What one believes about the future — kingdom, heaven, utopia — determines how one lives now. What one believes, say, about heaven and kingdom determines what one believes and does when it comes to ecology. Yes, ecology. Perhaps I could say it this way: Your backyard or garden reveals your eschatology. N.T. Wright, in Surprised by Scripture has an essay called “Jesus is coming — plant a tree!” There is a lot less about ecology in this chp than about eschatology, and we hear some well-worn paths by Tom, but he’s spot-on when it comes to connecting eschatology to ecology.
He sees two strong types, one at each end, stereotypes if you will — exaggerations if you’d like. At one end are those who think this world is bad or that it will be destroyed and annihilated and who therefore see little reason to work at this world and for whom the tree in the backyard matters little — except for the shade it might give while one ponders eternal subjects. At the other end, the postmillennialists, think the Christians’ efforts will evolve or ushering into the kingdom of God itself. For that reason alone they ought to be hard at work in this world, planting trees in fact, because all we do leads to what will be done in heaven.
At this point NT Wright moves into his narrative theology about how the Bible’s big themes work: and he finds Romans 8:12-27 to be crucial for understanding the relationship of eschatology to ecology, and so I’ll provide the whole passage for your reading:
Rom. 8:12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
Rom. 8:14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Rom. 8:18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
Rom. 8:22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Rom. 8:26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
His major conclusion is that God’s design all along has been a creation bringing glory to God and filled with his presence and governed under God by his Eikons, image-bearing humans. Which means that he thinks too much soteriology short-sells the whole: Yes, we need to be saved; Yes, we are saved by Christ; but Why? So we can bring glory to God as God’s Eikons ruling creation on God’s behalf.
Furthermore, the death, burial, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus has ushered in new creation. If new creation is ushered in, and if God’s design is the redemption of all creation, then new creation people are to be about living now into that new and redemptive creation. Groaning comes from the world, the church, and the Spirit — the same reason for groaning: for all creation to be liberated from its slavery and for it to be liberated for the children of God. [I don’t think Wright has enough ecclesiology at work in his eschatological visions.]
The inheritance promised to us is not personal salvation, not heaven, and not Palestine but the whole creation.
The Second Coming is when Christ returns to establish that final rule when all creation is liberated, not when we will be taken from the scene.