“The new heavens and new earth” refers to the state of creation after Jesus’ return and final judgment. It is also referred to as “new creation,” and both of these terms communicate that Christ’s work renews and restores creation at his second coming.
The new heavens and new earth is the culmination of the biblical story, when Christ accomplishes God’s original purposes for creation, reverses Adam’s curse, culminates his fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, and, ultimately, provides his people a place to dwell with God for eternity. In systematic theology, it is considered under the doctrine of eschatology, and considers topics such as eternal judgment, the relation of the old creation to the new creation, and the relation between the old and new covenants and the timing of their fulfillment.
“Heaven” vs. “The New Heavens and New Earth”
Many Christians use the term “heaven” to refer to the state of eternal bliss that those who trust in Christ for salvation will experience at the resurrection of the dead. “Hell,” on the other hand, is the place of eternal torment reserved for those who reject Christ in this life. Although these basic categories get at an important biblical truth – namely, that God on the last day will judge the living and the dead (Dan 12; Rev 20:11–15) – there is still some confusion regarding exactly what the states of the righteous and unrighteous are once God’s judgment has been given. This is because many times Christians equate “heaven” and “hell” with “what happens when we die” rather than “what happens at Jesus’ second coming, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment.” These are not the same thing in the Bible, although they are related. In theological terms, the former – what happens when we die – is referred to as the “intermediate state,” while the latter – what happens when Jesus comes back – is referred to as “the new heavens and new earth” (Rev 21:1) or “new creation.”
Creation’s Purpose and Reversing Adam’s Curse
The hope of the new heavens and new earth is rooted in Genesis 1–3. In the first two of these chapters, we see God’s purpose for creation, and specifically for his image bearers, human beings. The two main groups of created things, what we might call “containers” (days 1-3) and “fillers” (days 4-6), culminate in the creation for the land for the former category and in the creation of human beings for the latter category. This orderly account of creation already gives us a hint as to God’s purposes for it – he wants his people, his image bearers, to fill his place, the land. Once he creates Adam and Eve, he makes this purpose explicit to them, giving them four tasks. The first task is to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:26) Related to this first command, he also tells them, secondly, to “subdue [the earth]” and have dominion over it. (Gen 1:27). In chapter two, he gives them two further commands, to “work and keep” the garden and to obey his law (Gen 2:15). Already, then, before the Fall, God has a goal for his creation – to be filled with, ruled by, and cultivated by his obedient image bearers.
Things unraveled rather quickly. Instead of obeying, Adam and Eve rebelled in Genesis 3, eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Instead of ruling, Adam and Eve allowed the serpent to enter into the garden and to speak an alternative word to God’s. As a result, the other two tasks, multiplying and cultivating, are detrimentally affected by sin. Women will now have pain in childbearing, and they will also be at odds with their husbands (making conception, much less childbirth, rather difficult; Gen 3:16). Adam, on the other hand, is told that he, along with his descendants, will only be able to draw thorns and thistles from the ground (Gen 3:18), not the green plants that were abundant in the garden and given to them for food (Gen 1:30). The ground is also “cursed” because of their sin (Gen 3:17), death enters the world (Gen 3:19), and Adam and Eve are removed from God’s presence (Gen 3:24).
In other words, Adam and Eve’s sin – rebellion against God’s word and failure to complete their God-given task of ruling over God’s place – affects creation itself (“cursed is the ground because of you”), human beings’ relation to the rest of the creation (“thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you”), human beings’ relation to each other (“your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you”), human beings’ ability to fulfill their tasks of multiplying and cultivating, and, ultimately, their relation to God (death enters, they are cast out of the garden). Sin affects everything. But God does not leave Adam and Eve without hope. He comes to them and finds them despite their desire to hide from him, he clothes them in animal skins before casting them out, perhaps hinting at sacrifice, he prevents them from living forever in their sin by exiling them from the place where they could eat the tree of life, and, most importantly, he promises to send the “seed of woman” to crush the serpent’s head and thereby defeat the source of sin and restore what all that Adam and Eve lost in the Fall.
God’s promise to restore what Adam and Eve lost through the seed of woman drives the rest of the biblical story. The Old Testament is a “search for the seed,” primarily through the family of Abraham. God’s promises to Abraham (Gen 12, 15, 17) are promises to reverse the curse of Adam and restore what was lost in the Fall. He promises Abraham a place to dwell with him, a place which he is to rule over through the kings that will come from his line, a place that is good and to be cultivated (“flowing with milk and honey” in later descriptions). He also promises Abraham that his descendants will number more than the stars in the heavens and the sands on the seashore, and he gives Abraham a law to obey. God’s covenant with Abraham is thus intended to restore God’s creation and reverse the effects of sin, “far as the curse is found.” God’s plan of redemption, both when he gives the protoevangelion in Genesis 3 and when he makes his covenant with Abraham.
The rest of the story of the OT traces both the faith and the failure of Abraham’s family, God’s people, Israel. There is a faithful remnant of God’s people throughout the OT that trusts that God will keep his promises. Israel’s exodus from Egypt, their entrance into the promised land of Canaan, their coronation of king David, their Solomonic Temple, and a host of other events, people, and places, are seen as fulfillments of God’s promises. But these turn out to be merely shadows, because even though Israel is fruitful and multiplies, cultivates and keeps the land (and the center of the land, the Temple), and rules through first their judges and then their kings, they do not ever fulfill the fourth task God gave Adam and Eve: obedience to God’s Word. Like Adam and Eve, they therefore do not rule well, permitting God’s enemies to continue to dwell in the land. They do not cultivate well, bringing strange fire into the tabernacle and worshiping with idols. They do not multiply well, disobeying God’s instructions regarding intermarriage with the idol-worshipers in the land. Ultimately, like Adam and Eve, this results in their exile from the land. At the end of the OT, Israel is still in exile, they are still waiting for the seed of woman to crush the serpent’s head, and they are still waiting for a new Adam to reverse the curse and restore what was lost in the Fall. They are still waiting for a new creation, a new heavens and new earth (e.g. the new creation imagery in Isaiah 11, 65; and Hosea 14:5–8, among other passages).
Jesus, God the Son incarnate, inaugurates this long-awaited kingdom in his first coming. What Adam and Israel could not do, God does himself in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus obeys where Adam and Israel failed, and he gives his people a new law along with, finally, the power to obey – the gift of his Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus rules over his place and defeats his enemies, namely through his death and resurrection. Jesus is fruitful and multiplies and fills the earth through sending his people out into the world by the power of his Holy Spirit. Jesus cares for his place, both through his resurrection and also, importantly and proleptically, through his miracles. This last point is especially pertinent for understanding the new heavens and new earth, as Jesus in his first coming gives us signs of what his eternal kingdom, the new creation, will look like. It looks like a place where creation is restored, bodies are healed, and, most importantly, the dead are raised.
What Jesus inaugurates at his first coming he consummates at his return. Now not only he is raised from the dead, but he raises all the dead at the final judgment and brings those who have trusted in him with him to dwell with him in the new heavens and new earth. God’s people dwell with God in God’s place, finally and eternally, through the finished work of Jesus. They rule with Jesus over the land he has purchased for them, namely the entirety of the new creation. He has been fruitful and multiplied them to the point that they fill the entire new heavens and new earth (see the description of the New Jerusalem in Rev 21:9ff.). And they care for this restored with Jesus, the place he has renewed through removing all the effects of sin (Rev 21:4) and which now bears good fruit and brings forth living water for eternity (Rev 21:1–6). The new heavens and new earth is thus the culmination of the story of God’s saving work that began in Gen 3:15, was foreshadowed in the life of Israel, and was inaugurated and completed in Christ’s first coming.
The new heavens and new earth is dogmatically located under the doctrine of eschatology. Systematic issues related to the new heavens and new earth are eternal judgment, the relation of the old creation to the new creation, and the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. With respect to judgment, the new heavens and new earth is the eternal dwelling place of those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev 20:11–15), who are also referred to as the Bride and the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:1–2). But the description of the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:1–22:6), as well as the final judgment scene of Rev 20:7–15, also includes references to the eternal dwelling place of those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, a place called the lake of fire (Rev 21:8). Dogmatically speaking, the topic of the new heavens and new earth is, then, related to Christ’s final acts of judgment and salvation and thus to both Christology and soteriology.
Another dogmatic issue related to judgment is how the lake of fire and the new heavens and new earth relate to one another. Are they invisible to one another or not? Are they a certain distance apart? In other words, how do the creaturely realities of space, place, and materiality come to bear on the relationship between the new heavens and new earth and the lake of fire, as well as on their inhabitants?
Finally, regarding the new creation and final judgment, there is the issue of the beatific vision. What is the final state of believers like? Is the focal point an enjoyment of the material to the glory of God, something akin to N. T. Wright’s description on the eschaton, or is it a transcendent vision of God for eternity that has historically been called the beatific vision? These are not mutually exclusive options, despite attempts to pit them against one another. The Bible describes the new creation as both physical (material, corporeal, concrete) and spiritual (experiencing the presence of God, spiritual).
The second set of dogmatic issues connected to the new heavens and new earth concerns the relation of creation and the eschaton. In the doctrine of eschatology, this is a question of 1) whether or not the new creation is a renewal of the old creation or a brand-new creation that follows on the complete destruction of the old creation, and 2) how the new creation relates to Christ’s work, and particularly to his resurrection. While some in recent years have argued for what amounts to a complete destruction of the current creation (e.g. John MacArthur in his commentary on 2Pet 3), the historic Christian position is that the new creation is a renewal of the old creation, in which Christ’s work and particularly his death and resurrection remove the effects and source of sin and thereby bring restoration not only to human beings but to all that God has made This accords with the biblical data, including an affirmation of creation’s goodness (Gen 1:3, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) and God’s care for it, the scope of redemption encompassing all that was affected by the fall, the prophetic hope that it is the current created order that will be restored in the new creation (e.g. Isa 65:17ff.), the continuity our resurrected bodies will have with our current fallen bodies (1Cor 15), and creation’s own longing for restoration and liberation from the curse of sin (cf. e.g. Rom 8:22–23). Regarding Christ’s work, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the firstfruits of the new creation that points forward to the resurrection of believers to eternal life and also to the renewal of God’s creation.
Finally, the topic of the new heavens and new earth is associated with the relation between the old and new covenants, both with respect to when the promises of Israel are fulfilled and to whether or not the new creation renews the old creation or completely replaces it. Both of these issues essentially come down to whether one affirms a more dispensational or a more covenantal understanding of how the old and new covenants relate.
I do not necessarily advocate for or agree with everything said in every resource listed below. Nevertheless, this list will give the reader starting points for further reading on this doctrine.
- “Revelation 21–22: A New Heaven and a New Earth.” The Bible Project.
- Dennis Johnson. “The New Heavens and New Earth.”
- John Piper, “The Triumph of the Gospel in the New Heavens and the New Earth.” Desiring God.
- Sam Storms. “The New Heaven and New Earth: Revelation 21:1–8.” Enjoying God.
- Allen, Michael. Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018.
- Alcorn, Randy. Heaven. Wheaton: Tyndale, 2004.
- Alexander, T. D. From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2009.
- Beale, G. K. The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. NSBT 17. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004.
- Boersma, Hans. Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.
- Gentry, Peter J. and Stephen J. Wellum. Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd Wheaton: Crossway, 2018.
- Emerson, Matthew Y. Christ and the New Creation: A Canonical Approach to the Theology of the New Testament. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013.
- Emerson, Matthew Y. “Does God Own a Death Star? The Destruction of the Cosmos in 2 Peter 3:1–13.” SWJT 2 (2015): 281–93.
- Middleton, Richard. A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014.
- Williams, Michael D. Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2005.
- Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, 2008.