The Jehovah’s Witnesses along with many denominational writers contend that with the Second Coming of Christ the earth will be purified by fire. Subsequently, this material planet will be the residence of the faithful throughout eternity.
In other words, a “new earth” will be what we commonly think of as “heaven.” As Charles Hodge of Princeton stated it: “earth shall become heaven” (141).
Though the idea is very popular — particularly with those who subscribe to various millennial doctrines — there actually is no solid basis for it. The so-called “proof texts” for the doctrine, when closely examined, do not support it at all.
The heaven-on-earth dogma is but another example of not understanding the nature of figures of speech, as such are frequently employed in the sacred text.
The Distinction between Heaven and Earth
One of the clearest distinctions in the Bible is that which exists between heaven (the abode of God, the “heaven of heavens” — Deut. 10:14; Psa. 115:16) and the earth. It requires but a few passages to establish this premise.
In warning about oaths, Christ forbade swearing by heaven, the throne of God, or by earth, his footstool (Mt. 5:34-35). Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s will be done on earth, as in heaven (Mt. 6:10). The Savior declared that one must not lay up treasures on earth, where thieves might confiscate them. Rather, one’s treasure should be heavenly in nature (Mt. 6:19).
The Christian’s hope is to be realized “in the heavens” (Col. 1:5). It is an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, that fades not away, reserved in heaven for us (1 Pet. 1:3-4). How is this passage to be explained if the heaven of Peter’s statement will, in fact, fade away and give place to an eternal existence on earth? Peter must harmonize with Peter (2 Pet. 3:13)!
Our reward, grounded in our citizenship, will be in heaven, whence also we wait for our Savior (Phil. 3:20). Christ is not returning from heaven to be with his people on a reconstructed earth. He is returning to take his people home to the Father.
When Jesus declared: “In my Father’s house are many mansions” (Jn. 14:2-3), he clearly was speaking of heaven. This scarcely can be doubted. He then said: “I go to prepare a place for you.” He spoke of going to his Father in heaven. Subsequently, he promised to come again and receive his people so that “where I am, you may be also” (i.e., that they might abide in heaven with him).
By his death and subsequent ascension, “he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil” (Heb. 10:20). Entering within the veil (typified by the tabernacle’s holy of holies), the Lord functioned as a forerunner for us (Heb. 6:20). Does that sound like a trip to the renovated earth? What serious Bible student ever suspected that the holy of holies was a type of a renewed earth?
It is useless to continue to pile up passages that demonstrate heaven is not earth and earth is not heaven, when biblical writers employed literal language.
But it is alleged that a new heaven and a new earth await us. It is an earth that will have been renovated, reconstituted and purified from the contamination of sin.
Does this proposition apply to the earth only? Or to both “the heavens and earth”? Both are mentioned in the four biblical texts that speak of a “new heaven(s) and new earth.”
The passages that mention a “new heavens and a new earth” are Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13. And Revelation 21:1 speaks of “a new heaven and a new earth.” The evidence will demonstrate unequivocally that these expressions are uniformly used in figurative senses. In not a solitary case do they refer to the literal heaven or literal earth.
Old Testament References to “New Heavens and Earth”
Isaiah was God’s prophet of doom and deliverance. Doom was to be visited upon the kingdoms of ancient Israel and Judah for their spiritual apostasy. Ultimate deliverance was to be accomplished by the coming of Jehovah’s Messiah and the establishment of his regime.
In this final section of chapter 65, the prophet describes the creation of a “new heavens and a new earth.” In this instance, this is a symbolic description of the Messiah’s reign during the Christian age. As man lives upon the earth and partakes of the blessings of the heavens, so these expressions become figures signifying his environment. Hence, the “new heavens and a new earth” is merely descriptive of the new realm that will replace the Mosaic period. The “former things,” i.e., the elements of the Mosaic system, will pass away (Isa. 65:17).
Paul sets forth a similar truth in the New Testament. “Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17-18). The new creation is described as rejoicing in Jerusalem — an atmosphere of joy. This is, of course, spiritual Jerusalem, not the material city. God will rejoice in Jerusalem and joy in His people. The parallelism reveals that Jerusalem is a body of people, not the literal city.
Isaiah further declares that the sound of weeping will pass away (Isa. 65:19). The language does not suggest that in the future kingdom, its subjects (Christians) will never know tears or sadness (cf. Acts 20:31; Phil. 3:18). Rather, it is simply a negative way of emphasizing the joy characteristic of that new atmosphere. The thrust of verse 20 seems to be this. In the new regime, quantity (in terms of time) will not be nearly so important as quality. Hailey catches the spirit of the passage.
In Jehovah’s eternal nature, time is not an element to be reckoned with, for with Him a thousand years are as a day, and vice versa (cf. Psalm 90:4; II Peter 3:8). He measures activities by the accomplishment of the several aspects of His purpose, not by years. In the new order each citizen, whether for a brief moment (e.g., Stephen — Acts 7) or for a lengthy period (e.g., Paul, John), will fulfill his mission in God’s purpose. It is not the length of one’s day that counts. And the sinner, regardless of the length of his days, is accursed. He will suffer the consequence of his deeds and die in his sins, regardless of when they were committed (519).
It is clear that the new heavens and new earth of Isaiah 65:17ff are not the same as that mentioned in Revelation 21:1ff, for in the former there is sin, death, etc., whereas in the latter these things do not exist (cf. Rev. 21:4; 22:15). The spiritual prosperity of the new age is symbolically described with a motif that the ancient Jew would appreciate. Houses are built, vineyards are planted, and fruit is harvested (21). No more will God deliver them into the hands of their enemies who will take spoil of their produce; rather, their prosperity will be protracted (22).
Jehovah’s spiritual seed (cf. Gal. 3:29) will not labor in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58), nor will God bring calamity upon them, as he had done with old Israel when they rebelled against him (23). In the new Zion, the Lord will be ready, without special prompting, to respond to the needs of his people (24). Jesus declared that the Father knows our needs even before we ask (Mt. 6:8).
Finally, in language reminiscent of chapter 11, verses 6-9, the prophet describes, in verse 25, the peaceful nature of those who inhabit the kingdom of God in the new age. The New Testament clearly shows the Messianic fulfillment of these glorious predictions in the church (Rom. 15:12); they do not relate to a future millennium — nor a glorified earth following the Day of Judgment.
In this section, we have the prophet’s second reference to “the new heavens, and the new earth” (22). Again there is a symbolic description of the Messianic age and spiritual Zion’s glorious future.
Here, Jerusalem is described as a mother whose milk nourishes her children, and the offspring rejoice in the glory of their mother (10-11). As Zion enlarges her borders, encompassing even the nations (i.e., the Gentiles), the serenity of the new system spreads itself like a peaceful river. The new Jerusalem will be cared for as a mother feeds and caresses her child (12). God will comfort his children with the tenderness of a mother (13). Will God forsake his people? Never. He will preserve them, and in that, they will rejoice. They will flourish like tender grass under the providential hand of the Lord. On the other hand, their enemies will experience Heaven’s indignation (14).
Jehovah’s judgment upon the wicked is described as a visitation of fire (cf. Psalm 97:3). Like one riding a war-chariot, the Creator will fiercely deal with his enemies (15). With flames of vengeance and with the sword of justice, God will judge the ungodly — and they will be many (16). Note that the judgment of this context is not merely local; it is upon “all flesh.” Following the motif of paganism and certain violations of the law of Moses, the prophet warns that those who live in rebellion to God will come to an end (17). Though some see in this a reference to the destruction of the Jewish nation, it may reach beyond that to the final Judgment.
The Lord is fully familiar with both the thoughts and works of men, and the time assuredly is coming when he will gather all nations together; as he renders judgment, his glory will be universally manifest (18; cf. Romans 2:5). Again, a primary application may be the devastating destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. If the destruction of Jerusalem is alluded to in the earlier verses, those who escaped that disaster (i.e., Christians — cf. Matthew 24:15ff) will go into other regions of the antique world taking the gospel to the nations. The “sign” of verse 19 might be the destruction of the Jewish nation that triggered this evangelistic thrust.
By means of the proclamation of the gospel, “brethren” would be brought from the nations unto Jehovah’s holy “mountain”, i.e., the church (cf. 2:2-4; 11:9). The influx is figuratively described as the coming of caravans to Jerusalem where the people worship God (20). From these nations, the Lord will utilize certain people as “priests and Levites,” i.e., as those suitable to worship him (21). This clearly reveals the figurative nature of the language. Under the Mosaic system, priests and Levites were not Gentiles (cf. 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 5:9-10).
The perpetuity of Jehovah’s spiritual “seed” is affirmed; the seed and name will remain in the new dispensation (figuratively called the “new heavens and the new earth” — cf. 65:17) (22). Borrowing from the imagery of Judaism, which would be familiar to the people of that day, Isaiah speaks of the worship of the new age. All flesh (Jew and Gentile) will worship together according to Heaven’s prescribed way (23). In contrast, those who neglect Jehovah’s will are described as having been slain; their dead bodies are clearly in view. Moreover, their destruction is abiding, for, symbolically speaking, their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched (24). This clearly suggests the eternal punishment of the wicked. Jesus employs these words as a description of the final punishment of hell (cf. Mark 9:48).
Isaiah’s two uses of the expression “new heavens, and new earth” as figures of speech for the regime of the kingdom of Christ should prepare the New Testament student to understand that subsequent uses of the phrase could likewise be symbolic — as indeed the evidence will indicate.
New Testament References
We find several references in the New Testament which the “New Earthers” attempt to employ as support for their novel doctrine.
2 Peter 3
One of the proof-texts allegedly in support of the “renewed earth” viewpoint is 2 Peter 3:10.
The 3rd chapter of Peter’s second letter may conveniently be divided into five segments:
- The apostle’s reminder of a divine message previously given (1-2).
- A warning regarding certain skeptical mockers (3-4).
- The Flood of Noah’s day as a “type” of the coming Judgment (5-7).
- The day of the Lord (8-10).
- The coming Judgment as an incentive to holy living (11-18).
Our focus will be upon what is specifically said regarding the destiny of the material “heavens and the earth.” Peter declares that the “heavens shall pass away with a great noise.” The term “heavens” (plural) refers, not to the place where God is (Matthew 6:9), but to those realms where the birds fly (Ezekiel 31:6; cf. Matthew 8:20), and beyond to that region of the stars and planets (Genesis 1:14; 22:17).
Of special interest is the term “pass away” (
parerchomai — 30 times in the NT). While the word may occasionally be used in a temporal sense (cf. “passed by”; Mark 6:48), frequently it takes on an eternal significance. For example, the Lord contrasted the temporal nature of heaven and earth with the eternal duration of his word — the former will “pass away,” the latter never will (Matthew 24:35).
In this sense the term signified: “to come to an end and so no longer be there, pass away, disappear” (Danker, 776). Danker, et al. list 2 Peter 3:10 and Revelation 21:1 under this definition. In his commentary on Luke, Alfred Plummer contended that the term “pass away” (Luke 21:33) signified that “everything material will cease to exist” (1908, 485). There is no sense of a “renewal” in the term.
In a passage regarding the Day of Judgment, John writes that “the earth and the heaven fled away; that there was found no place for them” (Revelation 20:11). Where is the “restoration” in that? There “is found no place for it”! As Plummer expressed it: “The destruction of the world is complete . . . they [the material earth and heaven] are annihilated” (1908, 474).
The apostle continues by saying that the “elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat” (cf. 11). The term “elements” (
stoicheia) refers to the very fundamental components of an object, e.g., the letters of an alphabet. With reference to material objects, the word has to do with “the first and simplest component parts . . . the primary matter” (Liddell & Scott, 1501). “Dissolved” (from
luo) is found three times in verses 10-12.
In this case, the word means “to reduce something by violence into its components parts, destroy” (Danker, 607). The writers further comment: “Of the parts of the universe, as it is broken up and destroyed in the final conflagration 2 Pt. 3:10-12).” Add to this the term “melt” (
teko) in verse 12 (cf. Isaiah 34:4). Those who see a “restoration” or a “purification” in these terms have “Urim and Thummim” far more formidable than those claimed by Joseph Smith, Jr.! Now we come to the term rendered “burned up” (KJV; ASV).
In the earlier translations of this passage, the fate of the earth is described as being “burned up” (KJV; ASV; RSV; JB; NASB). The New World Translation and some of the later translations read “discovered,” “laid bare,” or “exposed” (see NIV; ESV). Supposedly, this rendition provides support for the position that the earth will not be destroyed; rather, it will be refurbished.
The difference in the translations results from a variation in ancient Greek manuscripts.
A number of scholars believe that the textual evidence perhaps slightly tips in favor of
heurethesetai, “found, discovered,” but, as Metzger noted, though this word seems to be “the oldest reading,” it scarcely makes any “acceptable sense” and “seems to be devoid of meaning in the context.” Several substitutions occur in other ancient sources, e.g., “found dissolved,” “will disappear,” “will be found useless,” “shall not be found,” etc. (706). Thayer suggested that “discovered” is “strange and improbable” (261). Lenski, who endorsed the “purified” earth concept, commented that the variant “shall be found or discovered” is “out of the line of thought” in the context (347).
Thus, numerous modifications exist. The term
katakaesetai, “burned up,” has fairly good textual support (the Alexandrian Ms, A.D. 5th C., along with several others of later date). As Caffin suggested, “burned up” is “well supported, and suits the context better” (68; cf. v. 11).
Even if the term, “found,” was the original word, the expression likely would indicate “shall be found for destruction, i.e., unable to hide themselves from the doom decreed by God” (Thayer, 261). Danker suggested the sense would be to “discover” or lay bare for a judicial sentence (412). Kistemaker also sees this as a reference to God’s judgment of “the earth and all man’s works” (337).
When the companion terms in the context are factored in, e.g., “pass away,” “dissolved,” and “melt,” together with the fact that no one has ever found anything remotely related to “renovated,” “refurbished,” or “purified” in the passage, it is totally irresponsible to argue from this context for a reconstitution of the earth following the Day of Judgment — despite the widespread denominational support for this idea. This notion, incidentally, is closely related to the dogma of premillennialism. One millennialist has written:
Of the new creation’s theme concerning the new physical-material creation of the future, both the OT and NT suggest that God’s covenant promises involve a millennial milieu of peace and harmony in the physical and animal creation" (Mare, 1201).
Professor Mare contended that the capital of the “new heavens and new earth” would be the “New Jerusalem.” Is this supposed to be a literal, reconstructed “city of Jerusalem”? Apparently so! Note Mare’s reference to the “new physical-material creation.”
Henry Thiessen wrote: “There is abundant reason for holding that this is a literal city. It has foundations, gates, walls, and streets” (517). Are the “walls” and “gates” to keep people in or out? And who would that be?
Chapter 3 concludes with the affirmation that we “look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwells righteousness.” One thing is certain: this is not the material heavens and earth, for they are gone! Nothing could be clearer.
For more about this, see the discussion of Revelation 21 to follow.
In a thrilling vision, the apostle John 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” (1). Plummer suggests this three-fold division “represents the whole of this world” (1950, 500-501).
For the final time, we are introduced to the “new heaven and a new earth.” One thing is certain, the “new” is not the same as the old (i.e., material/physical). The nature of the “new heaven and new earth” may logically be demonstrated quite simply.
Just as our present environment is called heaven and earth (we draw our sustenance from the air and land), even so, our future state of existence figuratively is designated as a “new heaven and new earth.” That this is an allusion to heaven itself can be demonstrated logically. In logic, there is a maxim that states: Things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. If A = B, and B = C, it follows that A = C. If we are promised “heaven” as our final dwelling place, and we are promised a “new heavens and a new earth,” yet there is but “one hope” (Ephesians 4:4), it necessarily follows that the “new heaven and earth” and “heaven” are synonymous — the former a figurative expression; the latter the literal designation. See also the comments of Guy N. Woods (189).
On the other hand, if one views the items mentioned in Revelation 21 in a “material/physical” sense, numerous problems arise. For example, if the language is literal, how can “Jerusalem” be both a “city” and a “bride”? If literalism prevails, why is Jerusalem a “city” in one verse, yet the “tabernacle” in another (2-3)? Are not these mere figures of speech that represent the “peoples” of God (3b)? How many other things in the Apocalypse must be literalized, e.g., incense, instruments of music, horses, a serpent, dragons, harlots, etc.?
Here is another interesting question. If the “new earth” is to be both the “material and physical,” as professor Mare contended, what will happen on the last day of earth’s history? Since all dead bodies that come forth from the grave will be “spiritual,” and not “physical” (1 Cor. 15:44), won’t the Lord, following the renovation of the earth, have to reconstitute the spiritual body, making it conform once more to the “physical/material” earth? If the “earth” is to be renewed, what about: “the works that are therein” (2 Pet. 3:10)? What are these “works,” and will they too be renewed?
The fact is, this idea of “transforming” the earth had its origin in the pseudepigrapha literature of the inter-biblical period, and not anywhere in scripture. For instance, in the book of 1 Enoch, there is this statement: “I will transform the heaven and make it an eternal blessing; and I will transform the earth and make it a blessing” (45:4). There are numerous other references of similar import.
The scholarly J.W. Roberts commented on this circumstance.
Some apocalyptic writers had thought that the present earth would merely be transformed (Jubilees 1:29; Enoch 45:1), though others predicted that “the first heaven will pass away, a new heaven will appear” (Enoch 91:16). This accords with the New Testament expectation (Matt. 5:18; 2 Peter 3:12; Heb. 12:27), though John does not describe the process of destruction. He has said, “earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them” (20:11) (179).
Professor Frank Pack was entirely correct when he noted:
This new heaven and new earth is that which is spoken of by our Lord. It would appear that this is best understood as the vision of heaven itself, thought of in terms of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city in the new heaven and the new earth (II.93; emp. WJ).
In a marvelous passage designed to provide comfort for afflicted children of God, Paul affirms that the “sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward” (Romans 8:18). He continues by suggesting that “the creation,” with great anticipation, awaits the revealing of God’s children (19-23). He notes that this “creation” at one time was subjected to vanity, not willingly, but by the Lord.
There is the hope, however, that eventually the creation will be set free from the “bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.” Paul describes “the whole creation” as experiencing the pangs of childbirth. The inspired writer concludes this section by affirming that Christians also, who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan (i.e., suffer difficulties) waiting for our adoption, even the redemption (i.e., the resurrection) of our bodies.
The most difficult aspect of this narrative is the allusion to “the creation,” and particularly what is meant by Paul’s affirmation that the “whole creation” anxiously anticipates its deliverance from the bondage of corruption. How is the term “creation” employed in this setting?
The matter cannot be ascertained merely by looking at the word
ktisis (creation) for that expression is used in a variety of senses in the Bible. For example:
It is employed of the material creation in some passages (Romans 1:20,25; Colossians 1:15). At other times, it denotes humanity in general (Mark 16:15; Colossians 1:23). It also is used occasionally in a special sense of Christians (Galatians 6:15; 2 Corinthians 5:17). It is obvious, therefore, that the context must determine the meaning of the word in a particular setting.
With reference to “the creation” in Romans 8:19ff, Paul affirms that the creation was subjected to the bondage of corruption and that ultimately there is a promised deliverance from that state into a new glorious existence. What is the meaning of this controversial promise?
First, many assert that this context contains the pledge of a restoration of the entire material/physical creation at the time Christ returns to establish an earthly kingdom (Shank, 23). Such theories, however, cannot represent the correct view of this passage.
As noted already, the Bible clearly teaches that the material universe will utterly be destroyed at the second coming of Christ (Matthew 24:35; 2 Peter 3:1-13; Revelation 20:11; 21:1). Moreover, there is absolutely no suggestion in the scriptures that any eternal reward has been provided for animals (cf. 2 Peter 2:12; Jude 10). No interpretation can be placed upon Romans 8:19ff, therefore, that forces these verses into conflict with other clear affirmations regarding the destiny of this earth. An obscure passage must yield to the clearer.
Second, does “the creation” refer to the “unredeemed portion of humanity” (Coffman, 305)? That hardly seems likely, for Paul asserts that this creation will be delivered “into the liberty of the glory of the children of God” (21). How is that applicable to the unbelieving world?
Nothing but a resurrection of condemnation awaits unregenerate humanity (John 5:29). Moreover, the Bible establishes elsewhere the principle that those out of harmony with God do not live in joyful anticipation of coming judgment; they await such in fear and trembling (cf. Isaiah 33:14; Hebrews 10:27).
Third, does the phrase, “the creation,” refer to the church? Obviously not, for “the creation” is said to look forward to the revealing of the sons of God (19). In addition, the apostle declares: “And not only so, but ourselves also . . . groan . . . waiting for our adoption” (23). It is clear that Christians are treated as a group separate from “the creation.”
What, then, is the meaning of this controversial context wherein the “whole creation” appears to anticipate deliverance? The most reasonable explanation, with fewest difficulties, is this. Paul, in these passages, has personified the creation. He figuratively represents it as longing for deliverance as a prelude to that time when its purpose shall have been completed.
When God’s redemptive plan is brought to fruition, earthly affairs are ended. The righteous will obtain their reward in “the new heavens and the new earth” (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1), which is heaven itself.
Just as there is a link between man’s physical body and his new, resurrected spiritual body; even so, figuratively, there is a connection between the present creation and a new creation wherein eternal righteousness abides.
This type of argument certainly is not without precedent in the Scriptures. In Psalm 114, the inspired writer describes the deliverance of Jehovah’s people from Egyptian bondage. In conjunction with that glorious event, various elements of the creation are depicted as cooperating with, and rejoicing at, Israel’s freedom. The sea saw it and fled, the mountains skipped as rams, the hills frolicked like little lambs, and the earth trembled. The Old Testament is replete with this type of symbolism (cf. Psalms 96:12; 98:8; Isaiah 35:1; 55:12).
No one contends that the language in these passages is literal. In view of other clear biblical indications, why should such an assumption be made with reference to Romans 8? There simply is no need for that.
The Earth Abides Forever
The claim is made that the earth will abide “forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4). But the Hebrew term
olam can be used of a temporal span (cf. Exodus 12:14; Numbers 25:13). When employed of material things, it is qualified by “the revealed truth that heaven and earth shall pass away, and it is limited by this truth” (Girdlestone, 317).
It is argued that a number of the pioneer preachers subscribed to the “renewed earth” theory. Indeed they did, and many of them also endorsed various shades of “millennialism.” But one must recall that these worthies were working their way out of numerous errors that cluttered the denominational community, and that is considerably different from leaving a solid background of Bible teaching, and carelessly wandering into the maze of sectarian ideology.
The beliefs of the “fathers” were not inspired, as much as we may otherwise honor them. In the final analysis, the question is: What do the scriptures actually teach? And the fact is, the idea of a renovated earth, constituting an eternal material domain for the redeemed, does not have the support of the Bible. It reflects a carnal mentality that apparently cannot envision a purely spiritual environment in which humanity could be happy eternally.