Theological Eschatology 4 - New Creation

Theological Eschatology 4 - New Creation

This is the fourth (and penultimate) article in this series on theological eschatology. To read the other installments, you can find the introduction here, the second here and third here ~ Mark McDowell, editor

"I believe in the resurrection of the body"

Jesus communicates or makes common those blessings he receives from his heavenly Father to those who are united to him by faith - that is the gospel message (so, e.g., Lk. 24:47; Acts 5:31). The Bible points to many such blessings, with communion with God being the highest and most fundamental. The creed reminds us, however, that there are other crucial facets to the many-splendored beneficence of Christ's work. The same glorified body enjoyed now by our incarnate and risen Lord shall be ours, for he is the first-fruits of that resurrection (e.g., Rom. 6:5; 1 Cor. 15:49).

In prompting our attention to the bodily benefit of Christ's redemptive work, the creed signals a wider reality, namely, the universality or totality of the reconciling and restorative work of Jesus Christ. While the Bible does not present a universalism by which all persons are re-united with their God (against which see the words of Jesus in Jn. 5:29 and elsewhere), the Bible does portray a universalism whereby all things are reconciled unto God and every facet of the redeemed is restored and renewed in him (see esp. Col. 1:15-20 with its repetition of the language of "all"). In other words, the people of God are not saved by being siphoned through a strainer with only some ultimate or most spiritual portion being kept as an apportioned remainder, whether that might be an intellect or a soul. Quite the contrary, the biblical portrait involves the remarkable claim that Christ Jesus has come to reconcile all things and to renew every facet of human existence. "Behold, I am making all things new" (Rev. 21:5).

As we have seen in previous posts, the central premise of the gospel promise points to God's commitment to share his life and communion with others, that is, with sons and daughters graciously adopted in his Son. Key theological terms that signal this focus involve communion, fellowship, covenant, and the like. Related spiritual virtues or Christian ethical principles that correspond to that gospel emphasis would include spiritual-mindedness, heavenly-mindedness, piety, prayer, Sabbath, self-denial, contentment, and so forth. That expectation about our great good in the end, in other words, pairs off with and funds a vibrant commitment to certain moral expectations in the here and now. We will explore that connection in our next and final post. 

It is worth noting, however, the great danger that can so easily beset that classical vision of hope and of faithfulness. The centrality of communion with God can, if removed from the wider story of creation and incarnation, become something merely mystical or a disembodied abstraction. Communion with God must be contextualized in a Christ-centered key, that is, through the lens of an Israelite man born of a virgin, raised by a carpenter, involved not only in rabbinic teaching but in the working of various earthly miracles, killed upon a Roman cross, and resurrected unto new bodily life by the Holy Spirit. And communion must be related to the deeper realities revealed long before in creation, wherein the human image of God was given bodily form, placed in its earthly habitat, called unto procreation and expansion of the species, and declared good by God in that primal integrity. Apart from these scriptural contexts, communion can become an amalgam, a cipher for whatever mysticism might be conjured or purchased through consumeristic or moralistic endeavors. 

It was the genius of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck and, by extension, of the wider neo-Calvinist movement to reassert this teaching regarding the earthiness of our hope in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Spurred on by dispensationalism, which has regularly been positioned or characterized as a spiritualist foil, Kuyperianism has reiterated God's concern for spiritual, social, and cultural flourishing. At times analyses from this tradition have fallen foul in identifying modern dispensationalism (with its rapture theology) as somehow representative of the classical Christian hope of centuries past (see, e.g., the appendix to Richard Middleton's A New Heaven and a New Earth where the documentation of a spiritualist hope comes from dispensationalism, but the rhetoric blurs this distinct modern movement with mainstream Christianity as expressed long before and well outside those theological circles). My first post suggested ways in which this kind of cultural criticism and theological polemic might and, in fact, has turned into a parasitic overreaction to spiritualist eschatology (e.g. Middleton's book being only the latest and most boisterous example). Something has gone awry when a rightful concern to avoid abstractions and etherealism in our hope leads us to instrumentalize God and to identify the object of our hope - that is, the final state and order which we attest to as our delight and glory - in terms that are materialistic or naturalistic. Any such Augustinian naturalism (a term I introduced in that first post) has surely taken a misstep in seeking to follow the path of the gospel. 

Yet spiritualism is a danger, and Kuyperianism has reminded the church of the earthiness of the gospel's geography. While heaven is our hope, earth will be its final location. Bavinck pointedly observed the danger of abstraction and spiritualism as a temptation close to hand in the classical tradition (see Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, pp. 720-21). As we see above in the creed, classical Christianity attested this reality with its creedal affirmation of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of all. Kuyperianism has extended this embodied emphasis further to take in the global habitat - environmentally, socially, relationally - in which the risen children of God enjoy his peace.

How might we think about this earthiness? Here we must suggest that intellectual humility is in order, and we can first see this need from the way that the risen and glorified body is described. Humility is demanded of us, for the portrayals of bodily glory involve not only mundane or common realities but also incomprehensible or strange incandescence. Sure, the glorified Jesus does bear his earlier wounds (such that he can invite Thomas to touch them; so Jn. 20:27; Lk. 24:38-40), and he does even partake of the fish of the sea (Lk. 24:41-43). Yet the glorified Christ suddenly appears in rooms, seemingly without walking through any doorway; his disappearing acts (as evident earlier in Jn. 20:19 and Lk. 24:36-37) are equally quick and mysterious. And while his wounds are recognizable, two of his disciples don't identify him during a lengthy stroll, only finally catching a sense of his identity when he breaks bread with them (Lk. 24:13-31). This mixture of bodily realism and yet glorious mystery was prefigured, to some extent, in the account of the transfiguration (Mt. 17:1-8). There Jesus was identifiable in bodily form, differentiated, for example, from Moses and Elijah. And yet the way in which he and his clothes radiated the light of God surely exceeds the bounds of verbal expression, to the extent that its viewers wound up on their knees and in need of the word: "Fear not" (Mt. 17:7). This pairing of the mundane and ordinary with the strange and glorious must prompt a reticence to speculate too far and a humility to admit that eschatological bodily glory exceeds our explanatory grasp now. 

By extension, we might go further to say that a common and mundane tinge will mark the environmental earthiness of our hope even as a strange and glorious incomprehensibility also shades its consideration in the here and now. The great danger, of course, is to identify the projects of our age with the principles of that final gift of God: both political conservatives and political progressives can and have at times projected their own values onto Christ's Kingdom. Of course, to some extent, the common concerns of humanity will see their remedy there: peace, wholeness, harmony, integrity, purity. And yet the definition of each of these principles can become rootless apart from moorings in the creational and Christological teaching of the prophets and apostles. While we might want to demur from the way in which the Theological Declaration of Barmen espoused its protest and its precise doctrine of revelation (along the veins of a Barthian version of christocentrism), its identification of a fundamental problem (idolatry) and its instincts were certainly instructive and attuned to a basic rhythm of the gospel (namely, that the Word of God must define all truth, hope, and moral demands). 

Remember that Jesus tells us that one of the key pillars of society today will be absent from that great bliss, for humans will no longer give themselves man to woman as husband and wife (Mt. 22:29-30). Interpreting this biting statement (part of his polemic against the Sadducees [Mt. 22:23-33]) canonically, we see that marriage does not end in eternity. Rather, marriage is perfected, in as much as the great marriage of the Lamb and his Bride is celebrated there and then (Rev. 21:9). The fellowship and oneness symbolized so powerfully in the earthly marriage of a man and woman (Eph. 5:25-33, esp. v. 32) need no longer occur because its typological fulfillment has been fully and finally brought to pass: the definitive identification, union, communion, and covenant fellowship of Christ and his church.   

The perfection of marriage serves as an intellectual prompt for thinking about the social facets of our eschatological hope more broadly. On the one hand, we see the deepest purpose of marriage perfected by human communion being transposed into the ultimate divine-human covenantal fellowship and intimate presence. Thus, our current commitment to marriage has integrity and deserves our concern and commitment (whether directly or indirectly), precisely because it prepares for and is perfected in eternity to come. On the other hand, marriage will no longer exist in its current social form. It will no longer be marked by sexual activity, by procreation as a related end, and so forth. If marriage's perfection involves such radical changes to its reality, ought we not be humble in our presumptions, much less pontifications, about what other social realities might be like in that new creational hereafter. 

In light of these examples - the bodily nature of human glory (as seen in Jesus) or the social nature of human glory (as foretold with regard to marriage by Jesus) - we do well to keep our eye on broader theological principles. Our concern to keep first things first need not and should not undermine our simultaneous commitment to be alert to other facets of canonical teaching. Emphases and priorities cannot foreclose awareness of the breadth of scriptural teaching. In this case, understanding the center of our hope as communion with God in Christ (so powerfully typified by that doctrine of the beatific vision) ought not lead to dismissing or denigrating the earthy aspect of our hope as one involving a bodily resurrection and a new creation in its holistic totality. That said, that other aspects of this broad eschatological vision are not at the center but on its edges should prompt a greater appreciation for the epistemological limits of our understanding of their nature. Without undermining the integrity of bodies, of societies, of place, and of other non-human creatures, we must remember that there are limits to our grasp of their final form. Eschatology, like other doctrines but in a particularly poignant way, must be pursued by faith and by faith alone. 

Michael Allen is associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida