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The New Heavens and the New Earth
by Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M.

For some people the coming of the millennium has stirred up fears about the end of the world, doomsday, the destruction of the earth. Frightening "apocalyptic thrillers" have reached best-seller lists and movie theaters. Now that we have passed peacefully into the new millennium, it might be worthwhile to reflect on what we know from Scripture about the fate of the world, "the heavens and the earth."

While some texts, especially in Paul and the Gospel of John, speak of "the world" as the place where sin reigns or where Jesus is not accepted, by far the majority of texts in speaking of "the world" refer simply to "all of creation." It is in this sense that we will be using the term here.

Where justice abides

A good initial summary can be found in the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: "We do not know the time for the consummation of the earth and of humanity. Nor do we know how all things will be transformed. As deformed by sin, the shape of this world will pass away. But we are taught that God is preparing a new dwelling place and a new earth where justice will abide, and whose blessedness will answer and surpass all the longings for peace which spring up in the human heart" (#39). We do not know the when or the how, but we do know that at the end Jesus will present the whole world, purified of sin, to God.

The Bible begins with an account of the creation of the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1—2) and ends with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21). The drama of salvation that is played out in between is firmly rooted in the heavens and the earth. As difficult a place as they may be at times, the heavens and the earth wait with eager longing because they too will someday share in the fullness of redemption brought by Jesus Christ (Romans 8:19-23).

The Old Testament view

In the very first verses of the Bible, God fashions the heavens and the earth out of the dark, windy, watery, formless chaos (Genesis 1:1-2). In the ancient world, the primordial Sea was often a symbol of this chaos. God proceeds to divide the waters and in that space the world is placed. At the climax of six days of creation, human beings, men and women, appear who are, on the one hand, rooted in creation and, on the other, raised up as God’s image to continue God’s creative and life-giving activity (Genesis 1:26-28).

In Genesis 2, a similar point is made. Adam (human being) is taken from the adamah (Hebrew, the earth); to be human is to be an "earth-creature." Adam is placed in charge of the garden to till and keep it. Human beings have a special role to play, but they remain deeply rooted in and related to all of creation.

This relatedness becomes apparent in the story of Adam and Eve which follows. They do not accept their calling to be God’s images but prefer to "be like God." Because their sin breaks their relationship to God, the relationship between the man and the woman is also broken. The relationship to animals, which is represented by the snake, becomes one of fear and conflict, and, finally, the relationship to the earth itself is cursed. The earth will give its life, its produce, only with difficulty.

Instead of continuing God’s life-giving activity, through sin the humans beget death. Death in the Bible is thus not simply the last breath at the end of life. It is that, but it is also a whole realm of brokenness that affects all of our relationships.

A similar theme occurs in the story of the flood. The sinfulness of humans, human injustice ("violence"), breaks down and destroys not only the social order but the cosmic order as well. Life and the created order are broken and return to chaos. The rain is not "plain old rain," but the return of the primordial Sea, the waters of chaos subdued by God in creation (Genesis 7:11). The earth is covered with sin, the heavens collapse and "...both heaven and earth languish. The earth is polluted because of its inhabitants, who have transgressed laws, violated statutes, broken the ancient covenant" (Isaiah 24:4b-5). Earth, animals, humans—we are all in this together.

Sabbath feast

After God delivers the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and certain death at the sea, they come to Mount Sinai where they respond to God’s gracious gift of life by entering into covenant. By living the life of covenant they will deepen their call to image God in their lives. Central to this covenant living is the observance of the Sabbath feast, a feast which is rooted in the very structure of creation itself.

When Israel rests, its animals too (ox, donkey, other livestock) are to share in this rest. What is more, the land itself has a Sabbath every seventh year when it is to lie fallow. All these come together in the year of the Jubilee, which is a type of Super-Sabbath (Leviticus 25:8-55). Thus the Israelites’ grateful response both to creation and to their redemption from Egypt involves not just themselves but their animals and their land as well.

The implications of Israel’s covenant living for the heavens and the earth can be seen also in the blessings and curses which are presented as consequences of being faithful or unfaithful to the covenant. If the Israelites are faithful, the heavens will give rain. Crops will be abundant. There will be no dangerous animals threatening them. On the other hand, if the people are not faithful, they will be scattered so that the land might enjoy rest. Further, the sky will be like bronze and the earth like iron. There will be no rain, and the ground will not produce its crops.

When Israel’s prophets speak of the fullness of God’s future for Israel, the cosmos will play a part. "Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth" (Isaiah 65:17). Ample rain will produce a rich harvest; the mountains will drip with wine. It will be a time of abundance and plenty. Peace will reign throughout nature. In the famous words of Isaiah (11:6-8), "Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb...the baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair." And there will be no more death (Isaiah 25:7-8). Once more, we are all in this together.

The New Testament view

Throughout the Old Testament, to be human is to be immersed in all of creation. The New Testament shares this viewpoint. From birth, when "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14), Jesus is related not just to other human beings, but also to the entire cosmos. By taking on a body, the Word is connected to all of material creation. Thus the mystery of the Incarnation truly has cosmic implications. Throughout his public ministry Jesus teaches in parables, and points to the realities of creation all around—fish in the sea, crops growing in the fields, flocks of sheep, leaven in dough. Thus all of creation speaks about the presence and meaning of the kingdom of God. At the end of his life after his crucifixion, Jesus rises again to new and fuller life in and with his body through which he continues to be related to and present in all of creation.

When Jesus’ early followers begin to reflect on the meaning of Jesus, they see that all of creation has its beginnings in him. All things in heaven and on earth are created through him, and in him all things hold together. And when they come to speak of the end and the completion of Jesus’ work, they affirm that all of creation likewise has its ending in him. They speak of "a new heaven and a new earth" in which "the sea was no more" and "death will be no more." The two ancient symbols of chaos and destruction, Sea and Death, are conspicuously absent (Revelation 21:1-4).

Also absent is a temple (Revelation 21:22), but this is not a problem because now all of creation is one great cosmic temple filled with the presence of God. In this setting, Psalm 148 might be sung: "Praise the Lord from the heavens...Praise the Lord from the earth..." (Ps 148:1-6,7-10). God is praised stereophonically, from above and from below, not only by humans (148:11-14), but by all the heavens and all the earth. The fulfillment of God’s plan encompasses the purified creation. Once again, we are all in this together.

Our challenge today

What the Bible teaches is clear: As human beings we are deeply rooted in "the heavens and the earth." Jesus, whose life begins with incarnation (taking on a body) and ends with resurrection (taking up and transforming a body), is no exception. And our fate is unimaginable without the heavens and the earth. There is no salvation without creation; there is no "heaven" without earth.

However, what the Bible does not teach is also clear: We do not have a historical timetable to know just when the world will end. Nor is the picture of the new heavens and earth a literal historical description of what things will look like. What the Bible gives us is a vision of hope. Whatever is true, good and beautiful in our lives and in our world, our heavens and earth, shares in the Truth, Goodness and Beauty of God which will last for all eternity.

This vision of hope, however, is not simply about the future. In and through Christ, it is already a reality. It is present here and now. Just as our mortal lives are being transformed by the risen life we already share with Christ, so too the old creation is beginning to be transformed. "So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Corinthians 5:17).

And, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1405), "there is no surer pledge or clearer sign of this great hope in the new heavens and new earth...than the Eucharist." Christ is present under the signs of bread and wine, the abundant "fruit of the earth...fruit of the vine." The Eucharist represents the ongoing transformation of material reality in anticipation of the future glorification of creation. In the words of the prayer composed by Thomas Aquinas, in the Eucharist there is given to us "a pledge of future glory."

Since harmony and abundance characterize the new creation, which has already begun, we are to live that way right now. If God’s kingdom is one of peace, justice, life and love, our behavior should manifest this now. Nor can our ethical, moral concern be restricted to human beings; all of creation is involved as well. We are all in this together. The vision of new heavens and a new earth is not just a source of joy and consolation, but also a challenge to us in the way we live.

Once again, the words of Vatican II in The Church in the Modern World offer a helpful summary: "the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one...to the extent that [earthly progress] can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the kingdom of God" (#39). As we begin a new millennium and celebrate a great Jubilee, we are reminded that our journey to the Father in love is not a journey we make alone. All of creation is moving with us.*

 

Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M., is professor of Old Testament, Semitic languages and biblical spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California.

 

 


 

Sister Paula Gonzalez  

"La tierra es bendita." (The earth is sacred.) Paula Gonzalez first heard the words from her father, a full-time schoolteacher who turned to the soil each summer to keep food on the table for his family in Albuquerque. It was he who taught his daughter the intimate connection between soil, water and air. Over the years, as she worked at her father’s side in June, July and August and saw how the whole family "ate lavishly off the land," the words took on deeper meaning.

Today it is Paula Gonzalez, now a Sister of Charity based in Cincinnati, Ohio, who is doing the teaching—through the workshops and presentations she gives on such topics as the connection between faith and ecology; the earth-friendly, solar-heated house she helped build from used and discarded materials; the annual gigantic yard sales she has sponsored for the past 19 years that have brought in $160,000 for her various ministries; the founding of EarthConnection, an environmental learning center located on the grounds of her congregation’s motherhouse.

The former high school and college teacher has been "freelancing" for almost 20 years. "I call myself a futurist-environmentalist-educator," Sister Paula says today. Truth be known, the 67-year-old nun also loves to roam the nooks and crannies of nearby Mount St. Joseph College to salvage old computers or scraps of plumbing materials or to uncover just a few more pieces of furniture someone has designated for the trash bin.

"My idea of recreation is sorting old things: clothing, furniture, household items. Recovery is a form of prayer for me, of worship," Sister Paula told Millennium Monthly. "I’m seriously thinking of writing a book on the spirituality of the yard sale."

Whether she is wearing the hat of futurist, environmentalist or educator, her message is clear: The earth is, indeed, blessed, but it is also endangered by the "industrial model," which sees the earth as "a bundle of resources to be exploited and taken by whoever has the strength and the tools to get it." Sister Paula’s model, on the other hand, sees the planet’s resources—provided by "the Great Eternal One"—as gifts to be used respectfully and to be shared by us and our six billion brothers and sisters around the globe.

"This is a gorgeous planet on which to live," says Sister Paula. "We should enjoy the palace of the earth."*

— by Judy Ball



 
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Web of Prayers

Christians unable to make a pilgrimage to the land of Jesus’ birth during the Great Jubilee Year can send their personal prayers to sacred sites there via the Internet. The "spiritual postal service," formally called "Jesus 2000.com Holy Land Blessings," is operating at Christian holy places in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Armageddon and the Sea of Galilee. Prayers sent through the service are inscribed in special prayer books delivered to the sites and preserved there for the new millennium.

The service can be accessed on the World Wide Web (www.Jesus2000.com). A copy of the prayer is stamped with the seal of the particular holy site and returned to the sender. The service itself costs $15; shipping and handling is an additional $3. The Web site also includes a free guided tour of key sacred sites in the Holy Land using photos, maps, multimedia presentations and live audio and video of news events as they happen.

According to Alex Barak, founder of "Jesus 2000," some of the prayers will be published in a collection as a "way to share the prayers and hopes for peace from around the world."*

 

 
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