Who or what is saved? And how does salvation fit into the biblical story? In his book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology J. Richard Middleton argues against an old model which defines salvation as a personal journey towards an otherworldly destiny: Jesus died for my sins so that I may go to heaven when I die. He expounds instead a “holistic” model of salvation as the journey that creation itself is on towards the renewal of heaven and new earth. The aim of the book is “to sketch the coherent biblical theology (beginning in the Old Testament) that culminates in the New Testament’s explicit eschatological vision of the redemption of creation” (15).
He is at pains to stress, moreover, that this restoration of all things does not entail the destruction of the world-as-we-know-it. “The point is that although the kingdom of God may seem to be making only small inroads into the oppressive powers of evil, it will eventually transform the world, just like a bit of yeast transforms the entire dough” (210). So the mission of the church is, in effect, to save the universe—or at least, to collaborate actively with the creator in its eventual redemption.
I have to say, that doesn’t sound very plausible to me, and Middelton rather ties himself in knots later when he tries to explain how this eschatology would work in practice. “This transformation (beginning in this life, culminating in the eschaton) would need to apply to people such as dictators, terrorists, serial killers, child abusers, and rapists. How realistic is that?” (208). Quite.
But, while there is much in this book that is illuminating, I’m also not convinced by the overall biblical argument. There are half a dozen passages which Middelton thinks affirm the cosmic scope of salvation in the New Testament. They are not the whole argument, but they are highlighted as being of particular significance. Let’s have a look at them.
In the regeneration
Middleton holds that central to the New Testament’s understanding of “the final destiny of the world” is Jesus’ proclamation of a coming “regeneration” (palingenesia) in Matthew 19:28 (24). The ESV has “new world”:
Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Philo uses palingenesia for the regeneration of the world—for example, after the flood (Philo, Mos. 2:65). He is also familiar with the Pythagorean notion of repeated “conflagrations and regenerations (palingenesias) of the world” (Etern. 47). But Josephus has Zerubbabel speak of the “re-creation and regeneration (anaktēsin and palingenesian) of the nation” after the exile (Jos., Ant. 11:66), and in context this seems the more appropriate parallel. Jesus associates the “regeneration” with the fulfilment of the Son of Man narrative and the vindication of his followers with respect to Israel.
The restoration of all things
Peter urges the Jews in Jerusalem to repent, etc., in the expectation that YHWH “may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring (apokatastaseōs) all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:20–21). The disciples had asked earlier whether this was the time that Jesus would “restore (apokathistaneis) the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). Josephus uses apokatastasis twice for the “restoration” of Jerusalem (Jos., Ant. 11:63, 98).
There is no reason to think that Peter has a wider context in view than the restoration of God’s people. Those who do not listen to the prophet whom God has raised up will be destroyed from the people (a reference, in effect, to the catastrophe of AD 70). Those who repent will be heirs to the promise made to Abraham that through his offspring all the families of the earth will be blessed (Acts 3:22-26).
Simply put, it is through the coming judgment and restoration of Israel that the nations of the earth will be blessed. There is no restoration of the cosmos involved.
All things gathered up in Christ
According to Middleton, when Paul says that the purpose of God, in the fulness of time, has been to “gather up” (anakephalaiōsasthai) all things in Christ, “things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10), he means that “eschatological salvation will be as wide as creation” (158). But “salvation” is personal in this passage, not cosmic: they have been predestined for “adoption as sons”, redeemed, they have heard the “gospel of your salvation”. The plan for the fulness of time is not salvation but that all things should be “en-headed” (note the word for “head”, kephalē, occurs in the middle of the Greek word) in Christ. This anticipates the statement at the end of chapter 1 that Christ has been seated at the right hand of God, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named” (cf. Phil. 2:9-11), and given as “head over all things to the church”. It is not a cosmic restoration that is in view here but the reign of Christ throughout the coming ages for the sake of the church.
The reconciliation of all things to himself
Similarly, the statement that through Christ God was pleased to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1:20) is not about salvation. Believers have been redeemed through his blood (1:14), but the “hymn” of 1:15-20 is a statement about the preeminence of Christ. All things were created in him, “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible”, but the emphasis is on powers—“whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities”. As firstborn from the dead he has been raised to a position of “preeminence”; he is the “head” or “beginning” of the church. Through him the “fulness was pleased… to reconcile all things to him, making peace through the blood of his cross, whether things on earth or things in the heavens” (1:19-20, my translation). What Paul is describing is not a future redemption of the cosmos but what has been achieved through Jesus’ death and resurrection. He speaks here of a reconciliation of all things rather than a subjugation of all things, as in Ephesians 1:22, but the point is basically the same. What is affirmed here is the present reality of Christ’s kingdom throughout the coming ages for the sake of the church, not a future restoration of creation.
The liberation of creation from its bondage to decay
Middleton thinks of creation as suffering under the abusive stewardship of humanity much as Israel suffered under Pharaoh (160). That’s more than Paul is saying in Romans 8:19-22—the idea that humanity is seriously hurting the planet is a modern one. Paul’s argument is that both the persecuted churches and creation will eventually be set free from their suffering—though not necessarily at the same time. This seems to imply an ultimate transformation of creation comparable to the resurrection of Jesus and of the martyrs. But if anything, that points to a radical ontological disjunction (“What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable, etc.”—1 Cor. 15:42-49) rather than to something more developmental.
Waiting for new heavens and a new earth
The final text is Peter’s statement: “according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). Middleton will go to great lengths in the next chapter to argue that the language of cosmic destruction in this passage should not be taken literally—that would be very much contrary to his world-affirming thesis (189-200). But if he’s right, then why should we suppose that the language of “new heavens and a new earth” is to be taken literally? Middleton does not discuss the relevance of Isaiah 65:17; 66:22 here, but why should we not think that Peter uses the language in the same way that Isaiah does to speak of the transformation of the place of God’s people in the world?
A third model
I agree with Middleton that John’s closing vision in Revelation 21:1-22:5 is of a new creation in all its cultural and social complexity and that this says something important about what it means to be church. But I disagree that this final state will be arrived at over the course of time. Both the argument about resurrection and John’s language (I am not convinced by Middleton’s argument here) seem to me to point to a disjunction: the first heaven and first earth pass away, the sea is no more, and a new heaven and new earth are seen (Rev. 21:1).
This does not mean, however, that we must revert to the old personal-salvation model. The purpose of the people of God has not changed since the calling of Abraham: it is to be a new creation people, obedient to and serving the creator God—a priestly and prophetic people—through whose presence in the world the nations recover something of the original blessing of God’s good creation. That corporate, political narrative comes first. In itself, it has nothing to do either with people going to heaven or with the redemption of the cosmos.
The story then tells us how that people needed to be saved. They needed to be saved from slavery in Egypt, from the Canaanite nations, from the Assyrians, from exile in Babylon, from Hellenisation, from Rome. More fundamentally they needed to be saved from their innate and terminal sinfulness. The two needs coincide in the New Testament. Jesus’ death both atoned for the sins of the people and broke down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles so that YHWH would eventually be acknowledged as supreme God by the nations of the Roman empire.