Lesson 4: At the end of time, heaven comes to earth
The usual teaching is that God will destroy the earth and we’ll all leave to live with God in heaven forever. That’s not really what the Bible says.
(Rev 21:1-4 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. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “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. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Now, “new” is the Greek word kainos, meaning refreshed or renewed or remade. It’s not used of “made from scratch.” And we see heaven descending down to the renewed earth and God coming to live with man — the very opposite of man ascending to heaven to live with God. How did that happen?
(Gen 1:1 ESV) In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
(Isa 65:17-19 ESV) 17 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. 19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.”
(Isa 66:22-24 ESV) 22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. 23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.
24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
The Bible begins with the creation of the heavens and the earth. Isaiah later prophesies that it will all end with the creation of a new heaven and new earth. But not everyone will get to enjoy the renewed creation. Rather, there will be “dead bodies” with undying worms and unquenchable fire outside the renewed heavens and earth.
Revelation 21 tells us that this happens by the power of God at the end of time, with heaven being joined to the earth so that God and man may live together — as they once did in the Garden.
(Rev 22:1-2 ESV) Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
The tree of life from the Garden will, of course, be there, because we’ll be restored to Eden, where we’ll walk with God in the cool of the morning as Adam did.
The same conclusion is evident from another direction —
(Rom 8:20-23 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. 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.
Paul pictures the end of this age as the freeing of the creation from bondage! He’s not saying that this creation will be destroyed. Rather, it will be freed as though by childbirth.
Paul sees this as analogous to our own redemption, when our bodies will be redeemed. Rather than leaving our bodies behind, our bodies will be redeemed, just as the creation itself will be. There’s not a hint of the usual teaching that the creation will be disintegrated and we’ll leave our bodies to live in disembodied bliss in heaven. Rather, our bodies and the creation will be transformed and freed from the corruption of this world — and God will join us in the newly re-created heavens and earth.
The obvious question is how to take 2 Peter 3:10-13, which seems to plainly predict the destruction of the present heavens and earth. I addressed that question in detail a few months ago in —
Lesson 5: Where is hell?
If the saved enjoy eternity in a renewed, transformed heavens and earth, walking with God, where is hell? Where does it fit into the new cosmology of the heavens and the earth? Well, as so often happens, we find the answer in Deuteronomy.
(Deu 4:23-24 ESV) 23 Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. 24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
God describes himself as a fire that consumes or devours. God destroys his enemies. Thus, we see in Isaiah 66, again, how the world will end —
(Isa 66:15-16 ESV) 15 “For behold, the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. 16 For by fire will the LORD enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the LORD shall be many.”
But fire doesn’t “consume” unless it destroys. The wonder of the burning bush is that God’s fire didn’t consume it! Just so, at the end of time, the fire of God will slay God’s enemies. They will die.
(2Th 1:5-10 ESV) 5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering– 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
“Fire,” of course, is a reference to the many passages (far more than I’ve quoted) to God’s wrath visited in the form of consuming fire. “Destruction” means, well, destruction. It doesn’t mean torment. It means to be destroyed.
(1Ki 13:34 ESV) And this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.
(Jer 51:55 ESV) For the LORD is laying Babylon waste and stilling her mighty voice. Their waves roar like many waters; the noise of their voice is raised,
(Jer 48:32 ESV) More than for Jazer I weep for you, O vine of Sibmah! Your branches passed over the sea, reached to the Sea of Jazer; on your summer fruits and your grapes the destroyer has fallen.
(Eze 6:14 ESV) And I will stretch out my hand against them and make the land desolate and waste, in all their dwelling places, from the wilderness to Riblah. Then they will know that I am the LORD.”
(1Co 5:5 ESV) you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
(1Ti 6:9 ESV) But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
We interpret “destruction” to mean “torment” but that’s just not what the word means. Perpetual torment is what the pagans believed would be the fate of the damned.
This just leaves us with “eternal.” We want to translate it “everlasting,” but that’s not the real meaning. The word is aionios, coming from aion, meaning “age” — as in an aeon. It’s most literally translated “of the age” or “in the age.” And normally (not always) the age the writers have in mind is the age that begins when Jesus returns at the end of this age. Hence, in the New Testament, it usually means “of the next age.”
It does not, by itself, tell you how long something lasts, although it’s often true that it’s speaking of something everlasting. After all, the next age will be everlasting, as will be many things in it. And this means that “eternal” can often be replaced with “everlasting” and the verse will make good sense — because what it’s speaking of is both of the next age and everlasting. But that doesn’t mean that “eternal” means “everlasting.”
“Eternal death” therefore means death in the next age, that is, a second death, once in this age and a second in the coming age after Judgment. And unlike the first death, which is temporary, the second death will last forever. “Eternal life” means, of course, life in the next age, which will last forever. Of course, the damned don’t receive eternal life, even though conventional thought is that they’ll live forever, too! No, they receive eternal death or eternal destruction — they are destroyed in the next age and unlike death in this age, the effects of the second death are everlasting.
Thus, “eternal punishment” means “punishment in the next age” not “punishment that lasts forever” although, like eternal death, its effects last forever. Consider —
(Heb 6:1-2 ESV) Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
Judgment is “eternal” because it will be for the next age, not because God will continue to judge forever. In fact, once he judges us at the beginning of the next age, judgment will be finished.
(Mar 3:29 ESV) “… but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” —
The sin is not eternal because you sin and sin and sin forever. It’s eternal because it has consequences for the next age.
Therefore, “eternal destruction” doesn’t mean to destroy forever. That would be a contradiction in terms. If the thing being “destroyed” lasts forever, it’s not destroyed! Rather, eternal destruction is destruction that occurs in the next age with consequences that last to the end of the age. You’ll be destroyed never to be rebuilt.
Therefore, we see in 2 Thes 5:1-10 a prediction of a destruction of the enemies of God. At the end of time, there will be a fire that purges the unredeemed elements of the heavens and earth, and God will renew what remains, renewing the heavens and earth and renewed his children with new bodies not made of flesh and blood. And then he’ll enter the cleansed, renewed world to be with mankind forever. And this is exactly what the Old Testament says, too.
Next: What is damnation really like? (Don’t think damnation will be painless.)