The new heaven and new earth
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS WAS NOT just an intrepid explorer, he was also an avid prophecy student. To him, the discovery of the North American continent set the stage for the end of all things. In the last years of his life he wrote,
God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of John after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the spot where to find it.
Columbus was not the only one to believe that the prophecies of the new heaven and new earth were to be fulfilled on that incredible piece of turf. In 1653, Edward Johnson, an early chronicler of New England history, addressed his fellow colonists: "For your full assurance, know this is the place where the Lord will create a new Heaven and a new earth. new churches and a new Commonwealth together."
Was Christopher Columbus right? The Bible gives us so little information to work on that we are left with no option but to speculate; it's no wonder, then, that so much confusion seems to attend the subject. One of the biggest mysteries of all is just why God has revealed so little when the new heaven and earth will constitute our eternal abode and inheritance. Why such resounding silence? What can we know about our future home and possession?
The biblical data
Believers disagree over what the new heavens and earth are all about. In his comments on Isaiah 65:17, Adam Clarke elaborates on various ideas that were circulating in the early nineteenth century:
This has been variously understood. Some Jews and some Christians understand it literally. God shall change the state of the atmosphere and render the earth more fruitful. Some refer it to what they call the millennium; others, to a glorious state of religion; others, to the recreation of the earth after it shall have been destroyed by fire. I think it refers to the full conversion of the Jews ultimately, and primarily to the deliverance from the Babylonish captivity (ed. Earle 1967, p. 610).
Part of the reason for the wide range of opinions is the paucity of explicit biblical information. Only four verses in the entire Bible—two in the Old Testament and two in the New—mention the new heaven and earth directly. (See box "New heaven and new earth passages.") In spite of the lack of material to work with, it's surprising what we can learn.
Vive le difference
Some believe that Old Testament prophecies about Israel and the Promised Land are to be taken figuratively as speaking about the new heaven and earth. However, the description of the new heaven and earth show that they will be very different from anything we know now. Even though many similarities between Old Testament prophecy and the description of the new heaven and earth can be found (such as the reference to a river of living water found in both), these pictures are considerably different from those portrayed in Old Testament prophecies. The living waters in the new heaven and earth will be "clear as crystal" (Rev. 22:1), whereas in the Old Testament prophecies they are a place to spread nets (Ez. 47:10).
Likewise, Revelation 21:16 gives the dimensions of the new Jerusalem as 1500 miles (2400 kms), and its shape as a cube. Nothing in the Old Testament even begins to suggest such a cubic city, let alone with such impossible dimensions. A 1500 mile high city could not exist within the material world.
The Old Testament prophecies do not concentrate on the ultimate consummation in the new heaven and earth but on an earthly reign of Jesus Christ over all nations preceding the coming of the new heaven and earth. Old Testament prophecy foretells a fabulous time within history when the earth will be healed of its man-induced injuries, the environment will be cherished, nature itself will rejoice (Is. 55:12) and people will experience the sublime delights of peace and abundance under Jesus' shepherdship. That period, known as the millennium, will serve, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end
The promises to Abraham
Having said that, a qualification is needed. Partly obscured behind the welter of passages about the future utopian millennial era lurks a blurry apparition—the goal towards which the earthly reign of Christ will work. That goal, unveiled only in haziest outline in the Old Testament, later expanded by the teachings of Jesus Christ, constitutes the hope of God's people through all time, and is nothing less than eternal inheritance of the new heaven and earth.
Abraham was promised personal eternal inheritance of the entire land of Canaan (Gen. 13:15), yet he never received so much as a whisper of it (Heb. 11:13), living in the land of promise for the rest of his life as a sojourner, looking forward to a future inheritance. The Genesis promises to Abraham contain a lot more than meets the eye!
Two passages elaborate on the nature of Abraham's inheritance of the Promised Land. The first passage is Romans 4:13:
For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.
How ever one takes the term "world" here, the promise clearly has an ultimate fulfillment that extends his inheritance far beyond the borders spoken of in Genesis 13:15. The second vital passage is Hebrews 11:10:
. for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
Few would dispute this refers to the new Jerusalem to descend out of heaven at the end of history, which is to be preceded by and foreshadowed by the perfect earthly Jerusalem of the millennial silver age prophesied in such passages as Ezekiel 40-48.
Why so little information?
A basic question is why the Bible gives us so little information about our ultimate home. For those that have the ears to hear, perhaps the silence broadcasts loud instruction. From beginning to end, the Bible is obsessed with one thing—not man or man's destiny but God and His works. Billions of us petty creatures crawl on the surface of a tiny speck of dust in space. If we are to ever attain to eternal bliss, it is imperative that we become "obsessed" with God rather than with our own ultimate happy state. If we focus on our own destiny at the expense of the One who created all things and offers us our destiny, our thought patterns may degenerate into self-love.
The Word of God gives enough information about man's destiny to excite and motivate believers. But it reveals much more about God, because that is the information so critical to one's spiritual development, essential to growth in those patterns of thought that will equip the saints for an eternity of peace and harmony in a family with billions of brothers and sisters.
Marvels and mysteries of new heaven and earth
The universe as we know it is so majestic in its structure and content, its seemingly infinite phenomena so dazzlingly intricate in design and execution, that our puny minds are utterly incapable of taking in but the tiniest glimpse of it—a keyhole view. Yet Jesus Christ said it will vanish away, and the book of Revelation tells us it will be replaced by a new universe.
Think about this. If the universe we know pulsates with the energy and glory of God, how much better will the new model be? If God put so much effort and thought into that which is doomed to wear out, how much more has He put into the one that will never wear out?
Though the information available to us about our ultimate home is very limited, just enough has been provided to enable us to start our journeys of investigation and discovery even now. Let's consider a few mysteries surrounding our future abode.
Renovated or brand new?
Many believe that the new heaven and earth will constitute none other than the old Adamic universe gloriously liberated. Turner articulates the view effectively:
Cosmic renewal is no more an annihilation of the old world than personal regeneration is an annihilation of the old person. . The vivid imagery that describes the passing away of the old order (2 Pet. 3:10, 12; Rev 20:11; 21:1) describes the radical nature of its renewal, not its obliteration. Inasmuch as the physical universe did not commit sin, there is no reason to suppose that it must cease to exist because of sin (ed. Blaising & Bock 1992, p. 286).
How accurate is this idea? The options seem to be clear-cut. Either the new heaven and earth consist of a renovated, overhauled version of the current model, or they are a totally new creation.
Isaiah 65:17 is most important in helping settle the question. It says, "For behold, I create new heaven and a new earth". Though scholars have pretty much agreed that the Hebrew for create, bara', does not of and by itself always require the idea of creation of something out of nothing (creation ex nihilo ), it nevertheless "expresses better than any other verb the idea of an absolute creation." (Davis 1975, p. 40). Remembering the fundamental interpretive principle of asking what a passage would have meant to its original audience, little doubt can possibly exist that an Israelite of old would have instantly seen a comparison with the original creation of the entire universe ex nihilo.
Shaking and removing
Other passages weigh in on this case. See the box "The fate of heaven and earth" for relevant ones. What conclusions can one draw from these Scriptures?
Some might want to emphasize the word "changed" in Psalms 102 and Hebrews 1, and argue that it implies transformation, not replacement. However, the word seems to have as broad a meaning in Hebrew and Greek as "change" does in English. The idea of replacement rather than "magic-wand" transformation seems clear when you read the entire selection. Note the use of such words as "perish, vanish, pass away, removal, dissolved". Surely these cannot be taken any other way than to signify the total destruction of the current universe.
We are also told that the change from old to new is like changing garments—the old one is discarded completely and replaced by the new. A new garment may look similar to an old one, but when most people buy a new overcoat they opt for something quite different from the old. Likewise, the reference in 2 Peter to fire and melting adds to the concept of total destruction.
A final observation revolves around a very small word. Isaiah said unambiguously that the universe would vanish away "like smoke" rather than "in smoke". What can one make of this? Listen to how one astronomer describes what would happen to the universe if gravity were suddenly "turned off":
The attraction of matter for matter holds together the atoms of stars and planets, maintains the congregations we call galaxies, and binds the galaxies together in groups, clusters and superclusters. Subtract gravitation and the universe would explode into vapor. (Ferris 1982, p. 122).
One cannot help but wonder if the end of the old universe will begin as a melting of terrestrial matter as the barrier between matter and energy begins to break down, either at God's command, or perhaps through "natural causes". Possibly this event will coincide with the annihilation of the wicked, mercifully swiftly, in the Lake of Fire, which is the last event mentioned in the book of Revelation before the advent of new heaven and earth (Rev. 20:15). After a certain point has been reached, gravity will be switched off, and absolutely everything will explode into vapor, creating a veritable "Ferro-Isaiah" scene. The universe will disappear.
Solid, liquid or what?
Some may consider the question of the nature of the new heaven and earth building materials quite silly, and distracting from the real issues of life and death. But in the spirit of wanting to know as much as possible about our future dwelling, surely it won't hurt to at least raise some possibilities. Some commentators don't shrink from interpretive boldness. Poythress declares,
It will not be an ethereal kingdom but a new heavens and a new earth , an earth as physical and solid as Christ's own resurrection body (1987, p. 47).
Will our new abode consist of solid matter, as Poythress and most others aver, or will it consist of spirit? Does even the risen Jesus Christ have a "solid body"? And what does all this have to do with the question at hand—the nature of the new heavens and earth? Simply this: logically, if the resurrection body is physical, then the new heavens and earth will also be physical, if spirit, then spirit. This notion is supported by:
Romans 8:21's linking of the glorious liberty of the resurrected children of God with the state of the new heaven and earth;
a comparison of 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 with Hebrews 1:12, in both of which the same Greek word is used about the future change of humans and the universe.
As goes the one, it would seem, so goes the other. The notion of a spirit being residing in a material city strikes one as incongruous.
This fascinating question will have to rest for now, waiting to be dealt with another time. We leave it with just a couple of thoughts. As already noted, a 1500 mile high city would surely be impossible within the constraints of current natural law even if it were pyramid-shaped rather than cubic. Should it turn out that the new heavens and earth are matter-made, it must be matter of a completely different kind, governed by completely different laws, from what we know now.
In addition, if God is spirit, which He is (John 4:24), and angels are spirit, which they are (Heb. 1:14), does it make sense that the glorified Jesus Christ is "physical and solid", meaning the saints will be too (1 John 3:2)?
A literal description or metaphorical?
Closely connected with the spirit-matter puzzle is the question of how literally we are meant to take the description given in Revelation 21 & 22. For instance, as already noted, the laws of nature as we know them would never allow for the construction of a 1500-mile-high city. Any attempt to build such a monolith would be doomed to failure, the structure collapsing under its own weight long before the top was reached. With that in mind, some take the description to be symbolic, believing that, "since it is a perfect city, its dimensions form a perfect cube" (ed. Crockett 1992, p. 55).
Assuming that Paul's reference to seeing through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12) and eye not having ever seen what God has prepared for us (1 Cor. 2:9) included the new heaven and earth, it stands to reason that human language simply is not up to the task of accurately portraying what resurrected saints will "see". If the new Jerusalem could be adequately described in human language, then it would be considerably less glorious than it will be!
For these reasons, the last chapters of Revelation have to be taken as largely symbolic in tone. God inspired John to do the best that can possibly be done to give us at least a sense, a "dark glass vision", of what lies ahead. The question of where literalness ends and metaphor begins will probably forever elude us.
What we can know about the new heavens and earth, even though the picture is blurred by passing through the prism of symbolic language en route to us, is as fascinating as what we can only speculate on . Read the whole of chapters 21 and 22 of Revelation for yourself, and drink in the energetic imagery pulsating throughout.
The physical creation throbs with seemingly infinite hosts of wonders which, upon examination, will lift the spirits and stimulate the intellect. How much more marvelous will God's future handiworks prove to be when once there is opportunity to examine them. For now, one has to be satisfied with the keyhole glimpse Scripture provides.
Beauty and splendor
How can one describe miraculous beauty in pedestrian words? Right here would be the perfect spot to play a brilliant symphony specially composed for the purpose of conveying a sense of stunning beauty, as music would accomplish so much more than words. Even God, in speaking in the tongues of men, has to choose familiar imagery to express the inexpressible. The details may be presented in a symbolic way, but the truth is unmistakable.
Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (21:2).
Nothing more is intended here than the painting of a vivid mental picture—obviously, new Jerusalem won't come wrapped in white silk with a long-stemmed rose perched in one of its portals. What could be more beautiful than a dazzling young bride radiating the joy unique to a wedding day dressed in the most exquisitely made wedding gown and toting a gorgeous, deliciously fragrant bouquet? As it draws closer to the waiting throng of excited saints the emotional effect it will have on them can best be described in terms of the feelings of an honorable young bridegroom as he watches his beautiful sweetheart glide towards him down the aisle.
The imagery changes in verses 10-11:
And he. showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. Her light was like a most precious stone, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal.
Here the symbol changes from bride to precious stone. As it draws closer to the waiting throng of excited saints it will radiate with a brilliance similar to a huge, sparkling gemstone. Unlike the Israelites of old, who were terrified by the thought of hearing God's voice, the servants of God will thrill indescribably as they await the arrival of their new eternal abode and their God. The emphasis in this image is not upon quantity of light, as too much light hurts, but upon its crisp, sparkling quality. We've never seen light like this before. As the city draws closer, its large-scale details gradually sharpen:
The construction of its wall was of jasper; and the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with all kinds of precious stones: the first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth sardius, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls: each individual gate was of one pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass (verses 18-21).
The new heavenly city is built of the most costly materials. Try to picture if you can (remembering, though, much if not all of the description is powerfully symbolic) thick foundational layers stretching as far as the eye can see encrusted with sparkling precious stones. If the city is to soar 1500 miles upwards, each layer would need to be miles thick vertically. One can guess that we are meant to read in between the lines, and imagine that these layers of gemstone-covered material are not flat and featureless, but are exquisitely cut—carved, so to speak, like the walls of Israel's tabernacle—their entire length.
In the ancient world, most glass was very dark (hence Paul's reference), even opaque. Clear glass was the treasure of kings. In the Chapter of the Ant, the Koran recalls a story of the Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon, and the moment of her entry into his court:
And when she saw it, she reckoned it to be an abyss of water, and she uncovered her legs. Said he, "Verily, it is a court paved with glass".
This account illustrates the supremely high value of glass in times past.
The wall itself is described as made of jasper. In Revelation 4:3 God Himself is described as looking like jasper and carnelian stones. The wall seems to memorialize God Himself as the wall of protection for His people forever.
The saints' eternal abode
New Jerusalem is a palatial city fit for residence by God Himself and His entire saintly family. Every earthly city is shamed by its rat-infested slums, its gloomy, ill-lit alleys, its seedy shebeens and odorous public latrines. Not the new Jerusalem. You could scour its streets for all eternity and never find an empty drink can or candy wrapper. Its every nook and cranny—all 3,375,000,000 cubic miles of them—is holy, spotless, made of the costliest materials.
One intriguing question is passed over in total silence, leaving us to puzzling over how to visualize it. This city is unique in that it is not laid out in two dimensions only, but three. It's as high as it is broad and long. What is one to make of this? How are we expected to imagine its interior? It will have a central street and river flowing from the centrally-located (presumably) throne of God and the Lamb. But will these features be found at "ground level", or halfway "up"? Does the river flow flat and long, or does it somehow flow three-dimensionally? Will the interior of the city be broken up into "floors", or would one standing at ground level look up to see "blue sky" overhead? Who can say?
The seven banes
I love the sea—from land. So when I read in Revelation 21:1 that there will be no more sea, I get depressed thinking about it. I'm tempted to embrace Adam Clarke's idea on this point. He declared that "probably the new sea occupied a different position and was differently distributed from that of the old sea". But somehow that view just doesn't seem true to the record. Especially when a perusal of Revelation yields an interesting fact—that it is one of seven evils John speaks of as being no more. The others are death, mourning, weeping, pain (21:4), curse (22:3) and night (22:5).
As constituent parts of our current earth and its amazing cycles of life, the sea and night play vitally valuable roles. Both these phenomena redound to the glory of God, and so are not to be seen as biological evils. Yet they also represent, analogically speaking, spiritual vices. Job speaks of unmitigated evils carried out under cover of darkness as, for instance, when he says that, "In the dark they break into houses which they marked for themselves in the daytime; they do not know the light" (Job 24:16). Revelation 13:1 speaks of the beast that rose from the sea to wreak havoc on the earth, and it is probably this symbolic background that gives rise to the condemnation of the sea in the new Jerusalem. Morris also makes the interesting comment that, "No-one lives on the sea. It is something to be crossed to arrive at one's destination, but there is nothing permanent about it" (1987, p. 237).
Whether the absence of sea and night are literal or merely symbolic, their removal shows that all things that cause distress to man will be utterly banished once and for all. Life in the Garden of Eden, as fabulous as it was, was subject to the possibility of death and grief.
Presence of God
We will conclude with the most wonderful good news of all—the saints' perpetual access to God. As David put it, "At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Ps. 16:11). No pleasure will exceed that of intimate communion with God. The challenge facing Christians is to grow to love Him with all their heart, souls and minds, more than they love their own lives. Then, when their hearts have become that pure, they will have been made fit to see God. Hasten the day.
Scripture seems to show a dynamic progression. Abraham's physical seed was to inherit the Promised Land. His spiritual seed also were to do the same during the millennial reign of Jesus Christ. Yet Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham also foresaw a city "whose builder and maker is God", suggesting something more than the earthly city of Jerusalem during the millennium. May the thought of man's eternal inheritance give us hope to continue on in face of the struggles of daily life.
References and notes
Blaising, C. A., Bock, D. L. 1992, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids
Crockett, W., editor 1992, Four Views on Hell, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids
Davis, J. J. 1975, Paradise to Prison, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids
Earle, R. 1967, Adam Clarke's Commentary: One Volume Edition, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids
Ferris, T. 1982, Galaxies, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, New York
Morris, L. 1987, The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester
Poythress, V. S. 1987, Understanding Dispensationalists, Academie Books, Grand Rapids
Dawn to Dusk publications
Other printed material
On the Web
The Dawn to Dusk book "How Great Thou Art" deals with marvels and mysteries of the material universe.
McDannell and Lang: Heaven: A History
Augustine: City of God
Blaising and Bock: Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, chap 9
http://www.eschatology.org/articles/newheaven/newheaven-articles.htm — some interesting articles
http://www.presence.tv/cms/cov-israel-heaven-earth.php — a Jewish-Christian article that sees the new heaven and earth as "the New Covenant creation"
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