I haven’t yet dug into What is the Mission of the Church?, the new book by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. It looks promising, and I plan to read it carefully soon. I did read their section on the continuity and discontinuity of the new earth (p. 213-19), and thought I could make a few contributions to their discussion.
1. They rightly note that Scripture teaches both discontinuity (Matt. 24:35–“heaven and earth will pass away”) and continuity (Rom. 8:18-25–“creation itself will be liberated”) between this world and the next. Indeed, both elements are included in the phrase, “new earth.” The term “new” implies that something is different while the term “earth” means that much remains the same. Kevin and Greg make an admirable and helpful attempt to explain both groups of passages.
2. They suggest that one way to understand the biblical teaching of discontinuity and continuity is that perhaps this earth will experience a death and resurrection (p. 216). If this earth is burned up and dies, then there is discontinuity between this world and the next. And if this earth is raised again, like a phoenix from the ashes, then there will also be continuity (p. 217). I think this is a helpful way to think about how the end might go, though I also think that their suggestion implies more continuity than they realize. Let me explain.
3. There must be much continuity between the resurrected earth and the present earth, because if the new earth is too different from the present earth, then it hasn’t been resurrected but replaced. The same is true of you. If the “resurrection you” is too different from the “present you,” then you will not have been redeemed but replaced (note the future pluperfect tense, a difficult tense to pull off. This is one of those times I wish I had a blog editor). So their hypothesis of cosmic death and resurrection does not leave the continuity/continuity question as unresolved as they think (p. 219). It actually is a strong argument for continuity. The resurrected you and the resurrected earth must be really you and the earth, or there is no resurrection.
4. But what about the passages that say “heaven and earth will pass away”? These passages address merely the process or method by which God takes us to the new earth. They do not imply anything about the content of the new earth. It ultimately doesn’t matter whether God takes us to the new earth by a refining fire or an annihilating fire. The end will still be the same. We are better off focusing on the end—what is similar and different about our final state—and leave the process of getting there up to God. The process of reaching the new earth has little to no bearing on what we will find when we get there.
5. Kevin and Greg say that this earth won’t be obliterated or annihilated, but their tentative description sounds awfully close. They write that “perhaps, everything will be burned up at the end of history. The earth will be destroyed, but the planet will still be here, still the same earth ready like a phoenix to rise from the ashes” (p. 217). If I came home and found that my house had burned down into a pile of ashes, I think I would describe its demise as “obliteration” or “annihilation.” Perhaps this wouldn’t be technically accurate, as a pile of ashes is still something, but I think my description would be in the neighborhood. Unlike my house, which would have been annihilated.
6. What about 1 Cor. 15:42-44, which says that our resurrection body will be “something crucially different” (p. 216)? The difference that Paul highlights here is immortality. My resurrection body will still be me, with the added bonus of immortality. I don’t think we should read any more discontinuities into this passage than the one that Paul is making.
7. Kevin and Greg seem concerned to make the point that the passing away of this earth means that our cultural achievements will not last. They take issue with Andy Crouch, who suggests that perhaps our well-crafted boats will make it through to the new earth. A couple of points here: Andy says “perhaps,” so it seems unfair to say that he is “with certainty” asserting “that our efforts at cultural renewal will have an impact on the renewed earth” (p. 218).
8. Furthermore, the point here is not that this tree or that boat will make it through to the new earth, but that people with all of their accrued cultural knowhow will. I don’t think that one of my cultural achievements will reappear on the new earth—every book and bookshelf I ever wrote or made will almost certainly be burned away. But the cultural knowhow that creates books and bookshelves has been passed down through me to successive generations. And so even if we start the new earth from scratch, it won’t take us long to recreate the last achievements of our civilization. Will no one be able to rewrite from memory Eine kleine nachtmusik, and then build upwards from there?
I do like what Kevin and Greg are doing in this section, and I learned from their suggestion that perhaps the earth will undergo a death and resurrection. I hope that these thoughts may contribute to the ongoing dialogue about this important question.