What We Believe

A New Heaven and a New Earth: A Review Article

Sherif Gendy

A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, by J. Richard Middleton. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014, 336 pages, $26.99, paper.

In this book J. Richard Middleton brings in a fresh presentation to the biblical teaching about a new heaven and a new earth. His primary purpose is to sketch the coherent biblical theology of the eschatological vision of the redemption of creation. He does so by exploring some of the ethical implications of a biblically grounded holistic eschatology for our present day and investigating what happened to the biblical vision of the redemption of the earth in the history of Christian eschatology.

The book contains twelve chapters and an appendix. Chapter 1, which serves as the introduction to the book, highlights what is wrong with the traditional Christian view of heaven as final destiny. Middleton argues that the Old Testament does not place any substantial hope in the afterlife. Rather, it presents a holistic vision of God’s intent to renew or redeem the creation. The expectation in Old Testament eschatological texts (e.g., Dan. 12:2–3) is manifestly this-worldly. Middleton then sketches the historical origins of the otherworldly idea of heavenly afterlife in the teachings of Plato to show how Christian forebears have used his ideas to articulate their theology in the context of Greco-Roman culture.

Chapters 2 and 3 are grouped together under part 1 of the book, which is titled “From Creation to Eschaton.” Middleton focuses in chapter 2 on God’s original intent for humans to image him by developing the culture and caring for the earthly environment—an intent that was blocked by human sin. He questions the belief that man was created to primarily worship God. For Middleton, man worships God in a distinctive way by interacting with the earth to transform the environment into a complex sociocultural world.

Although man was not created primarily to worship God, he was created chiefly to glorify him (cf. Ps. 86:9; Isa. 60:21; Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 6:20; Rev. 4:11). Certainly, worship is one form of glorifying God. Active obedience to God’s revealed will is another way through which man ought to glorify God as his image bearer.

Chapter 3 presents the structure of the biblical metanarrative from creation to eschaton, which clarifies God’s purpose to redeem earthly creation (rather than take us out of earth to heaven). Here Middleton emphatically argues that heaven was never part of God’s purposes for humanity and has no intrinsic role as the final destiny of human salvation. For Middleton, eschatological redemption consists in the renewal of human cultural life on earth.

While Middleton might be right that the Bible does not describe heaven as the eternal destiny of the believer, I find his emphasis on the human’s labor of transforming the cultural life on earth as the ultimate purpose of God, and the eschatological hope for the righteous, biblically ungrounded. Middleton goes as far as to say that to name the Christian hope “heaven” diverts our attention from the expectation for the transformation of our earthly life. Yet, the Bible clearly speaks of new Jerusalem that will come down out of heaven (Rev. 21:2, 10). This heavenly Jerusalem ushers in the “new heavens and new earth;” a totally new order of things (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1). This is not the result of human effort, nor is it simply a development of earthly culture and environment, as Middleton would like to propose. This is the supernatural work of God in Christ who is making all things new (cf. Rev. 21:5; cf. 2 Cor. 5:1, 17; Heb. 12:27).

Part 2 “Holistic Salvation in the Old Testament” consists of chapters 4 through 6 and uncovers the Old Testament’s portrayal of God’s ongoing commitment to the flourishing of earthly life. Chapter 4 analyzes God’s deliverance of Israel in the exodus narrative and suggests that this paradigmatic event functions as a pattern for understanding salvation in both the Old and New Testaments. Though the exodus event shares many components with the overall work of God’s salvation and is a shadow of Christ’s redemption, one has to keep in mind that the core nature of the exodus deliverance is not salvific. After all, the exodus generation died in the wilderness for disobedience (Num. 26:64–65; 32:11–13). Therefore, there are some major dissimilarities between the exodus and Christ’s work of redemption. Building upon the full analogy, Middleton seeks to make the case that a life of obedience to God is necessary to complete salvation. He states that “obedience completes the salvation begun in the exodus” (87). From that premise Middleton goes on to say that in the New Testament obedience is a crucial aspect of salvation, which for him entails the reestablishment of justice and restoration of communal well-being. Here Middleton is influenced by N. T. Wright’s new perspective theology which many evangelicals would find problematic. Surely a believer’s obedience naturally follows his God-given faith and grace (Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14). But this obedience does not contribute to his salvation nor does not complete it (Eph. 2:8–9). Salvation is entirely the work of Christ, and he alone will bring it to completion at his return.

Chapter 5 examines how Israel’s laws and wisdom traditions, together with prophetic oracles of judgment and anticipations of restoration beyond exile, testify to God’s desire to bring shalom and blessing to ordinary human life on earth. In chapter 6 Middleton addresses the Old Testament’s theophany texts that present judgment as an inescapable reality for those who resist God’s will. These texts show that God’s ultimate purpose beyond judgment is to accomplish his original intent for the flourishing of humanity and the nonhuman world.

Part 3, “The New Testament’s Vision of Cosmic Renewal,” is comprised of chapters 7 and 8. Chapter 7 explores the inner logic of the hope of resurrection and its connection to the restoration of human rule of the earth, beginning with late Old Testament texts and on into the New Testament. The comprehensive and holistic scope of salvation in the New Testament is discussed in chapter 8 as it brings together various strands of expectation that sin and evil will be reversed through the renewal of all things.

Part 4, “Problem Texts for Holistic Eschatology,” contains chapters 9 and 10. In chapter 9 Middleton seeks to correct the misunderstanding of some New Testament texts that are typically misread as if they teach the destruction or annihilation of the cosmos at Christ’s return (e.g., Matt. 24; Rev 6; 20–21; Heb. 12). Worthy of note here is Middleton’s discussion on the destruction of heavens and the elements in 2 Peter 3. He makes the case that this text does not describe the obliteration of the cosmos on the last day. Rather, it depicts God’s judgment of demonic powers as he purges the world of evil so that it might be renewed and transformed. Middleton argues that the earth and its works will be “found” (2 Pet. 3:10). The destruction is not of creation but of sin, thus cleansing or purifying creation.

Middleton is clear that not everyone will be finally saved. He does not deny the fact of judgment. He does, however, suggest that the final judgment is akin to cosmic disinheritance of the earth; a permanent exile from God’s creation. Judgment, therefore, is an annihilation of the person rather than eternal torment. Certainly, this conclusion does not seem to be supported from the Scriptures. At different places, the Bible does in fact confirm eternal punishment to those fallen, sinful, and guilty persons who rejected the perfect atoning work of Christ (cf. Isa. 34:10; Matt. 18:8; 25:41, 46; Jude 7; Rev. 14:10–11; 19:3; 20:10).

In chapter 10 Middleton covers the New Testament texts that seem to promise an otherworldly destiny in heaven including the “rapture” texts and those that speak of the interim or intermediate state between death and resurrection (e.g., Matt. 24:40–41; 25:34; 2 Cor. 5:1–5; 1 Thess. 4:13–18; 1 Pet. 1:3–5; Rev. 6:9–10; 21:1–2). His main point is that these texts present an apocalyptic pattern of preparation in heaven followed by unveiling on earth. Middleton insistently dismisses any view of heaven being a place to which the righteous go when they die.

While Middleton tries to make the case that an interim state is not taught in the Scripture, he offers no insight on where the righteous go when they die. He suggests that the notion of “soul sleep” where one moves subjectively from death to resurrection, with no consciousness of the intermediate state, is more plausible. This applies, according to Middleton, to Jesus’s promise to the believing criminal on the cross (Luke 23:39–43). Middleton takes 2 Corinthians 5:6–9 and Philippians 1:23, for example, to mean that Paul is looking at the second coming of Christ and thinking of the eschaton rather than being with Christ immediately when he dies. This seems to be a farfetched way of understanding Paul in these passages. The theory of souls sleep does not really find biblical warrant and is nowhere taught in the Scriptures.

The last part of this book, Part 5 titled “The Ethics of the Kingdom,” consists of chapters 11 and 12. Chapter 11 focuses on the holistic, this-worldly character of Jesus’s announcement of good news in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16–30), unpacking the implications of Christ’s message for the renewal of the entire person and social order itself with the opening of the kingdom to outsiders. According to Middleton, the good news of the kingdom is nothing less than the healing (literally, the establishing) of the world in which we are all invited to participate. The last chapter of the book, chapter 12, addresses the ethical challenge of the kingdom that Jesus brings, both in his day and ours. The good news of the kingdom can be grasped only through a radical challenge that requires a fundamental reorientation of life. The overall thrust of the biblical story from creation to eschaton unveils a vision of God’s kingdom that is both applicable to every dimension of earthly life and open to the entire human family.

Middleton concludes this book with an appendix that continues the historical analysis of a Platonic otherworldly vision discussed in chapter 1. It looks at how the idea of a heavenly destiny came to dominate popular Christian eschatology by tracing the eclipse of the biblical vision of the redemption of the cosmos over the course of church history. Middleton notices hopeful recent signs of the recovery of a more holistic eschatology.

Comprehensive in its scope, this book is an attempt to develop a holistic biblical worldview regarding the teaching of the redemption of creation, including both physical cosmos and human culture and society. Middleton’s ethical implications of such a vision are noteworthy. Ultimately, what we desire and anticipate as the culmination of salvation is what truly affects how we attempt to live in the present. “Ethics is lived eschatology” (24). Thus, a holistic vision of the future can motivate and ground compassionate yet bold redemptive living in God’s world. Middleton’s endeavor to ground eschatology in the entire biblical story, beginning with God’s original intent for earthly flourishing and culminating in his redemptive purpose of restoring earthly life through the work of Christ, is another commendable aspect of this book.

What might cause some controversy, especially among evangelicals, is Middleton’s view that heaven is not the hope for Christians or their home after this life. His alternative suggestion of soul sleep may not be welcomed by many in the historic Reformed tradition. While many would rightly agree with Middleton on his emphasis on the renewal of the world as the biblical vision for eschatology, this renewal is not a man-made effort that involves the flourishing of earthly culture and environment. Hugely influenced by N. T. Wright, Middleton’s consistent pursuit of an eschatological notion that requires a this-worldly final state is highly questionable. Middleton mentions Reformed biblical scholars and theologians like A. A. Hodge, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and others to support his position. These scholars do indeed speak of the renewal of this earth and the reconstitution of the world—the redemption of the created order—as the eschatological work of God in Christ. However, they sharply differ from Middleton’s view that the redemptive work of world renewal is done gradually by man through the prospering of earthly culture. Rather, it is a divine work accomplished by Christ himself that will accompany his return in the consummation of all things and the establishment of the new heaven and new earth.

In sum, while elements of this book, particularly Middleton’s disavowal of heavenly afterlife, will be controversial, this book is a welcome reminder of the biblical story of holistic salvation and God’s commitment to an integral and comprehensive restoration of the creation.

Sherif Gendy is a member of the Mission Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a licentiate in the Presbytery of the Midwest (OPC), and a PhD student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania.

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