In our previous article we examined the dramatic effects of Adam’s sin on creation. Not only did his sin influence him personally, but the entire creation as it was subjected to futility (Rom. 8:20) and cursed against its will (Gen. 3:17-19). Now, just as the earth shared in man’s sin, it looks forward to sharing in his redemption (Rom. 8:19-22) which will be experienced when heaven and earth are reunited in the new heavens and the new earth (2 Pet. 3:13).
What we didn’t discuss was how humanity’s subjection to death, and creation’s subsequent punishment, was due to man’s loss of fellowship with God himself. Cut off from the source of life, choosing his own reign rather than the sovereign rule of God, man was allowed to endure the consequences of his sin. As we mentioned in our last installment, the results were catastrophic, as sin infected every corner of creation until God brought judgment on the world by the great flood.
We might think of man’s spiritual fellowship with God, his physical existence, and creation as three, intertwined rings. When mankind was cut off from full fellowship with God, thus preventing access to the tree of life itself, the result was physical death and the subjection of creation.
With this in mind, let us consider what this loss of fellowship meant and how the hope of restored fellowship frames our understanding of final events.
Cast Out of the Garden
Prior to the fall, man enjoyed unhindered fellowship with God. When God comes into the garden, it’s as if he is coming for his daily walk with his children (Gen. 3:8). The fellowship was intimate, unbroken by sin, and fully aligned with God’s purpose for his new creation. This was due to man being created in God’s image. There was, within such, the inherent and privileged joy of relating to his creator in a way which the rest of creation could not.
This makes the language of Genesis 3:22-24 particularly heartbreaking:
“Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”
The Lord drove humanity out of the garden, the place of intimate fellowship, and guarded access to the tree of life. This wasn’t an invitation, but the inevitable result of sin: God’s presence can no longer dwell with man—at least, not in this personal way. The heavenly realm and the earthly realm were torn in two. God still reigns sovereignly over the cosmos, yet man flees from his presence in sin and shame. God dwells in the heavenly realm, while man dwells in the earthly realm. This tear in the fabric of the human/divine relationship is key to understanding the rest of scripture’s story.
This tension creates the drama of redemption that we will witness throughout the rest of the Biblical narrative. In particular, this sets up the context for the sacrificial practices of Israelite worship. Entrance into the presence of God demands blood—not because he is vindictive—but because he graciously offers us a way to reconcile our sinful souls and his holy nature. As a side note, once again within Israelites sacrificial system, we witness the consequence of man’s sin on creation: the animal must suffer and die due to the worshipper’s sin.
The gracious invitation into the presence of God implies an incredible truth: The Lord desires to have this close fellowship once again. God, in his grace, clothes Adam and Eve before sending them out of the garden’s provision (Gen. 3:21) and offers them hope for their eventual redemption (Gen. 3:15). The Seed of Woman would eventually crush the head of the serpent and bring man back into the fullness of God’s presence once again.
It is this desire, for God to dwell with man again, that we witness throughout the rest of scripture.
The Promise of Return
Generally speaking, when we discuss eschatology and the final dwelling place of the Christian, we speak in terms of humanity “going away to be with God.” Some of our favorite hymns speak of “flying away” to be with God. While, after death, our spirits can be spoken of in these terms (Psa. 90:10; Ecc. 12:7) we recognize that our final hope is resurrection in which our spirits return to our bodies and are subsequently transformed (Phi. 3:21). While we will discuss the nature of the resurrection in a future article, at this moment we want to challenge the notion of humanity’s final departure.
The reason for this critique is due to the consistent witness of the Biblical hope of restored fellowship with God being—not that man will dwell with God—but that God will once again dwell with man. Notice:
“I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God”—Exodus 29:44-46
“I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.”—Ezekiel 37:26-28
“What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’”—2 Corinthians 6:16
“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”—Rev. 21:2-3
The last passage in particular helps us to see how the final events are not so much a picture of the spirits of Christians departing to dwell with God in the heavenly realm, but God descending to dwell—once again—with his people, as it was in the beginning. This would seem why the return of Jesus is framed in terms of him descending (1 Thess. 4:16). If our inevitable hope is to ascend to be with Jesus eternally, it makes little sense as to why he would descend. The return of Jesus then isn’t to take us away, but to reinstate the fellowship and reconciliation of the earthly and heavenly realms in a newly renovated cosmos (2 Pet. 3:13). This is how Paul describes it in Colossians 1 when he speaks of the reconciliation of “all things.” In the context, “all things” refers to all of created order, in heaven and on earth:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”—Colossians 1:15-20
The reconciliation of all things (what Peter refers to as the “Restoration of all things,” Acts 3:21) is the final consummation of God’s story in which he restores us and creation (all things), once again, into fellowship with him.
Signs of Future Fellowship
Throughout the Biblical story we witness signs of “crossover” between the earthly and heavenly realms. That is, there are moments in which the heavenly realm and earthly realm intersect so that God’s divine presence can be accessed in a special, intimate way. We see this especially in the tabernacle, temple, and ultimately within the incarnation. Notice how each of these events are described:
“And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.”—Exodus 25:8-9
“Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes and obey my rules and keep all my commandments and walk in them, then I will establish my word with you, which I spoke to David your father. And I will dwell among the children of Israel and will not forsake my people Israel.” So Solomon built the house and finished it.—1 Kings 6:12-14
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”—John 1:14
Within the tabernacle and the temple, the presence of God dwelt among the people above the mercy seat. It was here, and here alone, that God dwelt with his people in a special and intimate way. It was like experiencing the fellowship of the garden of Eden once again—except its entrance was covered in blood. These partial measures were allowances which God permitted, with the understanding that such could not contain the fullness of his glory (1 Kings 8:27). The prophets looked forward to a time in which God’s glory and knowledge would fill the entire globe (Hab. 2:14).
Within Jesus we witness the fullness of God’s dwelling among his people. He is Immanuel, “God with us,” who didn’t simply appear as a man but became one (John 1:14; 1 Tim. 2:5). The incarnation must frame our understanding of how we view God’s ultimate purpose for fellowship with humanity. He didn’t make a plan for us to come “up” but took it upon himself to come “down.” The witness of God’s consistent desire to come down and dwell with his people was experienced to its fullest measure when the Word became flesh.
Not only that, but within the resurrection, we witness the redemption—not the annihilation—of materiality. This shows the pattern for God’s desired future with his people: that he will dwell in his fullness, for all of eternity in a redeemed world by means of the reconciling power of his son. If God wanted to prove the reality of the human spirit post-mortem which would eventually reside in heaven, he could have done so by allowing Jesus to appear to the apostles as a spirit. The fact that he didn’t—the fact that the tomb was empty—conveys that God isn’t finished with this world. The Lord will not leave his good world, the universe that he made to dwell with his people in fullness of fellowship, love, and joy, to be conquered and corrupted by sin.
Hopefully we are beginning to see that God’s ultimate purpose for creation isn’t to abandon it but to redeem it as a haven of righteousness for his people. Again, this is a fitting end for the story of redemption: we begin with a garden, and we end with one as well (Rev. 22:2)—paradise regained through the blood of the Lamb.
As we conclude, let me leave you with a quote from our brothers James Harding and David Lipscomb:
“The earth is God’s nursery, his training grounds, made primarily for the occupancy of his children, for their education, development and training until they shall have reached their majority, until the end of the Messianic age has come; then it is to be purified a second time by a great washing, a mighty flood, but this time in a sea of fire. Then God will take up his abode himself with his great family upon this new, this renovated and purified earth.” What Are We Here For? James Harding, The Way 5 [3 December 1903], 1041.
“God is holy. As a pure and holy being, he cannot tolerate guilt and sin. The two cannot permanently dwell together in the universe. When sin came into the world, God left this world as a dwelling place. He cannot dwell in a defiled and sin-polluted temple. He has since dwelt on this earth only in sanctified altars and temples separated from the world and consecrated to his service. He will again make this earth his dwelling place, but it will be only when sin has been purged out and it has been consecrated anew as the new heaven and new earth in which dwelleth righteousness [Quotes Rev. 21:3-4.]” –David Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin (pp. 35-36).
The graphic of the rings was designed from a segment in the Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Downers Grove: InverVarsity Press, 1994.