18. Applied theology II (d): The future

(The post formerly known as http://oldmaid.jallman.net/entry.php?id=18 )

On stewardship, the mortal earth and the “new heaven and new earth”

Some rapturists teach that the earth will perish utterly in fire. They cite verses like 2 Peter 3:7: “By the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” (They do not always add verse 10, because that verse resists the insertion of a 1,000-year gap between the second coming of Jesus and the day of judgment. “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.”)

Rossing never disputes the fire, only that it is intended to annihilate the earth. She seems to argue that it is the same “purifying” fire that Christians themselves are expected to face. (In most Protestant traditions this happens metaphorically; in the Catholic tradition, metaphorically then physically/metaphysically in the afterlife location called Purgatory). Rossing does not dispute the death of the old earth. Rather, she believes it will “pass away” the way we do. The very earth will die and get a glorified “body.”

Rossing invokes The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis as

… a much truer reading of the final vision of the book of Revelation than the Left Behind story. The Narnia story is also more faithful to the biblical covenant with Noah … Does Revelation now negate that covenant with Noah, as Rapture enthusiasts suggest? Has God’s mind changed? Would God now destroy the earth? Some argue that the promise to Noah was only that God would not use a flood the next time in destroying the earth, but that fire or nuclear war might not be a violation of God’s covenant. References to a fiery end in the Second Epistle of Peter are favorite texts for those who make this argument. But the biblical promise to Noah is, “never again.” (page 9)

Rossing (page 6) cites Tim LaHaye’s interpretation of the New Heaven and New Earth. She says LaHaye proposes two destructions: one for the planet and a second, different one for the atmosphere, according to his interpretation of Rev. 21:1.

He fantasizes that the new earth may not be “limited to the twenty-five thousand miles in circumference and eight thousand miles in diameter of the present earth. It may be much larger; the Bible does not say.” In addition to a larger-size earth, LaHaye speculates about how the new planet won’t waste any space with oceans or mountains or deserts, since such landscapes are uninhabitable for humans and are therefore “worthless.”

This kind of speculation would be amusing if it were not so dangerous. God created the earth’s mountains and deserts and called them “good”—they are not worthless to their creator. Earth’s atmosphere too was created by God, and God laments over it when we destroy it.

(Personal aside: Had an impertinent question pop to mind, “does this mean the afterlife will have no Australia? No Painted Desert of the American Southwest? No Antarctica? All fishermen will be unemployed?” Hmm. Seriously, what of the many humans in history who saw the islands and mountains and deserts as their home? Just because other humans might be unwilling or unable to thrive there does not make these habitats “worthless.” The Bible says the afterlife will have a New Jerusalem … but somehow the New Heaven and New Earth never struck your host as one vast Western metropolis-and-suburbia. In The Last Battle C.S. Lewis goes to great lengths to portray the countryside and wilderness in their eternal, glorified form. Upon seeing it the character Jewel says, “The reason I loved the old [earth] was that it sometimes looked a little like this.”)

Currie (page 359) supports Rossing.

St. John tells us this new Heaven and new earth will have no sea (Rev. 21:1). What a seemingly strange attribute! But this doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be large bodies of water. Remember, in the Old Testament the sea was commonly a reference to the Gentiles, the outsiders of God’s kingdom, the unbelievers. There are no more unbelievers at this point. All the evil and faithless have already been cast into the “lake of fire,” and all those left are followers of Christ. History and time melt away, and eternity asserts itself (20:15). (page 359)

The most common reason that some rapturists give for a new earth with no mountains or deserts or seas is because Rev. 21:1 tells them there is no sea. Neither Rossing nor Currie have a problem with the verse, “and the sea was no more.” They simply believe it means, “There will be no more outsiders.” Now consider how the Romans would have reacted if John the evangelist had used the words, “there will be no more Gentiles or outsiders.” The Romans would have regarded Revelation of the Apocalypse as a dangerous document that prophesied their doom. They would have burned the book, killed John for writing it and killed anyone who read it. Preterists argue this sort of thing is exactly why the book had to be written in a specific code—a code that was never meant to be lost. (When Catholics and Protestants broke up, it was like a divorce. Who gets the property? Who gets the memories? Who gets the friends? Preterists argue the references were only “lost” to Protestants.)

Although Rossing is not a preterist, she clearly does not have a problem with this “sea = unbelievers” interpretation. Rossing has a problem with the rapturist interpretation that the literal sea will be literally gone.

Riddlebarger believes that Isaiah 32:15, 35:1, 35:7 and 65:17 all “point us ahead to a time when creation will be liberated from the curse (Rom. 8:20-21) and all things will be made new (Rev. 21:5).”

According to George Ladd, “The biblical idea of redemption always includes the earth. Hebrew thought saw an essential link between man and nature. The prophets do not think of the earth as merely the indifferent theater on which man carries out his normal task but as the expression of divine glory. The Old Testament nowhere holds forth the hope of a bodiless, nonmaterial, purely “spiritual” redemption as did Greek thought. The earth is the divinely ordained scene of human existence. Furthermore, the earth has been involved in the evils which sin has incurred. There is an interrelation of nature with the moral life of man; therefore the earth must also share in God’s final redemption. The human heart, human society, and all of nature must be purged of the effects of evil, that God’s glory may be perfectly manifested in his creation.” (page 59)

(Personal aside: A Christian dedication to remember the inheritance of tikkun olam, or “healing of the world” as cherished in Jewish thought would not be amiss.)

What happens to animals? Rapturists are not united on this point. Some expect to see their pets in heaven. Others say animals are part of the old earth that passes away. Our critic Rossing believes that animals have a place in the New Heaven and New Earth.

Even in the Genesis flood, God took care to save animals of every species—a signal of God’s love for the whole created world. But today’s Rapture proponents have no such love for creation. Their Rapture saves only humans. Animals and planets get left behind on earth to suffer destruction. Writes [Hal] Lindsey, “As the battle of Armageddon reaches its awful climax and it appears that all life will be destroyed on earth—in this very moment Jesus Christ will return and save man from self-extinction.” Note that only “man” is saved from extinction in this script—none of the other species that God also created to fill the earth with magnificent biodiversity survive. Birds, butterflies, flowers, trees, badgers, and “all the dear creatures,” as C.S. Lewis calls them in The Chronicles of Narnia—these have no place in the fundamentalists’ plan for the future. It is an astonishingly narrow and self-centered view. (pages 8-9)

As poet Gerald Manley Hopkins writes so eloquently, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” His poem is an evocative invitation to see God’s presence everywhere in the world around us. “Nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things … Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.”

God does not come to take us away from this earth, but rather comes to dwell with us in every joy and every sorrow, in every blazing display of nature’s beauty that is never spent. That God’s spirit is still brooding over our world with “ah! Bright wings” points us here, to the earth, to the events of daily life, to find God’s presence in the world. (page 11)

Rossing believes that rapturism falsely teaches people “that God gives us a replacement for this current earth when we damage it beyond recovery” (page 7). She does not hesitate to name names of people who seem to promote this belief.

Reagan-era Secretary of the Interior James Watt told U.S. senators that we are living at the brink of the end-times and implied that this justifies clearcutting the nation’s forests and other unsustainable environmental policies. When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations, Watt told his Senate confirmation hearing, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” Watt’s “use it or lose it” view of the world’s resources is a perspective shared by many Rapture proponents, whose chief preoccupation is counting down to earth’s violent end. (page 7)

(Personal aside: In the June 14th, 2005 issue of The Christian Century (page 7), James Watt insists, “I never said it. Never believed it. Never even thought it. I know no Christian who believes or preaches such error. The Bible commands conservation—that we as Christians be careful stewards of the land and resources entrusted to us by the Creator.”— James Watt, secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, countering decades-old allegations that he said protection of natural resources wasn’t important given the imminent return of Jesus Christ [RNS].)

Rossing apparently had to go to her Special Place of Tremendous Courage and Calmness before answering the next quote, because it sounds like she held back.

Even more extreme is a recent remark by right-wing pundit Anne Coulter: “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” (page 7)

[Rossing replies,] Raping the earth and justifying such behavior on the grounds that this earth is ours and it will be finished in seven years is like saying we might as well use drugs and abuse our bodies because we know we will soon be resurrected with new bodies. Our bodies are God’s temple, the apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans. They are not to be abused but rather reverenced. God dwells in these earthen vessels. Similarly with the body of the earth: It too is a body God created and still calls good (page 8).

A new earth is not something we go out and get as born-again hero Buck Williams gets a new car in the Left Behind novels. Rather the earth becomes “new” in the sense of resurrection or renewal—just as our bodies will be resurrected, brought to new life, but they are still our bodies. The whole creation is longing for redemption, the apostle Paul writes—this is the sense in which there will be a new creation. It too will be redeemed, made new. The Greek word used for the “new” earth in Revelation 21:1 can mean either “renewed” or “new”—but it certainly does not mean a “different” earth. There is no justification for using up the earth on the grounds that we get to trade this one in for a new and bigger one in seven years (page 7).

Repeatedly Rossing praises Martin Luther’s remark that, “If I knew the world were going to end tomorrow I would plant a tree.” We know at least one species of tree survives in the afterlife (Rev. 22:2). This species, “the tree of life” offers its leaves as therapeia (“for the healing of the nations”). Rossing points out that God’s gift of nature may have been more noticed and appreciated by John’s first-century contemporaries. “To the one who conquers I will give to eat of the fruit of the tree of life that is in the paradise of my God”(Rev. 2:7). Rossing adds, “Think how wonderful this promise of unlimited food must have been in the face of the poverty and hunger that haunted many of John’s communities in the first century: abundant fruit, an ever-bearing tree, growing beside the river of life with its water flowing as a gift for everyone” (pages 154-55).

Rossing concludes,

Revelation invites us to lay the healing leaves of the tree onto every physical and spiritual wound we carry. The tree of life is a wonderful image of healing. [snip] Notice that healing in Revelation comes not directly from God or the Lamb, not from some absent future time, but through the actual created world—through the leaves of a living tree. This is another signal of how God loves creation and still calls it good—an important corrective to the vast dispensationalist imagery of destruction.

Healing is not just for individuals, on this Revelation is very clear. God’s healing is for the whole world, for all peoples as well as for the earth. Revelation models its tree and its healing on Ezekiel chapter 47, but Revelation deliberately expands the prophet Ezekiel’s vision to draw in all nations, not just Israel. Ezekiel’s healing leaves have become “leaves for the healing of the nations” in Revelation. Look around our world today and picture all the places in need of healing. Picture all the nations walking by the Lamb’s light, into the beloved city. Contrary to the gospel of dispensationalism and Left Behind, God plans to heal the nations of the world, not destroy them (pages 155-157).

(Personal aside: Rossing and Currie could strengthen their case if they cited additional verses. For example, Psalm 36:6b states that “the LORD saves/redeems humans and animals alike.” [This verse is Psa. 36:7 in the JPS translation.] As we mentioned in Applied Theology I [above], the verse 1 Cor. 2:14 uses the word psychikos to describe the natural state of mortals who have never been Christians. The word psychikos derives from the word psyche or natural “soul”. The Harper Study RSV footnote for 1 Cor. 2:14 states that the psyche “is that individuality or life-principle which man shares with animals, although his soul is possessed of a higher order of intelligence.” This interpretation could be used to argue that animals have quite enough “soul” to get into the afterlife. It would seem that intellect is a bonus given to humans, rather than an element removed from animals. That is, it does not seem the defining element of “life” is intellect alone, since some humans die without an intellect surpassing that of their pet animals: infants, or dementia cases, for example. More likely, since “God is love” [1 John 3:18] it may be that love is another defining element of life. For example, a cat or dog may comprehend training and simple words on the level of a two-year-old child [parrots are closer to four-year-olds], yet it would be hard for a rapturist to argue that a baby younger than that cannot get into heaven simply because of its lack of intellect. However both the infant and many creatures can love. In fact some animals are more fluent in agape love than are some people.

Again we must emphasize that not all rapturists believe in disposable animals. Your host has not yet seen Niki Behrikis Shanahan’s book There is Eternal Life for Animals, but rapturist televangelist Jack Van Impe said it was “well done.”

As to the old-versus-new earth, Rossing casually makes reference to St. Paul but does not capitalize upon it. Romans 8:19-23 is as follows:

(19) For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; (20) for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; (21) because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. (22) We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; (23) and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

These verses can be used to support the belief that the “new” earth will be a resurrected and glorified version of the old earth. When rapturist purists speculate that the “new” earth will bear no resemblance to the old one—having lost its plants, animals, and non-urban habitats—their interpretation skirts awfully close to that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Remember that we said Jehovah’s Witnesses belief that death equals annihilation, extinction. Witnesses believe that Jesus rose, but that Jesus is now Michael the archangel; it “counts” as Jesus because that is the form in which God kept Jesus’ “life pattern” in God’s memory. In like manner some rapturists believe that there will be a glorified planet with a place called Jerusalem and a plant called The Tree of Life; therefore this planet counts as “earth” even though it does not entirely resemble our earth of seas and mountains and deserts and wilderness.

By this interpretation, “creation is waiting with eager longing” (Romans 8:19) for its own death, annihilation, and extinction. By this interpretation, the creation “will be set free from bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21) by dying a slow and agonizing death. This does not leave much room for the extinct-and-erased earth to “obtain the glorious liberty” (verse 21) that it had been promised, unless extinction qualifies as that liberty or that glory. Finally, by this interpretation, “the whole creation has been groaning in travail” (verse 22) for its death that its suffering may be over. This contradicts verse 23which states that humans and the creation are groaning in the same way, for the same thing (“the redemption of our bodies.”)

Paul speaks as if the creation is self-aware in a way that we do not quite understand. Surely if the creation had a capacity to anticipate the future, would it not regard the rapturist future with dread? If creation is capable of being “subjected in hope” and is “eagerly longing” for the future, it would seem to be anticipating something good.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses position that bodily death equals annihilation and extinction is firmly rejected by Christians. Yet some rapturists accept the Witness definition of bodily death-as-annihilation when it comes to the earth and the apparently ensouled animals upon it.)

On divisions within the rapturist movement itself

As nonrapturists have their divisions, so also rapturists have theirs. Frykholm found several rapturists who objected to Left Behind. They had wanted to like the series, but something got in the way.

“Jackson” (page 139) read every novel. “Too much fiction,” he says. “Oh, I love fiction, but you expect them to stick more to the truth of the Bible, and I don’t think they did … There’s nothing in the Bible that tells me that salvation is going to be rampant after the rapture. Salvation after the rapture, I believe, is going to be very uncommon … As much as I’d like to see their version, it’s not biblical.”

Jackson’s reaction stands in contrast to the reaction of “Betty” (page 173). Betty sees Left Behind as a message of profound hope precisely because salvation is so rampant after the fictional rapture. “Rather than urgency, doom and destruction, Betty reads into them a profound sense that God offers her unsaved loved ones hope. Rather than stirring up fear and worry, the books calm Betty.”

“Sarah” (pages 48-49) is a rapturist who disagrees with her own rapturist pastor over whether Left Behind presents biblical truth. “She has never spoken with him about her reading, but from the pulpit he has addressed the novels. To the congregation he said, ‘If you are reading those books that say you can be saved after the Rapture, you are just fooling yourself.’ In other words, her minister disagrees that it is possible for someone to become a Christian after the Rapture occurs.” Sarah finds this deeply troubling. She has heard that only Jews can convert after the rapture, but “I don’t think God would turn away an earnest heart.” Sarah deeply respects “Pastor Bill,” but she “still finds the books’ version of salvation after the rapture more persuasive than her pastor’s.” It drives a “wedge” between them. At the same time, she has human and conceptual allies. She frequently discusses the books with rapturist readers who share her “more inclusive” interpretation of the end times. Also, “within Protestantism, there is a long tradition of emphasis on individual reading of the Bible and individual salvation. Protestants generally believe that each soul must work out its own salvation … She has not yet challenged Pastor Bill’s authority in speech, but she has begun to develop an alternative in her thinking that allows her to step outside one of the most significant religious authorities in her life.”

“Cindy” (page 118-9) is a rapturist. She “expresses disappointment” with Left Behind because she thinks Hal Lindsey’s interpretation of Revelation is more accurate. “They [LaHaye and Jenkins] took the Bible literally, locusts. Who knows? But when John [the presumed author of Revelation] was on the island getting the stuff, he had no way of, he didn’t understand modern machines, so why couldn’t it have been a helicopter with a stun-ray or something?” Cindy interprets the end-times in light of Lindsey’s interpretations and continues to do so after finishing Left Behind.

Although individuals may bolt from rapturism to other denominations (just as individuals may bolt from other denominations to join rapturism), it is a change proposed by the ministry that may shape the future of, well, Futurism. The rapturist tendency to set dates (such as 1988 or 2007) makes it vulnerable. In response the Futurist movement—who are they? Is this the same “they” who decide what the money is worth or whether skirts will be short or long? The nebulous “they”!—proposed a more durable form of dispensationalism. This quiet movement already is being taught to future church leaders. Riddlebarger describes Progressive Dispensationalism as follows:

Beginning in the late 1980s, a reforming movement known as progressive dispensationalism arose within traditional dispensational circles. Progressive dispensationalists are concerned about the distinction their traditional counterparts make between earthly theocratic promises made to national Israel fulfilled in the millennial age and spiritual promises made to Christians ultimately realized in heaven. Progressive dispensationalists seek to resolve this tension by developing God’s redemptive program to avoid an earthly-heavenly dualism.

Progressive Dispensationalism understands the distinction between national Israel and the church “not as different arrangements between God and the human race, as traditional dispensationalism does, but as successive arrangements in the progressive revelation and accomplishments of redemption.

Progressive Dispensationalists, therefore, see God’s convenant promises to Abraham fulfilled in the church and the Davidic covenant fulfilled in Christ, not in a future millennial Davidic kingship. They make no artificial distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven but move closer to traditional forms of covenant theology and historic premillennialism.

Mediating between Classic Dispensationalism and covenant theology, Progressive Dispensationalism will probably not satisfy traditional dispensationalists, who regard the system as a betrayal of the sine qua non of classical dispensationalism. Nor will it fully satisfy advocates of traditional covenant theology, even though they regard Progressive Dispensationalism as a step in the right direction. In their minds, it does not go far enough toward a fully developed covenant theology typical of Reformed orthodoxy. The success of Progressive Dispensationalism remains an open question. (page 27)

Riddlebarger observes that this teaching may be on the rise in schools, but this does not ensure a positive reception from the pews. What happens then?

If Progressive Dispensationalism is to succeed it must inspire the loyalty not only of futurist pastors, but of the parishioners and the futurist authors of the day. To begin, a hypothetical author could write a hypothetical novel called Not Yet Written to promote Progressive Dispensationalism (P/d) as Left Behind promotes Premillennial Dispensationalism (PMD). If Not Yet Written is presented to the reading public when P/d is presented to the parishioners, probably one of four scenarios will happen.

One. P/d is an unqualified success. (The novel Not Yet Written becomes a bestseller.)

Two. P/d is an unmitigated failure. (The promoters of Not Yet Written lose all their money).

Three. The old guard of a church will uphold PMD even with a P/d pastor in the pulpit. Since rapturists believe in local control (and can hire or fire pastors at will), the pastor may obey the will of the church elders … for now. Again we refer to Alfred Molina’s character in Chocolat. The old-school Comte sees himself as the benevolent (and omnipresent) protector of the people: as their top aristocrat, as their mayor, as their employer, as their landlord, and as their spiritual guide. He keeps a watchful eye on the young priest Pere Henri, with his consarned newfangled ideas like singing and dancing and loving thy neighbor. The Comte dominates the young priest even to the point of writing his homilies for him. Then one day the Comte tumbles from his throne. Pere Henri sees no need to expose this shame. He simply speaks his own mind from then on. The people are so trusting that they hardly notice or care that their pastor has reversed his position. They only know that if the “church elder” supports the pastor, the pastor’s preaching must be sound doctrine. A unified front makes everybody happy. We in the real world may see a similar transition between old-school futurism and new-school. It is too soon to predict whether this transition would occur after a sudden failure of rapturism (such as the world failing to end on a given date), or after a slow die-off of old-school adherents, as happened with Postmillennialism. When the pastor recognizes that his church’s elders would stop resisting the new-school belief, he could introduce it painlessly.

Four. The transition between PMD and P/d will be slow and painful. There may be a lot of mismatches between pastors and specific churches. In such a struggle, novels like the PMD novel Left Behind and the hypothetical P/d novel Not Yet Written could be a deciding factor.

What would the introduction of P/d futurism do to rapturist families? In scenario 1, 2 or 3 there is no threat. In scenario 4 we may have a problem. Recall our critic Frykholm’s interviews with rapturists like Rachel or Lila, both of whom gave Left Behind to their mothers in an attempt to bring their mothers into the rapturist fold. Is Rachel prepared for the day that her own hypothetical adult daughter might urge her to read the P/d novel Not Yet Written as Rachel urged her mother Margaret to read the PMD novel Left Behind? Is Lila prepared to rethink her position if her own hypothetical daughter expresses fear and anguish that the family will be separated for eternity? As this drama replays all over the country, have Rachel and Lila (and all rapturists in their position) ever anticipated that they might one day find themselves in Mom’s position? The answer may well be No.

What about the Divorced-Men-with-Children demographic who have been so aggressive to push the PMD novel Left Behind in your host’s home town? How would they respond if the day should come that their adult sons present them with a copy of the P/d novel Not Yet Written and threaten them with “struck by lightning”? I’m guessing they will be just thrilled to death. Well, maybe not.

Of course the world really could end before Not Yet Written is written. Then we’ll never know.

Next stop: And now for a word from the historicists

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Author: The_Old_Maid_of_Potluck

Author of Potluck2point0: The resource formerly known as http://oldmaid.jallman.net (a.k.a. My humongous [technical term] study of "What's behind 'Left Behind'").