Have you ever heard the phrase, “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good”? There is an assumption here that thinking about earthly things are at least more relevant than thinking about heavenly things. This could be turned around and say that that someone is “so earthly minded that they are no heavenly good.” I suspect that many church people would see that as a danger.
Both of those ideas, outside and inside the church, are working with the framework of heaven and earth being contrasted. This has long been a tendency of people. One of the earliest heresies in the early church actually separated the God of heaven from the God of earth because they saw physical material as bad and therefore the creator of earth to be evil.
This brings us to the question of the week, which has to do with the new heavens and the new earth. This long bothered me as I had been aware of prophecies that God would create a new heaven and a new earth. I can totally see the need for a new earth. Take a look at the way we have polluted this world. We have done so much damage to this planet. It is obvious to both religious and non-religious that our world needs to be healed. The recent controversy about banning straws is just one example of how relevant this is.
But what about heaven? Isn’t heaven perfect? The Lord’s Prayer includes the phrase, “on earth as it is in heaven.” Heaven is the perfection that we pray to come about on earth. Heaven is the building plans and earth is the pile of wood and bricks. So why would there be a need for a new heaven? What was wrong with the old heaven?
These are good questions, which we are going to wrestle with.
Old Heavens and Earth
Before we look at the new heavens and earth, we need to understand what we mean by those terms. It is likely that when we say heaven, we mean the place where God and the angels dwell and when we say earth, we mean the planet. That is fine but we need to be aware that there are wider meanings.
Heaven actually has three meanings in the Bible. One is indeed the place where God is. That is the meaning in the Lord’s Prayer. But it also means the upper atmosphere, as well as the sky. When a Hebrew wanted to look up to see if clouds were going to bring rain, they would look to the heavens, not a spiritual dimension inhabited by angels, but the sky above us.
Likewise, the earth has two meanings. It means both the planet and the land. So in Hebrew, the same word is being used to describe the beginning of all creation in Genesis 1:1 but also when talking about the land of Israel. All of this means that we have to be careful to look at the context when trying to understand what these words mean.
So let’s begin with the creation of the first heaven and earth. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” What exactly was created here? The earth part seems easy enough. It was not just specific land, such as a nation, but the planet. But what was the heavens. Was the place where God dwells created at the same time as the planet? Isn’t heaven by definition where God dwells? It seems more likely that the heavens is the space around the planet. Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” In fact, the Bible seems to use “the heavens and the earth” as shorthand for the created order. Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you.” 1 Chronicles 16:31 says, “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let them say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!”” These verses are calling upon all creation. This would be something similar to the way scientists refer to the universe as a label for everything that exists. This is important information for understanding what the new heavens and the new earth will be.
New Heavens and Earth
If the old heavens and the new earth is a way of talking about the created order, what does that mean for the new heavens and the new earth?
We begin not with Revelation but with Isaiah. Isaiah and his contemporary prophets lived in a difficult time in Hebrew history. It was a time when the northern kingdom of Israel was falling to Assyria and the southern kingdom was falling to Babylon. The people were filled with despair and were looking for a source of hope. Isaiah, as well as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, prophesied about exile and God’s wrath. But they also prophesied about restoration. The idea of exile was easy enough, when foreign troops removed them from their land, that was exile. But what was restoration? Yes, it was after the seventy years of exile and the return of the Jews by the authority of the Persian king. But all three of these prophets spoke of something much grander than what took place when the Jews returned to Jerusalem.
Isaiah in particular prophesied about the creation of a new heavens and a new earth. It is described as something new but also something in continuity with the old. In fact, Jerusalem will still have a place there and it will be a place of rejoicing. It is a beautiful picture that draws on all that is good about creation and the fixing of all that is bad. One of my favourite theologians describes this as “putting things to rights.” It is an amazing prophecy but Isaiah doesn’t provide the timing. We know it didn’t happen at the end of the physical exile. Not only is the world in general not safe, Jerusalem in particular is still a dangerous place.
That is where the New Testament comes in. This theme is picked up in Revelation and this time it is given a place in the timeline. We won’t go through the entire book of Revelation, but will say that Jesus comes back in Revelation 19 and Satan is bound in Revelation 20. Then we see the new heavens and earth appearing in Revelation 21. What has taken place? The hope of the Christian is not just a spiritual existence but a physical resurrection that takes place when Jesus returns. Romans 8 and elsewhere, suggests that creation will participate in the resurrection. If the first heaven and earth was the created order, this is a remaking of the created order. This is resurrection on a global and even cosmic scale. Like Genesis 1:1, I take the new heaven as referring to the heavens around us. But that doesn’t mean that nothing happens with the spiritual heaven. After the creation of the new heavens and earth, God comes down to earth. Where God is, is heaven and therefore heaven comes to earth. This is the ultimate fulfillment of our prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven.” Thus we have the new heavens and the new earth when Jesus returns.
I will confess that I really enjoyed going through the Scriptures and tracing out theological themes. But I stand here not as a theologian but as a pastor. What does this mean for us? I know that there are people who are going through difficult times. Is this just a theological distraction?
Remember that Isaiah first prophesied about the new heavens and new earth in a dark time in Israel’s history. The book of Revelation was written in a dark time in the church’s history, a time when the Christians were being persecuted by the Romans. The new heavens and new earth are specifically revealed to us to give us hope in dark times,
The new heavens and the new earth acknowledge that there is some good and beauty in this created world. But there is also much brokenness and pain. The new heavens and the new earth are promises that God will take the best of the old and fix what is wrong and create a paradise that we cannot fully imagine. This gives us hope, not just for the world, but for our families and for our personal struggles. God has not given up us and we should not give up on God.