Will the New Heavens and Earth be physical?
Published: 21 January 2017 (GMT+10)
This week’s correspondent, J.D. from Australia, objects to us saying that the New Heavens and Earth will be physical. But when Christians ‘go to heaven when they die’ as disembodied spirits, is that it? No! Christians will be raised bodily and live eternally in the physical New Heavens and Earth. The whole point of the eternal state is that it’s a restoration of the world to the way God originally created it in Genesis 1—very good.
I note that you refer to the New Heavens and New Earth as a literal creation.
You do yourself a disservice therein: the phrase is simply metaphor and the description thereof simply that of our domain in Christ as per the fruits of the Spirit in the NT [New Testament]. It has nothing to do with planets and lions and tigers: that is carnal.
If you check Isaiah 11 you’ll find essentially the same description of things as you find at Isaiah 65, yet with absolutely no reference to any New Heavens or New Earth.
The New Heavens and New Earth are simply metaphor for Christ Himself, and thus it is written that those in Christ “have been seated in heavenly places”.
In the afterlife we shall be spirits, not human beings with arms and legs and genitals. Christ no longer has genitals and arms and legs: those things are for the carnal realm.
Please don’t reply if you’re not prepared to move from your position on this.
I wish you all God’s blessings in Christ, who is the real New Heavens and New Earth.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thank you for your email. There is a need to reply, even though we are not willing to move from our position. Not only is your position wrong, but it is one of the few purely doctrinal issues that is explicitly singled out for extensive refutation in Scripture (1 Corinthians 15, esp. vv. 12–19).
The New Heavens and Earth (NHE; i.e. the eternal state) will indeed be a physical place. Our article The New Earth does not say this world will be replaced, but rather that it will be restored to an Edenic state (indeed, even better than Eden!). This doctrine is one of the main reasons why we defend the reality of the first Eden and the goodness of the original creation; it is the culmination of the ‘restoration’ (or ‘redemption’) aspect of the Creation, Fall, Restoration historical framework of Scripture.
However, the physical reality of the eternal state does not depend on how the Bible uses the NHE language. The use (Isaiah 65, 2 Peter 3, Revelation 21) or lack of use (Isaiah 11) of this NHE language is irrelevant to the truth of the doctrine.1 Indeed, the physicality of the eternal state can be shown from Scripture without referring to passages that use NHE language.
First, Scripture explicitly teaches the physicality of the eternal state in Romans 8:18–25 without using NHE language. “[T]he creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (v. 19), since “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v. 21). What is this “freedom of the glory of the children of God”? It is “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23). If creation is to be set free from its bondage to decay (imposed at the Fall), it’s clearly not going to be done away with completely, or replaced, but redeemed just like the bodies of believers will be redeemed. For more information, please see Cosmic and universal death from Adam’s fall: an exegesis of Romans 8:19–23a
Second, the physicality of the eternal state is a direct logical implication of our future bodily resurrection. Since we will be raised from the dead physically (as Christ was), that logically implies that we will live in some sort of physical system. Indeed, the mere existence of our bodies would constitute a physical system!
Third, rejecting the future bodily resurrection, which implies the physicality of the eternal state, is explicitly condemned in 1 Corinthians 15:12–13: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as 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.” For more information, please see NT specialist Lita Cosner’s brilliant article on 1 Corinthians 15: Christ as the last Adam: Paul’s use of the Creation narrative in 1 Corinthians 15.
However, 1 Corinthians 15 is not the only place in the NT that teaches the future bodily resurrection. Now, ‘resurrection’ and ‘raised’ language is sometimes used in the NT to refer to “our domain in Christ as per the fruits of the Spirit” (e.g. Romans 6:4, Ephesians 2:6). However, the language is also used literally. For instance, Romans 8:11:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
The predicate of the verb “will give life to” delimits exactly what the Father “will give life to” in this verse—“your mortal bodies”. Not our spirits or souls, not even our relation with God, but specifically “your mortal bodies”. The parallel from earlier in the verse is also emphatic: just as Christ was raised by the Father, so also He will “give life to your mortal bodies”. The predicate of “will give life to” also makes it clear precisely how our resurrection will be like Christ’s—the raising of “your mortal bodies” to deathless bodily life, since Christ “being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9).
John 5:28–29 is also a clear reference to bodily resurrection:
Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
This is juxtaposed with Jesus saying in John 5:25 that He grants spiritual life to those who hear Him:
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
The differences between the two statements show how they speak to distinct (though related) realities. Verse 25 refers to a present condition (“and is now here”) regarding “the dead” who hear Jesus’ voice and “live”. Since it’s safe to assume that nobody was being resurrected at the time Jesus was speaking, this clearly must refer to spiritual “life”.
However, in vv. 28–29 the hour Jesus describes is only “coming”; it is still future from Jesus’ perspective (and ours). Moreover, He never actually uses the word “death” in vv. 28–29. Instead, He offers a description: “all who are in the tombs”. Furthermore, Jesus explicitly uses the word “resurrection” in combination with “all who are in the tombs” who will “come out”; He is here emphasizing the bodily nature of this event. In contrast, He uses no such explicit ‘body’ language in v. 25. There is a clear contrast between spiritual life (i.e. reconciliation with God) in v. 25 and physical resurrection (i.e. bodies coming out of tombs) in vv. 28–29. Ephesians 2:6, in context, is clearly parallel to John 5:25, not John 5:28–29.
Philippians 3:20–21 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 also speak of bodily resurrection. In Philippians 3, Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body”, which again has that notion of transformation of bodies in conformity to Christ’s body. In 1 Thessalonians 4, the “dead in Christ” (an odd phrase if our final state is disembodied) who “sleep” (a common metaphor for death), will be raised and brought with Christ when He returns to the earth. Where are they coming from? Where Christ is now (2 Corinthians 5:8); at the right hand of the Father in heaven (Romans 8:34).
What does this imply about the specifics of Jesus’ (and our) physicality? The corpse that was laid in the tomb after Jesus’ crucifixion is the very same body Jesus appeared to His disciples in (though it was no longer subject to death). That same body was taken up into heaven, and Jesus “will come in the same way as you saw him go” (Acts 1:11), i.e. with the very same body He went into heaven with. The simplest solution is that the resurrected body Jesus had, and will have eternally, still has all the parts that made Him a man before He died. And following the ‘as Christ was raised, so we shall be raised’ logic of Jesus, Paul, and John, the most plausible solution is that we too will be raised as the men and women we are now, genitalia and all.
None of this depends on the precise biblical meaning of the NHE language (though that language is fully consistent with this doctrine). None of this depends on the interpretation of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. Rather, I have appealed to statements of the logic of NT eschatology in didactic discourse (either epistles, or Jesus’ teaching). The logic is simple to follow: ‘We shall be raised as Christ was raised (i.e. bodily) when He returns, and creation will be renewed in concert with our resurrection.’ Not only will we be physical for eternity, not only will we spend eternity in a physical place, but we will spend eternity embodied in this physical place (albeit transformed to be suitable for us to live in). This has always been the hope of the church; in the NT, to when the orthodox fought the Gnostics over the physicality of the final resurrection in the 2nd century, up until today, where people declare that ‘science says dead people stay dead’. And our hope is squarely based on Jesus’ physical, historical resurrection and His continued existence as a physical man.
I would encourage you to listen to and follow the words of the bodily risen Lord Jesus and His apostles, who all looked forward to the resurrection of the body.
References and notes
- There is disagreement over what Isaiah 11 and 65 refer to. Some say they refer to the millennium, while others say they refer to the eternal state. However, this disagreement only strengthens the basic point: the NHE language is irrelevant to the truth that the eternal state will be physical. Return to text.