“What does the phrase ‘new heavens and new earth’ (2 Pet. 3:13) mean?”
There are two views concerning the meaning of the phrase, “new heavens and new earth.” Since they represent opposing viewpoints, one of them obviously is false. The phrase means either a “renewed earth,” or it is a figurative expression for “heaven” itself.
The Premillennial View
Many religious groups advocate the doctrine of premillennialism. There are, however, different forms of premillennialism. For instance, The Watchtower Society, the Seventh-day Adventists, and many Protestant denominations, hold to some form of millennialism. Yet they have significant differences between them.
Although it is not our intent to deal with the theory of premillennialism extensively, we note that those who believe in that dogma envision the “new heavens and new earth” as a literal earth, cleansed by fire.
Consider what Peter wrote.
First, the “heavens and earth” of the present are reserved for fire against the “day of judgment” (2 Pet. 3:7).
Second, the Judgment will come unexpectedly and suddenly. The heavens and earth will pass away with a great noise, the elements will dissolve with fervent heat, and the earth and its works shall be consumed (2 Pet. 3:10,12).
Third, after the Judgment, there will be the “new heavens and new earth.”
Notice what Peter did not say. He did not say that the earth would be refurbished to be an earthly paradise. He did not say that the Lord would reign upon the earth. He did not say that anyone would inhabit earth after the Second Coming. No biblical writer affirms any of these ideas.
The “Heavenly” View
Consistent with New Testament teaching concerning “final things,” the phrase “new heavens and new earth” stands for the saved environment, following the Judgment Day; this environment is more commonly called “heaven” (Mt. 6:19-20).
John wrote, “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away; and the sea is no more” (Rev. 21:1). The expression “heaven and earth” stands for a place of existence — our familiar environment, i.e., land and sky. But what John saw was not the first heaven and earth. It was gone. So, he describes, in symbolic fashion, the place of the realm of the saved, where they shall reign “for ever and ever” — not a mere 1,000 years.
This environment of the saved is simply heaven. Paul wrote that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). The apostle also said that we have one hope, and that our hope is in heaven (Eph. 4:4; Col. 1:5).
In every respect, heaven will be characterized by newness. It is a place never before inhabited by Christians. It is the first time the saved, in a glorified state, will be in the very presence of God — face to face (cf. 1 Jn. 3:2; Rev. 22:4). This new state, where sin and death are no more, will be the eternal abode of the saved when the Lord returns, and the living are caught up with the redeemed of all ages to be with the Lord forever (cf. 1 Thes. 4:13-18).