Some years ago, when I was an editor with Brazos/Baker Academic, I acquired a project that has just now come to fruition. That book is J. Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic). Richard’s work is a sweeping—and exegetically detailed—survey of the argument that the earth is not to be left behind at the end of history as we know it. Instead, God will transform the “old” heavens (which are a creation of God themselves) and earth, because all creation is a part of God’s salvific work through Israel and Jesus Christ. Richard’s account is grounded in the early chapters of Genesis, with the image of God including humanity’s co-regency in seeing creation reach its full potential. He sees the imago Dei as a concern throughout the Old Testament and into the New. He builds on the clear Old Testament lack of a disembodied heaven as the final destination of humanity, and points to prophets such as Isaiah and their hope for a healed and perfected earthly realm. Firmly grounded, he then looks to New Testament eschatology (such as the “groaning” creation in Romans 8 and, especially, Revelation 21–22), and offers a “holistic eschatological” reading of texts that have often been thought to hearken a once-for-all destroyed creation (such as as 2 Peter 3:10–13) or promise a final destination in paradise immediately after death (John 14:1–3).
A bonus to this masterful treatment is Middleton’s appendix, “Whatever Happened to the New Earth?” Here Richard explores the history of eschatology, especially with an eye for any hope of a renewed creation. He finds the early church fathers weak in this regard. Origen develops an entirely disembodied eschatology. Others, such as Justin and Irenaeus, affirm a millennial reign that includes creation, but see it fading away into a final paradisal state that is altogether spiritual. Methodius offers conflicting accounts, on the one hand seeing the millennial creation give way to a spiritual state, and on the other hand arguing, “God did not establish the universe in vain, or to no purpose but destruction . . .”
But this early hope for at least a millennial new creation dissipates in later church history. Augustine, says Middleton, espouses the view “that the ultimate goal of earthly history is a heavenly realm beyond history.” This Augustinian expectation holds through the Middle Ages and, to some degree, the Reformation. Luther and Calvin can speak of a new heavens and new earth, but typically refer to the final state simply as “heaven.” A similar tendency holds into the modern period, with important exceptions. John Wesley, in his later years, appreciated more and more the value of earthly creation. In his sermons “we find Wesley’s explicit and sustained focus on the ultimate redemption of the entire cosmos (including ‘brute creation’).” In the nineteenth century, Ellen G. White’s Seventh-day Adventist Church looked to a renewed and restored cosmos. And important exponents of the Stone-Campbell movement did as well.
It is in the twentieth and twenty-first century that we have seen something of a boom in holistic eschatology. George Eldon Ladd’s writings “articulated a consistent theology of the redemption of the created order.” Reformed writers such as Anthony Hoekema and Vern Poythress have done the same. The Kuyperian or Neocalvinian tradition (with representatives such as Herman Bavinck and G. C. Berkouwer) has as well. Contemporary writers in this tradition and promoting a cosmic, material redemption include Brian Walsh, Sylvia Keesmaat, Al Wolters, Steven Bouma-Prediger, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Paul Marshall, Michael Goheen, and Craig Bartholomew. Wesleyan writers such as Howard Snyder, in his Cascade book coauthored by Joel Scandrette, Salvation Means Creation Healed, have also contributed to this trend. But, as Middleton puts it, “In recent years, . . . perhaps no biblical scholar has given the New Testament teaching of the redemption of creation such wide exposure as N. T. Wright.” The prolific Wright has especially explored the topic in his popular Surprised by Hope and in the scholarly book The Resurrection of the Son of God.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the holistic eschatological perspective will spread through the entire church and become dominant. I hope it will. If it does, Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth will surely be seen as a key text in that shift.