To Love What God Loves: Understanding the Cosmic Scope of Redemption

J. Richard Middleton

The most well-known, and perhaps well-loved, verse in the Bible is John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (NRSV).

God so loved the world — the kosmos, in Greek. Could that mean what we mean today by the “cosmos”? God loves … this universe?

We know that elsewhere in the Gospel of John, and also in 1 John, the term kosmos refers to the social order, indeed, the corrupt, fallen “world” that humans have constructed.

So 1 John 2:15 tells us: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in them.” This verse understands human beings as loving, desiring creatures; what we set our hearts on shapes our lives. So we’re warned against internalizing the values of this corrupt world, this twisted social order. Love of the world in this sense is antithetical to true love of God.

Likewise, Paul tells us in Rom 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” In other words, love what God loves, which involves a reshaping of our desires.

Yet according to John 3:16 God loves the world, a world that includes people, even fallen, sinful people. This is the world that Jesus, the Son of God, came into, a world that God wants to save (John 3:17), to give life to, through his Son (1 John 4:9).

How can we be told both not to love the world (because it is corrupt and fallen) and yet that God loves the world (so much that he would send his only Son)?

Paradoxically, this world of evil and corruption stands under God’s judgment; but it also generates God’s compassion, because he sees the depth of our need.

It generates God’s love.

But why would God love this sinful, corrupt world?

Because the world (though fallen) is first of all God’s creation — God’s good creation.

According to Gen 1, after God’s first creative act, the bringing forth of light out of darkness, God saw that the light was good (1:4). Five more times in the creation account of Gen 1, we are told that God looked at what he had made, and saw that it was good (1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). And when creation was complete, God surveyed everything he had made, “and behold, it was very good” (1:31).

Yet it wasn’t perfect.

The Human Calling in God’s World

God expected that initial world he made to be made even better — by us. God gave humanity the privileged task, the sacred calling, to improve the world. As Gen 1:26-28 puts it, we were made in God’s image and commissioned to rule the animals and subdue the earth. Genesis 2:15 describes the human task as working and protecting the garden that God planted. Our creational task is to interact with the earth and so develop and transform the world that God had made. This is what theologians call the “cultural mandate.”

In response to this creational calling, we find Cain and Abel engaging in agriculture and animal husbandry (Gen 4:3-4). Later, Cain builds the first city (4:17). Later still Jabal introduces nomadic livestock herding, Jubal invents musical instruments, while Tubal-Cain develops a variety of metal tools (4:20-22).

It was God’s intent from the beginning, and it is the human project, to develop this world, by unfolding the potentialities for agriculture, music, technology, and also art, governance, trade, science, etc. — in short, civilization. We are to actualize the God-given potentials of this world, resulting in its transformation into a complex socio-cultural reality.

And this transformation of the world is to be accomplished by that creature made to be God’s own image on earth.

In the ancient world of biblical times every temple had an image or cult statue of the deity that the people worshiped, through which the god was thought to be present to the worshipers. Ancient peoples weren’t ignorant; they didn’t think that statue of the deity was the actual god. Rather, the cult image in the earthly temple was meant to manifest and make palpably real the presence of the god who dwelt in heaven, since this was beyond humanity’s direct access.

Likewise, after God made the cosmos, the realms of heaven and earth (Gen 1:1), he placed his image on earth. Human beings are the authorized, living image of the one true God in the cosmic sanctuary. Our vocation in the temple of creation is to manifest the Creator’s presence by how we live. Humans are the divinely designated mediators of the divine presence from heaven (where the Creator is enthroned) to earth.

So when God made the world, it was good; but its full potential wasn’t yet unleashed. Creation was never meant to be static. God was expecting change and development.

Obviously, this physical cosmos was changing from the beginning, as the initial elements of what we call the “Big Bang” were transformed into the billions of galaxies that have developed over deep time, and the earth itself has changed dramatically through a complex geological and biological history. We confess that God’s hand has been at work in this transformation.

But beyond that, God expected change through human agency. God desired that we would have a hand in bringing this good creation to its intended telos or goal, when God’s glory would fill the earth (Num 14:21; cf. Hab 2:14; Isa 11:9). Just as God’s glory had filled the tabernacle and temple of old (Exod 40:34-35; 1 Kgs 8:10-11), so it is God’s desire for the cosmic sanctuary of creation to be flooded with his glorious presence. Then, as Paul puts it, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

But human sin has impeded the fulfillment of that goal.

Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-Cain may have developed new forms of livestock herding, musical instruments, and metal tools (Gen 4:20-22) — and we have since developed all sorts of amazing wonders — but Cain invented murder (Gen 4:8) and Lamech instituted bigamy and revenge killing (Gen 4:19, 23-24). This was not a particularly auspicious beginning.

Whereas humans were to fill the earth, not just with their descendants (Gen 1:28), but ultimately with God’s very presence, as they obediently and creatively represented their Creator in the full range of earthly activities, we instead find the earth filled with violence (Gen 6:11).

The contrast between chaps. 1 and 6 of Genesis is stark. Whereas God had looked at the initial world he made and saw that it was very good (1:31), later we are told that God saw something quite different — that human evil was great on the earth (6:5), and that the earth had become corrupted or ruined (6:12).

Yet even after that, “God so loved the world.” Why does God still love this broken, distorted world?

Because God can see through the present evil and corruption of the world — including the evil and corruption that have us in its grip. God can still see the created goodness that he made, which has been distorted by evil.

The good news of the biblical message is that the Creator has never given up on creation.

Instead, it is God’s passionate desire to redeem this world (this kosmos) that he made, a world that includes us human beings, but is not limited to us.

The Redemption of All Things

Indeed, the NT envisions what we could call cosmic redemption. Some texts, like Rev 21:1 and 2 Pet 3:13, speak broadly of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Since heaven and earth is how the OT understands the created cosmos (Gen 1:1; Ps 115:16), these texts in Revelation and 2 Peter portray nothing less than a new creation.

The origin of the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth” is the prophetic oracle of Isa 65:17, which envisions a healed world with a redeemed community in rebuilt Jerusalem, where life is restored to flourishing and shalom after the devastation of the Babylonian exile (65:17-25). Isaiah’s this-worldly prophetic expectation, focused on the return from exile, is universalized to the entire cosmos and human society generally in late Second Temple Judaism and in the NT.

Where Revelation and 2 Peter speak of “a new heaven and a new earth” as the context for redeemed people, other NT texts use the phrase “all things” (Greek: panta or ta panta) to describe the object of God’s saving activity.

One such text is Acts 3:21. Here we find Peter, preaching in Jerusalem soon after Pentecost, pointing to “the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.” “Universal restoration” is Peter’s summary of what will happen when Jesus returns (Acts 3:20) — literally, the text says the restoration of all things.

This somewhat brief and cryptic statement gains clarity from comparing it to other statements in various NT epistles.

Thus, in Eph 1 we have a long Pauline sentence describing God’s plan of salvation. This sentence culminates in v. 10, which describes God’s purpose in Christ as “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Here salvation is understood as unifying that which has been fragmented (presumably through sin), and this unifying action is applied not just to human beings, but to all things, which includes things in heaven and things on earth (v. 10). Since heaven and earth describes the cosmos that God made in the beginning (Gen 1:1), Eph 1 envisions a salvation as wide as creation itself.

A similar text is from Col 1, which contains another long Pauline sentence. The conclusion of this sentence articulates God’s purpose in sending Christ, namely “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (1:20). Here salvation is conceived as reconciliation (or making peace) between those who are at enmity, by removing the source of that enmity, namely, sin, through the atoning blood of Christ. But the text does not myopically limit the efficacy of Christ’s atonement to humanity. Rather, the reconciliation with God effected by Christ’s shed blood is applied as comprehensively as possible to all things, whether on earth or in heaven. Since just a few verses earlier we were told that in Christ “all things in heaven and on earth were created” (1:16), v. 20 clearly means to affirm a reconciliation that is cosmic in scope.

Finally, in Rom 8 we find imagery of the Egyptian bondage applied to the entire creation. Just as the Israelites groaned in their bondage under Pharaoh’s oppression (Exod 2:22-23), so “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22-23). We who have become God’s children presently groan in bondage to sin and death, as we await the resurrection, which Paul describes as “the redemption of our bodies.” But, amazingly, the non-human world can expect a similar redemption. Just as the Israelites of old experienced their exodus, so “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).

The entire creation will participate in the same salvation — the liberation from death — that redeemed people will experience in the resurrection. As one of my theology professors used to say, “God doesn’t make junk; and God doesn’t junk what he makes.”

This means that when John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world” there is nothing to stop us taking this in the widest possible sense.

To Love What God Loves — The Calling of the Church

Even before the eschaton or consummation, when sin will be eradicated from creation, and the new heaven and new earth will be permeated with God’s full presence, the Creator has never stopped loving this world.

Psalm 33:5 affirms that even now “the earth is full of the LORD’s steadfast love” (see also Ps 119:64). “Steadfast love” renders ḥesed, which can also be translated as God’s “unfailing love” (NIV) or “faithful care” (JPS Tanak).

And love moved the Creator of heaven and earth to become incarnate in Christ Jesus, ultimately to suffer and die on behalf of this broken world. That God would enter history and endure the cross, in order to redeem not only rebellious humanity, but all things in heaven and earth, suggests the extent and depth of God’s care for creation. Indeed, the promise of a new heaven and a new earth signifies the very heart of God.

How might his vision of a new creation motivate the church to care about this world?

To start with, the church is the “new humanity,” renewed in the image of our Creator (Eph 4:24; Col 3:9-10). This means that God’s people have the calling to fulfill the original human mandate of tending the creational garden, developing this world, unfolding its possibilities — but now with an eye to the healing of this broken world. This will mean shaping our communal, embodied lives to address the needs of this groaning creation, whether those are matters of personal brokenness, communal injustice, or ecological degradation.

As those who passionately desire to be conformed to God’s image, and thus to manifest what Wesley called “social holiness” in their communal life of discipleship, we want to love what God loves. In this way the church can be an embodied instantiation of God’s ḥesed, a foretaste of God’s redeeming presence, in the midst of history.

Posted Mar 23, 2016