New Year, New Creation Pt. 4: Common questions and final thoughts.

March 3, 2020.

Welcome back to the New Year, New Creation series where we are exploring the biblical picture of the Christian hope and ultimate destiny. If you have missed part 1, part 2 or part 3 of this series, I encourage you to go back through and read them as they present the main narrative of this series. I considered doing a fourth part of the main series that considered the actual meaning of the words we often use for our ultimate salvation, such as renewal, restoration, redemption, etc., but I have decided instead to go ahead and answer some common questions and objections of this view, followed by a short consideration of these words as closing thoughts. I hope you have enjoyed the series and are looking forward to God’s ultimate plan to set the world right. May the earth be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as waters that cover the sea (Hab. 2:14).

Frequently Asks Questions and Objections

1. Why have I never heard this view before? Is it new?

This is a great question that could have so many different answers, depending on what background you have been raised in. However, there are some generalities that I will cautiously put forth (knowing that generalities don’t always hit at the specifics of any given individual) in attempt to give an answer to this question. But let’s start with the second question because it is easier.

No, this view is not new. In modern times it does seem new because few people have taught this in the past 150 years or so (at least in typical church settings or in evangelical circles) due to reasons we will get to in a moment. But if you are worried that I have just made up some new theology that has no connection to historical Christianity, do not fear! New heavens and New Earth was the dominant eschatology (or theology concerned with the end times) of the early church up through the middle ages when the alternative theology of an otherworldly heaven as the final destiny of believers overtook New Heavens and New Earth theology.[1]

To answer the first question, a major reason that many people have not heard this view before is simply because it has not been taught in recent times. Instead, as alluded to above, the dominate thinking in eschatology has focused on “going to heaven when we die” and escaping this bad world of death and disease. I hope if you have read my previous posts on this topic that this theology might ring a bell- it is Platonic dualism. Many factors have reintroduced Platonic dualism into our culture, not least being the enlightenment and the atrocities of the 20th century. Before 1900, the dominant eschatology in America was actually a form of postmillennialism which taught that humans would keep getting better and better, improving the world until it reached an Edenic-like state when Christ would return and rule. They thought we would bring about the Kingdom on this earth with our own power. This narrative fit nicely with the narrative at the time, since the dominant narrative was progress (the world really did seem to be getting better and better, at least in the West). However, the 20th century came along and shattered this view (think WWI and II, the Spanish Flu, Eugenics, the atomic bomb, Vietnam, Korea, etc.), with the brutal killings, murders, and wars that took the lives of an unprecedented amount of human beings. Thus, the post-millennial fever was squashed (along with modernity, leading the way for post-modern thought to come in as a critique of modernity) and something else arose in its stead: premillennialism. Again, this was mostly a function of the times, as the atrocities of the modern world had affected culture so much that people began thinking that there was no hope whatsoever for this world, the world was a bad place and all we could hope for was to get out of this world. This philosophy fits very well within Platonic dualism, which teaches that the body is the prison of the soul.[2] Pre-millennialism took off, and the rapture was highly popularized by Tim LaHaye’s series The Left Behind Series (though pre- millennialism certainly predated this series, and was actually first popularized in America through the Scofield Reference Bible). Though many have resisted this particular eschatology, almost all of modern evangelical eschatology is based on the idea that this world is bad, and when we die we go to some other heaven to be with God forever. This idea is deeply ingrained in our culture, and that is one of the major reasons there is so much resistance to New Heaven New Earth theology, even when we read verses that literally use this terminology. We atomically reason it away because of our preconceived notions and culture. At least this is the only way I can explain how I read the New Heavens and New Earth passages most of my life and just skipped right over them.

The pre-millennialism fervor of the 20th century seems to have quieted down now, and, especially among biblical scholars, we are rediscovering the actual eschatology of the Jews and the early Christians in the first century. It seems new to us, but really it is a view that is as old as the Christian religion, as I hope I have shown in the previous posts of this series.

2. Doesn’t II Peter 3:10 say the earth will be burned up?

Inevitably when you discuss New Heavens and New Earth, someone will bring up II Peter. And this is good because we certainly should take into account all of scripture. Let me emphasize that. We should take into account all of scripture. If you base all (or even most) of your eschatology on one passage, such as II Peter 3:10, then you haven’t taken into account all of scripture. And I hope that I have shown in the previous posts that the overall narrative of scripture points towards New Heavens and New Earth. If the weight of scripture is for one view, and a single verse (or a couple of verses, see next question) seems to go against the rest of scripture, then it is more likely that we are misunderstanding the single scripture rather than the bulk of the biblical material. I have a few things for you to consider about II Peter 3:10 before you conclude that it negates New Heaven and New Earth theology.

“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
(2 Peter 3:10, KJV)

Notice I quoted from the King James Version. If you read a modern version, the phrase that is so often associated with this passage, “shall be burned up”, is translated differently. Take the ESV for example:

“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 will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”
2 Peter 3:10

“Will be exposed” and “shall be burned up” are very different phrases that can be taken in very different ways. So why do newer versions translate this differently? It turns out, the phrase “shall be burned up” is not found in the earliest Greek manuscripts of this book. Older manuscripts of New Testament documents have been found since the time that the KJV was translated, and these older manuscripts do not have “shall be burned up”. Rather, they have a notoriously difficult Greek word to translate that comes out something like “laid bare” or “exposed”. To make a long story short, the NET bible notes conclude (from NT Greek Scholarship): “The meaning of the text then is that all but the earth and mankind’s works will be destroyed. Everything will be removed so that humanity will stand naked before God.” Thus, the passage seems to be talking about our standing before God at the end, and not being able to hide behind anything, which makes sense in context.

Of course, many of you might be quick to point out that the passage elsewhere says that “the earth is reserved for fire.” And you are correct. However, we need to look at this in context as well. Verse seven does say that the heavens and earth that now exist are reserved for fire. However, the author is making a comparison to the way the heavens and earth were reserved for the flood when he mentions in verse six. Yes, in Genesis 6 the flood did destroy the earth- but, and this is crucial, it did not annihilate the earth. Actually, the earth comes through just fine- even better without all the human sin and unrighteousness (Romans 8 anyone?). I think of the fire here in the same way, as a refining fire, burning up the wickedness and ungodly, and exposing everyone naked before God to be judged. This makes sense of the context. What did the flood do? It judged the wicked world and brought forth a new world; the flood is a story of new creation.

And you know what? The letter goes on to make this point explicitly! It is somewhat ironic, at least to me, that the main passage levied against New Heavens and New Earth theology goes on to teach about the New Heavens and New Earth:

“But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
2 Peter 3:13

This passage (just like Revelation 21) is drawing off the imagery found in Isaiah 65, which we have discussed in a previous post. The author is obviously affirming Isaiah 65, noting that we should live as people who will one day live in this new heaven and new earth.[3] So, far from denying a new earth, the passage actually points towards it! Even if you must stick with the concept of this present earth being annihilated, you still would be looking forward to a new earth, not a disembodied spiritual realm akin to the modern conception of “heaven”. Now, I believe “new” here refers to a “renewal” of the earth (with the refining fire cleansing the earth as with the flood) for two reasons[4]: 1) the Greek word for “new” can carry the concept of “renewal”, such as in II Cor. 5:17 when Paul says that anyone in Christ is a “new” creation (as in, you have been renewed in Christ, or made new in Christ, not that you were literally annihilated and created anew from scratch), and 2) if this passage meant destruction and a completely new earth, then I think it would contradict Romans 8:18-25, which says that the present creation eagerly awaits the time that it will be released from its bondage of corruption (why would the creation long for a time of release, just to be destroyed?). But, even if you don’t agree with me here, the concept of New Heavens and New Earth is still explicitly taught in this passage. Why would there be any need for a New Earth if we are just going to be in heaven forever?

Finally, there is a case to be made that this passage is drawing on “day of the Lord” imagery, which often involves dramatic signs and figures, such as fire from heaven and the moon becoming blood (think Revelation images), often representative of a physical reality that is not as dramatic.[5] This is standard “day of the Lord” prophecy (compare with the day of the Lord prophecies found in the minor prophets and even Jesus’ prophecy in Matt. 24-25), and the passage might even be an allusion to Zephaniah 1:18, where the prophet says, “In the fire of his [the LORD] jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed.” Regardless, I think the images of fire and destruction in this passage are figures for a dramatic day, where all will be changed and the kingdom and rule of God will finally be consummated.

3. But what about I Thessalonians 4? Doesn’t Paul imply that Jesus will return and take us to heaven?

If II Peter 3 is the most cited passage against New Heavens and New Earth, I would say I Thessalonians 4 is second. And at first blush (especially if we already have the mindset that heaven is our eternal home), this passage does seem to imply that we will leave earth for our final destiny:

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
(I Thessalonians 4:15-18)

See, there ya have it! We’re gonna meet Christ “in the air” and be caught up “in the clouds”. I wonder how much of our modern picture of heaven where we sit on clouds playing harps all day comes from this passage. However, when we take a closer look at the passage, we find that this interpretation just doesn’t make sense.

First, the passage never says where we will ultimately end up. It is true that in the end, Paul says, “and so we will always be with the Lord.” But he didn’t say where. Think about it- he just says we will meet the Lord in the clouds/air. Is that where we are going to be forever? We will be lifted up a few thousand feet, meet Christ in the air and remain right there forever? Neither view, the modern version of heaven where we dwell as disembodied spirits forever or New Heavens and New Earth, say we will be in the sky forever. But that’s all the information we get from the passage. Therefore, we cannot conclude from this passage that we are going to be taken to heaven when Jesus comes back, because it simply does not say that.

But what is the meaning of this passage then? It might sound rather odd to us, especially if it doesn’t imply that we would continue on with Jesus into heaven. But, as we considered for II Peter 3, if the overall picture of scripture points towards a different reality than what we believe I Thessalonians 4 is speaking of, we are probably misunderstanding I Thessalonians 4.

This misunderstanding is more reasonable to me, as the meaning of the passage is entrenched in first-century Roman culture. N.T. Wright gives us a picture of the image Paul is talking about:

“Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province.  The citizens go out to meet him in [the] open country and then escort him into the city.  Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world.” [6]

This is what citizens did to welcome their king in the first century. Do you see how that fits the context and the wider context of scripture itself? When Jesus returns, we (as citizens of His Kingdom) will go out to meet him and bring him and escort him back. There are many commentators that agree that this is the idea that is being portrayed in I Thessalonians 4 (see the last link in reference 6). This explanation makes sense of the verse in first-century Roman culture as well as in context with the whole narrative of scripture. So, instead of implying that Jesus will take us to heaven when He returns, it actually implies that we will accompany Jesus to earth when he returns.

4. What about the “citizenship in heaven” language? And doesn’t Hebrews 11:13 say we are stagers and pilgrims on the earth?

In Philippians 3:20, Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven, and this is true. Our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, which is from heaven. Heaven is the realm in which God resides, and as Stephen saw in Acts 8, Jesus is standing at the right hand of the Father, on the throne of the kingdom. Heaven is what we get a glimpse of in Revelation 4-5 as John briefly rolls back the curtain and we see the throne-room where many creatures and spiritual beings are worshipping God. Our citizenship is in heaven, as opposed to our citizenship being here (Roman citizenship in the first century, or perhaps American citizenship- or whichever country you reside in- to many of us today). However, note what Paul goes on to say in this passage: “and from it, we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” This agrees perfectly well with the picture that we get in Revelation 21, where we see the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God…”. The ultimate plan is to unite heaven and earth, as we have discussed in previous posts, when God’s rule, God’s kingdom, will be fully established. Then will the earth be filled with the knowledge and glory of the Lord, as waters that cover the sea (Hab. 2:14). Our citizenship is in heaven because we are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, not because we will spend eternity in a disembodied place that we call heaven.

So why does Hebrews 11:13 praise those found in the “hall of faith” for having “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth”? The verse tells us that they all died in faith, not having received the things promised. They had not seen the Kingdom come. They had not received the full blessings. In this sense, they were pilgrims and strangers. But they were looking forward to the time when the promises would be fulfilled. In this sense, we also are pilgrims and strangers. The kingdom of this world has not yet become the Kingdom of our God. But the keyword here is ‘yet’. Listen to what the angel says in Revelation:

“Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’”
Revelation 11:15

Though the Kingdom has been inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus and the church, it awaits His second coming for its final consummation. The Kingdom is already, but not yet. And we are awaiting the yet. And thus we cry with the early Christians, “Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.”

5. What’s wrong with having a ‘spiritual’ home in heaven forever?

I understand that there is an emotional side to this question, and it can be very jarring when someone challenges a precious and long-term belief, especially one in which you derive your ultimate hope. And I’m really not trying to challenge this belief just for the fun of it, or out of disrespect. The simple answer to the question of “What’s wrong with having a ‘spiritual’ home in heaven forever” is nothing, if that was what God planned to do. However, the problem is that I do not think the Bible teaches this. And if we are going to be people of the book, then we must look to the book to derive our theology.

However, I will go a few steps further, cautiously, because I think there is a reason that the biblical hope points to a New Heaven and New Earth as opposed to a ‘spiritual’ disembodied heaven. And as I said at the beginning of this series, I personally think the biblical hope of New Heavens and New Earth is much more exciting, not less, than the picture of heaven I was given growing up. As we have done man times in this series, to answer this question, we must start at the beginning.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
(Genesis 1:1)

In the opening words of the Bible, we are given the original plan and intent of God- to create the entire universe. We later learn that His whole creation is deemed good. It was God’s original plan and intent to create us to live in a physical world. One part of the problem with the concept of an eternal ‘spiritual’ home is that we are not designed to live in disembodied states. This is not God’s plan, even in the beginning before the fall. God always intended us to live in a physical home. We would not be complete in a purely ‘spiritual’ home, just like we are not complete apart from our body (see part 3 of this series).

Now let me reiterate that I do think we go to a spiritual realm temporarily after death. This is the place where Jesus is, where Paul speaks of ‘going to be with the Lord’. I might even call this place heaven (though that is a discussion for another day). The point I am making here, and the point of this whole series, however, is that this spiritual place is not our eternal destination. Yes, we are with Jesus. But we are not complete. I think we can see this in Revelation six when the fifth seal is opened:

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”
(Revelation 6:9-11)

Here we see that John has given us a window into heaven, even into the throne-room where we see the souls under the altar. But what are they doing? Crying out! “How long?” “How long before you avenge us?” They are given white robes and told to wait a little longer. So yes, we see souls in heaven. But they are not complete. They are still waiting for something. Apparently there are tears in heaven.[7]

So, we start off with God’s good plan, His good creation. Then what happens? Humans rebel and bring the curse of sin on the earth. We learn throughout scripture that the serpent in the garden of Eden is eventually tied to the devil himself. Now, if the ultimate goal of Christians is to die and go to be in heaven forever, we should think through the implications of that. If that were the plan, then in some very real sense, Satan would have won. Satan has tried to throw the plan of God off course and destroy it. If God decides that He must destroy His good creation, which He originally planned for people (and to dwell with people in, just as He walked with Adam and Eve in the garden), then Satan has accomplished his plan. Death, too, has taken its victory, because, in a very real sense, all humanity has died, not to come back to life in the sense that we know it. This doesn’t make sense, especially considering the resurrection (why would we be raised bodily just to ditch the body once again to go to some spiritual realm?). No, we know that the plan of God cannot be defeated. In fact, in the New Heaven and New Earth, God will ultimately show His power and triumph in that even with the wrench that Satan through into the plan, the plan succeeded anyway. This is how God wins, even when He is dealing with free-will agents. God will take evil, He will take bad things, and work them into His ultimate plan of salvation such that His will is always accomplished. And since His will and intent was to dwell with humanity in the created universe[8], then we can be sure this plan will ultimately succeed.

Finally, the ultimate picture of the end and our hope of salvation is the combination of Heaven and Earth. The fundamental problem with a ‘spiritual’ home with God is that the spiritual and physical realms presented in the Bible are simply not how we think of the spiritual and physical realms in our modern world (you can thank the Enlightenment for that). The spiritual realm that is spoken of in the Bible is not wholly separate and apart from the earth, but rather interacts with it and even overlaps with it at specific points (such as in the temple). This is why God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden- the garden was a place where heaven and earth overlapped. God has always wanted to be with His creation, and He has consistently sought ways to come to us, not bring us to His realm. And we know that He will always continue to this, as we see the final picture in Revelation 21 in the New Jerusalem where it is shouted “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” This is after the New Jerusalem has come down out of heaven to the new earth. This is the joining of heaven and earth. This is the original intent and final consummation of the plan of God. So, the ultimate problem with a ‘spiritual’ home with God is simply that in the end, a purely ‘spiritual’ realm will not exist. It will be both spiritual and physical, the overlapping of heaven and earth. And God will dwell there with His people. And I believe this is a beautiful picture.

6. Final thoughts: Redemption, restoration, and renewal.

Finally, I want to close this series by dwelling on what is said about our ultimate destiny and the hope of salvation we have with God. Consider the following verses, and especially the words I have highlighted that give us clues and insights into what God’s intent is in this salvation. I think that if we really consider these words and what they actually mean, then we will have a better sense of what God has planned for us.

“…that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”[9]
(Acts 3:20c-21)

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world [some translations, regeneration], when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
(Matthew 19:28)

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
(Colossians 1:19-20)

“And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
(Luke 2:38)

“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.”
(Romans 8:23)

“And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
(Revelation 21:5)

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
(2 Corinthians 5:17)

“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”
(Galatians 6:15)

As you read through these verses, think about what these words mean. What does it mean to restore? What would the restoration of Israel look like? Would it be annihilation of Israel? Or a rebirth/renewal? What does it mean to redeem something? How would God redeem our bodies? By getting rid of them? Or by transforming them into the likeness of Jesus’ glorious body? What does it mean to make all things new? To destroy them? Or to refine and refashion them, molding them into what they are meant to be? What does it mean to be a new creation?

Too often we have overlooked the very words that are used to describe our ultimate hope and salvation. I encourage you to think about these things and consider the words that scripture uses to tell us about the ultimate plan of God. I pray this series has been a blessing, and that you have been encouraged, not discouraged by it. And I pray that you are part of the Kingdom that is already, but not yet.

What a beautiful world we have to look forward to, a world in which peace and righteousness dwells. A world where the dwelling place of God is with man. A world that functions properly, ever upheld by the Spirit of our God. Hallelujah, praise God.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

The love of God, and God of love, calls out to you.

-Walt

_____________________________

[1] See N.T. Wright’s article in Time: https://time.com/5743505/new-testament-heaven/. Also see, N.T. Wright Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. (2008). HarperOne.

[2] When you sing the song, I’ll Fly Away, listen for this philosophy embedded in it.

[3] Note here the confusion that can come with the idea of “New Heavens”. The phrase “heaven and earth” is a way of talking about all creation, the universe. “Heaven” can be translated as the heaven we think about as God’s abode or simply “sky”, as in Gen. 1:20 when birds are found flying across the “expanse of the heavens”. IT scan also refer to the “heavenly bodies”, which we would think of as stars and planets, though an ancient near eastern person would probably think of more in terms of spiritual beings (in the heavens). This is a complicated issue that I cannot resolve in a footnote, but I point it out here just to make sure we are really thinking about what the word “heaven” means in context, not the concepts that the word “heaven” brings up in our modern minds when we read or hear it.

[4] Well, there are probably more than just these two, and there’s much more detail about these two reasons than I have space for here, but I’m trying to be as concise as I can…

[5] Remember in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 when he quotes from Joel saying that the images there, involving blood, fire and smoke, the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood, had found their fulfillment there are Pentecost? Those were dramatic prophetic images for what happened on Pentecost, not (completely) literal.

[6] For a more detailed look at what is going on in this passage, see http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/farewell-to-the-rapture/. Also see N.T. Wright Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church and https://oneinjesus.info/2016/11/1-thessalonians-416-18-the-parousia/.

[7] Note that the song “No Tears in Heaven” is actually echoing Revelation 21:4, which is actually speaking of the New Heaven and New Earth.

[8] Notice here that heaven itself is created, not just the earth. And even in the II Peter passage, the fire language is not only reserved for the earth, but the heavens as well. When God created the heavens and earth, He entered into His creation to dwell with us. This is another reason to remember that just because the Bible says ‘heaven’ doesn’t mean it is talking about what we think of when we hear the word ‘heaven’.

[9] What prophecies would Peter be referring to here? See Part 2.

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