“Come, Lord Jesus, come!” (Revelation 22:20)
Some Christians see this as a battle cry for Jesus to return and “put an end to everything.” This view focuses on judgment day. Jesus returns to judge the wicked and the righteous. The righteous enter eternal heaven, and the wicked enter eternal hell. Meanwhile, the earth and all of creation is in some way “burned up” or “destroyed.”
But this makes us consider: What happens to the Earth and all the other physical “stuff” in the universe? If people have an eternal destiny, does the rest of creation also have an eternal destiny? Or is the whole universe “groaning in labor pains” and waiting for its day of liberation (as Paul puts it in Romans 8) only to be burned up and destroyed? If God intends to destroy everything in the end, perhaps creation care doesn’t matter. But if God is not going to burn and destroy the universe, then creation care does matter, and perhaps Christians should be doing something about it.
A New Creation is Coming
Beyond the rapture and tribulation theology that was popularized by the Left Behind series, there is a broader and more widely accepted perspective on eschatology (what the Bible teaches about the future). It describes a world that will not end in destruction, but renewal. The world isn’t moving toward the return of Jesus and complete destruction. Rather, all of creation is progressing toward a glorified state of new creation. But before we explore that perspective, we need to understand the problem.
Cosmology—the science of origins—predicts one of two ends for the universe. Either it will stop expanding and collapse upon itself in total destruction or it will continue expanding and cooling forever, eventually burning out in total darkness. On the other hand, biblical eschatology says the resurrection of Jesus set the world upon a trajectory toward “new creation.” These conflicting claims of science and theology about the fate of the universe seemingly cannot be squared, but Cambridge University scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne argues that the resurrection of Jesus provides a basis to resolve the problem. In the resurrection, God uses a radically new kind of divine action, which cannot be reduced to or explained by the current laws of nature. Such divine action can restore the harmony between cosmology and biblical eschatology.
We see this played out in the similarities between the way that God works in creation and in redemption. The pattern we see in cosmology is a sudden creation (origin), followed by a progressive process of change (development), and some final destination. Through evolution, life progressively changes. The remaking of the universe is similar (and in some ways mirrors) the redemptive story of the saints. A Christian experiences a sudden rebirth called regeneration (origin), followed by a progressively changing life (development), and a final destination of glorification. Since both cosmology and salvation have similar narratives of origin and development, it stands to reason that they have a similar destination—new creation. Just as humans are progressively transformed and will be made new, all of creation is being progressively transformed and eventually will be made new.
The coming of this new creation has important practical implications for Christians.
We Are New Creations
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away behold the new has come!” As followers of Jesus we are new creations. We are products of the Holy Spirit’s work. He is actively shaping us into the new creations that God intends us to be. The Holy Spirit also works in the physical creation. In fact, a closer look reveals a similar pattern between the Holy Spirit’s action in the universe and his action in the life of believers.
Once again, the Holy Spirit works in a pattern of origin, progress, and renewal. He progressively renews creation from its origin to the eventual new creation. At the origin of the universe, he hovered over the watery chaos and brought order. In the present, he is the immanent, infinite power and presence of God who progressively inspires and guides the finite creation. The Spirit’s guidance does not work against nature but within nature. He hovers over the chaos at the edges of creation and brings order by progressively empowering, enlivening, and renewing all of creation to overcome corruption and alienation from God.
This pattern of origin, progress, and ultimate renewal also appears in the Holy Spirit’s work in human redemption. By uniting believers to Christ in his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit is deeply involved with the Son in the new creation. Just as the Holy Spirit’s work in creation reveals a process, human redemption follows the pattern of regeneration (origin), sanctification (progress), and glorification (renewal).
Through the Holy Spirit, both believers and the entire creation experience the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The same Holy Spirit immanently present in human redemption will also redeem the cosmos in similar fashion—by progressive renewal toward a glorified state. The agent of this renewal is the bride of Christ itself, the Church.
A New Creation Calling
Christians have a part to play in the renewal of creation. Creation care involves more than our original task to care for creation. We also have a redemptive task to bring peace and justice to a broken world. If the creation is in trouble, we have a responsibility to provide care. And if the creation is not in trouble, we have a responsibility to provide more than preventive care; we must work for its flourishing.
The task begins in the Old Testament. Adam and Eve originally were commissioned to care for the Garden of Eden. The spirit of that mission carries over into the “post-fall” world. The narrative continues in the story of Israel. When Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, he worked to bring peace and justice to the household of Potiphar. Eventually, he became second in command of all of Egypt. The book of Judges serves as an antithesis to this mission. It recounts the days in Israel when the people did not pursue justice, but each person “did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Nevertheless, the mission of Israel remained the same. In captivity in Babylon, God told them through Jeremiah to embrace the city and seek its welfare (Jeremiah 29:7). They were, according to the prophet Micah, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
The mission of justice, mercy, and love continues into the New Testament. Creation care is a redemptive act that displays God’s love and grace to the world. We are called, like Adam and Eve, to reflect God’s image. If God is continually renewing creation to bring it to glorification, we ought to imitate God and work toward the same goal.
Reflecting God’s image as a means of creation renewal was modeled by Jesus. Jesus’ ministry involved more than preaching repentance; the Lord also displayed compassion. In Matthew 9:35 we read, “Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” Jesus’ ministry had a two-fold purpose: “proclaiming the gospel” and “healing every disease and every affliction.” Jesus preached grace, showed compassion, and brought renewal to God’s creation.
After this, Jesus called his twelve disciples, gave them power to heal affliction, and sent them out to preach. Christ commissioned his disciples to show compassion and preach grace. Their message was accompanied by action. This theme continues in the book of Acts, where the apostles follow a similar pattern of ministry. Through signs and miracles, they preached and renewed creation.
Finally, in the book of Revelation we learn the final destination of all creation. John writes, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God’… And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
What emerges, then, is a consistent story in the Bible. From beginning to end, God is redeeming not only his people, but all of creation. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, God calls his children to the great work of creation renewal.
Redeemed and Renewed
As redeemed creations in Christ, we are not headed for destruction, but a state of glorified renewal. Likewise, all of creation is not rushing toward destructive judgment, but reconstructive renewal. Jesus gave his church a mission to redeem not only his people, but his physical creation.
Creation care should matter to us because the physical creation matters to God. Christians should care for the creation because God is actively renewing it, and he calls us to join him in his work. With this perspective, we can say in a fresh way, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” We look for the Lord’s return because we care for his creation, and we long for the day when he will make it finally and fully new.