A few years ago after finishing a round at what my friends and I like to call Roegusta Country Club or properly named Roebuck Municipal Course in Birmingham, another golfer who was also just finishing struck up a conversation with me. Having no idea that I was a priest (no I don’t wear my collar on the course) the man started talking to me about God.
At first, we had a pleasant conversation about how God is present with us even in suffering. We talked about how the power of God’s eternal word in Jesus is the only thing that can save us in this often times messed up world. And then he started talking about how he prayed that God would hurry up and rapture us up to heaven so that we might escape the great tribulation. This was the end of our conversation.
This kind of theology is called premillennial dispensationalism. While this theology has roots in the early church, it has only gained momentum in the last one-hundred and fifty years and is consistent with the beliefs of what one might call the “evangelical right.” This kind of theology is also consistent with the Left Behind series that has been so popular in recent years.
Ultimately, premillennial dispensationalism is a theology that believes that God will rapture the faithful on earth up into heaven so that they may escape the great tribulation that must take place immediately before the golden age or the 1,000 year reign of Christ.
And because it seems that this world is always on the brink of natural or human disaster it is no wonder that this kind of theology flourishes in an age of mass media and global news where we are saturated with apocalyptic images.
I’ll cut to the chase. Premillennial dispensationalism is a theology contrived from piecing together two obscure verses from scripture that were never meant to be read as a part of the same sentence—specifically 1 Thessalonians 4 and Revelation 20.
At this point you might be wondering, so what if it is bad theology? I will admit there is a lot of bad theology out there that is harmless but this is the kind of bad theology that has consequences that are devastating not only to our Christian witness but also when it comes to our general worldview and how we act and behave in the world.
This is the kind of theology that leads people to think that being good stewards of creation isn’t that important and that we need not worry about recycling and conservation of energy because God is going beam up us to heaven right before the earth crumbles and decays.
This is the kind of theology that leads people to believe that war is good because war brings us closer to the great tribulation that signals the beginning of the golden age when Christ will establish is 1,000 year rule on earth.
First of all, up until this point in the Book of Revelation, God seems to be saying that what happens in this earthly life spills into the heavenly realm and what happens in heaven spills into this earthly life.
In other words, the current heaven and earth exist in the same sphere and are bound to the same fate. There cannot be peace in heaven when there is war on earth. Earlier in Revelation, we see the martyrs who worship under the altar in the heavenly throne room look down on the persecuted Church and cry, “how much longer?”
The separation of heaven from earth is not God’s ultimate plan for salvation. In fact, the re-binding of heaven and earth is the beginning God’s salvation plan in Christ, a plan that began with our expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Jesus’ prayer is all about God’s plan to re-join heaven and earth, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus also says, “Whatever is bound on earth is bound in heaven and whatever is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.”
Here in Revelation we see that the final stanza in the song of salvation does not have God’s people huddled up in the clouds on the other side of St. Peter’s gate. I know this might startle some of you but our current concept of heaven as some place in the clouds is only temporary just like our earthly life is temporary—remember that heaven and earth exist in the same sphere and are bound to the same fate.
Instead, what God has done in the first heaven and the first earth is the prelude to the final movement of God’s salvation plan. John of Patmos sees the beginning of the final movement. He says, “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 if we have comprehended anything in all of scripture to this point, we know that God does not make things new by throwing the old away just to start from scratch. Instead, God purifies and restores the good the bad the ugly, God prunes and renews. In Christ, God cleanses and sanctifies the creation that is already inherently good. Our God doesn’t trash anything he has made. Our God is about transformation of the stuff he made in the first place.
Ultimately, it is God’s presence in creation that purifies and restores, that prunes and renews, that transforms. In the wilderness, God purifies and restores by dwelling with the people in tent and tabernacle. Eventually, the Temple becomes that place where God dwells on earth to cleanse and sanctify. In Christ, God’s promise to transform comes through the blood of the everlasting covenant, through the dwelling of God in human flesh.
And now in the last stanza, we see that God will make his permanent dwelling among mortals. Once and for all, God will say, “See I am making all things new.” This might be likened to the end of a Disney movie. Someone has sacrificed their life in the name of true love, evil is defeated, then a world that was devastated by sin and death is transformed and made new.
(Beauty and the Beast)
But this time, the transformation of the world that we have had glimpses of in the story of salvation will be permanent. This time there will be no sea. In other words, this time there will be no more sin and evil and death. This time we won’t have to be sustained by glimpses of God’s light in the darkness because this time there is only light and life. This time God himself will dwell with the people and wipe away every tear.
The vision of the holy city is the ultimate hope of salvation that we get in the Book of Revelation and in scripture. This kind of theology makes a difference. Believe it or not good theology changes not only our belief system but also changes how we live in the world.
This kind of theology doesn’t compel us to hide in our little corner of the world to waiting for God to pull us out the side door. Instead, this worldview sees the faithful fully present and active in a broken and sinful world because they know God is making all things new through the sacrificial love of his Son, a love that lives in us through the blood of the everlasting covenant.
This worldview believes that God is completing the work of transformation in us, through the living members of Christ who pull back the curtain of despair and point to a life of hope. This worldview believes that relationships in this life matter, relationships not only with family and friends but also with the enemy. This worldview believes that our relationship with creation matters. Relationships matter because God transforms the world through a relationship with his Son.
When we live according to this final vision, we are free to live with the knowledge that no matter how terrible and ugly things get, God’s sacrificial love in Christ is more powerful than ever the worst kind of evil.
And even if we don’t see the results of God’s love immediately, we don’t have to resign to a feeling that thinks nothing will ever change, evil will always win. Instead, we can believe and hope and live for something more, despite our feelings, because God shows us that his love is transformative, that his love works in the fullness of time.
In the end, it is really as simple as this. If God’s transformative love can change me, then God’s love can change you, and if God’s love can change you, then God’s love can transform the world. In fact, God’s love has already changed the world. See God is making all things new. Amen.