Review of a classic postmillenial book, “Creation Regained”

In recent years I have seen in many venues that postmillenialism is gaining a lot of traction among evangelicals. This is true both on the left (N.T. Wright) and the right (D. Hegeman) and everywhere in between (including Andy Crouch and the Jubilee conferences sponsored by Coalition for Christian Outreach, among others).

Creation Regained by Albert Wolters (Eerdmans, 1985) is a good summary of the modern postmillenial view. Wolters doesn’t make some of the more controversial claims of others and sticks to the main overall view. It is very handy because it let me see exactly where I disagree.

My fundamental disagreement with the book, and the modern postmillenial viewpoint, is with their reducing of the discontinuity between the present world and the next. Crouch and Hegeman specifically say that we will take cultural artifacts with us to heaven, i.e., “you can take it with you”, after all. Wolters puts it this way: “Even at the great crisis that will come on the world at Christ’s return will not annihilate God’s creation or our cultural development of it. The new heaven and the new earth which the Lord has promised will be a continuation, purified by fire, of the creation we know now.”

On the face of it, this view seems to be directly contradicted by many Scripture passages, e.g.:

“The heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies  [or, “elements”] will be burned up and dissolved…the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies [or, “elements”] will melt as they burn” (2 Peter 3:10,12)

” 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…   Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:1,5)

“Heaven and earth shall pass away.” (Mark 13:31, Matthew 24:35)

“Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away. ” (Psalm 102:25-26)

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor 4:17-18)

“At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” (Hebrews 12:26-27)

These certainly sound like a lot of discontinuity!  The things to come cannot be compared to the present, we are told. The present shall “pass away”.  The things made shall be “removed”.  Some might argue that these verses are referring only to the passing away of the sinful human order, not the creation itself. But note that these verses refer to created things apart from humans– the “heavens and the earth” named in Genesis 1:1, and not only the human order, which is indicated by the word “kosmos” in Greek. Thus, 1 John 2:17, “the world is passing away and all its desires” could be taken as referring only to the passing away of the human order, but the verses above are much less amenable to that interpretation.

Wolters does not address these passages. There is a deeper theme that Wolters does address, though– the “vanity” theme all throughout Scripture. Wolters argues, and indeed must argue, to support his position, that the “vanity” of the world is only in the human-touched sinful and cursed aspects, and not anything intrinsic about the created world. He makes this argument from Romans 8:20-22, which says that the creation was subjected to “futility”, or vanity, in hope that it would one day be set free. The passage does not say that this futility is due to the fall of mankind in Adam, but Wolters and many evangelicals do make this assumption. As I have argued in my book, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, (Baker, 2006), that assumption is problematic. That is because there are many passages in Scripture that locate the vanity of the physical world not in human sin, or even in things touched by human sin, but in things that were created as “good” in Genesis 1, before Adam and Eve sinned. In particular,

  • Darkness. God creates the balance of darkness and light in Genesis 1. Yet in the new heavens of Revelation 21-22 there is no darkness.
  • The darkness/light balance is also seen in the sun/moon balance and the morning/evening balance, both of which occur in Genesis 1. In Revelation and in Isaiah 60:19-20 we are told there will no longer be a need for the sun and moon.
  • The sea. In the same way, the sea is created in Genesis 1 (occupied by scary reptiles, and with its balance against the dry land), while in Revelation 21-22 there is no sea.
  • Marriage. Male and female marriage and making babies to fill the world is a crucial part of the pre-fall narrative, while Jesus tells us in heaven there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage.

In general, all of the above are part of the “balance theme” in Scripture, which also includes harvest and winter, rain and dryness, predator and prey, etc.  I address this theme at length in my book.  These balances are all associated with the “vanity” theme– what one thing or person does, another undoes. This is nowhere more clear than in Ecclesiastes:

“The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;  to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.” (Eccl 1:5-7)

This passage from Ecclesiastes is important because Ecclesiastes is “the” vanity text in Scripture. This passage equates, not the sinfulness of humans, but the created order itself, as exemplifying vanity. Also, in the famous vanity Psalm of Moses:

“You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’ For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” (Psalm 90:3-5)

In this passage, the grass and the night (darkness) are symbolic of vanity. Sinful humans are compared to the grass that passes away, not because they have caused the grass to pass away, but because the curse on them is to be like the grass which was already short-lived.

From a scientific standpoint, the “temporariness” of the universe is built in to the laws of physics as we know them. The universe as we know it cannot last forever; the second law of thermodynamics implies that it is in decay and will run out of usable energy at some point. For the universe not to be in “bondage to decay” means that it would not have a second law of thermodynamics, which means that the entire laws of physics must be completely different.  A universe with such different laws must be enormously different from the present one.

In Scripture, this “vanity” of things is not equated with evil. As seen in the above passages, natural things are vanity even though they appeared in Genesis 1 and were “very good”. What makes them “vanity” is their temporariness. They are “passing away”, not meant to last forever.  They only become evil if people focus on these temporary things to the point that they neglect what is lasting, namely God and his glory.

The overall picture, which I think is inescapable in Scripture, is that too much focus on the “things” of this world is evil because it is a focus on that which is temporary and passing away, not the true permanent thing, namely the glory of God, which will be fully to be revealed in heaven. The things themselves are not evil, but too much of a focus on them is. The postmillenial impulse is to say that it is indeed okay to focus on the things of this world, because they are in fact lasting and permanent. How can this be reconciled with, say, Matthew 16:26, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” There is a clear distinction here between the physical being of much less value than the spiritual; the world is temporary but the soul is permanent. It cannot be said more clearly than in these verses: 

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (1 Cor 4:18)

If  we have this attitude, does that mean that we will not be engaged in good efforts in this world such as art, science, and government? Wolters and other postmillenialists seem to think so. I don’t think this follows. We can “engage” in this world without “fixing our eyes” on it.  The message of Ecclesiastes is not to stop engaging in the world, but just the opposite– to engage in the things of this world, but to hold them lightly. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us to eat and drink and do good work, even while knowing that our works are not permanent. This is the same message as that of Jesus who told us not to be anxious about what we will eat or wear (Matt 6:25-33), but rather to enjoy good things that God gives us, and Paul, who said to do whatever our hand finds to do with all our might (Col 3:17, 23), alluding to Ecclesiastes 2:24 and 9:10. In fact, I would say pastorally that I have found that people who feel their work in this world must succeed become stressed, leading sometimes to failure and sometimes to neglect of their Christian walk, while those who hold success lightly often do better work and are better people.

While I am arguing for a discontinuity, that the new heavens and new earth are truly new, and the present order of things is passing away, I think that a case can be made for some type of continuity. Wolters does not make the Scriptural case for continuity, but there is a case to be made. One argument is in the physical descriptions of things promised to Israel in the prophets and also at the end of Revelation, of cities and gardens with trees, etc. Jesus talks of eating with us in heaven, and Paul talks of “spiritual bodies” (1 Cor 15:44), which implies both difference (Paul explicitly makes a contrast between the natural body and the spiritual body) and also some similarity– it will be some sort of localized body which eats and goes to cities, etc., not an ethereal spirit.

There is also the argument that the kingdom of God is a continuous story from the present to the future. In 1 Corinthians 15, we read

“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.'” (1 Cor 15:25-26)

and in Revelation we read

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” (Rev 11:15)

A similar picture is given in Daniel 2 of the kingdom of God in this world growing to fill the whole earth and lasting forever.  There are a number of passages that speak of the kingdom of God beginning in this world and merging with the kingdom of heaven. The general picture is of Jesus as the king starting the kingdom as a “mustard seed” which then forms a great tree which fills the earth, with Christians from every tongue and tribe, before Christ returns.

So there is reason to believe that 1) the things of this world are not foul and polluted, but rather are good, as Paul says to Timothy (1 Tim 4:4), but nevertheless 2) the contrast between the present reality and the future reality is so great that we can say the things (not just the human structures and the curses) of this world are “passing away”, “removed”, “burned up”, “dissolved”, etc.  We can use things and structures here for good while not taking them as permanent and weighty.

Perhaps the best images of the continuity with discontinuity come from the biological images used in Scripture.  The plant grows continuously until it reaches the “harvest”, in which something utterly new appears: the fruit. The bride and groom start a new relationship when the marriage is “consummated”. The child in infancy goes through puberty to become the full heir.  I could add the image of the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly. In each case there is a connection, but something else which is totally new– can the child imagine what puberty will be like? Can a virgin imagine what marriage will be like? Can the caterpillar imagine being a butterfly? To want to stay in the earlier stage, or even to stay in the earlier stage while incrementally redeeming it, is silly.  There is a grand change which is unimaginable.

Another way of talking of the continuity with discontinuity in Scripture is the language of shadow and reality. The temple on this earth was but a shadow of the temple in heaven (Hebrews 8:5, 10:1). We now see only as in a “mirror, darkly”, then we shall see face to face (1 Cor 13:12).  As C.S. Lewis put it, heaven will be “more real”— so much more real that the present will seem only a shadow. Or, it will seem like this life was watching TV, and then we turned to reality, or that this life was dreaming, and then we woke up. The TV show and the dream are like the real thing, but one who focuses on them to the rejection of the real world is mentally ill.

Does it matter what view we take on these things, other than being faithful to Scripture? I think that Wolter’s type of postmillenialism can indeed lead to “worldliness”– an inverted sense of priorities. A focus on the things of this world, whether art, science, government, etc., above the spiritual life of the soul is unhealthy, whether it is our own soul or the souls of others.  A friend of mine had a simple statement on his door in college: “Use things. Love people.” If we get those out of order, we are missing the priorities of Jesus.  Christians ought to be concerned about engaging in the things of this world, not because we think that we will make a permanent mark, in contradiction to all that Ecclesiastes and the rest of Scripture tell us about the transitory nature of the present created order, but because God has put us in this world and part of being human is to do and to act for good with the stuff we have been given, as stewards. Remember that the image of the steward is a temporary one– the rich man, in the parables of Jesus, put his steward in charge of a small thing for a temporary period, and then when he comes back, if the steward has done well, he is rewarded with unimaginably greater things– ten whole cities (Luke 19:17). We do good, not because “we can take it with us”, but because in doing good we “store up treasures in heaven”, treasures of a wholly different type.

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4 Responses to Review of a classic postmillenial book, “Creation Regained”

  1. J.W. Wartick says:

    Okay I plan on coming back and reading the whole post but I was really surprised by the categorization of NT Wright on the “left.” What criteria are you using to sort people?

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  2. D.W. Snoke says:

    I am pretty sure that Wright would identify himself as a social democrat and would be more comfortable with the British Labor party than with the US Republican party. But I could be wrong.

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  3. J.W. Wartick says:

    I finished reading the post and I admit that I remain a bit confused by the identification of Wright on the “Left.” I gather from your comment that you used him as such an example due to a perceived affiliation with a political party. I guess I was just caught off guard because I’m sure there are better persons to illustrate the divide.

    Theologically, it seems to me his views line up more easily with more conservative views, but of course it depends upon where you divide the lines. I have found Wright’s work to be invaluable in standing against liberal positions on Biblical authority, the resurrection, and more. But I hate to quibble about an offhand remark at the start of your post, so my apologies… I guess I’ll just leave it at this.

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    • D.W. Snoke says:

      The politics matter because the framework of postmillenialists is that Christians should be engagd in politics with the aim of actually redeeming the whole government, to reach a golden age. The theonomists/dominion theology people like Chilton and Doug Wilson had a very “right-wing” view of this. But their approach is very similar to those on the political left who view redeeming government as a major task for the church. Wright, from what I know, has a vision of world government which is more socialist in nature. Wright has written some good things on the resurrection, etc., but he also has a vision (which is quite influential among young Christians) of the Protestant and Catholic churches uniting (by seeing that they both got it wrong on justification, and embracing Wright’s views), and forming a major political bloc.

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