November 2020 Credo
What will be the fate of our planet earth at the end of this age? Will it be annihilated or restored? This is not only a stimulating theoretical question, but also one with significant practical implications for our life and ministry.
What does the Bible teach?
The Bible promises that the redeemed will dwell, in the end, in “the new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17, Rev 21:1). Does the adjective “new” imply the total destruction of this present world and the wholesale creation of another, or the renewal and transformation of this present world?
A cursory reading of the Bible suggests that it teaches both outcomes. For example, 2 Pet 3 seems to foretell the complete destruction of this present world, with the elements destroyed by fire and the earth laid bare. Other passages which seem to flow along the same vein include Ps 102:25-26, Mk 13:31 and Rev 21:1. On the other hand, Rom 8:19-23 reveals the hope of the present creation that it will one day “be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”. This is in line with the tenor of other passages indicating the restoration of creation as an outcome of Jesus’ redeeming work (e.g. Acts 3:21, Eph 1:9-10, Col 1:19-20).
How to resolve this “contradiction”?
How are we to deal with this apparent contradiction in the teachings of the Bible? One fruitful line of inquiry is to ask how Christians have understood these passages in the two millennia-long history of the church. Indeed, the Bible is the book of the church (defined broadly as the entire community of believers across time and space), and it is meant to be read in the context of this community, with each member of the body of Christ benefiting from the insights of the other members.
This line of inquiry leads us to see that the church has, in fact, arrived at a consensus as to how to deal with the apparent contradiction as to the fate of our earth. Although there is the occasional dissenting voice, this consensus is formed through agreement on the part of the vast majority of thinkers across the long history of Christianity.
The consensus is to read the Bible as teaching the ultimate renewal and transformation of our present world, not its annihilation. In the words of Markus Mühling, an expert on the Christian view of the last things (“eschatology”):
The view that the world will not be annihilated but transformed (renovatio) is by far the one most broadly advocated in the history of Christianity. It is also interesting that entirely different theological schools and confessions are in agreement on this point, details notwithstanding. (Christian Eschatology, 152)
Basically, this consensus interprets the references to the “destruction” and “passing away” of our present world in the passages cited above as indicating the purging of all that is evil and opposed to God. They refer to a cleansing of our present world—a cleansing so radical and thorough that “the new heavens and new earth” will be incomparably beautiful and wonderful, beyond what any of us living in this present age can envisage. But it is this present world which will be cleansed—the new earth will be a continuation of our present one. The consensus view thus maintains a careful tension between both the “newness” and the “continuity” of what is to come.
How was this consensus arrived at? Christian theologians were guided, firstly, by a firm belief in the goodness of creation. The early church had to combat a heresy known as Gnostic Christianity, which (amongst other things) taught that creation, in terms of its materiality, is evil. Out of this battle grew a deep appreciation on the part of the church for the fundamental goodness of creation (in all its facets), even though, in the present age, it is significantly blighted by sin. This goodness of creation means that it is something worth preserving. Its annihilation can therefore be seen as a kind of defeat for God, who has finally to abandon what he had valued as “very good” (Gen 1:31), in the face of the overwhelming power of Satan and sin.
Another important consideration for these Christian thinkers is the notion of God’s faithfulness. God does not throw away the work of his hands; he does not abandon what he has started, no matter what the odds and how difficult the journey. That is why, throughout the history of God’s dealings with his creatures, even in instances where he issues severe judgement which results in much death and destruction, he leaves behind a remnant to ensure that the story continues; that his plan is not abandoned but proceeds to fruition. This is seen most starkly in the judgement of the flood in the days of Noah (Genesis 7-8).
Why then the popularity of the “annihilation” view?
One question which might arise at this juncture is this: If this is indeed the overwhelming consensus of the church, why is it that a significant number of Christians in Singapore seem to hold the opposing view? (I received a rather stark reminder of this fact when a major church body in Singapore told me frankly that it was unable to publish an article I wrote on this subject because it would “stumble” many of its members, who hold on passionately to the “annihilation” view.)
Through conversations with colleagues, I have distilled three possible (overlapping) reasons for this phenomenon. One is the widespread influence of the dispensational school of theology, which swept into Singapore from the USA from the closing decades of the previous century. This school holds firmly to the “annihilation” position, and has succeeded in popularising its view through its gamut of easy-to-digest yet gripping books and charismatic speakers. Those whose exposure to Christianity is largely mediated through these dispensational authors and speakers would not know that the view they espouse on this issue (and many others, in fact) is by far the minority report.
Another possible reason is the wrong association of the “restoration” view with liberal Christianity. One feature of liberal Christianity is its optimism, which sees our world on a never-ending road of progress, enabled by our innate human capabilities. Some Christians in Singapore may have attributed the “this worldly” obsession and humanistic ethos of liberal Christianity to those who teach the final renewal and transformation of this world.
But a moment’s thought will reveal that there is a world of difference between liberal Christianity and the consensus position we described earlier. The latter does not see our world on a continuous road of progress, and it certainly does not think that the “new heavens and new earth” will come about solely through our humanistic efforts. It is God, from heaven, who brings about the cleansing and restoration of our world, and so this view is as “other-worldly” as it is “this-worldly”.
The third possible reason why the “annihilation” view is so popular is because Gnostic Christianity, while no longer a formal movement, is still very much alive amongst us. This can be seen in the numerous ways we uplift the “spiritual” and denigrate the “material” in the way we think, live and do ministry. The annihilation of the material world, with our human spirits leaving everything behind and ascending to heaven, is, from the Gnostic perspective, the perfect end to the Christian story. Our ready embrace of this version of the end should leave us with much food for thought.
Does it matter?
I suggested at the introduction that the view we take on the fate of our earth has important practical repercussions. As alluded to earlier, the “annihilation” view carries certain implications as to the power and character of God. If God is indeed not sufficiently sovereign to redeem his good creation in the face of sin, or not sufficiently faithful to see through to the end what he has started, our trust in him would (to put it mildly) be significantly impacted.
Also, since we are called to be “imitators of God” (Eph 5:1), does this mean that we too are entitled to adopt a “throw-away” mentality to the things in our lives, be they inanimate objects or human relationships? Does this not reinforce the “throw-away” culture which is currently wreaking havoc in our modern age?
As greater awareness of our present ecological crisis spreads, churches are increasingly embarking on creation care initiatives. If annihilation is the final destiny of our world, however, one has to question whether these initiatives serve any meaningful purpose.
Of course, much more needs to be said if we wish to justify our creation care efforts, even in the context of the “restoration” view. But, of the two positions, “restoration” is clearly the one more conducive to the development of a theology which acknowledges creation care as an integral part of Christian ministry. It is no accident that, for many of the dispensationalists, a concern for the environment is seen as a waste of time and energy. As Hal Lindsey puts it, “God didn’t send me to clean the fishbowl, he sent me to fish.”
Annihilation or restoration? This is a question we need to answer, and answer well.
Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.