There is a lot to love about London, but it's a far cry from paradise. And as Christians, while we love this world, we know it's broken and crying out for it's Saviour to come and fix it. But we also live with hope and with an unshakeable conviction that Jesus is doing a better and deeper work than we could ever fully imagine. He is redeeming the world.
If you've read Andrew Wilson's book, If God, Then What?, you will no doubt remember his effort at describing what a remade world might look like by focussing on London. There are few things I've ever read that give me a better sense of what Jesus is going to achieve in the world. For Christians, heaven is not our destination or our home; not in the end, at least. The Bible says we'll be living on a renewed earth.
Let these words stimulate your imagination as you think forward to what Jesus is going to do with this planet, and with this city we love so much (from pages 121-124 of the book):
I was wondering what a solution might look like, so I went to London. It was a strange decision, but I figured that imagining the redemption of the whole world was impossibly vast, and I'd never manage it. Somehow, imagining the redemption of London seemed more achievable. So I got up early, took the train to Victoria, and got the bus as far as Piccadilly Circus.
I've never been one of those people for whom perfection involves nothing man-made. Lots of people these days talk as if a perfect world would have no buildings or vehicles, but I disagree. I mean, I like being in the middle of nowhere as much as the next man, but the world has always seemed slightly incomplete to me without human activity; I've always thought sweeping harbours are more attractive when they have a smattering of yachts in full sail, and that beautiful architecture can enhance almost any vista. So when I think about a world redeemed, I think of it having cities and culture as well as mountains and meadows. I think of it having cities just like London, with galleries, museums, bohemian enclaves, side streets, markets and theatres. It's just that in my dream-world, the evil that currently taints the whole city has been removed.
It starts in the human soul. In the redeemed London, everybody knows that they are loved by their Creator. This might sound very fluffy and religious, but it's the biggest difference between the redeemed London and the regular one. I don't mean that people believe their Creator is real, or that they are doing their best to impress him; I mean they know that no matter what happens, the God of the universe delights in them, sings over them, loves them like I love my children, only more so.
People who don't know this can give their whole lives to the pursuit of an affirmation that never comes — from careers, lovers, children, parents — because we are all wired to get our sense of meaning and security from beyond ourselves. That's why the people going past the window right now are walking so fast, because they're trying to balance their family, their social life and their work, so that their friends, their families or their boss will say, Well done, you are a worthwhile and meaningful person. But in the redeemed London, people walk much more slowly, because they already know they're worthwhile and meaningful, because God says so, and he's the only one that matters.
This means that people in the redeemed London live without anything to prove, in complete security, and this has all sorts of implications that make it hard to recognize it as London, even though Tower Bridge and Big Ben and St James's Park are still there. For a start, people on the Tube make eye contact with one another and smile, instead of hiding behind their newspapers, because now strangers are not people to be avoided because they're all scary, but people to be celebrated because they're all happy. There are no brooding clumps of youths standing around Elephant & Castle smoking and looking miserable, trying to find their identity in the acceptance of their group, because all young people in the redeemed London already know who they are and why they matter, since they know and are known by God. The roads are weird: taxis don't cut one another up around Parliament Square or Hyde Park Corner, nobody honks their horn in frustration, bus drivers look happy, and you can't hear any sirens. And because there's no insecurity any more, everybody loves diversity, and you see white people stopping Arab people in the street to ask them about all the beautiful things in their culture, and how to enjoy a really long meal, and how to greet people properly.
People's hearts have changed, too. It's like everybody's got new desires, new passions, because they are all pursuing their happiness in the joy of God and the joy of others, and that changes the way they do everything. Metro doesn't have any negative stories any more, and nobody kills or abuses or cheats on anyone. It's not just that people don't do bad things; it's that they don't even want to. There's no hatred in Tower Hamlets, no greed in Kensington, no jealousy in Primrose Hill and no lust in Soho. Beauty is celebrated, but without anyone trying to own it to the exclusion of others. The seedy brothels north of Chinatown stopped operating long ago, not because someone made a law about it, but because nobody wanted to cheapen something as beautiful as sex by having it with a woman they didn't know in an underground hovel. The billboards in Hackney and Southwark, which used to have obscene graffiti over a plea to gunmen to hand in their weapons, now tell stories about how people who used to use graffiti and guns found forgiveness and acceptance and had their lives changed. It's as if the whole city has lost the ache in its soul, the ache people were trying to soothe with money, sex and power. People are living satisfied, fulfilled lives, and it makes the city so beautiful it makes you want to weep.
The oddest thing about the redemption of London is the way people work. In the old London, people would work to get money, as much as they could, so they could get more stuff, look and feel more important, go on nicer holidays and live in nicer flats. In the new one, people still work, but they do it not so much for their own benefit as for the whole community. The City is still there, but all the financial whizz-kids spend their best years trying to work out how to use money to help the most people. All the advertising agencies up by Goodge Street use their creativity and communication skills to praise what is honourable and admirable for its own sake. Oxford Street, would you believe, has become a massive open-air market, where every product you can find is crafted with care, from the exquisite and artistic clothing to the rich selection of handmade books, to the range of fresh breads from the baker who set up where the tacky souvenir vendor used to be. Every square inch of the city has had the good reinforced, and the bad removed, and it spills over into the arts scene, the architecture, the public spaces, even the government. It's a sight to see.
That's something like how I imagine the redemption of London to look, at least in outline. Essentially, it's a city full of people who know they are loved by God, and to whom he has given new desires, so they pursue his purposes instead of their own, and love others as they love themselves. Having said that, I know a city like this is impossible without the Creator God making it happen that way, and I know that without a God, my dream-world is no more achievable than John Lennon's was.
But if there is a Creator, and I think there is, then I'd expect the solution to be about redemption, not abandonment and fundamentally about the healing of people's souls by restoring their relationship with God, not just the adjustment of the landscape, or the weather. You can have all the lagoons and vineyards you want, but if people are still wandering round with an ache in their souls, desperately searching for something they hope will satisfy them, then we'll just end up polluting the lagoons and turning the vineyards into car parks. In other words, there's no solution for anything without fixing the hole in the human soul. If history tells us anything, it's that it doesn't take more than a few greedy and selfish people to turn the most abundant paradise into chaos. That's what my Zimbabwean friends all say, anyway.