My Thoughts on the “New Heavens and a New Earth”: Is the Phrase Literal or Figurative?

The apostle Peter was nearing the end of his life.  He was about to be executed by Nero.  2 Peter is his last inspired writing.  Towards the end of it, he wrote: 

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder,
that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles,
knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.
They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”
For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God,
and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.
But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness,
waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!
But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:1-13

He spoke of several things here.  He talked of those who mock the notion that Christ would come again.  “Why should we think Jesus will come again?  Everything’s the same as it has always been since the beginning of time!”  And Peter replied by basically saying, “Not necessarily.  Remember that there was a global flood a few centuries after the beginning of time, and the flood destroyed everything!  And God is planning on destroying the world – and the whole universe – again one day, this time with fire!”

He went on to basically say, “Time as we know it is irrelevant to God.  The reason He puts off the end of the world is because He wants to give us time to repent.  But make no mistake, the end is coming.  Christ will come again like a thief in the night.  You won’t know when He’s coming.

“And when He comes, the heavens (ooranos, the sky, the universe, the stars) will pass away (parerchmai, go, pass away perish) and the elements (stoicheion, the material causes of the universe, what we see in the heavens) will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth (ge, the globe, the world, the ground, the planet) and its works (ergon, the works of nature) will be burned up.

“Since everything is going to be destroyed like this, Christians, what sort of people ought we to be when it comes to our conduct, our holiness, our godliness?  We should be looking for this day to come and living our lives faithfully so that it will come sooner, this day of God in which the heavens (ooranos, the sky, the universe, the stars) will be destroyed by burning, and the elements (stoicheion, the material causes of the universe, what we see in the heavens) will melt with intense heat!”

Peter’s point?  A day is coming in which everything – the sky, the universe, the stars, the material causes of the universe, what we see in the heavens, the globe, the world, the ground, the planet, and the works of nature within it – will all be burned up with heat so intense that they will melt and be destroyed.  This world is not our home.  This world will not last.  There’s something after it, and we need to be living holy, godly lives in preparation for it, looking for it.

And then he elaborated on what we should be looking for:  “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells”(2 Pet. 3:13).

“New heavens and a new earth.”  What does he mean by that?  What does he NOT mean by that?  I’d like to study what the totality of Scripture teaches about the new heavens and a new earth.  This is a deep topic, so I’m going to dedicate 3 blog posts to it.  The reason I want to discuss it is because there are a lot of questions, and also a lot of misunderstandings, about what the Bible teaches about the new heavens and a new earth.

There are those who take Peter literally.  After this planet and universe are destroyed, a literally new universe and new planet – new heavens and a new earth – will take their place and the saved will dwell on that new earth.

There are others who look at Peter’s words in a figurative sense.  They say that the new heavens and a new earth are not meant to be taken literally, but rather are figurative language describing Christians spending eternity in heaven with God.

Which view is the correct view?  That’s an important question.  Think about it.  If the Christian’s eternal reward is actually supposed to be on a literal new earth, then a lot of the songs we sing in worship are wrong.  We shouldn’t be singing about spending eternity with God “above the bright blue,” that “glory is waiting UP YONDER,” or that we’ll be “UP in the beautiful Paradise Valley” which implies being up in heaven.  Not if we’re actually going to be on a new planet earth.

Do we have the correct view of our eternal reward?  Is the view that the new heavens and new earth are literal the correct view, or should we view them as a figurative depiction of our eternity in heaven with God?  In order to determine the correct view, we must consider “the entirety of Your Word (which) is truth” (Ps. 119:160a).  All which the Bible teaches about this topic, as well as all that the Bible teaches about eternity in heaven and what is promised about it.  Only then will we know and be able to heed the whole truth concerning this matter.

To start, notice that the phrase “new heavens and a new earth” appears exactly four times in Scripture:

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.”   (Is. 65:17)

“For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain.”  (Is. 66:22)

“But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”  (2 Pet. 3:13)

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” (Rev. 21:1)

Let’s examine each, starting with Isaiah 65:17.  Contextually, Isaiah had been prophesying about how God would bring judgment and punishment upon Israel and Judah in the form of them being taken into captivity.  He used figurative language all throughout this section of Scripture (something to remember).  In chapter 65, God inspired him to give the Jews hope by prophesying of their deliverance from Babylonian captivity.  He described the Jews’ rebelliousness (65:1-7); Paul would quote from verse 2 to demonstrate to Christians how the Jews rejecting Christ in the first century was similar to how they had opposed God during Isaiah’s day (Rom. 10:21).  He then brought out how God would not destroy all of the Jews in spite of their rebellion (65:8-10).  Concerning those who seek him, God would bring forth offspring and chosen ones from them for an inheritance.  Paul would later explain that this remnant of the Jews would be the comparatively few who were converted to Christianity (Rom. 11:1-7).  Isaiah then went on to describe the punishment of the rebellious Jews, comparing it to the joy of those who follow God (65:11-17).  Verse 15 is noteworthy in that Isaiah prophesied of the new name God’s servants would be called; this would happen when the Gentiles see God’s righteousness and glory (cf. 62:2).  At this point Isaiah prophesied of the new heavens and new earth, how the former things would not be remembered or come to mind, and how the former troubles are forgotten and even hidden from God’s sight (65:16-17).  This brings to mind the promise of the Hebrew writer that under the new covenant God would remember our sins no more (Heb. 8:12).  Then Isaiah described how the Jews would rejoice when they return from Babylonian captivity and settle back into Jerusalem (65:18-25).  The figurative symbolism of verse 25 is noteworthy in that Isaiah used similar symbolism in prophecies containing figurative language which point to the Christian age (cf. 2:2-4; 11:6-9).

To sum up, the context of Isaiah 65:17 contains prophecies about a new era after the time of Babylonian captivity, a new chapter in the Jews’ history in which they would return to Jerusalem.  There were also many prophetic allusions to another new era: the age of Christianity.

Now let’s examine the context of Isaiah 66:22.  It is similar to chapter 65 in that Isaiah first talked about the destruction of the wicked as God fulfills his Word and blesses and restores Jerusalem after Babylonian captivity.  Stephen would quote verse 1 while he was on trial for his Christian faith, recounting Jewish history and talking about the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 7:47-49).  Isaiah then brought out that God wanted the Jews to be humble and tremble at his Word (65:2), before foretelling that those who delight in false sacrifice would be shamed and punished (65:3-9).  The faithful Jews would appreciate how the Lord would restore Jerusalem after decades in Babylonian captivity, while the disobedient Jews would continue to be punished for their idolatry (65:10-17).  What Isaiah says next is noteworthy (65:18-21).  He used figurative language to foretell that a time would come “to gather all nations and tongues.  And they shall come and see My glory.”  Some would declare God’s glory to the nations.  Interestingly, Isaiah then calls those from other nations “the brethren” of the Jews and says they would be a figurative offering to the Lord in Jerusalem, and that some of them would be priests and Levites.  I could not help but be reminded of the Christian age in which Gentiles were added to the church, which the New Testament figuratively describes as the new Jerusalem, and how both Jews and Gentiles alike are spiritual priests under the new covenant (cf. Heb. 12:22-23; 1 Pet. 2:5, 9).  At this point he spoke again of the new heavens and new earth (65:22).

Note that he mentions them right after figuratively prophesying about the new era waiting for the Jews in the future which was their return to Jerusalem from Babylonian captivity, as well as figuratively prophesying about the new era of the Christian age in which Gentiles would be the brethren of the Jews, and how both of them who followed Christ would be brethren and a priesthood together.

We can now see what Isaiah 65-66 is talking about.  The prophet was making prophecies full of figurative language that described new eras which were to come after the time of Babylonian captivity.  First, the restoration of the Jews to their homeland and Jerusalem.  Secondly, the coming of the age of Christianity.

This helps us answer the question of whether the terminology “new heavens and a new earth” should be taken literally or figuratively.  Isaiah shows us that it’s figurative, symbolic language not meant to be taken literally.  Think about it.  We know from history that a literal new universe and literal new planet earth did not come into existence when the Jews returned to Jerusalem.  A literal new universe and a literal new planet earth did not come into existence when the church began.  That means that this terminology was used by Isaiah in a figurative sense to describe the coming of a new era, a new time, a new age, a new chapter in history.  To use a modern analogy to help us better understand that this is figurative language, think of “new heavens and a new earth” as similar to the phrase “a whole new world” in Disney’s Aladdin.  When Aladdin told the princess that he would show her “a whole new world,” he didn’t mean he would show her a literally brand-new planet.  He was speaking figuratively to her.  He was talking about bringing her into a new chapter of her life, giving her what would be a new experience for her.

This is how the Jews would have looked at the phrase “new heavens and a new earth” for 700 years, long before Peter and John mentioned it.  Peter and John were Jews themselves who would have been taught that the new heavens and new earth were figurative, not literal.  John wrote Revelation almost entirely in figurative language.  He said as much at the beginning when he said that it was “signified” (Rev. 1:1).  Let’s now examine what he wrote in Revelation 21:1.

Contextually, note that the previous chapter (Rev. 20) is written in figurative language.  It is a figurative depiction of the Christian age.  He wrote of Satan being bound or restrained for 1,000 years, which is basically a figurative description of the age of the gospel, the age which offers salvation and complete forgiveness of sins to all and saves the Christian who obeys the gospel, thus restraining Satan (20:1-6).  He then wrote of Satan being defeated and cast into hell, with all of mankind being judged on the day of Judgment (20:7-15), which the rest of the New Testament teaches is basically the end of the Christian age.  Thus, it’s worth nothing that the end of chapter 20 is describing the end of an era, the end of the Christian age.

And after John figuratively depicts the end of the Christian age in chapter 20, what’s the first thing he writes in chapter 21?  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.”  He uses terminology which would have been understood for 700 years to be a figurative description of the beginning of a new age, a new era.  After just describing the end of the Christian age (which Paul said was the end of the ages – 1 Cor. 10:11), what new era or age would John be describing now?

While living in the Christian age, the end of the ages (1 Cor. 10:11), Paul also spoke of the “age…to come” (Eph. 1:21).  That could only mean the age of eternity, making the Christian age the last of the ages that take place here on earth before eternity.  This would make John figuratively speaking of the beginning of the age of eternity when he speaks of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1).

So if Isaiah and John used this terminology figuratively to describe the beginning of a new era, we know that Peter also used it in the exact same way (2 Pet. 3:13).  Contextually, as described above, he was describing the end of the universe and the end of this planet on “the day of the Lord,” i.e., Judgment Day (1 Thess. 4:13-5:6; 2 Thess. 2:1-2; 1 Cor. 5:5; Matt. 24:42-44; cf. 25:31-46).  Judgment Day, as we’ve seen, is the end of the Christian age.  John spoke of it right before he figuratively used the phrase “new heaven and new earth” (Rev. 20:7-21:1).  In like manner, Peter is speaking of Judgment Day right before he uses the phrase “new heavens and a new earth.”  Therefore, he also is figuratively describing the beginning of the age of eternity.  Specifically, he is speaking of eternity in heaven because he says that righteousness dwells in the new heavens and new earth.

There is more biblical evidence that shows decisively that the phrase “new heavens and a new earth” as used by Peter and John is figuratively speaking of eternity in heaven rather than eternity being spent on a literal new earth under literal new heavens.  Lord willing, tomorrow’s blog post will examine this evidence, followed the next day by a final post examining some passages of Scriptures which some claim promote the notion that there will be a literal new heavens and new earth in eternity.

3 thoughts on “My Thoughts on the “New Heavens and a New Earth”: Is the Phrase Literal or Figurative?

  1. […] Yesterday’s study of the correct meaning of the biblical phrase “new heavens and new earth” (Is. 65:17;  66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1) showed that the phrase is figurative in nature and not meant to be taken literally.  Thus, we know that the saved will not spend eternity living on a literal new earth under literal new heavens. […]

  2. Human beings, as part of the tangible world, often have an unnecessarily limited understanding of the thoughts of an eternal being and then attempt to view the eternal in a very material way.

  3. […] Two days ago I wrote an article which examined the context of each of the four instances in which the phrase “new heavens and a new earth” was used in the Bible (Is. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1). We saw very clearly that Isaiah was speaking figuratively of new chapters that would come in the history of the Jews, specifically their return to their homeland after Babylonian captivity and the coming of the Christian age after that. In like manner, we saw very clearly that John and Peter also used the phrase in a figurative manner to refer to the beginning of another new age at the end of this current one when this earth and universe are destroyed on the day of judgment…the age of eternity. In the following article, we saw how the Bible teaches very specifically that the saved will go to heaven, where God the Father dwells and where His Son currently sits at His right hand, when the age of eternity begins. […]

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