What does the phrase “new heaven and new earth” mean?
In this excerpt from Living in God’s True Story: 2 Peter, author Donald L. Morcom offers an answer as he explores Peter’s final effort to make us consider what kind of people we ought to be and how we ought to live in light of the coming end.
Together with Isaiah (65:17; 66:22) and John in Revelation (21:1), Peter teaches that Christian believers look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13). But what exactly does this mean, and how does the transition from this obviously corrupted and decaying universe to a new heaven and a new earth happen?
Many interpreters of Scripture have taught that the language of 2 Peter 3 points toward the complete annihilation of the present physical universe: “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire” (3:7); “the heavens will disappear [or pass away] with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire” (3:10); “everything will be destroyed in this way” (3:11); “that day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat” (3:12).
But such a viewpoint is not as self-evident as it might seem. In a helpful article, Matthew Emerson summarizes the viewpoint, held by many Christian teachers down through the centuries, that 2 Peter 3 teaches not the annihilation of the created universe but its transformation.1
Just as the flood did not annihilate the earth but judged and purified it, so the final fire of judgment will destroy evil from the earth (3:5–7), bringing forth a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness dwells (3:13).
N. T. Wright explains,
Peter is not saying that the present world of space, time and matter is going to be burnt up and destroyed.… What will happen, as many early Christian teachers said, is that some sort of “fire,” literal or metaphorical, will come upon the whole earth, not to destroy, but to test everything out, and to purify it by burning up everything that doesn’t meet the test.2
It is not clear what precisely the elements are that will be destroyed. Wright suggests that they are the parts of creation that are needed for heat and light (sun, moon, and stars; see Isa 34:4); in the new creation they won’t be needed (see Rev 21:23–24).3
What is clear is that judgment is inevitable and that people should be prepared for it. Recall the function of the fire of judgment in 1 Corinthians 3:12–15—it destroys worthless works (represented by wood, hay, and straw) but authenticates what has been built with quality and care (gold, silver, and precious stones). So here, “the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” or exposed to the fires of judgment and seen for what it really is (2 Pet 3:10). The clear implication is to mind what we build on the foundation. We should not be investing ourselves in what the fire of judgment will consume.
Yet despite the evil and corruption that has befallen the created order due to human sinfulness, God continues to love and care for it, and the ultimate future of Christ-followers lies not in a disembodied state in heaven (at best a temporary abode for the righteous dead in the presence of God) but in a restored and transformed earth in which God makes his dwelling among the redeemed (Rev 21:1–5).
The notion of escape from an evil, material world into the good, spiritual realm where God lives owes more to ancient Greek philosophy and aberrations such as Gnosticism than it does to the message of the apostles and prophets. The thoroughly unbiblical disdain for creation that has dogged too much Christian thought has resulted in the wanton exploitation of the world, rather than a caring stewardship of it. If it’s all going to be destroyed anyway, many people think, why look after it?
Such a notion runs counter to Peter’s vision of a restored creation or, as Paul has it, the hope “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and be brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).
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This excerpt on the “new heaven and new earth” is adapted from Living in God’s True Story: 2 Peter, one of the newest volumes in the Transformative Word series (along with Transformed in Christ: 1 Corinthians and Walking in God’s Wisdom: Proverbs).
Matthew Y. Emerson, “Does God Own a Death Star? The Destruction of the Cosmos in 2 Peter 3:1–13,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 57 (Spring 2015): 281–93. Emerson shows that “Peter does not use the phrase ‘pass away’ to denote annihilation; Peter uses the fire imagery to speak of refinement, not annihilation; Peter uses the flood comparison [2 Pet 3:5–6] to speak of purification, not annihilation; and Peter writes within a canonical framework that includes a theology of God’s good creation and his promised redemption of it” (285). See also N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007); J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).
- N. T. Wright, The Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John, and Judah (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 119. See also the important article by Albert Wolters, “Worldview and Textual Criticism in 2 Peter 3:10,” Westminster Theological Journal 49 (1987): 405–13.
- Wright, Early Christian Letters, 119.