The Bible and the End-time (5): A new heaven and a new earth
The last posting looked at what the Bible has to say about the resurrection of believers. It speaks of an unimaginable transformation, but one wholly within Christ’s power as the one who has authority over the whole of creation (Phil. 3:21). Yet beyond it there lies another transformation, even more mind-blowing: the transformation of the universe itself.
Wild apocalyptic imagination?
The most remarkable biblical statement on this topic occurs in 2 Peter 3:10, where the Apostle writes, ‘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’ (or alternatively, ‘burned up’).
At first glance, this looks like an utterance of wild apocalyptic imagination, and that was certainly how Peter’s contemporaries saw it. Everything, they said, was going on just as it had been since the beginning of creation, and there was no sign whatever of the world coming to an end (2 Pet. 3:4).
But Peter’s words, already authoritative in themselves, now have the full backing of modern physics, which firmly believes that as the universe had a beginning, so it will have an end. The Sun is a dying planet, and once it dies our solar system will die with it; and the Sun is not our only problem. Jupiter, a thousand times larger than the Sun, is shrinking (thus reducing its gravitational pull, so vital to the stability of our solar system), and as it shrinks it is getting ever warmer.
More basically still, according to the physicists, the universe presents a picture of a conflict between the energy generated by the Big Bang, always driving heavenly bodies apart; and gravity, always pulling them together. This leaves us, in scientific terms, with two possible end-time scenarios. If the forces generated by the Big Bang exhaust themselves, the universe will end with a whimper; if gravity wins, then, in the words of John Polkinghorne, ‘What began with the big bang will end in the big crunch, as the whole universe collapses back into a singular cosmic melting pot.’ (Science and Christian Belief: Theological Reflections of a bottom-up thinker, p. 162).
This is a bleak prognosis, modified (as far as science goes) only by the assurance that none of this will happen for another 10 billion years. Even so, this is clearly grist to the mill of Pessimism. If the universe is to end either in a whisper or in a melting-pot, it is hard to see how it, or anything in it, can have any final meaning.
Yet, as Polkinghorne points out, the problem presented by the mortality of the universe is no more serious in principle than the problem of human mortality. On the face of things we, too, will end with a whisper and return to the cosmic melting-pot: ‘dust you are and to dust you will return.’ (Gen. 3:19) The Christian doctrine of the resurrection gives the lie to such reductionism. God has already given us hope by raising Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet. 1:3); and while our DNA may have been destroyed when the last of our cells perished, God (as Polkinghorne suggests) is perfectly capable of remembering the DNA of every person who has ever lived, and of using that information to relocate it an a new environment of his own choosing.
Capable, in other words, of creating a new universe, and this is exactly what he has promised: ‘according to his promise we are looking for a new heaven and a new earth’ (2 Pet. 3:13). One of the fascinating details here is that the New Testament describes the change as a ‘regeneration’ (palingennesia, Mt. 19:28). This is the very same word as is used elsewhere to describe the saving change wrought in the believer by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5, though this is slightly obscured by the NIV, which translates palingennesia by ‘renewal’), and this immediately suggests that just as there is continuity between the pre-regenerate person (‘the old man’) and the regenerate person (‘the new man) so there is continuity between the old universe and the new. The new is the old in a new state.
This also underlines the fact that God has one total eschatological purpose: a regenerated soul in a regenerated (resurrected) body in a regenerated universe. If any of these elements were missing, salvation would be incomplete. The renewed soul needs a new body, and it also needs a new environment. In the here and now, we enjoy the provisional eschatology of the Last Days. Beyond the Parousia we shall have total, all-embracing, final eschatology.
The classic biblical passage on the new universe is Revelation 21:1-22:5. What is emphasised from the beginning of the passage is that this new world, the City of God, comes down out of heaven from God (21:2). It will not be a human achievement, or the result of cosmic evolution or the fall-out from unguided physical forces. It will come down from the God who says, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’ (Rev. 21:5); and, of course, he doesn’t need to wait till the dire predictions of the physicists are fulfilled and the universe dies of either exhaustion or implosion. God can do it at any moment: New Jerusalem could come down out of heaven tomorrow. Equally, it could be deferred for millions, or even billions, of years. God already has the energy he needs to wind up this present world, just as he had the energy to create it; but he will put that energy forth at a time of his own choosing.
The description of New Jerusalem in the last two chapters of Revelation is not intended to give us a Quantity Surveyor’s account of the materials and architecture of the City. Instead, in order to make meaningful contact with our minds, it uses concepts and with which we are already familiar, but as we reflect on them we have to remind ourselves that the reality of the new universe will far transcend any idea we can form of it till we actually see it. For the present, Revelation can do no more than convey an impression of the scale and magnificence of the Holy City.
It takes an angel to measure it
In terms of scale, New Jerusalem is so enormous that only an angel can measure it, using a rod of gold (Rev. 21:15); and the measurements, when announced, are mind-blowing. The City is 12,000 stadia in length, breadth and height: in other words, 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometres) in each dimension. Such proportions dwarf even today’s mega-cities. In John’s day such a metropolis was inconceivable, but then, a city designed to accommodate a multitude which no one can count (Rev. 7:9) had to be really ‘mega!’
But it wasn’t simply a matter of size and scale. It was a matter of golden, be-jewelled splendour. Perhaps the most mind-gripping instance of this is the twelve gates: each one consisted of but one single pearl. Today, if we have pearls at all, we measure them in millimetres; here we have pearls the size of gates fitted into walls 65 metres thick. No wonder eye has not seen nor ear heard (1 Cor. 2:9) What John saw was a dazzling visual spectacular more awe-inspiring than even those great Old Testament symbols of divine greatness, the burning bush (Ex. 3:2) and the wonders of Sinai (Exod. 19:16-25). It is possible to produce a model of the Tabernacle and even of the Temple. It is impossible to build a model of New Jerusalem.
More fascinating still is the fact that the City was a perfect cube, ‘as wide and high as it is long.’ (Rev. 21:16) In this respect, as has often been noted, New Jerusalem corresponds exactly to the Holy of Holies, and this is linked to another of John’s observations, ‘I did not see a temple in the city’ (Rev. 21:22). What he means is that he saw no space specifically marked-off as a temple, and the reason is clear: New Jerusalem will be one vast temple, one vast tent of meeting, one glorious shekinah. There will be no need to ‘go up’ to the house of God (Ps. 122:1), because the glory of God is all-present and ever-present. Wherever we are, we see his face (Rev. 22:4); and wherever we are, we are before the Throne (Rev. 7:15).
We should pause over this. The Throne is the focal-point, the citadel, and all the perspectives of heaven draw our eyes in towards it. But then, in the centre of the Throne, in the centre of the centre-piece, the very centre of the focal-point, is the Lamb. He is never out of sight. Yet when you see him, you cannot help noticing that he was once slaughtered as a sacrificial victim (Rev. 5:6), which means that, just as he himself is never out of sight, so his cross is never out of mind. Every resident in New Jerusalem knows that they owe absolutely everything to Calvary. This is why the song they sing is above all else a song of thanksgiving for the sacrificial love of the Lamb: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals; for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God’ (Rev. 5:9).
A river flows through it
But then, for all its unique magnificence, the New Jerusalem of John’s vision has all the usual features of an ancient city: a wall (‘great and high’), gates, foundations and streets; and it had a river, the River of the Water of Life. Here there is a marked contrast between New Jerusalem and Old Jerusalem. The Old had no reliable water-supply; in the New, the supply is inexhaustible, and the vision would have had a special poignancy for John, suffering under the burning sun of Patmos, surrounded only by the undrinkable water of the sea.
On the basis of John 7:37-39 some have taken the River to mean the Holy Spirit, but in that passage the rivers (plural) flow out of believers into the wider world. Here, in Revelation 22, the one river flows out of the throne of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 22:1) and represents the eternal life which courses endlessly and inexhaustibly through the Holy City.
And like many an urban river, each bank is lined with trees, but in this case they are all of one species, the Tree of Life, and it is always in fruit. This takes us back to Paradise, and to the Tree of Life which stood in the middle of the garden. It was precisely from this tree that we were banished after the Fall (Gen. 3:22-3). Now, in New Jerusalem, access to the Tree is restored, but whereas in Eden there was only one, now there are whole avenues of them, stretching as far as the river itself. Everything in New Jerusalem speaks of the lavishness of grace: ‘I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.’ (Jn. 10:10).
But what is particularly stressed is the source of the River. It flows out of the ‘throne of God and of the Lamb’ (Rev. 22:1): a reminder that it is in the sovereign love of God that eternal life has its source; and a reminder, too, that in that sovereignty the Lamb fully shares. The River of Life flows from the heart of God’s very being, but to see the full glory of this we have to go back to the vision of the Lamb-as-Shepherd in Revelation 7:17. Even in heaven we will still need the pastoral care that only the Lamb can provide. But then, notice too the pastures to which he leads us: not only to the banks of the river, or even to its gently flowing stream, but to its head-waters (pēgas) in the throne of God (Rev. 7:17). He lives in the centre of the Throne; he is the centre of the Throne; and he will feed us there. It is hard to imagine a more intimate description of closeness to God. We shall feast eternally on the love that lies at the heart of deity.
Surely, however, such honour belongs only to a tiny minority of privileged human beings? No! says Scripture. As we have already seen, the redeemed are too numerous to count, which was exactly what God promised Abraham when he told him that his (spiritual) seed would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the sea-shore (Gen. 22:17).
But Revelation also spells out the rich social and ethnic mix which will one day live in New Jerusalem. They will come from every nation, tribe, people and language (Rev. 7:9), and this point is reinforced in the symbolism of Revelation Twenty-one, where the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are inscribed on the gates of the city (verse 12) and the names of the twelve apostles are inscribed on its foundations (verse 14): clear pointers to the fact that the glorified church will include both the saints of the Old Testament and the saints of the New.
And no less suggestive of the open borders of New Jerusalem is the fact that there are gates on all four sides, east, north, south, and west; and not only one on each side, but three. This keys-in with the missionary mandate to preach the gospel to all nations (Mt. 28:19), but it is not a matter of racial diversity alone. It refers to every sort of diversity: racial, social, intellectual, linguistic, cultural, economic, and psychological. Nobody is excluded on the basis of ‘the sort of person I am’. Scarcely less important, however, is that we all come into the Kingdom from different starting-points and by different routes. There must be no stereotyping of conversion-narratives. Each human heart has its own unique lock, and God alone has the key..
Yet alongside this emphasis on inclusion we find an equally clear warning of exclusion. There emphatically are spiritual border-controls and passport-checks around New Jerusalem: ‘the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practise magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.’ (Rev. 21:8)
Hell does not figure prominently in the Bible, perhaps because it is a book addressed in the first instance to God’s children, but the doctrine of endless punishment is there nevertheless, explicitly on the lips of Jesus, but no less plainly in such a passage as Revelation 22:15, which speaks of an ‘outside’ to which are banished ‘the idolaters and everyone who loves and practises falsehood.’ This parallels the Lord’s own references to ‘outer darkness’ (for example, in Matthew 25:30); and if we accept that the phrase, ‘the new heaven and the new earth’, points to a regenerated, ordered and beautiful universe, then hell is an ugly dark chaos beyond its boundaries; and, I fear, a dark chaos of the mind as well as of its environment.
Today, few, even among Christians, believe the doctrine of eternal punishment. John Polkinghorne is typical, describing it as ‘a source of moral scandal which helped to alienate many thoughtful and sensitive people from contemporary Christianity.’ (Science and Christian Belief, p. 172). It’s odd, isn’t it, how those who reject any Christian doctrine immediately come to be dubbed ‘thoughtful and sensitive people’, even though the rejection flies in the face of the New Testament’s own explanation of unbelief, namely, that the normal, Spirit-less human being is incapable of understanding spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14)?
Polkinghorne sees the doctrine of eternal punishment as a reflection of a sub-Christian notion which portrays God as an irrationally angry potentate, handing out punishments far beyond the ill-deserts of our harmless human foibles. The New Testament, by contrast, reveals it as the expression of divine justice. The dead are judged ‘according to what they had, done as recorded in the books’ (Rev. 20:12), and it is a tribute to our ineradicable human belief that sin deserves punishment that every society on earth has its own law-courts and its own system of justice. But if God cannot call men to account, what right do mere mortals have to lock them up in penitentiaries?
Sombre teaching, indeed, from the lips of the Lord and his apostles, but let’s remember, too, the words of our old Scottish Marrow Men: ‘Tell every man there is a Saviour provided for him.’
The next posting, God willing, will look at the question, What sort of work will we do in heaven?