The End of the World: Part Three
In thinking about the end of the world—the final act of history, the denouement of all creation—we cannot avoid the question of telos: What has this all been for? Toward what end was creation created? And so, as with so many epic stories and grand narratives, we have to go back to the beginning.
In Genesis, God created the first human: Adam. But why? What was humanity’s original purpose? In Genesis 1:28, mankind was given the injunction to “subdue the earth.” But what does this mean? Since everything that God made in the creation of Genesis 1-2 is pronounced “very good” (Gen. 1:31), what is there to “subdue?”
Likewise in Genesis 2:15, mankind is charged with the task of “cultivating and keeping” the Garden of Eden, which many scholars have translated as “guarding.” But what is Adam guarding Eden against, if everything God just created was “very good?”
These verses imply the presence of something evil or hostile in the world from the very beginning. Even as early as Genesis 1:2 we can see evidence of the presence of evil: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
“Darkness” and “deep” have been interpreted by some scholars as indicating the presence of evil even in the formless, voidless world. Throughout scripture, the “deep” or “sea” is almost always associated with evil—it’s the thing God must restrain and Jesus must calm; it’s what flooded the whole earth in Noah’s time; it’s the home of biblical monsters like Leviathan and the origin of “the beast.” And at the end of time, according to Revelation 21:1, the new earth and new heaven will replace the old ones, and “the sea will be no more.”
All of this to say that when God was “hovering over the face of the waters” in that original moment, it was not some inert state of pre-creation reverie. It was active: God moving against some resistant force—the first mention of God’s battle with evil that will characterize the story of earth from the very beginning to the very end.
Man’s Task: Extending Eden, Subduing Evil
If we assume that the ultimate reason God does anything is to demonstrate his glory—that he alone deserves glory—then it is safe to assume that creating man to be his image-bearer in creation was also meant to bring him glory. Adam was created to establish the kingdom of God by subduing evil and extending the morally ordered, useful Eden outward to the unordered, wild, presumably evil world outside the garden… all in demonstration of God’s glory.
N.T. Wright, in his spectacular new book, After You Believe, says this about man’s created purpose:
“Creation, it seems, was not a tableau, a static scene. It was designed as a project, created in order to go somewhere. The creator has a future in mind for it; and Human—this strange creature, full of mystery and glory—is the means by which the creator is going to take his project forward. The garden, and all the living creatures, plants and animals, within it, are designed to become what they were meant to be through the work of God’s image-bearing creatures in their midst. The point of the project is that the garden be extended, colonizing the rest of creation; and Human is the creature put in charge of that plan.”
But early in his task, Human tried to take God’s glory and appropriate it for himself… and that’s when things got off track. That’s what needed to be fixed.
After the colonizing extension of Eden (i.e. the extension of God’s perfection and glory) was brought to a screeching halt with the fall of man, God made a covenant with one nation—Israel—that was to pick up the project of demonstrating/extending God’s glory in the world. These people established a temple wherein God dwelled, and from which his glory was meant to flow out—through his people—for the world’s benefit.
This temple was a sort of new Eden. Both were places from which life flowed out to bless creation; places where heaven met earth and man was allowed to fellowship with the divine. In the temple, the priest was the one who interfaced with God. In Eden, Adam was also a sort of “priest/king,” keeping the “temple” of God and extending it outward to others.
Both Adam and the Temple priests of Israel enacted the “royal and priestly vocation of all human beings,” writes N.T. Wright, “to stand at the interface between God and his creation, bringing God’s wise and generous order to the world and giving articulate voice to creation’s glad and grateful praise to its maker.”
Eventually, though, this Eden/Temple idea was further expanded, and it happened in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, the “second Adam” and ultimate priest/king, came to establish the kingdom definitively and get the whole original project of creation back on track with his redemptive death and resurrection. He assumed the role of Temple and extended it to all who would believe. This new covenant people—his church—were now the Eden-extenders and conduits of his glory: advancing the kingdom of God throughout the world by proclaiming and living Christ’s triumph over evil.
The New Jerusalem and Our Destiny as Priests and Kings
If the purpose of the world is the living out—via humanity—of God’s perfection and glory and the putting down of evil, then clearly the world cannot end until this happens in full. It’s certainly not happening in full now.
History can’t end until creation can fulfill what it was always intended to be. Thus we have the doctrine of the millennium—the time of restoration when the world returns to that original Eden plan, when Christ and his bride (the church) reign, subduing evil and ultimately defeating it, as Adam was originally meant to do. We were created to dominate Satan. And in the millennial reign, we will. This is what Revelation is all about.
N.T. Wright describes Revelation as a vision “not only of all creation renewed and rejoicing, but of human beings within it able at last to sum up the praise which all creation offers to its maker, and to exercise that sovereignty, that dominion, that wise stewardship over the world which God always intended for his image-bearing creatures. They will be priests and rulers, summing up the praises of all creation and exercising authority on behalf of God and the Lamb.”
In Revelation 21-22, John describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, and establishing the true “heaven on earth” kingdom that creation had only experienced in part ever since the earliest days of Eden.
Again, N.T. Wright puts it brilliantly:
“This, John is saying, will at last be the reality of which the Garden of Eden itself, and then the ancient Jerusalem Temple, were foretastes. This is the place where the living God dwells, the place from which his healing river will flow out to refresh and cleanse the whole world (22:1-2). Kings and priests, set now in a throne room, now in a Temple. That is the goal, the telos, of Human.”
“Do you want a job?”
On last week’s episode of Lost—one of the show’s best episodes ever—the good/evil (God/Satan?) battle was made explicit, and a jug of wine with a cork was used as a metaphor for keeping evil from spilling out into the world.
A surface reading of the episode might give one the following interpretation of the island: It is the dominion of Satan, kept there against his will but desperately wanting to get off the island to presumably corrupt a much larger swath of humanity. Jacob is the God-like (or maybe Adam-like?) protector of the island, in the sense that he is protecting the rest of the world from Satan being unleashed—“keeping the darkness where it belongs.”
In this way the island is a sort of reversal of Eden. Rather than a perfect Temple of divine dwelling that God extends out to the disordered chaos outside its borders, the island is itself the un-Eden—the hellish place that God and his people (whom he strategically brings to the island) have to come in to and subdue from the inside.
Jacob, like God, wants to use humans to subdue evil. He brings people to the island with hopes that they will embody the virtuous character that reflects his own glory, rather than being the corruptible sinners the devil so wants them to be. Jacob even uses the priestly/intermediary language of man as a conduit of his purposes, in this exchange with Richard:
“Do you want a job?” he asks Richard. “You can be my representative, an intermediary between me and the people I bring to the island.”
But whereas this Lost vision situates man as more of a pawn in the ongoing war between God and Satan, the Bible has much grander aims in mind for us: Believers in Christ will reign as priests and kings over all the earth—having defeated Satan and evil once and for all.
The Eden/Temple in the Lost picture has more of a defensive feel to it. It’s not about extending goodness outward as much as restraining evil and keeping it bottled up. But the view of God’s purposes in history as I’ve detailed in this now much-too-long blog post has another view: It’s more about filling the world with God’s glory and goodness (defeating evil in the process) than it is about keeping evil’s corrupting spread to a minimum. Whether through Eden, the Temple, Jesus, or the church—this whole project has always about extending God’s glory outward.
N.T. Wright says this:
“The Temple was never supposed to be a retreat away from the world, a safe holy place where one might stay secure in God’s presence, Shut off from the wickedness outside. The Temple was an advance sign of what God intended to do with and for the whole creation. When God filled the house with his presence, that was a sign and a foretaste of his ultimate intention, which was to flood the whole world with his glory, presence, and love.”
Our role now, as the church, should thus be one of action-oriented offense. We should be playing to win rather than playing not to lose (which seems to the Jacob/Lost perspective). Rather than being a cork and keeping evil from getting out, we should be a faucet—pouring forth the living water to any and everyone in the wide, thirsty world.