What’s the future for planet Earth?

I’ve grown up, like many contemporaries, with the future according to Hollywood: ‘War of the Worlds’, ‘Mad Max’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Independence Day’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Day after Tomorrow’ and ‘When the Wind Blows’ amongst many others. They are visions of a scary, dystopian future with a world devastated and destroyed by alien invasion, war, nuclear or environmental disaster. Perhaps it’s not surprising that popular Christian literature has followed suit, from Hal Lindsey’s ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’ to the ‘Left Behind’ novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, selling 65+ million copies.

“Comet strike” by Ben Crowder

For years, whilst I struggled to get my head around pre-, post-, and a-millennialism, and convoluted explanations of obscure Bible verses, I assumed the central assumption was true: that this world would be destroyed completely when Christ returned in judgment. But deep down something felt wrong, and as I started reading the Bible myself, my questions grew:

  • If God’s going to destroy the creation, why does he make it ‘very good’ (Genesis 1), and continue to sustain it, delight in it, and renew it (Psalm 104)?
  • Why did God rescue all those species in the Ark, and what about that saving Covenant with all living creatures and the Earth itself (Genesis 9:9-17)?
  • Why, if we’re heading for an otherworldly heaven, are the biblical images of ‘new creation’ so full of landscapes, rivers, wild animals and fruit trees?
  • How about Romans 8:21, where creation is described as ‘waiting to be set free from its bondage to decay’, instead of waiting to be judged and destroyed?
  • Don’t Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection show God’s plans, not just for people but the whole creation: matter affirmed as Jesus took material form, the curse removed as he took the sin and alienation of all creation into himself, and creation radically renewed in Jesus’ physically-resurrected body, providing a template for the renewal of all things?

Once we grasp God’s big picture, those few confusing verses upon which a mountain of dispensationalist fiction have been constructed fall into place. For instance, 2 Peter 3:7-10 is not about the annihilation of this world in a final conflagration but about the refining fire of judgment leading to the earth ‘laid bare’ – like a farmer’s field before planting. The parallel to Noah’s flood in 2 Peter 3:6 confirms this is as much about a new start as about destruction.

If this is new to you, I recommend Tom Wright’s ‘Surprised by Hope’ or my own ‘Planetwise’. As Tom Wright says, “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.” In one sense whatever you believe about the end of time doesn’t matter as long as you keep the Genesis command to reflect God’s image in serving and preserving creation. However, in another sense it matters deeply, because negative attitudes to creation’s future inevitably lead to neglect at best, rampant destruction at worst. The future for planet Earth is in God’s hands, not Hollywood’s, but that doesn’t mean we can act like planetary vandals. God “will destroy those who destroy the earth” (Rev. 11:18). Our task is to be like the ten wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ story (Matthew 25:1-13) – to keep watch and prepare a suitable welcome for creation’s Creator, Sustainer and Saviour to return in glory.

This entry was posted in Reflections and tagged , by Dave Bookless. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dave Bookless

Dave has worked with A Rocha since 1997, first as an International Trustee, then from 2001 with A Rocha UK as co-founder (with his wife Anne), National Director, and then Director for Theology, Churches & Sustainable Communities. He joined the A Rocha International team in September 2011. His role as Advisor for Theology and Churches includes providing advice and resources for ARI’s Trustees, Team and national A Rocha organisations, and coordinating liaison with international theological and mission networks and organisations. He is also studying for a part-time PhD at Cambridge University on biblical theology and biodiversity conservation. Dave’s passion is communicating biblical teaching to today’s cultures, and he has spoken in many countries to conferences, colleges and churches. He has contributed to many books and has authored two: Planetwise – Dare to Care for God’s World (IVP, 2008) and God Doesn’t do Waste (IVP, 2010), selected by Third Way magazine as one of its books of the year for 2010. Dave was born and grew up in India, and has a love for Indian food, Indian culture and Indian Christianity. He, his wife Anne, and their four daughters live in multi-cultural Southall, London, where Dave (an ordained Anglican minister) shares in the leadership of a multi-racial church and where as a family they try to live as sustainably as possible. Dave is also a qualified bird-ringer and loves birding, islands and mountains.

13 thoughts on “What’s the future for planet Earth?

  1. Good thinking David, keep up the good work.
    We need to tangle more with the theology and be able to discuss it meaningfully!

  2. Thanks Chris, I agree it’s far too low down the priority list for most churches: agendas are often being set by the immediate rather than the important, and by the inward- rather than outward-focussed. I’m also intrigued that this post has had far fewer comments than other recent ones I’ve written. Does nobody care about the future of the earth? Or does everyone now agree that creation will be renewed rather than destroyed? I’d like to think so, but I doubt it!

  3. Hi Dave – I hate to see you with inadequate comments, and its really unsupportive of everyone else just to silently agree with you, so I have a question about this. There is of course a theology which says “the world is all going to be destroyed and remade anyway, so let’s just take the money/oil/goodies and run”, still I suspect much loved in parts of God’s own US of A in particular. The logic (with which you are very familiar) is that abusing the earth is unimportant because God is going to replace it anyway. But I wonder why the “renewal” rather than “replacement” theology you expound here makes any difference to that. Your fifth bullet point – Jesus’ changed but recognisable resurrection body – is the strongest argument, and I’d say the whole passage on transformation from seed to plant in ! Cor 15 supports it strongly. However, these transformations are, as you say, God’s work, and the evidence of Easter Sunday and of Paul’s “twinkling of an eye” changes are that they are supernatural and spontaneous events to which we contribute nothing. So what difference does it make to the “new creation” if we’ve done a better job of looking after the earth in the meantime? To take another analogy – if we are indeed all to have magnificent resurrection bodies (and I would like to place an order for mine now, please). then they have I would suggest nothing to do with the state of our pre-resurrection physical bodies, or else the billions who have rotted to nothing or been cremated are going to be in pretty poor shape. I’m not, of course, suggesting that we should not attempt to be good stewards of the earth for the duration of our, and our descendants, pre-renewal stay on it – but in the light of this how can anything we do contribute in any physical way to the earth that is to be so radically and totally renewed by God?

  4. Dave, I was thinking about your question of why this piece has attracted fewer comments than usual. I’m sure it isn’t because nobody cares about the future of the earth, although I do think our focus is pretty short-term.

    Do you think there are really Christians out there who genuinely believe that the apocalyptic teaching in the Bible means that they can trash the planet with impunity? I would find that attitude astonishing and I just wonder whether such people really exist in any quantity. If they don’t, perhaps that is why you got fewer comments – perhaps you are arguing against a position which very few Christians take (particularly amongst those who read this blog!).

    Thanks for being thought-provoking as always.

  5. Sadly, there are plenty of people around the world who believe we don’t really need to care for the earth, because God’s going to make a new one anyway. Godfrey’s question is a good one, but surely, if we are not to abuse our physical bodies even though they will be radically transformed in resurrection, the same should apply to the whole material creation – which God has made in love, sustains in love, and entrusts to our care. Also, the link between Genesis 1 (the garden) and Revelation 22 (the garden city) suggests that our human contribution – at its best – will be perfected and incorporated into God’s new creation. Although new creation is God’s work, not ours, we are called to seek signs of God’s coming Kingdom in the here and now.

  6. Dave, I agree that there are many good reasons, biblical and commonsense, for looking after both our bodies and our planet, but let me press my point further if I may. I suggest there is no significant biblical, logical or scientific evidence that we are “co-workers” with God in bringing about the physical form of the future “transformed” creation – our care-taking is for here and now in our by now fairly well-known, geologically unstable and entropic world. If the Genesis 1/Revelation 22 garden link is the best biblical support you can find for it, then I think I can probably rest my case: just because there may be gardens in both places doesn’t say anything about the connection between the two. The first one was created, according to Genesis, by God, and nowhere in Revelation I think is there a suggestion that it will be any different for the second. If we really are called to this, I’d expect to see a little more divine calling going on somewhere.

    In recent decades there has been a welcome re-orientation of much theology towards the kingdom of heaven being in the here and now rather than the then and there, but I think we’ve also done some bringing in of the baby with the bathwater, if you’ll excuse the reversed cliche. This notion that we are somehow co-workers with God in bringing about a redeemed, post-apocalyptic earth seems to me no more than a romantic fiction to give some permanent value to our time-bound physical activity. I like and agree with your conclusion, that we are called to seek signs of God’s coming kingdom, but as you also say, new Creation is God’s work, and me weeding and feeding my lawn or us reducing our CO2 emissions by 50% doesn’t have any obvious eschatalogical implications (except, conceivably, on the timing of God’s interventions) and if it is going to make any difference to its future constitution we have no clues to that. The rest is wishful thinking: but I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise if you disagree, as my knowledge of the subject is slight :-)

    • I’ll just say that to me, the link between Gen 1 and Rev 22 is very strong, not “just gardens in both places”. The eschatological imagery borrows on the previous known images. The city in Revelation is called ‘New’ Jerusalem, so it’s linked with the older one. What is the idea of ‘Jerusalem’? God’s dwelling-place on Earth, among his people. Same God that dwelt in the middle of the garden, walking with his people Adam and Eve. In that sense, the temple was an echo of Eden. Also, I note there were cherubim guarding both places of access to God: the entrance to Eden, and the Ark of the Covenant.

      When John writes ‘Old’ Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed, so God will provide a ‘New’ one. So I think the presence of the garden in both places is not just an architectural landscape feature :) but it evokes the main purpose of the garden of Eden, which was to provide a place where God will have fellowship with his humans. This purpose is picked up with the temple in ‘Old’ Jerusalem, and finally realized fully in the ‘New’ Jerusalem, which lacks a temple since God is not confined to a stone house but is with us everywhere (Rev 21.22), just as he was in the garden. That’s my idea anyway, and I’d love to hear everyone else’s.

      • Julio – I agree there is a clear symmetry between the two, and you express this poetically. I’m not sure that Genesis supports you when you say the main purpose of the Garden was a place for God to meet with Adam and Eve. Genesis doesn’t say why God created the Garden, and says (2:15) that the reason he put Adam in the garden was to take care of it, which on its own suggests that God cared more about the garden than about Adam (which I would doubt). Relating the garden to the temple to the New Jerusalem is a nice idea, and it may contain some truth, but the Bible doesn’t seem to say that as far as I can see.

        Nor does it address my question, which is “where is the biblical evidence that our stewardship of our dying creation plays any practical role in the physical form of the new creation which most Christians believe God is going to make?”. Let me add a further remark to it. God’s biblical silence on the issue doesn’t mean there may not be some truth in it, but it begs a further question. If it is of real importance that we participate as co-re-creators with God in this way, wouldn’t he have made it explicit somewhere? Wouldn’t Jesus have said something about it?

        I’ll restate that I certainly agree we should be responsible caretakers of earth for the benefit of its current and future inhabitants under the existing natural laws; but I think it is fanciful and very misleading to suggest that our ecological efforts are either required or relevant in bringing about a new creation – and it’s not helpful. It gives us ideas above our station: I think it’s enough that we try not kill our children and grandchildren by earth-abuse, and leave the ultimate replacement of the natural laws of the universe to God.

        • Yes, maybe “main purpose” is a bit too much. Let’s say “one of the main purposes”.
          To me, the command for Adam to take care of the garden does not imply that God loves the garden more than he does Adam: merely that as a sentient being, Adam understands the order and can be put in charge of everything. It’s not a matter of the one being served being greater than the one serving.
          The reason why God told a human and not a goat to take care of nature, is that the human can carry it out. (James Lovelock would disagree, but I understand his frustration). God expects humans to take care of the universe. Trying to live up to that…

Leave a Reply