It has recently come to my attention that some among us are now advocating that the “new heavens and a new earth” of which Peter speaks is going to be a reworking or remodeling of the present heavens and earth. This is not damnable heresy, but it is certainly an unnecessary mistake in interpretation of Scripture. There is, in my judgment, simply no reason to draw such an erroneous conclusion. Peter said, “But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13). Are we really to expect a merely renovated atmosphere? I would offer the following points to support the denial of such an idea.
First, Peter’s language is not the concept of mere renovation. His language is that of ruin rather than repair. His is the language of destruction and not merely that of modification or alteration or remodeling in order to improve something or to restore to it to a better condition. In the context Peter had already declared that “the heavens that now are, and the earth, by the same word have been stored up for fire, being reserved against the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (v. 7). “The same word” which has stored up our present heavens and earth for fire is the word by which the heavens and earth were originally made (v. 5). Too, that existing world once “perished” by being overflowed with water (v. 6). Thus, the original heavens and earth were not annihilated but perished temporarily due to the flood.
In contrast to what had earlier occurred in the days of Noah, Peter now discusses the end of the world. There will certainly be similarities between what happened in the days of Noah and what will happen when the Lord returns. The Lord spoke of this (cf. Matthew 24:36-44). But one striking difference will be that in the days of Noah, there was a divine interruption of earthly affairs. When the Lord comes there will be a termination not only of life’s affairs but of the atmosphere in which those affairs where carried on. He says that “the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements (or heavenly bodies, ASV) shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (v. 10). Again, in verse 12 he declares that “the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat.” So, both the present heavens and earth shall be burned up, dissolved, melted. Rather than the heavens and earth experiencing a temporary interruption by water (as in the days of Noah), the second time the universe experiences a universal calamity, it will be a destruction by fire, and it will be permanent.
Peter does not say that the heavens that now are and the earth that now is will undergo renovation. They are both to be destroyed. Destruction is not repair. The words “will pass away” come from one Greek word, a derivative of “parerkomai” which has various meanings, the context indicating which meaning is appropriate. It means such things as “to pass beside, pass along, pass by…to pass, elapse, as time…to pass away, be removed…met. To pass away, disappear, vanish, perish…” (Harper, 308). The words “will be dissolved” come from one word, “luo,” which also has various meanings. The context will have to determine which meaning fits what is being discussed. The word means, “to loosen, unbind, unfasten…to loose, untie…to disengage…to set free, set at liberty…to break…to break up, dismiss…to destroy, demolish; met. To infringe…to make void, nullify…” (Harper, 255). The words “burned up” are from a word indicating “discovery.” The ASV has in the footnote, “The most ancient manuscripts read discovered.” Thus, every element or piece or part of the existing universe will be located and affected; each part of everything will experience whatever is to occur. The words “shall melt” (v. 12) come from a word which means, “to dissolve, render liquid; pass. To be liquefied, melt” (Harper, 403). So, every solid substance will lose its form. The heavens will be destroyed or removed, and all heavenly bodies within that atmosphere will melt. Since the heavens will be destroyed or pass away, the “melting” of the heavenly bodies would suggest the first stage of the annihilation of the heavenly bodies. The solids become liquids on their way out of existence as they are set on fire. They will burn up until finally nothing of them is left.
Peter’s language is not suggestive of divine improvement of the current condition of the universe. The language itself indicates complete ruin.
Second, the writer of Hebrews informs us that God is different from the present universe in that God continues while the current universe does not (Hebrew 1:10-12). Notice, please, in reading the passage that the writer quotes from Psalm 102. Notice these points from Psalm 102:25-27:
(1) Of old God laid the foundation of the earth;
(2) The heavens are the work of his hands;
(3) The heavens and earth shall perish;
(4) God shall endure;
(5) God is the same;
(6) His years have no end.
So, unlike God whose existence is eternal, the universe shall perish in the sense that it shall not endure. It will not remain the same in its continuance; it will have an end in contrast to God who will not! If one takes the position that the physical universe is simply renovated, then he is saying that the current universe does continue even though in a modified form. But to say it continues at all is to contradict Scripture!
Third, if one interprets “new heavens and a new earth” to be physical, then he is falling into a carnalization of our eternal reward. It is the same old interpretive mistake that the Jews made in their failure to understand their prophets with regard to the nature of the kingdom. Prophets used figurative language at times to indicate something spiritual about the kingdom. But, the language itself drew from physical things. Consider for example that Isaiah predicted that a descendant of Jesse would bring about circumstances wherein “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.”
Now, any Jew who read that passage and concluded that these physical images were about physical things so that God was actually saying that the animosity between prey and predator would cease and that the time was coming in which beasts like wolves and leopards would no longer be a danger to humans (including children) would be missing the point entirely! It would be like someone in the Lord’s day not grasping the meaning of the Lord’s parables though each one entailed physical images. Isaiah was speaking of the peace that would obtain in the spiritual kingdom of Christ. After providing the striking imagery of the wolves and leopards, etc., Isaiah says, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” So, Isaiah explained the significance of the language. It was not to be interpreted as a physical condition on earth, but rather as a spiritual condition that would be brought about by God and which would exist in his kingdom. The language is beautiful in that it is a figurative and poetical description of the peace and harmony that the gospel of Christ was to produce. The “new heavens and a new earth” are not physical parts of this created universe, but the language of Peter in context is indicative of a completely new kind of environment for all the redeemed.
In John 6:15, some Jews were about to attempt to force Jesus into the acceptance of kingship in an earthly kingdom, and they did this because they did not understand the spiritual nature of the kingdom he was about to establish. They later crucified him for the same reason (Acts 13:27). Peter’s use of the words “new heavens and a new earth” are indeed figurative but suggestive of a new atmosphere in which only righteousness dwells. The Bible had begun in reference to God’s creation of “the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Peter says these will cease to exist, but we will have a proper habitation suitable to our new condition which will be superior to anything physical.
Fourth, God has always suited bodies to their environment. In Genesis 1 God made grass, herbs, trees to live on land (v. 11-12), he located certain species to live in water and certain ones on earth to be able to fly in air (v. 20-21), and land animals (v. 24-25). Man’s body was taken from dust, and that body suited man to his physical environment (Genesis 2:7). But that body was never intended for heaven (Genesis 3:22; Ecclesiastes 12:7; 1 Corinthians 15:50-58).
Fifth, specifically Paul informs us that the resurrection body is not of the earth or “earthy” (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). If the resurrection body is not of the earth or physical, then the atmosphere in which it will dwell will not be physical either. Paul says that Christians will bear the image of the heavenly as they previously bore the image of the earthly (v. 46-49). No longer bearing an earthly image, their habitation will be non-physical. Any attempt to make Peter’s language imply a physical or even partly physical environment puts Peter into contradiction with Paul. Physical death forever puts any man beyond physical experience (cf. Matthew 22:29-33). The resurrection body is spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:50-58), and the universal judgment will take place after this universe is history (Revelation 20:11).
Sixth, if when the Lord returns we are going to be able to see him “even as he is,” John says we will have to be like him (1 John 3:2). The glorification of the Lord’s human body is something we will have to experience ourselves in order to be in his company. We will no longer have any physical body. That was lost in death or in translation of our form (James 2:26; 1 Corinthians 15:51). The resurrection body has no physical parts, and, therefore, is in need of no physical environment. When mortality puts on immortality and the corruptible puts on incorruption, our victory is finalized (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Our victory is not experienced in a physical body but in a metaphysical or spiritual or heavenly one.
Seventh, if the redeemed are going to be with Christ in eternity, we are going to have to leave this universe behind, even any alleged restored version of it. In John 17, Jesus in the shadow of the cross prays to the Father. Relevant to our discussion is the fact that Jesus in the prayer makes several important points concerning glory and the world and pre-world. Notice that he mentions that he glorified the Father on earth, having accomplished up to that point all he was assigned to do (v. 4). Too, he wants the Father to glorify him with the glory Jesus earlier had with the Father before the creation of the world (v. 5). Jesus wants to go back to that condition and that glory. Now, in verse 11, knowing that his work on earth is almost over, he says, “And I am no more in the world, and these are in the world, and I come to thee.” At his ascension, Jesus not only left the earth (Acts 1:10-11), but he left the world! In John 17:13, he says to the Father, “But now I come to thee…”.
Now, notice verse 24, “Father, I desire that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.” Before creation, the One God had compartmentalized himself into three manifestations (Genesis 1:1-2, 26-27; Isaiah 64:8; John 1:1-2—Father, Word, Holy Spirit). And in his prayer, the Lord expresses his desire that his disciples see him in his glory, the same glory that he had before the creation of this world. If we would experience that glory, we have to leave this world behind. A refreshed or renovated universe is not good enough! Jesus went back to glory that predated this universe. Anyone remaining in a merely improved physical world will not be experiencing the Lord’s glory at all.
Eighth, I close by merely listing several arguments that might be helpful.
- If (1) a person’s first resurrection takes place within the environment of the physical heavens and earth, and if (2) the second death hath no power over those who experience the first resurrection, and if (3) the second death is metaphysical or spiritual and eternal, then the new heavens and new earth are metaphysical or spiritual and eternal.
- (1) A person’s first resurrection takes place within the environment of the physical heavens and earth (Revelation 21:6; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 6:3-4), and (2) The second death hath no power over those who experience the first resurrection (Revelation 21:6), and (3) The second death is metaphysical or spiritual and eternal (Revelation 21:6; Matthew 25:46; John 5:28-29).
- Then, the new heavens and a new earth are metaphysical or spiritual and eternal.
- If (1) there is no place for the physical heaven and physical earth by the time of universal judgment, and if (2) “the lake of fire” is no part of this physical universe, then the new heavens and a new earth are no part of this physical universe either.
- (1) There is no place for the physical heaven and physical earth by the time of universal judgment (Revelation 20:11), and (2) “The lake of fire” is no part of this physical universe (Revelation 20:11, 14, 15).
- Then, the new heavens and a new earth are no part of this physical universe either.
- If the resurrected body is not physical, then the new heaven and a new earth where the body will eternally reside cannot be physical either.
- The resurrected body is not physical (1 Corinthians 15:2-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
- Then, the new heaven and a new earth where the body will eternally reside cannot be physical either.
- If the new heavens and a new earth are physical or even partly physical, they cannot be eternal.
- But it is false to say that the new heavens and a new earth cannot be eternal (2 Peter 3:10-13; Hebrews 1:10-12; Revelation 22:5).
- Therefore, it is false to say that the new heavens and a new earth are physical or even partly physical.
- If (1) the Lord’s kingdom is not of this world, and if (2) the kingdom was established within this world, and if (3) this world is going to be burned up, and if (4) there will be no place for this world by the time of the universal judgment, then the new heavens and a new earth are not of this world.
- (1) The Lord’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and (2) The kingdom was established within this world (Mark 9:1; Acts 2:1-4; Joel 2:28ff.), and (3) This world is going to be burned up (2 Peter. 3:10), and (4) There will be no place for this world by the time of the universal judgment (Revelation 20:11).
- Then, the new heavens and a new earth are not of this world.