Earlier this month our seminary hosted a one-day conference on the biblical teaching that our final destiny is the new earth. Check your church’s doctrinal statement, and there is a good chance that it leaves believers either in heaven or the millennium. We’re trying to correct that, and to say why it matters.
You can listen to the podcasts on our seminary’s website. The first ten minutes of my opening talk are missing, and since the sound technician says it wasn’t him, I assume it was Satan. I made the point that it’s a great comfort to know that the souls of those who die in Christ go to heaven, but the biblical story ends with them returning with Jesus to this earth. We must not oversell going to heaven or we will lose the awfulness of death and the triumph of the resurrection. We must insist on the restored earth to guard the goodness of creation, which is essential for the gospel and a genuine, whole-person relationship with God.
Neal Plantinga followed with a finely crafted sermon that explained the Bible has a big view of redemption because it has a big view of the fall. God isn’t content to merely save souls. He wants bodies too. And not just individuals, but societies and their systems also. Salvation is the biblical way of spelling shalom.
Keith Getty gave an intriguing interview on the role of music in worship. He noted that the best gauge for the health of a congregation is how well it sings. He said “deep believers want to sing deep things about God,” and he challenged pastors to select 40-50 songs that they want their people to grow old singing, then make sure they sing them at least twice each year. We are the first generation that doesn’t have such a list, as many of our churches switch out our songs every five years. If we want our people to have a deep faith, we should focus on those songs that will last our whole lives. Getty ended his session by teaching us his song, “Creation Sings.”
Doug Moo lectured on the new creation in the New Testament, noting that “new creation” in 2 Cor. 5:17 and Gal. 6:14-16 may be describing more than merely an individual’s salvation. Paul probably has in mind a more expansive idea of cosmic renewal. The new creation dawned with the resurrection of Christ. This has profound implications for individuals, and also for the natural world.
John Duff gave a historical survey of what the church thought about our final state. Surprisingly, most theologians, such as Augustine and Calvin, believed this world would be restored, though it wouldn’t be for us. The saints would live in heaven, from which we could gaze upon the new earth as an empty monument to God’s glory (sort of like a Kardashian). Duff concluded that most theologians believed in the new creation, even if they missed its purpose.
Martin Spence explained that church history’s reluctance to embrace the new creation wasn’t on purpose as much as it followed implicitly from other things. Persecution and then monasticism in the early church led Christians to reject an earthly kingdom of God and focus on getting their souls into heaven. The individualism of the Enlightenment prompted Christians to focus on personal salvation rather than the redemption of the world, while pietism was concerned about inner experience and fleeing worldliness rather than about seeing God’s kingdom come to earth. Dispensationalism placed the church in heaven, conservatives overreacted to the worldly focus of the social gospel, and even our present culture wars leave many to say, “Thank goodness this world is not our home.” Spence noted the church as a whole has never debated its view on the new creation. It simply discarded the new earth as a result of earlier wrong moves.
The day closed with a lightning round of questions for our distinguished panel, which among other things, offered intriguing perspectives on whether there will be sex on the new earth. So yeah, you are probably going to listen to that first.
It was a great day, with lots to think about and much to implement in our churches. You should listen to them all.