This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
The New Heavens and New Earth
In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Ian Smith, author of Not Home Yet: How the Renewal of Earth Fits into God’s Plan for the World, discusses what the new heavens and New Earth will be like when Jesus returns. He considers the popularity of heaven tourism books and what they tell us about common cultural assumptions, what the Bible says about our resurrected bodies, and what we’ll actually be doing in the new earth for all eternity.
Topics Addressed in This Interview
- Popular Notions of Heaven
- Biggest Misconceptions about Life after Death
- A Lost Emphasis on New Creation
- Do We Neglect the Resurrection?
- God’s Plan Is Bigger than Individual Salvation
- Is Heaven an Eternal Worship Service?
- The New Earth Versus the Earth We Inhabit Today
- Do We Go Up or Does God Come Down?
Popular Notions of Heaven
A few years back there was this wave of “heaven tourism” books. They were books about people saying they’d been to heaven and had come back and were writing about their experiences in heaven—what they saw, the people they talked to. There was Heaven Is for Real—which I actually think they made into a movie—and 90 Minutes in Heaven, Proof of Heaven, To Heaven and Back. They were a huge success. What do you think the broad popularity of books like that—beyond the walls of the church in America—what does that tell us about the way we often think about heaven and the afterlife?
Well, we as humans all share the same condition of our mortality. And so something that will be of interest to everybody is what happens beyond death. In Australia that’s so very much a taboo subject because once we go into those sort of areas we start to go into religious differences. But deep-seated in most people is a desire to know what there is beyond death. But people who have experiences of going to heaven, and near death experiences, and being revived on operating tables, we as evangelical Christians would not say that experience is our ultimate authority. And those sorts of experiences can be very subjective. So I think those sorts of experiences say two things for us: they show us a hunger, but also show that we need to remember that there is a level of authority in biblical revelation and we need to be careful about how we understand these things. In the Scriptures themselves there are people who have visions of heaven so we need to be careful there, but ultimately our authority is what the Bible says to us.
Biggest Misconceptions about Life after Death
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that Bible-believing Christians can have about life after death, about our final destination, or our final home—as you talk about in your book—after we die?
I think the misconceptions are heard very commonly at funerals. You see them on social media when people are remembering anniversaries of loved ones death, and that is that we think that Jesus comes and restores everything for every person every time a person dies. And so you’ll see people posting things like, "I now know that my loved one has a body that is free from pain and is living in an ultimate state." We as Christians do believe that at the point of death the Christian does go to heaven and they are absent from the body and are present with the Lord. And we do believe at the point of death there is the real presence with Christ, and I talk about that in the book. But there is something that is even beyond that. The Bible talks about new heavens and new earth. It talks about the second coming of Jesus and when Jesus comes again. That is the time that we will receive our resurrection bodies. That is the time that we will be made new. That is the time when we will finally be at home. So there kind of is this home that we have at the moment when we are present in the body and away from the Lord. And then one day we will be absent from the body and at home with the Lord in heaven. But there is the ultimate home and that is a restored body, a restored earth, and all God’s good creation being renewed and restored. And I think it’s that final stage that isn’t emphasized very much in churches today. We do see this sort of teaching in the teaching of the Puritans and other Reformed people who’ve come before us, but we’ve kind of lost it in the last hundred years and I think we need to regain it.
A Lost Emphasis on New Creation
Why do you think it is that we have lost that emphasis on our final home in the new heavens and the new earth?
I think it’s because it’s so much bigger than us. We see so much of our salvation in individual categories—that my sin will be forgiven, and that I will be home—and it’s very individualistic in how we understand things. The Bible does speak to us as individuals, but we don’t actually stop to ask the question, If I have a new resurrection body, where is that body going to live? How is that body going to be sustained? We often value spiritual things so highly, even in our current life, and we kind of take for granted the fact that we have food to eat, and clothes to wear, and all those other things around us. But the Bible speaks much more holistically than that. And I think a couple of hundred years ago people were much more understanding of the fact that they were part of communities. But as we’ve become more individualistic we’ve become more about my salvation, my home, my, my, my. And that’s ended up where we are today.
The Value of the Spiritual and Physical
It does seem like one of the hard things about reading Scripture, the New Testament especially, we do see a lot of dichotomies between the spirit and the flesh and it seems like the spiritual and the earthly. And I think sometimes that can lead us to, as you say, sort of overemphasize the spiritual things about us and spiritual endeavors that we might undertake here because we read that this earth is passing away. How should we understand that kind of language in the Bible in light of what you’re saying about this renewed earth that will be our final home?
We need to recognize there is a spiritual problem—or a more holistic problem—and that is the problem of sin. So the issues of death, and of sickness, and all the despair that we feel in our current situation is caused by sin. So if we don’t address that which is foundational—which is the problem of sin—none of the other things will fit into place. But once we have addressed that, then we can actually become redemptive in many different ways. We can become redemptive by proclaiming the gospel—that is always something to be proclaimed. The gospel is always heralded—it is always calling people to repentance.
But we can also live in such a way that we anticipate the values of the coming kingdom. The coming kingdom will be a place of justice. And so if you’re a police officer, that will impact the way you work. It’s a place of healing. It’s a place of renewed righteousness. And this impacts the way we do our jobs, the way we have our friendships, the way we understand our marriages, the way we provide physical things for other people, the way we enjoy the good creation that God has given to us. He has made us bodies, and he’s given us relationships, and we are not just a spirit that is incarcerated in a body. We are much more holistic than that. That’s how we began and that’s how we will end. Therefore, those bookends of creation and re-creation really should define what happens in between. The gospel is always foundational. Sin is always the problem. The gospel always needs to be proclaimed—it’s foundational. But I wouldn’t say that the eye is more important than the ear. And I wouldn’t say that one person is more important just because they are gifted in a certain way. There are many different gifts within the body.
Do We Neglect the Resurrection?
And related to the gospel, you mention in your book that probably about 90% of the people that you interview—when you’re interviewing someone for some kind of Christian ministry position of some sort—they don’t mention Christ’s resurrection when they summarize the gospel. What do you make of that and how does that relate to how we often think about life after death?
The really good thing about the 90% of people who give a summary of the gospel in those sort of interviews is they always mention the cross, and that’s great. And that’s because they see the problem as the problem of sin and the problem of guilt. But normally in those interviews after they finish with their gospel presentation I will ask them, Have you left something out? And fortunately many of them then go to the resurrection. When I ask them, Is the resurrection important?—they all say it is important. But why did they leave it out? When they give a definition of why the resurrection is important they normally say something that spins back to the cross. They normally say, Well the resurrection shows that Jesus’s sacrifice was accepted by God. That’s a good and proper answer. But the resurrection is so much more than that. The resurrection is basically the first fruits of the new creation. And in the resurrection we see not only is the new Israel restored in the ministry of Jesus, but also all the promises to Israel have now been fulfilled. Now those promises to Abraham, which was that the blessings will go to the nations, extend not only to the people of the nations, but the whole of creation is groaning, awaiting its restoration (Romans 8). Jesus had a bodily resurrection and was raised to earth and stayed on earth for forty days before the ascension. People often conflate the resurrection and the ascension, but the resurrection is something that is very earthly. It is Jesus coming to us on earth and we see in that the first fruits of a renewed creation.
Why do they leave it out? I think it goes back to an individualistic understanding of My sins are forgiven. I’ll be with Jesus. I’ll be okay. And not really understanding that a resurrection body needs a resurrected world. Our current bodies will not survive without a current world. And when God originally created us, the creation of humanity was the sixth and final day of creation. It kind of completed the whole thing. But it’s a package. The fact that we needed the sea, and the land, and the birds, and all the other parts of creation is part of that. We don’t have a big enough vision of what God is about to do. We understand that God will raise us, but we forget that God is going to raise the heavens and the earth. He’s going to raise the universe and Jesus’s resurrection is the first fruit of that. So when people give their answer, it’s not so much that they’re wrong in what they say. It’s just that their gospel is not big enough. What God is about to do is just so much bigger. And what I’m hoping is that some of the grandeur of God’s plan in Scripture will be seen, and we will just be amazed at our future hope, and that is what will motivate us in our current endeavors.
God’s Plan Is Bigger than Individual Salvation
As I am talking to you right now, looking through your book, thinking about this reality that all of creation is going to be restored, that God has a plan for the universe that does go beyond just simply restoring humanity to our original state or even to have a better glorified state, there is a sense in which that is a little bit humbling to us. It removes the spotlight exclusively from humanity. Do you think that’s the case? Should we be feeling that?
Absolutely. There’s a little bit of fear in some evangelical Christian communities that if we talk about areas of social justice, or if we talk about areas of enacting justice today, or healing, or such things that we’ll soon end up with a social gospel. And the problem with a social gospel is it is ultimately all about us and we are trying to make the world a better place because God has left us to do that. That’s not what the book is saying at all. God will do it. And it all depends on who Jesus is. He is the king. He has come to establish the kingdom. He is being crowned as the king through the cross and resurrection, but there will be final consummation of that at the second coming. But in recognizing that it’s not about us, we then recognize that we actually become servants of the king and we live in the light of the king’s victory. And so there’s a now-not yet tension in all of that. And it should drive us to live lives for Jesus in ways that are multifaceted. Yes, proclaim the gospel. Yes, be a good husband. Yes, be righteous, and just, and merciful, and compassionate as Jesus is in all the areas of our life. But it’s not because we’re going to bring it about. It’s not about us. We are ultimately servants of the king and he will do it.
Is Heaven an Eternal Worship Service?
One of the main ways that we often think about heaven, at least kind of traditionally when we’re growing up, is that we have this picture of it being a place where we all sit around on fluffy clouds. And if you were asked, What are you going to do up in heaven for all eternity?, we have some picture of worshipping God, praising God, similar to the angels perhaps in the book of Revelation where we see that picture of them surrounding the throne praising him. It almost feels like it will be this eternal church service. Practically speaking, what will it be like? What will we be doing for all eternity in the new earth?
Hopefully not just floating around on clouds! I think that would be incredibly dull. God created us in his image and to be creative. We all express work, leisure, and pleasure in different ways. But we’ve got to remember that work predates the fall and pleasure predates the fall. God takes pleasure in creation. So I think there is a continuity and a discontinuity between this world and the next. What that’s going to look like, I’ve got lots of questions and I’m looking forward to finding out! But I wouldn’t be surprised if we read Scripture in the new creation—I kind of hope we will. And of course Scripture was written after the fall. I kind of hope that we will still be singing and that if we do have that long church service, I hope that we will sing some of the hymns of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts and some of the greats. And there will be some sort of connectivity between the two worlds. But one of the tragedies of death in our current world is that there are so many unfinished symphonies. There are so many unfinished tasks.
Will we have the opportunity to finish those things off? Will we still be working? I think we’ll be working, but without frustration. Will we be enjoying the arts, or gardening, or whatever it happens to be? I don’t know. But I do know that gardening was enjoyed before the fall in Eden. It really comes down to how we understand worship. The high point of worship is what happens at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning. But worship doesn’t finish on Monday morning. And that Sunday to Monday divide is one of the things that the book tries to correct. Our work, and our leisure, and our relationships are all part of worship. So if we understand that we’re going to be worshipping God for all of eternity, if we have a more robust understanding of worship, then I guess that’s what we’re doing because that’s what we will be engaged in without the effects of sin. But I don’t think it’s going to be one long church service. All that we do will be to the glory of God and that’s kind of exciting. I’m looking forward to that.
The New Earth Versus the Earth We Inhabit Today
So when it comes to the physical world then—the world of mountains, oceans, and rivers, and trees—do we have a sense from Scripture how much of that will be the same? Or is it going to be some kind of wiping the slate clean and starting over again with a physical world, but the world that we know today will be completely transcended?
I think there definitely will be continuity from this world to the next. The Bible gives two metaphors: the flood in Noah’s day and then the final destruction that will happen at the time of the return of Christ. And I think we need to read the two events in the light of the other. At the time of Noah the world was totally destroyed. But the world was not annihilated, and the very same world was renewed. And I think Luke’s gospel and Peter’s epistles pick up those sort of images of Noah’s day. And then particularly in 2 Peter 3, when he refers to what it will be like in the new heavens and earth, I think this demonstrates that there’s going to be continuity between the two. Often when I’m speaking about this I actually encourage people to look out the window—which is a rare thing for a preacher to do—and if it’s a nice setting where we are I actually encourage people to look at the different hues of color that they can see. This world is a stunningly beautiful place. I know it’s not perfect and that’s because of sin.
But if we took sin out of the incredible beauty of this world, if we remove sin from the equation, we actually end up with a world where we have to admit that God did not give his second best when he made this world. He really did something absolutely astounding. And so if God didn’t hold back in the creation of this world, if God is going to restore it and recreate it, then yes, it’s going to be even better—he’s going to redeem the things that have marred this world. But there is going to be some sort of continuity. Do we know details like will the mountains be that tall? We do not know and we will need to wait and see. But Paul talks about the resurrection in terms of a seed and a plant in 1 Corinthians 15. A seed has exactly the same DNA as the plant which follows and I think we should emphasize more the continuity redeemed than the discontinuity between the two. But it’s a mixture of the two.
Do We Go Up or Does God Come Down?
In your book you have this quote that I would love you to unpack: "The Bible is more concerned with God coming down to earth than with humans going up to heaven." Can you explain that a little bit more and how that intersects with what we’ve been talking about?
There are some points in the Bible where humans go up to heaven, and Paul talks about heavenly visions, and Isaiah has a vision of heaven. So there is some of that. But if you think about the main events of the Bible, it’s God coming to us. God comes in Eden and he walks with Adam in the garden. It’s God creating a world and God coming to us. And when the fall happens and Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden, again God comes and seeks his creation through his image bearers. He comes and seeks his people. And so we see whether it’s in the tabernacle—which is a place where God creates a house on earth and God dwells in that temporary house, which then becomes more permanent in the temple—or whether it’s in the fact that there is a new Eden—which is the land of Israel—and God chooses from all the nations of the earth. He comes down and blesses the family of Abraham, not because they’re any more worthy, but he comes to us. He comes to us.
The ultimate coming of God to us is in the incarnation. God comes to us in Jesus, the second person of the Trinity. And when the temple—God’s dwelling with us—is fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus, as Jesus becomes the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate high priest, when Jesus fulfills all that the temple stood for upon the cross, and even that the temple curtain is ripped in two, we see again God coming to us. And then, as I’ve already said, in the resurrection. In the resurrection we often think about Jesus going to heaven, but that’s not what the resurrection is about. The resurrection is about Jesus coming to us on Earth for forty days and we see the first fruits of the resurrection. We witness that and we’ve got records of that in Scripture. And then Jesus does ascend to heaven, but the final end that it’s all pointing toward is a new Jerusalem. And the new Jerusalem is of such an enormous size. If you read in Revelation 21 it’s not going to fit in one city in the Middle East. It’s enormous and it is actually going to be the restoration of God’s rule upon the earth. And it’s not at the end that we go to heaven. That’s not the end of the story. The end of the story is that the New Jerusalem comes to earth and God comes to dwell with his people.
And we, as evangelical Christians, would all affirm the fact that we believe in the second coming of Jesus. But the question I often ask people when we get to this point about talking about the return of Jesus is a question I’ve noticed that people haven’t often thought about: When Jesus returns, is he coming for a visit to pick us up? Or is he coming to stay? And there’s often a silence at that point. And I believe that if we understand that the rupture that has occurred between heaven and earth at the fall is going to be restored because of the work of Jesus on the cross and resurrection and therefore we’re not just going to talk about a new earth or a new heavens, but we’re talking about new heavens and new earth. They’re sort of combining the whole thing together. And so God again will come and will dwell with his people and his people at that point are not just the people of Israel. It’s a whole new creation that has been fulfilled because of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel in the person of Jesus. And so it’s a story again and again and again of God coming to us, which makes perfect sense because really there is no ability in us to attain to God should God not have come to us. So he comes to us in forgiveness and restoration. And it’s just the story of the Scripture again and again.
That’s such a wonderful, exciting picture of true hope that we have as Christians that we are longing for. I appreciate you spending some time today sharing a little bit more about what Scripture actually teaches on this subject and helping us, as Christians, to perhaps recalibrate our thinking on life after death and on our future home from where perhaps it was before. I really appreciate you taking the time today.
Thanks, Matt. It’s been great to talk to you. Thank you.
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