By Matthew Kemp
Several years ago, I came across an interesting collection of photos, which were sort of “then and now” pictures from sites of various battles from World War I. Someone had placed pictures of the war’s devastation of both countryside and city side-by-side with pictures of the exact same locations today.
The contrast between these sets of photos showed a remarkable transformation of these places over the course of a century. Where there had been a barren wasteland ravaged by bullets and explosions, there was now a forest or a field of crops. Where there had been little more than rubble on a city street, there were now beautiful buildings (some rebuilt, some newer) which revealed a flourishing residential or commercial district. In fact, it was difficult at first to believe that these juxtaposed pictures were actually of the same locations at all.
But a closer look revealed obvious links in each pair of photos. The remnant of a trench or a crater still visible in the landscape. Or a landmark untouched by the war and still visible in the same place in the newer picture. Something has persisted over the years — something salvageable, even redeemable, despite the destruction of war. And so, the scenes shown in these sets of images were indeed the same, and yet not the same.
This collection of photos gives us, I think, a helpful analogy for understanding God’s final plan for our world. Holy Scripture presents some conflicting imagery about what God is going to do when Christ returns and human history (as we know it) comes to an end. On the one hand, we have passages that speak of the current created order being restored according to God’s creative intentions.
For instance, St. Paul writes to the Romans these words (8:19-21): “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Or the prophet Isaiah (11:6-9) describes a vision of perfect harmony in the created order after the Messiah has enacted God’s judgment on earth.
On the other hand, there are also passages that speak of creation as we know it being destroyed in God’s final judgment. For example, 2 Peter (3:10) speaks of “the day of the Lord” in which “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” Or in Revelation (21:1), St. John writes: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.”
Indeed, in one passage from Isaiah (51:1-6), we find both images within a few lines. First God promises that he “comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.” Yet a few verses later God says that “the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.”
So, what is God’s final plan for creation? Will there be continuity or discontinuity between this world and the world to come? Furthermore, what do we make of this tension in Scripture? Is there a contradiction in divine revelation? Or do these simply represent divergent perspectives among the human authors of the biblical texts?
I think there is a more satisfactory explanation. What if we take these differing sets of images not as opposing one another but as complementing one another? In other words, what if there is both continuity and discontinuity between the world as we know it now and the world as it will be transformed for all eternity?
This is where those World War I pictures are helpful. Each scene maintained some link to the past, something good enough to survive, and so able to be transformed into something new. Imagine if the entire cosmos were to undergo a similar transformation when Christ finally returns to complete the work of redemption he has begun — the redemption not only of human beings, but of all creation.
What might this look like? We have to remember, first, that this world in which we live was made by God, who blessed it and called it good. Its goodness was further confirmed by the incarnation of Christ, in which God the Son entered our world and took part in earthly existence. Surely then God desires to preserve and restore what is good in his creation.
Yet this same world is a far cry from what God intended for it. Our earthly lives are characterized by corruption, disease, and death. Evil, sin, and injustice pervade our societies and our personal lives. If God loves the world he has made, he cannot allow these things to last forever. In order to preserve creation, God must utterly destroy everything about it that is not right.
So, if God’s ultimate plan for creation is to save all that is good and to destroy all that is evil, we will find ourselves looking at a very different world indeed. It will be so transformed that though we might recognize it as the same world, we would also have to admit some radical differences. From one point of view, we might say that God will redeem, purify, and restore creation to what it was always intended to be. Yet from another perspective, we might say that God will destroy the world as we know it in order to make something new. Neither statement would be false.
Now this might seem like just a clever solution to an abstract theological problem. But there are important implications for us in the here and now. First of all, this gives us some perspective on how we live our lives in this world. Not everything we value is guaranteed to last forever. Are we pursuing our own desires and ambitions over and against God’s will or our neighbor’s good? Are we choosing the comforts of wealth or success or prestige over the difficult task of following Christ? These things will perish when they come under God’s judgment, along with everything else which is not directed to him as its ultimate purpose.
But this also shows us that the opposite is true, that there are things we do now which will have value for eternity. Everything good that we do, every work we accomplish for the kingdom of God, will be accepted by God as part of the new creation. This is a profound mystery, and we cannot comprehend what this might look like for each of us. But even now we are sharing in the world to come as we seek the things that God desires to preserve in that world.
This brings us to a third implication. As the Church, we find ourselves, in a sense, living in two worlds. We continue to be in the sinful and broken world of the present, yet we are also given a foretaste of the world as God will restore and remake it in the end. When we proclaim his kingdom, when we live as he has called us to live, when we gather to worship him, especially at the Eucharist, we participate in God’s new creation, which is already present among us, but not yet complete. As the Church we are the bridge between the present world and the world to come, and it is through the Church that God manifests to this world what his final plan for it is to be.
This then is the Christian hope, a hope that we are called to share with all the world, a hope both for this present world and for a better one. For if the mere passage of a hundred years can transform a bombed-out trench into a forest grove, or a pile of rubble into city square, how much more will God himself transform this world of corruption into a new creation, in which all that is evil will be no more, and all that is good will be perfected for eternity?
The Rev. Dr. Matthew Kemp currently serves as the interim Priest-in-Charge at St. Paul’s by-the-Lake in Chicago. He recently completed a Ph.D. in Theology at Loyola University Chicago.