An Earth More Beautiful than Beautiful
Every summer for the last several years, my family has spent our summer vacation in Stonington, Maine. We like Stonington because you get that salty air and the crashing Atlantic waves and the delectable lobster without all the hustle and bustle of the touristy beach towns of Maine. There are some touristy things in the area, but Stonington is more of a sleepy fisherman's village. We like that we can slow down, breathe, and spend lots of time doing absolutely nothing but looking at the sky and the big ocean.
Stonington is on Penobscot Bay, and what's great about where we stay is that from one particular vantage point at Sand Beach, which juts out and faces the bay westward, you can actually watch the sun set over the water! Not an expected sight on the East Coast, to be sure. My wife has taken a picture of the sunset over the water from Sand Beach, and it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
When we're in Stonington, some friends who live nearby often take us out on their boat. We get to see the lovely islands in the area and watch the sea lions basking on the rocks. I like looking down into the gray depths of the ocean, pondering what scary and wonderful things lurk beneath the waves. It was this coastline that inspired perhaps the greatest American novel, Moby Dick. In Stonington, for me anyway, it is difficult not to think the world is beautiful. Even the sight of tired lobstermen hauling in their catches, hands raw from the salty water and clothes dirty with sand and grease, has a beauty to it, a glory.
I have not traveled as extensively as I'd like, but I've seen both jungles and deserts. I've seen oceans and landlocked plains. I've seen big cities and tiny villages. And I've seen glory everywhere. I've smelled the hay and the manure inside a Vermonter's old barn and felt the world was beautiful. And I've craned my neck to look up at the Empire State Building and felt the world was beautiful.
I confess it is difficult for me to imagine how the world could get much more beautiful.
We are all stirred by different things. I prefer the mossy forests of Vermont and the Pacific Northwest to the piney woods of Texas, but others feel differently. I prefer the foggy coastlines of New England to the sunny shores of Florida, but college students aren't flocking to Massachusetts for spring break. I prefer the mountains to the plains. But nobody can deny that wherever you go in God's creation, you are bound to find beauty.
What will this stuff look like, I wonder, when God restores it?
The damp woods around our New England home seem magical to me now. Will they be full of talking fauns in the world to come? Will the surging depths of the Atlantic become more glorious and yet entice me to walk on them? Will the sun-baked sand on the beach not get hot? Will the oasis mirages in the desert become reality?
From the beginning of time, we have looked at the world around us with both wonder and fear. One beautiful autumn day my wife and I hiked up to a high ledge called Deer Leap overlooking the Shelburne Pass on the Appalachian Trail. When we got to the top, she casually mounted the rocky ledge to look over the valley below, unnerved not a bit by the sheer face descending down the other side. I on the other hand crawled on my belly halfway up the slope and peered over. Where she saw adventure, I saw danger.
I think of some of the greatest wonders of the natural world, places that give some vibrancy and others vertigo. Think of the Swiss Alps. These towering testimonies to the majesty of God have been the backdrop for some of literature's finest and varied stories, from the sweetness of Heidi to the horrors of Frankenstein. The Alps are the source of poetic transcendence in Oliver Goldsmith's The Traveller and seductive danger in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. In Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence describes the beautiful quiet of the Alps as the doorway to danger this way: "It was a silence and a sheer whiteness exhilarating to madness. But the perfect silence was most terrifying, isolating the soul, surrounding the heart with frozen air. "
Where some feel exhilarated, others feel exile. It is difficult to feel ambivalent about a place like the Swiss Alps. And I wonder. . . their gleaming peaks are alive now with the purest white and are tall enough to scrape the pearly gates of heaven it would seem, but what will they look like on that day when heaven's glory itself lights them up?
Because that's what's going to happen, you know.
For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,
and her people to be a gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping
and the cry of distress. (Isa. 65:17–19)
This is the forecast for creation held out by God through the prophets. It gives shape to the glimmers of hope found in God's covenant promise of the land to Abraham (Gen. 13:15) and in the last-days expectations of Job.
It turns out that when Jesus Christ came to earth the first time, he was ushering in the kingdom of God, what I like to call the manifest presence of God's sovereignty. He was showing us a bit at a time then what it looks like for God's kingdom to come and God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is what connects Christ's parables and his miracles; it's the common denominator between his healing of the blind and his calming of the storm. When God's reign brings restoration to creation, there is no more blindness and there is no more dangerous weather.
But of course we still await the fullness of God's kingdom. It has come; it is "at hand." But it is also still coming and still to come. So when Christ returns again, he will finish what he began in his first coming, consummating the kingdom of God on earth. At that time, he will bring with him the glory of a new heavens and a new earth. This is the vision the New Testament prophet sees of that day
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." (Rev. 21:1-4)
The visionary is then taken by God's Spirit to a very high mountain (21:10) where he is given a view of God's restoration of civilization coming down out of heaven. He describes it as more beautiful than every precious gem on earth combined. It is the best and brightest of cultivated creation combined and glorified. He writes:
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. (Rev. 21:23-25)
Theologians debate whether this text actually means there will be no nighttime in the new earth. More likely this means that there will be no "darkness," as in nothing to fear. It is just as likely that when the prophet says we will have no need for the sun or moon, he doesn't mean that we won't have the sun or the moon. Rather, he means that Christ's radiance is the true brightness of creation. His glory illuminates everything. Everything false, detestable, fallen, and spiritually dark will be vanquished forever, and the glory of God will give the new earth a beautiful sheen that makes the sunlight on the Swiss Alps today look like the mashed potatoes under the heat lamp down at the KFC.
But, see, this is the hope the Bible holds out for fallen creatures in a fallen creation—not that we'll all get beamed up into a disembodied heaven before the earth gets blown up, but that we'll all get decked out in glorified bodies to inhabit the restored earth, which will be even more beautiful, more majestic, more glorious than it is now. And since we know by the Bible's promises that this is God's plan for creation, we've got a better sense of how to think about creation than if we thought it was all going to hell in that proverbial handbasket.
So the mandate for Christians now is to see the earth around us in light of the heaven that's coming. This has huge implications for everything—for the Swiss Alps and for your front yard, for the people at your church and for your daughter's goldfish.
Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Managing Editor of For The Church, and author of numerous books.
Excerpted from The Story of Everything: How You, Your Pets, and the Swiss Alps Fit into God's Plan for the World by Jared C. Wilson (Crossway, 2015) with permission of the publisher.
- Editor's Note from September 16, 2015
Issue 31: Yellowstone’s wolves, the strangest plant, and an even more beautiful creation. /
- Yes, Wolves Change Rivers. And So Much More.
The changes at Yellowstone aren’t just an elegant recipe for ecological balance. /
- The Strangest Plant in the World
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- The Thread of Life
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- Wonder on the Web
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