In my last blog post, “From the Garden of Eden to….Alderaan?”, I suggested what the new earth might look like. I also posited that, as God’s image bearers, we have a responsibility to seek to create such a world – even if the presence of sin in the world will always make that vision an impossibility this side of eternity. I feel obligated to clarify my position further as Scripture anticipates a reality similar to what I wrote about in that post. I also wish to connect that future reality to the work we engage in here on earth by focusing on the “fire” that this earth will pass through when Jesus returns.
In commenting on the return of Christ, the apostle Peter states, “But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that [day] the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, [it is clear] what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness as you wait for and earnestly desire the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be on fire and be dissolved, and the elements will melt with the heat” (2 Peter 3:10-12). Now most people who read this will assume that the above description is about judgment, throwing people into hell and the destruction of the earth. But a closer look reveals this to be an erroneous conception. It is true that prior to that passage we are told that “the present heavens and earth are held in store for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (v. 7). So in that sense the fire is about judgment.
A closer reading, however, indicates that it is not a completely annihilating fire. For one thing, verse 7 above makes it clear that only ungodly men will be destroyed. So what about everything else? Setting aside the question of the fate of godly or righteous men (who are made righteous by Christ’s blood), I find Amy Sherman’s analysis in Kingdom Calling to be insightful. It is also worth quoting at length.
A word on 2 Peter 3:10-12 may be in order here. There the apostle talks about the world being consumed in fire. We need to recall that fire in Scripture typically means a refining fire. It’s more often about purification, not annihilation. More to the point, Peter himself speaks in 2 Peter 3:13 of ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’ The word new there is kainos (new in nature or quality) not neo (new in time or origin). Therefore, Peter means ‘new’ in the sense of renewed, not brand new. 1
I don’t know about you, but that’s exciting! Talk about good news. It’s good news because it signifies that the work we do here on earth actually matters. But I am getting ahead of myself. After all, what connection does this renewing fire have with work? Work is nowhere mentioned in the above Scripture passage or Sherman’s explanation. So to tease out the connection, let me quote from another person. Tom Nelson, in Work Matters, makes the case that
If we believe that the earth…is simply going to one day be abolished and disappear, then the logical conclusion is that our work is virtually meaningless….But if our daily work, done for the glory of God and common good of others, in some way carries over to the new heavens and new earth, then our present work itself is overflowing with immeasurable value and eternal significance.”2
From the above explanation we now have a new understanding of work. For far from being the tedious medium through which Christ-followers merely bide their time until Christ returns, work is actually a gift through which we can display our calling as ones made to reflect the image of God to creation.
Most readers of this post will be familiar with the sad truth that the past couple of years have been witness to some tragic and devastating forest fires in the Pike’s Peak region of Colorado. As I recently drove through the burn area from the Black Forest Fire last summer, I saw scorched and blackened limbs reaching up from the ground. There were stone pillars standing by themselves, the chimneys the only testament to houses that had once been there. But I also saw some positive signs. There were signs of rebuilding taking place. And the ground was beginning to show signs of growth with grass and flowers. Already, and thanks in large part to a rainier season in the latter part of that summer, new life was beginning to grow. The land was beginning to heal.
Curious about the ability of a forest to recover and regrow, I read in a paper published by the Colorado State Forest Service and Colorado State University that “Fire often prepares a suitable seedbed by exposing mineral soil necessary for good germination.”3 In a manner not entirely unlike the exposing and germinating burn of a forest fire, the fire that the creation of God will be exposed to on the Day of the Lord will lay bare our “works” and material creations even as it cultivates a “suitable seedbed” for the new heaven and earth. While not everything we create or labor for in this world will pass the refining fire, we can be sure that at least some of our work will become the seed for the glorious cultures germinating in the new heavenly reality. And on that day all creation, including our labors and our reason for work, will be healed.
1 Amy L. Sherman, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2011), EPUB e-book, 253.
2 Tom Nelson, Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 73.
3 R. Moench, “Vegetative Recovery after Wildfire,” Natural Resources Series: Forestry, no. 6.307 (2002). http://csfs.colostate.edu/pdfs/06307.pdf (emphasis mine).