We have declared, in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end,” but neither mainline Catholic nor mainline Protestant theology has explored what exactly we mean by all that, and we have left a vacuum to be filled by various kinds of dualism. In particular, Western Christianity has allowed itself to embrace that dualism whereby the ultimate destiny of God’s people is heaven, seen as a place detached from earth, so that the aim of Christianity as a whole, and of conversion, justification, sanctification, and salvation, is seen in terms of leaving earth behind and going home to a place called heaven.
So powerful is this theme in a great deal of popular preaching, liturgy, and hymnography that it comes as a shock to many people to be told that this is simply not how the earliest Christians saw things. For the early Christians, the resurrection of Jesus launched God’s new creation upon the world, beginning to fulfill the prayer Jesus taught his followers, that God’s kingdom would come “on earth as in heaven” (Matt. 6:10), and anticipating the “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17, 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1) promised by Isaiah and again in the New Testament. From this point of view, as I have often said (though the phrase is not original to me), heaven is undoubtedly important, but it’s not the end of the world. The early Christians were not very interested, in the way our world has been interested, in what happens to people immediately after they die. They were extremely interested in a topic many Western Christians in the last few years have forgotten about altogether, namely the final new creation, new heavens and new earth joined together, and the resurrection of the body that will create new human beings to live in that new world.
The question of how you think about the ultimate future has an obvious direct impact on how you think about the task of the church in the present time. To put it crudely and at the risk of caricaturing: if you suppose that the present world of space, time, and matter is a thoroughly bad thing, then the task is to escape from this world and enable as many others to do so as possible. If you go that route, you will most likely end up in some form of gnosticism, and the gnostic has no interest in improving the lot of human beings, or the state of the physical universe, in the present time. Why wallpaper the house if it’s going to be knocked down tomorrow?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, some theologians have been so impressed with the presence and activity of God in the present world that they have supposed God wants simply to go on working at it as it is, to go on improving it until eventually it becomes the perfect place he has in mind. From this point of view, the task of the Christian is to work at programs of social and cultural improvement, including care for the natural environment, so that God’s kingdom will come on earth through an almost evolutionary process, as in Teilhard de Chardin, or at least until human hard work in the present world attains the result God ultimately intends. . . .
I first ran into the problem I’m addressing here during a weekend of lectures in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in (I think) 1982 or 1983. I was working in Montreal at the time and was asked to talk about Jesus in historical context. . . . To my surprise, the main question people had in mind was not the meaning of the parables or of the cross or the incarnation itself, but questions of ecology: some people in the church had been saying that there was no point in worrying about the trees and acid rain, the rivers and lakes and water pollution, or climate change in relation to crops and harvests, because Jesus was coming back soon and Armageddon would destroy the present world. Not only was there no point in being concerned about the state of the ecosystem; it was actually unspiritual to do so, a form of worldliness that distracted from the real task of the gospel, which was the saving and nurturing of souls for a spiritual eternity. I can’t now remember what sort of answers I gave to these questions, but the questions themselves have stayed with me.