(…Continued from Part I)
The fact is that the passages that seem to suggest an absolute annihilation of the heavens and earth followed by a recreation out of nothing do not actually assert this. The original terms translated “pass away” do not mean “be annihilated.” The terms are neutral, referring simply to “going away,” or “departing.” Paul uses one of these terms, parerchomai, to refer to the old things of the believer’s life that have “passed away”: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away (parerchomai); behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This implies an extreme makeover of a person’s life and character, not an annihilation of the old and replacement by the new. First Peter 4:3 uses the same Greek term in a similar sense: “For the time already past (parerchomai) is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles.” The time of former sin has “passed away.” So, this general term does not mean “be annihilated.” It simply means to go away. The question, though, is what “goes away”—the actual substance itself, its behavior, its form, its function, its existence? The mere use of the term “pass away” does not itself imply annihilation. It could refer to a radical transformation of the quality of something rather than to its absolute destruction.
Read in this light, two of the passages that seemed to suggest annihilation actually fit the perspective of a qualitative redemption. Remember the imagery in Isaiah 24:20? “The earth reels to and fro like a drunkard and it totters like a shack, for its transgression is heavy upon it, and it will fall, never to rise again.” Isaiah goes on with an interpretation of the imagery of the stumbling drunkard and teetering shack: “So it will happen in that day, that the Lord will punish the host of heaven on high, and the kings of the earth on earth. They will be gathered together like prisoners in the dungeon, and will be confined in prison; and after many days they will be punished” (Isaiah 24:21–22). So, the utter collapse of the earth refers not to the annihilation of the physical universe itself, but to the judgment of the sinful condition of that physical universe. This will include punishing the spiritual wickedness in the heavens as well as the human wickedness on the earth. God’s anger is directed toward spirits of wickedness and sinful people, not rocks, molecules, atoms, oceans, and air.
Similarly, the passage in Psalm 102:25–26 also suggests an extreme transformation rather than absolute annihilation. The Psalmist wrote, “Of old You founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. Even they will perish, but You endure; and all of them will wear out like a garment.” He then adds, “Like clothing You will change them and they will be changed” (102:26). The image implies an external change, like a person whose clothes become old and tattered. While the outer form is utterly changed, the inner person remains, though completely transformed and renewed.
But more directly related to our question regarding the new heavens and new earth, Peter uses the word apollumi (“to destroy”) when describing the judgment of the world before the flood (2 Peter 3:6). In that case he refers to wiping the earth clean, destroying life and land, but not actually annihilating the universe and recreating everything from nothing. In the case of the flood, Peter describes the destruction of the sinful quality of the world system—both in the earthly and heavenly realms. He was not referring to a literal de-creation and re-creation, but an extreme makeover of the physical universe and especially its human and heavenly institutions.
How “New” Are the New Heavens and Earth?
Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.” John says he had seen “the first earth pass away,” which was part of the vision of the heaven and earth fleeing from the presence of God in Revelation 20:11. Remembering that John had been seeing all sorts of symbolic visions throughout the book, we must allow the text itself to interpret what John is seeing here. The vision could refer to a complete annihilation and re-creation. But it could just as reasonably picture an “extreme makeover” of the present creation—a “new and improved” version that bears little resemblance to the past order of things. Thankfully, the Bible itself helps us properly interpret the vision of the “new heavens and new earth.”
The first place in the Bible where we find a description of the “new heavens and new earth” is Isaiah 65:17–25. We must read the entire passage to see exactly how this “new heavens and new earth” is described.
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing and her people for gladness. I will also rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in My people; and there will no longer be heard in her the voice of weeping and the sound of crying. No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his days; for the youth will die at the age of one hundred and the one who does not reach the age of one hundred will be thought accursed. They will build houses and inhabit them; they will also plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They will not build and another inhabit, they will not plant and another eat; for as the lifetime of a tree, so will be the days of My people, and My chosen ones will wear out the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they are the offspring of those blessed by the Lord, and their descendants with them. It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain,” says the Lord.
One should recognize that the condition described as “new heavens and a new earth” in Isaiah 65:17–25 refers to the future millennial kingdom on this present earth following the tribulation judgments and return of Christ. This present world will endure numerous fiery judgments under the just wrath of God. All wickedness will be wiped clean, and then the world will be restored under the reign of Christ and His saints. During this thousand-year reign the curse of the Fall will be lifted, the earth will be repopulated by righteous survivors of the tribulation, and the inhabitants of the earth will experience a quality of life never seen in history. Satan and his demons will no longer be ruling over the heavens; that realm will be controlled by Christ and His saints. In short—peace, harmony, prosperity, and righteousness will reign supreme. This millennial condition of renewal and redemption—not a re-creation out of nothing—is what Isaiah 65 describes as the “new heavens and new earth.” Clearly, this is a qualitative newness.
Isaiah 66:15–22 also refers to the renewal of the current heavens and earth under the reign of Christ. Following a period of judgment, which we call the coming “tribulation” associated with the second coming of Christ, the earth will be renewed: “For behold, the Lord will come in fire and His chariots like the whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For the Lord will execute judgment by fire and by His sword on all flesh, and those slain by the Lord will be many.” This refers to the coming tribulation judgment. Nations will be converted and Israel will be re-gathered (Isaiah 66:17–21). And then God swears, “‘For just as the new heavens and the new earth which I make will endure before Me,’ declares the Lord, ‘So your offspring and your name will endure.’” All of these details refer not to the eternal state, but to the first thousand years of Christ’s eternal reign—the period often called the “millennium.” Thus, the “new heavens and new earth” in Isaiah’s prophecy refer not to a new creation out of nothing, but to a renewed creation under Christ after the present world system has been judged by the wrath of the tribulation.
In keeping with this same kind of “new creation” idea of redemption rather than re-creation, Paul refers to believers with “new creation” language in 2 Corinthians 5:17. Here believers have not ceased to exist only to be re-created ex nihilo. Rather, the salvation of a sinner is a regeneration, a renewal, a redemption—a buy-back of the old and a transformation into something qualitatively new.