Heavenizing Earth: Eschatology in the Beginning

When we think about eschatology, we think immediately of Daniel, of Matthew 24-25, of 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Thessalonians 2, and of course of Revelation. We don’t, I suspect, think about Genesis. Perhaps Genesis 3:15, with its promise of the woman’s seed, would come to mind. So might the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. But for the most part we see Genesis as a book of beginnings, not of endings, a book of history, not of prophecy, a book of the past, not of the future

These views of Genesis deserve challenge, however. Protology and eschatology, while they can be distinguished in some ways, are not so easily separated. The course of history flows from the beginning of history, and already at the very beginning we get indications of what that course is going to be. “The book of Genesis,” says James Jordan, to whom I am indebted for much of what follows, “contains the Bible in a nutshell. It records the beginnings (geneses) of all things, and everything that happens later in the Bible is an unfolding of what happens for the first time in Genesis” (Primeval Saints 9). Genesis is a book of beginnings but also of endings and of the things in between.

Nor can history (and the narrative of it) be so easily separated from prophecy or the past from the present and the future. Scripture does not present history as a straight line; it presents it typologically: history moves forward but it also cycles through similar events, each shedding light on each other and all pointing and moving forward to Christ and his work in history, in the past, in the present, and also in the future.

Tempting as it may be to rush past Genesis to find the passages with real significance for eschatology, it is worthwhile to see what Genesis leads us to expect with regard to the course and confirmation of history.  In this series of essays, my goal is to meditate on Genesis, allowing later passages of Scripture to shed light on what we read in this book, but focusing mainly on what Genesis itself leads us to expect with regard to the future.

Those expectations develop already as we read the first sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).

This verse is sometimes taken as a summary of what follows, but that reading cannot be sustained. The next verse, joined to this one by an “and,” goes on to describe the condition of “the earth,” that is, the earth that was just said to have been created—and then the story just keeps going. Far from being a summary or heading over the whole of the chapter, 1:1 is best read as the beginning of the story, the account of the creation of the earth that precedes God’s work with the earth in the verses that follow.

But what are “the heavens” here, then? They cannot be the firmament-heavens, the sky and outer space, since the firmament was not created until the second day. Rather, these heavens, whose creation is spoken of before that of the earth, must be God’s throne room. This is the place of which God says in Isaiah 66:1, “The heavens are my throne, and earth is my footstool.” Think, too, of Psalm 115:16: “The heavens, the heavens belong to Yahweh, and the earth he has given to the sons of Adam.”

God created the heavens first. But that is all Genesis 1 tells us explicitly about the heavens. From verse 2 on, the focus is on the earth: “Now the earth was unstructured and empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep.”

The surprise of this verse is that the earth, as God created it, turns out to be a fixer-upper, created with three “problems” that God is going to “fix.” From the very outset, the world needs work. It is unstructured.  It is not chaotic, but it is not organized in the way God wants it ultimately to be. It is empty, unpopulated.  And it is dark. God created a world that needed to be developed.

Heaven didn’t have to be developed. We don’t read in the Bible about God structuring and developing heaven. From the beginning of its history—and heaven does have a history—it was already full of light. It was populated, filled with angels. We don’t know much about the creation of the angels, but Job 38 tells us that they sang when God laid the foundations of the earth, and that implies that they were created at the same time the heavens were, in Genesis 1:1a. From the beginning, heaven was full of a host of angels praising God and serving him.

Heaven was created structured, populated, and bright. But God deliberately made the earth unstructured, unpopulated, dark. He made it unlike heaven and then began to work on it to make it more and more like heaven with each passing day. He didn’t have to, and therefore this step-by-step process must be for our benefit, for the instruction of man who, as God’s image, would structure, populate, and light up the world.

Heaven is bright but earth was dark. But God says, “Let there be light” and there was light.

Heaven is ordered and structured, but the earth wasn’t. But God separates light and darkness, day and night. He separates the waters, putting a firmament between the waters. He separates the waters below so that dry land appears. Through the first three days, moving from high up (light) to low down (seas), God structures the world, impressing heaven’s pattern upon it.

Heaven is populated, but earth was empty. But God begins to fill it. On the third day, he makes grass and fruit trees grow for beauty and nourishment for the coming population. On the fourth day, he fills the firmament with “lamps”: sun, moon, and stars. On the fifth day, he fills the waters with swarms of fish and makes birds on the dry land to fly across the firmament. On the sixth day, he creates land animals and then finally man.

That is the pattern we see in Genesis 1, as the earth becomes increasingly like heaven. But the process isn’t finished on that sixth day. God tells Adam and Woman, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”  He passes on to them and to their offspring the work that he had begun, the work of heavenization.

rom the outset, God’s goal for humanity has not been to rescue us from the earth to bring us to heaven but rather to put us to work so that all of “the earth”—which in Genesis 1:1 includes everything that isn’t “the heavens,” and by Day 4 includes all of what we call “outer space”—becomes more and more like heaven.

Sin hasn’t thwarted that plan. God sent his Son, not just so that we could be forgiven, but so that we would be re-enlisted in the work, and not just re-enlisted but newly empowered by the glorious and glorifying Spirit. The work is Jesus’ work, and it is our work in him by his Spirit. And so we keep praying as Jesus taught us: “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done—on earth as it is in heaven.”  That is where history is heading, and it is where history has been heading ever since Genesis 1:1.

Paul teaches us to set our minds on “things above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1-2), not because we’re itching to go to heaven and escape this earth, but because heaven is the model and Jesus’ Lordship in heaven is the guarantee that this work will not fail. And by his Spirit, in union with Jesus, we labor toward that goal in all of our work, in all of our relationships, in all spheres of our earthly lives.

Our first calling is to learn heaven’s pattern. As Moses ascended the mountain to receive the pattern of the tabernacle and then returned to build it, so every Sunday, we ascend into heaven in the Lord’s service and, at the close, are sent back down, out into the world, a world that needs transformation.

The work isn’t done. The work isn’t close to being done. But the work will be done.

Already at the outset of Genesis, we learn this important eschatological principle: the beginning is not the finished product. The way things are at any given point is not the way they’re always going to be. The difficulties, the problems, the “fixer-upper-ness” of our world and our lives, the unlike-heaven-ness that we currently experience is not the end of the story. History moves forward. God keeps working, developing, moving things toward his goal, and Genesis 1 invites us as God’s image to work with him.

John Barach is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sulphur, Louisiana, and a Theopolis Fellow.

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