So far in this series of articles, I have argued that Jesus’ physical resurrection serves as the model for that of those who trust in him (Part 1) and that the resurrected bodies promised to believers will have continuity with their current physical bodies (Part 2). This flies in the face of the common idea that life after death will consist of being freed from our bodies and flying off to live forever in an immaterial paradise. By the very nature of the case, physically resurrected people will require a physical space within which to live. In the final part of this series, I will explore what the Bible has to say about where we will live in eternity.
New Heavens & New Earth
Scripture refers to the realm where believers will dwell with God as the “new heavens and earth.”1 Although some Christians refer to our final dwelling place simply as “Heaven,” this is not the language that scripture uses.
The apostle Peter wrote about this hope for the future in God’s creation of a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13, ESV). This concept of new creation was not original to Peter, or even to the New Testament for that matter. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah also wrote about the expectation of God’s new heavens and new earth (Isa. 65:17-25). In the closing chapters of the New Testament, the book of Revelation contains vivid imagery depicting the new heavens and new earth as a future reality in which God will dwell with his people forever after the resurrection and judgment have taken place, and in which there will be no more sin or death (Rev. 21:1-22:5).
The Destruction of the World?
So what does the language of “new heavens and earth” mean? Many people believe that the Bible teaches that our universe will be totally done away with. On this view, we will either go to be with God in Heaven forever, or God will simply create a completely new universe in place of the old one. For some, then, the language “new heavens and new earth” itself is taken to imply that the “old heavens and earth” must be cast aside. After all, what else is the word “new” supposed to mean? People who make this argument are quick to point out that there are also a handful of passages that seem to suggest that this current world will be destroyed. Peter, for example, had some pretty harsh things to say about how the current heavens and earth are being stored up for fire (2 Pet. 3:7, 10).
Despite how it may appear, this biblical language does not entail the wholesale destruction and replacement of the created order. If you examine the surrounding context, you will find that Peter also described Noah’s flood in similar terms: “the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished” (2 Pet. 3:6). Did Peter believe that the universe that existed at the time of Noah was literally annihilated and that God created a brand new one in its place? No, Peter used this cosmic destruction language to describe the elimination of those elements within God’s creation that had corrupted it (the wicked people who would not listen to Noah). In the same way that God “destroyed the world” in the day of Noah, removing that which perverted it while sparing Noah and his family, God will once again “destroy the world” in the future, purging it of all corruption and evil while glorifying those who are in Christ.2
The gospel of Matthew puts it this way:
In order to better understand the “new heavens and earth,” we need to consider the broader biblical category of “new creation.” Upon examination, it becomes clear that the biblical data concerning this doctrine is not consistent the model of eradication followed by creation ex nihilo.3 For example, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (ESV). Did Paul really intend for his readers to understand him to be saying that when a person becomes a believer in Christ, they are annihilated and an entirely new person is created in their place? The notion is absurd. Even though a Christian can truly be described as a new creation, they are still the same person. Their physical body, at the very least, retains the same physical stuff that it had prior to their conversion.4
Rather than being discarded entirely, the various aspects of a person are radically changed by encountering the saving grace of God. The old sinful nature of the believer is made impotent by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, whose presence in our lives also serves as the “down payment” of our inheritance in the Lord, which is the future redemption of the body (Eph. 1:14, 1 Pet. 1:3-5, Rom. 8:23). Similarly, I would argue that the new heavens and new earth will maintain some level of continuity with the current created order. God’s good creation will not be done away with. It will be redeemed.
The Redemption of Creation
God’s redemptive work does not extend to humanity only. Just as believers look forward to the resurrection of the body, the Bible teaches that the cosmos itself is also looking forward to its own redemption. The God who saves sinners is the very same God who will redeem the world those sinners live in. The apostle Paul declared 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” (Rom. 8:21, ESV). This should not be surprising to us. After all, the creation we now occupy is God’s doing, and Scripture teaches us that the one who created and sustains all things will also reconcile all things to himself (Col. 1:15-20).
Even now, God’s redemption of the world has already begun. I have previously made the point in the first article of this series that Paul believed that Jesus himself was the firstfruits of the resurrection. In other words, the resurrection of the dead was inaugurated in the first century. We should also bring to mind Paul’s point that whenever we see people believing in Christ, we are literally witnessing new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). God’s new creation has begun in Christ, and it is being carried out in the lives of all of those who belong to him. Yet, this new creation will not be fully realized until the dead are raised and this universe is set free from its “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21).5 Since God has already started this new creation, we can be sure that he will bring it to completion at the return of our Lord. This is the biblical hope for the future, and it is what we as believers should be looking forward to.
I am convinced that a proper understanding of the biblical testimony concerning our hope for the future is absolutely critical. As I said in the first article of this series, the aspirations for life after death espoused by many modern Christians look more like gnosticism than historic biblical Christianity. Contrary to the gnostic belief that a person’s true self is an immaterial soul trapped inside a body, the Bible teaches that it was God’s original purpose to create man as a physical being. Opposing the view that salvation is an escape of the soul from the body, God’s word reveals that salvation involves the resurrection of the body. Against the idea that this material world will be discarded in favor of an immaterial plane, the biblical testimony consistently announces that God will one day fully redeem the world he created from the curse brought on it because of our sin.
This physical world God created is not a bad thing. God forbid that we would have such an ungrateful attitude towards his good creation! The first chapter of Scripture tells us that God created this world, declared that it was very good, and put it in our charge. Jesus also taught that believers will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5). I often like to ask, what good is inheriting the earth going to do us if we are just going to leave this planet behind and go to heaven for all eternity anyway? Taking this line of thought a step further, we should keep in mind that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation teaches that God himself, in the person of Jesus, took on material human flesh and remains embodied even to this day. Taste, touch, smell, sight – these are all good things that God intended for us to have and to enjoy with him. We would do well to recognize them as such.
Seeing the world through these eyes ought to have an impact on the way we live. Rather than seeing this planet and our bodies as burdens to be escaped, we should be motivated to give thanks to God and care for them as his good gifts to us. Instead of planning to leave the material world behind, we should prepare for the future life we will share in it. Instead of taking advantage of the world unnecessarily for our own selfish benefit, we should look forward to the redemption of creation promised by God’s Word and demonstrate that with our actions. Most importantly, if we truly understand that God’s new creation has already begun in Christ, we ought to fulfill our role in sharing the message of reconciliation with the world (2 Cor. 5:18-19). Let us keep our eyes fixed on Christ, preach the good news of his redemption, and set our hopes on the one who makes all things new.
Other Parts in This Series
- The Hebrew phrase “heavens and earth” literally means “sky and land” and is an idiomatic expression that refers to the entire created order. Thus, when Genesis speaks of God’s creation of the “heavens and earth,” we understand it to be saying that God is responsible for all of creation. Additionally, when we find other biblical passages that refer to a “new heavens and a new earth,” we understand them to be describing a new created order.
- This “destruction” may be a catastrophic event with far-reaching implications, as the flood of Noah certainly was, but I think it should be evident that it does not necessarily entail that the whole cosmos will be literally snuffed out of existence and replaced.
- Ex nihilo is a latin phrase meaning “out of nothing.”
- If you have not yet done so, it may benefit you to read my discussion in the previous article about how the pre-resurrection body will have both continuity and discontinuity with the post-resurrection body.
- The tension that exists between the life we now have in Christ and that for which we are still longing has been dubbed the “already but not yet.” For example, the Bible often presents eternal life as something that believers already have as a present reality. However, the Bible also clearly teaches that we will not truly have the fullness of that eternal life until we are resurrected and our bodies are transformed in glory and immortality. Thus, the “already but not yet.”