In the Spring of 2011 I found myself teaching a class on “Heaven, Hell and Everything in Between”. At the end of the last session in which we had discussed the new heavens and new earth, I was asked a question I was unprepared to answer (happens often enough). Here’s my paraphrase of the question: “How can we be sure that there will not be a second fall sometime in eternity? Adam and Eve were in perfect fellowship with God, and you say this fellowship will be restored to us in the future. But Adam still rebelled, so how can we be certain we will not rebel at some point. After all, eternity is a long time for us to mess up!” The question comes down to this: how will our eternal condition be better than Adam’s original condition; so much better, in fact, that sin is precluded as a possibility? This question lead to a research/writing project this winter, and I’ll be sharing it over a series of five or so blog posts. In this project, I attempt to answer that questions in terms of our union with Christ, a union that goes beyond the experience of fellowship Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden and culminates in our “deification”. Moreover, I will attempt in this project to place the doctrine of union with Christ and of “deification” within a broader biblical theology. My proposal is this: In the New Heavens and New Earth we will experience a more exalted union with Christ than Adam did in the Garden, which makes sin an impossibility. This more exalted union, in which we become partakers of the divine nature, is possible because of Christ’s assumption of humanity, his covenant faithfulness as the Second Adam, his death, and his resurrection. In this project, I explore this thesis, examining the nature of man prior to the fall, paying special attention to the image of God impressed upon him as well as his relationship with God as expressed in the covenant of works. Next, I consider the person and work of Jesus, including the role of Christ’s incarnation, of his active covenant keeping righteousness, his death, and his resurrection and ascension in suiting mankind for a more profound union with the Godhead. Third, I examine several passages that speak of the believer’s ultimate destiny in the New Heavens and New Earth in light of my proposal. After some theological conclusions, I intend to bring this short paper to a close with some practical pastoral applications. The scope of this paper is both necessary and challenging. It is necessarily broad because we are comparing the “bookends” of the Bible while paying due attention to the cosmically significant person of Christ and his work. It is challenging in that I need to cover much ground in a little space. Thus, I will seek to establish my thesis without doing as much reflection on alternative viewpoints as I would like. These alternatives will be duly noted in footnotes, but not examined at length.
Part 1: Created for Compatibility
Man’s history begins with the words,
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen. 1:26–27).
God’s creation of man in his image is the capstone of his initial creative work, bringing it to a “very good” completion. Man was marked with a dignity that is unique among God’s creatures, for not even the angels are spoken of in Scripture as image bearers. While the church through the centuries has struggled to define the image of God in man with precision, Calvin strikes a fair balance understanding that the image of God is reflected to some degree in every part of man’s being, though understood most properly as referring to the soul. He writes,
For though the divine glory is displayed in man’s outward appearance, it cannot be doubted that the proper seat of the image is in the soul…And though the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and the heart, or in the soul and its powers, there was no part even of the body in which some rays of glory did not shine (Calvin, Institutes, 1.15.3).
More succinctly, “the image of God constitutes the entire excellence of human nature” (Calvin, Institutes, 1.15.4). While this image sets man apart from the rest of creation, it also distinguishes man from God. Calvin reacts vehemently against the notion set forth by Servetus (following the Manicheans) that when God breathed into man’s nostrils he imparted a soul that was part of God’s essence, “as if some portion of the boundless divinity had passed into man” (Calvin, Institutes, 1.15.5). While distinct from the Creator, man was uniquely suited for intimate relationship with Him. As Letham asserts, one of the central messages of the first chapters of Genesis is that man was created in such a way that he is compatible with God, and intended for union with his Creator (Robert Letham, Union with Christ, 9). Fairbairn expands on this, reminding us that by virtue of being image bearers, humans are linked to the Son who is the exact image of God. Moreover, as humans are given the task of exercising dominion over creation, we are linked to the Son who, as one dimension of his fellowship with the Father “carried out the Father’s will through the creation and sustaining of the universe” (Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity, 61). He concludes,
If the function of humanity was originally to exercise a role within creation similar to that which the Son has exercised over creation, and if humanity and the Son were linked by the possession of the image of God, then one may reasonable infer that human beings were originally meant to share in the Son’s fellowship with his Father as well (Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity, 61).
Man, by virtue of his creation in the image of God, as sons of God, with tasks resembling the Son of God’s, was intended to participate in the life of the Trinity as the Son does. Julie Canlis traces this thought through many early theologians of the church. For example, she argues that for Aquinas, “Union with God is held as the supreme purpose of creation” (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 39). Calvin’s indebtedness to Aquinas can be seen in this regard. Canlis comments, “[For Calvin] Communion is the groundwork of creation, the purpose of anthropology, and the telos toward which all creation strains” (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 54). Calvin improves on Aquinas in turning creation’s union with God in an explicitly Christocentric direction, arguing that even pre-lapsarian man needed the Son to mediate this union with God. Canlis summarizes, “All creation is related to God in the second person of the Trinity, who mediates creation and its telos…He has not structured a universe in which life, grace, and ‘benefits’ can be had apart from him” (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 57). In addition, Calvin’s Christocentric focus is buttressed by a “robust pneumatology.” It is the Spirit who is the “agent of participation” and who shepherds creation towards its goal of Trinitarian communion (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 60). Fairbairn points to a stream of interpretation in the church that also emphasizes the role of the Spirit in man’s pre-fall communion with God, linking God’s act of breathing into man’s nostrils (Gen. 2:7) with Christ’s breathing out the Holy Spirit upon his disciples (John 20:22). Some, including Cyril of Alexandria, have suggested that Adam was made to possess the Spirit in the same manner as believers in the post-Pentecost era. While acknowledging that most in the church have interpreted Genesis 2:7 as the bestowal of a soul to Adam, Fairbairn’s tentative assertion is that the Spirit was given to Adam, thus “linking him to the Son in whose image he was created and causing him to share in the fellowship of the Trinity…when God gives the Spirit anew through redemption, he is restoring people to a state akin to the original sharing in the life of the Trinity that humankind lost through the fall” (Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity, 62). Whether one follows Fairbairn or not, the general point remains: Adam was created to be compatible with God and was “united and bound to his Maker” (Calvin, Institutes, 2.1.5).
In post two of this series I’ll explore, and defend, the idea that Adam’s union with God was not static, but was from the beginning fashioned for growth and consummation.