And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.—Revelation 21:1
Let us ask the following question: where will believers spend eternity? We are not thinking now about “heaven”—the location of believers in the intermediate state. We are thinking instead of the final location, after the Second Coming—the place referred to as “a new heaven and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; 66:22; 2Pe 3:13; Rev 21:1). It is one of the very last things the Bible talks about in the book of Revelation.
Apocalypse and After: The Book of Revelation takes us on a journey from the first century to the final state of the new heaven and earth. It tells the story of redemption using apocalyptic images taken from the Old Testament showing us the “story behind the story.” On the surface is the Roman Empire, demonically at war against Christ and His people. But a larger narrative is being played out, one that first shows up in Genesis 3. It is the story of a slithering, talking serpent at war with God and His creation, who grows into a great red dragon in the final book of Scripture (Rev 12:3). The talking serpent-dragon is none other than Satan, who is engaged in all-out war with the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15)—God’s elect children and ultimately God’s own Son. In the closing chapters of Revelation, John describes the destruction of Satan and his cohorts—the beast and the false prophet (depicting religious and secular powers in their combined resistance to Jesus and the gospel). And along with these characters, God also destroys what they have built: Babylon, the city of man implacably hostile to God, a monument to self-aggrandisement and pride.
Set against Babylon is God’s city, the New Jerusalem, the final dwelling place of God’s people. And, since God also dwells in this city, the New Jerusalem is also a temple. God is preparing for His people a temple-city to live in forever. An important observation is needed before we go any further. The final expectation in Scripture concerning what lies ahead is “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1). Specifically, we are to expect a new earth! Earth! It is intended as something solid and physical rather than something spiritual and ethereal. Earth is comprised of rocks and hills, oceans and rivers, forests and fields, birds and animals. And human beings. And the new earth will comprise of these, too. Earth without the effects of the curse. Earth as it would have been had our first parents not sinned. No less physical and material than the one we now know. “In its final form, what is heaven like?” Answer: “Like this! But renewed and more glorious.”
Creation Reborn: Think about what Paul writes in Romans 8:19-22: “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”
Creation, the physical universe and its contents, is waiting to be reborn. The stresses and strains it currently exhibits are birth pains. Redeemed human beings are going to exist in a world like this one, if we can imagine what it would be like had no sin ever entered it. Adam was created to live in and explore this world. He was given a mandate to subdue the earth and its livestock (Gen 1:26-28). And he was meant to go beyond the garden and bring the rest of the earth (and the cosmos) into a recognisable order and shape.
God could have made the entire universe a garden and spared Adam the bother of exploration and investigation, but He did not. God desires His most-treasured creation that bears His image to enjoy the task of survey, discovery, design, and artistry. Made from the dust of the earth, humanity is the link, the vicegerent, between the earth and God. In subjugating it, humanity is meant to discover its Maker and respond in worship and praise. This was the intent. Instead, Adam fell. Humankind turned in upon itself and worshipped the creature rather than the creator (Rom 1:25). And though much has been discovered and subjugated, the credit has been given elsewhere instead of to God.
But change is coming. God is going to renew the world. Which world? This one—about which we already have some knowledge and experience. Yes, this world rather than a brand-new world. And in this renewed cosmos, humanity will explore again and give God all the glory. Because of something Peter writes, some have drawn the conclusion that everything about this world, including matter itself, is going to be destroyed (annihilated) and a completely new universe brought into being. Peter writes, “…in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2Pe 3:10).
- The terms “melt with fervent heat…burned up” suggest a complete annihilation of this universe. Several considerations suggest that this explanation is incorrect:
- The Greek term for new (“a new heaven and a new earth”) is kainos rather than neos, suggesting new in quality rather than new in origin.
- Paul’s metaphor in Romans 8 is one of liberation rather than destruction: “The creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption” (Rom 8:21).
- There is both continuity and discontinuity between what we are now and what we will be in heaven. Jesus rose in the same body as the one that earlier was declared dead. Likewise, our resurrected bodies will share a continuity with our present bodies.
- The triumph of Jesus over Satan must surely be in such a way that does not grant him victory. An annihilation of the physical universe might imply that Satan has, in part, triumphed after all.
One scholar puts it this way: “The world into which we shall enter in the Parousia of Jesus Christ is therefore not another world; it is this world, this heaven, this earth; both, however, passed away and renewed. It is these forests, these fields, these cities, these streets, these people, that will be the scene of redemption. At present they are battlefields, full of the strife and sorrow of the not-yet-accomplished consummation; then, they will be fields of victory, fields of harvest, where out of seed that was sown with tears the everlasting sheaves will be reaped and brought home.”34 The universe is going to be reborn; but, it is going to be this universe rather than some other one. And many of its features will be immediately recognizable.
The City of God: Writing in the fifth century, Augustine responded to the sustained allegation of secular thought that Christianity was inimical to civilization and government. The book, called The City of God, has a surprisingly contemporary feel to it. We, too, live in a culture that is increasingly hostile to faith in the civic realm. The mantra, “Believers need not apply,” is heard loud and clear in our time. Reclaiming Babylon and turning it into something that looks more like Jerusalem often looks an impossible task. Try, we must. It is the mandate God has given to us. And one day, the other side of the Second Coming, the city will be reborn.
Babylon is heading for destruction: “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen” (Rev 18:2). The city, currently ruled by the dragon, will give way to the New Jerusalem, a city created by God for the people of God to dwell in. In apocalyptic terms, John describes a vast city of enormous proportions and security. And what he describes is in one sense fantastical and bizarre: a cube each side of which measures 1,400 miles (Rev 21:15-17)! And walls that are 200 feet thick. What this signifies is a city that is as vast as it is safe.
And there is exquisite beauty, “like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal” (Rev 21:11). The walls and foundation stones are made of precious stones: jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald, sardonyx, sardius, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprasus, jacinth, and amethyst (Rev 21:19-20). Each city gate is made of a single, gigantic pearl. And the streets are comprised of “pure gold, as it were transparent glass” (Rev 21:21). Glory! The city shines with “the glory of God” (Rev 21:11; cf. 21:22-23; 22:5). It exudes God’s majesty and significance. And since the Greek and Hebrew word for “glory” hints at “heaviness,” the New Jerusalem is full of the weightiness of God’s presence. God is everywhere in this city, and His presence can be felt. In every conceivable way, this is the City of God! And one day, it will appear.
The Temple of God: Metaphors change, and now the New Jerusalem is a temple. “And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it” (Rev 21:22). Temple is a way of describing God’s presence. Throughout most of the Old Testament, God dwelt in a tabernacle-temple. In fact, the idea starts in Eden, a garden that functions as a temple because God is there, walking about in the “cool of the day” (Gen 3:8). Eden is a garden-sanctuary where God dwells with His people. And the Bible ends in an Eden-like garden with access to the Tree of Life: “And [the angel] shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:1-2). Scripture comes full circle. Instead of the wilderness, the earth becomes a garden. In Eden, God commissions Adam and Eve to find fulfilment in worshipping Him. God’s purpose is to make His presence known in all the earth. Humanity’s priestly task in Eden—a task that culminates in spectacular failure—is to keep guard over the garden by obeying God’s Word. The mandate to explore and subdue the earth is a command to turn the earth into a garden-sanctuary. The failure of Adam and Eve sets up the story of the Old Testament with its central feature of the tabernacle, reminiscent of an architect’s scale-model of God’s presence with His people and provision for their sin…In Jesus, God’s temple is personified. Jesus is the temple. The child born in the manger is “Immanuel” meaning “God with us” (Mat 1:23; cf. Isa 7:14; 8:8). It is echoed in Revelation 21: “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev 21:3). Curiously, John saw no temple in the city; at least, no physical temple: “And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it” (Rev 21:22). That is because Jesus in fellowship with His redeemed people comprises the temple.
Brave New World: What John describes using colored pictures is a place of purity and perfection. “And there shall be no more curse” (Rev 22:3). Because Jesus was made a curse for us (cf. Gal. 3:13), there is nothing left of the curse in the new city-temple. It is difficult to imagine a world without sin. But despite this difficulty, we do long for it. We have an instinct that desires something other than the here and now. Paul says, “For what I would, that do I not” (Rom 7:15).
There is always this “wanting,” a sense that what there is now is not what ought to be or even will be. I know what I want—to be free from sin’s down-drag on my life and the life of others. I know what I want—to live in a place where there’s joy and happiness and fulfilment. I know what I want—to be whom I was intended to be.
When sin is no more, sin’s pain will also be no more. Pain is a consequence of the curse. Not all pain is bad. Some is positively beneficial. Without a central nervous system, we would not know that fire can burn our flesh. It is a good instinct to pull our hand away. Whether we will experience this kind of pain in the new heaven and earth is unclear. Perhaps we will, and our bodies will feel the sense of touch, the sharpness of an edge, the heat of a fire, the comfort of a chair, the softness of a bed.
But there will be no cruel pain, no pain that causes regret and loss. Those tears are wiped away (Rev 21:4). God, Who puts our tears in a bottle (Psa 56:8), reassures us of His tender comfort and says [that] there will be no tears of pain, this kind of pain, in the world to come. None!
Heaven, the final state of it, is a safe place. There are no dangers left on the outside to threaten those who occupy this garden-city-temple. The gates of the city are open (Rev 21:25). There is no fear of attack. Danger is eradicated. The dragon will be locked in the bottomless pit, never to threaten again.
Safety is what is meant by the otherwise enigmatic statement: “and there was no more sea” (Rev 21:1). We are not meant to conclude that there will be no oceans and therefore no sailing, watersports, marine life, fishing, or snorkeling. Some, lacking the sensitivity required in interpreting apocalyptic genre, have suggested that the new heaven and new earth will lack all forms of water. Others have suggested that there will be an absence of salt-water but not of natural, fresh water. This is to miss the symbolism intended. The sea in biblical times was a hostile place. Despite having access to the Mediterranean, the Jews were not a seafaring people. Thus, in Daniel’s visions, monsters rise from the sea (Dan 7: 1-8), something which is echoed in Revelation when a beast of the sea appears (Rev 13:1). The sea is where Leviathan, the sea-monster, resides (Job 3:8; 41:1; Psa 104:26). No such ogres will occupy the seas of the new earth.
And who will be found in the new earth? The “nations,” the redeemed from every tribe and people and tongue (Rev 21:24, 26). The mandate of the Great Commission, reflecting the promise given to Abraham at the very beginning, was to make disciples of “all nations” (Mat 28:19; cf. Gen 12:2). On the Mount of Olives, Jesus carefully explained to the disciples that the Second Coming could not occur until the gospel is preached in all the nations (Mat 24:14). And in the end, they will come to the city-garden-temple of the new heaven and new earth from every tribe and people-group. They will enter the city’s gates and worship the Lord there. And presumably, their ethnic identity will remain apparent as a sign of God’s multifaceted grace put on display.
It is all about Worship: And Jesus will be there. The pinnacle of what John sees is in the description given of the worship offered in the new temple: “the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him” (Rev 22:3).
Does the thought of worship sound dull and unexciting to you? Who wants to spend eternity worshipping God? God’s redeemed children do. It is instinctive. They want to worship Him all the time in formal settings with others and in private settings when engaged in their favorite pastime. Having experienced the grace of the gospel, worship is a reflex. All of life is an act of worship, now as much as it will be then. Doxology is what we were made for. If we have no desire for it here and now, we will inevitably find descriptions of an eternity of worship disturbing.
At the heart of worship is the Son. In the New Jerusalem, the new city-garden-temple, there will be no night (Rev 22:5). It is an odd statement, not intended as a scientific, astronomical indication that there will be no sun, moon, planetary systems, or stars in the renewed cosmos. Eventually, our present sun will burn itself out. And though I have no scientific explanation for the concept of eternal light issuing from a sun, for my part, I fully expect a universe full of stars and galaxies—the same ones we now see. And it thrills me no end to think that travel to one of them may be possible.
What John means is that here and now we see in a glass darkly (1Co 13:12), but there we will see Him face to face. He will be the light that compares to no other light. He will outshine the sun. As Anne Cousin put it:
The bride eyes not her garment, but her dear bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace;
Not at the crown He gifteth, but on His pierced hand:
The Lamb is all the glory of Emmanuel’s land.
The greatest part of the new heaven and new earth is seeing Jesus in all His glory.
From Heaven on Earth: What the Bible Teaches about Life to Come, Christian Focus Publications, http://www.christianfocus.com
Derek W. H. Thomas: Presbyterian pastor, author, and theologian; born in Carmarthen, Wales, UK.
Reader, I want you to go to heaven after this life is over. I want heaven to be very full, and I want you to be one of its inhabitants.—J. C. Ryle