Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room, and Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing, and Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love, and wonders, wonders, of His love.
I grew up in a strongly Seventh Day Adventist neighborhood in Southern California. I went past one of their Hospitals, their Regional Denominational Offices and their National Radio and Television Ministry Studio every day on my way to school. Their “Academy” – a church-related school – was as big as the elementary school that I attended. And some of the friends I played with everyday in the park across the street from where I lived were Adventists. We were in and out of each other’s houses all the time. And one of the things that I often saw when I was in their houses were paintings of what they thought that life after death was going to be like, and the images I saw cast a vision that was remarkably physical and this-worldly – like a nice day in a beautiful park. They always left me confused. When I died I expected to shed my body, leave this world, go to heaven and continue to exist there forever as a spirit – like an angel. This wasn’t something that I was necessarily “taught” but rather it was something I “caught.” “When you die you go to heaven,” that’s what everyone said, and then there was “The Littlest Angel” – that classic Christmas story that we saw every December in elementary school (it was the 1950’s and 60’s) and that made a very deep impression on me.
“The Littlest Angel” is the story of a little boy who died and went to heaven as the littlest angel and who then struggled to fit in until he was allowed to return to earth to retrieve his box of earthly treasures from under his bed which in turn were transfigured into the Star of Bethlehem to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a memorable and moving story, and it only confirmed my general impression that the goal of life was to find release from my physical existence in this material world to live forever with God in a spiritual heaven. It would take years for me to discover that my Adventist friends were much closer to the truth of the things that have been revealed to us than the impressions that culture had casually made on me over the years. Now, more fully informed of what the Bible actually teaches, I believe that my final destiny is not the immortality of my soul in the eternity of heaven – a spiritual state, but the resurrection (not the resuscitation) of my body on a renewed earth.
Christopher J.H. Wright, the British Old Testament scholar who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Biblical theologians, in his 2008 book The God I Don’t Understand (Zondervan), explains that what he believes in is “life after life after death” (181).
What is our final destination according to the Bible? Most Christians tend to answer, “Why, heaven of course.” There is a question that is often used in evangelistic encounters which goes something like this: “If you were to die tonight, are you sure you will go to heaven?” I confess I have not been asked this question for a long time, but if I were, my answer now would be, “Yes – But I don’t expect to stay there!” I suppose this might be rather shocking to any earnest evangelist. Where else do I think I might be going later, or where would I want to go instead? Of course I believe, as the apostle Paul did, that when I die I will go to be with Christ in heaven (Philippians 1:21-23). For Paul, the thought of being with Christ made it a hard choice as to whether he wanted to die or go on living for the sake of the work he had to do. But here’s the point: The heaven I will go to when I die is not my final destination… it is only the transit lounge for the new creation. Heaven for those who have died in Christ is a place or state of rest, of waiting… “Heaven when you die” is not where we will be forever. It is where we will be safe until God brings about the transformation of the earth as part of the new creation that is promised in both the Old and New Testament. (193-194)
“The transformation of the earth as part of the new creation that is promised in both the Old and New Testament” — This is what the Christmas Carol “Joy to the World” is talking about when it tells “earth (to) receive her King,” “and heaven and nature sing,” “while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy,” that “sins and sorrows no longer grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” The salvation that Christ affects is directly proportionate to those things that need saving, and in Genesis chapter 3, the Fall affects not just us as individual human beings, but all of creation, and so what will eventually be redeemed by God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is not just us as individual human beings, but all of creation. “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.” This is what that Bible is talking about when it describes the wolf and the lamb grazing together (Isaiah 65:25), the leopard lying down with the kid and the child playing over the viper’s den (Isaiah 11:6-9). God’s saving work in Jesus Christ restores the original shalom of creation – the harmony of everything and everyone fitted together once again in a web of mutual interdependence and well-being. This is the picture that lies behind the Bible’s talk of the new earth (Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 66:21-24; Romans 8:18-25; 2 Peter 3:8-13; Revelation 21:1-22:5).
As the Reformed theologian Anthony Hoekema explained it in his book on The Bible and the Future (Eerdmans 1979) –
…To leave the (doctrine of the) new earth out of consideration when we think of the final state of believers is greatly to impoverish biblical teaching about the life to come… (and it is to fail to) grasp the full dimensions of God’s redemptive program. In the beginning, so we read in Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth. Because of man’s fall into sin,
a curse was pronounced over this creation. God has now sent His Son into this world to redeem creation from the results of sin. The work of Christ, therefore, is not just to save certain individuals… The total work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem this entire creation from the effects of sin. That purpose will not be accomplished until God has ushered in the new earth, until Paradise lost has become Paradise Regained. We need to realize that God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s fall. (274-275).
When we sing of Christmas using Isaac Watts’ theologically lofty text and George Frederick Handel’s majestic tune, “Joy to the World,” we are singing about the full scope of God’s saving action from Genesis to Revelation, from Creation to the Consummation, from the Fall in Adam to the Restoration of all things in Christ. There are very few Christmas carols, let alone hymns in general, with a more cosmic vision of the redemption that God in Christ accomplishes for us and our world, and it deserves to be sung not just at Christmastime, but all year round. DBS+