In a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon, a man in heaven sits on a cloud wishing he brought a magazine. The heaven of pop-culture cliché — white robes, angel wings, pearly gates, harps — tends to assume a complete break with present experience, with no sign of the material world remaining. No more mud, flowers, rocks, birds, and trees. Sounds dull. There’s not much to do on a cloud. I wish I brought a magazine.
C. S. Lewis suggests “The hills and valleys of heaven will be to those you now experience not as a copy is to an original, nor as a substitute to the genuine article, but as the flower to the root, or the diamond to the coal” (Letters to Malcolm). If correct, the implications are startling. It means this world — and its human and nonhuman inhabitants, its prairies and mountains, rivers and oceans — all of it is in some incomprehensible way eternal. All of it anticipates heaven and contains within it the potential for glory just as a lump of coal anticipates a diamond. There is continuity from one to the other just as Jesus’s resurrected body had the recognizable scars of his humiliation.
Yet, for many, nature has no meaningful place in theological discourse. They maintain this world of space, time, and matter we call home is temporary and destined for dissolution. It is broken beyond repair with no eternal meaning, and ultimately doomed to a final destruction, a Star Wars-like Death Star fiery explosion. For them it follows that collapsing eco-systems, climate change, species loss, animal cruelty, and the like are of no concern for the Church.
Some even find warrant for this devaluing of nature in passages like 2 Peter 3, which describes heaven and earth passing away. But does the Bible envisage the end of the world? I wonder if resorting to such banal literalism is merely an excuse to dismiss awkward questions about our responsibilities. It is more likely that such passages indicate the world’s renewal, not its destruction. John writes of God making all things new, not the making of new things (Revelation 21:5). To dismiss this language, adopting instead a gnostic, world-negating theological outlook, is to lose sight of important biblical threads, among them the goodness of creation and its participation in singing God’s praises (e.g., Psalm 148).
Recognizing continuity between creation and new creation presents us with an inspiring corollary. “Thy kingdom come,” we pray, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth as in heaven. That which we do now in obedience to the promptings of the Spirit contributes to that kingdom. Recall also that the biblical picture of ideal humanity includes interaction with nature. It is humanity’s first vocation. Adam tills the soil in Eden and names its animals (Genesis 2). Hints, just hints, but it suggests the wellbeing of earth is a corollary of the spiritual wellbeing of those given dominion over it. One exists for the other, and so it is we find Adam in the presence of animals, getting dirt under his fingernails — lovely images that remind us that any theology fixated on humanity alone is incomplete. The story of Eden hints at creation’s potential, offering a glimpse into the glories of new creation. No need to bring a magazine. There will be plenty to do, and more to explore.
Again, C. S. Lewis:
To treat [Nature] as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see … this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The ‘vanity’ to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting (Miracles).
Renewed creation — heaven — as unruly and wild, yet beautiful and endlessly ‘explorable.’ Not tamed, presenting us a playground and workplace far more interesting than idleness on a cloud.