Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. Pp. 336. $26.99, paper.
In this book, J. Richard Middleton presents a fresh reading to the biblical teaching of new heaven and new earth with a purpose of laying out a coherent biblical theology of the eschatological vision of the redemption of creation. He explores some ethical implications of a biblically grounded holistic eschatology. He also surveys different trends of understanding the redemption of the earth in the history of Christian eschatology.
Part 1, “From Creation to Eschaton,” focuses on God’s original intent for humans to image him by developing the culture. He critiques the notion that man was created to worship God. For Middleton, man worships God by interacting with the earth to transform the environment into a complex sociocultural world. However, in different places the Scriptures teach that man was created to glorify God (cf. Ps 86:9; Isa 60:21; Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 6:20; Rev 4:11). Surely, worship is a form of glorifying God.
Middleton also believes that heaven was never part of God’s purposes for humanity. Rather, eschatological redemption takes place in the renewal of human cultural life on earth. Yet, the Bible clearly speaks of new Jerusalem that will come down out of heaven (Rev 21:2, 10). This heavenly Jerusalem ushers in the “new heavens and new earth;” a totally new order of things (2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1). This is not the result of human effort, nor is it simply a development of earthly culture and environment. This is the supernatural work of God in Christ who is making all things new (cf. Rev 21:5; cf. 2 Cor 5:1, 17; Heb 12:27).
Part 2, “Holistic Salvation in the Old Testament,” uncovers the Old Testament’s portrayal of God’s ongoing commitment to the flourishing of earthly life through the exodus event, Israel’s laws, wisdom traditions, prophetic oracles, and theophany’s texts.
Part 3, “The New Testament’s Vision of Cosmic Renewal,” explores the inner logic of the hope of resurrection and its connection to the restoration of human rule of the earth.
Part 4, “Problem Texts for Holistic Eschatology,” is where Middleton attempts to correct the misunderstanding of some New Testament texts that are misread as if they teach the destruction or annihilation of the cosmos at Christ’s return (e.g., Matt 24; Rev 6; 20–21; Heb 12).
While Middleton does not teach universal salvation, he denies the fact of eternal judgment, and believes in annihilation. He suggests that the final judgment is akin to cosmic disinheritance of the earth; a permanent exile from God’s creation. However, the Bible confirms eternal punishment to those sinful and guilty persons who rejected the work of Christ (cf. Isa 34:10; Matt 18:8; 25:41, 46; Jude 7; Rev 14:10–11; 19:3; 20:10).
Middleton also covers the New Testament texts that seem to promise an otherworldly destiny in heaven including the “rapture” texts and those that speak of the intermediate state between death and resurrection (e.g., Matt 24:40–41; 25:34; 2 Cor 5:1–5; 1 Thess 4:13–18; 1 Pet 1:3–5; Rev 6:9–10; 21:1–2; ). His main point is that these texts present an apocalyptic pattern of preparation in heaven followed by unveiling on earth. Middleton dismisses any view of heaven as a place to which the righteous go when they die.
The interim state, for Middleton, is simply “soul sleep” where one moves subjectively from death to resurrection, with no consciousness of the intermediate state. This applies, according to Middleton, to Jesus’s promise to the believing criminal on the cross (Luke 23:39–43). The theory of souls sleep does not really find biblical warrant and is nowhere taught in the Scriptures.
Part 5, “The Ethics of the Kingdom,” focuses on the holistic, this-worldly character of Jesus’s announcement of good news in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16–30), and addresses the ethical challenge of the kingdom that Jesus brings.
Comprehensive in its scope, this book is offers a holistic biblical worldview regarding the redemption of creation, including both physical cosmos and human culture and society. Middleton’s ethical implications of such a vision are noteworthy. Ultimately, what we desire and anticipate as the culmination of salvation is what truly affects how we attempt to live in the present. “Ethics is lived eschatology” (24). Middleton’s attempt to ground eschatology in the entire biblical story is another commendable aspect of this book.
What might cause some controversy is Middleton’s view on heaven as not being the hope for the Christians and their home afterlife. His alternative suggestion of soul sleep may not be well welcomed by many. While some would rightly agree with Middleton on his emphasis on the renewal of the world as the biblical vision for eschatology, this renewal is not a man-made effort that involves the flourishing of earthly culture and environment. Hugely influenced by N. T. Wright, Middleton’s consistent pursuit of eschatological notion that requires a this-worldly final state is highly questionable. In sum, this book is a welcome reminder of the biblical story of holistic salvation and God’s commitment to an integral and comprehensive restoration of the creation.
Rev. Dr. Sherif L. Gendy