If you think of the end of the world, what do you think of? Perhaps you envision mass apocalyptic destruction. Perhaps you have images of God destroying his creation through fire. Doomsday, the day of reckoning. These sorts of images are surely not uncommon for the evangelical North American mind. And whether we like to admit or not, these images have had deep influence on our beliefs about the current world. Perhaps our abuse of resources or apathy to how we relate to the natural world. “It’s all going burn up anyways.” When it comes down to it, it doesn’t really matter what I do, because God will destroy this world anyway! He will start over with a new creation. This has often been the sentiment of how many Christians think. In the first installment, my goal was to re-frame the biblical story (at least in part), not as one which holds some Platonic picture of heaven as a final goal, but a physical embodied hope of new creation and resurrection. Here I intend to go even further and address some well-known passages that speak of the end of all things; or perhaps rather, their regeneration.
As Christians, we ought to be in pursuit of truth. With a better understanding of a holistic salvation, we can ask the question as follows: if God in Christ reconciling heaven and earth, is there complete discontinuity between “this world” and the new creation? Doesn’t Jesus say heaven and earth will pass away? Second Peter seems to say that God will burn up the material universe, does it not? Or is there continuity along with radical transformation of the old? And if so, what does this mean for how we live today? Before we dive into to these questions, we ought to remember that we are not given an extensive profile or description of the eschaton. What we have are images given to us by sacred Scripture. We try to make the best sense of what those images are pointing to. In this post we will cover a few primary texts that may give us a clearer understanding of continuity and discontinuity between the first creation and new creation. Buckle up, your about to take a ride to the end of the world.
Until Heaven and Earth Pass Away
Jesus himself, spoke of the passing away of heaven and earth. We find these very words in Matthew 5:18; 24:35 and Mark 13:31. Matthew 5:18 is spoken during Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, where as 24:35 and Mark 13:31 are spoken during the Olivet Discourse, when Christ foretells the destruction of the temple and the end of the age. Matthew 5:18 reads, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” And likewise, in the Olivet discourse he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
We ought to bring our attention to context of each of these sayings. As we zoom out to see the larger conversation, we see the primary point of Jesus’ words is to demonstrate the outlasting permanency and significance of his words. However, we still ought to ask what Jesus means by “heaven and earth passing away.” Some have argued that “heaven and earth” are symbolic for the temple1. This seems to be plausible, especially given that Matthew 24:35 and Mark 13:31 is situated in the context of the Olivet discourse. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple would have been seen as cataclysmic, the end of the world as they knew it. But let’s consider some other options. Scholar and commentator R.T. France argues, contrary to the language of heaven and earth passing away, it is rather a way of a rhetorical way of saying “The law, down to it’s smallest details is as permanent as heaven and earth, and will never lose it’s significance; on the contrary, all it points forward to will become reality2.” However convincing one finds such interpretations; we might say that perhaps Jesus’ words simply do refer the passing away of “heaven and earth.” What then does he mean by this? Is he saying the material world as know it is going to be wiped out or discarded? In order to answer this question, we ought to consider several other key passages, and consider these ‘images’ together.
Following the conversation between Christ and the rich young ruler a discussion between Christ and his disciples ensues. Peter asks Jesus “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have? (Matt 19:27)” Jesus begins his answer by saying “Truly, I say to you, in the new world…” The term here translated for “new world” or “new age,” scholars point out is quite literally “regeneration3” or “the rebirth.4” The only other time this word occurs, it refers to “regeneration of the Spirit (Titus 3:5).” Likewise, in Peter’s message which he preaches on Solomon’s Portico he says this “… and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago (Acts 3:21).” In contrast to Greek thinkers who believed the history of the universe was cyclical, that it would be destroyed and be reborn, the Jewish hope was that God would restore his people. Not only would he restore his people, but he would bring restoration and renewal to the world5. Peter calls his Jewish hearers to repentance, in order that they may participate in God’s renewed world. Furthermore, Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 describes the contrast of the nature of a believer whose identity is now remade in Christ, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, new has come (2 Thessalonians 5:17).” For Paul this extends to a cosmic scale because “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” What happens to individual is an image of what God is doing on a cosmic scale.
When the Heavens Burn
Imagine for a moment a church where its leaders had become so corrupt, where they lived for their own pleasure and abused their power to sleep around with women. Even worse, they used the teachings of Paul to defend that they were free to do so! Such is the context that the letter of second Peter is found in. Peter points out that despite those who mock the idea that God will judge them, God has in fact judged human evil in the past and will do so again. The reason for the delay is God’s patience. God would rather that these corrupt leaders come to repentance, since he is not willing that any should perish!
Both examples he gives are from the Old Testament, namely judgment of the rebellious Sons of God (Gen 6), and Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18). He the reminds his readers and his objectors, that God destroyed human evil through the flood. It is here where we find his apocalyptic language for the future day of the Lord:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
At first glance it may seem as though Peter is speaking of complete cosmic dissolution, but let’s take a few minutes and thoughtfully examine the passage. We will begin in verse 10, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”
The image of the thief is one of suddenness and unexpectedness, also used firstly by Jesus and then also by Paul. The language of the heavens “passing away” is reminiscent of the words of Jesus which we had examined above6. The phrase roar has often been interpreted to be an image for the crackling of the flames as they destroy the ‘firmament.’ However, there maybe something even more substantial being alluded to in this language. This imagery is noted to be characteristic of divine theophanies in the Old Testament, where lightning and thunder accompany Yahweh’s appearance and his return as the divine warrior7. These are scattered throughout the Old Testament in poetry and prophecies. Psalm 18 is just one of a number of passages which illustrates this:
The Lord thundered from heaven;
the voice of the Most High resounded.
He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
with great bolts of lightning, he routed them.
The valleys of the sea were exposed
and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, Lord,
at the blast of breath from your nostrils(13-15).
We are told this psalm is in fact a poetic and symbolic description of when Yahweh delivered David from the hands of his enemies and his predecessor King Saul.
In what follows Peter than says, “and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved…” The phrase “heavenly bodies” (stoicheia) is also translated as “elements.” There are basically three possible ways of understanding this phrase. It can refer either to, 1) the physical elements that compose the material universe, 2) the heavenly or celestial bodies or 3) angelic or celestial beings8. If the first option is correct, then it would mean that Peter has the destruction of the material universe in mind. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham says, although the first option is the usual meaning of the word “stoicheia” it is probably not what Peter intends, since, this passage is an allusion or quotation of Isaiah 34:4 which speaks of “the host of heaven.9” The host heaven is a way of referring to sun, moon and the stars, not elements which make up the physical universe. The third option cannot be ruled out, given the word does refer to hostile spiritual powers in Paul’s letters (Gal 4:3, Col 2:8,20) and that stars and heavenly bodies were associated with spiritual beings10. We should not read the third option as an alternative to the second, but possibly in addition to it.
It is what follows where the language becomes a bit fuzzy, partly because translations render it differently. These results are not minimal, rather they can have drastically different implications. For instance, the ESV translates it, “the works that are done on it will be exposed” whereas the NIV renders it “everything done in it will be laid bare,” whereas other translations render it “burned up (NASB, KJV).” The first two are quite similar in the implications they evoke, but the latter has drastically different results. Bauckham is of help here again, and says that “will be found” is “undoubtedly” the best reading11. The reasons he lays out are quite technical which I will by no means claim to fully understand and cannot be expanded upon here (it is rather lengthy and there are quite a number of variant readings). Additionally, this option makes much better sense given the language of divine theophany, the function of the judgment and Peter’s own words in Acts. This allows us to focus our vision and get a clear image of what Peter intends to communicate.
We now see that the irony then begins to set in. Those who thought they could persist in evil and get away with it, will suddenly encounter the divine warrior in his awesome and terrifying appearance. At his ‘sudden appearance’ as he rips open the “firmament” so to speak and exposes the human scene of injustice and evil. Peter H. Davids puts it this way: “The sudden judgment, when it comes, will mean the removal of heaven (the firmament that is between where God is and the earth) and the heavenly bodies (the “elements”-as the term is used in a number of ancient texts—that hang in or from the firmament and thus will be destroyed with it). This will leave the earth “laid bare” (not destroyed) so all is open to the divine eye and easily judged.12”
Just as the function of judgment at prior times was the utter removal of wickedness, in similar light, the purpose for the author of second Peter is the removal of evil and those who are found to participate in it, when all the deeds of humankind “are exposed.” The fire stored up for the present heavens and earth he says are “kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:6).” A similar image is given in Malachi’s prophecy of the Day of the Lord, where it is “burning like a furnace” and it will consume all those who are characterized by evil (Malachi 4:1). The implications for the author is his exhortation for readers to live holy lives, and to live for a “new heavens and new earth, where righteousness dwells.” Evil and all who continue to participate in it will perish when they are exposed at the sudden appearance of the divine Judge. In contrast to his warning, he assures them that those who are in Christ Jesus, will inherit a world where righteousness dwells. Paul says something rather quite similar in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thessalonians 5:3).” The context here is also the Day of the Lord, and Paul like Peter exhorts his readers to remain in the Christ because they are children of the light and not of darkness. Since they belong to the King, they will have nothing to fear.
The imagery evoked by Peter is not speaking of the complete destruction of the material universe or world, but rather a day when God will judge and purify his world of all the evil that has torn apart his creation. It is especially important to remember that the primary function of the flood for Peter is the destruction of the ungodly. Regardless of whether this language is metaphorical or literal, there is certainly element of cataclysmic destruction, but its function is to expose the human scene of wickedness. It is for the removal of evil and all those who persist in it. Given that Peter had formerly preached that Christ would return when all things were to be renewed and restored, it would odd for Peter to now switch gears and speak of the complete discarding of the material universe. In the simplest terms, we may see this fire particularly as purification of God’s world. Paul similarly, speaks of the Day of Lord testing each one’s work by fire, and if it is built on the foundation that is Christ, it will stand the test (1 Cor 3:13). Matthew Bates illustrates it well, “God is a consuming fire able to melt the present order and remove the dross, so that what results is so radically pure and new, that it is appropriate to call it a “new creation.13” Having a clearer picture of what Second Peter 3 is saying and what it is not saying, this allows to take a look finally at the Revelation 21 and how it contributes to the topic at hand.
Making All Things New
For a world that has been torn apart by death, by war, by suffering, by human sin, one can only hope that one day the world will be set to right. In the Revelation or “Apocalypse” of John we are given a beautiful vision of God’s future world.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
We should begin with caution, given that this Apocalyptic writing riddled with figurative language. A first observation to be made here is that first heaven and earth have passed away. Several clues, immediate to the text may alert us to the fact that this represents the former age. Firstly, we see there is no longer any sea. The sea was an ancient symbol of chaos and cosmic evil which threatened to destroy order14. Secondly, we are given in verse 4 a moving image of God wiping away “every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Right here, we are given a clue that the passing away of the first heaven and first earth is previous age or order of things, a world that was characterized by suffering, by death, by decay and by violence. There will no longer be any of these things in God’s new creation, nor will the possibility even arise. There is an element of radical discontinuity. Yet, Gregory Beale notes that “a renewal or renovation is in mind is evident from 21:515” in which the Lamb says “behold, I make all things new.” Additionally, the word for new (kainos) here, according to Beale “refers predominantly to a change in quality or essence rather, than something new that has never previously been in existence.16” These elements can also then inform us in regards to the words of Christ “until heaven and earth pass away” in a canonical sense.
These textual evidences give us strong reason to believe that there is continuity, redemption, and transformation, despite the radical discontinuity between the first creation and the second. Max Lee highlights several additional and vital aspects which gives us several additional reasons new creation as renewal and transformation of the old. He writes:
Creation is renewed not by destroying the old and starting over but by transforming the old into something different, better, and transcendent (21:15; cf. Isa. 65:27). Creation’s renewal is modeled after the transformation and resurrection of believers (1 Cor. 15:35–53). In the same way that sinners become a “new creation” because the old “has passed away” (NIV “has gone”) and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17), the first heaven and first earth “have passed away”(the Greek verb parelthon (“passed away”] in 2 Cor. 5:17 is virtually identical to the term apēlthon [“passed away”] used in Rev. 21:1)— that is, they have discontinued in their current condition because God is restructuring the old created order into a new state of glory (cf. Rom. 8:19–22; Gal. 6:15; Col. 1:15-18).Creation changes without losing its former identity and becomes “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). God has not abandoned this world, and neither should we. Because God plans on transforming the old created order, the church should be faithful stewards of the planet and not exploit its resources.17“
Significance for Us Today
Well, we’ve made it! All the images are now before us. I think one thing is clear, that despite the radical discontinuity of the old creation, there is in fact continuity. God is creator, he is redeemer and he will rescue his creation. He is the God who resurrects the dead, and gives new life. He is the God who transforms that which is marked by decay, into something new and beautiful. He is the God who redeems that which is fallen and marred by sin. It is wholly within the character of God to renew, to resurrect and transform his creation into new creation rather than completely eradicate it and start all over. But nevertheless, he will purify his fallen world and transform into something radically new. As Paul writes, “With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” The present order must be radically reworked in order for God’s new world to be birthed. The whole of creation awaits its liberation (Rom 8:19-21). God has not given up on creation, he will bring it from death to life.
How then does this have implications for us today? I believe not only does this confront long and deep-seated misunderstandings about what Scripture teaches, but infuses our current lives with deep meaning and hope. If God is reconciling the world in Christ, and will resurrect and renew his creation torn apart by pain, by misery, by sin and by death, then how we relate to God’s world today matters. The story of God’s redemption invites us into participation. What we do is not in vain, but in some way, God will take our “labour” and use it in his new creation that is free from the clutches of evil and sin. Paul himself concludes his discussion on the resurrection in First Corinthians 15, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).” Those parts of our world which reflect the good, whether it be culture, or relationships, or the sweeping vistas of nature, or what we have done in our bodies, or what has even been born out of suffering and pain. God will use these. He will somehow incorporate and transform them into his unimaginably good and new creation. What we do here matters. How we relate to our fellow image bearers matters. How we rule God’s creation today, still matters. Yes, all those elements which have been out workings of sin, and evil will be purified through the holy fire of God’s justice and love, but he will resurrect all that is good, all that is beautiful and reflects his glorious nature; and transform it in his new creation.
- See discussion on 22. France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT) 185. Eerdmans
- France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT) 186,743 Eerdmans
- Keener, Craig S. (The IVP Bible Background Commentary: The New Testament) 98. IVP
- France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT) 742-743. Eerdmans
- Keener, Craig S. (The IVP Bible Background Commentary: The New Testament) 332. IVP; Pao, David W. (Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary) Matthew, 1174. Baker Books
- Bauckham, Dr. Richard. Jude-2 Peter, Volume 50 (Word Biblical Commentary) 315. Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
- Ibid, 315,316
- Ibid, 315
- For an extensive study see Heiser, Michael S. The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible Lexham Press.
- Bauckham, Dr. Richard. Jude-2 Peter, Volume 50 (Word Biblical Commentary) 303,316. Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
- Davids, Peter H. (Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary) 2 Peter 1556. Baker Books
- Bates, Matthew W. (Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking, Faith Works and the Gospel of Jesus the King) 133. Baker Academic
- Lee, Max J. (Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary) Revelation, 1625. Baker Books; Beale, G.K. The Gospel of Revelation (NIGNT) 1041-1043. Eerdmans
- Beale, G.K. The Gospel of Revelation (NIGNT) 1040. Eerdmans
- Lee, Max J. (Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary) Revelation, 1625. Baker Books