Belief in the redemption of the material creation is widespread and deeply held by many Christians professing faith in the authority and inspiration of the Bible. The evidence, however, points to the fact that their real authority is not the Bible but Augustine. Under his influence they believe that when Adam, the designated lord of creation, sinned the whole originally perfect world was subjected to the curse of corruption and futility. Thus the apostle Paul is said (though I have still to see the assertion substantiated) to endorse the teaching of Genesis 3:17-19 in Romans 8:18-25. In light of this, the idea that creation requires redemption is not only regarded as acceptable but also intrinsically necessary. And when Isaiah in the OT (Isa. 65:17; 66:22) refers to new heavens and a new earth in the future, references such as 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 are deemed to support the idea. (On these verses see my essay Will Creation Be Redeemed?).
The problem is that other teaching in the Bible appears to militate against it. For a start, the very first verse of the Bible implies the temporality of creation and the eternality of God who brought it into being. Hebrews 1:10-12, which quote the OT, underline this implication. Furthermore Paul teaches that what is inherently perishable, that is, the material creation including man, cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven (1 Cor. 15:50) and that what is (physically) visible is by nature temporary (2 Cor. 4:18). In view of this, the author of Hebrews unsurprisingly informs us that all created things will at the fulfillment of the plan of salvation be removed (12:27, cf. 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12; Rev. 20:11; 21:1).
It is a reasonable inference from the limited evidence presented above that there have been serious misunderstandings regarding Christian eschatology in the course of church history. Since I have dealt with some of them in other essays (see e.g. The End of the World, The Corruptibility of Creation, Will Creation Be Redeemed?, From Here To Eternity, Restoration and Resurrection, etc.), and have subjected to criticism the notion that the resurrection of Christ implies a new heaven and a new earth in which the physical universe is restored to its pristine state of responsiveness to the Spirit of God (Harris, GG, pp.251f.) in the writings of M.J. Harris in particular (see his Raised Immortal and From Grave to Glory in my Thoughts on the Redemption of Creation), I find it necessary to take a further look at the arguments of N.L.Geisler as expounded in his book The Battle for the Resurrection (Nashville, 1992). The reason for this is that Geisler strongly criticizes Harris’ views on the resurrection of Christ yet strangely arrives at some of what I believe to be his erroneous conclusions, not least that there is a direct link between Jesus’ resurrection and the renewal of the material creation.
The Physical Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead
First, Geisler’s main gripe is that Harris in essence denies the resurrection of Jesus when he (Harris) argues that Jesus’ physical body of flesh underwent transformation into a spiritual body. In other words, the body that was raised was not numerically the same as the one that was buried. Geisler produces extensive and powerful evidence (see espec. pp.42ff., 129ff.) to show that the NT writers intended their readers to infer a genuine physical resurrection. In my view this evidence is incontrovertible and can only be denied on pain of charging the apostles with deceit.
Regrettably, since he holds some highly questionable views on related matters, Geisler fails to build convincingly on his foundation. For a start (pp.32f., cf. p.167), he simply assumes the Augustinian worldview and the redemption of creation ignoring completely teaching like Isaiah 51:6, 54:10, Zephaniah 1:18 and Hebrews 1:10-12. Against this background he equates body (soma) and flesh (sarx), denies the distinction recognized by Harris between Philippians 3:21 and Colossians 1:22 (p.184) and attempts to differentiate between mortal and immortal flesh oblivious of the fact that the Bible regards all flesh as inherently mortal and corruptible since it stems from a naturally corruptible earth whether sin is involved or not (pp. 40,44, 109, 184f.). Thus without any sense of contradiction he can refer to glorified flesh as opposed to a glorified body. (The contrast between his view and that of Dunn, for example, Romans, p.391, is striking.) The Bible knows of no such animal! Both Paul and Jesus make the situation crystal clear when they deny the possibility that naturally temporal flesh can enter the eternal heaven (1 Cor. 15:50f.; John 3:1-8).
Both Geisler and Harris seek to use the resurrection of Jesus as a paradigm. There are insuperable difficulties in this, however. For a start the NT distinguishes between the resurrection of Jesus who did not undergo corruption and that of David who did (Acts 2 and 13). In other words, it is obvious that the resurrection of Jesus who rose bodily from the grave cannot serve as a model of the resurrection of David who lost his fleshly body to corruption. If David is to be raised it must necessarily be in a spiritual body which is discontinuous with his corrupted flesh.
But whereas Harris wants to argue that Jesus was transformed when he rose from the grave, Geisler wants to deny change altogether despite what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:51f. Indeed, as I have already intimated he wants to have the flesh glorified without fundamental change. For him the flesh as such is not the problem but sin is. Once sin is taken care of, then restoration can take place and man will be as he was when Adam was created! Apart from the non-teleological nature of this scenario (cf. 2 Cor. 5:5), Geisler opines that the resurrection of Jesus in the flesh guarantees the restoration of creation from which it derived in the first place. The new heavens and the new earth will be just as physical as the first despite the fact that the physical by its very nature is created (by hand, cheiropoietos, Job 10:8; Ps. 119:73) and therefore temporal (Gen. 1:1). Indeed, he argues that unless we accept Jesus’ permanence in the flesh then God’s plan for both man and creation has failed (pp.32,170,192). It would appear that for Geisler heaven is just the present earth revised and those who argue otherwise can be branded as Platonists. (Cf. Randy Alcorn who in his “Heaven” denominates all who deny perpetual materiality and physicality as “Christoplatonists”.)
Geisler’s basic problem like that of all Augustinians is that he does not understand the plan of salvation which relates to both sin AND corruption. In contrast with the immortal incorruptible God (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16), Adam was created both mortal and corruptible (Rom. 1:23) and needed to escape (cf. Rom. 2:7,10). Thus, as one who was made in the image of God he was promised freedom from death if he kept the commandment (Gen. 2:17). He failed and so relapsed into the earth from which he was taken. Since all human beings under the influence of the devil and of Adam himself (cf. Rom. 5:12-21) succumb to the flesh (Rom. 7:14, cf. Gen. 3:6), they need a Saviour who conquered the world (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9), the flesh (Rom. 8:3), the devil and even death itself (Heb. 2:14). It was he who uniquely brought life and incorruptibility (Gk.) to light (2 Tim. 1:10) and made eternal life possible for those who put their trust in him. If this is true then, as Paul obviously realized (1 Cor. 15:51f.), transformation is every bit as necessary for fleshly human beings as, according to Jesus, regeneration is and for the same basic reason (John 3:1-8). But whereas Harris wants to spiritualise Jesus before he has completed his full Adamic life, Geisler wants him to remain permanently in the flesh in heaven even though it is mortal and corruptible by nature (p.173).
In plain words, while Harris wants a spiritual heaven of sorts, Geisler wants a material one. For both of them their understanding of the resurrected body of Christ is crucial. Yet the truth is that the Bible fails to link it with the world to come. While on the one hand Harris does not recognize that Jesus rose because as one who did not sin his fleshly body was not forfeit (Acts 2:23f.), on the other Geisler ignores the plain fact that corruptible flesh whether sinful or not cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Even the sinless Jesus could not regain his pre-incarnate glory (cf. John 17:5,24) without change precisely because in his incarnate state he was mortal, corruptible flesh. In other words, since he did not see corruption after death and was therefore still flesh, he had, as Paul implies, to be transformed at his ascension (1 Cor. 15:51f.). This implication is supported and endorsed by Jesus himself when he urges Mary not to cling to him because he had not yet ascended to his Father (John 20:17) who according to Scripture dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16) and is a consuming fire. As such he engulfs not simply sinners (Isa. 33:14; James 5:3) but the earth too as at Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Luke 17:28-30; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). All impermanent material things, which have been created by hand (cheiropoietos), will be removed and make way for what is not made by hand (Heb. 9:11,24) and cannot be shaken (Heb. 10:9; 12:27). Our hope lies in the invisible spiritual things (that is in the being of God himself) which remain forever (Rom. 8:24f.; 2 Cor. 4:18).
Other points could be made but the plain fact is that for all their differences both Harris and Geisler are seriously astray in their understanding of Scripture and especially the plan of salvation.
It is quite incredible that Geisler can believe that we who are born of the flesh and are the seed of the flesh (John 1:13) which is by nature impermanent (1 Pet. 1:23) can enter the kingdom of heaven when Jesus tells us that it is necessary for all flesh (i.e. all men and women) to undergo a spiritual birth in order to do so (John 3:1-8).
Since Geisler believes in glorified flesh (pp.173,185, cf. 122) and Harris in transformed flesh and hence in the resurrection of the flesh (GG, pp.413-415), they are both clearly mistaken. In heaven we shall have a body of glory (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1), which is by definition non-fleshly, after the pattern of Jesus (Phil. 3:21) who was clearly changed and glorified at his ascension (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51f.). How otherwise could he again share the glory of the God who is Spirit (John 4:24) that he had before he became incarnate (John 17:5,24) and sit forever on the throne of David (Luke 1:32f.)? By the grace of God believers escape the bondage to corruption that characterises this world and share the heavenly glory of God themselves (Rom. 5:2, etc.) as his spiritual children (1 John 3:2) or seed (1 Pet. 1:23; 1 John 3:9) in his generic likeness (2 Pet. 1:4).
In the world/age to come the sufferings of this present time, which are associated with its natural corruption as well as sin, will be gone forever (Rev. 21:1-5, cf. Isa. 65:17). Tragically, what so many Christians fail to recognize is that just as there is continuity of body (Rom. 8:23) but not of flesh (2 Cor. 5:1; Gal. 6:8), temple but not of shadow (that is, earthly or handmade, cf. Mark 14:58; Heb. 8:2; 9:11,24), so there is continuity of world (Heb. 2:5) or age (Luke 20:34-36) but not handmade or material (Isa.. 45:12; Heb, 1:10-12, etc.). The picture presented by the Bible, especially by the contrast between the old and new covenants, is one of movement from the material to the spiritual (1 Cor. 15:46; Heb. 10:9) or from the temporal earth, God’s footstool, to the eternal heaven, God’s throne. Salvation means escape from what is made by hand (cheiropoietos) to what is not made by hand (acheiropoietos). (See further my Manufactured or Not So). And this can only be achieved in Christ (cf. Col. 2:11).
Randy Alcorn, Heaven, Wheaton, 2004.
J.D.G.Dunn, Romans 1-8, Dallas, 1988.
N.L.Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection, Nashville, 1992.
M.J.Harris, From Grave to Glory, Grand Rapids, 1990.
M.J.Harris, Raised Immortal, Basingstoke, 1983.