The New Creation
by Philip Trower
A good many years ago now I was visiting one of our country houses open to the public. It wasn’t one of the most famous and historic. It belonged to the Earls of Lichfield, birthplace of Dr Johnson. But it was still worth seeing, particularly the interior. There was so much that was beautiful that as I went through the rooms looking at one treasure after another I thought to myself ‘in itself all this must be pleasing to God.’
Suddenly an idea of a different kind popped into my mind. ‘The rich, furnishing the eternal mansions of the poor.’
Those who had given instructions for the building, furnishing and adornment of the house three centuries before, imagining it was for their benefit alone, had, without realising it, been providing the patterns for the heavenly homes of all those who had lived in cottages and shanties in this world. Then my thoughts took a more charitable turn. ‘This is the rich building and furnishing the eternal mansions of the good and just.’
Underlying these thoughts, which came quite spontaneously, was the assumption that after the Last Day the material universe was going to be recreated and would be adorned with all the positive achievements of the human race big and small with any imperfections corrected. Chopin ballades, Mozart piano concertos, Beethoven quartets were going to have a place in eternity, like Gothic cathedrals, Palladian houses, Chippendale furniture feats of engineering and technology or any human achievements capable of giving glory to God. And it won’t just be the works of great geniuses. God has a special liking for what is small.
Of course what counts most are spiritual things. How much did we love and serve our neighbour in this life? But this doesn’t mean that God is uninterested in what we have done with material things and our abilites to create things of natural beauty.
Making it all more vivid was the fact that some of the china on display had come from our two most famous porcelain manufactories, Worcester and Stoke-on-Trent not far away. This meant that we could picture the men and women who had spent their lives bent over the plates cups and saucers ornamenting them with exquisite little pictures of animals,birds, flowers and landscapes would in eternity be eating and drinking from them in paradise.
Where did these ideas come from? I can’t now remember. I had not at that time studied much theology. But they certainly conflicted with the views of most of the Christians I then knew, Catholics included. All accepted the idea of a new heaven. But the idea of a ‘new earth’ either didn’t interest them or had never crossed their minds. At the last Big Bang, it was assumed, everything purely material or natural except our souls would go up in smoke once and for all. I even knew a good Christian man who said that he believed in the resurrection of the dead, but not of the body. The next world was going to be purely spiritual. He presumably thought Our Lord’s glorified body was purely spiritual too.
All this changed with the Council and the authorised interpretation of its teaching, the CCC, where I was delighted to find my haphazard speculations confirmed.
Sometimes in the history of the Church it is a misunderstanding on the part of non-Catholics or non-Christians which leads to a clarification or development of her teaching, and so it was in this case.
Ever since the Enlightenment a fairly common accusation against the Church has been that she is only interested in saving souls. Civilisation and culture were of no importance to her in themselves. It was the same with technical and other kinds of progress. They had no enduring value in God’s scheme of things. They were simply to occupy us in this life., the way one gives children things to make and do in order to keep them out of trouble.
This then is the background to the development of doctrine in this area which was of special concern to the authors of Gaudium et Spes, or the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, who included St. John Paul II. They insisted, among other things that our First Parents were not only commanded to ‘fill the earth’ (i.e. have lots of babies so that there could be lots of souls). They were told to ‘subdue the earth’ which meant develop its potentialities in a way that would make them co-creators with God helping him decorate his creation in a lasting way like a Mother allowing to help her child decoratea cake.
The most relevant passages in the CCC are as follows.
“After the universal judgement…. the universe will be renewed…. Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world ‘new heavens and a new earth’ It will be the definitive realization of God’s plan to bring under a single head ‘all things in Christ, things in heaven and on earth.” 1042-3
“For the cosmos, Revelation affirms the profound common destiny of the material world and man ‘for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…. In hope because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay,…’ 1046, (quoting Romans 8:19)
“The visible universe, then, is itself destined to be transformed ‘ so that the world itself, restored to its original state, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just….’ 1047 (quoting St Irenaeus).
It is important to note here that St Irenaeus’ a very early Father of the Church, assumed as most Christians did before the early 19th century that the conditions in paradise before the Fall, prevailed at the same time over the whole earth. They did not realise that outside paradise the whole creation had in one sense been ‘groaning’ since the beginning. As far as we know, dinosaurs preceded paradise or could have existed contemporaneously with it.
For the CCC’s teaching on this subject see 310 where it speaks of God creating the world or the earth “in a state of journeying towards its ultimate perfection.”
Coming back to the new earth, the CCC concludes by telling us that “when we have spread the fruits of our nature and our enterprise… according to the command of the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his father an eternal and universal kingdom.” 1050
Exactly in what form the ‘fruits of our enterprise’ will survive can only of course be a matter of speculation. If there are airplanes and railway trains there certainly won’t be people toiling in coal mines and oil wells. But it isn’t difficult to imagine playing games or string quartets in our transfigured bodies any more than enjoying delicious fruits and vegetables. How else than by eating did Our Lord prove the reality of his transfigured body. What matters most of course is that everyone will be happy, kind and loving to a degree beyond our imagining.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2015
Version: 9th May 2015