The online journal of Luke Dockery

A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 2: Distractions

Introduction

Last week, we introduced renewed eschatology, the idea that at the return of Jesus, the entire cosmos will be made over into a “New Heaven and New Earth”, and that God will dwell there with His people forever.

This differs from the more traditional spiritual heaven view that emphasizes that we will in some sense “fly away” to be with Jesus in heaven, and the earth will be burned up at His second coming.

In this series of posts, I will be explaining and supporting the renewed earth position, and as I mentioned last time, it has taken me a long time to come around to this perspective. If you think I am crazy for believing this, that’s okay at this point, because I haven’t tried to biblically support it yet. We’re going to spend the next several weeks doing that; don’t worry!

Today, we’re actually going to spend our time talking about some ideas that don’t really have anything to do with renewed eschatology at all, which is why I titled this post “Distractions”—these ideas distract us from our purpose of examining the renewed earth argument, but it is still important that we talk about them, because in my experience, anytime NHNE is discussed,[1] people immediately think of these other things. So, my hope is that we can address these ideas in this post and get them out of the way so we can then proceed with our study and not worry about them anymore.



What Renewed Eschatology is Not

Renewed Eschatology is not premillennialism. In my context (churches of Christ), premillennialism is generally looked down upon, and anything that remotely sounds like premillennialism is regarded with suspicion. The NHNE perspective is not premillennialism, but to better establish that point, we first need to discuss premillennialism a bit. So, what is it?

Premillennialism falls into two basic categories:

  • Historic premillennialism is a very old view (dating back to early Church Fathers) that interprets Revelation 20.1-6 as a period of time when Christ will literally reign on this earth before final judgment. I disagree with this view and this interpretation of Revelation 20, but I don’t find it to be particularly harmful.
  • Dispensational premillennialism is a relatively young view (1800s) and is the version of premillennialism that you are likely more familiar with. Like historic premillennialists, dispensational premillennialists also interpret Revelation 20 to refer to a literal reign by Jesus on earth, but this is no minor point of doctrine; rather, it becomes a controlling lens through which they look at all of Scripture. When Jesus came to earth, He intended to set up His kingdom but was rejected by His people and had to set up the church instead.[2]

There are many different teachings associated with dispensational premillennialism (the rapture, the Left Behind books, a literal battle of Armageddon, etc.) and also many different variations (pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, post-tribulation, etc.), but ultimately, this isn’t a study of premillennialism, so we don’t need to get into all of that. What is important to emphasize here is that all of this (the 1000-year reign of Jesus on earth) happens before the final judgment and an eternity in heaven.

Really, the only element in common between renewed eschatology and premillennialism is that both have something to do with the earth. But in premillennialism, the millennium is a temporary time of Jesus reigning before the end. NHNE is about a renewed earth and heaven united, and God dwelling with His people there forever.

Renewed Eschatology is not what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe. Jehovah’s Witnessed believe that God will extend His heavenly kingdom to include earth, and earth will be transformed to a paradise similar to Eden. But they also believe a lot of things that, from my perspective, are way out there:

A central teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that the current world era, or “system of things”, entered the “last days” in 1914 and faces imminent destruction through intervention by God and Jesus Christ, leading to deliverance for those who worship God acceptably. They consider all other present-day religions to be false, identifying them with “Babylon the Great,” or the “harlot” of  Revelation 17, and believe that they will soon be destroyed by the United Nations, which they believe is represented in scripture by the scarlet-colored wild beast of Revelation chapter 17. This development will mark the beginning of the “great tribulation”. Satan will subsequently use world governments to attack Jehovah’s Witnesses, an action that will prompt God to begin the war of Armageddon, during which all forms of government and all people not counted as Christ’s “sheep” will be destroyed.

After Armageddon, God will extend his heavenly kingdom to include earth, which will be transformed into a paradise similar to the Garden of Eden. Most of those who had died before God’s intervention will gradually be resurrected during the thousand year “judgment day”. This judgment will be based on their actions after resurrection rather than past deeds. At the end of the thousand years, Christ will hand all authority back to God. Then a final test will take place when Satan is released to mislead perfect mankind. Those who fail will be destroyed, along with Satan and his demons. The end result will be a fully tested, glorified human race on earth.[3]

Commonalities

Renewed eschatology does hold that Jesus will return to “earth”, but it is not this earth, but rather, a renewed earth. Also, this will not be part of a millennium, but is the eternal state of things.

Renewed eschatology has some similarities to the Jehovah’s Witness view of some sort of Edenic, recreated earth, but these similarities were not borrowed from Jehovah’s Witnesses. NHNE is a much older view, and if anything, it lies in the background and had elements borrowed from it by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Furthermore, the biblical vision of the “new earth” is not simply a return to Eden, but rather, the potential of Eden fully realized, with God, humanity, and creation living in harmony with one another.

Neither of these views—dispensational premillennialism nor Jehovah’s Witness eschatology—is what I am advocating in this series, but it is important that we discuss them, because as we move forward, there may be a temptation, at least with some, to think “this sounds like __________” (especially premillennialism). It’s not. I don’t believe in any of the views that we just described. Speaking candidly, from my perspective:

  • Historic premillennialism misinterprets Revelation 20.1-6, but isn’t really a big deal.
  • Dispensational premillennialism is a hot mess that leads to a lot of theological problems.
  • Jehovah’s Witness eschatology is crazy.

The Intermediate State

The intermediate state is the time period between an individual’s death and the second coming of Christ. In this series, we are most interested in what happens at the return of Jesus rather than our individual deaths, but we will address the intermediate state here because many people conflate these two issues.

There are different perspectives of what the intermediate state will look like. Here are some of the most common ones:[4]

  • Hadean Realm: This is the view that when we die, we go to “Hades”, the realm of the dead, and experience a conscious existence either in a place of bliss or a place of torment. This is based significantly on the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus that Jesus tells in Luke 16.19-31. After death, Lazarus finds himself in a place of comfort at “Abraham’s Bosom”, while the Rich Man is in Torment. Some find further support for this perspective in Luke 23.39-43, where Jesus tells the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.”

But what if the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is actually a parable (as the vast majority of New Testament scholars believe) rather than Jesus trying to give a sheet-sermon description of what happens after death? The point of the parable seems to be that our actions in this life influence our destination in the next life, and that once we have died, it is too late to change that destination.

Furthermore, should we equate “Paradise” from Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross with “Abraham’s Bosom” without explicit biblical teaching telling us that they are the same?

Finally, in some sense, doesn’t this view suggest that judgment has already happened as opposed to judgment being what happens when Jesus returns? It seems disingenuous to say that Lazarus and the Rich Man are awaiting judgment when they are already experiencing reward and punishment, respectively, as they await the formality of additional judgment.

  • Entrance Into Eternity–Heaven: This is the view that, at death, the faithful immediately enter into the presence of God and live with Him in heaven. Supporters of this perspective point to passages from Paul in Philippians 1.21-24 and 2 Corinthians 5.1-9, where he seems to say that it is better to be with the Lord than to continue living. But does Paul mean that this (being with the Lord) will happen immediately at death, or is he just looking forward to being with God in eternity, and he knows that death is, in a sense, the first step toward that?

Some proponents of this view believe it to be supported by the “thief on the cross” passage mentioned above (Luke 23.39-43), only in this view, “paradise” is “heaven.” But was Jesus really in heaven “today”—the same day He was crucified? Jesus was raised on the third day, and on that day, He told Mary Magdalene, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20.17). It doesn’t seem to me like Jesus went to heaven at death.

Furthermore, there is the passage in Revelation 6.9-10 where martyrs surround God’s throne crying out, “How long?” They are wondering how long evil will continue on earth; do they actually seem to be at peace? This seems to cut against the traditional idea.[5]

Plus, if the Hadean Realm perspective seems to cut against the notion that judgment occurs at the return of Jesus, this view, which places the faithful dead in heaven already, certainly does so.

  • Entrance Into Eternity–Soul Sleep: What if we’re only aware of the passing of time because we are living on earth? What if we die and for us it seems like we immediately enter judgment because we have no concept of time? Thousands of years pass on earth, but we have no knowledge go it? This view is largely based on the notion that in the Bible, death is frequently described as “sleep.” A good example of this comes from the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28.15, where the spirit of Samuel is summoned and he complains about being “awakened” from his rest.

But should “sleep” be taken literally here, or is this (and other places in Scripture employing the same terminology) simply a metaphor for death, and a suggestion that death brings about a rest from the toils of life here on earth?

Furthermore, what about Hebrews 12.1 and the great cloud of witnesses mentioned there? How can they witness what we are doing and cheer us on if they are asleep?

Ultimately, we can debate these back and forth.[6] As you have probably discerned, I am not entirely sure what I believe about this because I think there are problems with each perspective.

But here is the real point: regardless of what you believe about this, it is a “distraction” from the topic of this study on renewed eschatology in the sense that it’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about what happens when Jesus returns, not what happens in the time in between when you die and when Jesus returns. So we can debate these different views and have interesting discussions about them, but it really doesn’t have to do much with renewed eschatology.

Except…it is a good example of how distracted we have become from the actual Christian hope.

We have long talked about going to heaven when we die, but there is not even one passage in the Bible that talks about “going to heaven” after we die. The phrase “go to heaven” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Old or New Testaments in relation to death.[7] Not once. If that was what Christian hope was all about, don’t you think we’d find that in there somewhere?

There are passages that talk about getting to be “with Jesus” after death, and we have mentioned them above (Luke 23.42-32; Philippians 1.21-24; 2 Corinthians 5.6-9), but this really isn’t the focus of our hope.

The hope for Christians isn’t about life after death—a temporary condition until the Second Coming of Christ where, regardless of which view you take, we are, in some sense, with God and taken care of. Instead, the hope for Christians is about life after life after death—what happens when Jesus returns, we are resurrected and given new bodies, and live with God for eternity.[8]

So, why the change? If the Bible teaches that our hope is based on what happens when Jesus returns, why do we focus so much on what happens when we die?

I don’t know the answer to that question; there are probably several reasons. I do wonder, though: it has been nearly 2,000 years since the New Testament was written and these promises were made, and I wonder if we get tired of waiting. The return of Jesus can seem so uncertain and far off in the future, while death seems much closer and much more certain. Perhaps it is easier for us, impatient as we are, to focus on what happens to us at death than what happens when Jesus returns, and death is defeated.

And I do want to reassure you: whatever happens after death, whichever of the views above is the correct one, for those who die in Christ, we will be taken care of, and we will in some sense “be with the Lord.” We can rest assured of that. But that is just temporary. It is the intermediate state. It’s not what we hope for.

With these “distractions” out of the way, next time we can dive into Scripture, and begin looking at several passages that are generally used to “refute” the renewed earth perspective. When considered closely, I don’t think they do.


[1]As a reminder, NHNE is 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.

[2]This makes the church, and really, the crucifixion and atonement, a back-up plan. Those who subscribe to this position would disagree with the characterization I just used, but theologically, I think it is unavoidable.

[3]Wikipedia contributors, “Eschatology of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eschatology_of_Jehovah%27s_Witnesses&oldid=898880289 (accessed October 28, 2018).

[4]This discussion of the intermediate state is influenced by Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994): 589-98, and J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014): 227-37.

[5]In “Waiting With Us,” John Mark Hicks suggests that these saints, though in the presence of God, share with those of us on earth the lamenting over sin and injustice, and yearn for God’s redemption of all things. So, just because these martyrs are not entirely blissful does not mean the notion that the faithful enter into heaven upon death is incorrect.

[6]For an excellent overview of these different views, see Scott Elliott, “Where Do We Go When We Die.” Scott leans toward the “heaven” view, though rightly asserts that there isn’t enough biblical data for us to be dogmatic about it.

[7]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.

[8]For “Life after life after death” see N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 148-52.

4 Comments

  1. KEITH KILMER

    Great couple of initial posts on this subject Luke!

    Personally, I think of the Intermediate state as being something more than a distraction to the matter at hand. At least for me – I had to come to understanding of this before getting to a place where I could otherwise understand and accept renewed eschatology. There were just too many Scriptures that seemed to suggest that we will, at some point, exist in a disembodied, conscious state prior to the final Resurrection (Acts 7:59, Phil 1:21-24; Rev. 6:9ff, etc.).

    Looking forward to more of the series. Thanks!

    • Luke

      Keith,

      Thanks for the comment, and I hear you. I’d be interested to hear more about why coming to an understanding of the intermediate state was a necessary first step for you. Experientially, I get it, because I have seen people who were very troubled by the notion of a renewed cosmos because it made them concerned about loved ones who had already passed, their own destinies at death, etc. But logically, I just don’t see them as directly connected other than one stage leads to another. So I think it’s a “distraction” in that sense—I want to talk about the second stage (because this is where biblical hope is focused), and not get hung up in stage one (which the Bible describes much less vividly).

      Having said all that, if I had to choose, I would side on some sort of disembodied, conscious state, but I don’t know how it will all shake out. I will be “with the Lord,” and knowing that is enough for me.

      But resurrection…that’s where my hope lies, and what I am ultimately excited about.

  2. KEITH KILMER

    Yes, some of it was probably experiential for me – I was working through much of this when I lost my dad unexpectedly in ’18. So naturally, so of those questions took on greater importance to me.

    But even apart from that there was a logical component in that I needed someplace to file those Scriptures that seemed to me to be indicating a disembodied experience and without the idea of an intermediate state I didn’t know what to do with these. In that way these Scriptures were a barrier just like passages such as I Thess. 4:17, 2 Pet. 3:7 and John 14:3 were for me initially.

    Like you, when I first started to learning more about this subject my reaction was “o.k. that helps me to understand Rom. 8:20-22 but what about (insert Scripture/s here)?

    In teaching I illustrated the intermediate state by describing our first furlough when we came back from the mission field in Chile homesick, weary, and still in a bit of culture shock. We didn’t have a direct flight – we came first to Miami. It was nice to be in the Miami airport – hear English spoken, grab a Dr. Pepper pick up a USA Today – we felt more in our “element”. But it wasn’t until our final destination and seeing our loved ones that we were fully “home”.

    Paul was ready to depart and be with Christ (Phil. 1:23); Jesus promised that the thief would be with him in Paradise – I don’t think either was in anticipation of that final destination and redemption/restoration of all things. I agree that is the real source of our “hope” – I just think there will be a “layover” first (one that won’t be in Miami, Houston, Dallas or even Atlanta. lol).

    • Luke

      Keith,

      Thanks for sharing more of your thoughts. I certainly get how the experience of losing your dad would make these questions more critical.

      And I agree with you—obviously, those other scriptures you reference are there, and need to be addressed in some way. I just few it as two separate (if related) questions: (1) What happens when we die? and (2) What happens when Jesus returns?

      I think biblical hope is tied up in the second question, and that’s where more biblical evidence lies, so, for me, it seems easy enough to separate the two and focus on the more important question. For me, it’s enough to know that I will be “with the Lord”, in some sense, in the meantime.

      I really like your “layover” analogy, and that well describes the view of the intermediate state that I most favor. But, I am more convinced about a renewed creation than I am any specific theory of the intermediate state. (For fun, in terms of biblical probability, I would rate them: (1) Heaven, (2) Soul Sleep, (3) Hadean Realm.)

      Thanks again for your comment!

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