One of the most oft-repeated Luther quotes, including by the ELCA Social Statement “Caring for Creation,” is this: “If I believed that tomorrow the world were to end, I would plant an apple tree today.” But the proverb raises some questions. First, where did he say it? Attempts to identify the beloved words in Luther’s writings have turned up fruitless.1 And second, whether he said it or not, what meaning does it hold for those who employ it today? That an apple seed planted on the penultimate day will find a place to grow and produce apples in God’s new age? Or simply that one should want to be found “awake” and busy at the parousia of Christ?
The former interpretation provides a handy nutshell image for what several prominent Christian voices, including Brian McClaren, Marcus Borg, and Thomas Jay Oord, have each independently dubbed participatory eschatology.2 McClaren writes in his most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity:
In a participatory eschatology, when we ask, “What does the future hold?” the answer begins, “That depends. It depends on you and me. God holds out to us at every moment a brighter future; the issue is whether we are willing to receive it and work with God to help create it. We are participating in the creation of what the future will be.”3
Different theologians moving in this orbit describe this cooperative paradigm for the future with varying degrees of conditionality and “openness” — and some no doubt would take issue with the abrupt supernatural intervention suggested in the apple tree proverb4 — but the common thread is an emphasis on the continuity of our work between old creation and new creation. What humans do now — the art they create, the peace they make, the gardens they grow — if these activities are consonant with the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, the fruit of such labor will find a home in that kingdom and indeed help give it its ultimate shape.
For those searching for a Christian way of talking about the future that affirms and stimulates active care for an imperiled earth, incorporating some form of participatory eschatology into one’s preaching and teaching may sound like a good idea. From a Lutheran standpoint, however, I want to offer in this space a few notes of caution. Without denying that there is some link between how we steward the earth now and how we believe we will steward it in God’s final future, a healthy Lutheran environmental ethic will have its roots in our most central convictions about justification and vocation, and not in speculative knowledge that may actually undermine the hopefulness of our proclamation.
Grounding Our Hope in the Resurrection of Jesus
Lutheran Christians have long maintained that human beings are coworkers and cooperators with God in God’s work of sustaining the creation and providing for its creatures. We are even “created co-creators,” to use an expression many of us learned from Philip Hefner. But do we cooperate with God in bringing about the kingdom? Or, to speak in more ecological terms, do we have some responsibility to sow the seeds of a new Eden? Will our present contributions to restoring and revitalizing the planet somehow have relevance to the promised new heavens and the new earth?
The context in which we live and do ministry is deeply polarized on these questions. Those answering with a strong negative have successfully gotten their message out through end-times fiction and “biblical prophecy” programs on radio, television, and the internet. While the people in our pews may be uncomfortable with the tone of such prognosticators and likely remain uncommitted to the camps into which they fall, many retain a vague notion that in one way or another the earth we live on, to paraphrase Dwight Moody, is a wrecked vessel and our job as the church is to use the lifeboat of the gospel to get souls safely evacuated to a different place called Heaven.
Progressives in the Protestant mainline, meanwhile, ever replaying their century-old part in the modernist schism, are prone to responding with their own overconfident script for the future — namely one that we have been entrusted to write ourselves, or at least co-author with the divine. With the latent energy of the social gospel movement deep in their bones, churchly progress-ives implicitly ask: If we are not in some way contributing to the establishment of the new age, why bother? Even such a theologically middle-of-the-road figure as N. T. Wright appears attached to thinking about this along some continuum of cause-and-effect when he argues in his very fine book Surprised by Hope:
When God saves people in this life, by working through his Spirit to bring them to faith … such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos; they are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future” (author’s emphasis).5
Although Wright develops a substantial biblical theology for the Church’s mission in his third part of Surprised by Hope, his particular case for a form of participatory eschatology — that “what you do in the present … will last into God’s future” — rests far too heavily on his interpretation of a single verse at the culmination of 1 Corinthians 15: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
In developing a basis for creation care, Lutherans need not go so far out on a hermeneutical limb, nor should we feel compelled to take a side between a predictive-literal reading of apocalyptic texts and a progressive-participatory concept of the future. “It is enough” (satis est — a phrase from our heritage we employ too little) to confess that the future of this world will, in some way beyond our pinning-down, correspond to the bodily resurrection of Jesus, with all of the fear, mystery, and wonder that the news of Easter entails. Here Wright’s more fundamental thesis is spot on: “The central Christian affirmation is that what the creator God has done in Jesus Christ, and supremely in his resurrection, is what he intends to do for the whole world — meaning, by world, the entire cosmos with all its history.”6
The resurrection of Christ, together with the death by crucifixion that precedes it, functions, then, not only as the ground of our eschatological hope but also provides the epistemological parameters for what we can say about the relationship between old creation and new. On the one hand, resurrection does presuppose the experience of a very real terminus: of death. This is why Jürgen Moltmann refers to the passion of our Lord as the “apocalyptic sufferings of Christ”7 — because they reveal, not in a scripted or predetermined sort of way, but in a deeply honest way, that the reality of sin and brokenness in this world is such that the path to creation’s final redemption leads through tribulation, judgment, and cross. To deny this is tantamount to denying our own individual expiration dates as human creatures, our own appointment at the judgment seat of Christ.
On the other hand, there is no support in Scripture for an understanding of new creation that bears absolutely no relation whatever to the old. The crucified and buried Messiah is not replaced with a new one; he is raised bodily by the Father in the power of the Spirit. We are told explicitly (Lk. 24:40; Jn. 20:27) that he bears the marks that prove it to be so. Thus, the new of the new heavens and new earth signifies the Spirit’s renewal of this creation, a resurrection of the creation in decay, in a way that corresponds to the resurrection of Jesus from the grave. The New Testament gives us several ways of imagining this that simultaneously convey continuity and newness: giving birth, in which a new being is brought forth from the womb of the mother and out of her labor pains (Jn. 16:21, Rom. 8:22; 1 Thess. 5:3); the sprouting of a new plant from a seed, which was thought to have “died,” but God “transforms” (Jn. 12:24, 1 Cor. 15); the reforging of a metal after being melted down with fire (2 Pet. 3:10-13); and being awaken from slumber (Eph. 5:14; 1 Thess. 4:13-14). Taken together with the Easter event itself, these images provide us with a range — one that both preserves mystery and protects against error — within which we can picture and proclaim what God has in store for this world.
What these texts do not allow much room for at all, however, is affirming anyone or anything other than the Triune God as the power of resurrection and agent of new creation.
Salvation of the Earth by Grace Alone
N. T. Wright, among other scholars, has done us a service by drawing those of us shaped by the individualistic ethos of the West back to the cosmic scope of the gospel. But what we have to ask ourselves in the churches of the Reformation is whether we have continued to proclaim justification by grace alone through faith alone for the sake of Christ alone to individual sinners and gathered worshiping communities, while proclaiming a conditional gospel — a divine/human cooperative venture — when it comes to the future of God’s world. In the old days this would have been branded synergistic (if we even remember such controversies, and not just that the generation following Luther squabbled a lot over arcane doctrinal matters). The message of the salvation of individuals or the Church by God’s sovereign grace alone, together with the message of the salvation of the earth, say, through the human community’s reduction of greenhouse gases, offered from the same mouth, is a proclamation at odds with itself. We cannot say responsibly with Jesus, “You, Nicodemus (or whomever), must be born from above” and not say the same for the earth.
Scripture bears witness that the creation itself is crying out to its Creator for liberation. Just as the rivers and mountains and heavenly lights exalt and proclaim their Creator in the Psalms, so does Jesus say the stones outside of Jerusalem would herald him as king and savior if the disciples were not already voicing their praises (Lk. 19:40). Just as in time of drought the wild animals cry to the Creator for water (Joel 1:20), the whole creation groans out of its “subjection to futility” for God’s salvation. Paul does say that creation is waiting “for the revealing of the children of God,” but he doesn’t mean waiting for them to adopt a more eco-conscious lifestyle; he means waiting to be adopted alongside of them by God into the new age. When it comes to the ground of its ultimate hope, the natural world in the Bible tends to look right past us. Is such reverence for the Creator so different from the faith through which humans are justified? Could we perhaps learn something about the nature of faith from nature?
Keeping the Reformation solas at the heart of our environmental theology, as I am arguing for here, is not an exercise in theological correctness for its own sake, but rather about applying the same rigor with which we affirm the unconditionality of God’s redemptive love for sinners to the message of God’s redemptive love for the whole cosmos. If we inject a human-dependent “if” into what we say about the future of God’s world, then even if our parishioners come away from worship feeling that “all is well with my soul,” they will continue to struggle, at the same time, with encroaching despair over the destiny of the earth, if not all material reality. Such internally confused proclamation, especially in a cultural context saturated with Left Behind future-telling, breeds a gospel of disembodied escape in place of a gospel of bodily resurrection. And, as we know from experience, a fragile hope built on “ifs” easily morphs into cynicism when we see others and ourselves failing to get with the program, “green” or otherwise.
Earthkeeping as Our First and Final Vocation
If indeed much of the impetus behind participatory eschatology comes from the suspicion that Christians who hope in too radical a transformation of creation simply won’t possess the motivation to ever plant an apple tree, much less care for it in an ecologically-friendly manner, then our ears should perk up because we have heard all this before. Put it this way: If we trust the Bible’s most radical eschatological formulations — “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Pet. 4:7); “The present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31); “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5) — should we sin all the more so that such world-renewing grace may abound?
“By no means!” (Rom. 6). Baptized into Christ’s death, raised in newness of life, the power of the gospel sets us free from the need to carve our initials into the trees of the new creation and restores us to the proper mindset of a steward — which is to care for what God has made simply because God has made it, to tend what belongs to God because it belongs to God. Is not the gift of this earth worth cherishing simply out of love for the Giver and love for the goodness of the gift?
Filled with gratitude toward the God who gives and forgives, we are also freed to let the mystery be — to adopt, in Karl Barth’s words, a “reverent agnosticism,” — on this matter of how much or how little continuity will exist between old creation and new. It may be that in our sowing and tending and harvesting — respectfully and sustainably practiced — that we are contributing actively to something we will one day recognize in the new age. Or it may be that we are “merely” anticipating and rehearsing the reconciled and restored relationship that will exist between human creatures and the rest of nature when God is at last “all in all.” The choice is God’s.
In either case, our practice as Christians will be the same. Earthkeeping was our first calling (Gen. 2:15), it is our present calling, and it will be our future calling in the New Jerusalem — a city to be sure, but one in which there will be ample water and fruit and leaves for the healing the nations, and in which the servants of God “will reign forever” (Rev. 22:5).
Why would our apocryphal Luther plant an apple tree before the consummation of the world? Because that’s what a free servant does. Blessed are those servants found tending the earth when the master returns.
See Fred Gaiser, “What Luther Didn’t Say about Vocation,” Word & World 25/4 (Fall 2005) 359-361. Gaiser refers to the exhaustive search undertaken by the German scholar Martin Schloemann, Luthers Apfelbäumchen: Ein Kapitel deutscher Mentalitätsgeschichte seit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994).
Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Franciso: HarperOne, 2008) 259-260; Brian D. McClaren, “Can We Find a Better Way of Viewing the Future?” A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010) 191-206; Thomas Jay Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis: Chalice, 2010) 152-157
The apple tree quotation contains at least a couple of the elements of what Borg terms, as a contrast to his own participatory eschatology, imminent eschatology, a traditional view in which the end time is seen as: 1.) Imminent: believed to happen soon, possibly within one’s own generation; 2.) Inevitable: its coming is not conditional — it will happen; 3.) Interventionist: God will do it by supernatural intervention; and 4.) Unmistakable: its coming will be so dramatic and obvious that nobody will doubt it has happened. See Borg 253-258.
N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008) 200. See the Let’s Talk review by Thelma Megill-Cobbler that follows.
This is the title of Chapter 4 of Moltmann’s The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 151-212.