Back to Al Wolter's book, Creation Regained (1, 2), and the rest of chapter 2, on Creation. We're trying to gain a biblical perspective on the whole of reality, and the task in this chapter has been to look at the basic structure of all that God has made, before looking in the following chapters at the shifting direction in which the creation has been oriented, whether away from God (Fall), or back towards God (Redemption).
Genesis 1 speaks of an unformed and unfilled earth being formed and filled by God's creative word. What next?
This is not the end of the development of creation, however. Although God has withdrawn from the work of creation, he has put an image of himself on the earth with a mandate to continue. The earth had been completely unformed and empty; in the six-day process of development God had formed it and filled it—but not completely. People must now carry on the work of development: by being fruitful they must fill it even more; by subduing it they must form it even more. Mankind, as God's representatives on the earth, carry on where God left off. But this is now to be a human development of the earth. The human race will fill the earth with its own kind, and it will form the earth for its own kind. From now on the development of the created earth will be societal and cultural in nature. In a single word, the task ahead is civilization (pp.41f).
But where do these cultural riches spring from? Ultimately from God, who created the world to be so rich with possibility, having so many ways in which it can be opened up and unfolded by human activity.
The given reality of the created order is such that it is possible to have schools and industry, printing and rocketry, needlepoint and chess. The creational law is crying out to be positivized in new and amazing ways. The whole vast range of human civilization is ... a display of the marvelous wisdom of God in creation and the profound meaningfulness of our task in the world (p.44).
This should have a deep impact on how Christians view all areas of culture and society: "they are not outside God's plans for the cosmos, despite the sinful aberrations, but rather were built in from the beginning" (p.45). This means there will be "positive possibilities for service to God in such areas as politics and the film arts, computer technology and business administration, developmental economics and skydiving" (p.45).
But what about the ultimate end of human civilisation? Will it all be thrown away when Christ returns?
Wolters uses the helpful image of a child who develops with a chronic disease. Two processes are continuing in parallel: the normal process of growth, and the distorting effects of the disease. If this person is healed of the disease in adulthood, that doesn't mean that the normal growth will be reversed and the adult will become a tiny infant again. Rather, the distorting effects are taken away, and the good growth is preserved.
So it will be with human civilisation:
Even the great crisis that will come on the world at Christ's return will not annihilate God's creation or our cultural development of it. ... There is no reason to believe that the cultural dimensions of earthly reality (except insofar as they are involved in sin) will be absent from the new, glorified earth that is promised. In fact, the biblical indications point in the opposite direction. Describing the new earth as the new Jerusalem, John writes that "the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. ... The glory and the honor of the nations will be brought into it" (Rev. 21:24, 26). This very likely refers to the cultural treasures of mankind which will be purified by passing through the fires of judgment, like gold in a crucible (p.47).
But doesn't the Bible say that "the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10, RSV)?
[A]ll but one of the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts do not have the final words "will be burned up" but instead have "will be found," which makes quite a difference. (This is the Greek text accepted by the more recent translations, such as the NEB and NIV, which read, somewhat o[b]scurely, "will be laid bare.") The text therefore teaches that ... "the earth and the works that are upon it" will survive (p.47).
In other words, "God does not make junk, and he does not junk what he has made" (p.49).