This article was edited on December 2 to add a section “Affirmed in Classic Methodism.”
“This is My Father’s World”: Creation Restored
At the first church where I pastored, one of our senior members loved to sing “This is My Father’s World” (recently recorded by the Gettys). The hymn celebrates the beauty and goodness of creation. Nature praises the Creator and reveals his providential care. The second verse alludes to the garden of Eden: “He shines in all that’s fair; In the rustling grass I hear Him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.” Creation was made by God, for God, and God delights to make himself known in creation as his temple. Although God’s “very good” world has been corrupted by sin and death, this is not the end of the story:
This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong
Seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
The battle is not done:
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
“This is My Father’s World” views salvation as the restoration, healing, and cleansing of creation. Heaven (God’s dwelling place) will come down and become one with the earth (our dwelling place); in the end, heaven and earth are the same place. Earth will be cleansed of “the wrong” so that it can become a holy temple for the Creator. The language of God as “ruler” is prominent: the gospel of the kingdom is about God’s heavenly reign being brought to bear on this earth in a saving way, liberating creation from all the forces of sin and death that corrupt it.
“He Keeps Me Singing”: Creation Escaped
Contrast this vision of creation and salvation with the one that we find in the hymn “He Keeps Me Singing”:
Soon He’s coming back to welcome me
far beyond the starry sky;
I shall wing my flight to worlds unknown,
I shall reign with Him on high.
In this hymn, salvation is not viewed as the cleansing of creation; it’s viewed as an escape from creation. It teaches Christians to set their hope on going up to heaven, rather than heaven coming down and becoming one with the earth. Instead of anticipating our reign with Christ in “my Father’s world,” it anticipates our reign with Christ in “worlds unknown”; worlds “on high”; worlds “far beyond the starry sky”; worlds to which we will one day “wing our flight.”
The hymns “This is My Father’s World” and “He Keeps Me Singing” present two radically different views of creation and salvation.
One does not need to look far, especially in Southern Gospel music, to find similar ideas. The hymn “This World is Not My Home” does not merely state that the world in its present corrupt condition is not our home; it sets forth the hope of joining “a loving Savior up in glory-land,” “somewhere beyond the blue.” “I can’t feel at home in this world anymore,” says the songwriter, because “just up in glory-land we’ll live eternally”—up on “heaven’s shore,” a location which is eternally separate from “this world,” this physical earth.
Scripture plainly teaches that, in this present age, those who are absent from the body are present with the Lord in heaven (2 Cor. 5:8). But these hymns are not merely talking about a temporary or intermediate state in which disembodied souls join God in heaven until the resurrection of the dead and restoration of creation. They lead Christians to think about our final destination as somewhere other than earth: a place called heaven that is “up” there and will be “up” there forever. In popular culture, this is an ethereal city on the clouds with streets of gold and pearly gates guarded by Peter.
The hymns “This is My Father’s World” and “He Keeps Me Singing” present two radically different views of creation and salvation. They can’t both be right. Which one is correct?
Gnostic vs. Christian Ideas of Creation and Salvation
Before we turn to Scripture, it helps to know that this is not a new question. One of the earliest Christian controversies was over false teachers called Gnostics (from gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge”) who claimed to have special knowledge about God and the world. They took the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato to an extreme, drawing a sharp contrast between the spiritual world above and the physical world below. Gnostics viewed spirit as good and physical matter as evil. The Gnostic Marcion concluded that the loving father of Jesus could not be the same God as “the God of the Old Testament” who created this material world.
The first article of the Apostles’ Creed, an early summary of the Christian faith, is a rejection of Gnosticism: “God the Father Almighty,” the loving Father of Jesus, is confessed to be the same God who is the “maker of heaven and earth.” This is the Father’s world; he made it “very good” in the beginning (Gen. 1:31). The Nicene Creed, a later summary of the faith, deals another blow to Gnosticism when it adds that God is the maker of “all things visible and invisible”—not just the invisible, spiritual world above.
For centuries, Christians went on to confess in the second article of the Creed that God became a part of his creation in the person of Jesus. God is not opposed to matter; God became matter. In the incarnation, the invisible Word was united with visible, physical flesh. A flesh-and-blood body was formed in the womb of the virgin Mary as a temple for the Word. He was unchanged and uncorrupted by assuming human nature. Christ died in the flesh and “rose again on the third day,” a physical resurrection which set Christ’s body free from death and decay.
In his great work On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius explains that we must understand the Word’s embodiment in light of the first creation. It was improper for God to allow his creation to be destroyed or obliterated through corruption (6), so God sent his Son to heal creation from within, liberating it from the forces of sin and death. The Father created the world through the Son, and he is recreating it through the Son: “Its recreation was accomplished by the Word who created it in the beginning” (1). Salvation is about new creation, not escape.
God sent his Son to heal creation from within, liberating it from the forces of sin and death.
Perhaps the most important anti-gnostic line in the early Christian confessions is that we believe “the resurrection of the body.” Because Jesus “rose again on the third day,” our physical bodies will also be raised, and, by implication, the whole physical world will be resurrected and made new. Whereas gnostics thought that the goal of a spiritual person was to escape the physical flesh/body so that he could live with God in the purely spiritual realm above, Christians held a radically different view of salvation.
Resurrected Christ Means Resurrected Bodies
The Christian hope of the recreation of this physical world centers on the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. God began creating on the first day, then rested on the seventh; Christ rested in the tomb on the seventh, then rose on the first to begin creating again—to restore a creation which was corrupted by sin and death, forces conquered on the cross. Christ’s resurrection secures our resurrection and the resurrection of the entire physical world.
First, if the physical body of Jesus has been raised from the dead, then our physical bodies will be raised. Paul teaches this in 1 Corinthians 15:20–26:
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
The resurrection of Jesus is not an isolated event in human history. It’s the firstfruits, the beginning of something much larger that God is doing in the world. It’s like picking the first apple of the harvest: If you find it ripe and sweet, you know that a wonderful harvest follows. Your posture is forward-looking. Christ’s resurrection is the first domino in a long line of dominoes. While the sin of the first Adam set off a chain of death, the resurrection of the Second Adam sent the dominoes heading back in the other direction. His death set human nature free from death, and his resurrection banished death from mankind “as straw from the fire” (On the Incarnation 8). God is not just concerned with the salvation of “never-dying souls,” but with the salvation of our whole human nature, body and soul.
Resurrected Bodies Means Resurrected World
Second, if our physical bodies will be raised, then the whole physical creation will be made new. God did not send his Son to restore the physical flesh of billions of people so that he can take them out of the physical creation to a nebulous world above. His plan is to restore everything in the physical world. Resurrected bodies mean a resurrected world. Paul plainly teaches this in Romans 8:18–25:
19 The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.
Paul personifies creation, subject to death and decay, looking for us. Why? Because creation knows that it will share in our freedom from corruption on the last day. Paul says that in this hope—the hope of redeemed physical bodies, which guarantee the redemption of the whole physical creation—we are saved! The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of new creation. All that was lost in Adam is regained in Christ. In fact, Christ takes us further. He does what the first Adam failed to do, subduing all creation. As Jesus taught, “the meek will inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5)—an earth fully subdued, something that Adam never saw.
This biblical teaching is often overshadowed by a misinterpretation of 2 Peter 3:7: “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire.” A minister once told me that God will destroy this earth by fire and make a totally different earth. Even if this replacement theory was correct, heaven-on-earth would still be our final destination. But besides contradicting Romans 8 and other texts, it overlooks that Peter is comparing the future “destruction” of the earth by fire with the prior “destruction” of the earth by water in Noah’s day. Noah and his family stepped off the ark onto an earth cleansed of evil and violence; this was a type of when God’s people, brought safely through the waters of baptism in the ark of the church, will step onto the new earth, cleansed of sin and death at Christ’s second coming, never again to be corrupted.
Even those who interpret 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 as teaching a rapture of the church out of this world—a belief which was virtually nonexistent in the church for eighteen centuries—believe that the rapture offers a temporary escape. In their view, the church will return to reign with Christ on this physical earth after a literal, seven-year tribulation period. Unfortunately, rapture theology has contributed to an escapist mentality among evangelical Christians.
The final picture of Scripture is a creation cleansed of corruption.
The final picture of Scripture is a creation cleansed of corruption. The one on the throne announces, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). The newness of the “new heaven” and the “new earth” does not lie in the fact that they are “worlds unknown,” but in that they are “my Father’s world” made new, transformed like the “new body” of Christ in the resurrection. There is continuity between the old and the new, just as Christ’s “new body” had scars from its former existence. The New Jerusalem comes down (Rev. 21:2), and God’s heavenly dwelling comes to be with us (Rev. 21:3), not the other way around. There is no temple because the whole creation is the temple of God and the Lamb (Rev. 21:22); his glory covers the earth as the waters cover the sea. The marriage of the Lamb and his bride secures the marriage of heaven and earth: two become one.
Affirmed in Classic Methodism
This understanding of salvation as the renewal of the earth and its union with heaven is affirmed not only in the patristic witness, but also in classic Methodism. William Burt Pope, arguably the greatest Methodist theologian of all time, goes as far as to say that the earth will be regenerated, justified, and sanctified—applying the terms of individual human salvation to creation:
Generally, there will be a regeneration of all things, as if there were a certain analogy with the salvation of the individual man: the earth, being justified or released from its condemnation, renewed and regenerate, and sanctified to God and man for ever. The original sentence will be repealed, and there shall be “no more curse” (Rev. 22:3) The earth will be in the fullest sense sanctified; and then it will be said pre-eminently: “every creature of God is good” (1 Tim. 4:4). (Compendium, Vol. 3, 447)
Pope cites 1 Timothy 4:4 to make clear that the regeneration or resurrection of the earth reflects the goodness of creation. He goes on to emphasize that we will live on this earth, transformed and renewed, not “up” in heaven, forever:
In the Apocalypse heaven and earth are made one: “I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down, from God out of heaven” (Rev. 21:1). Hence what the present heaven and earth are to our probationary estate the future will be to our eternal and fixed state: not heaven to be ascended to from earth; but the Lord will make BOTH ONE (Rev. 21:2). The highest heaven, like eternity, will be for ever unknown to man. God alone inhabiteth both. Our heaven will be our earth, and our earth heaven: the tabernacle of God is with men (Rev. 21:3), the Incarnate Son dwelling in redeemed mankind as a temple, and redeemed mankind dwelling in Him; but both in a transfigured earth. (447–448)
Note his words carefully: “Not heaven ascended to from earth; but the Lord will make both one.” We must wisely interpret passages that, when plucked out of context, seem to suggest the literal and complete destruction of the earth, and harmonize them with the rest of Scripture:
When the Apocalypse says that “there was no more sea” (Rev. 21:1), and that for the present phenomenal heaven and earth “there was found no place” (Rev. 20:11), it teaches us to interpret the whole as meaning no more than that the scene and sphere of human development will undergo a corresponding change. As man’s body will be fashioned after our Lord’s glorious body, so the earth will be fashioned after the similitude of heaven. (448)
It’s time for Christians to recover the good news of recreation and cleanse our minds of the Gnostic (or at least semi-Gnostic) view of salvation as escape. We should rewrite or stop singing hymns like “He Keeps Me Singing,” and carefully assess our songs to make sure that they are biblical. A. W. Tozer was right: “Christians don’t tell lies, they just go to church and sing them.” The Christian hope is too glorious to obscure by bad teaching. “This is my Father’s world,” and “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” His kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. Heaven and earth will become one. In this hope we are saved.