|Is this the destiny of not just the rainforests, but the whole planet? (Picture credit: http://kvly.images.worldnow.com)|
Christians eagerly await Christ’s return and the subsequent consummation of the age (Rev. 22:12). In the Resurrection, our bodies will be transformed (1 Cor. 15:4). But have we neglected non-human creation in our eschatology? Is there hope for non-human creation? John Wesley believes so. I agree and am interested in taking the idea a step further. Not just animals but all creation will be renewed. The eschatological hope for non-human creation will be cathartic, involving a “death” of the current creation, it will be a continuation of type but not of actual being, and it will be bound up with human salvation.
For perspective, we shall turn our attention to three biblical examples of destruction and renewal. These are the Noah’s flood (Gen. 6-9), Israel’s conquest of Canaan under Joshua (Jos. 6:12-12:1), and the Lord’s example of a kernel of wheat, which falls, “dies,” and produces many more seeds (Jn. 12:24). In each of these examples, a “death” occurs, only to produce abundant life. Noah’s flood cleansed the world and started a new, uncorrupted bloodline to repopulate the earth. Joshua gave the land of Canaan to Israel as a lasting inheritance, and they rested from war (Jos. 11:23). The seed of Jesus’ lesson dies to the world, only to spring to life and produce a plentiful crop. These are three examples, and Scripture is replete with examples of new life following destruction. Eschatological passages about the renewal of non-human creation follows suit.
In Matthew 24:35, Jesus himself declares that “heaven and earth will pass away” (cf. Mk. 13:31; Lk. 21:33). Peter talked about the end when he wrote that, “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet. 3:7). And John saw the heavens rolled up like a scroll and all the mountains moved from their places (Rev. 6:14), indicating the kind of end the world will experience. It seems that this current world will experience a cleansing “death” which will result in new life in the next age. But if this world will be destroyed, then what exactly will continue?
Some forms of Christian eschatology (such as Postmillennialism) anticipate an ontological continuity between this world and the next. Such views are commendable for their emphasis on good stewardship of the natural world; however I do not believe they are the most correct theologically. In the age to come, the world will be the same world, but it will have been so drastically changed and renewed as to be rendered unrecognizable--much as our world would have been unrecognizable to a member of the antediluvian world of Genesis 1-6. The new earth will be built from the same material, but it will not really be the same. Why is this?
At this point, Let us contrast non-human renewal with human resurrection. Humanity has a soul. This can continue on after death. The Resurrection body, which is a “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44), has continuity with the human soul and the “natural body” that was sown (i.e. buried) in the previous age. Hence, Jesus’ raised body was unrecognizable at first to his disciples (Lk. 24:37; Jn. 20:15) but still carried the marks of the crucifixion (Lk. 24:39; Jn. 20:27). It is the soul, breathed into humanity at creation (Gen. 2:7) which continues and goes to the Lord. On the other hand, a non-human creature does not continue after death, but seems to descend “into the earth” (Ecc. 3:21; cf. 12:7). If animals do not continue, I reason that they will not enter the next age. Therefore, contrary to what popular animated films from the 1980s might say, all dogs do not go to heaven. It would be possible, I suppose, for God to recreate dogs, cats, and “brute creatures” in something akin to the way Jehovah’s Witnesses view human resurrection (more aptly dubbed “re-creation”), but now we are speculating. But are there not animals in the new heaven and new earth then?
In Isaiah 11:6, fierce predators recline with helpless prey, sans conflict. On my view, the wolf, lamb, and calf (etc.) are re-created to populate the new world in the new age. Again, this is a continuation of type, not of ontology. The lamb in heaven will not be one that has ever existed on earth. Animals will not undergo a resurrection. In the same way, neither will the natural world.
To reiterate, the natural, non-conscious world of the age to come will be a re-formed world, constructed from the present materials. Just as the world of our age is the same world as Noah’s antediluvian one, dramatically transformed, so will the next one be. Psalm 104:5 and Ecclesiastes 1:4 indicate that the present world will remain forever. To harmonize these passages with the others that we have examined, it seems probable that the “new earth” of Christian eschatology could just as well be called the “renewed earth.” This is a great hope.
In the end, the hope is ours. Rocks and dogs are incapable of comprehending the significance of the restoration--though in some sense they long for it (cf. Ro. 8:22). We, on the other hand, can understand the importance of the eschaton for our hope. If the world will be destroyed and renewed, how much more will we who have trusted in Christ be renewed after our deaths, and restored for life forever with God! Cosmological renewal is a great hope for Christians.
Christian eschatology does have hope for the renewal of non-human creation. It is bound up in our own salvation, it will be a renewal of type (if not ontological), and it will be analogous to death and rebirth. In this is hope for the natural systems and hope for us, that God is ultimately faithfully in keeping his promises.