Future Perfect: rural paradise or heavenly city?
Conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts often appear anti-urban. ‘Natural living’ seems to mean escaping from buildings, traffic and crowds. Those forced to find work in cities dream of escaping to a rural idyll … a little piece of heaven on earth.
Isn’t in strange, then, that the bible moves from a garden to a city, from Eden to the New Jerusalem, from a ‘natural paradise’ to streets and buildings? What are those who are committed to caring for creation to make of the fact that early Christianity was a deeply urban faith, spread from city to city along trade routes? Today’s Christianity also thrives most in cities – where, after all, more than 50% of human beings now live − whilst churches often struggle in villages and scattered communities.
So how does God see cities, and how can we reconcile urban and rural as we seek to anticipate God’s future? As so often, the biblical picture is not simplistic. Gardens can be both places of intimacy with God and also of temptation, betrayal and sin (Eden and Gethsemane). Cities can be soulless Babel / Babylon demonstrating the futility of human achievements without God, and they can be the beautiful, shining New Jerusalem, full of light, water and good food.
I wrote this while travelling between Bangalore, Dubai, and London, three contrasting cities. Bangalore (officially renamed Bengaluru) was my childhood home and is now A Rocha India’s base. Over 40 years I’ve seen a relaxed spacious city of 1.6 million, famous for its lakes and parks, explode into a hectic, hi-tech, megacity of 10 million. Today, Bangalore bursts with new people, buildings, traffic and ideas, and simultaneously devours green spaces, villages and natural resources. Stretched to bursting and often breaking point, Bangaloreans talk of their journey ‘from the garden city to the garbage city’.
Dubai has also grown exponentially. It’s a brassy, glassy testament to the power of human technology and money to transform nature, with its skyscrapers, artificial islands, conspicuous opulence, and global crossroads status: apparently Dubai’s Emirates Airline staff are fluent in over 130 languages. Yet Dubai’s shimmering exterior hides an underside of exploitation, and is built on a perilously fragile dependence on oil-fuelled power.
And then London: apparently the second most diverse city on earth (after New York) with over 300 languages. ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ said Samuel Johnson, and in my subjective experience, London simultaneously stimulates and exhausts its residents. It too contains billionaires’ playgrounds and leafy suburbs adjoining areas of endemic deprivation, disease and despair.
None of these cities – Bangalore, Dubai or London – are templates for the heavenly city, but neither are they god-forsaken Babel. Rather, like Nineveh, they are troubled places to which God offers renewal and redemption, for people ‘and also many animals’. God’s future is neither a garden free of human footprint, nor a gleaming technopolis, but rather a garden city, a place where nature and culture combine, a place of beauty and sustainable resources (rivers and fruit-bearing trees), and above all a place where God is at home with his creation again. This gives us a practical vision for urban conservation: planting gardens, caring for wildlife, lobbying politicians, and engaging in careful planning for the well-being of all God’s creation in the heart of our cities.
 Jonah 4:11