Why are the nations in the new heaven and new earth?

Mon, 21/05/2012 - 17:55

The popular view is that when Christians die, they go to heaven to be with God for ever and ever. This is a sub-biblical notion that has to some extent been corrected in recent years, thanks not least to Tom Wright. We are now much more likely to recognize that the biblical narrative terminates not in the migration of saved souls to heaven but in the renewal of heaven and earth and the descent of God to dwell in the midst of his new creation.

This is what Wright calls “life after life after death”. The two views appear to be quite easily reconciled: when we die, we go to heaven to wait until we can become re-embodied as part of the new creation. I call it a fudge, for reasons that I have given elsewhere. It seems to me that in the New Testament it is the early martyrs—in particular, those who lost their lives in the conflict with Roman paganism—who are raised, exceptionally, to reign with Christ at the right hand of the Father. Everyone else simply dies, is dead, and is raised at a final resurrection of all the dead, to face judgment.

But the issue I want to address here, in response to a couple of questions from Chris, has to do with the political landscape of the new creation, as John depicts it in Revelation 21:22-22:4. What are the nations doing there? Who are they? Are they Christians? And if not, how did they get in?

The relationship between the new Jerusalem and the nations is described by John in two different ways, in accordance with two different Old Testament motifs. On the one hand, the nations will walk by the light that emanates from the city, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it (cf. Is. 60:3, 5, 10). On the other, the nations will be healed by the leaves of the tree of life, which grows along the river that flows from the throne of God (cf. Ezek. 47:12).

John appears, therefore, to envisage a new world structured politically in much the same same way that the prophets structured the eschatological renewal of Israel. At the centre is the new Jerusalem, which is the “Bride” of the Lamb, clothed in the “righteous deeds of the saints”, who function as “priests of God and of Christ”. It is not the church as we know it, I would suggest, but the early martyr church through whose faithful witness the pagan enemy was overcome (19:7-8; 20:4-6; 22:3-5). There is no reference to the surrounding land of Israel, presumably because national Israel, following the final judgment of AD 70, has been superseded—a dangerous conclusion to draw, but I think an unavoidable one. The Bride is a multinational community of the saints: it makes up the new Jerusalem because this is the city of God, but it does not need its own land.

No less for John than for Isaiah, however, the new Jerusalem is in a dynamic, life-giving relationship with the nations. The nations will live by the light of the creator God and of the Lamb; they will bring “glory and honour”—their “goods”—into it; and the gates of the city will never be closed because it will no longer be necessary to exclude hostile forces. The nations will all be reconciled to the creator God.

But who are the citizens of these nations? Those whose names are “written in the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27). They have been “judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (20:12-13). Those who have done evil, whose names are therefore not written in the book of life, are destroyed in the lake of fire, which is the “second death” (20:15; 21:8, 27). The nations, therefore, are made up of people who are there because they have done good things.

Are they Christians? That is not so clear, but I think not. They are still “the nations”, in some sense the other, seen from a Jewish perspective. They have done nothing for the sake of Jesus. They can enter the city in order to honour the creator God but they do not take up permanent residence in it as priests or servants (22:3-5).

So it appears that the political landscape of the new creation is a little more complex than we might have expected, with a new Jerusalem, made up of a holy priesthood, in dynamic relationship with righteous nations.

John’s is an absolute and final vision—there is no more death, and all that is evil has been destroyed in the lake of fire. But it is foreshadowed in Paul’s argument in Romans 2 regarding a more immediate temporal judgment of the Greek-Roman world, when righteous Gentiles, who “by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality”, who did not have the Law but, nevertheless, “by nature do what the law requires”, would receive “glory and honour and peace” (Rom. 2:7, 10, 14). Paul believes that these Gentiles will be vindicated by the creator God, the God of Israel (2:13-16).

The Jewish eschatological model does not exclude the righteous nations; it does not restrict the consummation of all things, whether temporally or finally, to the covenant people. Isaiah envisaged a restored physical city of God, Israel’s capital, in the midst of foreign nations (cf. Ex. 19:5-6). Paul’s vision differed from this only really in that he thought of the restored priestly people of God as a dispersed, Spirit-filled multinational community, which would mediate between God and nations which confessed that God had made his Son Lord and King. Christendom, I would suggest, was the immediate expression of this. Today, the post-Christendom church is trying to work out what this model looks like in a post-imperial, globalized context.

John then transposes this schema, having allowed a “thousand years” of history to pass, on to the final ontology of his new heaven and new earth. The new creation is not peopled exclusively with born again Christians. Like both Isaiah and Paul, John places the priestly people of God in the midst of nations that acknowledge the truth and glory of the creator God.

Comments

I espouse a view similar to what you write here and it has caused me to lose my teaching role at a conservative bible college in the states. It complicates how we (evangelicals) have divided the world nicely between the saved (christians) and the damned (non-christians).

Thanks

I didn’t realize there was quite so much behind the question. You have my sympathy. It’s sad that bible colleges can be such poor places of learning.

I can see where Wright has laid the groundwork for your approach, but I think this view is incoherent. My examples are the paradigm of the New Heaven and New Earth, the “second resurrection”, and the destiny of “the nations. First, the New Heaven and New Earth under Wright’s approach is the physically dissolved and then reassembled universe, now with no more curse or death. I assume you are following his lead on this. If so, how is it possible that people are still dying and that there are nations in existence that still need to be healed? How is it possible that sinners are outside of the New Jerusalem, milling around in the New Heaven and New Earth? Once one of those people sins shouldn’t there be a new curse from God, placing us right back where we started? If everyone has been recreated in a perfected state, who is it that is being ruled with a rod of iron? How is it possible per Isaiah 66 that there are evangelists moving about the earth converting people? When would these people eventually be resurrected (see below)? To view the New Heaven and New Earth as a literal perfection of the physical creation violates the description of it in scripture.

You’ve identified the “first resurrection” as martyrs that were resurrected for the kingdom age beginning early in church history (I agree with you almost exactly on this, but I’d argue it was in 70AD). The “second resurrection” would then be when the New Heaven and New Earth is established in the distant future according to Wright’s view (again, I believe you follow him on this). If that resurrection is a one time event then when do the new believers who are evangelized during the New Heavens and New Earth per Isaiah 66 going to be resurrected? They can’t die because physical death has been eliminated. Do they convert instantly into a perfected resurrection body the moment they believe? If there is indeed a “second resurrection” at the end of the 1,000 year reign of the saints (which I’d dispute) then I think this would necessitate the traditional approach of an end of time and human history at that moment. Otherwise, we’d have humans existing into perpetuity who couldn’t be saved or resurrected.

The nations that exist in the New Heavens and New Earth are in need of healing. That means they enter this period imperfect. That means that when God melts the elements of the physical universe per Wright’s view, he reassembles them with their old imperfection so that they can be healed in subsequent history. Married up with the imagery of Ezekiel 47 and the salt marshes, it also means that there are groups of humans throughout all of human history (until maybe 1 billion plus AD) who do not follow Christ and remain sinners (those who are significant sinners standing outside of the gate of the New Jerusalem). These people would have the option of being sinners into perpetuity without threat of judgment because they can’t die. So, when are these people judged? They can’t die because physical death has been eliminated. They can’t be saved and resurrected because not only can’t they die but the “second resurrection” is past.

I don’t think that this formulation makes sense according to the narrative of the Bible. Regardless of how you explain the details it seems to me that salvation and resurrection will be available to humans until the end of history (which might very well be millions of years). I think you need to go back to the drawing board and recalculate an understanding of resurrection that allows for this.

Doug Wilkinson

…how is it possible that people are still dying and that there are nations in existence that still need to be healed?

Who is still dying? Death has been destroyed. There is no more death. Whatever the physical relationship between the old and the new, this is surely a fundamental existential distinction. Arguably the leaves of the tree of life are the means by which the nations have been healed. It’s also possible that what is in view here is not the healing of sinful or mortal individuals but the healing of nations qua nations, that is, a political healing.

How is it possible that sinners are outside of the New Jerusalem, milling around in the New Heaven and New Earth?

I don’t see this in the text. Admittedly there is some ambiguity, but those who do “what is detestable or false” do not enter because their names are not written in the book of life and have therefore been destroyed (Rev. 20:15).

If everyone has been recreated in a perfected state, who is it that is being ruled with a rod of iron?

The rule with the rod of iron belongs to the judgment of the nations which opposed the people of God and the subsequent reign of Christ over the nations, from the defeat of Rome onwards. It is not part of the new creation imagery. It is a historical motif.

How is it possible per Isaiah 66 that there are evangelists moving about the earth converting people?

I don’t think Isaiah is talking about a final renewal of all things. He is describing temporal judgment and temporal renewal. Death is still a reality (Is. 65:20; 66:24).

If that resurrection is a one time event then when do the new believers who are evangelized during the New Heavens and New Earth per Isaiah 66 going to be resurrected?

I’m not sure I follow you here, but in any case I disagree with the premise. Isaiah 66 and Revelation 21-22 are not talking about the same thing. Isaiah has no notion of an end to history, but the resurrection of Jesus introduces a fundamentally new ontology. Resurrection, as far as I can see, necessitates n imperishable new creation (1 Cor. 15:35-49).

Who is still dying? Death has been destroyed. There is no more death. Whatever the physical relationship between the old and the new, this is surely a fundamental existential distinction. Arguably the leaves of the tree of life are the means by which the nations have been healed. It’s also possible that what is in view here is not the healing of sinful or mortal individuals but the healing of nations qua nations, that is, a political healing.

Death is defeated by resurrection, and Death and Hades/Sheol as a program are eventually destroyed, but I’m not sure that this means at some point no one ever physically dies again. I know we disagree on the role of Isaiah in this, but it clearly describes death as a dynamic for some in the New Heaven and New Earth.

I don’t see this in the text. Admittedly there is some ambiguity, but those who do “what is detestable or false” do not enter because their names are not written in the book of life and have therefore been destroyed (Rev. 20:15).

I don’t think it’s that ambiguous. In the New Heaven and New Earth there is a perfect city called the New Jerusalem. No evil people are allowed in it. Evil people are described as hanging around outside of it. They are still alive and the gates are always open if they are willing give up their evil.

I don’t think Isaiah is talking about a final renewal of all things. He is describing temporal judgment and temporal renewal. Death is still a reality (Is. 65:20; 66:24).

Yours is not a completely novel approach to the Isaiah vs. Revelation New Heavens and New Earth (NHNE) because all Dispensationalists to my knowledge say that the NHNE of Isaiah is actually the Millennium of Revelation. That would make the final state of Revelation the “New New Heaven and the New New Earth”. Whether you stipulate that that the NHNE in Isaiah is the same as the Millennium of Revelation or not, at least you follow the New New Heaven and the New New Earth paradigm. This assertion seems to me to be completely without warrant. You need it to be true for your system to work, but there isn’t any evidence that John or Peter understood the New Heaven and New Earth in question to be any different than Isaiah’s. There are numerous references to the New Testament writers considering the events of their days as fulfillment of Isaiah 40-66, so it seems to me that the NHNE is no exception. I don’t think you’ve done enough to prove your point on this.

I’m not sure I follow you here, but in any case I disagree with the premise. Isaiah 66 and Revelation 21-22 are not talking about the same thing. Isaiah has no notion of an end to history, but the resurrection of Jesus introduces a fundamentally new ontology. Resurrection, as far as I can see, necessitates n imperishable new creation (1 Cor. 15:35-49).

I understand that we disagree on Isaiah’s NHNE, but I fail to see how 1st Cor 15 makes your point. The section you cited is summarized as “flesh and blood cannot inherit eternal life”. I agree. It takes a body of some mysterious construction (1st John 3:2) to exist in heaven. I don’t see how having a mysterious type of body that works in heaven requires the end of history.

Hi Andrew,

I’ve wondered about the Romans 2 verses in regards to the Gentiles being justified by works, so to speak. Are you saying this is what happens? I’ve read that the purpose of everything Paul is saying in the first chapters of Romans is to show that the law can’t be followed, setting up his declaration of grace. But are you saying here that Paul says you can be righteous by the law?

Steven

Not righteous by the law, but righteous by doing good, I mean.

I can only respond briefly. I argue in The Future of the People of God that when Paul talks about wrath against the Jew and wrath against the Greek, he is thinking of concrete historical events—judgment against Israel and judgment against the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. The issue of faith or grace is relevant in the first instance: the people of God will be saved only by trust in God. But when the pagan world is judged, there will be those who will be found to have lived and acted righteously even though they did not possess the Law of God. In Paul’s view these righteous Gentiles will put unrighteous Israel to shame when the ancient world is put in the scales of God’s judgment.

What about in Ch. 3 when speaking of both Jews and Gentiles Paul says no one is righteous, not one? Then he goes on to talk about Jesus. Is the difference that while no one is righteous (Ch. 3) the Gentiles do righteous things (Ch. 2), so you can be unrighteous but still do righteous deeds which effects how you are judged?

Just trying to figure all this out, not trying to argue. I generally agree with most of what you post and find it helpful. I work in evangelism and so Romans, which is a key text in giving the Gospel, is important for me to understand. I’ve read Future of the People of God, but I’m still trying to figure out how the narrative view can coincide with the traditional “Romans Road” for presenting the Gospel to a modern individual.

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