I’ve written briefly in previous posts on the possible configuration of the relationship between creation and redemption, this world and the world to come (e.g. here and here; cf. also Mr. Minich’s post here). I’m currently in the process of putting together a longer post on the treatment of the theme in Calvin’s exegesis, but as a prelude to that, here are Augustine’s thoughts from City of God 20. As will be seen, Calvin stands in fundamental continuity with Augustine in his view that the substance of this world, transformed, will carry over into the new creation–i.e., what we are really discussing in terms of “new heaven and new earth” is purging, renovation, and consummation.1
Chapter 16.—Of the New Heaven and the New Earth.
Having finished the prophecy of judgment, so far as the wicked are concerned, it remains that he speak also of the good. Having briefly explained the Lord’s words, “These will go away into everlasting punishment,” it remains that he explain the connected words, “but the righteous into life eternal.”1388 “And I saw,” he says, “a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away; and there is no more sea.”1389 This will take place in the order which he has by anticipation declared in the words, “I saw One sitting on the throne, from whose face heaven and earth fled.” For as soon as those who are not written in the book of life have been judged and cast into eternal fire,—the nature of which fire, or its position in the world or universe, I suppose is known to no man, unless perhaps the divine Spirit reveal it to some one,—then shall the figure of this world pass away in a conflagration of universal fire, as once before the world was flooded with a deluge of universal water. And by this universal conflagration the qualities of the corruptible elements which suited our corruptible bodies shall utterly perish, and our substance shall receive such qualities as shall, by a wonderful transmutation, harmonize with our immortal bodies, so that, as the world itself is renewed to some better thing, it is fitly accommodated to men, themselves renewed in their flesh to some better thing. As for the statement, “And there shall be no more sea,” I would not lightly say whether it is dried up with that excessive heat, or is itself also turned into 436some better thing. For we read that there shall be a new heaven and a new earth, but I do not remember to have anywhere read anything of a new sea, unless what I find in this same book, “As it were a sea of glass like crystal.”1390 But he was not then speaking of this end of the world, neither does he seem to speak of a literal sea, but “as it were a sea.” It is possible that, as prophetic diction delights in mingling figurative and real language, and thus in some sort veiling the sense, so the words “And there is no more sea” may be taken in the same sense as the previous phrase, “And the sea presented the dead which were in it.” For then there shall be no more of this world, no more of the surgings and restlessness of human life, and it is this which is symbolized by the sea.
What is corruptible in the world and subject to decay is due to man’s sin (Rom. 8), and so it will be done away with. But man himself will be transformed, transmuted, glorified–and so will the world be in accommodation to him. Augustine alludes to 2 Peter 3 in connecting the universal conflagration to the universal flood: the “conflagration” on the Last Day shall be like unto it, and therefore it may teach us something about the status of this creation vis-a-vis the new heaven and the new earth. The creation, after all, was not destroyed by the flood, but rather sin was judged and purged by it.
The foregoing view allows that creation–all of it–was very good and thus is fit for restoration in keeping with God’s original purpose, with the natural world a part of the same fabric as the human world and so renewed in continuity with it; human beings are the firstfruits of this renovation, and the rest of the creation groans for a restoration in harmony with it.
This view also allows us to understand corruption and decay in the world without conceiving of it as absolute, as do those who have no hope; as, for instance, Ovid’s Pythagoras does in the “Great Speech of Pythagoras” in Metamorphoses 15:
Time, the devourer, and the jealous years
With long corruption ruin all the world
And waste all things in slow mortality.
The elements themselves do not endure;
Examine how they change and learn from me. (tr. A.D. Melville)
If this is true of matter, of the stuff of creation, then one would presume it is true of the body as well, as Ovid says at the conclusion of Metamorphoses 15 and the poem as a whole:
Now stands my task accomplished, such a work
As not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword
Nor the devouring ages can destroy.
Let, when it will, that day, that has no claim
But to my mortal body, end the span
Of my uncertain years. Yet I’ll be borne,
The finer part of me, above the stars,
Immortal, and my name shall never die. (tr. A.D. Melville)
On this view, physical, material creation–all of it–will one day be done away with, and only the spiritual principle will survive. As goes the world, so goes the body. The Christian understanding of good creation and restorative redemption points a way out of this ultimate disjunction of matter and spirit. Without it, one could be forgiven for thinking that death and disintegration are “natural” to matter. With it, one can see that death and decay are accidental rather than essential to the created order and are due to sin; when sin and its consequences have been removed, as they have already been in the cross and resurrection (the full meaning of which will be disclosed in the eschaton), the created order can be transfigured and glorified, and it is easy to see why one might describe this as a “new heaven and a new earth.”