The North Dakota farm I grew up on seemed like a place of great wildness back when I was a child. After all, there were relatively few of us. What I didn’t realize is how much we’d changed the land we lived on, even in such a thinly populated place.
We had an abundance of food—livestock, gardens, and grains—but we couldn’t find some of the inhabitants of the past. The American bison was, of course, merely a memory, as were the Native Americans who’d lived off the abundance of that land.
When I read that bears and wolves had once wandered the country where I lived, I was surprised. But I shouldn’t have been. After all, farmers were in competition with wildlife that threatened crops and livestock. We sprayed herbicides and pesticides across thousands of acres. We tilled the earth from fencerow to fencerow. We replaced the buffalo with cattle. The cute and lively prairie dog, a kind of native ground squirrel, we now went to see at a tourists’ prairie dog village, in the same park where we viewed the mighty bison penned up behind fences. The weeds that we sprayed and the dull and innutritious bromegrass that filled the ditches and waysides were exotics that had displaced ten-foot-tall prairie grasses.
It wasn’t until years later that I understood all this. I had taken for granted that the American Great Plains had been made for farming. Cities destroyed nature, I thought, but we didn’t. We lived among nature. In fact, we had created our own nature. It wasn’t just cattle, wheat, and bromegrass that had displaced what had once been there. It was us. We had tamed the land and introduced into it species that had squeezed out the original inhabitants.
Henry David Thoreau famously said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” But there is little true wildness left. Places as remote as the Amazon rainforest and the Australian outback have been invaded by humankind and the destruction we bring with us. Now, wildness is confined to a few spots that we’ve designated for it. The spectacular tallgrass prairie ecosystem that covered my farm two centuries ago? Like the bison, it’s preserved in a handful of refuges and parks, in what some scientists estimate is but 1 percent of its previous range.
destroying the earth
The Bible says that the very first words God spoke to His newly created man and woman was a blessing: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28).
This blessing was spoken to a world without sin. Had it remained that way, undoubtedly sinless beings in a sinless creation would have successfully controlled our population and wisely managed the earth’s creatures and its resources. But sin entered the picture, and nature suffered.
For example, we know from their remains that in times long past human beings contributed to the extinction of some spectacular animals: woolly mammoths of the Arctic regions, New Zealand’s 12-foot-tall moas, and Europe’s Irish deer. More recently we wiped out passenger pigeons, dodo birds, the thylacine, and hundreds of other species. These creatures will never come back, just as my farm will never again be tallgrass prairie with wolves and prairie dogs.
That humans are the globe’s most invasive species is recognized by everyone. Some scientists have dubbed our time the “Anthropocene epoch” because of how humankind is changing the planet. Bringing the world back to its original perfection—or even keeping it from deteriorating more than it has—appears beyond our control. The human population continues to grow. We’ve polluted the planet with materials such as radioactive waste that won’t disappear for thousands of years. Our appetite for environment-destroying goods and services hasn’t abated. Though we debate the causes, no one now seriously doubts that the globe’s climate is changing.
Solutions to these problems have become so politicized that it is almost impossible to imagine we’ll bring about a reversal of our destruction of the earth. Fortunately, God has promised to do what we can’t.
restoring the earth
When Christians think of what our lives beyond this earth will be like, we often think about heaven, a perfect home in the sky. While the Bible does talk about heaven, it says that our final home will be a new earth that’s made perfect as it was in the beginning.
This new earth is first mentioned in Isaiah 65:17: “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth.” Isaiah’s picture of the new earth is an agrarian one. The prophet writes that “they will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (verse 21). While still carrying on the human employments that make life meaningful, we will have returned to the nonaggressive, nondestructive relationships of Eden. Isaiah goes on to say that “the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox” (verse 25). We’ll no longer be in an exploitative relationship with our fellow creatures, nor they with one another, for “they will neither harm nor destroy on all [the Lord’s] holy mountain” (verse 25).
Revelation pictures the new earth after thousands of years have passed and after the small populations of the past have expanded to billions of saved people. Perhaps that’s why John sees an urbanized new earth in which an entire city, the New Jerusalem, is prefabricated in heaven and flown to earth like a celestial spaceship (Revelation 21:2). He describes it in detail, from its size (hundreds of miles across and possibly cubical; verse 16) to its materials: precious metals and gemstones the size of buildings. In God’s new economic order, gold is for paving streets and pearls are building material (verse 21). It’s hard to know whether these descriptions are meant to be literal or metaphorical depictions of the way that under God’s rule the beautiful and the valuable will be common; the homes of ordinary people no longer mean hovels in small villages but mansions in cities more glorious than anything this earth could ever offer.
Revelation 22 describes a city park in the New Jerusalem in which God places the Garden of Eden’s tree of life and the river that waters it. Here is more evidence that God will make our destroyed earth perfect again—as perfect as it was in the beginning when He created it. Imagine every ecological problem that diminishes our health and happiness taken away, replaced by an incorruptible ecosystem! Would you be surprised if God brings back some of the creatures we haven’t seen for thousands of years, like mammoths, dodo birds, passenger pigeons, and moas?
restoring us too
If God only meant to restore nature, He wouldn’t need human beings. After all, we’re the ones who destroyed it! But when He declares, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5), He is talking about re-creating human society too. Both Revelation and Isaiah describe not just a restored earth but also people restored to the happiness God originally intended when He gave us a home in the Garden of Eden. Following are some of the details:
• Everyone will be happy. “The sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more” (Isaiah 65:19). “He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” and there will be no more “mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).
• Sinners and all the effects of sin are gone. “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Revelation 21:8).
• We will enjoy our work. “No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. . . . My chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain” (Isaiah 65:22, 23).
• We will not get sick or die. “There will be no more death” (Revelation 21:4). “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years” (Isaiah 65:20).
• God will be with us continuously. “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them” (Revelation 21:3). “Before they call I will answer” (Isaiah 65:24).
Just as lions eating straw means changes in the psychology and physiology of lions, so God will have to do some significant modification of the human species. “We will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye,” writes Paul (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52). Our bodies and minds will be redesigned for immortal life. In fact, Isaiah says that “the former things”—the sadness and suffering of the old world—“will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
God’s new earth: it’s a change we can all look forward to!