Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The fate of the earth

'Why worry about "saving the planet"?' asked my friend.  'Isn't it going to be destroyed anyhow when Jesus returns? Surely we should focus our attention on spiritual things - things that will last?  In the mean time, the planet and its resources have been given to us humans to enjoy.'

My friend wouldn't see himself as greedy or rapacious, and it won't help if I start calling him those names - especially since the charge could easily rebound on me. He has absorbed from our tradition a contrast between the spiritual/eternal/morally significant and the material/transient/morally indifferent, and he just wants me not to misdirect my effort towards things that won't last.   What can I say in response?  Here are a couple of thoughts.

First of all, the argument that he's making - that our relationship with this planet is a temporary, morally indifferent one and that we're therefore free to enjoy what's on offer - exactly parallels those that surfaced in the early Corinthian church about the human body and its appetites.  See especially 1 Cor 6:12-20, where Paul counters the argument "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food; God will destroy them both" by affirming that the body is not mere indifferent matter but "the temple of the Holy Spirit".  It is gnosticism, not Christian faith, to believe that the spiritual world renders the material one somehow irrelevant.

But second, must we in fact believe that the material world is to be annihilated when Christ returns? (Once again compare 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, where Paul is at pains to emphasize the continuity as well as the discontinuity between our present state and the 'resurrection body'.)  The usual proof-text for 'annihilation' is 2 Peter 3:10, where the King James Version reads "the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up."  "Burned up" here translates the Greek katakaisetai, which appears in the text from which the King James translators worked. However, earlier manuscripts (Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, and P72) have since been discovered which show that the original text most probably read heuresthisetai ("will be found"), and this reading appears in all modern editions of the Greek New Testament and underlies for instance the NIV translation "will be laid bare".  The Greek word heuriske here is the ordinary one for "finding" something, and to say that something "will be found" does not sound like saying that it will be annihilated; indeed, in Rev 18:21 the phrase "will NOT be found" is used to express the result of an annihilating judgment.

So what does it mean that the earth "will be found"? In an interesting article titled Worldview and Textual Criticism in 2 Peter 3:10, Al Wolters argues in detail that heuriske in this form refers to "the eschatological result of a purification process", as in the common image of refined metal emerging from the smelter's crucible.  I think I would tell me friend that according to Peter the judging fire will burn up the "elements" (stoicheia), the spiritual (!) powers which hold the earth in bondage, but that the earth itself will be purified or "found".  Would it be going too far to suggest that as part of this process of "laying bare" the earth, the way that we humans have used the planet as a giant mine and dumping ground will also be "laid bare": that the dioxins in the Passaic River, the violated mountaintops of West Virginia, the Third World heavy-metal scrapyards of discarded computers, will "rise up in judgment against this generation"?  I wonder.


Angela Jones said...

I agree with your conclusions about the purification process...thank you for your scholarship as it may help me explain to others better why we cannot separate the spiritual realm from the material realm. One point of difference ~ I don't think God expects us to "save the world". That has already been done,at least we Christians would say so.

I do think we will be judged by our actions, both as individuals and as a species. In fact, our collective actions as a species may be helping to drive many species including our own into extinction. But God always leaves a remnant population and we can trust in His enduring love and His covenant promises that there will be a "new earth and a new kingdom on the earth."

We are not called to be saviours, rather we are called to be obedient to God, to give Him honor and glory. How can we recognize God's Plan for us as individuals and as part of all creation if we don't honor the spiritual and the physical as an integral whole?

John Roe said...

I just was privileged to spend a little time with Dr Jonathan Moo, a theologian at Whitworth University. He gave me a copy of his article "Continuity, Discontinuity, and Hope: The Contribution of NT Eschatology to a Distinctively Christian Environmental Ethos" (Tyndale Bulletin 61:1 (2010)), which brings the themes of 2 Peter 3 into dialog with Romans 8 and Revelation 21-22. Unfortunately this article does not seem to be available online at the moment, but it is well worth checking out of the library if you have access to the journal!