Flash Gordon, James Bond, Superman and…Margaret Thatcher. Can’t see the connection? Well, when it came to saving planet earth, the intervention of Mrs T was just as dramatic as those of our fictional superheroes. Unlike almost all other political leaders, she hadn’t studied law or economics; Thatcher was a scientist. She immediately recognised the dire importance of the growing ozone hole and galvanised the world to do something about it.
Subsequent politicians didn’t have Thatcher’s scientific background and it has taken them a long time to recognise the reality of another threat to the planet: global warming. And now there is panic.
A RENEWED EARTH
Christians have been among the last to get on board. Perhaps many saw it as unnecessary because of the promise of a ‘new earth’. However, the Bible talks about a ‘renewed’, ‘redeemed’ and ‘restored’ earth, not a ‘replacement’ earth. Isaiah was the first to see a vision of this. It was clearly not a replacement earth because it still contained the corpses from the final battle (Isaiah 66:22- 24).
Paul said that the old earth was ruined by sin, and that it will be redeemed by Jesus’ death, just as its inhabitants can be (Romans 8:20-23). And Peter said that the new earth will come when the old earth is destroyed by fire, just as it had been destroyed by water in Noah’s day (2 Peter 3:5- 13). This implies that just as it was restored after the flood, the earth will be restored after it is burnt. Nowhere is the new earth seen as a replacement planet.
Tom Wright and other scholars have also pointed out that the Bible promises us resurrection bodies designed for living on this new earth; not in a somewhere-else heaven.
CUSTODIANS OF CREATION
So perhaps we should be looking after planet earth better. God actually warned the Israelites about their stewardship of natural resources. Deuteronomy includes a law against cutting down fruit trees unnecessarily. When the Israelites besieged a city, they were not to use fruit trees to make siege works (20:19-20). Fruit trees were the limited resources of the day.
God’s command to Adam to ‘fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion’ (Genesis 1:28, ESV) is often seen as an anti-ecology charter. This is not a mistranslation. The Hebrew word kabash (‘subdue’) is normally used for defeated enemies or slaves. And the word radah (‘dominion’) can be used for a ‘ruthless rule’ (Leviticus 25:46) and can even carry the sense of ‘asset stripping’ (see Judges 14:9 (ESV), where Samson ‘scraped’ the honey out of the lion’s carcass).
However, God gave Adam a very different kind of command in the garden: he was told to ‘work it and keep it’ (Genesis 2:15, ESV). This translation doesn’t quite express the nuance of the Hebrew. The word avad (‘work’) is normally translated as ‘to serve’ (as in the work of servants and priests) and shamar (‘keep’) normally means ‘to guard or preserve’ (Genesis 3:24; 4:9) or ‘to obey, keep or honour’ (Genesis 17:10; 18:19). In other words, Adam was asked to be the custodian of Eden, looking after it as a servant looks after his master’s house or as a priest looks after a temple.
If we want the earth to be more like Eden, we have to treat it the way God asked Adam to treat Eden. One day God will come in judgement to audit not only what we have done in our lives, but what we have done with his gifts. Jesus’ parable of the wicked steward (Luke 16:1-9) suddenly has a very modern ring. His crime was wasting his master’s resources, and his redemption came through planning for the future.
THE HEAVENLY CITY
If this planet is going to be our resurrected home, where will we all live? And how will it last us for eternity? The Bible doesn’t give us a full answer, but it does give us some clues.
DON’T SQUANDER THE NEXT GENERATIONS’ INHERITANCE
Revelation suggests that we will live in a city that is even larger and more high-rise than New York: ‘The city was…12,000 stadia [1,400 miles] in length, and as wide and high as it is long’ (Revelation 21:16). Whatever the actual shape of the city, it implies that people will live close to each other, and that they will love it.
Perhaps in a sinless world, we will get along better. When Crocodile Dundee moved from his one-street town to New York, where he found six million people choosing to live together, he concluded they would be the friendliest people on earth! John has the same trusting and hopeful vision.
Cities get a bad rap because many are poorly designed and most grow without careful planning. But John describes tree-lined waterways in this perfect city. And it has many gates, it isn’t a prison, so presumably we’ll be able to take trips around the restored earth (Revelation 21:12-14; 22:1-2).
Will we all be able to live in this city? Well, Paris and Athens house approximately 50,000 people per square mile, so even if the New Jerusalem has public spaces and houses that are 100 times larger than those in Paris, there would be room for 1,000 times the total population that has ever lived on earth up to now (about 100 billion). I’m not concluding that the vision in Revelation is completely literal, but it isn’t as fantastical as one might first assume.
Will we all live on earth forever? As things are now, that’s clearly impossible because the fusion energy of the sun and the fission energy that heats the earth’s core will one day die out. However, the God who has planned things this far can also plan for the longer term.
Whether or not the new earth is this planet, we should be planning for our children and God’s future children to be able to live here. The ancient law God gave concerning fruit trees is a principle that he still wants us to follow: don’t squander the next generations’ inheritance.