J. Richard Middleton. A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014.
Many moons ago (not really, but some days it feels like forever), as an undergrad I read Al Wolters’ Creation Regained and I remember the hype the instructor and other students had for this book (I was attending Redeemer University College, where Wolters was and is a professor). I recall being less than completely impressed by it, though I don’t recall why. It was shelved, and, for the most part, forgotten/ignored for many years after that. It was not because I disagreed with Wolters (for the most part I did agree, except on a few nitpicky bits), but my best guess is that I just wasn’t in a place in my own studies and development to really dive into a big picture sweep of biblical worldview questions. Last year I won a copy (three cheers for free books! thanks Baker Academic) of J. Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth, which explores in a fresh and comprehensive way much of what Wolters had written about in Creation Regained. This time around, the topic grabbed me, and this volume is one I got excited about, and which delivered.
What it’s about:
A New Heaven and a New Earth is written as a corrective approach to so much theology which Middleton shows has been influenced by the inclusion of ideas from Greek philosophy with Christian theology. More specifically, Middleton is addressing the view of the ultimate direction of the created order as a whole, and humanity within that world and the cosmic salvation and renewal of creation which Scripture presents- that is, he is taking a narratival approach to the scope of Scripture and the vision for the future in provides. The common picture of “where we are going” is many circles is of death as a separation of soul and body, with disembodied souls “going to heaven” after death. This, argues Middleton doesn’t square with the biblical depiction of a renewed creation which, having the curse of sin removed and creation healed, will reflect the original intent of creation as a place of flourishing and abundance on the earth which God made good, and place humanity into to cultivate and function as God’s vice-regents over. Middleton is seeking to recover the vision of resurrection life in the new creation.
Middleton begins n(Introduction) with the roots of the problematic view of “otherworldly” salvation; where did this notion come from, and how did it shape the Christian worldview? Next (Part 1) examines the picture Scripture gives us of the original design behind creation- a place for the flourishing of human activity, a place of harmony, peace, completeness. A venue for God and creation to be in an abundant connectedness. He also comments on the catastrophic result of human sin, bringing division between humans, a struggle for dominance, and an abuse of creation. Parts 2 & 3 examine the trajectory of biblical salvation; the story of the Old Testament (Part 2) declaring the hope of God’s working for salvation through the Exodus paradigm and the prophetic vision of the Day of the Lord which would bring judgment and salvation and the fulfilment of that paradigm (typology) and vision in the New Testament (Part 3).
Part 4 specifically looks at the texts which have often been drawn on to prop up the problematic view of otherworldly salvation which typically views eschatology as expecting the end of the created world and the continuation of the saved as disembodied souls in heaven following the cosmic conflagration; a total destruction of the corrupt physical world. Middleton aptly unravels the problems and insists that those texts which at first glance appear to speak of a coming end to the physical creation in fact do not, but instead speak of earthly judgment using cosmic imagery and symbolism, but that in all these texts the age to come which follows is still centred around God’s people inhabiting God’s new creation.
The final section explores the ethical implications of this understanding of the big picture of biblical worldview. Middleton’s thinking centres in on Luke 4, Jesus’ first recorded public announcement in Luke’s Gospel, in which Jesus declares the fulfilment of Isaiah 61. Jesus states that with the coming of God’s renewed creation under his reign, all things are reoriented around justice, mercy, compassion, healing, repentance, and reconciliation. Thus, as participants in the kingdom’s coming on earth as it is in heaven, we are pressed with a Christ-like ethic of care and concern for the vulnerable, and a proclamation of the coming kingdom of God, inviting people to come and be reconciled to God. Thus, a kingdom coming/cosmic salvation view challenges us to move away from an “us vs. them” mentality, to a Christ for us view, which seeks to live out the love and grace of God to brother/sister, neighbour, and enemy alike. Thus, our Christology informs our soteriology and eschatology, which informs our ethics and ministry model.
Although I already shared Middleton’s view of cosmic salvation, and fully appreciate the narratival approach to Scripture and how that informs both worldview and ethics (at almost every juncture I was nodding in agreement with Middleton), it is wonderful to be reminded of the beautiful vision which Scripture gives us, and the hope which comes from it. There can often be a temptation to specialize, and to narrow our theological discussions, and so it can be vital to step back, take glance at the big picture and see how the whole works together. Middleton covers the sweep of Scripture, beginning to end, incorporating all sections of Scripture, even bringing in Wisdom Literature which is sometimes overlooked in discussions of biblical eschatology, as well as capturing key typological connections between the Old Testament and the Gospels, and the ways in which Paul interprets the death and resurrection of Christ in presenting his eschatalogical vision.
Overall, his argument is convincing, well laid out, fully substantiated, and considers all the evidence equally and offers gracious correction to opposing views. It is a solid example of how good scholarship should work; avoiding invective, focusing on the text of Scripture, carefully weighing all the data, and working through the practical implications of the conclusions for the Church.
Though not a central concern, I very much appreciated Middleton’s courage to take on two specific issues which are of note for my own interests and personal studies. First, in unpacking Genesis 1 & 2, Middleton takes a firm egalitarian reading, noting the shared vocation and complete equality of male and female in the created order, which is distorted and sent into a destructive and oppressive patriarchal way as a result of the fall into sin, which is being corrected in Christ, removing the stratification of gender relations (Gal. 3:28; see 50-55, 275-6, 276 n. 16). Secondly, Middleton hints at a reading of the new creation which fits with the view of conditional immortality (Middleton offers this not as a dogmatic view but a reasonable and probable conclusion from the biblical evidence using the terms “annihilation of the person” and “cosmic disinheritance, permanent exile from God’s good creation”; 207)
While the implications section is very much welcome in order work out how the biblical picture of eschatology applies to the life of the Church, there is a bit of a gap here. Middleton’s exegetical and theological work is beyond the average pew-sitter. Most of those who have been through formal theological education have been exposed to most of what Middleton is advocating for. Pastors and Academics have for quite some time had this view in mind (as best I can tell), but part of the struggle is moving this from the world of the formally trained, to the pews where the problematic view still persists. Most average church-goers are not prepared to read a 300+ page work dealing with the historical development of eschatalogical and soteriological assumptions. The basic model Middleton presents has been presented by Wolters, NT Wright, and others at the scholarly and, to a lesser extent, more popular level. While Middleton’s treatment (in my humble opinion) exceeds both in comprehensiveness and style the other treatments of this topic which I’ve read, it doesn’t bring much in terms of an original vision. It does what has been done before, only better. What hasn’t been done in anything I’ve seen, is take this vision and make it more accessible. I know this wasn’t Middleton’s goal- he wasn’t writing a popular level book, but an academic one, but I think what the church needs is a well crafted popular level version of this. Theologically trained leaders will need to do some of their own work with this to make it reflect in their leadership.
Middleton can be commended for producing a fine piece of theological scholarship. As someone whose has recognized expertise in biblical exegesis and theology as well as worldview studies, this is clearly a book which Middleton can, produce with excellence (and he has). Profoundly biblical, expertly arranged and written, and firm in its conviction but still gracious in tone, this deserves to be required reading in bible colleges and seminaries. Pastors need to work with this, so that this vision can be brought into the pulpit so that congregations can move away from the problematic view of disembodied souls being taken away from the earth. If this vision takes hold in the Church, the negative view of God’s creation, and the entrenched, triumphalist, exclusive, “circle the wagons” mentality which has been a dark spot on the Church for far too long may begin to be chipped away. The Gospel of the Kingdom offers new life. Our Gospel proclamation ought to reflect that, as should our view of both the present and the future. This is a gift to students and pastors, which in turn, I hope and pray will be brought to bear on the leadership they bring to congregations.