A major part of the hope that we have as Christians—a hope that gives us motivation to live faithfully—is that we trust that God will raise us from the dead and that we will live with Him for eternity.
This should give us peace, confidence, purpose, and boldness.
But there are different ways of viewing what this eternity with God, this paradise, will look like. In fact, an entire branch of Christian theology called eschatology is devoted to the study of eternity and the end times. I’d like to spend several blog posts talking about eschatology, and looking at what the Bible says about it.
I want to warn you up front: this will be a very challenging study for some. The view that I am going to propose in this series of posts I will refer to as renewed eschatology or NHNE. I believe this to be the biblical view, but it is not what I would call the typical view of eternity that most American Christians hold.
Before we get any further, I want to quickly give you two different perspectives to help frame what we are going to be talking about in this series. These are two different views of what the Bible is about and what our future looks like.
The first view, which I will call the spiritual heaven perspective, says that we live in a world that was created good but became tainted after Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden. Things are bad and broken and we are lost in our sin.
The Good News is that Jesus came to die for our sin and save us, so that when we die, we can forever leave this broken world (which is bound for fiery destruction) and enjoy a spiritual existence with God forever in heaven. The people that reject God will spend eternity in hell.
In the meantime, we are basically running out the clock, doing our best to survive in a broken world, waiting for Jesus to come rescue us, and hopefully, trying to help other people to be rescued as well. You might think of the Titanic going down: as Christians, we are in the lifeboats, going around trying to save people from drowning…but the ship is going down.
I think this is what much of the non-Christian world believes that Christians believe, and furthermore, I think it actually is what many Christians believe. I believed it myself for a long time. In many ways, it is the traditional Christian perspective.
The problem is, I don’t think the Bible actually teaches this. It certainly teaches parts of it: heaven and hell are real, judgment is real, Jesus came to save us, etc.—but the overall presentation of this view is not, in my opinion, what the Bible teaches.
(Some of you are thinking that I am nuts, and at this point, that is okay.)
The second view, the renewed earth perspective, also says that this world was created good as the dwelling place of people. Earth parallels heaven, the dwelling place of God (Genesis 1.1), and at the beginning, these two realms overlapped: God was able to dwell with people and walked in the Garden with them. But we sinned. The earth became tainted. Our close relationship with God was destroyed. Our sin separates us from God, forcing the close union of heaven and earth to be driven apart. Things are bad and broken, and we are lost in our sin. And more than that: our accumulated sin multiplies and continues to defile the earth—there is a sense in which we have created hell on earth with our cumulative rebellion against God.
The Good News is that God is not content to leave things this way. Jesus came to reconcile all of creation to Himself, including humanity, and to specifically confront the problem of sin. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus has brought about a new order of things, or as Paul says, “new creation.” One day Jesus will return and sin, Satan, and death will be fully defeated, the entire cosmos will be made over into a “New Heaven and New Earth”—a unified whole—and God will dwell with His people forever, while those who reject Him will be separated from Him forever.
In the meantime, rather than running out the clock, waiting to be rescued, or even frantically rowing around in our lifeboat picking up survivors while the world sinks around us, we are actively involved as citizens of God’s kingdom and agents of new creation in taking back the world that rightly belongs to God and inviting others to join us in that project. We do this by living according to the principles that Jesus lays out for His followers, and seeking to counteract the effects of sin in our world.
Now, these two views share a lot of terms and concepts, but when you look at them as a whole, they are two very different perspectives on the story the Bible is telling, and what eternity will look like.
Background of this Study
Over the last couple of years, I have seen more and more discussions about eschatology in the Christian blogosphere and in various Facebook groups, and, honestly, I have been concerned at times by the tone I have witnessed in some of those discussions (where those who hold to renewed eschatology are written off as false teachers or heretics) as well as the general level of ignorance (where some who have sought to refute the NHNE perspective reveal that they don’t actually understand it at all). Perhaps this series of posts will add something constructive to those conversations, but really, I did not write all of this material in response to the recent interest that I have observed about this topic.
Actually, this topic is one that I have been personally wrestling with for about ten years. When I first heard the renewed earth perspective, I was in graduate school and, well, I thought it was crazy. I had several immediate objections based on some specific passages of Scripture, and I wondered if my professor had ever read them! But, as it turned out, my teacher had read the Bible (more thoughtfully than I had), and had answers to my objections.
Time passed and I continued to read and study, and this idea of God redeeming and renewing all of creation at the return of Jesus continued to pop up over and over. I realized that a lot of respected biblical scholars held to this view, and I also came to realize that this wasn’t a “new” interpretation, but actually a very old one, and one that had also been held by my ancestors in the Restoration Movement. I gradually came to think, “This isn’t so crazy…I can see it either way.”
Later, I began to study some of the specific passages that I used to think refuted the renewed earth view, but I realized that when I studied them in context and did the linguistic and historical legwork, they actually seemed to argue against the spiritual heaven (“traditional”) view rather than for it. I grudgingly thought, “Well, this renewed eschatology view seems more biblically accurate to me, but I’m not sure it really matters that much.”
Eventually, at the church where I worked, we started this project called The Story of the Bible. This was a long Bible survey study for our adult Bible classes using videos from The Bible Project as a companion resource. As I had never done before, I sat down and studied the Bible, writing dozens of lessons (and editing dozens more) about different biblical books and drawing main ideas from them. When we started that project, I had zero intention of teaching a different view on eternity (or really, emphasizing anything related to eternity) but as we studied, this idea of God redeeming all of creation just hit us over and over again…because this is what the Story of the Bible is about.
As we went through this study in our adult classes, it became clear to me that our church leadership needed to discuss eschatology (and specifically, the renewed earth perspective) more, so I went to our Elders and they agreed. We had a great study together for several weeks and wrestled with a lot of Scripture and talked back and forth and challenged one another. By the end of the study, they no longer thought I was crazy (I think a couple of them did when we started!), and they wanted me to teach an adult Bible class specifically on renewed eschatology. And that class is the source of the material you are reading now.
Goals for this Series
I believe that Scripture teaches that when Jesus returns, the cosmos will be renewed and redeemed and that the faithful will live with God eternally in a New Heaven and a New Earth. If, at the end of this series, you agree with me—great! But that is not my primary goal for this series.
Instead, here are my goals:
First, I want to look at what the Bible teaches about eternity with an open mind. This will be very difficult for some, and I get that—this material was very challenging for me when I was first exposed to it. I am stubborn and I give up the positions I hold with great reluctance; as I mentioned previously, I have been wrestling with this for ten years.
Ultimately, I don’t ask that you agree with me, but I do ask that you have an open mind and honestly consider what we discuss. Read the biblical passages that are mentioned. Look at the extra material I link to that lays out certain arguments in greater detail. If you want to respond to something that I say (and I welcome that!), make arguments based on Scripture, not on tradition. Ultimately, what I am going to present in this series of posts is correct or incorrect based on whether or not it lines up with what the Bible teaches. With that in mind, counter-arguments to what I am presenting that start with, “I always thought…” or “I’ve always heard that…” aren’t the best.
Second, I want to provide an opportunity for us to challenge ourselves. Some of the ideas that we’re going to discuss will be challenging. It will require looking at certain passages very carefully and learning some things about Greek, about history, and about textual criticism.
From my perspective, we have decades and decades of confusion and misinterpretations that we have to peel back to see what the Bible teaches on this subject, and that is going to require hard work. I will do my best to make everything as understandable as possible, but I am sure that I will not be as clear sometimes as I would like to be. Having said that, if you feel like some of this material is difficult, that’s okay, because it is supposed to be.
I’m not sure where we got the idea that we can become mature Christians by never challenging ourselves to dig deeper into God’s word, but it’s not true.
Finally, at the end of this study, I want us to respect one another regardless of which conclusion we come to. I think this is an important topic, and at the end of all this, I will explain why I think it matters, but ultimately, understanding how eternity works is not necessary for you to enjoy it. Getting this right or wrong is not a “salvation issue” (I dislike that terminology), although I would argue that you will appreciate and anticipate your salvation more if you hold to the view that I am going to teach in this series.
I mentioned earlier that I have witnessed some unfortunate conversations over the last couple of years where people who hold to renewed eschatology are branded as false teachers. I would find that to be laughable if writing someone off as a false teacher was not such a serious act—one that Scripture doesn’t take lightly. Suffice it to say, if at the end of all this you arrive at a different conclusion than I do, I will still respect you for it; I hope you can reciprocate that feeling.
What does the Bible teach about eternity? I hope you’ll join us as we seek to answer that question.
The Greek word εσχατος means “last”, so literally, “eschatology” refers to the study of the last things.
Short for “New Heavens and New Earth.” Throughout this series, I will use “NHNE”, “New Heavens and New Earth”, “renewed eschatology”, and “renewed earth” interchangeably.
I think many non-Christians also fundamentally misunderstand the notion of God’s grace, and think Christians believe that we get to heaven by being “good enough”. To be fair, many Christians misunderstand this as well!
I really hesitate to concede the term “traditional” to refer to this view, because as we will see later, the alternative view—renewed eschatology—has a long and storied place in the historical Christian tradition. But nevertheless, the spiritual heaven perspective has been the dominant view among evangelical and fundamentalist churches (and certainly churches of Christ as well) for as long as any of us have been alive.
Much of the language in this description is drawn from Timothy Mackie and Jonathan Collins, When Heaven Meets Earth: A 12-Part Biblical Study on Heaven (Portland: The Bible Project, 2017). This resource is available for download on The Bible Project website here.
I will have a post later focusing specifically on this, but as many readers of this blog know, I am deeply interested in the history of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, and seeing that many of my spiritual forebears believed in renewed eschatology was very significant to me.