While writing the article The Harvest of the Earth, I came to realise that fruitlessness and destruction are very closely related in Scripture. Here I seek to explore the issue in more detail.
It is noticeable that though the earth is fruitful during the time of God’s creative activity (Gen. 1:11,20,24, cf. 2:7), it continues to be so only so long as man exercises his proper dominion over it and tills it (Gen. 2:8,15). This is true even before the advent of sin and indicates that creation is far from perfect. It has to be ruled as the spirit is intended to rule the body which itself is a product of creation (Gen. 2:7). The implication is that unsupervised and uncultivated the earth undergoes reversal, descending rapidly from the relative order of the Garden into the wilderness and desolation of uninhabited land (Gen. 3:17-19, cf. Isa. 6:11; Jer. 6:8, etc.). In simple terms, the need for dominion implies inherent deficiency.
The initial purpose of the earth is obviously to produce vegetation and animal life including man. But this is jeopardized when man who is called to exercise dominion over it runs morally amok. The consequence is the temporary and doubtless local curse experienced by Adam (Gen. 3:17-19, cf. 13:10), then by Cain (Gen. 4:11f.), and then by Noah’s generation at the flood. The effect of the latter is mitigated by the rescue of Noah and his family with whom a covenant is established guaranteeing the earth’s basic fecundity until the end of the world despite sin (Gen. 8:21f., cf. Luke 17:27f.; Mt. 5:45). God himself, however, as both Creator and spirit, was not looking primarily for material food despite the fact that he nurtures all animal life (Ps. 104, etc.) and maintains its existence (cf. Job 12:10; 34:14f.). If he were hungry he would have proclaimed the fact. The cattle on a thousand hills belong to him (Ps. 50, cf. Dt.10:14). He is clearly in anticipation of something else.
Man is special; he is made in the image of God. This suggests that the Creator is looking for fruit from man apart from physical reproduction. What is this fruit? The answer would appear to be spiritual development evidenced by, first, proper dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:26,28) promising eventual glory and incorruptibility (Ps. 8:4-6, cf. Heb. 2:9) and, second, sinless obedience leading to deathlessness or immortality (Gen. 2:16f.). In other words, the aim seems to be man’s ever-increasing spiritual likeness to God himself as befits his future children (1 John 3:1-3). In simple terms, God is seeking steadfast love and knowledge of himself (Hos. 6:6; Mic. 6:8, cf. Dt. 10:12f.; 1 Sam. 16:7; Ps. 147:10f.; 149:4; Heb. 11:6) or, as Jesus expressed it, thanksgiving, worship and knowledge (cf. John 4:23; 17:3). However, all readers of the Bible soon become aware that Adam’s sin and defective development made him unlike God and lead to his inevitable death. The same was true of all his posterity who all sinned in their turn (Rom. 5:12, cf. 1 K. 8:46; Ps. 106:6; Dan. 9:5, etc.). This being the case, the need for a second Adam was paramount. So it comes as no surprise when the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus came not to offer sacrifices (cf. Mic. 6:6f.) but to do God’s will (10:1-10), not to please himself (Rom. 15:3) but the Father who sent him (John 8:29). He was to fulfil the original purpose of man by subjecting everything to his control in sinless obedience and to be crowned with glory and honour. Even more to the point, on account of his fellows’ failure, he was to suffer death on their behalf and bring them to glory as his brethren (Heb. 2:10) and thereby please his Father (cf. John 8:28f.). His fruit bearing which involved service and good works (Mark 10:45; Acts 10:38) would ensure that the condemnation and destruction that overwhelmed the first Adam would be avoided.
But destruction is also the lot of Adam’s immediate descendants. Why? Because their corrupt conduct brought inevitable corruption in its train (Gen. 6:11-13) thwarting the Creator’s purpose. At this stage as immorality abounded, the cultural mandate was being neglected (cf. Gen. 5:29). In this situation God showed his grief (Gen 6:7) and displeasure through the curse of the flood. He threatened both man and the earth with destruction. However, the divine purpose, implicit in creation itself, gave rise as noted above to the covenant with Noah which promised the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan (Gen. 8:21f.). This can be said in spite of the continuing sinfulness of mankind who was clearly going to be in need of further rescue in the future (cf. Jer. 31:35f.; 33:19-22).
Sodom and Gomorrah
Events that transpired during the life of Lot and Abraham are repeatedly referred to throughout the Bible (e.g. Dt. 29:16-29; Rom. 9:29). As in Genesis 6:11-13, the corrupt conduct of the licentious and godless Sodomites leads not merely to their own destruction but to that of their habitat as well (Gen. 19:24-28). Only righteous Lot (2 Pet. 2:7f.) and his daughters are rescued from the fiery holocaust.
The Chosen People
While the destruction of the earth threatened by the flood was temporarily deferred, Scripture has a good deal more to say about man’s general failure to bear fruit and its consequent punishment. One can highlight the elimination by death of the generation of Israelites who left Egypt at the exodus. Instead of conforming with the divine command to take possession of the promised land, they preferred to return to forbidden Egyptian fleshpots and bondage (Num. 14:3f.; Acts 7:39). Again, it was on account of their descendants’ rebellious failure to produce the fruits of obedience that led to the exile. God’s honour was at stake (Jer. 14:7,21), so like their predecessors the Canaanites who had defiled the land, God cast them out, sending them first into Assyrian and then into Babylonian captivity (cf. Zech. 7:8-14). He did not, however, make a full end of them (Jer. 4:27, cf. 1 Sam. 12:22).
The moral failure of the Canaanites who defiled the land calls for comment. It is made especially clear that in their case the land itself remained a good land (cf. Gen. 13:10; 1 Tim. 4:4), and was inherited as such by the incoming Israelites (Num. 14:7, etc). Why wasn’t it destroyed as it was temporarily in Noah’s time and at Sodom? The answer seems to lie in the fact that despite their idolatry and immorality, as nature worshippers the Canaanites nonetheless cultivated their land to good effect. James (see 3:3,7) has something pertinent to say on this issue. In apparent contrast with the antediluvians who wanted to “play” while Noah worked (cf. Gen. 5:29; 6:11-16), even morally bad people and active disbelievers can be diligent workers in the material realm. A farmer, or even a scientist, as such is judged by what he produces not by his morals. Even Esau became wealthy and had his portion in this world (Ps. 17:14)! To claim that modern technology is largely the work of unbelievers even if true is no argument against the truth of Christianity. Furthermore, as we shall see below, some Christians, despite the genuineness of their faith, are very ineffective workers and will suffer loss in the judgement to come.
It was not until their rejection of Jesus that the most radical destruction of the elect nation took place. If Nebuchadnezzar razed Jerusalem and the temple, how much more the Romans. The failure of the chosen people to produce good fruit was regarded in the eyes of God as a serious defect which had to be punished and rectified. And it was Jesus himself who, as the true Israel and a true Son of Abraham, was promised as a blessing and a light to the Gentiles (Mark 10:45; John 8:12; Gal. 3:14,18,29). It was he who bore the fruit that the elect nation failed to bear (cf. Mark 10:43-45; John 4:34-38; Acts 10:38). It was, however, because they rejected not only the prophets but also Jesus the Son himself that they were finally partially (cf. Rom. 11:25) cast off (Mt. 21:33-46; Acts 7:51-53). Their house was left to them forsaken and desolate (Mt. 23:38) like a barren land (Jer. 12:10f.).
Failure to produce fruit is highlighted in various ways throughout Scripture as, for example, in the parable of the talents (e.g. Mt. 25:14-30). John the Baptist taught his Jewish audience that trees that fail to bear are cut down and burnt (Mt. 3:10, cf. v.12; 13:30) and Jesus endorsed his teaching on this point (Mt. 7:19). The prophet Isaiah had propounded the same view with regard to the chosen people symbolized as a vine long before (Ps. 80:8; Isa. 5:1-7). However, it was in a different context that he specifically mentioned fire (Isa. 33:11-14). The prophet Malachi did not mince words either and warned his audience that purifying fires were on their way (3:2f.). In 4:1 (cf. Joel 2:31) he refers to the day of the Lord when evildoers will burn like stubble so that neither root not branch are left (cf. Amos 2:9).
In view of OT teaching it is hardly surprising that Jesus takes up the theme of fruit bearing and of good and bad trees (Mt. 7:16-20). In one of his parables (Luke 13:6-9, cf. 21:29-33) he refers significantly to a fig tree that failed to produce its expected crop and was threatened with destruction (cf. the exile which was not the ‘full end’ experienced by the heathen, Jer. 4:27, 30:11, cf. 33:10f.) if it did not improve when it was fertilized. And we know the result. On another occasion Jesus gave special emphasis to his teaching by acting out a parable on a fruitless fig tree by causing it to wither (Mt. 21:19f.). The fig tree could only symbolize the rejected Jewish nation. On the other hand, when Paul refers to the olive tree in Romans 11 he assumes that election cannot ultimately fail since the gifts and call of God are irrevocable. Divine mercy will ensure that the divine purpose will be accomplished (11:32, cf. Ps.57:2; 138:8; Phil. 1:6).
It is because he always did his Father’s will that the life of Jesus bore spiritual fruit (John 4:34; 17:4, etc.), and we also for whom he died can in contrast with Adam be fruitful in our turn. We are told that if we abide in him just as he abided in his Father’s will (John 5:30), we can bear much fruit (John 15:5). This fruit consists of a life of faith commanded by God (John 6:29; 1 John 3:23) which in turn produces the fruit of good works, service and righteousness (Gal. 5:22f.; Eph. 2:8-10, cf. James 2:18-25). On the other hand, while pruning leads to increased fruit bearing, failure to abide leads to withering like a branch and to eventual burning (John 15:6, cf. Heb. 26f.). Those who deliberately reject Christ and the work of the Spirit and by contrast kowtow to the flesh and the world necessarily reap the corruption which characterizes them (Gal. 6:7f., cf. 5:21; 1 John 2:15-17).
The World and the Flesh
The world and the flesh are both frequent topics in the epistles. Paul tells us that so far as he is concerned both have been crucified (Gal. 5:24; 6:14). We may ask why. The answer surely lies in the fact that while they may be fertile, even prolific, in (re)producing material or physical things (Gen. 8:21f.; 9:1; 16:10; 17:20, etc.), they are not so with regard to spiritual things. Jesus himself tells us that worldly treasure (Mt. 6:19f.), like the world itself (Mt. 24:35), is subject to rust and decay (corruptibility) not to mention its vulnerability to theft (sin). Peter harps on the same theme when he strongly stresses that an imperishable, undefiled and unfading inheritance is to be found only in heaven (1 Pet. 1:3f.,7,18,23-25). Paul especially underlines that spiritual bankruptcy of the flesh maintaining that it is incapable of producing good (Rom. 7:18; 8:8). By contrast he asserts as he did in Galatians 6:8 that those who live according to the flesh will die (Rom. 8:13). Living by (material) bread alone is a certain recipe for death (cf. John 6:49). After all, the entire animal creation, which lacking the law cannot sin, survives on perishable food (Ps. 106:20; Isa. 40:6-8, cf. John 6:27) provided by God (Ps. 104:21, etc.) but dies nonetheless (v.29).
Both John and James underline the danger involved in loving this world or this age (2 Tim. 4:10). John reminds his readers that it is passing away along with its lusts and desires (1 John 2:15-17, cf. 1 Cor. 7:31). While James warns that uncontrolled and misdirected passions prompt the enmity of God, he adds significantly that friendship with the world does the same thing (4:1-4). It is like loving Egypt rather than the Promised Land. Little wonder that Jesus taught his disciples that as followers of him they did not belong to this world either as people (John 15:19) or as permanent inhabitants (contrast those that dwell on the earth in the book of Revelation 6:10, etc., cf. Ps. 17:14).
It is perhaps pertinent to add here that Jesus, like the eunuch and the barren woman of Isaiah 56:4f. and 54:1 respectively, failed to produce physical fruit. He makes clear the reason why in Matthew 19:12: his personal preoccupation was with the spiritual kingdom of God (John 4:34, cf. Mt. 6:33; 1 Cor. 7:1,8,26). For him the flesh, like the ‘good’ (that is, useful or serving a purpose, Ps.119:91; 1 Tim. 4:4) physical creation from which it derives (Gen.1) is ultimately unprofitable (John 6:63). While reproduction under the terms of the Noachian covenant plays a part in or serves the scheme of salvation, it has no ultimate value in itself (Luke 20:34-36). Once the kingdom of God is established (cf. Heb. 10:9), creation having played its part is dispensed with (Isa. 54:10; Hab. 3:17-19; Zeph. 1:2,3,18; 3:8; Heb. 1:10-12; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). (In light of this it would seem that traditional “Augustinian” interpretation of Romans, which suggests that the material creation will share in the freedom of the children of God, 8:21, is seriously astray and stands in direct contradiction of what Paul says in I Cor. 15:50, 2 Cor. 4:18 and Rom. 8:20,24f. See further my essays on The End of the World, The Destruction of Creation, etc.)
The New Creation
Contrary to much traditional and even modern thought, the new creation relates to man not to matter, to the spiritual not to the physical (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). The notion that God will redeem or restore the material creation reflects a woeful misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches. Just as the flesh fails to bear spiritual fruit, so does the earth from which it emanates. So when their purpose of playing their part in producing the harvest of the children of God (Rom. 8:19-25) is finally accomplished, they have no further use (cf. Gen. 8:21f.). (1* God’s children are spiritual or heavenly, not physical or earthly. Though originally created by him from the earth, they are now ‘sired’ by him from heaven, John 1:13, cf. Gal. 4:26, and hence are nurtured in his generic image, 1 Pet. 1:23-25; 2 Pet. 1:4; 1 John 3:9. The need to be born again from above is a paramount necessity arising primarily from nature, not sin, John 3:1-8.) Not only is this mortal coil sloughed off but so also is the temporal, corruptible earth that spawned it. If the limited revelation of the rather earth-centred OT prophets seems somewhat equivocal in places, the fact remains that the destruction of creation is pervasively taught in Scripture (Isa. 34:4; Nah. 1:6; Zeph. 1:2f.,18; 3:8; Rev. 6:13f., etc.). The contrast between the eternal God himself and the temporal creation appears in Genesis 1:1; 8:22; Psalm 90:2; 102:25-27; Isaiah 51:6; 54:10; Habakkuk 3:17-19; Matthew 24:35; Hebrews 1:10-12 to go no further. Paul tells us in Romans 8:18-25 that God subjected creation to corruption in hope from the start. (2* It should be noted that sin is no more mentioned in this passage than it is in John 3:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 15:45-50.) And Peter (2 Pet. 3:7,10-12) and the author of Hebrews (12:27-29) have no doubt whatever about the fiery demise of all created things (cf. 2 Cor. 4:18). After all, once it has ceased to bear fruit it has no further use or raison d’etre (Heb. 6:7f.).
(3* One can only assume in light of the evidence that 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1(cf. v.5) do not refer to a literal new creation, though it may be new to us. In view of the fact that these verses hark back to and echo Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22 where both the ‘new Jerusalem’, 65:18f., and the ‘remaining’, cf. 2 Cor. 3:11, appear, they must be regarded as OT intimations of heaven. Both of them occur in Hebrews, e.g. 1:11; 10:34; 12:25-27 and 12:22, where they clearly refer to the eternal world, or the world to come, Heb. 1:6; 2:5, which already exists, Heb. 6:5, and cannot be shaken. The idea held by many that God will create a new material world in place of the present one which has been simply spoiled by sin defies logic. Apart from the fact that God has entered his eternal rest, Gen. 2:1-3, if it has a beginning like the first it will not be eternal, cf. Heb. 7:3. In confirmation of this it must be added that Isaiah, despite his limited understanding, like the apostle John proposes that the former things will not be remembered and that we, as those who are born from above, John 3:3, will dwell in the heavenly Jerusalem which is our mother, Gal. 4:26. According to the NT, the material world of the temporal present age and the old covenant, Heb. 8:13, is replaced by the spiritual world of the eternal age to come and the new covenant, Heb. 13:20. See further my essay on the Interpretation of 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1.)
The Earth Again
This brings us back to the teaching of Genesis. As I noted above the flood threatened both the earth and its inhabitants with destruction for failure to bear acceptable fruit. However, faithful Noah and his family were rescued and the original purpose of creation was prolonged under a covenantal but chronologically impermanent guarantee (Gen 8:22). At a later date Sodom and Gomorrah, inhabitants and habitat alike, were destroyed. In the NT Jesus refers to this as a picture of the end of history (Luke 17:28-30). Then when apostasy and wickedness abound and the love of men grows cold (Mt. 24:9-14, cf. 2 Tim. 3:1-5, etc.), the fire of judgement will bring destruction to all who refuse to love the truth (2 Thes. 1:8; 2:1-12). It will also spell the end of the entire material creation. It is not only the fleshly old man who will have passed away but also the world itself (1 John 2:17, cf. Zeph. 1:2f.,18; 3:8; 1 Cor. 7:31; Heb. 9:11; Rev, 20:11; 21:1).
Fruitlessness and Salvation
Despite what has been said above, such are the riches of God’s grace to sinful men and women that there is at least one clear exception to the idea that fruitlessness leads to destruction. Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 that the work of some Christians will prove defective when it is tested by fire on the day of judgement. He says that while the sound work of some will be rewarded, the unsound work of others will be rejected and burnt. This, however, does not mean that the genuine believer will not be saved. The implication of this is that in accordance with the gospel we are saved by grace not by works. So far as believers, who are justified by faith apart from works, are concerned there is no condemnation (Rom. 8:1). For them works relate purely to reward. For unbelievers, however, the story is different. For them, though their dead works cannot lead to salvation, they can certainly lead to their condemnation and damnation (Rom. 2:6-11, etc.). If salvation is a free gift received by faith, damnation is earned. It is wages paid for works actually done (Rom. 4:4f.; 2:9).
In light of this teaching of Paul, we are perhaps given an inkling into what Jesus is getting at in the parable of the sower. There, only the first group belongs to the devil (Mt. 13:19). The superficial second group and the pre-occupied third group while remaining fruitless are not necessarily faithless and wicked (cf. 2 Thes. 3:2). If this is so, then they may be saved at the last judgement. Strictly speaking, only dedicated Christians, as true children of God who do not need to justify themselves, are capable of producing good works (Eph. 2:8-10; Tit. 2:14, cf. the Roman Catholic idea of works of supererogation.) But it does not follow from this that those who come short of specific faith in Christ are necessarily damned. The judgment scene portrayed in Matthew 25:31-46 (cf. Rev. 20:11-15) testifies against this. A deficiency of good works does not imply a superfluity of wicked works, though sins of omission reflecting callous indifference threaten catastrophe (cf. Luke 16:19-31). However, sheep are not goats. As Jesus teaches elsewhere good and evil appear in many forms. And in view of the sovereignty of God on the one hand and the limited historical spread of the gospel on the other this is hardly surprising. Fundamentally important though it is to embrace Christ as Saviour, it is a completely unwarranted inference that all who are not specifically Christian are facing a “Christless eternity”. If that were true, Hebrews 11 could never have been written. A proper understanding of covenant theology would dispel any such idea. Even Jesus himself under the law failed to produce good works let alone, like John, do any miracles. As a servant he was preoccupied with doing his duty (Luke 17:7-10). In the event, he was the only one to do it acceptably (Mt. 3:17) and so meet the condition of life which God in his grace had promised Adam.
Though there is doubtless more to be said on this subject, it is important here to warn professing Christians, who claim to base their “gospel” on the infallible word of God yet remain firmly entrenched in their received tradition which undermines and even contradicts it, that there is a price to pay if this is done knowingly. We need to bear constantly in mind the fact that Jesus was scathing in his criticism of those who like the Pharisees remained committed to their tradition. On the other hand, genuine ignorance is always a mitigating factor in Scripture, thank God, but it is dangerous indeed to maintain a position whose falsity has been revealed. Failure to listen to what Jesus (cf. John 13:13) and his appointed apostles teach (Eph. 2:20) threatens destruction (Dt. 18:18-20; Rev. 22:18f.). We have been warned, and it behoves us all to search the Scriptures in diligent humility and respond appropriately to what we find. Fruit borne by the false prophet (Mt. 7:15-20) as well as the false believer (Mt. 7:21-23) is fraught with disaster in OT (Dt. 13; Jer. 23; Ezek. 13) and NT alike (Gal. 1:6-9).
Finally, to argue as I have done above that the earth is destroyed once it ceases to bear fruit prompts the question of its original purpose in the first place. For example, at the end of a TV film on his life Stephen Hawking, the British scientist, commented that the biggest question of all facing science was why there was anything at all. The Bible has an answer or rather two related answers. First, creation exists to declare to man the glory of God (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:20). Second, it is designed to produce a harvest of souls (Rev. 14:14-20) or as Paul would say it was created in hope of something better (Rom. 8:20,24f.; 2 Cor. 5:4f.). Otherwise expressed, earth is the threshold of heaven (Gen. 28:12; John 1:51), of the kingdom of God (Rev. 11:15), of true life in the presence of the Creator himself (1 Tim. 6:19). Once its purpose is achieved, earth ceases to have any reason for being and can be dispensed with.