Part 5: Why Some Believe the Earth Will Be
Renewed Instead of Destroyed
(Happy thoughts, these, about the world being destroyed, eh? O:-) )
In my last post I gave Scriptural reasons why I believe the Bible teaches that this world as we know it will eventually end and be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth (for my previous post, click on “Part 4” above).
Today I want to examine two alternative points of view to the one I proposed in my last post, not so much to refute them, as to share them and acknowledge that these other views could have some validity. However, I will go on to point out some of the problems with these views and how I feel from a biblical standpoint the burden of proof is on those who hold them to demonstrate why they are viable possibilities.
Literal Or Symbolic?
In my last post I shared a number of Scripture texts which, if taken literally, I believe show conclusively that the Bible foretells the eventual end of our world. I won’t repeat all these passages here, but will just share a couple of them, as examples. (For those who read the last post, I know this is a bit of repetition, but please bear with me, for I’m going somewhere with this.)
29 “Immediately after the distress of those days
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
2 Peter 3:3-13
3 First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
Notice the qualifier I gave above: I said, if these passages are taken literally, I believe they show conclusively that the Bible foretells the end of the world. And there’s the rub. For there are some Bible interpreters–perhaps many–who believe these passages should be understood symbolically rather than literally.
As far as I can understand it, the reasoning for this point of view goes that this imagery of the world ending in the New Testament is also found in the Old Testament. Those who hold this view claim that the Old Testament passages about the world ending were never intended to be taken literally but instead refer to the collapse of earthly kingdoms.
For example, some who hold to this view believe Matthew 24 was largely fulfilled when the Roman empire besieged Jerusalem in 67 AD and destroyed the temple in 70 AD. They interpret Matthew 24:29 as symbolic of the fall of Jerusalem rather than as intended to be a literal collapse of the heavenly bodies. (I will address the view that Matthew 24 has already been fulfilled in a coming post.)
Those who interpret Matthew 24 in this way believe the passage from 2 Peter 3 should be understood symbolically as well. They believe it refers to the fall of earthly powers, rather than the literal destruction of heaven and earth.
One of the things I learned in seminary was that often when people interpret the Bible, they find in the Bible what they started out expecting to see when they began. For example, those who don’t believe in miracles usually approach the text with a bias against the miraculous. Since they don’t believe in miracles, they conclude that anything in the Bible which claims to be miraculous needs to be explained another way, since they’ve already made up their mind that miracles are impossible.
Likewise, those who can’t abide the Bible’s prohibitions against homosexual activity look at the passages which speak against homosexuality and search for any reasons they can find to render those passages null and void. If they can’t find a legitimate reason to do so, then they manufacture reasons, which is essentially what the pro-gay factions have done. But I digress.
These are just a couple examples of how, if we’re not careful, what we want to find, or expect to find, in the Bible can dictate what we allow ourselves to see or accept in the text.
When we read the passages in the Bible that describe the end of the physical world as we know it, we have an interpretive decision to make: Will we accept what we find there at face value, or will we look for another way to interpret them? My belief is the burden of proof is on those who choose not to interpret these passages literally. Why shouldn’t we take them literally? Whatever the answer is, it shouldn’t be because the idea of the world ending is distasteful or unlikely. Neither of these considerations has any actual bearing on the truthfulness of the prediction.
Basically those who interpret these passages symbolically begin with an assumption that they are symbolic. They assume the Old Testament passages were symbolic, and then move to the conclusion that therefore the New Testament passages are symbolic as well. But it is equally likely (and I would say more so) that the Old Testament passages are describing a literal event which hasn’t happened yet. There are quite a few Old Testament prophecies which remain unfulfilled, and these passages are among them. I believe the simplest answer is that the Old Testament passages are describing the same events described in the New Testament, all of which still waits to be fulfilled.
The Restoration of All Things
There are a couple of New Testament passages which deal with future things, though, which I haven’t addressed yet, and these deserve to be mentioned. The passages I have in mind would seem, at least on casual consideration, to contradict the ones I’ve already mentioned that talk about the end of the world.
The first of these is found in Acts 3:17-22
17 “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20 and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you — even Jesus. 21 He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets” (emphasis added).
The second passage is Romans 8:18-25
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (emphasis added).
Based on these passages there are some who believe that rather than the world ending, our present world will be restored and renewed, that it will become the “new earth.” In particular this belief is becoming more prominent in charismatic circles, for whom the Romans passages holds special meaning. (I will explore current charismatic beliefs about the end times in another post.)
I can understand why they see that in these passages. Acts 3:21 implies that when Christ returns, he will “restore everything.” Likewise, Romans 8:19-21 says that when the “sons of God” are finally “revealed,” creation “will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” That certainly sounds like restoration and renewal, rather than destruction.
The language in the Romans passage is end-times language. It speaks of the sons of God being revealed, the creation finally being liberated from its bondage to decay, “our adoption as sons,” and the “redemption of our bodies.” This is all eschatological language–that is, the kind of language the Bible uses when it speaks of heaven and the return of Christ. These are things we expect to happen when Christ appears, when we are in his presence eternally. So we can safely assume that Romans 8:18-25 is referring to events that will take place at the return of Christ.
So How Do We Reconcile This?
Now, the question is, how do we reconcile these passages which speak of the restoration and renewal of the present creation with those that speak of its destruction?
We can go one of two ways: Either we can assume that Acts and Paul give us the true picture of what will happen, and Matthew and Peter (along with several passages from the Old Testament) need to be harmonized with them in some way; or else we can take the other approach, that Matthew and Peter and the Old Testament passages give us the most accurate picture, and Acts and Romans are to be interpreted in light of these.
If we assume Acts and Paul, with their picture of the restoration and renewal of the present world, show us the true picture of what’s going to happen when Christ returns, then we have to make sense of the all the passages which seem to say clearly that the stars will fall from the sky and the heavens and the earth will be destroyed by fire when Jesus comes back.
Now, in 2 Peter 3 it is clear that the fire of destruction is for the wicked (see verses 7, 9). The implication is that the righteous will be preserved and taken to the new heaven and the new earth (see verse 13). The words “destroyed” and “destruction” appear four times in verses 3-13. However, in verse 6, Peter speaks of the earth having been “destroyed” by the flood of Noah’s day. We know the world wasn’t literally destroyed at the time of the flood; only humanity and civilization were destroyed, so clearly Peter was using hyperbole. Therefore it’s possible he is also exaggerating in the rest of the passage when he speaks of the world being destroyed by fire.
It’s clear that the fire of destruction he mentions is intended only for the wicked, and so it is a fire of judgment; the righteous (those who know Christ) will be preserved from it.
So if we follow the restoration theme in Acts 3 and Romans 8, then we would have to interpret 2 Peter 3 as being more of a fire of purification in which the world is purged of evil and sin, but not destroyed. However, the language in 2 Peter 3:10 pretty clearly speaks of annihilation: we’re told “the heavens will disappear,” “the elements will be destroyed,” and the earth will be “laid bare” (emphasis added). So if we say the world is simply going to be renewed, then 2 Peter 3:10 has to be taken symbolically and not literally.
Yet Revelation 21:1 speaks of the present heavens and the earth having passed away and being replaced with a new heaven and a new earth. This, along with multiple passages in the Old Testament (see Part 4 of this series for these) as well as the passages in Matthew 24 and their parallels, and 2 Peter 3, all seem to point to the world ending and being replaced by a new heaven and a new earth.
In that case then we would interpret the language in Acts 3:21 and Romans 8:21-22 about creation being restored as something that will happen through the destruction of the present world and the creation of the new heavens and the new earth. In other words, it is through the destruction of the present world and the creation of the new heavens and the new earth that God restores everything and sets the creation free from its bondage to decay.
I Wouldn’t Mind Being Wrong
I wouldn’t mind being wrong about the destruction of the present world; though unless it is something that happens in my lifetime, it won’t affect me personally either way. But I wouldn’t mind being wrong. I wouldn’t mind it if God chooses to renew and restore the present world rather than remove it.
However, I think those who hold the restoration viewpoint are faced with some questions that must be answered. The current world is fallen, under sin, and–as Romans 8:21 says–in bondage to decay. If the world is going to be restored, how does the process of deterioration get reversed? How does this present world in which death and decay are an everyday reality get transformed into an eternal paradise where there is no longer any decay and the righteous live forever?
Moreover, the Bible seems to speak of our eternal future with God as a spiritual reality. Yes, it says one day our bodies will be resurrected, but in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul says our resurrected body will be a “spiritual” body (see 1 Corinthians 15:44 and the following verses). Revelation 21-22 describes the new Jerusalem in physical terms, but if we’re going to have spiritual bodies, then the reality John describes in Revelation 21-22 may well be a spiritual reality as well (though a substantial one), just described in physical terms. If that’s the case, how does our present material world get transformed into the kind of spiritual reality that will be the New Jerusalem?
If the present creation is transformed and “liberated from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21) then Romans 8 makes it pretty clear this only happens at the return of Christ, and not before. Yet there are some who seem to believe that this transformation will be brought about by Christians before Christ returns, or even in order that Christ may return. However, I don’t think that is what we see in Romans 8 (we’ll look at that view, and the problems with it, in a future post).
Whether the present earth is restored or destroyed and replaced with a new earth, either way the most important part of the message is that those who don’t know and follow Jesus Christ will experience the wrath of God, while those who know Christ will be saved from His wrath. God Himself has provided an escape from the judgment that is coming on the world because of its sin and evil. That way of escape is by receiving His Son Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and trusting in him for forgiveness, salvation, and life. If you have never trusted in Christ as your Lord and Savior, I implore you to do so, for the Bible is clear that all who do not turn to Christ will not spend eternity with Him.
Thank you for reading my blog! If you find these posts meaningful, please share them via the Share buttons below, or feel free to click “Like” or post a comment.
Up next: A response to the idea that Matthew 24 and its parallel passages in Mark and Luke have already been fulfilled. Stay tuned!