Two Worlds in Yellowstone

Yellowstone steam vents.

A few years ago, my family visited Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Yellowstone is a beautiful place for nature lovers. It is the oldest national park, not only in the nation, but in the world. Its 3740 square miles of wilderness have been largely preserved in their native state. We saw wolves, fox, deer, elk, moose, several bald eagles, even a grizzly bear. Thousands of bison roam free in the lush green mountain landscape.

All is not what it seems, however. Yellowstone sits atop a geological hotspot. The calderas from at least three ancient super-volcano explosions can be discerned in the park, the latest being approximately 1500 square miles in extent and 640,000 years in age. The explosion that created the Yellowstone caldera was many thousands of times larger than the Mount Saint Helens eruption in 1980. Yellowstone continues to be a very active geological site, and some day the hidden super-volcano will explode again.

Throughout the park, you can see geothermal evidence of the hidden world beneath. Geysers, steam vents, and colorful hot springs come shooting from the ground as living testimony to the power that is waiting to be unleashed.

I particularly like the mud pots. Less spectacular than a geyser or a steam vent, a mud pot is a thick, gooey ooze of clay, ash and water. The surface of the mud pot is placid, except when bubbles of hot steam occasionally break the surface, a bubble here, a bubble there. Where bubbles of steam break the surface, the mud pot is temporarily and locally transformed. Some mud pots have lots of bubbles popping up in different locations in the pool, while others require you to stand and wait to see even a single bubble appear.

A bison sits near a bubbling mud pot in Yellowstone.

Two worlds, then, intersect in Yellowstone. Herds of elk roam over landscapes shaped by forces hidden deep beneath the earth. The surface world of nature continues to operate as usual, despite the fact that the world below is waiting to explode. The two worlds interact even now as bison warm themselves beside Yellowstone’s steam vents and roll in its mud pots. (The worlds also sometimes interact as people or animals fall into hidden geothermal features, are burned by sudden eruptions of steam or are overcome by toxic gas emissions).

The Kingdom’s Present Presence

Yellowstone provides us with an upside-down model for understanding the kingdom’s present presence. Yellowstone is an idyllic world waiting for a catastrophe. We’ re living in a corrupted world waiting for the incorruptible. We live in the present fallen age as humans always have. Largely unseen is the power of Jesus’ coming kingdom, yet it hides beneath the surface, shaping our landscape and waiting to explode on the scene, just as magma hides beneath the surface of Yellowstone. At various times and places, the power of this hidden and coming kingdom bubbles to the surface.

I am indebted to Joni Eareckson Tada for the phrase, “sneak preview of heaven” to describe this phenomenon. Ms. Tada is a Christian who cannot use her arms or legs due to a spinal cord injury suffered in an accident. I first heard her use the phrase “sneak preview of heaven” in an answer to a question about divine healing. Miraculous healings, when they occur, are like sneak previews of heaven. More recently, I’ve heard her use the same phrase to describe occasions of joy in this world. Ms. Tada is not a professional theologian, but I think she’s on to something.

Occasional events in the life of the church provide a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God just as the mud-pots of Yellowstone presage the coming super-volcano. The coming kingdom is already present, but it’s hidden except when it bubbles to the surface. The power of the kingdom bubbles into this world in many different ways. You will find it not only in the acts described by Ms. Tada, but in acts of forgiveness, reconciliation, fellowship, witness, and sacrificial service. You will find it in acts of radical love and obedience. One could (or should) expect to find it bubbling strongly and consistently within the church of Jesus Christ.

The steam that bubbles to the surface affects the world around it, at least temporarily and locally. The steam bubbles, however, are the evidence of the coming great transformation, not the cause of it. They are not like drops of rain that become a stream that becomes a river that becomes an ocean (a different metaphor for the kingdom that I recall from seminary days). They are not a journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step. I find no incrementalism in the New Testament. Like the bison of Yellowstone, we live at the intersection of two realms. Signs of the coming kingdom have invaded – and continue to invade – our world, but our existence continues to be conditioned by the corruption of the present evil age. The visible world will remain largely as it is until the kingdom bursts on the scene with power that dwarfs our imagination.