When the biblical writers looked into the future, they saw “a new heaven and a new earth.” Many of us, schooled in a Platonized version of Christianity, find this confusing. We are comfortable with the heaven part but don’t know what to do with a new earth. It is hard to see any need for it.
We’ve been taught that we are destined for a heaven that is, in Spenser’s line, “unmoving, uncorrupt, and spotless bright.” What living in such a place might entail is quite beyond anything our imaginations can conjure up. Frankly, it sounds rather boring. Still, if heaven is open to us, why will we need earth?
Besides, doesn’t the Bible teach that earth will be destroyed by fire? St. Peter wrote, “…the earth and everything in it will be laid bare,” and “everything will be destroyed.” If everything will be destroyed and we will head off to heaven, what is the point of having a new earth?
But we need to go carefully here. When St. Peter writes that everything will be “destroyed,” he is using the same word he used a few sentences earlier when he wrote that the ancient world was “deluged and destroyed.” Though he says it was “destroyed,” he clearly did not mean the Great Flood had ended the planet, only that it ended human wickedness (for a time).
Likewise, the promised final “destruction” will not annihilate creation – the planet will not be obliterated. Rather, it will remove from it all evil and everything that opposes the Creator. The future will include an earth that is purified of every evil and made right.
The biblical writers say the same kind of thing about people. They do not simply go off unchanged to an ethereal heaven but are themselves transformed. Like the planet itself, they are purified of every evil and made right. The biblical term for this is “glorification” and the biblical picture is of a people and a planet that have been glorified.
The good things that fill the earth now will not disappear. The prophet, for example, speaks of “the wealth of the nations” being brought into the future kingdom. This can only be true if nations and their wealth exist. Indeed, the seer of the Revelation speaks of the “healing of the nations” that will then occur. This is a far cry from the Platonized version of the story, in which believers finally escape the defeat and drudgery of earth.
The situation may roughly (and inadequately) be pictured this way. There are two train tracks, running in indescribably long lines, one coming to an end alongside the place where the other begins, with a little overlap. The trains that run on the tracks are unimaginably long. The first train represents humanity’s history and prehistory, and its cars are filled with treasures.
These treasures include business, technology, art, music, science, literature, sports, and more – all the good things a society (whether ancient or modern) has ever produced. But these treasures are like raw ore that is filled with impurities.
Mixed with these good things, even embedded in them, are toxins, injustices, greed, hatred, bigotry, and inequality. The sheer volume of these evils may even outweigh the good things they permeate.
As the first train reaches its terminal point, it is unloaded and all its treasures are preserved – art, science, music, technologies, games, and more – and purified of their contaminants. The ugliness that has defaced earth’s beauties, the toxins that have poisoned them, the hatred that has scarred humanity’s best efforts, will be removed and incinerated. This is called “The Judgment.” What is left – and there is a great deal left – is loaded on the second train.
These are the stuffs of the new earth. The age to come will not start with a blank sheet. “The wealth of nations” will be brought into it. Earth’s natural beauties and every good work will be preserved by the God who never wastes anything – least of all people. St. Paul makes just this point when he says that God “gave himself for us to redeem us … and to purify for himself a people.”
I look forward to reading your essay in my newspaper every Saturday. Getting Into Heaven is Not the Point is probably the best thing I read all year. Please continue with these thoughtful, grounded totally in Scripture articles.