(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.
Now, there are basically two interpretations of “the new heaven and new earth.” One is found in the Christian Courier, a popular Church of Christ website —
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).
I think most Christians agree. But I don’t. Rather, I lean toward a position found not only in N. T. Wright, but taught by many Restoration leaders of the 19th and 20th Centuries, including Alexander Campbell, David Lipscomb, G. C. Brewer, and Moses Lard. It surprising that a doctrine taught by such influential leaders has been nearly forgotten — until we were reminded of it by an Anglican bishop (Wright).
The Courier makes a couple of serious exegetical errors. First, there’s nothing about what the OT says on the subject. I don’t know why we so insist on using just one edge of a two-edged sword!
The obvious reference is to Gen 1, describing the creation of “the heavens and the earth.” Is God replacing the old with new, or is he making the old new? Well, the Revelator says,
(Rev. 21:5a ESV) 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
That sounds like he’s renewing what’s become old. Lenski explains it nicely —
When some consider the flight, going away, passing away of the old an annihilation and the new a creation like that of Genesis 1, ex nihilo, they come into conflict with Rom. 8:20–23 and with our present passage. The newness of the heaven and of the earth shall be like our own. We shall be the same persons and have the same body and the same soul that we now have; but these made entirely new. Our newness begins with regeneration. Already this the Scriptures call a creation of God, Eph. 2:10; 4:24, so that we are καινὴ κτίσις, “a new creation,” 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15. After body and soul are glorified, we shall be new-created, indeed. The same will be true with regard to the new heaven and the new earth. This is more than an analogy, for man is the creature for whom the first heaven and the first earth were created, and if he is made new by creative acts without first having been annihilated, he the head of all this creation, shall God annihilate heaven and earth and create ex nihilo another heaven and earth? Combine what is here said with Rom. 8, and the answer is plain
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation, (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1935), 614–615.
Just as Christians are each made a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), our present heavens and earth will be made new — not by annihilation followed by a new creation from nothing but by transforming what has already been made.
The Greek word for new neos means wholly new. But the “new” in Rev 21 and in “new creation” is kainos, meaning made new again. Thayer’s explains, “νέος [neos] denotes the new primarily in reference to time, the young, recent; καινός [kainos] denotes the new primarily in reference to quality, the fresh, unworn.” Hence, we also find that the “new covenant” of Jer 31:31 and the several NT passages referring to it use kainos, because the new covenant does not destroy the promises previously made by God. Indeed, Paul argues in Gal 3 and Rom 4 that we are saved by faith because God promised this to Abraham.
Next, as Lenski urges, we really need to consider Paul’s description of the afterlife in Rom 8. Then we’ll consider the contrary arguments made by the Christian Courier.
(Rom. 8:18-19 ESV) 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
Paul anthropomorphises (I’ve been waiting since 10th grade English class to use that word) the Creation — treating it as a person, indeed, as a woman in childbirth (as we’ll see). And the Creation is expectantly awaiting the “revealing” of the sons of God. What is that?
To me, it’s a plain reference to —
(Dan. 12:2-3 ESV) And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
— a favorite passage of Paul’s. It’s easy to see how Paul might imagine the “glory that is to be revealed in us” based on this passage. Compare —
(Phil. 2:14-15 NIV) 14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky
So Paul, based on Daniel, foresees a day when the saved will be resurrected and be revealed in star-like glory. We are already new creations, but our full glory as such will only be revealed when Jesus returns and we arise from our graves, with transformed bodies.
Now, this is something for which the Creation “waits” (Rom 8:19) — which tells us that the Creation won’t be destroyed before we receive our transformed, star-like, glorious bodies. You can’t wait for what you’ll never see.
(Rom. 8:20-21 ESV) 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
We are next told that the Creation will be “set free from its bondage to corruption.” This doesn’t sound like “destroyed.” Indeed, the Creation will obtain the same freedom as that enjoyed by the children of God! We’ll be transformed into glory — as will the Creation!
“Futility” is the same word translated “vanity” throughout Ecclesiastes. “Bondage” refers to slavery. “Corruption” is used by Paul in 1 Cor 15:42 and :50 to refer to perishability — mortality. Hence, the Creation was subjected to vanity (futility) but will be set free from slavery to mortality/perishability — and will instead obtain freedom from slavery to mortality and enjoy the glory of the sons of God — who will be immortal.
Paul is declaring that the Creation will be rendered imperishable by God — just like God’s children. After all, we’re going to need a place to live.
(Rom. 8:22-23 ESV) 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 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.
In other words, Jesus was resurrected with a new body, leaving his grave empty, and he is the first of God’s children to undergo resurrection.
(1 Cor. 15:20 ESV) 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
(Phil. 3:20-21 ESV) 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
When we are saved, we receive the Spirit, we are regenerated, and we become new creations — because the process of transforming us to become like Jesus has begun. But it won’t be completed until the general resurrection.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Creation is anticipating the general resurrection, because not only will the children of God be revealed in their new, glorious bodies, but the Creation itself will, like us, become imperishable.
Now, this will require a change in the laws of physics, because entropy has to be ended. On the earth, entropy (the tendency of things to become more and more disorganized) is sometimes locally reversed by the power of the sun. In heaven, God himself will be our sun (Rev 21:23), and doubtlessly the reverser of entropy.
PS — I’m well aware of 2 Pet 3 as well as the arguments made by the Christian Courier. But we have to cover some additional ground before we get there.