The New Earth in Isaiah

The New Earth appears in several passages in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments.  One of the weirdest, and hardest to reconcile with the rest of scripture, is found in Isaiah 65:17-25.  I will emphasize that this is my take on this difficult passage and I have more questions than answers.  Prophecy is often purposely unclear.  Some aspects are meant only to be understood when either hindsight or the Holy Spirit unlocks its true meaning.  For prophecies in Isaiah, the mode in which he received them could be a part of the issue.  Isaiah’s prophecies read like verbal descriptions of visions.  Visions that were presented almost like Powerpoint presentations.  What I mean is that one “slide” could be the present, the next Jesus’ first coming, the last Judgment Day; and there is no sense of elapsed time.  Hindsight shows you that there is elapsed time.

With respect to Isaiah 65, Isaiah may be interpreting the vision in terms he and his immediate readers would understand.  We need the rest of scripture to give us “hindsight” into how to understand some the things that he writes.

The section starts with great clarity as to what it is about:

Behold I will create new heavens and a new earth.

This passage is not about Heaven.  It is not about a “millennium”.  It is about a to be created new universe with a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.

This may make you a little sad.  I don’t think this means that we will forget about our relationships nor that the good God worked through us and for us will be forgotten.  Rather the pain and difficulty inherent in our present time will become a memory that fades away.

But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.  I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.

These words stand for themselves, but the next part is where it gets weird.

Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.

For people who probably had a life expectancy of 45 years, this might seem like quite an upgrade, but God has promised us “eternal” life.  Verses about eternal life have to inform our understanding here.  Will there be infants and old men?  Living and dying?  Being accursed?  Sin and the wages of sin, should be eliminated with the death of our bodies and the removal of Satan’s kingdom from the system.  No other passage in scripture would lend support to aging, dying, or being accursed.  For this reason, I would have to consider this a literary device, or an interpretation of what Isaiah sees, to make a point–things will be changed for the good.

No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat.  For as the days of a tree, so will the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands.  They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they are their descendants with them.  

Surely they understood that trees die.  But in comparison it must have seemed that certain species lived forever.  A question raised here is whether the reference to children and descendants are also a literary devices.  Maybe.  With resurrected bodies, it is possible that the new earth might include procreation.  A passage in Matthew tells us that “in the resurrection” which means “in the new earth”, that we will be like angels neither married or given in marriage.  Some take the leap to suggest that means we must be asexual in the new earth, but to be honest I don’t know what the angels are like.  If the new earth is a return to Eden in a way, I would have to assume that Adam and Eve were going to procreate with or without the fall into sin.  I think this topic remains a mystery for now.

Before they call I will answer, while they are speaking I will hear.

Like the Garden of Eden, God is there in visible form.  He will live with us.

The wolf and lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food.  They will not harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Some people want to read this metaphorically.  I think it is probably quite straight forward.  God’s plan is to redeem creation, not just people.  While there is no reference to nature in Heaven, there is a reference here.  Also like the Garden of Eden it is a death-free system without predators.  A place of beauty and of peace.  Could our pets be a part of this “nature”?  We will see.

 

The New Earth: A Return to Eden

Imagine a world in many ways similar to this one.  There are plants and animals, the full spectrum of God’s original creation.  We have bodies.  We eat, sleep, do pleasurable work, maybe even are sexual.  But this world has some profound differences.  First, we never die or get sick.  There is no war, crime, abuse or sin of any sort.  We don’t believe God exists by faith.  We see Him and speak with Him all the time.  Can you imagine this?  If so, where am I?

You might want to say the Garden of Eden, and that would be a close answer.  But this is a description of God’s ultimate, post-Judgment Day plans for us.  It is the New Earth.

I will say again, I am stunned as to how few Christians are familiar with even the idea of a new heaven and earth.  This includes clergy.  As you will see it is clearly declared in the Bible.  There is probably a more complete description of the New Earth than there is of Heaven.  People either haven’t read these passages or they have conflated the concept of Heaven with the New Earth. (If you haven’t read it, see: “Our Oversimplication of Life After Death“)

Let’s look at the passages about the New Earth, starting with the most basic 2 Peter 3.  Some of our questions will be answered, we can infer some things, but be prepared to have more questions than answers.

Starting with 2 Peter 3:10:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.  The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?  You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.  That day will bring about 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 new earth, the home of righteousness.

This passage foretells the complete annihilation of not only the planet but the whole of the universe.  All gone, down to the atomic level.  But this is not the end of all things.  In fact, it is something of which to look forward.  Why?  The creation as it now stands is messed up.  Its “order” has been disordered by Satan, by us and intentionally by God; and to get it back to the way God wants it, it must be destroyed and rebuilt.

In this passage we have very little detail of what the “new heaven and new earth” will be like, except that it is the “home of righteousness”.  We can infer some details from these words.  There will be no Satan, no sinfulness, no rebellion against God.  There will be no separation of God from His creation.  It will be somewhat like the Garden of Eden minus the way to mess it up.  We may maintain a knowledge of what evil was, but we will never go there again.

This was the understanding of life after death even in the Old Testament.  Next entry I will go to perhaps the most confounding passage on this topic or any in the Bible–Isaiah 65.

Our Oversimplification of Life After Death

Most people, if they believe in life after death at all, would subscribe to a basic Heaven for all or a Heaven and Hell model.  They would also believe the Bible supports these models.  It seems too few understand that the resurrection of the body leads not to Heaven but to a New Earth.  Why is this so?  I have even found pastors not clear about this.

The teaching that post-Judgment Day the saved will inhabit a New Earth is well attested in the Bible.  You can find it in Isaiah 65, 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21 and 22.  This blog will eventually get around to each of these.  For now, I just want to ponder why were we taught that we will go to Heaven forever.

I starts way back with the first century church.  The Greek idea of the afterlife was a strongly “spirit only” model.  The body was seen as corrupt and worthless and had no part in life after death.  The Jewish understanding was different.  It was focused on the resurrection of the body.  Old ideas can die hard, and for quite a while the Church had to fight a Greek heresy called Gnosticism.  While repudiated, Gnosticism subtly had its influence just as the Greek worldview affected the thinking of Western culture.  Those influences and the scarcity of Bibles to read and for that matter the ability to read gave the common Christian the idea that Heaven was the end goal.  Even the presence of “the resurrection of the body” in the creeds didn’t dissuade people.  They just assumed that the resurrected body was made for Heaven.

Plenty of the Church fathers understood about the New Earth.  In fact, that is what is dominately talked about with respect to the afterlife.  Some question whether the hope of Heaven is biblical.  Heaven does show up in the Bible, however.  It is not part of Old Testament teaching as a destination for people most likely because God didn’t reveal it as a possibility until after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The teaching of our having a place in Heaven is found in Luke 18:22, 2 Corinthians 5:1, Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 5:4 and Revelation 6:9-10, 7:9-17.  In fact the 2 Corinthians passage speaks of “an eternal home in Heaven” which might have led some to conflate Heaven and the New Earth.

The conflation of the doctrines of Heaven and the New heavens and Earth seems to be a particularly big problem during the period of the Enlightenment.  I am not sure why.  That period also gives us a number of our hymns about Heaven.  Try to find a hymn verse about the New Earth in Lutheran Service Book.  There are only a few verses, typically something like verse 8 and 9 which you never sing, about the resurrection of our bodies.  This adds to the ignorance of the Bible’s promise of a New Earth.