What We Believe: Concomitants of the Second Advent New Heaven and New Earth (II)

ALL THINGS MADE NEW

Consistent with the biblical emphasis upon the reconciliation of heaven and earth, the future state will be one in which all things, whether in heaven or on earth, will have been renewed. The whole creation, heaven and earth, will undergo by the Triune God’s working, a process of renewal and transformation. Through this process, the creation will be wholly sanctified, cleansed of every stain and corruption of sin. The new heavens and the new earth will be more glorious and resplendent of God’s power, wisdom and grace, than the creation at its beginning. Once more, but now in a surpassing way, the creation will be a temple fit for the dwelling of God with His people, a place suitable for the enjoyment of communion and friendship between the Creator and the creature, One question that naturally arises at this juncture is—will the new creation be radically unlike the present creation? Or will it be substantially like, though having undergone a transformation, the present creation? To state this question somewhat abstractly, what will be the measure of continuity or discontinuity between the present state of the creation and the final state?

In the history of the church, there have been advocates of both of these views, Some have argued that the new heavens and earth will be altogether new; the present creation will be destroyed, and a new creation will take its place, one that is quite unlike the present others have maintained that the new heavens and earth will be this creation made new, one that is similar in substance to the present.1 There are several reasons to believe that the second of these views—that the new heavens and earth will be substantially similar to the present heavens and earth—is the more likely.

First, when we considered earlIer the subject of the resurrection of the body, a similar issue was faced and decided in favor of the view that there is substantial similarity between the present and resurrection body. Just as the resurrection body represents the transformation of the present body of the believer, so the new creation represents the transformation, not the annihilation, of the present creation. However new and glorious this resurrection body may be, it does not involve a radical breach with what has gone before. Rather, like the seed that must die before it produces fruit, so the dissolution of the body is a prelude to its glorification (1 Cor. 15). There is a correspondence between the future of the believer, individual eschatology, andthe future of the creation, generalor cosmic eschatology. The resurrection in newness of life that thebeliever undergoes parallels theresurrection that the whole creation will undergo at the consummation of all things.

Second, if the new heavens and the new earth will be substantially unlike the present heavens and earth, then we would have to conclude that the Triune God’s redemptive work discards rather than renews all things. Though this is a rather general consideration, the teaching that the new creation involves a radically new beginning would suggest that sin and evil have become so much a part of the substance of the present created order that it is unrelievedly and radically evil. The original pronouncement of God regarding the created heavens and earth — that they were “very good” — would no longer have any validity regarding their now fallen condition. But such an implication seems incompatible with the doctrine of the integrity and goodness of the creation, however much it may have been corrupted and distorted through sin. It would even imply that the sinful rebellion of the creation had so ruined God’s handiwork as to make it irretrievably wicked, On such a view of things, the rebellion of Satan and the subsequent fall of the human race into sin would overwhelm God's capacity to restore and redeem the work of His hands.2

These considerations notwithstanding, advocates of the view that the new creation will be altogether different from the present creation appeal to a number of passages in the Scriptures that seem to imply this view. Such passages are not difficult to find. In the pronouncements of Old Testament prophecy regarding the new heavens and earth, language is used that seems to imply the destruction and removal of all things. In Psalm 102:26, the old heavens and earth are compared to a garment that wears out and perishes: “Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; and all of them will wear out like a garment; like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed.” The prophet Isaiah describes the wearing away of all the host of heaven as being like a leaf that withers from the vine or the fig tree (34:4). Like the vanishing of smoke, the sky will vanish and the inhabitants of the earth will die (Isa. 51:6). When the prophet goes on to speak of the new heavens and earth, he speaks of them as something God will “create,” “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (65:17; d. 66:22). In a similar way, New Testament passages that describe the work of recreation employ the imagery of perishing or wearing out like a garment (Heb. 1:11), of a fire that consumes (2 Pet. 3:10), of a changing of all things (Heb. 1: 12), and of the present order of things passing away (Matt. 5:18; 24:35; 2 Pet. 3:10;
1 John 2:17; Rev. 21:1). The implications of these kinds of images seems to be that the present world will be extinguished to make way for the introduction of something altogether new.

However, the vivid imagery and language of these kinds of passages ought not to be pressed too literally. Though they convey the
thought of a radical renovation or renewal of all things, they do not require the conclusion that this renewal will mean the complete annihilation of the present cosmos. Indeed, there are Scriptural passages whose description of this renewal require the alternative, that this renewal will involve a process of purification and cleansing of the old, making all things new, but not all new things. Two of these passages are especially outstanding and deserve particular attention. 

ROMANS 8:18, 25

The first of these passages is Romans 8:18–25, a passage we had occasion to consider earlier in connection with our discussion of the
resurrection of this body. This passage not only illustrates the analogy between the resurrection of the believer and the resurrection renewal of the whole creation, but it also uses language to describe the new creation that confirms its substantial continuity with the present creation: 

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it. in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.

There are several features of this passage that are relevant to the question of the continuity between the present and the future state of the creation.

First, this passage reminds us that the introduction of sin into the creation has affected not only the human race, but also the whole creation. The curse upon Adam and his posterity is one that includes the creation itself. As the apostle expresses it, the creation has been subjected to “futility,” to “vanity” or “pointlessness,” because of the sinful rebellion of God’s image-bearers. Though we are not told how this futility is to be understood or manifests itself, undoubtedly the cosmos itself has been adversely implicated by sin and evil. Without becoming unrelievedly evil, sin has brought distortion and corruption to the entirety of God’s handiwork. The fabric of creation has been torn and broken, corresponding to the humility and weakness that now affect the human body (1 Cor. 15; Phil. 3:21).

Second, there is an intimate connection between the redemption for which the children of God eagerly wait, and the redemption of the creation itself. Individual eschatology and cosmic eschatology are so joined together that what is true for believers holds true for the creation itself. Just as believers who, by the first fruits of the Spirit, eagerly anticipate the fulness of redemption, so the creation itself looks forward to its release from the futility to which it has been subjected. When the children of God are revealed in glory and freedom, a similar glory and freedom will be granted to the creation itself. Its present corruption and distortion will be removed. Its broken fabric will be mended. Remarkably, this passage uses language to describe the restoration of creation that corresponds exactly to the language used to describe the restoration of the children of God. The same process of renewal that promises the transformation of the believers' present bodies of humiliation into bodies of glory, will transform the creation itself.

And third, the metaphor of childbirth that dominates this passage suggests that the transformation of the creation will be in substantial continuity with its present state. The creation groans, according to this passage, like a woman in childbirth prior to the delivery of her newborn child. Though it may be inappropriate to press this metaphor too far, certainly it requires the idea of a substantial likeness between that which gives birth and that which is born. Like gives birth to like. So the new creation, born of the old, will bear a kind of resemblance and similarity to the original. To suggest that the new creation will be radically other than the former creation would violate the clear implication of this pas-sage.

2 Peter 3:5–13

A second passage of special importance to the question of the continuity between the present creation and the life to come is 2 Peter 3:5–13. In this passage, the apostle Peter answers those who “in the last days” mock the promise of Christ’s coming. According to his representation of their mockery, they will say, “Where is the promise of His coming? Forever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation” (v. 4). These mockers will conclude from the delay of Christ’s return and the continuance of all things as before that the promise of His coming is untrue. To this the apostle responds by saying:

For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But the present heavens and earth by His word are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be discovered. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat. But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.

The gist of the apostle’s answer to these mockers is clear. The Lord will indeed fulfill His promise, but in His own time and in accord with His desire to grant to all an opportunity for repentance. In His patience and mercy, the world continues as before so that the gospel might be preached and the day of salvation prolonged. No one, however, should mistake the Lord’s patience and conclude that the day of His coming will not arrive. For our purpose, we do not need to go into the question that often captures the attention of interpreters of this passage—whether this passage teaches that God sincerely calls all to repentance, though He does not choose to save all to whom the gospel is preached. This certainly is the most natural reading of the passage. What interests us is the teaching of this passage about the present and future state of creation. There are two features of this passage that speak directly to this issue.

First, the apostle Peter draws a comparison between the destruction of the world in the days of the great flood and the future destruction of the world at the “day of God” (vv. 6–7, 10–12). The language of destruction is used in both instances. Though we may be inclined to take this language to mean the complete annihilation of all things, this cannot be the case, at least in the first instance of the destruction of the world in the days of Noah. When God’s judgment fell upon the world at the time of the flood, the world was destroyed only in the sense that its wicked inhabitants were subjected to judgment and the earth cleansed thereby of its wickedness. The destruction, however, was not one that involved the removal of all things and the provision of all new things. The earth was destroyed in the sense of its being cleansed and sanctified, but not in the sense of its being removed entirely.

And second, the imagery used in this passage to describe the creation of the new heavens and earth suggests a process of refinement and purification, but not of utter annihilation. Imagery drawn from the field of metallurgy—the refining process that produces a pure grade of metal—is used to describe what God will do to create a renewed world “in which righteousness dwells.” To be sure, the language of this passage speaks of a violent and destructive process: “the heavens will pass away with a roar”; “the elements will be destroyed with intense heat”; “the earth and its works will be discovered”; “the heavens will be destroyed by burning”; and “the elements will melt with intense heat.” These descriptions undoubtedly suggest a process, an extraordinary power and destructiveness.3 However, they ought not to be taken to describe a process of annihilation. Rather, they describe a process where the present creation is purified, refined, and cleansed, all of the impurities of evil and sin removed, and the creation left in a state of pristine purity and cleanliness. Just as the refiner’s fire is used to produce the highest and purest grade of gold and silver, so the refining fire of God’s judging and sanctifying this sin-cursed creation will yield a new heavens and earth where all is holy and pure. In this process, far from being destroyed in the sense of eliminated, the integrity of the creation is restored, all the unnatural impurities having been removed.

An interesting confirmation of this reading of the passage may be  found in the seemingly odd expression in verse 10, “and the earth and its works will be discovered” (emphasis mine). Many of the later Greek manuscripts use a different verb in this verse, “burned up,” so that it conforms to the language of verse 12 and the idea of the working of days mock the promise of Christ’s coming. According to his representation of their mockery, they will say, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation” (v. 4). These mockers will conclude from the delay of Christ’s return and the continuance of all things as before that the promise of His coming is untrue. To this the apostle responds by saying:

For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But the present heavens and earth by His word are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be discovered. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat. But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. 

The gist of the apostle’s answer to these mockers is clear. The Lord will indeed fulfill His promise, but in His own time and in accord with His desire to grant to all an opportunity for repentance. In His patience and mercy, the world continues as before so that the gospel might be preached and the day of salvation prolonged. No one, however, should mistake the Lord’s patience and conclude that the day of His coming will not arrive. For our purpose, we do not need to go into the question that often captures the attention of interpreters of this passage—whether this passage teaches that God sincerely calls all to repentance, though He does not choose to save all to whom the gospel is preached. This certainly is the most natural reading of the passage. What interests us is the teaching of this passage about the present and future state of creation.

There are two features of this passage that speak directly to this issue.

First, the apostle Peter draws a comparison between the destruction of the world in the days of the great flood and the future destruction of the world at the “day of God” (vv. 6–7, 10–12). The language of destruction is used in both instances. Though we may be inclined to take this language to mean the complete annihilation of all things, this cannot be the case, at least in the first instance of the destruction of the world in the days of Noah. When God’s judgment fell upon the world at the time of the flood, the world was destroyed only in the sense that its wicked inhabitants were subjected to judgment and the earth cleansed thereby of its wickedness. The destruction, however, was not one that involved the removal of all things and the proviSion of all new things. The earth was destroyed in the sense of its being cleansed and sanctified, but not in the sense of its being removed entirely.

And second, the imagery used in this passage to describe the creation of the new heavens and earth suggests a process of refinement and purification, but not of utter annihilation. Imagery drawn from the field of metallurgy-the refining process that produces a pure grade of metal—is used to describe what God will do to create a renewed world “in which righteousness dwells.” To be sure, the language of this passage speaks of a violent and destructive process: “the heavens will pass away with a roar”; “the elements will be destroyed with intense heat”; “the earth and its works will be discovered”, “the heavens will be destroyed by burning”; and “the elements will melt with intense heat.” These descriptions undoubtedly suggest a process, an extraordinary power and destructiveness.3 However, they ought not to be taken to describe a process of annihilation. Rather, they describe a process where the present creation is purified, refined, and cleansed, all of the impurities of evil and sin removed, and the creation left in a state of pristine purity and cleanliness. Just as the refiner’s fire is used to produce the highest and purest grade of gold and silver, so the refining fire of God’s judging and sanctifying this sin-cursed creation will yield a new heavens and earth where all is holy and pure. In this process, far from being destroyed in the sense of eliminated, the integrity of the creation is restored, all the unnatural impurities having been removed.

An interesting confirmation of this reading of the passage may be found in the seemingly odd expression in verse 10, “and the earth and its works will be discovered” (emphasis mine). Many of the later Greek manuscripts use a different verb in this verse, “burned up,” so that it conforms to the language of verse 12 and the idea of the working of fire. However. the language used in the older and better manuscripts of this passage conveys the idea of process that does not so much destroy or burn up but uncover or lay open for discovery the creation, now in a renewed state of pristine purity. What to us may seem an odd or difficult expression-the earth and its works are “discovered” or “found” is actually just the right kind of expression to convey the idea of a process that does not destroy but restores the creation to a state of integrity. In the same way the process of refining precious metals “discovers” or “lays bare” the metal in all of its purity, so God uncovers by removing every impurity the beauty and glory of the created order.4

2 Peter 3:5–13 confirms, then, the basic idea also expressed, though in different language, in Romans 8. The new heavens and earth will issue from God’s sovereign and redemptive work. Though this work is unimaginably powerful, beyond anything within the reach of our present experience, it will involve the renewal of all things, not the creation of all new things. This creation will undergo a process of cosmic sanctification, so that every remainder and vestige of sin will be removed. All of God’s renewed creation-temple will be holy unto the Lord (Zech. 14:20–21), a place suitable for His dwelling with His people and for their service to Him.5

(To be continued)

FOOTNOTES

1. Herman Bavinck, The Last Things: Hope for This World and the Next, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (orig. Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, vol. IV, 4th ed., 1918; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 156, cites the following as representatives of the first view: Origen, the Lutherans, the Mennonites, the Socinians, Vorstius, the Remonstrants, and “a number of Reformed theologians like Beza, Rivet, Junius, Wollebius, and Prideaux.” Cf. G.C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 220, n.18, who lists a number of Lutheran advocates of the discontinuity position.

2. Speaking of this implication, Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 281, remarks: “If God would have to annihilate the present cosmos, Satan would have won a great victory. For then Satan would have succeeded in so devastatingly corrupting the present cosmos and the present earth that God could do nothing with it but blot it out totally of existence. But Satan did not win such a victory. On the contrary, Satan has been decisively defeated. God will reveal the full dimensions of that defeat when he shall renew this very earth on which Satan deceived mankind and finally banish from it all the results of Satan's evil machinations.”

3. Anyone familiar with the process still used today of producing a high grade of steel from iron ore will acknowledge that the process is a violent and destructive one. This destructiveness, however, aims to remove impurities, not to annihilate.

4. I am indebted for this suggestion to Al Wolters who, in an excellent discussion of this term and passage (“Worldview and Textual Criticism in 2 Peter 3:10,” Westminster Theological Journal 49/21 Fall 1987]. 405–13), argues that translations of this text have often been influenced by a worldview that denies the continuity between the present and future state of creation. Wolters also suggests that the apostle Peter's use of this term in two other instances corresponds to this metallurgical use in 2 Peter 3:10: “It is striking that for the two occurrences of the absolute use in the letters of Peter the context in both cases evokes the image of a metal’s purification in a melting pot or crucible. Could it be that the common Greek verb heuriskesthai [“to be discovered,” “to be found”] has a precise technical sense in the vocabulary of the smelter and refiner? Its meaning would then be something like “emerge purified (from the crucible): with the connotation of having stood the test, of being tried and true. In a word, the technical sense would be equivalent to the English 'to show one’s mettle: an idiom which also originates in the world of metallurgy A number of passages in extrabiblical Greek authors dealing with the refining of metals use heuriskoo in a way which is consistent with this hypothesis.”

5. Hoekema, in his treatment of the Bible’s promise of a new heavens and earth, argues at some length that this answers the common dispensationalist complaint that amillennialism “spiritualizes” the concreteness of the future kingdom (The Bible and the Future, 275–9) Ironically, the future millennium of dispensational expectation is in some ways a less literal fulfillment of the biblical promise of the new heavens and earth than that of amillennialism.

Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.

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