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Featuring guest Jonathan A. Moo

114. Jonathan Moo | Revelation and Radical Faithfulness

How should Christians respond to the bleak picture that is sometimes painted of the world?


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Lighting over water

How should Christians respond to the bleak picture that is sometimes painted of the world?

Description

Reading the news these days can make it seem like the world is coming to an end. And reading scientific journals, especially regarding climate, biodiversity loss and other environmental issues, can give a similar feeling. Jonathan Moo is a professor of New Testament and environmental studies and he helps break down how Christians might respond to the bleak picture that is sometimes painted of the world. He helps us to look specifically to the biblical account of end times to understand how to put this in perspective with our own times. We find not only darkness in a conversation about apocalypse but hope and the need for a more radical faithfulness.

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Transcript

Moo:

Once we understand the way that the language and its symbolism functions, and the purpose of the Apocalypse, I think it helps us to actually begin to discover in a book, especially the Book of Revelation, a prophetic critique of both John’s day, but also of our own time and the ways that our own nations and economic systems often become idols that are destroying ourselves and our neighbors and are destroying the earth too. And that require, therefore, a call to a more radical faithfulness.

Jonathan Moo. I’m professor of New Testament and Environmental Studies at Whitworth University. 

Hoogerwerf:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Colin Hoogerwerf, standing in for Jim this week. 

You don’t have to study history too long to see that people have always thought that the times they lived in were sure to bring about the end of the world. Of course that’s no different today. What is different today is that we have a large majority of scientists telling us that if we don’t change our behavior, the climate and the ecosystems on earth will make it pretty hard for us to survive. There are a lot of ways people can respond to that kind of news, but what is the appropriate Christian response?

Jonathan Moo is a New Testament Scholar with a degree in wildlife biology and we discuss some different approaches to living in a world that is threatened by some real environmental problems, without ignoring the facts but also without sinking into a state of despair. We also look to the Bible, which has a significant amount to say about the end of times. It turns out that a bit of consideration of the apocalypse doesn’t have to be all fire and brimstone, and can actually help us to live more hopeful and faithful lives in the here and now.  

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Hoogerwerf:

Welcome, Jonathan Moo. So glad to have you with us. 

Moo:

Thanks for having me. 

So we’re going to talk today about end times and Revelation and Apocalypse. I’m a person that likes to get right to the good stuff in a conversation, but apocalypse is pretty heavy stuff. So I think in this case, we should start where we often do on the podcast and hear a little bit about your background. I’m interested particularly in some of the early moments in your life that led you to being interested in science and the natural world.

Moo:

I grew up in the Chicago area. And for reasons I don’t really understand, I just loved being outside and in the natural world, when I was really young, playing in the field behind our house. And then the later house we had some, just a small patch of woods, actually. But I would spend hours by myself or with friends watching squirrels and deer and groundhogs and foxes. Of course, that love of nature led me to want to study science. I’ll be honest, I think some of my early years in school, I always found my science classes disappointing. They felt kind of dry and sterile compared to being outside. But I sort of stuck with it just because I loved, so much, that time and the outdoors and wanted to know more about the world that I was fascinated by. That led ultimately to doing biology, as well as English literature as an undergrad, and then wildlife biology later on. 

I also grew up in a Christian home, my father is in fact, a professor of New Testament. It was a wonderful context in which to grow up because my parents were deeply Christian and raised myself and my siblings that way. But we always felt really free to ask questions. Whether that related to science and faith or anything else, for that matter, you never felt like things were out of bounds or that we couldn’t explore them. Even if I would come to conclusions different than my parents, they would respect that and kind of that spirit of open inquiry, I guess, as we would call it, was something that was really helpful for me growing up. I do recall when I think about science of religion, that when I was, I don’t know, perhaps 13 or something, I wrote a paper for a class arguing against evolution. I don’t really remember much more about the wider context of that, but I felt compelled in my Christian faith that somehow this was in conflict. And I remember my atheist teacher, a very kind man, was very complimentary of my paper, although he disagreed entirely with the whole of it. I don’t really remember the process, but somehow by the time I was in college and studying biology, I had come to a place where I simply just did not see any conflict between my high view of the authority of Scripture and my Christian faith, and what evolutionary biology told me about the origins of the diversity of life. That meant that my biological studies as an undergrad were really just a joyful exploration of things that I found fascinating. 

Hoogerwerf:

Do you think you held those things together pretty well, even at that time? I know we hear that story a lot where people just keep them in separate tracks and avoid needing to work out any tensions by doing so.

Moo:

Yes, and I encounter that a lot, especially in some of my colleagues in the sciences and I understand why that is when the students remain sadly so conflicted in wider society. But actually, for whatever reason, I really had a passion to try to put these things together. Like I couldn’t compartmentalize my life in that way. And so I didn’t have answers to a lot of the questions that I pursued. I guess I will never have answers to all of them, perhaps until the new creation, but I really did seek to put them together. And it no doubt led to a rethinking of some of the ways that I had been inclined to read scripture, especially Genesis. Also to be honest, sometimes a recognition of the sort of philosophical perspectives that were being imported into my biology classes at times. I remember reading Richard Dawkins a lot as an undergrad. I thought his book, The Blind Watchmaker, was marvelous, actually. It’s so helpful, just kind of thinking about probability, and how it changes how we understand the process of evolution. But then, of course, that led to reading some of his other themes beyond his expertise, as I’ve learned since then. And so I think even at that time, I felt, I didn’t probably have the words to articulate it, we’re tempted to read back into our younger selves a greater ability to do that. But nonetheless, I think I thought at the time, this doesn’t make sense either. This is way beyond the bounds of what my science is telling me about the world.

Hoogerwerf:

Yes. So you’ve since written a book with your father, called Creation Care, A Biblical Theology of the Natural World. Was that something that was in him? Or did that come through you? Talk a little bit about growing up with a New Testament scholar as a father and coming to write that book.

Moo:

As I said, I grew up with his love of the outdoors, of fishing, hunting and hiking. My parents liked being outside, but nothing like that. It was more kind of…  My dad’s a wildlife photographer, no sorry, a landscape photographer, so he loves doing photography. But that was pretty much the extent of it. I’m not sure why I got this great love for it, but especially when I was in graduate school, in wildlife biology, I think my dad and I started talking about these things. I went through a real crisis in my faith for lots of reasons, but one of them was the sense that the church wasn’t taking seriously, what seemed to be the most important issue facing us in this time, which is our relationship to the natural world, and ecological ruin, and climate change, and all of that. My church didn’t seem to have anything to say to it. That led to conversations with my dad, which then led him to begin to think about that. We actually had dreamed for a long time of someday, maybe collaborating. Then, maybe a decade after those initial conversations, the opportunity presented itself.

Hoogerwerf:

Well, besides that book you wrote with your father, you co-authored another book, Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis, and I imagine that some of that comes out of working through that faith crisis you talked about. In the first chapter, you laid out a bunch of different categories for how people might respond to the planetary crisis we find ourselves in. And I want to talk about some of those categories, because I think they’re really interesting. But first, it’s been eight years now since that book came out, and the ecological crisis hasn’t gone away. I wonder if we need to talk about the crisis for a minute. We’ve talked about it before on the podcast, and I think we could probably talk about it for this whole hour, but I don’t want to do that. But I think we need to do a little bit. So can you just maybe distill that down to the most important points? Where are we with the planetary crisis?

Moo:

Sure, yeah. The sobering thing, to be honest, is that, when I reflect on those eight years or whatever it has been since that book, the way in which even some of the things that Bob White and I wrote about our understanding of kind of the health of the earth and its ecosystems, and its climate systems at the time, and some of the projections for what was coming, if actually, in many instances proven to be if anything, overly positive. I give lectures on this stuff all the time and I’m always having to update my data, and it sometimes can be hard just to feel that the direction is so often, I don’t want to say it always is because we need to hold on to the good stories, too, but the direction is so often going the wrong way. The diversity of the Earth’s life continues to decrease, the abundance of other life and habitat homes further life continues to be degraded. Meanwhile, climate change of course, continues and we’re beginning, I think, to experience even more dramatically some of the effects of climate change globally, especially for those people in the majority of the world, and in perhaps more significant ways than we might have thought would happen already. One thing I will say is that, it’s interesting, I’m often asked to give talks about Christianity and the environment. One of the risks I see recently is that climate change is undoubtedly the most significant challenge we face, because it affects everything else. But it’s not the only issue. I sometimes find when I’m asked to give that talk, what they really mean is Christianity and climate change. But I want us to see climate change, actually, as part of a bigger question that has to do with our relationship to the world in which we are a part. This perhaps goes back to me having been a wildlife biologist, but some of the things that I guess bothered me existentially the most is not only the loss in diversity of other species, for example, but the collapse and the abundance of other life, essentially, just in my lifetime. We have perhaps 60% fewer wild invertebrates than we did when I was born. That’s really sobering. We are inheriting a diminished Earth. If you talk to any biologist, whether or not they’re engaged in environmental things, they tend to be passionate about the particular species or ecosystem that they’re studying, and there’s often a sadness, sometimes even bordering on despair, about the loss of other life, and the loss of health of ecosystems and their flourishing. I don’t want to just run down the list of statistics of things to be depressed about, but that loss of other life kind of is the first thing given that our role is meant to be those who rule over and care for other life is entrusted to us by God. Related to that we could talk about loss of topsoil and farming. Then, of course, climate change, which again, does affect all else.

Hoogerwerf:

And part of the problem is how these are all tied together, so to solve any one, you really have to be considering all the rest of the problems.

Moo:

Yes, I think so. Although this is part of my pushback, I guess, against, this isn’t a push back really, but just of seeing climate change as the only issue. I don’t think this is the case, but hypothetically, let’s say there was some magical geoengineering way to fix climate change tomorrow. I wish we had that, but we don’t and none of the things proposed seem of any possibility to do that. Nonetheless, hypothetically, that could be the case, but we still face a profound crisis, I think it is the only word to use for it. As I said, our relationship with the rest of creation, has to be addressed and that cannot be fixed simply through such geo engineering and technical solutions. It requires something of a rethinking about our relationship to each other and to the natural world and how we live in it.

Hoogerwerf:

In your book, you outlined several ways people can respond to the crisis and I think this will get at some of these themes that we’re bringing up. You so you list ignorance-as-blissers, seekers, deniers, problem solvers, despairers, and the one I find really interesting post-apocalypse hopers. This category is people who look at all the data and are convinced that collapse is inevitable, but unlike despairers, who take more of a passive stance, these people are actually trying to figure out what comes next. I’ll say that none of these options are ones you suggest in the book should be a Christian response. So before we get to that Christian response, can we dig into a few of those categories starting with the post-apocalypse hopers? A little more detail there: these aren’t people that are hoping for an apocalypse.

Moo:

No, that’s right. What I meant more by that was what when I wrote the book was at a time quite new to me, was especially prompted by something called the Dark Mountain Movement that started in UK, which was a sense that it was a movement started by a number of people who had been environmental activists, people deeply engaged in trying to change the trajectory that we’re on, and had come to feel that the needle was not moving. That really, there is no hope for changing things within the current system, and that we are headed inevitably to some form of societal collapse and disaster and ecological collapse. In response to this group, so that’s where kind of, they’re thinking about, what’s beyond that apocalypse, we shouldn’t therefore just despair but rather, let’s begin right now to create an alternative sort of a culture that is prepared for that life post-apocalypse. I think more positively perhaps, is modeling, in the meantime, a different way of being in the world that can serve as a critique, very countercultural critique to the reigning society’s ways of doing things.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah, so the dark mountain project in particular, I think Paul Kingsnorth is one who has really pushed back against this, only talking about climate change issue that you brought up. And you say that this category might grow in popularity if things don’t improve? I think it might be fair to say things haven’t improved. I’m wondering, is there any allowance within a Christian worldview, because you say this isn’t necessarily an appropriate Christian worldview. Is there an allowance to begin accepting that the world we knew won’t be the same no matter what we do?

Moo:

Yes, of course. I should probably qualify and say there are elements of at least a few of the different responses that I think Christians might embrace. I also want to say, I think different people are called to different ways of living out their faith in this particular time. Some people are going to be called to be activists, to be on the front lines doing that kind of thing. Some people are going to be called to create these alternative visions of community for us that perhaps will be the most compelling and most transformative, actually, in the long run. In any case, here’s my concern, is that, again, I’ve benefited from the creativity of this group and from Kingsnorth as well, quite a lot. But my fear, my concern, is that the withdrawal that they advocate for, if that was taken up widely, seems to me to consign a world to disaster that is not inevitable. I don’t think we ever have enough information to say, there is absolutely no hope to make things at least better. I mean, Kingsnorth thinks about kind of the whole modern industrial project as kind of this machine that is running across our world, destroying it, and that even climate change activists who are fighting against climate change, just kind of assume that and just are trying to tinker with that machine. And maybe he’s right. But even if that’s the case, there are better and worse outcomes that are facing us in the decades and centuries ahead. And those outcomes, the negative ones will hurt our sisters and brothers who are poor, and who are in the majority world, much harder, they will hit at least someone like me, in North America. I want at least at a minimum us to be kind of grit in that machine that slows it down. That can dream of even trying to change the direction of that. So that we may preserve much of what is left, we may mitigate the worst effects of climate change. And even to persist, sometimes in a reckless hope that maybe things will turn more quickly than we can imagine, that suddenly society will be motivated to transform itself, and that we as Christians have to be witnesses to that possibility. But again, all that acknowledging that there are those because of their position, I suppose, may just find it necessary to withdraw. And I perhaps would need to hear from those people. I’ve been influenced more than anyone else, perhaps by Wendell Berry in my reading. And he’s someone who I think just represents a way of life that is kind of contrary to many of the assumptions of our contemporary time, doesn’t line up politically in any way that makes sense of our current context, doesn’t line up with even the ways in which we often live out our Christian faith. Yet, it’s kind of a model and a testimony to a different way of thinking about ourselves in the world. And so there is a lot of potential there.

Hoogerwerf:

Let’s talk about problem solvers and why this isn’t a holistically appropriate Christian response. Because it seems to me that especially prevalent in the environmental movement is, let’s go get our act together. Let’s find the technological solutions and just fix this problem. Why isn’t that a right way to be thinking?

Moo:

You know, it’s interesting. I just had been reflecting recently about it. The timing of this isn’t precise, but the same time that are not the same time, but kind of perhaps within the same decade that Paul Kingsnorth and some of the other folks in the Dark Mountain movement were basically ceasing to be environmentalists and critiquing the environmental movement. You add another group of people doing just the same thing, but for just the opposite reason. People who call themselves eco-modernists back then, eco-pragmatists, I think, now it’s a breakthrough project or something that they’re associated with. So I’m thinking of Shellenberger, Nordhaus here. These are people who also were involved in environmental activism, and who wrote a book, or a manifesto, The Death of Environmentalism, claiming that it was hopeless to correct the trajectory that we’re on. But their argument was that it was precisely because of environmentalists being too romantic in their view of the natural world, and not being willing to essentially embrace the powers that we have in the Anthropocene, this age of humanity, and simply use those powers for better outcomes rather than worse outcomes. So this group takes climate change very seriously although they often downplay its effects, to be honest. But they would say that the solution to this is technology. There’s a philosopher, a French philosopher, Pascal Bruckner, who said, the solution to the problems of modernity has always been more of modernity, to the problems of technology is more technology. There is just what I consider to be extraordinarily naive optimism, as well as a uniquely privileged perspective, from the Western world. That, sure, we might create problems and devastation through our technology, but we can solve them by simply continuing to develop that technology, to kind of bootstrap our way out of the traps that we get ourselves into. My problem with that sort of hubris is that it just seems to stand against the fact that, yes, technology has a significant positive role to play. Noah’s Ark is our biblical example of the use of technology to save other life, right? But as for every Noah’s Ark, we have a Tower of Babel as well. An example of human hubris that thinks it can stand in the place of God and I think, doesn’t recognize the harm that we do along the way when we take that perspective, and also just has a naivete to it. 

Hoogerwerf:

Let’s take a moment to talk about this idea of the problems with the word stewardship, maybe even creation care, because I think this ties in, some people have started to say that thinking about the world as stewardship makes us think that we have too much power, and it’s just divvying up resources. Is this kind of just nitpicking? Or do these words matter?

Moo:

I think it matters that we explain what we mean by the words that we use. I don’t think I know what the best term is for us to use to describe our, what I continue to call our care for creation or care for the earth. I like care, because it reflects in certain respects, the sort of keeping and serving of Genesis and the keeping that God has of us, it suggests a care that is present, even when that care is by letting something be some of the other terms that are proposed, like healing or something suggests that we are always in this position of healing. Whereas, how does that apply in a context perhaps of a flourishing earth or flourishing ecosystems? Stewardship is one that is perhaps especially problematic, though, and I can’t remember to what extent this makes it into the actual discussion that my dad and I had about this, into the book we wrote together. But we both kind of disagree about it. He’s very happy to embrace it, and I’m more leery of it. And the reason is partly just because we associate stewardship, as you alluded to, to our kind of stewardship of financial resources, or even natural resources, that these are things we just can divvy up and make sure we do that equitably. And we’re done. Whereas our relationship to the other creatures into the earth is in the first instance as one creature among others. And we relate to them as living creatures that have their own intrinsic value before God, and have their own ends. We’re a part of that community. We’re not separated from them as we might see ourselves with our financial resources are something. Nonetheless, our responsibility for them as created, the image of God is distinct in Scripture. That responsibility is described and sometimes quite strong language in Scripture itself. I recognize the rule over other creatures in Genesis, compared to the serving and protecting, you might say in Genesis two. So is stewarding the right way to describe that? Jesus uses a couple of parables to talk about stewarding a master’s estate, caring for the servants and making sure the servants get their pay. Perhaps as long as we understand that we are doing that in relationship to others, others who also relate to God in and of themselves as other creatures do, and that God is not absent from us in that stewardship, that Christ is still present through the Spirit, even as we do that work, then we can use the term. But it takes quite a bit of work, to say all of that, perhaps. It is also just fair to say that there’s a number of groups that have taken the word stewardship and twisted it beyond anything that might resemble a Biblical sense of what our responsibilities are. So yeah, words matter. But I don’t know that I at least thought of the one perfect way to describe this.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of God,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Hoogerwerf:

Let’s talk about apocalypse, which is a word that seems like it’s used more and more in these years. There have always been people who are convinced that the end of the world is near, whether because of political turmoil or social unrest. And those things obviously aren’t absent from the world of today, either. But we also have this scientific story of the planetary crisis, climate change, and species extinction and pollution, etc, etc. Reading scientific journals these days can make it seem like things are coming to an end. And part of me wants to think that people throughout history have always just felt this way and conclude that it’s just human nature to see things as ending. But it’s our scientific case for the coming apocalypse any different? Does it matter that we have scientific evidence supporting these concerns, rather than just anecdotal evidence?

Moo:

Yes, it does. You know, it is almost always wrong to say that you live in unique times, because usually that reflects an ignorance of history. But I think in our time, sadly, it’s really only an ignorance of history that can lead us not to recognize some of the things that are unique and distinct about our times. In the past, when we might say, the world is going to end, that world is almost certainly constrained to our local community or nation or part of the world. And there have, of course, been endless examples of environmental degradation and even local collapse of one sort or another, through the history of human habitation of the earth. But what is indeed distinct and different and even unique about our time, is simply the sheer impact that we are able to have across the entire Earth, and even on the Earth’s climate systems, that past peoples because of lower populations and lower levels of technology we’re unable to have. Think about fact that in Jesus’s time there was maybe 250 million people on Earth. Yeah, I think we reached our first billion around 1800, or just after. We’re now, you know, adding that a billion people, perhaps every 10 or 15 years. We’re like 7.7 billion just now. That many people needing to be housed and fed and have lives of dignity and flourishing themselves. And the immense power that is available to all of us to the burning of fossil fuels, at least all of us in the wealthier parts of the world also means that the impact each of us, individually, can have on the world around us is far greater than for any of those 250 million in Jesus’s day. So that combination just means that it is perhaps not surprising, though no less sobering, that humankind collectively is having such a profound influence on the earth that people are calling it the Anthropocene, calling it this age of humanity, that we’ve become such a significant even geological force on life on Earth. So I think it’s actually quite important to recognize the uniqueness of our time because especially for Christians, that means this is one of the central issues we ought to be reflecting upon, we ought to be engaging with, we ought to be taking a lead in helping others both think and act well in these unique times.

Hoogerwerf:

The Bible also talks about apocalypse, we have this book at the end of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. This is a book that has always been really hard for me to read, and I think leads to a lot of different interpretations and culture, we often think about trying to understand the genre of different biblical texts, and knowing something as poetry helps, at least helps me to read it better. What is the genre of Revelation? Is there a modern equivalent?

Moo:

That’s the problem, is we do not have a modern equivalent.

Hoogerwerf:

Apocalypse fiction is probably not quite there.

Moo:

It’s not really, you know, and we’ve come to use apocalypse, as we just actually were a minute ago, I guess, to describe sort of end of the world events, or terrible or awful things. But, and Revelation has plenty of that, admittedly, but we need to see that in its context. But what’s at the heart, actually, of the genre of Apocalypse is the meaning of the Greek word itself, apocalypsis, which is an unveiling or revealing of things as they actually are. And, in a sense, the apocalyptic genre is actually just sort of the extreme example of what is that the central conviction of all theistic religions, which is that for us to have adequate knowledge of ourselves and of the world, we require that God reveal God’s self to us. That’s obviously, for Christians, God has revealed God to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the scriptures that bear witness to him. And that in itself was an apocalyptic moment. It’s an unveiling of reality, what is the reality about the world, it is real that is created, loved, sustained and redeemed by God and Christ through the Spirit. So in one sense, the apocalyptic genre is that taken to an extreme in that you have a seer who is granted this vision by God’s grace, that shows something about the way things actually are. But it is communicated not in some sort of a straightforward way. Not like so many people read, I guess, revelation today, is like a newspaper written in advance or something like that. But much of it is actually much like the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. It is an attempt to help people to see the reality of the situation in which they’re living, to present them with the reality that underlies that and to challenge them to be faithful to God in the midst of that moment. So even in Revelation, many of its terrifying scenes of upheaval, and so forth are a direct challenge to the Roman Empire and its claim to have brought peace and stability to the world. What John is doing, in a sense, is pulling back the veil that makes everything look like it’s fine, and showing that behind it lies, violence, bloodshed, idolatry, economic system that rewards the rich and destroys the poor and that destroys the Earth itself. And so once we understand the way that the language and its symbolism functions, and the purpose of the Apocalypse, I think it helps us to actually begin to discover in a book, especially the Book of Revelation, a prophetic critique of both John’s day, but also of our own time, and the ways that our own nations and economic systems often become idols that are destroying ourselves and our neighbors and are destroying the earth too. And that requires, therefore, a call to a more radical faithfulness.

Hoogerwerf:

We modern day Christians really want to know what’s going to happen in the future. Is the book of Revelation going to help us learn that? And or were the ancient people just not as concerned with that as we are?

Moo:

Well, I think that there are profound cultural differences that mean that ancients often thought about time differently than we do. That’s especially true in the Hebrew Bible, which reflects a bit more of the sort of cyclical nature of time that is common in many cultures. But I have to say, it’s kind of a popular scholarly thing to say, the Hebrew Bible itself, and especially when we get the New Testament does have a beginning and an end that is found in God in Christ. But it’s not simply a return to how things were, for example, but rather a bringing to fruition of God’s purposes for God’s people and for the whole of creation. I think that’s, so there was actually an interest in that. But in a book like revelation and the prophetic books upon which it is based, and in the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, we have pictures of God’s promised future that I think our problem today is we’re so unfamiliar with the genre of apocalyptic and in a prophetic texts, we read it as kind of a one for one sort of thing. So, you know, a notorious reading of revelation, you know, you see these terrifying Scorpion beasts and think of them as some kind of standard for Blackhawk helicopters or something like that. And so I think we are looking for answers to questions that revelation is not meant to answer. But one of the things revelation is meant to answer is, by waking its readers up to the reality of a world that if God removes God’s sustaining hand is consigned to destroying itself, as creation fights back against the evil that has taken hostage. And a world in which if they actually are radically faithful to witnessing to Christ will mean that they stop worshiping the Roman emperor, and the pagan deities that might be tempted to worship in the various cities of Asia Minor and their time, they may suffer grievously for that. They may participate in the suffering of creation. And yet they are promised that God’s purposes for them have not failed and cannot fail, that God’s purpose, to reconcile them to Christ, and to bring them into the life of the new creation, when God makes all things new, that that still stands. That’s why revelation regularly has these pauses in the midst of, kind of these terrifying scenes of a world out of balance of God’s promised hope for the future. And so it does give us that assurance of God’s relentless faithfulness to God’s creation, that I think actually has the potential to inspire perseverance and hope, even in the midst of the world that John’s readers were maybe soon going to experience in some of the persecution they were under. And indeed, in a world like our own, where we face some terrifying scenarios, in the coming decades. And yet, just like Christians have always done in times of war and difficulty, learning in the midst of that to be faithful to the God whose promises finally cannot fail, even if in the medium term, we do experience suffering, in fact we’re promised that, I guess

Hoogerwerf:

One of the main, I think, in misinterpretations of biblical prophecy or revelation is that everything we know will be burned up. And therefore it doesn’t matter much what state it’s in now. Can you talk a little bit about the harm in that interpretation? And maybe what a better interpretation might be?

Moo:

Yeah, of course. And, you know, some of that comes from, I think, a misreading of especially 2 Peter 3, talks about the works, the Earth and the works on it, in some manuscripts has been burned up. I think, probably the better reading is actually ‘will be found before God’, and all is laid bare before God at the return of Christ. But revelation actually, in a way, despite all its terrifying scenes, makes it easier for us. Revelation, right at the kind of the end of the first half of the book talks about the time for destroying those who destroy the earth, which is rather terrifying phrase, but reminds us that God stands on the side of creation, against all that would destroy it. That all the upheavals that we have been reading about to that point, are rightly seen as, in a sense, creation fighting back against the evil that has taken hold of it. As long as Paul might tell us in Romans eight, for the children of God to be revealed, for God’s new creation to come. And then in the visions of revelation 21 and 22, we have a vision of a new heaven and new earth. But it is a new heaven and new earth where all of this world is taken up and made new and brought into the presence of God in Christ, such that the one of the throne says “I am making everything new,” as many have pointed out, not saying, “I’m making all new things” as if throwing out all of that and starting over again. And that’s consistent, of course with what we read from the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, right up through the New Testament, where the apostle Paul, for example, in Romans, as I alluded to, talks about the same creation that now groans that suffers in a way that perhaps Revelation describes so dramatically. That same creation, is waiting for its rescue from its slavery to ruin and destruction, waiting for God’s children to be revealed at the time of the resurrection, new creation.

Hoogerwerf:

I think this distinction between between destroying and transforming is really important. But even if there is transformation, according to the laws of conservation of matter and energy, right, and everything will still be here for God to use in God’s transformation. God made life before, couldn’t God fix whatever’s broken? And I obviously ask these questions out of concern that maybe any biblical eschatology might lead to poor Earth care, will there always be a problem with trying to base our behavior now on what will happen at the end?

Moo:

I think there is a risk, if we don’t understand that the end is a ticking up of the beginning and requires us it actually sends us back into this world, to see it afresh as the arena of God’s glory, that God will never give up upon. So it certainly has that risk. It always does. And perhaps that’s why sometimes it is important simply to ask ourselves, what are we called to do in this limited time and space? To love and to care for our sisters and brothers, to love God and to care for the earth that God has entrusted to us for this time. There’s certainly something to be said for that. But I actually think that this biblical vision of the future, can enable us to persevere in the midst of that, and even help us to see that, for example, the joy and delight and the love that I think must be at the center of a Christian vision of caring for the earth, that those things are, can be inspired by and supported by the fact that this world matters to God both in the past and in the future, God has not given up on it. The analogy I sometimes think of is that, you know, we are promised that all of our human relationships will be reconciled by God in Christ. And in fact, they have been reconciled by God in Christ and our call is to live into that ministry of reconciliation, to be reconciled to each other, to live in our relationships to our sisters and brothers in ways that God intends. And I think the same applies to our relationship to the rest of creation. Our relationship to other creatures and to the whole of the earth should reflect God’s purposes for that, and the redemption that God has brought about in Christ. So even that passage in Romans eight that I alluded to, Paul talks about creation, waiting for God’s children to be revealed. Paul has actually just told us a little earlier in the passage that anyone is in the spirit is already a child of God. And so as is often the case, for Paul, I think the challenge there is to actually begin to live as who we already are, those who are reconciled to God, therefore reconciled to each other, and reconciled to the earth, and the whole creation too. So there actually ought to be a motivation there to live into that reality. And, I think, a hope indeed, just as Paul says, in 1 Corinthians that the works that we do in the Lord, endure precisely because of that hope of resurrection and new creation. Some of our efforts to care for creation will fail. But all of those efforts that we do with the best wisdom and ability that we have, that are done in Christ, are somehow, in some mysterious way, taken up into the life of God’s kingdom, and confirmed and carried into the life of the new creation, where the kings of the earth bring their glory into it. So I think it actually give us a particular value for persevering. Even in the midst of a world where things are not going the direction perhaps we would like them to.

Hoogerwerf:

So I find myself often walking what seems to be a really fine line, as a communicator about the science of what’s happening in the world, and as a Christian that’s trying to provide hope and encouragement. There are a lot of people, sociologists, that tell us that fear is a bad motivator, and I think they’re right. But I’m trying to find this line between some of these things we talked about earlier, the state of the planet that we’re in, and trying to be real about that. And also, the ability we have as these really kind of miraculous creatures that we are. Do you have any wisdom you can give on kind of how to walk that line?

Moo:

I’ve been struggling with this myself. And so I don’t know that I have a settled conviction or a lot of wisdom to offer. I just actually wrote something about this. In fact, you know, I have to acknowledge what sociologists tell me. I trust their studies. And yet I find it very difficult not to speak the truth as clearly as I can. And I’m one of those strange persons, and perhaps you are too Colin, who is motivated by, like, facts and data, like it actually changes my way of seeing the world and myself and so it means that I keep doing that, even though I’m told it’s not really very effective. But I do think, so you know, I alluded earlier to the fact that sometimes we think things are certain and that can be an equal example of arrogance as saying, we definitely can fix things with technology or something like that. We can’t know with perfect certainty, the outcomes in the decades to come. And we have stories of hope, and of transformation and of times, even when certainly individuals, but even societies have been radically transformed very quickly. And so I think being able to tell those small examples, and those stories, and to say there is still things that we can do differently right now, is important. I actually sometimes think that Christians in particular, have a way in which we can speak to the hope of personal transformation. Often the reasons that people don’t want to talk about fear and talk about how challenging things are, is that they think people will only adopt solutions that are really pretty easy, that are really pretty straightforward for them, that already fit some pre existing ideas that they have. That might be effective in the short term. But for longer term change, and to address the whole suite of challenges that are posed by our broken relationship with the earth, and the way it’s being played out right now, those require deeper transformations of our society perhaps. And for that, Christians actually have the conviction that our hearts can change, that we can undergo conversion of various kinds. And so I hold out that hope that actually by speaking the truth in love, and in hope that we actually can come to what actually might be a much more beautiful and good way of being in the world. That gives us love and hope and joy. And that’s perhaps the one thing I would, the only piece of wisdom such as it is, I would say, is that our motivation for all these acts should be rooted finally in love, not in fear, as you say, in a right understanding of the reality of the situation we face. That will lead undoubtedly, to sadness, that will lead us to wrestle sometimes with frustration and even despair. But that cannot be the final word. If for those of us who are in Christ, our hope is in God’s kingdom, here on Earth, being realized here on Earth at the return of Christ. That means that we are actually invited to love and care for this whole beautiful world that God has made. And it still testifies to God’s glory and goodness. Even as I’m talking to you, I’m looking out at the green shoots on a larch just outside my window. And beautiful, beautiful ponderosa pine forest on our campus here at Whitworth University. And these are good and beautiful things that still testify to God’s glory. And that should give me all the more motivation to continue in the fight, to continue to love and to care. So that was a pretty rambling answer. But I am hesitant about being overly naive. I read, you know, I’ll sometimes read something about all the challenges we face and then you get a couple things at the end about changing light bulbs or something. And sure, that’s a good thing to do but we also have to be a bit real, I guess.

Hoogerwerf:

Let me ask one more question on this kind of End of the World theme before I wrap up with a question that’s maybe a little bit brighter. We mainly have been talking about the end of human life in the world. There are other ways to think about the end of the world, at some point the sun will burn out. And whatever happens to Earth, it won’t be habitable. And then even beyond that the universe has an end to it. A big freeze or a big crunch. And then there’s the biblical account, which we’ve talked about, but doesn’t seem to fit very well with those scientific stories. So if we believe God will transform all things, is it right to think that this will happen before the sun explodes? What about the science? We don’t want to say the science is wrong, even if we don’t think it will happen?

Moo:

No, that’s right. And I mean, to me, the analogy we come back to is the resurrection. Science tells me, very helpfully, what happens at death. And all of that is entirely true. There is no way in which the, you know, various atoms that comprise someone living 1000 years ago that are now you know, dispersed throughout the earth have any capability of coming back together and being raised as this person. That’s a scientific fact. And yet, that fact applied to Jesus Christ when he was crucified on the cross and put into a grave and yet on Easter Sunday, there is Christ alive and risen. And that hope of resurrection is something that transcends the ability of science to talk about in that sense. This is a hope for God who is the creator, the first instance to act and to renew. And the picture of Scripture is that that hope of resurrection is one that is not a being disembodied existence apart from other life. But just as we’re aware, our bodies themselves are caught up and contain and are comprised of other life that isn’t simply our own genetic material, for example, that all of that, all of creation is renewed in the life of the resurrection. Hence the word the way to describe the new heavens and new earth or new creation. So that is a hope that doesn’t negate science. But something simply says something else about God’s ultimate purposes for ourselves, this earth and all of its creatures.

Hoogerwerf:

Well, all this talk of apocalypse and Revelation can be a little bit dark, though I, I think hope has been infused throughout your answers. But let’s wrap up still on a brighter note here, we humans have been given the ability to contemplate the future. And that can sometimes seem like a curse when we dwell on what darkness might lie ahead. But it’s spring, at least here in the Midwest, just starting, and I’m reminded that what lies ahead is not only dark, but there is joy and peace and new life too. How do we take what we learned from science and what we learned in the Bible about the future and turn it toward hope and joy in our lives today?

Moo:

I think one of the ways we can sustain that hope and that joy is by of course, remaining in Scripture, and reading the promises that God gives us there, lamenting with those who lament, but also rejoicing in the God who has revealed God’s self to us, and who has redeemed us in Christ to the Spirit. And also then by being encouraged to step back out into this beautiful world that God has made, reclaiming our creatureliness by engaging with the creation of which we are always a part of which our virtual worlds sometimes lead us to forget. Giving ourselves that permission to feel joy, and hope. I can say some of my students who I most like and who are most passionate about some of the things we have talked about, are also prone at times to despair and almost feeling guilty for being happy in a world with such suffering. And yet, even in the midst of a world with suffering, we are called to lives that entrust ourselves to God and Christ, that means giving ourselves that grace and permission to experience joy. And for me, and I actually can’t help but think that’s for all of us, given that we are creatures part of this creation that comes from engaging with God’s world, stepping away from the constant barrage of news, social media, and things that can both distract us as important as they might be, and also make us always at the center of our own existence rather than God who is revealed in Scripture and in Creation.

Hoogerwerf:

Thanks, Jonathan. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Moo:

It’s great talking with you, Colin.

Credits 

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you  will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Jonathan A. Moo

Jonathan A. Moo (PhD, University of Cambridge) is associate professor of New Testament and environmental studies at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. In addition to his work in biblical studies, he earned a graduate degree in wildlife ecology from Utah State University and has written a number of articles and books on the understanding of nature in early Judaism and Christianity. He has worked extensively with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge (UK) and was a key contributor to the Lausanne Movement’s Global Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel.