The new earth
Christ’s victory over the Fall
Published: 20 April 2014 (GMT+10)
There is a lot of confusion over the doctrine of heaven and the future new heavens and earth. Many Christians, while they look forward to being with Jesus after our physical death here on earth, do not have a real idea of what our eternal existence will ‘look like’ or entail. Often, they read about the new heavens and earth described in Revelation 21–22 and then imagine existing forever in some sort of ethereal realm, instead of eternal existence in a real, restored, physical universe. However, the Bible has a lot to tell us about what we have to look forward to, and understanding our future state also helps us to understand what we lost when Adam fell. This also has serious implications for those who want to allegorize the Creation events in Genesis in order to add millions of years of evolutionary history.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes a bold stance on the Resurrection:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as being raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (15:12–19).
Paul is saying that we must believe in the physical resurrection of Christ to be saved—it’s that important. This is because our future resurrection—what we look forward to—is the same sort of resurrection as Jesus’. So the resurrection of the dead is a Gospel issue; you can’t be a Christian and not believe that we (believers) will live forever with Christ—in real, physical, resurrected bodies. But where will those bodies live? Scripture’s testimony is clear and unanimous that the new heavens and earth (hereafter NHE) will be a physical (yet also spiritual) realm.
Before we go on we would like to point out that, although we need to look into future times (eschatology) to discuss the issue, we are not taking some denominational or eschatological position that falls outside of our ministry’s mandate of dealing with origins (our reasons are explained in End-times and Early-times). As we shall see, a fully restored creation (as outlined in the book of Revelation and elsewhere in Scripture) is unequivocally linked to the events in the Garden of Eden and is part of all mainstream eschatological views. The doctrine of a NHE has been a standard core doctrine of the evangelical church and all of the mainstream (non-cultic) denominations throughout all of Christian history.
This present world will end
The Bible teaches that this present earth (indeed all of creation; cf. Rom 8:22) is cursed because of the presence of sin and will be destroyed. Peter writes:
“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 [or ‘elements’] 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 away as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Peter 3:10–14).
Note that Peter is not using figures of speech. Indeed, just before this, he reminds his readers that God had previously judged the whole globe with a cataclysmic flood in history. He does not say, “It will be as if the heavens are being burnt up”. In straightforward language, he is saying that God is actually going to burn up the universe and set up a “new heavens and earth in which righteousness dwells”. And he uses this fact to tell his audience to live a life befitting citizens of the new heavens and earth.
It is not a hyperbole to call them an “uncreation” of the heavens and earth—many judgments in the Bible are reversals of creation; for example, the Flood reversed creation to the time before the land was separated from the seas on Day 2, and Jeremiah 4:23 alludes to a future uncreation that reverses the universe back to the state described in Genesis 1:2.
Again, depending on one’s eschatological stance, many of the various judgments in Revelation (e.g. one third of mankind killed [9:15]) may be presented either with some symbolic meaning or a more literal meaning, but this distracts from the main point of this article—what happens at the end. It is not our point to discuss the details, but to clearly present the big picture, and this is that the present Creation will suffer terrible, utterly destructive judgment because of sin. But the destruction is not the end of the story, because God will create a new heaven and a new earth “for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1) and believers will live in that new creation for eternity.
Why will this world be destroyed?
To destroy a whole universe seems a rather drastic solution to the problem of a fallen world. However, Scripture is clear that the whole creation fell. Romans 8:19–23 says:
“For the creation waits with eager longing 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 will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (emphases ours).
When Adam sinned, the earth was cursed because of him (Genesis 3:17–19), and the earth was further polluted by murder, violence, and immorality (6:11–12; Leviticus 18:24–28; Numbers 35:33; Psalm 106:38; Jeremiah 3:2, 9; 16:18). But it is not just the dirt on the surface of the earth; it is the entire universe, all of creation (Greek ktisis), that is cursed. Thus, all of creation is in need of restoration.
Because the creation has been affected by the Curse and further polluted by man’s sin, it is not a suitable place for resurrected, perfect people to live. How could we live among fossils, graveyards and reminders of death (even if their inhabitants were vacated), and a Flood-scarred earth that bore testimony to God’s great judgment of sin? How can we live forever next to a star that has a limited lifespan or in a universe with built-in, non-eternal features that will eventually die of ‘heat death’? All of this is a reminder that death is an enemy that beset all of Creation, and a reminder that Christ has conquered death, thus, giving us something to look forward to:
“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. … The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:21–22, 26).
Just as our bodies die, and return to dust, they will be raised as new bodies that nevertheless have continuity with our former selves, likewise the earth is fallen and will be destroyed, but it will be destroyed in order to be renewed. The restoration of the earth is directly analogous with the resurrection of the redeemed in Christ. Just as we have to die before we are resurrected, the earth must be destroyed before it is renewed. It is not an ‘ultimate’ or final destruction; it is a destruction that clears the way for its re-creation.
The new world we look forward to
Genesis uses the phrase “heavens and earth” to encompass all of the physical creation (the universe). When the Bible (2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21–22) uses the phrase “new heavens and earth”, it is has a similarly all-encompassing meaning. It is an indication of the continuity of the new creation with the old. But the word ‘new’ has the connotation of “superior” or “improved”, such that the old will be obsolete.1
We are given several images of the new world. If we want to see what an unfallen physical creation looks like, the obvious place to start is Eden. Eden is a picture of God’s ideal paradise on earth. It was a place especially suited for humans to live comfortably and engage in easy, pleasant work (Genesis 2:15) and for the purposes of appreciating their Creator. All Adam and Eve’s needs were provided for, and they were in regular, direct fellowship with God. There was no sin, no death, and no barrier to mankind’s relationship with God.
In the NHE there is a return to a sinless state with no suffering or evil of any kind, and unlimited access to God (Revelation 21:3–4). All of this is possible because of Christ’s sacrifice in paying for our sins. But it is even better than the original creation, because it is not a simple return to Eden. Rather, God will redeem the best parts of culture as well as the earth.
The best advance in the new heavens and earth will be that there will never be any possibility for sin or another Fall. “Since ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23), the promise of no more death is a promise a promise of no more sin. Those who will never die can never sin, since death is a punishment for sin. Sin results in mourning, crying, and pain. If those will never occur again, then sin can never occur again.”2
Will the new earth be physical?
As we mentioned earlier, some people think our eternal destination is an ethereal place populated by disembodied spirits. But that makes the mistake of confusing two places: the place where believers who die await the resurrection (variously called Paradise or Heaven), and the place we will exist after the consummation of all things eschatological. On this Paul wrote:
“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord … Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:6, 8).
The Bible is clear that, although believers who die are “at home with the Lord”, they still await the resurrection of the dead, when our bodies will be transformed to be like Jesus’. Again Paul says:“So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable”, (1 Cor 15:42).
We will also be morally perfected at that time so we will never sin.
The NHE will be as physical as the current heavens and earth. Just as the place where perfect people will live cannot be fallen, it also cannot be ethereal and non-physical. We will need a physical, material world to live in then just as much as we do now. And the Bible’s descriptions of this world include re-created animals and trees, cities, streets, rivers, and other physical things. Conversely, the new earth is never described in ‘ethereal’ or ghostly terms.
What about the ‘spiritual body’?
In 1 Corinthians 15:44, Paul says, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” Some people take this to mean that when we are raised, we will be some sort of ethereal being. This interpretation misunderstands what Paul means when he calls our earthly bodies “natural” and our resurrection bodies “spiritual” (see Christ as the Last Adam). It doesn’t refer to the ‘stuff’ the body is made of, but of what motivates us and drives our desires. E.g. Paul previously referred to a ‘spiritual’ person, using the same Greek word pneumatikos, and it was obviously a physical person (1 Corinthians 2:15). Let’s remember that even in our sinful physical bodies we are still spiritual beings. Even the Lord Jesus was referred to as a ‘life-giving” or “quickening spirit”. The point being made that one can be physical and spiritual at the same time. And in the same way, the NHE will be both a physical and spiritual place. The spirit is not the sum of our being but part of it. This is why God first made the body of Adam from the dust of the ground, then breathed on him and this man became ‘a living creature’ or ‘living soul’ (Hebrew nephesh chayyah, Genesis 2:7).
Currently, even at our best we’re sinful, even though we’re forgiven sinners. In the resurrection, our desires will be perfectly aligned with God’s will. Not only will we not be able to sin, we won’t want to sin. It will be incomprehensible to us to sin.
Will we experience time?
If the NHE will be made of matter, then it will take up space. And we know that space (size) and time are connected and related to each other. It is a common belief that eternal life will be timeless, but that is not really correct. Time, as we understand it, began with the creation of the physical universe. And the timeframe used in the Bible is the earth’s. When the earth rotates with a light source on it, it defines a day. So only God is outside of time, because He preceded what He created—only that which has no beginning in time can ever be outside of time. Every created being experiences and will always experience life as a continuous series of events, one moment after another. When we sing a hymn in heaven, we will sing one word after another in time and we will need to count the bars of the song over time. If we go from one place to another, it will take us time to travel. It’s uncertain how that time will be measured, but it will certainly be experienced in some form.
God’s triumph in the restored creation
Author and former pastor Randy Alcorn writes:“God has never given up on his original creation. Yet somehow we’ve managed to overlook an entire biblical vocabulary that makes this point clear. Redeem. Restore. Recover. Return. Renew. Resurrect. Each of these biblical words begins with the re- prefix, suggesting a return to an original condition that was ruined or lost. God always sees us in light of what He intended us to be, and He always seeks to restore us to that design. Likewise, He sees the earth in terms of what he intended it to be, and he seeks to restore it to its original design.”3
One important theological reason that the new earth has to be physical is simply: if God does not redeem or restore the physical world, then Satan wins, because he would have foiled God’s original purpose in creating. We’re told that God will undo everything Satan did, and He will make creation even better than before.
By the end of Revelation, sin is gone. In addition, God gets praised because of His mercy and grace, and Jesus is glorified as the Saviour of the nations. Humans are resurrected. We’re not just sinless in the Resurrection; we’re positively righteous and can never fall again. The earth must similarly be restored, or there is a huge gap in how we perceive God’s redemptive work.
Compromise on Genesis creates an NHE problem
When one reads of the restored creation and the New Heavens and Earth, particularly in chapters 21 and 22 of Revelation, it is absolutely clear that this is analogous to what God originally did in Genesis 1. They are inexorably intertwined. He is sovereign and finally has His way and we can only marvel at His plan—even though He knew of Satan’s plans in advance.
Those who believe that God somehow used a process of millions of years of evolution have a huge inconsistency problem here. Presumably they have no problem with what is often called the ‘Blessed Hope’—this future eternal paradise where all believers will live forever in a restored universe, recreated miraculously and instantaneously by God. But because it is analogous to Genesis 1, then how could God have used a process of death and suffering to create the original? Simply, is God going to restore things back to millions of years of death and suffering? Moreover, if in the NHE we can see stars billions of light years away, do we then think that God ‘recreated’ and stretched out space over billions of years again (according to an old-Earth view of Genesis). Of course, that makes no sense. One option would be to allegorize the concept of a NHE just as is done with Genesis 1, but one then has to wonder why bother being saved because one cannot be sure of the future state or have any real hope of what there is to look forward to. In short, if God’s original design involved millions of years of death and suffering, then what is wrong with this creation? Why destroy it and create a new one?
The NHE doctrine only makes sense within a creation/fall/restoration framework. If God created a perfect world with no sin or death, it makes sense that God will restore it to a perfect world with no sin or death. But every old-earth or evolutionary view puts death before Adam was created. This does not come from Scripture but from deference to a philosophical assumption called naturalism (the belief that natural processes can explain everything that has ever happened in the history of the universe). So to some extent, it makes death part of God’s originally ‘very good’ creation (cf. Genesis 1:31). The NHE tells us what God’s intended creation looks like—but in the view of the compromisers, why didn’t He simply create it that way to begin with? The NHE is a powerful testimony to the original very good creation.
Paul tells us, “‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’—these things has God revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9–10a). The Bible tells us exactly what we have to look forward to when we trust in Jesus—eternal life in a perfect resurrection body, in a physical restored body, in perfect sinless fellowship with God.
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