“Why do we need a new earth if we’re all going to live in heaven anyway?” Someone asked me this question a short time ago, and it seems that there’s a sort of confusion among Christians about the final resting place of our final resting place– that is to say, will paradise be in heaven or on earth? Where will we actually spend eternity?
The sentiment I’ve heard expressed on this point time and time again is pretty clear. When the curtain drops on this reality, God will destroy the earth and we’ll all zip up to heaven to be with him forever. It’s not hard to see why this idea keeps being circulated. Paul says that when we’re away from the body, we’re present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). Jesus is in heaven, and we want to be with Jesus. John saw the souls of the departed in heaven (Revelation 6:9). It makes sense. Earth gets it in the end, and I’ve got a mansion in the clouds.
Well, it makes sense, but it’s not true, and it’s not helpful. This isn’t just some idiosyncrasy; it subtly reinforces that dogged gnosticism we’ve been fighting since the 60s (60s, not 1960s). It’s about as biblically unsupportable and about as entrenched as the idea that God is outside of time.
At the start of our show, God created the heavens and the earth. This phrase could refer to physical and spiritual realities, as it clearly does at times in Scripture (Psalm 73:25), or it could refer to the physical earth and the physical sky, as it clearly does at times in Scripture (Deuteronomy 28:23, Judges 5:4). While the word “heaven” can refer to the sky or to the spiritual dimension of reality, the vast majority of the times the phrase “heaven and earth” is used, it refers to the earth and sky.
What about the new heaven and the new earth? John gives us a few clues. First: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). This phrase “the first heaven… had passed away” gives us a clue. The spiritual heaven is the sinless place where we’re told God dwells. Will this pass away? No. The new heaven and the new earth is a new earth plus a new Saturn et al. Second, John tells us that the dwelling place of God will be with man (Revelation 21:3), that the nations will come into the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24), and that the New Jerusalem will be on earth (Revelation 21:10). So there you have it. Heaven is a place on earth.
Why does it matter? We’re gonna be with Jesus no matter what, so why does it matter where it is? Two reasons: first, it matters because God has disclosed to us where it is, and people keep getting it wrong. Second, it matters because of GnosticGate.
Gnosticism is a broad category for a bunch of old heresies, but thing which unites all of them is the belief that the physical is bad and the spiritual is good. Basically, the body is a cage for the spirit (Paul dealt with this in 1 Corinthians 15), and someday we’ll be free from the restrictions of the physical and “ascend to become creatures of consciousness alone,” as Rassilon pompously pointed out in “The End of Time, Part 2.”
We-el, it all sounds nice, but the problem is that God created bodies, and he thinks they’re a good idea. Physicality is not a curse, and so an immaterial heaven is not the cure. Confusing fleshy with fleshly, or earthy with earthly, is a bit like confusing child-like with childish. It’s not a helpful distinction. Jesus has a new body, and someday I’m gonna get one too, and then we’ll get to go on the really gnarly rides.