I was discussing Justification with a friend of mine not long ago as we were wrestling through some of N.T. Wrights ideas about the subject. As we did my friend chuckled a bit (he’s a jolly young fellow) and said to me, “Man, you give Wright lots of passes don’t you”. I thought about it for a moment and said, “Yah, I think I do”. In trying to think Wright’s thoughts after him, to use his own terminology, I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt and answer questions posed by a critical reflection of his system as he might answer them. When I do that I tend to give him “lots of passes”.
True enough. But I am not – as some might charge – a “Wrightian Drone”. For instance, Wright is an Anglican Bishop. I can only assume by that fact that he believes and endorses the doctrine of infant baptism. I do not. But nothing I have read of N.T. Wright so much as brings up the subject of “infant” verses “believers” baptism, so I have had no reason to bring this up either. In general, both his critics and his fans cheer the fact that Wright has done a great service for the Church by drawing out the big picture of the scriptures, and I am personally grateful for his insistence on returning to the scriptures as the guiding authority over and above all traditions – even the Great Reformed Tradition.
But there is something Wright teaches in Surprised by Hope which I would like to contend with. In doing so, I hope to avoid the charge of having “Gnostic tendencies” on the one hand, or of being inconsiderate of the environment on the other. I agree with N.T. Wrights conclusions and I also agree with his premise, I just don’t think his premise reach his conclusions (at least not the way he arrives to them). His argument in Surprised by Hope goes something like this:
Premise: the Earth we inhabit now will be the same Earth we will inhabit in Eternity.
Conclusion 1: therefore what we do to the Earth now will have Eternal consequences.
Conclusion 2: therefore take care of the Earth.
Each one of those points is true in their own right. But I believe what is being implied by N.T. Wright’s argument is not correct when taken together and when his terms are defined. What I believe Wright means by this argument is that because this earth will be the earth which heaven meets in the future when the two become one, we need to take care of this world and not pollute it. If we pollute it now, it will have consequences in the age to come which seems to suggest that when heaven comes to earth the pollution will simply remain and (presumably) in eternity we will have some eco-cleaning up to do. So let’s take a closer look at his argument point by point.
Same Earth or Renewed Earth?
In order for Wright’s argument to stand as it is, the belief that it is the same Earth needs to be qualified. When Heaven and Earth come together the imagery is not so much that a “new Earth” apart from this one will be created, but rather Heaven will come down to this Earth. Yet even the phrase “this Earth” needs to be qualified. It seems to me that in order for his argument to stand, “this Earth” must be understood as “this polluted Earth”; the Earth as it is when Christ returns will remain as it is. This is the only way that it can be said that how we treat the Earth now (as far as the environment is concerned) will have direct consequences in Eternity.
If this is how N.T. Wright’s argument is formulated (and I believe it is), then I take issue. I do not believe that, for example, if I litter a styrofoam cup today, and if Christ comes back tomorrow, that my Styrofoam cup will remain on the Earth in eternity until (or if) it finally decomposes. 2 Peter 3:5-10 highlights this point:
“By the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the Day of Judgment and destruction of the godless… But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be [burned up].”
Notice how the phrase “the world of that time was deluged with water and perished” is juxtaposed with the phrase “the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire”. Peter is comparing the Flood which he believed was global (a point we’ll take for granted) and which caused the world at that time to “perish”, with a future fire which will also “burn up” everything that is “done on” the earth.
But notice something else of interest here: before the Flood and after the Flood the same Earth is used. God just cleaned it up. Similarly the present Earth and the Earth in the age to come will be the same ball, the same rock, the same planet, but cleaned up. As Peter says, “everything that is done on it will be burned up”, which means that any toxins from vehicles, any litter on the ground, and all the eco-disasters which are ruining our present Earth will not have any consequences on the New Earth.
Eternal Consequences Affirmed
This does not mean that what we do now has no consequences in Eternity. As I affirmed Wright’s first premise, that the present Earth and the New Earth are the same Earth, so now I affirm his second point, that how we handle the Earth now will have Eternal consequences. But the consequences will not be of the Earth but of those who mishandle it. Paul writes in Romans 8:19-23:
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Creation itself has been subject to the consequences of the fall and has been “groaning” to be redeemed. It is interesting that Paul here (like Peter above) juxtaposes creations groaning to be “set from free its bondage to decay” with children of God who have been groaning “inwardly while we wait… the redemption of our bodies”. For the redemption of our bodies they must first died like a seed planted in the ground before we can obtain an imperishable body (1 Cor 15:42); likewise the earth which is also awaiting redemption according to this text in Romans 8, it too must first be purified by fire (2 Peter 3:10).
The point is that the Earth after God’s barbeque will not suffer the consequences of the present worlds’ pollution. Rather, the consequences bare more on the present and on the Children of God which will reverberate throughout Eternity as it translates into lost souls who may have otherwise been redeemed. This is because how we steward Gods creation will testify of God either for the good or for the bad. If Christians who worship the Creator God won’t take care of God’s creation, what will that do for our testimony to a world that worships the creation and not the Creator? When non-Christians lead the way in Earthly care and environmental concerns they perpetuate the worship of their god (Gaia – Greek goddess of creation, New Age philosophies and so on, see G.K. Beale’s book, We Become What We Worship, Romans 1:24-25). But when Christians become global leaders in Earth care the ball falls in our court to testify or perpetuate the worship of our God the Creator (Romans 1:20) of planet earth and the universe!
Stewardship or Kingdom Living?
This leads us, naturally, to the concept of stewardship. We are to care for the earth, not for the reason which N.T. Wright puts forth – care for the earth because if we pollute it now we have to live in it for eternity – but for a different reason all together which I’ll now explain.
In the original creation God commanded the first humans to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). We know that creation suffered decay as a result of Adam’s rebellion (Romans 8:20) but now we need to add another dimension to the equation: The “already” aspect of the New Creation! The long awaited for redemption is here now – in the Spirit and by the Spirit, through Christ and for Christ – but not yet in full (i.e., Already/Not Yet). Paul writes in Colossians 1:15-20:
“For in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created… all things have been created through him and for him… and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Notice the tense: God was (pass tense) pleased to reconcile heaven and earth to himself through Christ’s atoning working on the cross. When Christ said, “it is finished”, that was it. It was finished! So while creation waits for redemption from decay (Romans 8:19-21) in the sense that the end has not yet come, still in another sense creation is experiencing its redemption even now, already! But here is the cool part which ties this whole discussion together: creation experiences redemption now by the blood of Christ through his body, the Church, who are already a new creation even now. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says:
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
As a new creation we are to live now, in this world, as Christ is now in heaven: “as he is (NOW), so are we (NOW) in this world” (1 John 4:17). So then we must ask ourselves, what is the heart of God towards creation? I think Jesus spells it out nicely in what has come to be known as The Lord’s Prayer:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdome come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9-10)
Gods Kingdom comes wherever and whenever God is reigning. As King, wherever Gods will is being done, that is where he is reigning. If his will is being done through you and I and on “earth as it is in heaven” then that is how God is reigning in this world, on this earth now! That is how creation is experiencing redemption even while it is fallen, because we who are now a part of the new creation while living in the fallen world are living in a way that brings in the new creation when we bring in the Kingdom. We do this when we let God reign in our lives and through our actions!
It is not about following a command or even about being good stewards. I think when the church teaches Earth care this way (similar to how they teach church giving as the command to tithe and stewardship), we miss the point and produce no fruit. There are commands and we are called to be stewards, but those are mere byproducts of the big picture: KINGDOM LIVING!
Conclusion: Why I Take Issue With Wright
So what’s the point? In this overview I have attempted to reach the same conclusions which N.T. Wright has reached but by taking another route. I am going out on a limb here and suggesting that N.T. Wright’s view of “End Times” is Postmillennial whereas my view is Amillennial. He has reached his conclusions about Earth care by taking the Postmillennial byway, which teaches that the earth will get better and better until one day the whole earth will be just about converted, and Christ will finally return to a Kingdom which has already been established by his Church through the Spirit. Contrary to this road I have taken the Amillennial highway which teaches that things are going to get worse and worse (especially in the church) until one day Christ will return to judge, cleanse and re-create.
So while this post may have seemed to be about how Christians ought to take care of creation in light of eternity, it was really (minutely) about a contrast between Postmillennialism and Amillennialism. I affirm all of Wright’s conclusions, but I do not need to be an Postmillennialist to get there. This earth will burn, but that does not negate our responsibility to be leading stewards in this world as we live out the Kingdom on earth in a way that reflects how Christ lived and is living now in Heaven. And one day when Heaven and Earth are married together, we will be called to account for how we cared for this world and the consequences for those who witnessed our testimony as the Creator’s stewards, when the earth is redeemed and as we live bodily forever on it. Amen.