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?