new heaven and earth

I recommend J. Richard Middleton’s new book, A New Heaven and a New Earth, which is an encyclopedic resource on this topic. Middleton explains biblically and theologically why our final end is down here rather than up there, and makes this provocative statement that I happen to agree with. “Therefore, for reasons exegetical, theological, and ethical, I have come to repent of using the term ‘heaven’ to describe the future God has in store for the faithful. It is my hope that readers of this book would, after thoughtful consideration, join me in this repentance” (237).

Middleton reveals the incongruity of believing in both the resurrection and that our final destination is heaven (284-85). We can’t have both. If we believe our physical bodies will rise again, then it makes good biblical, theological, and rational sense that these bodies will live on earth. Middleton also explains why the passing away of this world refers to its transformation rather than its obliteration. The new earth is analogous to our “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul did not mean that our old self was annihilated and replaced with a doppelganger. Instead, he meant “the transformation rather than the obliteration of the person” (206). This is good stuff, something every pastor should read so every Christian will know.

There is a lot to learn from this book, though a few items were less convincing. Middleton argues that the biblical vision of the new earth should compel us to embrace egalitarianism. I don’t think an earthy view of the end necessarily leans in one way or the other. The key is whether or not one believes male headship is found in creation. If so, then it would likely remain in the new creation. If not, then it will certainly be gone. Middleton doesn’t prove his case, and he stumbles over Ephesians 5. He claims that “Eph. 5 plants the seeds of the unraveling of hierarchy and oppression the family,” but Paul was afraid to go further, “as it might be too radical to be heard in a first-century context” (276). Given the more radical ideas that Paul did press, it would be surprising if he was afraid to push the envelope on this issue.

The Canadian in Middleton takes a few unsupported swipes at the Tea Party and rich people who harbor “(well-nigh idolatrous) commitments to success, material progress, and national identity” (275, 279). I’m not saying that Middleton doesn’t have a case here, only that he did not make one. I would have liked to hear more about these sins that many in the west need to repent of.

Middleton also seems weak on the intermediate state—he thinks there is scant evidence for it in the New Testament, though he is right to fear that attention paid there has distracted many Christians from their final earthly hope (236). He also seems open to annihilationism (207), and repeats the common claim that the Old Testament wasn’t too interested in the resurrection (133, 135). I’ve always thought this last point is overstated, given the fact that the Old Testament begins with the problem of death. Wouldn’t the Old Testament care about the solution to the problem it raises in its second chapter?

I’m surprised that Middleton cites Jon Levenson for support that “the Old Testament does not typically place any significant hope in life after death” (133). In Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel (Yale University Press, 2008), Levenson argues that while the Old Testament does not explicitly teach the resurrection until Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2, it does emphasize the promise of life and the restoration of this world, both of which require a resurrection.

Despite these issues, there is much to profit from in Middleton’s book. His examination of Plato (31-34) and survey of church history (283-312) are insightful and alone worth getting the book. We may disagree with some of his details and application, but we all should support his general idea. Our destiny is not up there but down here. As a wise man once said, “We’re earthlings, for heaven’s sake.”

Image from The Commons. Used by Permission. Sourced via Flickr.

6 Comments

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  1. Mike,

    Re: resurrection in the Old Testament, did he deal with Jesus’s reading of Exodus 3:6 in Mark 12? “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Seems like Jesus thought that resurrection was a bit earlier than Daniel…

  2. Great point, Joe. I don’t think he mentions that text, and it’s a good one. Jesus’ comment definitely demonstrates that the Old Testament quite early believed in life after death, though it isn’t proof for a resurrection, because the patriarchs were, and still are, in the intermediate state.

  3. Mike, Thanks for your review of my eschatology book. I agree that you and I are basically on the same page on the big issues. So thanks to you for your work on the topic.

    I note that none of the issues you bring up for criticism are central to the book, except for perhaps resurrection in the OT (and even there I think actually agree with Levenson’s point–but perhaps I did not affirm it clearly enough). If you are interested, I could comment on each of the issues you raised, explaining why I said what I did (and in one case highlighting my actual argument, which you didn’t mention), but I don’t want to be contentious. I am content to affirm our basic theological agreement. Many blessings, Richard

  4. Hi Richard. I would be happy to post your response and then interact with it. That would be fun, and I’m sure I would learn from it. I have agreed with your central point–and written on it, including a new book that comes out tomorrow–ever since I read Wolters’ “Creation Regained” and your “The Transforming Vision.” You have had a large influence in my life, and I’m grateful. Now if we can only change our worship songs!

    Tomorrow I will post about the release of my new book, but I could post your response later in the week or later if your busy, and then I’ll respond afterwards if there is anything for me to say.

  5. HI Mike,
    I am trying to decide if I should get Middleton’s book or the one on Heaven in the Theology in Community series. (One can not buy all the books they would like!) Will you be doing a review on that book as well? I am assuming that the later book would also agree with the main point Middleton is making in his book?

    With appreciation for your previous books and this website,
    Jamie H.

  6. Jamie: I think I may have seen that one but I’m not sure. If it’s the one I’m thinking of, it is an edited volume with various perspectives in it. If so, some may have an earthly vision of the end while some may have a spiritual one. Either way, Middleton’s book is definitely worth having. He proves a major point that so many Christians miss.

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