Friday, November 26, 2010

What We Await is a New Heavens and a New Earth (2 Peter 3:13)

When Christians talk about eternal life, they usually, almost without exception, describe it as "going to heaven." The notion of eternal life as, "going to heaven" conjures up images of myriads upon myriads of saints and angles gathered in the midst of the glory of God and singing God's praises. As comforting as this image may be, it may not be very compelling in stimulating and mobilizing our faith to work towards the full-flourishing of God's Reign in this world and in this life. Furthermore, the notion of eternal life consisting of heaven alone is not even very accurate given the scriptural testimony of what lies ahead.

Today's first reading for Mass from the Book of Revelation gives a fuller account of our eternal destiny. It describes eternal life in terms of, "a New Heavens and a New Earth." This metaphor was not an invention of the author of Revelations, it has ancient Old Testament roots and can also be found in one other place in the New Testament. The New Heavens and New Earth is first mentioned in the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 65:17: "see I will create a new heavens and a new earth, the former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind." This metaphor is mentioned in the New Testament in 2 Peter 3:13: "but in keeping with his promise, what we await is a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells."

To stress the importance of this metaphor in terms of it's weighty implications for the way we imagine eternal life, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has an entire section devoted to elaborating on the New Heavens and New Earth (see Part One of, "The Profession of Faith", Article 12, "I Believe in Everlasting Life," section VI, "The Hope of The New Heaven and the New Earth). This section begins with the statement: "At the end of time, The Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed.

What are the "weighty" implications of the notion that our eternal destiny consists not merely in "going to heaven" but going to "the new heavens and new earth?" One of the implications is that this metaphor provides a compelling incentive for living on the earth and in the world in a mode of great care for the earth and great concern for the world. It implies having a robust vision of the earth and world that is to come and working to sow the seeds of the righteousness and justice that are destined to come to full maturity. Finally, the metaphor of the New Heavens and New Earth means that the physical, embodied aspect of existence has an eternal destiny in the heart of God. This is, in part, what we celebrate at Christmas: the fact that "God so loved the world that he sent his only Son" (John 3:16). Pat, TOR