(Rev. 21:1 ESV) Then I 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.
This one, short verse is filled with mysteries. I interpret the passage to speak of a cleansing and renewing of the heavens and the earth, returning them to their pristine state before sin entered the world — except better — merging heaven with earth so that God lives among his children in a Temple built to his glory.
But that idea seems contradicted by the phrase “the first earth had passed away.” Doesn’t that mean the old world will be dead and replaced with a new, better world? No, it doesn’t.
“Passed away” translates aperchomai, meaning to leave — which, as in English, has a wide range of meanings, depending on the context. Unlike English, “passed way” is not usually used to mean “dead” in the Greek. The same word is used in —
(2 Cor. 5:17 ESV) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new [kainos] creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new [kainos] has come.
By now, it should be obvious that these are parallel passages and ideas. Both speak of a new creation out of an old creation — and both say that the old creation has passed away. But in neither case does the old creation become destroyed so that a new creation must be made from scratch. Rather, the old creation is transformed by God to become new again.
So the Jews speak of new heavens, as מחודשים, renewed ones, which are the secrets of sublime wisdom: and they sayp, that the holy blessed God will renew his world a thousand years, and that in the seventh millennium there will be new heavens and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; not those in ch. 20:11 but the heaven and the earth which were first made, which passed away, as Peter also says, adding, with a great noise; meaning not as to their substance, but as to their form, fashion, and qualities:
John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, The Baptist Commentary Series, (London: Mathews and Leigh, 1809), 3:855.
Yet this is not to be understood in terms of destroying the old or the obsolete in order to replace it with something completely different (neither Isaiah nor John use the language of destruction). Rather, John sees a profound renewal of that which is already there, a heaven and earth which have been judged, purged of those powers which threaten them, now destined to be transformed from the very depths of their being.
Ian Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John, Black’s New Testament Commentary, (London: Continuum, 2006), 293.
The Greek word for “new” (kainē) means new in quality, fresh, rather than recent or new in time (neos) (TDNT, 3:447). That it is a kainē heaven and earth and not a second heaven and earth suggests something of an endless succession of new heavens and earth. It is the newness of the endless eschatological ages (2:17; 3:12; 5:9; cf. Eph 2:7). What makes the new heaven and earth “new” is above all else the reality that now “the dwelling of God is with men, … They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (v. 3). The heaven and earth are new because of the presence of a new community of people who are loyal to God and the Lamb in contrast to the former earth in which a community of idolaters lived.
Alan F. Johnson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation, 1981, 12, 592–593.
For the first heaven and the first earth were passed away. They had passed away by being changed, and a renovated universe had taken their place.
Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament: Revelation, ed. Robert Frew, (London: Blackie & Son, 1884–1885), 443.
Judaism also conceived of the new creation as a renewal or renovation of the old creation (see Jub. 1:29; 4:26; 1 En. 45:4–5; 2 Bar. 32:1–6; 57:2; 4 Ezra 7:75; Tg. Ps.-J. Deut. 32:1; Tg. Hab. 3:2).
G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 1150.
“for the first heaven and the first earth passed away” There will be a restored creation, no longer affected by sin (cf. II Baruch 37:6; 2 Pet. 3:10–12; Rev. 20:11).
Robert James Utley, Hope in Hard Times – The Final Curtain: Revelation, Study Guide Commentary Series, (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2001), Volume 12:145.
Many Jewish depictions of the age to come (e.g., in 1 Enoch, Jubilees and Pseudo-Philo) emphasized the new heavens and earth. Some Jewish texts spoke of the renewal of the first creation; others spoke of its replacement by a new creation; Revelation holds to the latter position. Many texts described the end time in terms of the beginning, as a renewal of paradise (see comment on 22:1-5); so here the new creation recalls the goodness of the first creation before sin marred it (Gen 1:1).
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 815.
Commentators are not unanimous (on this or any other point in Revelation!), but the majority view is that the new heavens and new earth are the old heavens and earth transformed, purified, and renewed.
This may not seem like a point worth spending this much time on, but it matters — because —
- It makes the NT say the same thing as the OT. In fact, contrary to much bad teaching over the last 150 years or so, we now see that the OT has a very well developed theology of the afterlife. We’ve not realized it because the OT does not speak of souls flying off to heaven but of God’s children being resurrected in glorious bodies in a renewed heavens and earth.
- It makes Paul’s points about the Creation in Rom 8 make much better sense. We see why, at the conclusion of a discussion of the Spirit, Paul discusses the resurrection of God’s children and the renewal — freeing — of the Creation. We’ll receive renewed bodies from the Spirit. And he’s setting up the point he’ll soon make about God’s children being “glorified” by God. It’s Daniel and Isaiah come true.
- It is the perfect conclusion to the narrative of all scripture, which begins with the “old” Creation and the Fall of Man. God finally fixes what was broken — both the fallen Creation and fallen humankind.
- It adds depth and meaning to countless other passages. Now, when Paul describes our salvation as an “inheritance” — the Torah’s favorite word for the Promised Land — he’s speaking not just of Palestine but the entire planet — and the heavens that surround it. Indeed, this finally makes sense of “the meek shall inherit the earth.” (I used to wonder why the meek were being given something to be burned to a crisp rather than heaven.)
- And, of course, it creates an understanding of the End Times that fits perfectly with Edward Fudge’s conditional immortality — and yet not a single commentator that I’ve quoted is a disciple of Fudge. (But it fits.)