Christians argue and divide over many issues, from core issues such as the doctrine of free will to peripheral issues such as the age of the Earth. Ironically, some of the least weighty questions draw the most vigorous public debate while the more important ones receive less attention.
One of these ignored controversies has significant implications for worldview, a question that either lumps Christianity with other theistic and deistic religions or sets it distinctly apart.
The many-faceted question is this: What is the Creator’s ultimate plan for humanity? Is it a grand scale restoration of the Garden of Eden, i.e., a terrestrial paradise, or is it an entirely “new” creation beyond the confines of the universe? What is the “heaven” awaiting those who receive His offer of eternal salvation?
A consideration of the big picture, a look at what God’s Word says in answer to this set of questions, can shed invaluable light on the subject of creation and focus attention on the issues that matter most. How one thinks about the future helps shape his or her response to current and past events.
The book of Revelation offers the best starting place for such an inquiry. In fact, its final chapters may be the best place for a person to begin reading Scripture. Rather than killing suspense, this end-first reading of the story quells fear and gives birth to a lively, healthy hope. And hope, according to Romans 5:3-5 and 1 John 3:3, carries us through the difficulties of our sin-marred existence and keeps us going through God’s purification process.
Redemption’s story culminates in this triumphant shout: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live 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” (Rev. 21:3-4).
In what context does redeemed humanity enjoy the glories of face-to-face fellowship with God? Is it here on this planet, in this universe? Again, Scripture gives the answer. Revelation 21 identifies our destination as the “new heaven and new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. . . .” The King of Kings declares, “I am making everything new!” Most of the chapter is devoted to a mind-boggling description of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. Its magnificent features not only stretch the limits of human imagination but also reveal that familiar physical laws exist no more.
In this passage God gives a preview of the fulfillment of Romans 8:22-23. The whole “groaning” creation—its time and space, matter and energy, and “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit”—receives deliverance from “bondage to decay.” This is the moment of our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
Humanity’s deliverance from death and decay is the focal point of the passage; however, the reference does encompass the entire physical universe, to which space, time, matter, and energy belong. The passage would seem to suggest, then, that the deliverance applies even to the physical laws, which began in effect at the cosmic creation event. They are, thus, finite and the One who created them brings them to an end as soon as their purpose is fulfilled.
To say that the universe and its thermodynamic laws are eternal is to contradict both Scripture and the record of nature. To say that Adam and Eve’s sin introduced those laws is to overlook three biblical doctrines. First, rebellion against God’s authority, i. e., “sin,” existed prior to Adam’s rebellion in Eden. The Bible does not record exactly when Satan sinned, but that event certainly predates his invasion of Eden. It could have occurred before Earth was formed. Job 38:7 says that the angels, of whom Lucifer was one, were witnesses to God’s laying the foundations of the earth.
Second, God decided to allow Satan’s entrance to Eden. The doctrine of God’s omnipotence and omniscience leads to the conclusion that He had a plan for using Adam and Eve’s tragic rebellion, with all its horrific effects, to bring about a greater and better future than even the wonders of Eden could afford.
Third, whatever the timing of Satan’s rebellion, God created the universe knowing that Satan would be the first to sin. Consequently, the universe He designed would be a universe perfectly suited to bring about the glorious victory He planned. In other words, He made a universe governed by the second law of thermodynamics (and other laws) wherein humans would be tested by Satan but with the possibility of being permanently rescued from Satan’s grasp by God’s conquering love and grace.
The precipitating event, the time marker, for the climactic “adoption” event is described in the final paragraphs of Revelation 20. Satan and his henchmen have been sent to their inescapable doom, and their captives stand before God’s judgment seat to receive the penalty, which they insist on paying, for their pseudo autonomy. In other words, God’s conquest of evil, which was “finished” on Calvary’s cross, has at this point been fully carried out. This is in part an answer to the question, if there is an all-loving God then why does evil exist? The answer is that evil is in the process of being defeated, and humankind has the privilege of partnering with God in that battle to conquer evil. The result is that one day all that which is evil––everything that is irredeemable––will be quarantined in a place called “Hell.” The result is that the new creation will be eternally secure. Temptation’s source can no longer come into contact with the creatures God made for His own eternal delight.
One can reasonably infer that God’s plan and purpose for the creation, as described in Genesis 1 and amplified elsewhere in Scripture, has been accomplished. That plan involves the conquest of evil, which was introduced not at the time of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin but rather when Lucifer rebelled. Sin and its consequences came to humanity when the first humans gave in to the serpent’s temptation. And those consequences were, and still are, devastating.
The biblical worldview we propose says that Adam and Eve’s fall into sin radically changed the human race, impacting the entire planet. It did not, however, change all the physical laws of the cosmos. Genesis 2 explicitly states that Adam worked physically and ate earthly food before he sinned. Such work—including the digestion process—implies that gravity and thermodynamics, for example, were in effect before the fall, as they are today. The existence of stars, including the sun, also implies the operation of thermodynamic laws.1
Work and the possibility of physical pain did not come as part of the curse God pronounced at the time of Adam and Eve’s sin. God designed productive work to be satisfying, enjoyable.2 He gave Adam and Eve a job before they committed any sin.3 Sin, however, destroyed both the productivity and joy of their work. This destruction still makes work frustrating and painful.
Physical pain is a necessary partner to physical pleasure. Such pain also warns of impending danger. The capacity for pain, then, cannot be considered a bad thing. The introduction of sin means that we all experience more pain than would otherwise be necessary. Furthermore, it introduces an entirely new and more excruciating kind of pain—spiritual and emotional pain. When a woman suffers to give birth to a child, her greatest pain comes from the heart-rending awareness that this little person, to whom her heart is inextricably attached, must experience the awful effects of sin, both within and without.4 Such pain completely overshadows the physical pain of childbearing.
The end of that pain, the enactment of God’s judgment against it at the Great White Throne, comes with the end of the physical universe as we know it. Revelation is not the only portion of Scripture in which this point is made. The Psalmist declares:
In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them
and they will be discarded.5
Isaiah says that “all the stars of the heavens will be dissolved,”6 that “the heavens will vanish like smoke,”7 that God “will create new heavens and a new earth,”8 and that “the former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”9 Jesus proclaims that “heaven and earth will pass away.”10 The author of the book of Hebrews quotes directly from the Psalm above.11 Peter explains:
Long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed. . . . By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. . . . The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire. . . . Everything will be destroyed in this way. . . . That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.12
When Christ takes His seat to judge Earth’s rebels, the earth and the sky “flee” from His presence.13 Obviously this seat exists beyond the confines of “the heavens and the earth” mentioned in Genesis 1:1. Living beings, angels and humans, remain alive in place beyond the “very good” Earth. Some go to the place of “second death,”14 and some remain in the glorious presence of God. At this point, God has no more use for this planet and cosmos.
Just how new is the new creation? It is more than just a remake or renovation of the old creation. It is completely and radically new. The laws of gravity, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics are gone. The text directly claims that everything associated with the second law of thermodynamics (decay, death, pain, etc.) never again exists.15 Gravity as we know it no longer exists. (Gravity does not allow a structure of the dimensions ascribed to the New Jerusalem. Gravity would force it into a spherical shape.)16 Electromagnetism as we know it no longer exists, for light in an electromagnetic environment coexists with darkness and shadows. The new creation will be filled with “light” without any darkness or shadows and without such entities as the sun, stars, and light bulbs as sources of illumination.17
What can be said, then, of Old Testament verses that seem to suggest the Earth and universe last forever? The interpretation we proffer must account for the following passages:
He set them [the sun, moon, stars, highest heavens and waters above the skies] forever and ever. (Psalm 148:6)
I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. (Ecclesiastes 3:14)
[Those] who lead many to righteousness [will shine] like the stars for ever and ever. (Daniel 12:3)
[God’s] work has been finished since the creation of the world. (Hebrews 4:3)
The Hebrew word translated as “forever” in Psalm 148:6 (also in Ecclesiastes 3:14, and Daniel 12:3) is olam. In Psalm 148:6 and Daniel 12:3, the Hebrew word ‘ad is included in the phrase as well. These words carry slightly different meanings in different contexts (unlike the Greek word for “forever”), and one of their literal meanings is a “long continuance into the future.”18 In the light of the rest of Scripture, that meaning seems to apply here.
Many Bible scholars view Ecclesiastes 3:14 and Hebrews 4:3 as declarations of God’s sovereign, immutable plan for humanity. In other words, God’s has determined what He will do and nothing can change that. As for Daniel 12:3, the shining “forever” seems in the context of the larger passage to describe “those who lead many to righteousness.”
Better Than Eden19
One argument for a completely and radically new creation comes from 1 Corinthians 2:9. In this passage Paul explains that no human can “conceive or imagine what God has prepared for those who love Him.” Imagining or visualizing phenomena within the laws of physics and space-time dimensions of our universe certainly is possible. We can picture, at least in a limited way, what Eden, or a renewed earth might be like if we could go there, but we humans simply cannot picture life in a realm beyond the dimensions and physical laws of our universe.
God has promised to His believers a reward far beyond what anyone, no matter how spiritual or imaginative, can conceive. Moreover, the doctrine of heaven is one of the chief distinctions between Christianity and other belief systems. Many cults, for example, promise an Earth-bound (or planet-bound) paradise replete with physical pleasures, including sexual pleasure; Christianity promises deliverance from earthly paradise, no matter how magnificently restored its condition. In one sense, any earthly paradise may be compared with Egypt in Moses’ time. It was a land of splendor and plenty but also a land of slavery.
Slavery of one kind or another is inherently associated with the laws of thermodynamics. If we eliminate the law of entropy, for example, we have not eliminated all decay in the universe. As people age, they observe that certain body parts begin to lose the battle with gravity. Skin breaks down under long-term exposure to electromagnetic radiation.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Eden’s slavery has to do with time. Our original parents were confined, as we humans still are, to a single time dimension. Time’s forward march can be neither stopped nor reversed. This time line limits each one of us to just a few close relationships in our lifetime. In fact, the deepest level of intimacy possible in this creation, inside or outside Eden, can be experienced with only one fellow human at a time. For this reason God gave us marriage, monogamous marriage.
Jesus tells His followers that in the new creation there will be no marriage and, evidently, no sexual relationships or nuclear families.20 The relationship all believers will enjoy with Christ and with each other is likened to a marriage. Jesus often refers to believers in the new creation with singular nouns and pronouns.21 We are, He says, His bride, and we all will be one as He and the Father (and of course the Holy Spirit) are one. The oneness of the Godhead implies that the Father, Son, and Spirit are in continuous communication and fellowship with one another. For us to experience a comparable kind of oneness we, too, must be in continuous communication and fellowship with one another and with Him. Somehow, the new creation will allow us to communicate and relate intimately with billions of others all at once and always in perfect harmony.
Given this new capacity for knowing and being known, for loving and being loved, our need and desire for marriage and family are more than fully met. According to God’s promise, we will continuously enjoy something superior to the pleasures of the very best earthly relationships, including marriage, with all fellow believers simultaneously. Whatever responsibilities He assigns to us will be fulfilled with complete and unhindered joy. Just as this universe was designed for the purpose of Redemption, the new creation is designed for Reward.22 In fact, even our limited comprehension of the place He is preparing for us gives new meaning to that word.