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New heaven and the new earth: the home of the redeemed

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New heaven and the new earth: the home of the redeemed

John M. Fowler
John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a contributing editor of Ministry.

 

Seventh-day Adventist Statement of faith #26, The Millennium and the End of Sin. The millennium is the thousand-year reign of Christ with His saints in heaven between the first and second resurrections. During this time the wicked dead will be judged; the earth will be utterly desolate, without living human inhabitants, but occupied by Satan and his angels. At its close Christ with His saints and the Holy City will descend from heaven to earth. The unrighteous dead will then be resurrected, and with Satan and his angels will surround the city; but fire from God will consume them and cleanse the earth. The universe will thus be freed of sin and sinners forever. (Rev. 20; 1 Cor. 6:2, 3; ]er. 4:23-26; Rev. 21:1- 5;Mal. 4:1; Ezek. 28:18, 19.)

Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Faith #27, The New Earth. On the new earth, in which righteousness dwells, God will provide an eternal home for the redeemed and a perfect environment for everlasting life, love, joy, and learning in His presence. For here God Himself will dwell with His people, and suffering and death will have passed away. The great controversy will be ended, and sin will be no more. All things, animate and inanimate, will declare that God is love; and He shall reign forever. Amen. (2 Peter 3:13; Isa. 35; 65:7 7-25; Matt. 5:5; Rev. 21:1-7; 22:1-5; 11:15.)

The new heaven and the new earth" is the expression the Bible employs four times to describe the future home of the redeemed.

In Isaiah the phrase summarizes the divine promise for the last days: "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind" (Isa. 65:1 7; cf. 66:22}1

In 2 Peter the apostle posits the new creation in connection with end-time events: "But the day of the Lord will JOHN, come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.. .. But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (3:10-13). The apostle John takes the last two chapters of Revelation to explain the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth.

The future home of the saints is thus the consummative focus of the Scriptures. The Bible begins with the creation of the earth and the disruption of God's purpose by the entrance of sin. The Bible closes with the destruction of sin, the restoration of the created order, and the establishment of the new heaven and the new earth.

To the Bible writers, the coming new heaven and the new earth is an absolute reality. It is not a pie-in-the-sky Utopia. Nor is it a theological myth. Scripture portrays history as God's venue of redemptive action. That history, linear in character, is moving toward its eschatological fulfillment.

Two questions need to be raised: What does the Bible say about the hope and reality of the new earth? What are the characteristics of the new earth?

The new earth in the Old Testament

When Abraham was called to a covenantal relationship with God, God's promise to him was not limited to the possession of Canaan. The covenant foresaw a definite point in redemptive history when Abraham would enter "the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11:10).

The Old Testament prophecies predict the removal of sin and injustice when the earth would be "full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9). In that age of divine order, the earth would yield its abundance, the wilderness would become like Eden (Isa. 51:3), "the desert shall rejoice and blossom," and "the burning sand shall become a pool" (Isa. 35:1, 7). Peace shall characterize all relationships: "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox;... They shall not hurt or destroy" (Isa. 65:25).

No citizen of that new age will say, "I am sick" (Isa. 33:24). There will be no death, and "God will wipe away all tears" (Isa. 25:8). Above all, God's people will "abide in peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places" (Isa. 32:18). God will be their King (Zech. 14:16) and rule the earth in righteousness.

Isaiah specifically spoke of the creation of "new heavens and a new earth" (Isa. 65:1 7; 66:22). Daniel saw in the multimetal image of Daniel 2 and the march of world powers across history from his time to the establishment of God's kingdom on this earth. Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, and the divided status of the world since Rome (represented by various parts of the image) successively pass across the stage. The last days of human history were portrayed as unstable as the union of iron and clay. Such a confused and chaotic order of human history would be brought to a swift close by God who"will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed" (Dan. 2:44).

The Gospels and the Kingdom

Jesus began His ministry with the proclamation that the time had come and the kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:14, 15). That the kingdom had both a present reality and a future fulfillment is clear from such passages as Luke 17:20, 21 ("The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.") and Matthew 12:28 ("If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.").

Jesus is more than an announcer of the kingdom: He is the content and the medium of that kingdom. Through His person and His ministry, God's reign was established forever. Through Him alone we enter God's kingdom.

The kingdom present also points to the kingdom future. The future aspect of God's kingdom is illustrated in the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come." If the kingdom were wholly limited only to the present, the prayer would lose much of its force and meaning, especially in view of the fact that Jesus told the disciples that He Himself would bring the kingdom when He returns with power (Mark 9:1; cf. Matt. 16:28).

The looking forward to, the preparing for, and the praying for the kingdom certainly indicate not just a present reality but a future fulfillment. Viewed from this angle, Jesus' promise of the eschatological banquet in which the elect from the four corners of the world will sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must inevitably mean the gathering of the redeemed of all ages at a point in time to inherit the earth (Matt. 8:11; Luke 13:28, 29; cf. Luke 22:16, 18; 22:29).

The Gospels further teach that just as the kingdom came into the world by the direct intervention of God in human history through the Incarnation, so will the future kingdom come through a similar act in the return of Jesus in history. Witness the eschatological dis courses of Jesus (Matt. 24, 25; Mark 13; Luke 21) in reply to the disciples' question, "Tell us, when will this be and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?'"

The answer depicts both the condition of the earth and the certainty of the return of Jesus. The present age will continue with its social, political, moral, and religious disorder. The conflict between good and evil will rage in all its intensity and diversity, even as the gospel of the kingdom is preached in all the world, and the world order is con fronted with the redemptive message and the impending collapse of the age.

The time of the Second Coming is not known, but the event is certain: Christ will come "in clouds with great power and glory" (Mark 13:26); "as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of man be in his day" (Luke 17:24). The interim between now and the Parousia is to be used by the disciples in a life of preparedness (Matt. 25:1-13) and proclamation, in order that the eschatological kingdom does not take them unawares.

Paul and the new earth

Paul's understanding of the return of Christ is invariably related to his grasp of what Christ accomplished in His incarnate state. The connection between the Incarnation and the Second Coming is reinforced by the use of the word epiphaneia, "appearing," to describe both events.

In 2 Timothy 1:10, Paul attributes to the epiphaneia of Christ the abolition of death, and bringing in of life and immortality, through the gospel. The epiphaneia will occur a second time in the "appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13; cf 1 Tim. 6:14; 2 Tim. 4:1, 8), at which time the resurrection decree of Christ will bring about the eschatological dethroning of death. With the subjugation of death, immortality will become the heritage of the redeemed. Victory would be final (1 Cor. 15:51-57).

Paul is also certain that the Second Coming will provide the long-awaited opportunity for eternal fellowship "with Christ": "we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17); "we might live with him" (1 Thess. 5:10; cf Phil. 1:23; Col. 3:14); "we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom. 8:17). Thus Paul's eschatological hope consists not just in the prospect of divine glory (Rom. 5:2; 8:18, 21) or in the receipt of immortality (1 Cor. 15:53, 54), but in the ultimate joy of being with Christ.

The apostle thus anticipates a perpetual and glorious fellowship with the Lord. The Pauline perspective of cosmic restoration provides a clue that the divine-human fellowship is to be anticipated in the renewed earth, as is evident from Romans 8:18-21. There Paul asks his readers to discount "the sufferings of this present time." They are nothing compared to the glory awaiting the believer.

The whole created order had been subject to the futility of this age of sin, and the entire creation "waits with eager longing"—literally "stands on tip toe"—for the moment of cosmic liberation. The created order "will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the chil dren of God." Toward this freeing, "the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now."

What is this cosmic liberation in Paul's thinking? Since the corruption of the earth is not merely ethical in char acter, it must be taken to mean that the motif is a reference to decay and disharmony so apparent around the earth. Just as the mortal body must put on immortality, just as corruption must be swallowed by incorruption, just as death must give way to life (1 Cor. 15:50-54), so the cosmic decay and dis order must be excised in order that a renewed and transformed earth and heaven may become the eternal home of the redeemed humanity.

The new earth in other epistles

In keeping with its theme of the "better" and the "heavenly," the book of Hebrews directs the Christian to the certainty of a future rest and a future city that God has prepared (Heb. 4:1 -8; 11:10, 16). The city that God has prepared is a motif by which the author of Hebrews reinforces the future certainty of the Christian reward.

The heroes of faith are said to have seen from afar the eschatological city. Abraham "looked forward to the city" (Heb. 11:10). The saints of the Old Testament realized perfectly well that they were "strangers and exiles on the earth." This earth was not their home, and in faith, they saw "from afar" "a homeland," "a better country, that is, a heavenly one" (Heb. 11:13-16). The future inheritance of the saints is thus neither an eschatological riddle nor a theological striptease; it is a reality, visible to the eyes of faith, understandable to the mind of the regenerate person.

In his forceful statement on the final conflagration of the universe, Peter says: "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up ... the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:10-13). Monuments of men will give way to the mighty pronouncements of God's judgment.

Fiery judgment is a familiar biblical picture associated with the Day of the Lord (Isa. 13:9-13; 29:6; 30:30; 65:12; 66:15, 16; Dan. 7:9-11; Nahum 1:5, 6; 1 Cor. 3:13; 2 Thess. 1:7, 8; Heb. 12:29; 1 Peter 1:7). But what role does fire play in the cosmic convulsions Peter foresaw? Will there be annihilation or renewal?

The question is whether there is an irreconcilable break between the old and the new, so that the old is completely destroyed and the new is a result of creation exnihilo. Or did Peter fore see the idea of change, a qualitative newness, a radical transformation, a purging process?

The word for "new" used in Revelation 21:1 helps to clarify the issue. Two Greek words are commonly used to emphasize newness. Neos signifies "what was not there before," "what has only just risen or appeared," "what is new and distinctive," "what is new in time or origin."

Kainos carries the import of "what is new in nature," "different from the usual, impressive, better than the old, superior in value or attraction."2 In other words, Neos denotes something new in time or origin, something that is brand new; kainos something new in quality or character, new in terms of radical renew al. The use of kainos, therefore, "suggests fresh life rising from the decay and wreck of the old world."3

Clearly, what is emphasized is renewal and continuity. The fires that will destroy this evil age will act as a purify ing agent to renew the heavens and the earth. The emerging cosmos is not a creation ex nihilo, but a cosmos in harmony with God's eternal purposes, prepared to be the home of God's redeemed.

Revelation and the new earth

The book of Revelation speaks direct ly of the new earth as being real, concrete, and eternal: "Then 1 saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.' And he who sat upon the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new.' Also he said, 'Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.' And he said to me, 'It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end'" (Rev. 21:1 -6).

What precedes the creation of the new heaven and the new earth? The closing chapters of the book of Revelation indicate that the new earth is God's finale. Logic demands and inspiration records that certain other last-day events precede the creation of the home of the redeemed: the Second Coming, the gathering of the saints, the millennial reign in heaven, the descend ing of the Holy City, and the final destruction of Satan, sin, and sinners.

The annihilation of "the wicked" is accomplished by an eschatological judgment of fire (Rev. 20:13-16). The fire that consumes Satan and the sinners purifies the earth.

Characteristics of the new earth

Using scriptural data, can we now paint a mosaic of the new age? Such an attempt is both possible and essential, if only to complete the content of the Christian hope. Without falling into the trap of materialistic literalism or slipping into the tendency to dismiss everything heavenly as symbolic, we should find it possible to understand the characteristics of the new earth.

God's action. The new heaven and the new earth will be the result of God's activity. Human genius has no part in the conception or the consummation of the eternal kingdom. Four times in Revelation 21:5-8, the prophet argues that the initiative and the fulfillment of the eternal home fully rest with God.

It is the One who sits upon the throne—the symbol of sovereignty of the entire created order—who swears by His authority: "Behold I make all things new." Further, the prophet was told to put the promise down in writ ing, "for these words are trustworthy and true." The Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, God Himself has promised this eternal "heritage" to the overcomer.

God's victory. God's creation of the new earth will victoriously conclude the great controversy between Christ and Satan. The struggle between the "christic" and the "antichristic" forces, with all their complexity, subtlety, and magnitude dominate redemptive history. When that history reaches its climax at the end-time, the great controversy will end, and God's new age will begin.

How can we be sure of this? The reality of victory was affirmed at the Cross by the Lamb, and it is the Lamb that dominates the book of last things: Revelation. He is the source of ultimate triumph.

God's renewal. The newness of the new order is a result of God's renewal and transformation of the cosmos. We have already seen how kainos, used in 2 Peter and Revelation 21, rules out the idea of annihilation. Out of the cataclysmic judgment of God, a transformed and recreated cosmos will emerge. This "final inauguration of the new age is accompanied by a renovation of all nature."4

God with humans. In the new earth, God will be with humans. Revelation repeats the promise three times (Rev. 21:3, 4). Perhaps it is in this declaration that we ought to locate the essential newness of the eternal kingdom. The biblical presentation of the new earth throbs with the single most important idea that God would be the dynamic of that order.

This earth, where Eden stood, where Satan injected his venom in the pristine purity of creation, where God pro claimed His law and affirmed His covenant, where the lonely cross effectively crushed Satan, this earth will become the site of God's throne. God shall be with His people, "They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act" (Mal. 3:17). "It is this new situation which is the key to the other symbols of new ness: the Holy City, the bride, the death of death, the water of life, the sonship of the conquerors."5

End of the old. In the new earth, the former things will pass away and "shall not be remembered or come into mind" (Rev. 2:5; Isa. 65:17). "Former" suggests an association with sin: All the consequences of the Fall will disappear. "God ... will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Rev. 21:4): Every emotional scar will be healed by the Ruler of the new earth, so that there will be no more "mourning nor crying nor pain" (Rev. 21:4). In the new earth neither the helplessness of infancy nor the terror of aging will be a problem to its inhabitants (Isa. 65:20). "Death [itself] shall be no more" (Rev. 21:4). "Every trace of the curse . . . [will be] swept away." 6

Righteousness forever. In the new earth, harmony and righteousness will characterize land and life (2 Peter 3:13). With the abolition of the curse upon the earth (Rev. 22:3; cf Gen. 3:16-19), creation will be freed from its bondage and decay (Rom. 8:18-22). The desolate will be transformed like the Garden of Eden (Isa. 30:23; 35:1, 2, 7; 65:17; 66:22; Hosea 1:10; 2:18; Zech. 8:12). Unfairness and injustice of this life will be a forgotten phenomena: "They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat" (Isa. 65:21, 22). Work will have its dignity and fulfillment: "They shall not labor in vain" (Isa. 65:23). Peace will characterize the environment: "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; ... They shall not hurt or destroy" (Isa. 65:25). "A little child shall lead them" (Isa. 11:6). Sickness will be no more and perfect health shall characterize the inhabitants: "The leaves of the tree [of life] were for the healing of the nations" (Rev. 22:2; cf Ps. 46:4).

Life of worship. Worship and service of God will be the dominant occupation of the redeemed in the new earth: "his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads" (Rev. 22:3, 4). The covenantal promise that the redeemed shall be His people, with God's law writ ten on their hearts, will become a reality: absolute and joyful obedience to God's will shall be the accepted norm of the universe (Exod. 19:5, 6; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 34:30; 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 8:10; Ezek. 36:26; Isa. 2:2; Micah 4:1; jer. 3:17; Zeph. 3:9).

In short, the new life will be theocentric: Our existence "will be marked by perfect knowledge of God, perfect enjoyment of God, and perfect service of God." 7

Fulfilling activity. The new earth will be a place of fruitful and fulfilling activity: "They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit" (Isa. 65:21). The new earth will be no place to sit through all eternity strumming a golden harp, or of floating around on little white clouds, or to lead an ethereal, vaporized existence of a disembodied spirit.

No, the new earth will be a real place with satisfying activity open to the saints—not just physical work, but opportunities to probe the mysteries of God's love: "There, immortal minds will contemplate with never-failing delight the wonders of creative power, the mysteries of redeeming love. . . . There the grandest enterprises may be carried for ward, the loftiest aspirations reached, the highest ambitions realized; and stillthere will arise new heights to surmount, new wonders to admire, new truths to comprehend, fresh objects to call forth the powers of mind and soul and body."8

New Jerusalem. The new earth would house the city of God. "And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev. 21:2).

Several points may be noted. First, the city descends from heaven, as if to emphasize that in God's scheme of the eschaton, humanity has no participatory role.

Second, the city is beyond human comprehension (Rev. 21:9-15). Its radiance springs from the glory of God. It has four gates, one on each side as if to invite humans to contemplate the reality that God's metropolis gathers saints from all corners of the earth: The city of God has no segregated entrance! The city is a perfect cube, reminiscent of the Holy of Holies where all dimensions were equal. Its walls are adorned with precious jewels. Its gates are made of pearl and its streets of pure gold.

Third, the city has no temple. No structure is needed in the new earth to symbolize divine presence. Divinity Himself has come to stay with humanity, and what need is there for a temple or of a sun or moon, for that matter? The presence of God transcends the material, making it secondary.

For all its glory, radiance, and its theocentric nature, however, the new Jerusalem is a city conceived by the Cross, and the book of Revelation would have us never forget it: The city is the bride of the Lamb; its foundations carry the names of the apostles of the Lamb; and the city's lamp is the Lamb! Eternity receives its illumination from a hill far away, where the light of heaven overwhelmed the darkness of the evil one, and lit the lamp of redemption. New Jerusalem is the city of the redeemed: They will "follow the Lamb wherever he goes" (Rev. 14:4).

Finally, the city pulsates with life (Rev. 22:1-5). The river of the water of life is there. The tree of life with 12 kinds of fruits, is there also, and its leaves are for the health of the inhabitants. Face-to-face fellowship with God and the Lamb are possible there. The restoration of the dignity and domain of humanity, with the redeemed reigning "for ever and ever" (Rev. 22:1-5) is the reason this place exists!

To God be the glory!

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1 All Scripture passages, unless otherwise stated, are from the Revised Standard Version.

2 Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964-1976), 3:447.

3 Henry B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eeidmans, 1908), 275.

4 F. F. Brace, Boo* of the Acts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977), 91.

5 P. S. Minear, / Saw a New Earth (Washington: Corpus Books, 1968), 273.

6 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1950), 674.

7 John Calvin, Isaiah, 4 vols., tr. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, Midi.: Eerdmans, 1948), 4: 404.

8 White, 677.

 

 

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