“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1). What was John describing?
Revelation 21 is an amazing prophecy of what God has in store for the future of our familiar home world. What does “a new heaven and a new earth” mean, and what do we have to look forward to?
The time setting
To understand this prophecy, it is necessary to understand the context or time setting to which it refers. The book of Revelation contains God’s revelation of events leading up to the return of Christ to the earth and then the major events as He establishes God’s Kingdom on earth.
After Christ returns, He will reign for 1,000 years with His glorified saints. These saints will be resurrected to immortal, spirit life in the first resurrection, which takes place when Christ returns (1 Corinthians 15:50-52; Revelation 20:4, 6).
After this initial reign of 1,000 years (often called the Millennium), Revelation 20:5 tells us that all other humans who have lived and died through human history will then be resurrected. The first sentence of verse 5 can be understood as a parenthetical statement that answers the anticipated question: “If those in the first resurrection are raised when Christ returns, what about the rest of the dead?”
The rest of the dead refers to the vast majority of all people who have ever lived and died. Verses 12-13 show that these humans will be resurrected to a time of judgment. (By contrast, now is the time of judgment for those God calls out of this present world, as shown in 1 Peter 4:17. But the criteria of judgment—the books of the Bible, God’s revealed instruction—are the same for all people, no matter which resurrection they’re in.)
By the end of that period of judgment, all who embrace God’s way will be given eternal life (their names being entered into the Book of Life), and those who reject God’s way will perish in the “lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). Verse 14 explains that this condemnation to the lake of fire is “the second death” (emphasis added throughout). Their first death was the end of their lives in this world (also see Revelation 21:8).
This brings us to the subject of the “lake of fire,” which will lead to a new earth.
The lake of fire
The lake of fire is also mentioned in 2 Peter 3: “But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men” (verse 7).
Now notice verse 10: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.”
The Greek word for “heavens” in the preceding verse includes the sky or atmosphere above the earth, which will be ignited as well. It is not clear whether the term “burned up” (incinerated) refers to the earth’s mantle and crust—in which all the works of human history are contained—or the entire planet. Other prophecies make it clear that the righteous will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).
Peter continues, “Looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt [liquefy] with fervent heat?” (2 Peter 3:12). This passage seems to refer to the elements of the earth’s surface, as the elements beneath the crust and mantle are already liquefied magma.
New heaven(s) and earth
“Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (verse 13). The Greek word Peter uses for “new” is kainos, which refers to a state of freshness, rather than the Greek word neos, which means new in terms of age. Whether the earth is entirely consumed by this fire or the surface is melted and thereby purified, the end result will still be a planet that is “new”—remade or refashioned by God. We see that it is still called the “earth” and that the heavens will likewise be made “new.”
Psalm 102:25-26 compares this future transformation to putting on a new garment: “Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will endure; yes, they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed.”
Again, whether God will replace existing stars and planets with new ones or transform those now existing into a new state or configuration that endures forever is something we will find out when the time comes.
In Revelation 21:1 John writes, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea.”
John here uses the same Greek word for “new” that Peter used, which means a state of freshness. He also uses the singular word “heaven,” rather than the plural that Peter used. Perhaps John simply means all that is seen from the earth, which would include the atmosphere and all that is seen in the night sky.
The Greek word that John uses for “passed away” in Revelation 21:1 conveys the idea of something that has come and gone.
If heaven—God’s current abode—were the eternal reward of the righteous, as traditional Christianity teaches, then there would be no purpose for a new earth. The truth—the purpose for a new earth—is spoken of by Christ: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
What will be so special about inheriting the earth instead of heaven? First, we know that God is going to transform this earth into a pure, fresh, beautiful new earth.
Notice what will happen next: “Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). Upon this newly refashioned earth will descend a dazzling, enormous city that extends some 1,500 miles in each direction! Verses 9-27 describe this incredible city in more detail. Even Abraham, the “father of all those who believe” (Romans 4:11), looked forward to this future city: “For he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
Verse 16 also makes clear that God has prepared this city for His faithful elect: “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” And again in Hebrews 13:14: “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.”
Why such a huge city? When Christ returns in the near future, He will reign from Jerusalem, making it the capital of the earth. But when New Jerusalem is on earth, it will become the capital of the entire universe!
It will even become the new residence of God the Father Himself! Notice Revelation 21:3: “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.’” Verse 22 adds: “But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.”
So why will the heavens—all the planets, stars and galaxies—also be made new or fresh? God has revealed a few hints in Scripture. Romans 8:19, 21-22 says, “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. … Because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption [decay] into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”
Here the apostle Paul relates a glimpse of what the future has in store for us; and that future is connected with the “whole creation.” He is saying the entire universe will eventually come into the care of glorified saints!
Currently, the physical creation is subject to entropy—the continual winding down of all physical things. Left alone, the earth would eventually deteriorate and become uninhabitable. Left alone, all stars—including our sun—would eventually exhaust their fuel and burn out. This is why God will “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
The role of humans in the world to come
An intriguing question to God, along with an astounding answer, is found in the book of Hebrews: “‘What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You take care of him? You have made him a little lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor, and set him over the works of Your hands. You have put all things in subjection under his feet.’ For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him” (Hebrews 2:6-8).
Verse 5 shows that “the world to come” will not come under the control of angels, but of humans, who will by then be glorified spirit beings.
This prophecy reveals that God made humans temporarily lower than angels (as verse 9 shows even Christ was, as a human on earth). But the potential God has in store for humans is that they become glorified, spirit members of His own divine family and take ownership of the whole creation. “All things” includes all planets, stars and galaxies in a creation that is so extensive it is staggering. Some astronomers now estimate that there are 200 to 500 billion galaxies or more, each containing billions of stars! Numbers such as these are impossible for us to comprehend; but they exceed the number of humans who have ever lived through all history!
In Hebrews 1:2 we see that God has appointed Christ as the heir of “all things.” And Romans 8:17 says the glorified saints will become joint heirs with Christ. What God has in store for our future is so fantastic we cannot yet fully grasp all the details (compare 1 John 3:2).
God’s ever-increasing Kingdom
Isaiah 9:6 prophesies Christ’s first coming to the earth as a human and His second coming as a king to administer the government of God in His Kingdom. Verse 7 then says, “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.” Notice that God’s governmental realm will never stop increasing. At some point, God’s Kingdom—containing life and activity—will expand beyond the earth to other planets, star systems and galaxies. And by then they will all have been made “new” and will remain forever.
The future we have to look forward to in the new earth and new heavens is truly beyond our ability to comprehend. But a prophecy God gave through David is a positive promise to always keep in mind: “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
In Christ’s letters to the seven churches of Revelation, He makes it clear that if we want to be there, we must be overcomers and totally faithful to God now (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). Let’s remember: “He who overcomes shall inherit all things” (Revelation 21:7).
Read more about this wonderful future in the article “New Jerusalem.”