We’ve been spending time here most Fridays looking at the execrable theology of the Left Behind series. Those books are based on a supposed “Bible prophecy” scheme that takes the tribalism and prejudices of one kind of Christians, encodes them in the tropes of legends and popular culture, and then imposes them back on the Bible, claiming all the while that this is based on a “literal reading of the book of Revelation.”
So I’m thinking it might be good to also take some time on Fridays to remind ourselves of what Revelation — and other apocalyptic literature in the Bible — is really all about.
This week’s reminder comes from N.T. Wright, former Anglican bishop of Durham, prolific popular author, formidable theologian, and capable guitar player. This is taken from a sermon Wright preached in 2006, “The Road to New Creation.”
These paragraphs get at the core of Wright’s main theme in all of his writing — and at the core of what the book of Revelation has to say.
Religion in the western world has been less and less about the renewal of creation and more and more about escaping from this wicked world and going to a better place, called “heaven” – going there ultimately when we die, but going there by anticipation in the present through prayer and meditation. This essentially other-worldly hope and spirituality has fought its corner robustly against the materialism which has insisted that the only things that exist are things you can touch and see and money you can put in your pocket.
But if you turn Christian faith into simply the hope for pie in the sky when you die, and an escapist spirituality in the present, you turn your back on the theme which makes sense of the whole Bible, which bursts upon us in everything that Jesus the Messiah did and said, which is highlighted particularly by his resurrection from the dead. A religion that forgets about new creation may feel some sympathy for the battered and bedraggled figure in the ditch, but its message to him will always be that though we can help him a bit, ultimately it doesn’t matter because the main thing is to escape this wicked world altogether. And that represents a tragic diminishing and distortion of what Christian faith is all about.
The God in whom we believe is the creator of the world, and he will one day put this world to rights. That solid belief is the bedrock of all Christian faith. God is not going to abolish the universe of space, time and matter; he is going to renew it, to restore it, to fill it with new joy and purpose and delight, to take from it all that has corrupted it. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom, and rejoice with joy and singing; the desert shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.” The last book of the Bible ends, not with the company of the saved being taken up into heaven, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, resulting in God’s new creation, new heavens and new earth, in which everything that has been true, lovely, and of good report will be vindicated, enhanced, set free from all pain and sorrow. God himself, it says, will wipe away all tears from all eyes. One of the great difficulties in preaching the gospel in our days is that everyone assumes that the name of the game is, ultimately, to “go to heaven when you die,” as though that were the last act in the drama. The hymn we’re about to sing ends like that, because that’s how most people have thought. But that’s wrong! Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world; God will make new heavens and new earth, and give us new bodies to live and work and take delight in his new creation. And the “good news” of the Christian gospel is that this new world, this new creation, has already begun: it began when Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on Easter morning, having faced and beaten the double enemy, sin and death, that has corrupted and defaced God’s lovely creation.