When the Gospel includes New Creation

How “new” is teaching about new creation? If you listen to some, it’s a revolutionary idea. How “different” is the final new creation kingdom from what has been classically taught about heaven? Matthew Bates, in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, drills down on this theme of new creation and I would add a footnote to his discussion by noting my own book The Heaven Promise as an attempt both to frame belief in in heaven as belief in a new creation (new heavens, new earth) mode. If one reads on the history of heaven one will discover, quite frankly, that the best thinkers in history did not make heaven simply a place for souls, or simply a place of worship, or even a place of non-recognition — that is, where we will be so enthralled by God that we will not know one another (or care). The best thinkers combined two themes: worship with sociality. So sometimes I think the dramatic claim that new heavens and new earth thinking is totally different is only a claim that it differs from one particular, however popular, stream of heaven thinking.

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 11.34.33 AMBates tackles new creation head on, beginning with a story of his preaching to an unsuspecting small church far more accustomed to soul-to-heaven thinking. He offers this pastoral, wise observation:

I tell this story to illustrate that there are deeply held convictions about heaven as the final reward among Christians—convictions that are not easily modified. Despite a near consensus among academics that the Bible does not teach that heaven as traditionally understood is the final goal of redeemed humanity, traditional convictions about heaven remain very stable in the church because, as a legacy of Western civilization, they are perpetually reinforced by the media and popular culture.

What has changed is holistic redemption:

For if final salvation is not primarily about the individual soul going to heaven, but about embodied transformation as the individual participates alongside others in the holistic restoration of the entire cosmos, then the logic of the allegiance-alone proposal takes on greater coherence. Allegiance to Jesus the king is the basis of citizenship in the new Jerusalem. Moreover allegiance entails an invitation to rule alongside him and is the foundation for transformation into his image.

Which is to say, pew-sitting-Christianity will be in for either a big surprise or an even bigger surprise.

While an important text in Isaiah on new heavens and new earth are behind it all, the fundamental vision for new creation is found in the Book of Revelation 22:12–16. Bates: “So, at the end of the salvation story, we do not find humans in heaven; rather we discover they are city-dwellers, still on earth” (132).

Here is a very critical element in this theology: any view of heaven, esp if it is new creation heaven, must offer meaningful hope to those who face death and tragedy. I find that some who emphasize new creation themes have no words for those who are dying. That’s a disastrous theology of heaven since hope is not only a NT word but the first embodiment of new creation heaven is the resurrected Jesus. You dare not tell people facing death that they need to get their eyes off what happens after death and onto the bigger theme of the renewal of all creation because inherent to the word “renewal” is the undoing of death as the hope of our faith. If you can’t talk to the dying with that hope, find something else to do.

So even though John states in Revelation that the first heaven and earth have “passed away,” the new heaven and new earth is best understood not as a brand-new creation from nothing but as containing elements of the old creation that have been purified and radically recrafted so as to be taken up into the new.

What will it be like? Evil will cease to exist; the place of chaos and death (ocean) will be no more; God will be with us and the great theme of divine-human companionship will be where it is designed. From tabernacle to temple to the incarnation [SMcK: to Paraclete] God will be with us. That is, we don’t go to God so much as God comes to us.

And we will live in the new Jerusalem. We will be home at last, there will be a gathering and advance of culture, and we will see the face of the glorified Lamb.

How different is a new creation heaven from the deep traditions about heaven in the history of Christian thinking?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.