Mark Wilson column: Pagan or Christian eternity?

Next Friday (April 22), over a billion people around the world will commemorate Earth Day. It is the third most widely celebrated secular holiday after New Year’s and International Workers’ Days.

Should churches also join (or lead) in promoting reverent care for God’s wondrous creation? A surprising reason that more won’t is because today’s Christians often hold pagan rather than biblical beliefs concerning eternity.

In the 17th and 18th Century Age of Enlightenment, aspects of Greek philosophy became so integrated into Christianity that it is rarely recognized today. Peter Gay, an Enlightenment historian, characterized it as “the rise of paganism.” C. S. Lewis refers to it as “the great divide” in his writing. The famous modern theologian, N. T. Wright has written and spoken in depth about the effects of Greek philosophy upon Christian theology (see his 2018 Gifford Lectures: History and Eschatology).

Ancient Gnostic Greek philosophers viewed the physical world as “not being our home” and considered humans trapped here in corrupt bodies of flesh yearning to escape. A resurrection of the physical body is the very last thing Gnostic followers of Plato would have hoped for. Pagan Gnostics longed for the human soul to depart its earthly body for an immaterial, transcendent world, or as Christians have come to think of it…heaven.

Dualism is a chief hallmark of paganized Christianity. It sharply disconnects a “bad” physical world from a “virtuous” spiritual one. Dualism’s most pronounced effect upon Christian belief has been to change the meaning of eternal salvation. Today it is generally understood as leaving this corrupt physical world for a perfect spiritual realm (pie in the sky after you die).

Although Christians still use the term resurrection (Lit. to stand up again), most understand it to mean existence in a “spiritualized” heavenly place. However, the Bible inseparably interconnects the spiritual and material worlds. Christians should wonder why God would resurrect our physical bodies if we are subsequently destined to fly away to a heavenly spiritual existence? In fact, scripture does NOT envision this scenario, nor was it the general belief of early Christians.

Having unwittingly drunk deeply from Enlightenment era reasoning, today’s Christian view of eternity generally looks more like something thought up by Plato than Christ. We’ve become Gnostics without realizing it. Christians (including clergy) are almost always dismayed when they are unable to point to a single biblical passage clearly stating that heaven will be the eternal home of the redeemed. Scriptural passages proffered as evidence of a heavenly eternal destiny don’t actually say that. Those invested in escapist eschatology merely infer that they do.

The salvation envisioned by the apostles and early Christians didn’t forecast escape from the beautiful world God gave humans dominion over. Their outlook anticipated renewal and perfection of the presently fallen world. It portended human physical resurrection, like that of Jesus. “The Word became flesh,” FOREVER!

Scripture predicts redemption of the entire created order, humans along with everything else. God’s saving work won’t be confined merely to preserving humanity’s immaterial souls (God saves “wholes,” not just souls). “Everything” created by God is destined to be remade “very good.”

For Centuries, Christians believed their eternal inheritance would involve a future renewal of the earth (and all of creation), forever setting it free from corruption and death (Matt. 25:34). Physical human bodies, reanimated by the Holy Spirit will be resurrected and made suitable for eternal life with Jesus on a newly perfected earth, as God himself comes to dwell with us (Rev. 21: 1-5). Jesus calls this “the renewal of all things” (Matt. 19:28). Peter refers to it as “the period of restoration of all things, spoken of by God through his holy prophets since ancient time” (Acts 3:21). Churches taught this for millennia.

That God will one day put “all” of his creation to rights is the bedrock of Christian faith. In spite of what the “end of times” religious industrial complex hopes you will believe, the Bible teaches that God doesn’t plan to abandon his beloved creation. He’s going to renew it, to restore it, to fill it with new joy and purpose and delight, and remove everything corruptible from it.

The last book of the Bible (Revelation) doesn’t end with the company of the saved ascending into heaven. Rather, John prophesies of God bringing the heavenly city New Jerusalem down to join the renewed earth. Biblical salvation consists of reconciling all things on earth and heaven back to their creator (Col. 1:20). Christians shouldn’t expect to escape to heaven, but rather, to be physically resurrected to experience eternal life in God’s renewed creation.

So why aren’t churches leading the world in earth-care activities (the point of this article)? Because when Christians believe their eternal destiny involves vacating a doomed earth, they usually exhibit little interest in caring for God’s beautiful creation. Better to take and use what you can, while you’re here before being lofted away to an eternal, ghostly existence.

Despite this widespread misunderstanding, the Bible forecasts an optimistic eternal future for God’s creation. It envisions a regenerative, restorative hereafter wherein redeemed humanity’s benevolent dominion will result in the wondrous perfection God always intended for his creation. That hopeful promise of new creation burst from the tomb with Jesus on Easter morning!

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