Cities today are undergoing great upheavals as they grow beyond their capacities. Do you know what the Bible tells us about the cities of tomorrow—and about the central role today's Christians will play?
A Forgotten Dimension of the Gospel!
Our world has changed in an unprecedented way in the last two centuries. Prior to 1800, fewer than 2 percent of the world's population lived in cities. Yet today, in America and other developed nations of the world, more than 80 percent of the people live crammed into cities and sprawling suburban areas that occupy about 1 percent of the land. The results of this urban revolution—congestion, crowding and pollution—are destroying the natural environment and eroding the quality of life for millions of human beings. Of the six billion people on earth, about one billion live in squalid slums that surround burgeoning cities in the developing world.
In spite of these serious problems, experts predict that urban areas will continue to expand, and that in 20–30 years nine of the ten largest "megacities" (with populations over 10 million) will be in the developing world, where public services are already strained beyond capacity. For anyone living in crowded urban tenements, slums or even modern suburbia, architects' futuristic dreams of building tower cities—self-contained communities of 50,000 people housed in skyscrapers 2,500 feet high—may sound sobering and even frightening!
But are we destined to live in a totally urbanized world with megacities and sprawling suburbs that stretch beyond the horizon? Will the cities of tomorrow be totally automated environments of concrete, steel, glass and plastic—or will increased crowding, congestion, pollution, rising crime and social isolation render urbanized areas barely habitable? Are we heading for an urban apocalypse? What does the future really hold? Who will determine the shape of future human settlements, and what policies will be followed? While it may come as a surprise to many, the Bible has much to say about the cities of tomorrow. It not only explains why cities are plagued with problems; it offers real solutions. If your goal is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, you cannot afford to ignore this important subject!
Cities have been called mankind's greatest achievement, yet cities also present human beings with some of the most difficult and challenging dilemmas. Cities are the abode of historic buildings, soaring skyscrapers, giant sports complexes and other monumental structures. Cities are also centers of government, finance, culture and trade. Major universities and important religious sites are usually located in cities. Growing cities are often associated with thriving economies—but not always.
For millions who flock to cities in search of jobs and a better life, the result is often disappointing. Affordable housing is usually scarce. The unemployed frequently live in the streets, or crowd in with friends or relatives. Automobiles, trucks and buses choke streets and spew fumes, creating smog and pollution that poison the air and contribute to disease. Noise, confusion, constant human contact and the disappearing sense of community generate stress that is expressed as unreasonable behavior—rage—often with violent and tragic consequences. Sprawling cities and suburbs devour valuable forests and farmland, and practically eliminate contact with nature. The clashing architecture, pervading ugliness and entrenched poverty found in cities, and the bland sameness of suburbs, have been linked to a rising sense of alienation among young and old alike. Ironically, in suburbs where children are driven or bused to schools, then come home to play video games, parents face an epidemic of obesity in youngsters who do not get enough exercise!
This recognizable set of urban problems known as "urban ills" appears to be related to "problems of urban and regional planning" (The Economist, p. 17, January 10, 1998; American Journal of Public Health, p. 1484, September 2003). A United Nations official has commented that "these urban curses are spreading with the speed of the plague" (New Scientist, June 15, 1996, p. 10). The message is clear—people in cities have suffered from a lack of wise planning, and our modern culture is moving in the wrong direction!
To understand the reasons behind our urban dilemmas, it is helpful to know how modern cities originated. The first cities appeared more than 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, in the Fertile Crescent—the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (in modern Iraq). The earliest cities were located near sources of food and water, and were centers of religion, government and trade. Archaeologists estimate that these cities initially housed between 5,000 and 10,000 people, possibly more. Streets were laid out on a grid pattern, with major avenues leading to central areas where increasingly monumental buildings were erected. Housing structures were several stories high. These early cities were surrounded by formidable defensive walls.
According to written records from the early fourth millennium bc, the first city built in this region was Eridu. Babylonian traditions state that creation began when the gods built Eridu, "thus the Mesopotamian Eden is not a garden, but a city" (Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City, Leick, p. 2). Another early city in this region was Uruk, which has been identified as the biblical city of Erech (Genesis 10:10). Uruk has been termed "the mother of cities… from which all other cities sprang" (ibid., p. 30). Archeological evidence reveals detailed urban planning, and monumental buildings made not only with brick, but also with quarried limestone and cast concrete. Uruk was surrounded by a "ring of walls some six miles in circumference… of enormous thickness" (ibid., p. 32).
Historians and Archaeologists generally do not discuss biblical accounts that shed light on what was going on in this region at the time. The Bible states that these first cities were built by Cain and his descendants, Enoch and Nimrod (Genesis 4:17; 10:10). In Scripture, Cain and his progeny are credited with promoting a way of life—"the way of Cain"—that ignored and violated the laws of God (Jude 11). The first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote that Cain developed a society based on competition and plunder, and led mankind into wicked ways (see Antiquities of the Jews, 1:1:1–2). Nimrod—the builder of cities in the plain of Shinar (Mesopotamia) and in Assyria—perpetuated this violent and misguided form of civilization, which explains why these first cities were surrounded by immense fortifications. The Bible also reveals that the monumental architecture in these first cities promoted human vanity—not the betterment of human beings (Genesis 11:1–4). While modern scholars recognize that "the invention of cities [urbanism] may well be the most enduring legacy of Mesopotamia" (Leick, p. xiv), it is not surprising (from what the Bible reveals) that major problems have been associated with the form of urbanization arising from these cities, because the builders knowingly rejected God's instructions (see Psalm 127:1; Habakkuk 2:12).
Greeks and Romans adopted the grid pattern and monumental architecture of the early Mesopotamian cities—and, when necessary, the formidable defensive walls. However, as cities in the classical world grew large, they were plagued with noise, congestion, crowded living conditions and disease. The same problems were evident during the Middle Ages when populations crowded into walled cities for protection against plundering conquerors. Lacking adequate sanitation, and ignorant of the cause of disease, medieval cities became breeding grounds for cholera, typhoid and epidemics of plague that killed nearly half the people of Europe. Dispersed rural populations generally fared much better during these epidemics. Sadly, infectious disease is still a major problem today in teeming slums and crowded, poverty-ridden urban areas.
As we will see, many of these urban problems could have been prevented if the builders of cities had followed biblical guidelines regarding the construction of human settlements instead of using city models created by Cain and his descendants. God plainly states that "if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to carefully obey all His commandments… blessed shall you be in the city." However, if we choose to ignore or disobey His instructions, "cursed shall you be in the city" (Deuteronomy 28:1–3, 15–16). But what kind of instructions about the design of cities do we find in the Bible, and what do these instructions have to do with Christians and the Gospel?
In a striking contrast to the Babylonian account of creation, the Bible reveals that God placed the first man and woman in a garden—in close contact with nature—surrounded by trees, rivers and living creatures. While critics dismiss this biblical account as a simple-minded myth, God was actually revealing an important fact about the most appropriate habitat for human beings. Modern research has discovered that contact with nature has therapeutic and restorative values! Many studies show that hospital patients who look out windows at natural scenes (trees, lakes, etc.) recover sooner than patients who only see walls or buildings, that students feel more relaxed after taking exams and that employees have lower stress levels and fewer health complaints when they are exposed to natural environments (New England Journal of Medicine, p. 737, September 14, 1995). Researchers have observed: "Many of the most effective settings for recovering from directed-attention fatigue involve the natural environment"—exposure to trees, waterfalls, lakes, flowers (American Journal of Public Health, September 2003, p. 1486; see also, The Experience of Nature and With People in Mind by Kaplan). The absence of these natural settings in urbanized areas—characterized by traffic jams, distracting billboards and crowded buildings—appears to play a significant role in generating mental fatigue that erupts as road rage and domestic violence.
Another biblical guideline for human settlements is the provision for adequate open space to avoid the consequences of overcrowding. The Bible clearly warns: "Woe to those who join house to house; they add field to field" (Isaiah 5:8). While it is technically feasible and economically profitable to stack dwellings on top of and beside each other, this kind of housing arrangement can generate physical and emotional tensions. Proverbs 25:17 advises us to "seldom set foot in your neighbor's house, lest he become weary of you and hate you"—yet this is impossible to avoid when people live in closely built dwellings. In crowded urban areas, it is not surprising that neighbors turn on each other for playing radios too loudly—or for some other trivial yet annoying activity—because a basic principle has been violated in the design of the urban environment.
The Bible contains sanitary guidelines that are extremely important when large numbers of people live in close proximity. Moses wrote, more than 3,000 years ago, that human wastes are to be buried outside the camp (Deuteronomy 23:12–14). This basic procedure prevents the spread of dangerous infectious diseases. However, it has often been ignored, as during the Middle Ages when garbage and sewage were simply dumped in the streets—and people died like flies because fundamental biblical principles were neither taught nor followed.
Today the unprecedented spread of urbanization is devouring and destroying vast areas of the natural environment. Valuable agricultural land is disappearing under parking lots. Pasturelands are blanketed with suburbs. Species of plants and wildlife face extinction as their habitats are obliterated. Yet, long ago, God instructed the first human beings to "tend and keep" the environment (Genesis 2:15). While God gave human beings dominion over the earth (meaning the responsibility to rule, manage, make useful, develop and beautify), they were to use natural resources wisely and carefully—as stewards of the creation (Genesis 1:28–29). The wholesale exploitation and destruction of the natural environment to make bigger cities is in defiance of God's instructions. Human settlements should be designed to fit into the natural environment, and not dominate or destroy it (see Design with Nature, McHarg).
Many urban problems are the result of haphazard, unplanned development and the lack of any master plan to guide the growth of cities. Scripture indicates that God intended human beings to plan wisely for the future. Proverbs 4:26 advises us to "ponder the path of your feet" and 1 Corinthians 14:33 informs us: "God is not the author of confusion [disorder]." In the camp of Israel, God instructed Moses to arrange the 12 tribes in a specific order around a centrally placed Tabernacle (Numbers 2–4). The camp of Israel (composed of well over a million people) was in reality a well-planned city that was considerably larger than the first cities of Mesopotamia. But why should these Old Testament principles be of any interest to modern Christians?
Many are familiar with Jesus' teaching about loving our neighbors, and about having a more "abundant life" (John 10:10). Yet Jesus' real message was "the gospel of the kingdom of God" (Mark 1:14–15), where the saints (converted Christians) would rule on this earth with Jesus Christ for a thousand years—the Millennium (Revelation 20:4–6). This message permeates the Bible (see Daniel 2:44; 7:27; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 11:15–18). Jesus told His 12 disciples that they would rule over the 12 tribes of Israel in this coming kingdom (Matthew 19:28). Jesus stated in a parable that the reward for Christians who learn to apply the laws of God would be authority over cities in His Kingdom (Luke 19:11–19).
Old Testament prophets mention repeatedly that, in the coming kingdom, cities will be rebuilt and inhabited. Amos states: "Behold the days are coming… I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; They shall build the waste cities and inhabit them" (Amos 9:13–14; see also Isaiah 61:4; Jeremiah 33:7; Ezekiel 36:10). The Jews' return from a Babylonian captivity in 586bc, and today's Jewish settlements in the modern nation of Israel, only represent partial fulfillments of these prophecies. These prophecies speak of a time when all 12 tribes of Israel will return and rebuild cities in the lands they have been given by God. That time is yet in the future—in the coming kingdom of God!
When critics scoff at a literal interpretation of these verses, and liberal theologians spiritualize these prophecies away as analogies and metaphors, they ignore what Christians in the first century—who were taught by the Apostles—actually believed! Historian Edward Gibbon describes the beliefs of the early Church: "The ancient and popular doctrine of the Millennium was intimately connected with the second coming of Christ… Christ, with the triumphant band of saints… would reign upon this earth… The assurance of such a Millennium was carefully inculcated by a succession of fathers from Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, who conversed with the immediate descendants of the apostles… it appears to have been the reigning sentiment of orthodox believers" (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 15). Yet, as Gibbon explains, this exciting teaching about the coming kingdom of God was gradually replaced by false teachings! Gibbon writes: "The doctrine of Christ's reign upon earth was first treated as a profound allegory, was considered by degrees as a doubtful and useless opinion, and was at length rejected as the absurd intention of heresy and fanaticism" (ibid.). This is why little is heard today of the scriptures that speak of rebuilding cities in Tomorrow's World—a forgotten dimension of the Gospel!
The mission that Jesus Christ gave to the Church He founded is not only to preach the gospel of the coming kingdom of God, but also to "make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:17). Christians who grow spiritually, and learn to apply the laws of God, will rule with Jesus Christ in the Millennium—the coming kingdom of God (Revelation 5:10). Part of their job will be to supervise the rebuilding of cities in Tomorrow's World. This will entail recapturing true values in the field of urban design, and learning lessons from history about what makes cities livable and workable.
Many useful books are available on the subjects of regional planning and urban design, and many examples exist to observe and study, whether for positive or negative examples. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato discussed his idea of the ideal city in The Republic. In 1573, Philip II of Spain formulated town-planning guidelines—Laws of the Indies—for new settlements in the Americas. In the 1820s, Robert Owen designed and built a model industrial settlement, New Lanark, on the banks of the Clyde River in Scotland, seeking to rectify many of the ills of the Industrial Revolution. New Lanark has been restored, and can be seen today. Ebenezer Howard's concept of Garden Cities (1890s) has influenced the design of new towns built in England and other countries. England's Prince Charles has played an influential role in the development of Poundbury (a planned community near Dorchester in southern England), where dwellings and businesses are mixed together. Poundbury incorporates urban design principles elaborated in Prince Charles' book, A Vision for Britain.
Today, many cities recognize the need to restore neighborhoods, revitalize waterfronts and city centers and rebuild efficient public transportation systems. Increasing numbers of urban planners understand the need to create people-friendly cities, designed on a human scale, that offer beauty, pedestrian walkways and contact with nature—yet the cancerous blight of urban sprawl, and the growth of disease-ridden slums continues to spread around the world.
God has revealed a better future in the pages of the Bible. Jesus Christ's return to the earth will usher in remarkable changes. For Christians who believe the Bible, who care about people and who want to improve the way millions of people live, the time to prepare is now. Take time to study the biblical principles related to human settlements. Learn what is involved in planning livable cities that meet human needs and are designed in harmony with nature. In doing so, you can learn today a vital dimension of what Christ's followers will be doing—participating in a forgotten dimension of the gospel—building the cities in Tomorrow's World!