One of the most perplexing brands of eschatology is “transformational” eschatology. A broad-brush way to describe this view is that the eschaton or last days will be triggered once Christians (under the sovereignty of God) have progressively transformed the earth into what it was meant to become. Part of the reasoning behind this stems from a definition of “redemption” that includes individual persons, yet also encompasses creation as a whole. After all, doesn’t Romans 8:19-23 indicate that creation itself waits to be “set free from its bondage to corruption” (v. 21)? Paul even contrasts “creation” and “us” in that passage, and uses language of redemption for both!1 The million dollar question is how and when that redemption will happen and what parts of creation, if any, it will include.
The Reformed have affirmed an inaugurated eschatology where the last days are here already but not yet fully. Paul tells us that Christ is the “firstfruits” of those who, united to Christ in His resurrection, will eventually be resurrected as He is when the “not yet” becomes only the “already” (1 Cor 15:23). So Christ has paved the way and modeled already what it will eventually look like when we are fully and completely redeemed, given new bodies appropriate to the new heavens and new earth. Until then, our bodies decay and experience the effects of the present evil age and its curse.
But that’s us. What about the rest of creation? Is it being redeemed? Did Christ accomplish redemption for the rest of creation when he died and was raised?
For those who believe that all of creation is currently being “redeemed” in the eschatological sense, there’s a very simple test to see whether that is in fact the case. As a friend of mine puts it, you are tasked to find a single atom, molecule, object, anything that has the permanence of the everlasting, eternal new heavens and new earth. Such a thing would be indestructible, and would most likely exhibit characteristics that literally indicate an other-world. That would be quite a find.
Or take the language we sometimes find within evangelical circles of “redeeming the city”, for example. Is this appropriate language given what we know of the biblical use of redemption? That depends. People are redeemed by the Holy Spirit regenerating their hearts, having faith in Christ, repenting of their sins, and receiving Christ and his saving and renovating benefits from his accomplished work in history. Christ did not directly accomplish redemption for buildings, neighborhoods, cities, towns, or any other particular group or entity whatsoever. Christ’s benefits do not apply to a local diner or run-down gym. They do not apply to capitalism, to philosophy, to Wal-Mart, to the Icelandic courts of law, or any other non-human not made in the image of God.
There may be some warrant for a loose definition of redemption that is non-soteric and can be applied to non-individuals by proxy. First, God cursed the ground in Gen 3:16, 17, the result being toil and struggle in our work from that day forward. That curse, however, will not be redeemed until the last days, so there’s no indication that God, and especially not man, will do anything to redeem that curse before the second coming.
Second, imagine a local coffee shop run by a devout atheist openly hostile to Christ, Christianity and Christians. Offensive art and music are the norm and the clientele share the owner’s hostility toward the church. Now imagine that same owner’s heart transformed by the Spirit. He is starting to attend a good church, is convicted to host art and music that is not overtly offensive to the Christian faith, and shares his new faith regularly with the same clientele. In a very qualified, non-technical sense, a kind of redemption happened to that coffee shop where something that once was so hostile to Christ and the church is now not. I could be persuaded that this may be unwise and confusing language, but there may be times when “redemption” is used and is not intended as a transformational comment but rather non-salvific shorthand for a collective group.
Finally, there is a sense in which Scripture does seem to indicate there will be at least some continuity between this age and the final age to come, the least of which will be retaining who we are as unique individuals in the new earth. Christians will, as distinct persons separate from one another in essence, live together in the new heavens and earth. There does seem to be shadowy pointers indicating that, along with us, there will be other manifestations of concepts we experience here in this life, admittedly in an imperfect way. Although the book of Revelation is not meant to be a descriptive tourist map of the new heavens and earth, the book does include descriptions for a reason, pointing to real, albeit symbolic, things that occur and are present during the last days. There obviously seems to be beauty and radiance (Rev 21:11) and even music and song (Rev 5:9) as “the trump shall resound” (Rev 8:6). So while Bach and The Who may not be heard in the new heavens and earth, it’s likely that we will be singing something in praise and worship. Song will continue.
I haven’t wanted to go into millennial debates, but what is said above, I think, fits most properly within an amillennial, inaugurated eschatology. Thinkers much more capable than I have written reams on that topic, of which most readers here are likely familiar. In this modest post I hoped to communicate just a few preliminary ideas to think about regarding the concepts of redemption and culture.
 Paul is speaking in this passage about redemption administered in two different ways. God works through redemptive history with an end toward redeeming all of creation in the last days. He works uniquely in redeeming individual persons as His image, using the Holy Spirit and the Son in ways distinct from how the Persons are used to act within history on non-human creation.