[Photo by Adrian Smith]
What will be new about the new heavens and earth? Where is the discontinuity? What will not last?
The short answer is: death. The long answer is death and mourning and crying and pain, the bonds of futility: in sum, the old order of things. It will be a new world order for a renewed world. No longer will God be absent, no longer will mortality loom and pronounce doom. What is hidden will be revealed. Injustice and half justice will be banished; things will be right.
But of course, all I am doing here is quoting the Bible. What does it mean?
Theologically, the problem with this world is neither physicality nor transience, nor temporality, nor humanity per se. It is evil, and its partner, death: the chaotic destruction and convoluting of life, of God's good world. Where did it come from? See my coming post on the origin of evil (and here). What is it like? See my coming post on the nature of evil. What is God doing about it? The gospel: the life, death and resurrection of his Son. Why is it still around? Because the gospel continues: the cross and resurrection were promise as well as achievement; there is a chapter yet to come in which the resurrection is applied to the entire world. What is its destiny? Exclusion from the new world. Whatever we make of the images of eternal destruction, they are complemented by images of exclusion: there is no symmetry between the new creation and what is not in it.
However, this raises the question of whether good things will be excluded. I have often stressed the continuity between creation and its redemption through the language of release (as in Rom 8) or of renewal. But is it true that no good thing will be lost? That not a hair of creation's head will perish?
Now, of course, one piece of scriptural witness I haven't yet mentioned is marriage. Specifically, 'in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.' (Matt 22.30) Is this a good part of this creation that misses out on renewal? No: though like everything else, it must 'die' in order to be raised/transformed. Marriage will remain: the new Jerusalem is 'prepared as a bride adorned for her husband'. The wedding feast of the Lamb and his Church affirms, liberates and restores marriage. What does this mean for those presently married? I am not entirely sure; but the good gift of marriage is not excluded.
Have I here undermined all my previous confidence in continuity? If marriage can be so transformed as to possibly mean the end of all present human marriages (remember, our vows are until parted by death), is anything really 'safe'? Of course not, if by safe we want to retain them as they are. But absolutely, they are secure in the transformative power of God to become truly themselves. The risen Jesus was not at first recognised by even his closest followers. But it was truly him.
Towards the end of The Great Divorce (and despite other problems I have with this text), Lewis captures this dynamic with a beautiful image. One man's lust, a sneering whispering slimy lizard on his shoulder, is killed so that he can 'go on to the Mountains' (an image of new life). As it dies, it becomes an enormous stallion that then carries him on his journey. The narrator reflects upon this with his guide (the Teacher, who is meant to have a Scottish accent. Don't ask):
‘Do ye understand all this, my Son?’ said the Teacher.
I don’t know about all, Sir,’ said I. ‘Am I right in thinking the Lizard really turned into the Horse?’
‘Aye. But it was killed first. Ye’ll not forget that part of the story?’
‘I’ll try not to, Sir. But does it mean that everything – everything – that is in us can go on to the Mountains?’
‘Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it now is. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death.’
- C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 95.