Where Technology Meets Eternity
By KC McGinnis
September 19, 2012
The fullness of time has come, and the iPhone 5 has finally been announced. Expectedly, Apple sold out of its initial pre-order stock—a reported two millions units—within an hour of the announcement. At this rate, if you haven’t ordered your iPhone yet, you might not be able to get yours until, well, you’re dead. But according to at least one author, that’s not such a bad thing. In fact, iPhones and other technologies may not be absent from the new heaven and new earth.
...We will indeed celebrate human creativity and its resulting creations in the new earth.
So suggests John Dyer, director of web development at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology. In his book the tech expert makes the case that technology is part of what makes us human, between our beginning in "the Garden", which was void of technology, and our end in "the City"—heavenly Jerusalem, which will be filled with human technology. He writes:
At one end of this story is a pristine garden prepared by God for humankind to develop and transform. At the other end is a glorious, heavenly city full of human creations, art, and technology. At the center is our Savior Jesus Christ crucified on a cross, the most horrific of all technological distortions, built by transforming a tree from the natural world into a tool of death. Yet in his resurrection, Christ redeemed even that tool, transforming it into the symbol of our faith that eternally portrays his power over death and sin
Dyer pictures a heavenly city full of human inventions. Does this mean we’ll still be instagramming our quiet times or tweeting about our afternoons in heaven (“This city is HUGE. Can’t find the temple ... #Rev21”)? Probably not. But Dyer suggests that we will indeed celebrate human creativity and its resulting creations in the new earth. I asked Dyer a few questions about the relationship between human creations like the iPhone 5 and the coming New Creation.
You talk about an abundance of human creations in the new heaven and new earth. What are some of these human creations?
One way to answer this is to notice that the eschatological portraits in the Scripture never show us humans floating in heaven with wings or naked in an untouched garden. On the contrary, every time a biblical author sketches the eschaton, humans are on earth using various kinds of cultural goods, cooking meals, living in houses, walking on roads, raising banners, blowing trumpets, using domesticated animals, sitting on chairs, reading books, and so on. Passages like Revelation 21 are chock full of physicality with machines, art, and tools. At the same time, the Scriptures seem to hint that God will be transforming, redeeming, restoring, or making obsolete some human creations. For example, Isaiah's portrait of shalom is when people "beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks." (2:4). I don't want to take that so literally that we assume God will go around collecting swords and bending them, but this kind of passage does seem to indicate that our creations which we meant for destruction, God will transform somehow in the new city.
You talk about technologies being redeemed or transformed in the new heaven and new earth. Could you give an example of a human creation and what it might look like in its "redeemed form"? How about a communications technology like the iPhone?
Engaging in this kind of thought experiment is great, because it forces us to think about the physicality of the coming kingdom and helps us picture a world full of human creations rather than one of fluffy clouds and winged babies babies flying around. After all, God didn't design the Garden to stay as it was; he wanted people to "cultivate" it and create new things from the raw materials he gave us (Gen 2). However, as to what exactly that redeemed world of human and divine creations will look like, I don't know. Isaiah gives us a beautiful picture ... but it's just a portrait, an image of things yet unseen. It gives us hope and strengthens our faith, but it doesn't give us specific answers.
It's hard to imagine people using cell phones in heaven, but there's not much evidence that God will just give us telekinesis to communicate, either. If Christ were to come tomorrow, before the iPhone 5 had a chance to become obsolete in the current age, do you think we would be using iPhones in the new world?
I think this question requires that we dig a little deeper and ask why we need phones. We need them (and many modern technologies) because our time is short. We don't "have time" to go to our friend's house and talk. We don't "have time" to travel to China to see the latest prototype. Phones and airplanes shrink time and allow us to get things done - before we inevitably die. So what happens when time is no longer a limit? In the eschaton, Jesus will be physically present on earth - but will we need to make an appointment with him, or does the concept of an appointment (a short, fixed point in time) even have meaning when death is no longer chasing us? Furthermore, remember the Y2K bug (where computers had trouble taking into account the extra digits needed for a new century)? How much more trouble will they have trying to account for eternity and infinity?
In fact, the act of making technology is part of what shows that we're made in the image of God.
What would you say is a good example of technology being used for redemptive purposes?
I would start with Adam and Eve creating clothing and then just follow the trajectory of history and scripture where technology played a role in God's redemptive program (Noah's Ark, Moses's use of the recently developed alphabet technology, David acquiring iron smelting technology, Paul using the roads Alexander built, etc.). As for technology that's redemptive today, I'd point to any place where the "lame walk and the blind see." Anything that restores some humanity to humans, I would see as redemptive—in the broadest sense of the word—because it is part of God's restoration project. Apart from Christ, that redemption is incomplete, but it's still good.
Many human inventions are not created to cause harm, but are produced in a way that violates human rights (think about Apple's less-than-stellar human rights record). How will product production change in the new heaven and new earth?
In Genesis 2, God asks us to balance the acts of "cultivating" (or working, making, creating) with that of "keeping" (or guarding, protecting) the Garden and all of creation. I long for a world where God helps us to do that and restores our place as his image bearers.
Christians like Dyer understand that we live in a fallen world and that we are unable to solve all of its problems. But because people are are all made in the image of God, we naturally emulate in the present what God is going to do in the future. Technology like the iPhone 5 is part of the way we do this. We don't always get it right, and we often create technology that is harmful. But the technology itself is not the problem. In fact, the act of making technology is part of what shows that we're made in the image of God.
In heaven we may have no use for the “ships of Tarshish” (Isaiah 60), but there they are, on their way into the Kingdom of God. The same is true for the iPhone. We may not have a use for the technology, but the human ability to create it will be celebrated, not abolished, in the new heaven and new earth.