Is this world passing away or is it in the process of healing? Will it be replaced or renewed? Is the New Heavens and the New Earth a completely new entity or the fulfillment of this world’s longings and groanings? And, more to the point of this blog, does our view of the relationship between this world and the next one influence our view of mission?
These are not inconsequential ramblings of someone with nothing better to do than wrangle about theological minutia. Currently, a debate rages about whether our mission is only about saving souls or inclusive of social justice. How churches apportion their dollars, what career options people choose, what activities get encouraged, what kind of mission project you select, and numerous other decisions ride on how we answer these questions.
Since blogs are supposed to be shorter than books, I simply want to focus on one aspect of this debate. If you hold to the view that this world is passing away and will be replaced by a new one (my view), is there any point in doing anything other than saving souls? I’ll end the suspense and tell you that I think the answer is yes. My motivation for writing is that some who argue against this view do so in some unfair ways.
They say things like this, “Is this physical world going to be completely burned up and replaced by a new heavens and new earth, or will the present world be renewed, cleansed, and healed? If the former is the case then all that matters is saving souls since everything on this earth is going to burn up anyway.”*
It is simply a misrepresentation to say that those who think this world is going to burn up have no concern for temporal, social justice. A strong case can be made from both theology and history (in their best expressions!) to show otherwise. Those of us who think this world is going to be replaced with a new heavens and a new earth and who see the heavenly Jerusalem as something that comes down and replaces the earthly one do still care to love our neighbors in this temporal earth as long as it does last.
We can feed hungry people even though we know that those same people will one day die. We can provide medical care even though we know all people will eventually succumb to some illness. We can try to improve people’s living environments even though we know this world will decay irreparably. And we can work for social justice, seek to end sex slavery, clothe the naked, and pursue a myriad of other temporal good deeds to help a world that will be replaced simply because that is what loving our neighbors entails. To ignore such needs would show the utmost disdain rather than Christ-like love.
It’s just not fair to say we only care about saving souls. Concern for temporal needs can and should easily fit into any evangelical theological system. In fact, addressing those needs will take all the cooperation and encouragement we can find – even from Christians with whom we disagree.
*This is actually a quote of a footnote in Tim Keller’s Generous Justice. (page 203).