Good Endings Don’t Come Out of Left Field

In the last post, we reviewed what Middleton believes is our raison d’être: to steward the power God has bestowed upon as the rulers and subduers of the world in a responsible, non-violent way as we help the world move from chaos to order for the sake of human flourishing.  He argues that this is an immense tip-off to what should happen at the end of this world.  If our mission is tied to this earth, it does not reason that our future involves a rapturous lift out of this world.

Middleton further develops this point by looking at the “inner logic of the biblical story” in toto.  Before he agrees to focus on individual passages, Middleton demands that we stay focused on the big picture of God’s Story.  This is a very good decision.

Almost as soon as humans are given a charge to “subdue” the wilderness of the world, Adam and Eve contribute to the chaos with their sin. The subsequent generations in Genesis 4-11 are no better. God’s missional call to bring about flourishing now takes on a microcosmic scope in Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) and his progeny, the nation of Israel (Exodus 19:6). They are to model and share the flourishing God wishes to bring to this world.  As anyone who has read their Old Testament knows, true to her name, Israel “struggled” to fulfill this calling, turning inward and often away from God.  Judges, kings, and prophets – try as they might fail to pull Israel back to her purpose. At this point in the story, not only is Israel suffering because of her lack of success, the nations of the world do as well due to Israel’s inability and unwillingness to model and share.

On to the stage of God’s drama steps Jesus.  Like the huntsman in the original Little Red Riding Hood (his example) or the latest Avenger to hit the silver screen (my example), Jesus overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds. Sin, chaos, disorder, disease, violence, death, and everything else is dealt a death’s blow at the cross. Jesus does what every agent of God’s before had failed to do in a lasting way: bring the blessing of human flourishing to the nations, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles (Romans 1:16).  Christ’s followers are given the Great Commission – a reiteration of Abraham’s mission in Genesis 12.  By the end of the Bible, God’s people are still being called “a kingdom and priests” (see Revelation 5:9-10) but now they have finished the role of blessing and mediating (Exodus 19:6 and 1 Peter 2:9) and now they are “ruling,” what Adam and Eve were called to do in the Garden, but this time in a world without sin. As others have pointed out, note that at the beginning of the Bible the world starts as a garden, a place of raw, undeveloped resources and unparalleled potential. Then when we arrive at the end of the Bible, we have come to a city – the New Jerusalem – a highly ordered, developed city in which the raw resources of the world have met their potential in a place without a hint of chaos.

What does not fit with this story?  What would be a completely unexpected move in the arc of this one, seamless story?  The traditional view of Heaven as this place Christians are really living and longing for, this ultimate destination place apart from the world God has been working in for all of human history.  It would be like moving into a house and spending many hours each week for forty years creating, planting, and tending to a stubborn garden only to move away in the twilight of your life just as the garden starts to produce many-fold to an apartment with no garden, leaving your labor of love to become overgrown and neglected. This just doesn’t fit with the story.  Middleton summarizes it this way:

“The important point here is that the idea of ‘heaven’ as the eternal hope of the righteous has no structural point in the story. It is simply irrelevant and extraneous to the plot” (71).