now is spot on. I doubt anyone will argue this point.

    Likewise, the emphasis has moved away from getting to ‘heaven when you die’ to living into the kingdom of God as current reality.

    Regardless if you read John Calvin, N.T. Wright, Brian McLaren, Stanley Hauerwas, or Leslie Newbigin, you’ll find an emphasis on partially realized eschatology. With the arrival of Christ, the eschaton has begun. When Jesus declares the kingdom of God is at hand, we recognize that something fundamentally changed with the arrival of Jesus Christ.

    While there may be little emphasis on the fully realized recreated order, I try to understand why this is terribly harmful to our understanding of God?

    When the prophet Micah stated that we are to love justice, to do kindness, and to walk humbly with God, he is not talking about some futuristic time when all things will be recreated. He’s talking about the hear and now.

    So, perhaps there is an over-emhasis on the here and now as realized eschatology, but claiming to be followers of Jesus while caring little for the things of this earth has created a miserable public witness over recent decades within this country. It seems a change in course is more than necessary.

    ~ On the issue of separating Jesus from the ‘truth about him,’ let us not forget that Jesus claim, “I am the truth.” John pronounces ‘believe in Jesus Christ.’ The name Yahweh was never spoken in Hebrew circles because it was the name above all names.

    Yet, we attempt to name God and make claims about God. We are left with systematic theological systems that argue with one another all while making ‘truth claims.

    Our need to be ‘right’ becomes our primary guide for being good followers of Jesus. It seems a more humble and biblical stance to suggest, “I may be wrong” than to suggest “I believe I am right.”

    If I am wrong, I still live and die in Christ all while walking humbly and not having a need for a systematic belief system in order for salvation… I wonder how often desire to be right our focus away from God and onto theological systems?

    Worship of ‘truth about Jesus as Lord’ and worship ‘of Jesus as Lord’ are two very different things.

  6. mikewittmer


    You think that you are right just as much as I think that I am right. We just have different views about what is right. You are making claims about God just as much as I am. We just disagree in what we claim about God.

    You say that “I may be wrong” is a more “biblical stance” than “I believe I am right.” What biblical support do you have for this claim? Does your view even remotely sound like Paul’s stance on Mars Hill?

    I wish you wouldn’t confuse “believing that Jesus Christ is Lord” with doing systematic theology. I have never said that we are saved by enumerating and then believing our systematic theologies, but by what Paul told the Philippian jailer and the church in Rome (10:9-13).

    You say: “let us not forget that Jesus claim, “I am the truth.” John pronounces ‘believe in Jesus Christ.’”

    This is my point exactly. Thanks for making it.

  7. good. so we should have no significant issues of difference as ’emergent’ or ‘non-emergent’ followers of Jesus.

    As for saying “I may be wrong’ rather than “I think I am right’? I’ll suggest the difference is the stance of humility in the conversation. Neither you nor I need to prooftext humility as our best way of living before God and his creation.

  8. mikewittmer


    I think you are deceiving yourself if you believe that your stance in this discussion is humbler than mine. In fact, I think that it is arrogant of you to suggest that you are more humble than me. As for needing to “prooftext” humility, you are the one who said that your stance is more biblical. So whether or not you need to support your claim with Scripture, your claim led me to assume at least that you could.

  9. The Hubble Deep Field view of the universe, among other things, raises serious doubts about the traditional belief concerning the renewal of THIS creation. Pondering the Hubble photograph seems to suggest the following: earth is an infinitismally small speck in a mindblowing, vast universe. It is very hard to believe that the future fate of all the objects in the entire universe and the endlessly ongoing creation of coiuntless new stars and planets over billions and billions of years revolves around the literal recreation of earth by the second coming of Christ. Earth cannot be supernaturally renewed without the entire universe undergoing the same event. Anything short of believing the entire universe will be transformed at the end already begins to compromise the doctrine of the renewal of THIS creation. The only way out is to assume that no human like creatures exist anywhere else in the endless, endless galaxies of space. I shockingly realized the absurdity of the traditional doctrine while contemplating the possibility that there could very well exist at least one another planet on which some human like creatures are discussing at this very moment, just as we here one earth, what “the end of the world by the coming of God” means for their planet and the universe. Because of modern scientific knowledge, it is not possible to believe that earth is at the center of God’s plan for the rest of the universe. The conclusion I draw, short of becoming an atheist, is that God is at the center of the universe, not earth. Sincerely, Kurt Volbeda.

  10. Dr. Wittmer,

    I am eager to read the section you quoted from Gilkey. In case I’m misunderstanding you, does Gilkey say these scholars considered Genesis 1-3 to be non-historical myth, as distinct from non-scientific narrative?

    Moving on…I am intrigued by your second question: “Is it consistent to take the opening chapters of Genesis as non-historical and yet believe that the new earth will be a historical, earthly place?”

    In other words, is it possible to have the Christian hope of creation’s Redemption if one believes a Fall never happened? (Am I understanding your question?)…

    …When I think from this angle, I wonder why Christians who don’t believe in a Fall event would long for a Redemption, or why they’d believe Jesus’s death was effective for our salvation? Or what this means about their view of God’s nature?

    I guess I’m interested in emergent *motives.* Why would an emergent Christian believe in personal salvation or universal redemption if they don’t believe in the reality of a Fall? It seems like the Redemption part of the story becomes superfluous…



  11. […] lecture on Christians and the economy. You can read his thoughts about the lecture here and here. I was interested in something he said about Udo’s wife in one of the posts: It was a special […]

  12. Adam,
    From an ’emergent’ guy who does believe in the fall of man while also knowing people who are not sure about it…

    We ALL long for a recreated earth. We all long for goodness and kindness to reign.

    We all long for the return of the king(King). Whether we articulate it or not, we all hope for justice and mercy to reign someday. “When justice rolls down light a mighty water.” We all, as humans created in the image of God, resonate with those hopes, those thoughts, and those dreams for the creation.

    To hope for a creation that is restored is a hope that extends beyond our understanding of the fall/creation. It’s simply a human hope.

    The beauty of it all; regardless of our thoughts on creation and the fall, the King again reigns.


  13. Randy, thanks for your response. I should look into emergent scholars’ explanation for why traditional teaching of the Fall is less than reliable.

    Something you said resonates a lot with my experience of people: “To hope for a creation that is restored is a hope that extends beyond our understanding of the fall/creation. It’s simply a human hope.”

    What occurred to me is that yes, it seems like (generally)
    everyone knows something is wrong on this planet and yearns for it to be put right; but if this awareness doesn’t acknowledge creation/fall—–>redemption, the hope seems to remain just what you called it: a human hope, not the Christian hope.

    Thoughts, anyone? I think I’ve read fewer books than all of you. 🙂

    PS – Randy, I don’t know if you noticed that I engaged your comments in the post about original sin.
    If you get a chance, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  14. Bill M.

    Is there an mp3 available of Udo’s lecture? If so, how can it be aquired?



  15. Greg Larson


    We need to be very careful when we try to limit the ability of God to perform what He has stated based on our limited understanding of His universe.

    You are right that the center of the universe is God, yet in His love he placed the human race on this planet to commune with and worship Him. That God has chosen to love and fellowship with those on this planet regardless of the expanse of the rest of creation is His choice as creator. Our position here is one of divine appointment…not random chance, therefore, the number of stars and associated planets has no bearing on the existence of other beings in the universe.

    As for the impossibility of God renewing the earth without renewing all of the universe…let’s not put God in a scientific box produced from our scientific knowledge. As soon as we speak of God’s inability to perform a task, we cease talking about God. Instead we are discussing an anemic being with no greater power than his supposed creation.

    That being said, if God chooses to renew the entire universe at the consummation he will do so without any difficulty. The universe is big to you and me…not God Almighty.


  16. chad Miler

    I for one found my way to “New heavens new earth” New creation theology by reading Maclaren and then N.T. Wright – As a anabaptist we see that “restored creation” as the basis for an Escaticlogial ethic – in living God’s Kingdom now – including acting with Non-violence for justice in the World.
    Anyway I think that the emerging writer should get some credit for pointing others(like me) to N.T. Wright and even Your Book “heaven is a place on earth” I first saw on the blogs of some of these emerging writers

  17. Here’s a few questions I have regarding this discussion:

    1. What was the purpose of the ancient church creeds? Are these just natural results of a emerging Westernized/Hellenistic influence on an eastern religion (Christianity)?

    2. Is “believe” according to Paul ONLY intellectual assent? My understanding is that it is both/and. Randy seems to assert that right practice is the starting point, Mike Wittmer says that right practice comes from what you intellectually assent to (believe).

    3. What is the basis of salvation in Christ? Is it repentance? What does that mean to Randy and to Mike?

    4. What does “making Jesus your Lord” mean? What portion of intellectual assent and right practice is involved? I think this question probably is closely tied to my previous question.

    These are huge questions for me. I resonate with much of what Randy is saying and think that it offers great hope, however, I recognize Mike’s caution as we maybe just losing proclaiming Jesus with our mouths altogether, and just live by his example. Does that make him just a great teacher? Is that in the spirit of what Ghandi said about him?

    I’m trying in integrate all of these things. I’m taking a course on Historical theology of the ancient church and I’m mesmerized on how many times Christians banded together to combat incorrect thinking about God.

    Mike Wittmer has said in class, “Orthodoxy only rises in lieu of heresy.” That statement disturbs me a little, but at the same time there is so much history on creeds.

    I also am sensitive to Jewish understandings of belief, that they emphasized right practice much more than intellectual assent. I’m not saying they didn’t think it was important (study is the highest form of worship to a Jew), but it seems much more synergized than what many Reformed postures seem to be, which is more on intellectual assent.

    I’m not accusing either side here, just asking some open questions.

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