This is the first of a four-part series by Ken Keyte. Ken is the Senior Pastor of Te Puke Baptist Church. In 2008, as part of his study leave, Ken completed a research paper with Carey Baptist College under the supervision of Myk Habets. This series of articles is based upon his research.
Fragile? Disposable? Improvable? Renewable?
“What’s the future of planet Earth?” It is an important question as local and global environmental issues have begun to impact upon New Zealand society.
Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth caught the public’s attention by portraying the world as a fragile place in which carbon emissions from human activity cause the Earth to warm up with catastrophic consequences if something isn’t done about it soon.
But not everyone was convinced.
Investigative journalist Ian Wishart is one of the sceptics who published a book, Air Con, to refute this fragile view of the world. He proposed instead that global warming is a natural phenomenon and that the world is much more robust than the environmental scientists are mis-leading us to believe.
An Inconvenient Truth was a block buster, Air Con a best seller. This question about the future of planet Earth is a burning one that people are searching to have answered.
But one place the climate scientists, environmentalists, politicians and sceptics do not seem to be looking for answers is the Bible. Yet that is the very piece of literature we Christians would say holds the only answer to this eschatological question. If we truly believe that the book of Revelation, in particular, has much to say about the Earth’s future, then shouldn’t we Christians be better placed than anyone else to answer questions about the Earth’s future?
If we do this well, mightn’t we find opportunities for us to explain our faith as we offer answers to this burning question?
The three final chapters of Revelation, in particular, stand out as a crucial part of the Bible for explaining what lies ahead. But here we have a problem, because the first of these final three chapters (Revelation 20) is one of the most hotly debated passages in the Bible. To answer this question, we cannot overlook what that chapter says.
A biblical answer with a millennial problem
The problem concerns the meaning of the 1000 year period described in Revelation 20 known as “the millennium.” Three different interpretations are commonly held by Christians.
Many evangelicals believe Revelation 20 describes a literal 1000 years prior to which Christians will be raptured to Heaven, escaping 7 years of tribulation, during which the nation of Israel will convert to Christianity on a large scale.
Christ will return at the end of the tribulation to become King of the Earth and establish Israel as the ruling nation, thereby fulfilling the Old Testament promises that were made to Israel’s forefathers. This view is known as pre-millennialism because Christ returns before the millennium.
Many others, however, recognise the highly symbolic style with which apocalyptic literature such as Revelation is written. They interpret the 1000 years as symbolic of a period of growing gospel success in which the vast majority of humanity is converted to Christ, evil is eradicated and society is radically improved prior to Christ’s return. This view is known as post-millennialism because Christ returns after (post) the millennium.
Then there are many others who also interpret Revelation symbolically but who believe that Christ’s kingdom exists alongside, and in tension with, the kingdom of the world. The tension is graphically portrayed in Revelation with apocalyptic imagery of angels, monsters, plagues, cosmic calamities and supernatural disasters, which will finally be resolved upon Christ’s return. This view is known as amillennialism because it understands the world as already being in the millennium.
Not only do Christians have differing views on the meaning of the 1000 years described in Revelation 20, but they also have differing views about what happens to the Earth at the end of the millennium. Where Revelation 21:1 describes the first Heaven and Earth passing away, most premillennialists interpret this literally to mean the destruction of the Heavens and the Earth (2 Peter 3:10 is interpreted in similar fashion), to be replaced by the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21 and 22. They therefore view the world as a disposable commodity.
Postmillennialists tend to focus their attention on how the Earth will be improved through the influence of the gospel during the millennium. They therefore view the world as an improvable place.
Many amillennialists, however, pay attention to the Greek word used to describe the new Heavens and Earth in Revelation 21:5, “kainos,” which means to renew. So they understand this verse as describing the renewal of the Heavens and the Earth upon Christ’s return. They therefore view the world as a renewable habitat.
The millennial problem confuses the biblical answer
This divergence of views about what the Bible teaches regarding the future of planet Earth means that Christians cannot claim to have a consensus of understanding on this hot topic, making it difficult for us to offer a single answer representing the common understanding of most Christians.
But that should not stop us from being ready to offer millennial answers to this burning question. Next month we will look at how these three millennial views affect a Christian’s behaviour toward the Earth and how understanding the millennial views will enable us to offer well reasoned answers from the Bible (in particular from Revelation) about the future of planet Earth.
So for now, which of these three views do you hold to, and do you know why?