I recommend J. Richard Middleton’s new book, A New Heaven and a New Earth, which is an encyclopedic resource on this topic. Middleton explains biblically and theologically why our final end is down here rather than up there, and makes this provocative statement that I happen to agree with. “Therefore, for reasons exegetical, theological, and ethical, I have come to repent of using the term ‘heaven’ to describe the future God has in store for the faithful. It is my hope that readers of this book would, after thoughtful consideration, join me in this repentance” (237).
Middleton reveals the incongruity of believing in both the resurrection and that our final destination is heaven (284-85). We can’t have both. If we believe our physical bodies will rise again, then it makes good biblical, theological, and rational sense that these bodies will live on earth. Middleton also explains why the passing away of this world refers to its transformation rather than its obliteration. The new earth is analogous to our “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul did not mean that our old self was annihilated and replaced with a doppelganger. Instead, he meant “the transformation rather than the obliteration of the person” (206). This is good stuff, something every pastor should read so every Christian will know.
There is a lot to learn from this book, though a few items were less convincing. Middleton argues that the biblical vision of the new earth should compel us to embrace egalitarianism. I don’t think an earthy view of the end necessarily leans in one way or the other. The key is whether or not one believes male headship is found in creation. If so, then it would likely remain in the new creation. If not, then it will certainly be gone. Middleton doesn’t prove his case, and he stumbles over Ephesians 5. He claims that “Eph. 5 plants the seeds of the unraveling of hierarchy and oppression the family,” but Paul was afraid to go further, “as it might be too radical to be heard in a first-century context” (276). Given the more radical ideas that Paul did press, it would be surprising if he was afraid to push the envelope on this issue.
The Canadian in Middleton takes a few unsupported swipes at the Tea Party and rich people who harbor “(well-nigh idolatrous) commitments to success, material progress, and national identity” (275, 279). I’m not saying that Middleton doesn’t have a case here, only that he did not make one. I would have liked to hear more about these sins that many in the west need to repent of.
Middleton also seems weak on the intermediate state—he thinks there is scant evidence for it in the New Testament, though he is right to fear that attention paid there has distracted many Christians from their final earthly hope (236). He also seems open to annihilationism (207), and repeats the common claim that the Old Testament wasn’t too interested in the resurrection (133, 135). I’ve always thought this last point is overstated, given the fact that the Old Testament begins with the problem of death. Wouldn’t the Old Testament care about the solution to the problem it raises in its second chapter?
I’m surprised that Middleton cites Jon Levenson for support that “the Old Testament does not typically place any significant hope in life after death” (133). In Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel (Yale University Press, 2008), Levenson argues that while the Old Testament does not explicitly teach the resurrection until Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2, it does emphasize the promise of life and the restoration of this world, both of which require a resurrection.
Despite these issues, there is much to profit from in Middleton’s book. His examination of Plato (31-34) and survey of church history (283-312) are insightful and alone worth getting the book. We may disagree with some of his details and application, but we all should support his general idea. Our destiny is not up there but down here. As a wise man once said, “We’re earthlings, for heaven’s sake.”