In the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, firemen start fires not stop them. They burn books and houses that contain books. Bradbury writes:
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history…while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house.
The blazing glory of burning books. This is what the book's hero, Montag, lives for. But more than books are consumed in the dystopian future of Fahrenheit 451. Montag's country is physically intact, despite the fact that it survived two atomic wars. Culturally, however, his world is crackling in flames. The reading of books is no longer permitted. Deep thought is discouraged. Instead, everyone watches TVs the size of their living room wall. In the words of Neil Postman, they have “entertained themselves to death.” The world is in gross cultural decline and, as a result, people are in decline. People no longer know how to have meaningful conversation. Everything is superficial. People don’t ask questions of one another; they just talk at one another. Humanity has become a shell of life, a corpse of entertainment, with very little truth, beauty, or virtue left. This is the future of Fahrenheit 451.
What is the Biblical Future?
The world of Fahrenheit 451 is physically, culturally, and humanly broken. Creation, culture, and humanity are in need of renewal. This dystopian vision is the opposite of the biblical vision of the future. In Revelation 21-22 we see a very different world:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
The biblical view is a new heaven and a new earth, devoid of destruction, corruption, darkness, and decline. It is a place of remarkable beauty, crystal-bright rivers, and trees of life. A place of physical renewal. It is also a place of personal healing - by the very leaves of the tree of life - a metaphor for the power of the new environment. It is also a place of personal renewal. As the rest of Revelation and Isaiah the prophet describe, the new creation is a place of human flourishing, of great creative output where the finest of human culture is joyfully produced in worship of our great God and King (Rev 21:22-27). Even cultural renewal exists. The biblical vision of New Creation is altogether different from the future of Fahrenheit 451. New Creation is physical, cultural, and personal renewal not decline!
Now, perhaps you are thinking to yourself: "Wait a minute, where’s the doom and gloom of the apocalypse? What about Left Behind? I thought the Christian vision was a vision of destruction and the annihilation of the world." Turn or burn, right?
While Revelation and 2 Peter do depict a kind of purification of the present world, they do not present total annihilation. We are told that “heaven and earth pass away” and a new heaven and earth will appear, but this language does not imply complete consumption. In the Greek, the word "pass away" simply means to leave or depart, to remove from present existence. The word is used of Jesus leaving the presence of the Pharisees. When Jesus left, he didn’t dissolve; he just left. You might say that the current form of creation leaves the building…but it comes back for an encore with a new outfit. The word “new” used in Revelation means new in “nature or quality.” John does not select the word that means new in “origin or time.”
Biblical vision of the future is a renewed world not a consumed world. Creation is restored not replaced.
It is not like the world of The Matrix, an artificial replacement of a scorched heavens and earth. God doesn’t promise a reboot, to plug us into a fantasy after we die. It’s not even a changing of the light bulb of the universe. That's replacement. Rather, the Creator is wholly committed to a renewed heavens and earth! After all, it is the world he created and called good. It was made in, through, and for him. He delights in it. He loves his creation, so much that he is willing to die to rescue it. The biblical future is New Creation, and New Creation is physical, cultural, and personal renewal.
Why Do We Need New Creation?
So how do we fit in? Why should we want New Creation? What kind of world, what kind of future would you create if you could? A place of physical beauty, cultural splendor, and human flourishing? A place of justice, peace, and joy, where there is no sorrow or suffering, where there is equal distribution of wealth, a clean environment, never-ending joy? The world God has prepared is the world we all really want, the world that, deep down, we really long for.
How do we get in on this renewal? It starts with being honest about our age, squaring up with how old we are. We’re a lot older than we want to admit, and by old I'm not referring to age per se but to state. We’re in slower, crankier, meaner, and much less attractive state than we'd like to admit. We’ve got to stop airbrushing ourselves. Living to impress others, trying to trick others that we’re actually not that old, we’re not that mean, we’re not that broken. Deep down we know we’re bent, but we’ve been trying to cover it up. We act like we’re young, not old, like we are full of innocence and life, not guilt and death. We’re quick to defend ourselves.
Last night I was merging onto the highway where two roads converged. Little did I know that there was a car speeding up behind me to try to get ahead. She comes flying up right next to me, trying to force me out, an inch at a time. Stop start, stop start. Finally, I looked over at her with disdain, an imploring kind of look like, “Come on, are you kidding me?”
She started motioning angrily, and I kind of just laughed and let her go ahead. I wanted to make excuses for laughing at her. I wanted to defend the pride and anger that swelled up in my heart, but were pushed down by superficial laughter. I wanted to act like I was innocent, had it together, unflappable, virtuous, “Christian.” I wanted to act as if I was new, renewed, full of love and kindness but I wasn’t. I was actually quite old on the inside, easily bothered, cranky, selfish, and mean. Certainly much less attractive than I’d like to admit. The string of excuses that came to mind were my airbrush. I was ready to put the best foot forward, while hiding the ugly one behind my back. See, there’s a part of us, no matter what our age, that is very, very old. Very grumpy. Very mean-spirited. Very selfish. Very, well, sinful. We are out of sorts with who God wants us to be. The problem is that many of us try to close the gap by airbrush, by make-up, by working out. We try so desperately to impress God and others, but he sees right through us. He knows how old and broken we are, and how desperately we need to be renewed, forgiven, transformed.
Why do we need New Creation? Because we are old creation, old men and women living out our sinful oldness. In theological terms, we are fallen, with Adam and Eve and the whole human race, with human culture and all creation. Our world is shot through with its age, with the Fall. We are broken people living in a broken world. The earth groans under the weight of pollution, global warming and natural disaster. Two-thirds of the world lives on less than a dollar a day. Burma, North Africa, Afghanistan ravaged by war. Thousands live below the poverty line in our very own city. Culturally, we celebrate what is evil, false, and ugly instead of celebrating what is good, true and beautiful. Not always but often. The Cannes Film Festival praised The Anti-Christ, a film about rape; doctors perform millions of abortions a year; the government imprisoned innocent people at Guantanamo, and the list goes on.
But the evil, my friends, is not just “out there.” It is in here. In us.
We are more broken and bent that we dare admit, more sinful and at odds with our good Creator than we can imagine. We have trivialized him and his goodness, truth, and beauty. And because of this, we are under his judgment. We are in desperate need of his saving, renewing power. We all need forgiveness before a holy God. We cannot - no matter how many good deeds - make ourselves new. We are better off being honest about our old, decrepit, sinful nature.
Is the Biblical Future Just Another Utopia?
The biblical vision of the future is compelling, but how is it any different that a utopian novel? Isn't is just a positive reading of the future? Well, one of the unique things about the biblical vision is that it contains both dystopian and utopian visions in the same future. Dystopian novels and films point to a judgment at the end of time, an apocalyptic fall out—Terminator, The Road, Oryx and Crake, Fahrenheit 451, and Revelation 20.
The dystopian judgments occur at the end of history. The utopian paradise is also at the end of history—THX 1138, Brave New World, The Island, and Revelation. Judgment and salvation, dystopia and utopia happen at the end of history, the end of time. But when it comes to the Bible, there's a twist on the timing of dystopia and utopia. Unlike any other worldview, film or novel, the biblical dystopia and utopia converge in the present, not just in the future. How? In Christianity, Judgment Day is rolled back into history at the Cross, where a terrible, future judgment falls in the present--the suffering and death of God. Unexpectedly, the judgment falls on the undeserving God, not on deserving sinners. Jesus Christ enters the middle of history and dies our death, bears our sin, endures our punishment, and receives our judgment.
The gospels tell us that when God’s judgment fell on Jesus, the earth shook, the sky grew black, and rocks split open, the temple curtain was ripped, and Jesus died, crucified for us. When does judgment happen in the biblical story? For those who cling to Christ by faith, it happens in the middle of history, it happens to Jesus not us so that we can be set free. What about new creation? When does that happen? Contrary to the utopias, in Christianity, not only is Judgment Day rolled back to the present but Resurrection Day is rolled back into the middle of history, at the empty tomb. Jesus arises from the grave defeating sin, death and evil in order to make all things new. New Creation of the future breaks into the present, not to deserving but to the undeserving. Those who believe the future now become new creation in Christ, a new humanity.
The authors of the New Testament repeatedly tell us that Jesus is the firstborn from the dead (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5) and that those who confess their sin, are honest about their age, and trust Jesus for their salvation are spiritually raised from the dead. In Christ, New Creation is now. How do we get it? Jesus said:
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.
Do you believe this? Resurrection is now and not yet by faith in Christ. Paul writes:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
In the gospel, dystopia and utopia converge in the middle of history on Jesus, who dies our death and gives us his life. The guilty are forgiven. The old become new. At the end of Fahrenheit 451, the city is bombed into oblivion. Montag, a former book-burning fireman, has joined a clan of book-reading rebels. They are silent because there is everything to think about and much to remember. Montag begins to search his mind for a word of hope gathered from his newfound reading. He lands on this: “on either side of the river there was a tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, yielded her fruit every month; And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” He hopes in New Creation.
The grand news of the gospel, of New Creation, is that we don’t have to wait until the end of history. By faith in Jesus, the endtime Judgment and Resurrection are rolled back to the middle of history and fall on Jesus so that we do not have to die his death but get to live his life. The healing of the nations is now for those who hope in Jesus.
Jonathan Dodson (M.Div, Th.M) is happy husband to Robie, and proud father to Owen, Ellie & Rosamund. He is also the lead pastor of Austin City Life church and directional leader for PlantR and Gospel Centered Discipleship.com. Jonathan is also the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship (Crossway, 2012). He blogs at jonathandodson.org, enjoys listening to M. Ward, watching sci-fi, and following Jesus. Twitter @Jonathan_Dodson