From certain Jewish thinkers has come the criticism that Christianity poses an unhealthy dualism between heaven and earth. Christianity, it is said, tends to flee from God’s created reality, and hence from man’s responsibility for the earth, into an unearthly future. Judaism, on the other hand, keeps faith with the earth. The tradition of Israel and its love for the land of God’s gift illustrates Judaism’s concern for this world as God’s world. Here on earth God holds his dialogue with man and here on earth man must seek his divinely intended fulfillment. The difference between Christianity and Judaism is often thus typified by Jewish writers.
One thinks in this context of the modern Jewish philosopher of religion, Martin Buber, as well as of Leo Baeck. Buber speaks of a deep gulf between Judaism and Christianity, a breach that is vividly seen in Christianity’s disdain of creation. He interprets the Christian doctrine of redemption as salvation and escape from this world. He also sees the Christian eschatology as having no place at all for this world. Christianity, Buber claims, is a kind of Platonism, a religion in which God is an Idea without real contact with the world. This eminent Jewish thinker misses in Christianity what he calls the prophetic faith in the eventual sanctification of the earth. Christianity, like much of Eastern Apocalyptic literature—a literature exemplified, says Buber, in the Jewish prophets Ezekiel and Daniel—gives up on the world as on a hopelessly corrupted piece of reality. The Christian apocalyptic mind has no eye for the beauty, the challenge, the future of this earth. Buber is under the impression that Christianity at the core is ascetic, world-estranged, heaven-centered. (It is interesting that Leo Baeck, writing in the same vein about Christianity in general, makes of Calvinism the one exception to the other-worldliness of Christianity.)
From what source does Buber draw his conclusions? Surely he does not come to his conclusions from a reading of the New Testament. Recall that Jesus said that the earth was the inheritance of the meek. Peter reminded his discouraged readers that “we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13). Peter’s outlook is in direct line with the words of Isaiah (see Isa. 65:17; 66:22). John, too, points his persecuted fellows to the vision of the new heaven and new earth. There is not a hint of world-despising escapism here. The Christian faith in its origins was in conflict with all brands of gnosticism, and its faith in the resurrection of the body gave the lie to all purely spiritualistic religions.
Perhaps, then, the modern Judaistic critique of Christianity rises from the less than full-orbed practice of Christianity of which all of us are at times guilty. Here we touch a point that is not easily set aside. Christians indeed have often lapsed into a longing for a heaven without the wholeness of the biblical concept of Kingdom and the new earth. In dogmatic thought as well, so much emphasis has been placed on the blessed vision of God (“Prostrate before Thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on Thee”) that it seemed opposed to the vision of a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. One nineteenth century writer, in fact, remarked that in view of the visio dei which awaits us, we do not really need a new earth. If this were Christianity, then indeed writers like Buber would have a case against us. But the Bible carries no suggestion of such a dualism between the vision of God and the new earth.
We may point to Israel as an example. The people of God received the land from God, not as competitive to fellowship with God, but as the arena in which communion with God was to be concretely expressed. “And now, behold, I have brought the first-fruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, has given me” (Deut. 26:10). The people were to find joy in the earth with God, not a tension between the land and God. “And thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the Lord thy God hath given thee” (Deut. 26:11). We are reminded as well that in Jesus’ beatitudes, the inheritance of the earth is promised side by side with “they shall see God.”
Judaism’s critique of Christianity as an unbalanced other-worldliness has no basis in the New Testament. The only grounds for it are those found where Christianity is watered down to a non-Christian ethereal eschatology. When Edward Thurneysen wrote that the Christian future has to do with this world, these cities, these streets, these forests, Brunner responded by saying that Thurneysen was speculating rather than listening to the Bible. But I judge that Thurneysen’s words are more biblical than Brunner’s criticism will allow. For the Bible does indeed speak of a new earth, and as new as it shall be, it shall still he earth.
The Christian faith in the resurrection of the body is closely related to the promise of the new earth. We are not called to flee the earth. We are not called to hate the body. Christianity is not a spiritualistic gnosticism, but a redemptive faith. We may be tempted at times to separate the earth from God’s area of concern. When we fall to that temptation we are untrue to the motto “Be true to the earth” and we thus leave the earth to those who would make concern for it a wholly secular concern. But we Christians can also be true to the earth simply because we do look forward to a new earth.
The perspective of the earth’s renewal does not lessen our concern for and interest in this earth and in its social and political questions. Rather, our hope for a new earth calls us to responsibility for and action in this earth. The world is on its way toward God’s future. And God does have a future for the world. The answer to the Judaistic critique, I believe, is very obvious. So long as Christians gear their faith and their life to the biblical perspective, they will not fall prey to an un-Christian program of escape from this world.
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