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.
Some still promote the notion that the saved will dwell for eternity on a literal new earth under literal new heavens. They do so by pointing to several biblical passages which they interpret to teach that there will be a literal new earth in eternity. As we close this series of articles on the “new heavens and a new earth,” l’d like to examine each of the passages which I am aware are used to promote this idea.
Let’s start with something Paul wrote to the Romans:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope
that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.
And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. (Rom. 8:18-23)
Paul speaks of “the creation” here. He says that “the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God,” and that it “was subjected to futility, not willingly.” He writes that “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now,” comparing it to how we as Christians – those who have “the first fruits of the Spirit” – how “we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” He also writes that “the creation” has “hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
The term “creation” comes from the Greek term ktisis, which is defined as any created thing, anything that was created. The same term was used earlier in Romans to refer to the physical, natural world and the things within it which God created (Rom. 1:20, 25). The idea held by those who look at the “new heavens and a new earth” in a literal fashion is that this planet, God’s creation, will turn into a new planet free from sin and evil on the same day that the saved will be changed by receiving new, imperishable, immortal bodies. This new planet will be different from this current one on which we live which, according to the passage, longs and waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God, is subjected to futility, and groans and suffers the pains of childbirth until now (which they take to mean that this earth is waiting eagerly for the day when it will turn into the new earth).
There are some problems with this line of thinking. First, the proponents of a literal new heaven and earth are taking literally what should be taken figuratively in Romans 8, just as they do with the passages we’ve already studied which mention the new heavens and new earth. Paul is clearly using figurative language here. Think about it. He says that the creation “groans” (8:22). If that is literally true, then why aren’t we hearing the world around us groan every single day? Why didn’t the biblical writers and the other writers of ancient literature speak of literally hearing nature groaning all around them all the time back then?
He also speaks of the creation “anxious(ly) longing” and “wait(ing) eagerly” (v. 19). Should that be taken literally or figuratively? Let’s compare it with how creation is described by the Psalmist: “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all it contains; let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy” (Ps. 96:11-12). Isaiah also writes of something similar: “…the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Is. 55:12). When I read these passages, I am reminded of the actress Julie Andrews twirling in the meadow with her arms outstretched as the mountains loom behind her, singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music…” Did she mean that the hills around her were literally alive? Were they producing the music to which she was singing? Were Isaiah’s trees literally clapping their hands? Have you ever seen a tree with hands, period, let alone hands which were clapping?
It’s clearly figurative language. In fact, it’s figurative language about which children are taught in elementary school. On the very day I am writing this, I was driving my daughters home from elementary school. I asked my fourth-grader what she learned today, and she answered, “Personification.” I asked her to explain what that meant, and she gave examples. “The flowers died.” “The hills were happy.” Personification is the idea of figuratively representing a thing or idea as a person in literature or art.
That’s what Paul is doing with the creation in this passage. He is personifying it, figuratively giving it human attributes to emphasize the terrible impact sin has had on the world and on mankind.
Therefore, this world and the nature around us are not literally groaning and suffering the pains of childbirth, and thus implying that a literal new earth will be born on the last day. Romans 8:18-23 is not meant to be taken literally and thus imply a literal new earth which is to come.
Second, proponents of a literal new heavens and earth downplay Paul’s comparison to Christians receiving new, immortal, spiritual bodies. They do the same with the other passages of Scripture which promote heaven, the dwelling place of God, as our eternal destination.
Notice that Paul compares the creation groaning with how Christians groan, waiting “eagerly” for “the redemption of our body” (8:23). This is a clear reference to the imperishable, immortal, spiritual body we will receive on the last day (1 Cor. 15:50ff). We in our current physical bodies will be changed into spiritual bodies, to inhabit a place where God, who is spirit (John 4:24), dwells…which is specifically said numerous times to be heaven (which is also said to currently exist).
The concept of our new, imperishable, non-flesh-and-blood, immortal, spiritual bodies does not mesh well with the concept of a literally new, physical world. In reality, the Bible as a whole teaches that we will be going to the spiritual realm where God, who is spirit, dwells…heaven.
This helps us to better understand other passages which are used to promote the idea of a literal new earth on which the saved will dwell in eternity, such as:
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matt. 5:5)
The idea some have is that “the earth” in this passage is referring to a literal new earth which will come after Judgment. The problems with this view are that it not only ignores the rest of the Bible’s teaching that “the meek” – i.e., the faithful Christian – will spend eternity in heaven with God, but it also ignores the context of the passage in which Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven which is the church (Matt. 5:3, 10, 19-20; 6:10; 7:21).
When the church – the kingdom (Col. 1:13; Rev. 1:4, 6, 9) – came, all the blessings of the beatitudes would come. Those who are poor in spirit would have the kingdom of heaven. Those mourning over their sins would be comforted. The spiritually hungry would be filled. The merciful would obtain mercy. The pure in heart would see God. The peacemakers would be God’s children.
All of the blessings of the beatitudes are spiritual in nature, which would mean that “inherit(ing) the earth” is spiritual in nature as well. “The earth” is a metaphor for Jesus’ spiritual kingdom, the church. It’s not referring to a literal new earth.
I’m combining the final two since they speak of similar things:
…Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matt. 19:28)
…(Jesus) whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. (Acts 3:21)
The idea promoted by some is that the “regeneration” (Matt. 19:28) and the “period of restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21) points to a literal new heavens and new earth. However, what is again ignored is how the Bible as a whole teaches that the saved will spend eternity in the spiritual realm where God dwells which is known as heaven, not in a literal new planet and new universe.
The context of Acts 3:21 is also ignored. The context correlates “the period of restoration of all things” (v. 21) with “these days” (v. 24), “these days” referring to the beginning of the gospel age, the age of Christianity. That was what Peter was talking about, and that was the time period in which Peter was living as he spoke those words. Therefore, “the period of restoration of all things” is a figurative allusion to the Christian age.
In like manner, notice that “the regeneration” (Matt. 19:28) is when Jesus will sit on His throne and the twelve apostles will also “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” The New Testament symbolically refers to the church as “Israel” in a spiritual sense several times (James 1:1; cf. Rom. 2:28-29; 11:6; Gal. 6:16; etc.) In fact, it is the New Testament itself which will judge the church which is spiritual Israel, and the New Testament is made up of the inspired writings of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20; 3:3-5). Thus, it is through the New Testament that the apostles will judge Israel, the church.
This shows that Matthew 19:28’s “the regeneration” is another reference to the Christian age, just like Acts 3:21’s “the period of restoration of all things.” Neither passage points to a literal new heavens and new earth. The Bible in its totality simply does not teach that there will be a literal new heavens and a new earth which will come at Judgment or any time afterwards.
I would like to close this series by looking at a promise Jesus gave to the church:
He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. (Rev. 3:21)
Where is Jesus’ throne? In heaven. Where did He sit down with His Father on His throne? In heaven.
Where is He promising the faithful who overcome will be? In heaven, sitting down with Him on His throne.
I look forward to that wonderful day. I hope all of you do as well. Peter told us we should be “looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). He was speaking figuratively of a new age, the age of eternity, eternity in heaven with God. That is where righteousness will dwell.
Are you ready to go to heaven? Christians are said to be “enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). Is your name written in the Lamb’s book of life? Have you obeyed the gospel (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38)?