It is a commonly held belief that when we die we go to heaven and the presence of God. On the other hand, many Christian writers tell us our destination is not heaven but the new creation or new heavens and new earth. Like OT prophets, they talk of either the transformation of the present creation or of its destruction and replacement by a brand new physical creation. (See my “The Redemption of Creation”.) The basic problem with these views is that they are not taught in the NT. The new creation referred to by NT writers relates to men and women made in the image of God (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15, cf. 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6, etc.). It relates in other words to the spiritual transformation that occurs as a result of the new birth or birth from above. Indeed, as John 3:1-8 makes clear it specifically excludes the physical or material. It may be asked why is this so. The answer is that while the spiritual is eternal, the physical is temporal.
The Temporal and the Spiritual in Contrast
The very first verse of the Bible differentiates between the Creator and his creation indicating that creation is not eternal. Since the material creation has a beginning it must also have an end. This point is clearly made by the author of Hebrews who contrasts creation with its Creator in 1:10-12. Since creation is subject to age (v.11), he draws the conclusion that like the old covenant it is becoming obsolete and ready to vanish away (8:13). Some object to the inferences drawn from this author on the ground that they reflect a “twist of Platonic dualism” which destroys the “organic continuity” between the two Testaments (Wright, p. 279). This, however, is hardly the case. The pejorative and transient nature of the physical creation is too pervasively entrenched in Scripture to be dismissed in this way. For a start, while it may be freely admitted that there are elements of continuity linking the Old and New Testaments (e.g. sin and justification by faith), there are also fundamental features of discontinuity. If the Old Testament enshrines the provisional old covenant and the New Testament embraces the eternal new covenant, discontinuity is bound to be prominent and dominant.
The Bible reflects a basic dualism somewhat similar but nonetheless different from Greek dualism. Apart from Hebrews 1:10-12, which is essentially OT teaching, Genesis 8:22 points to the eventual demise of the physical creation. Though the covenant with Noah is referred to as everlasting (9:16), in light of what is said later we are forced to conclude that this is only in this-worldly terms. Apart from Psalm 102:25-27 and Isaiah 34:4 which appear in Hebrews 1:10-12, references such as Psalm 92:2f.; 103:14-16; Isaiah 13:6-13; 40:6-8,26; 51:6,8; 54:10; Haggai 2:6,21; Zephaniah 1:2f.,18,3:8; Matthew 5:18; 24:35; John 13:1; 14:2f.12; 17:5,24; Romans 1:23,25; 1 Corinthians 7:31; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:7f.; 2:8; Hebrews 6:7f.; 10:34; 11:10,16; 12:26-29; 13:14; 2 Peter 3:7,10-12; 1 John 2:8,17; Revelation 20:11 and 21:1 to go no further all explicitly or implicitly testify to the natural temporality and transience of the created world. The difference between the Creator and his works, between heaven and earth and flesh and spirit are indelibly etched in Scripture.
Sin and Transience
It may be objected by those who have adopted the worldview Augustine of Hippo that the reason for creation’s transience is sin. Usually they argue that the original creation was perfect like God. Implicitly blasphemous though it is to equate the two (cf. Ps. 106:20; Rom. 1:23), they contend that when Adam, the appointed lord of creation, “fell” from original perfection into sin, creation “fell” with him, and the reason why it manifests signs of corruption today is that it is a victim of sin. In view of this, like man himself it clearly needs redemption though writers are not always agreed on the form that this will take. The contention is that if the body needs redemption (Rom. 8:23), so does creation. It is further maintained that when Jesus rose from the grave in a glorified fleshly body, he was the first fruits not merely of the resurrection of men (1 Cor. 15:20,23) but of creation itself. As a recent writer put it: “And if Jesus was raised from the dead as a forerunner of the renewal of all the material and physical world, then it gives Christians both the incentive to work to restore creation … as well as infinite hope that our labours will not be in vain” (Tim Keller in Evangelicals Now, Nov. 2007).
The problem here is that the NT fails to teach this. Physical restoration belongs to the OT (e.g. 1 K. 13:6), and if it occurs in the NT it relates to the present world which still exists. (See further my essays Restoration and Resurrection and Restoration and Replacement.) What is more, Jesus’ resurrection is nowhere connected with the renewal of creation. Apart from the deeply suspect notion that Jesus was glorified when he rose from the grave rather than at his ascension, his resurrection stemmed from the fact that he was “illegitimately” put to death. In other words, he died for our sin not his own (1 Pet. 3:18). This being the case, as one who was personally sinless, he could not be bound by death (Acts 2:23f., cf. Rom. 6:9; Rev. 1:18). He had already met the condition of life promised to (the first) Adam by keeping the law (cf. Mark 1:11). However, since his resurrection was physical or fleshly (Luke 24:39), as a product of the aging earth through his mother he needed not simply immortality but incorruptibility as well, and that could only be found in the presence of his incorruptible Father in heaven (cf. Rom. 1:23; 2:7). Thus not surprisingly Paul says that Jesus uniquely brought (divine) immortality and incorruption to light (2 Tim. 1:10, cf. Rom. 2:7; 1:23), and but for false Augustinian thinking it would be needless to add that through Christ, after undergoing the necessary change that even Jesus experienced (1 Cor. 15:50f.), we too gain immortality and incorruption (1 Cor. 15:53f.).
Re-creation and/or Transformation
All this points to the fact that the redemption of creation is not on the agenda. Or does it? Some argue that since we have gained eternal life we need a new or transformed world in which to live it out. Unfortunately, neither of these ideas is tolerable. Why?
First, if we posit a new or freshly created world we have to reckon with the fact that it will be as temporal as the first. A new creation involves a new beginning and implicitly an end. It cannot therefore be eternal since the eternal has neither beginning nor end (Isa. 57:15; 66:1; Heb. 7:3). Clearly creation by nature stands in contrast with God.
Second, like the Jewish Rabbis before them some Christians hold passionately to the idea that the new heavens and the new earth referred to in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 suggest not so much a brand new creation but a re-created or transformed one, one where the ravages of sin have been obliterated. The view of the premillennialist scholar G.E.Ladd has proved very influential and been endorsed by many in the Reformed camp (e.g. Reymond, p.1037. 1* In his work on Paul, despite his emphasis on the eternal which already exists, e.g. p.345, this author talks of “the recovery of the entire cosmos”, pp.309, 352.). He maintains “that man’s ultimate destiny is an earthly one. Man is a creature, and God created the earth to be the scene of his creaturely existence. Therefore, even as the redemption of man in the bodily aspect of his being demands the resurrection of the body, so the redemption of the very physical creation requires a renewed earth as the scene of his perfected existence” (p.631. See also Ladd’s Jesus and the Kingdom, pp.179,331, etc.). Apart from the fact that Paul flatly denies that the corruptible material creation can be eternalized (1 Cor. 15:50b), a transformed physical world will be no more eternal that the first one, such a view is not only not taught in the NT but is explicitly denied. Ladd’s mistakes are clear. First, he fails to appreciate the inherent temporality of the physical creation and hence of its product, the natural or physical body. The body that is redeemed (Rom. 8:23) is spiritual (1 Cor. 15:44,46). Next, he fails to recognize that Isaiah 66:17 and 66:22 which appear in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 were clearly among others OT intimations of heaven on which OT writers were decidedly unclear. In the NT these verses require re-interpretation or spiritualization (cf. 11:10,16; 12:22-24). (See further my “The Redemption of Creation”.) Third, he fails to give due weight to the NT teaching that the present earth will pass away and yield to or be replaced by heaven itself, the throne as opposed to the footstool of God (Isa. 66:1; Mt. 5:34f.). In the words of the author of Hebrews he (God) abolishes the first in order to establish the second (10:9). And given the context, the latter can only mean the unshakable remaining (1:10-12; 6:7f.; 12:26-29; 13:14, cf. 13:8) or the eternal.
Fourth, Ladd has failed to heed the NT teaching that when we as perfected spirits (cf. Heb. 12:23) leave this temporal world, we shall enter the eternal world (2 Pet. 1:11) in accordance with our heavenly calling (Phil. 3:14; 1 Thes. 2:12; Heb. 3:1; 1 Pet. 5:10). Like Jesus we shall enter heaven itself (Heb. 9:11f.,24) for we shall be with him in his Father’s house (John 14:2f.). Thus our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12) by the blood of the eternal covenant (Heb. 13:20) guarantees us an eternal heavenly inheritance (1 Cor. 15:50; Heb. 9:15; 1 Pet. 1:3f.) of glory (2 Cor. 4:17; 1 Pet. 5:10) in an eternal body (2 Cor. 5:1) of glory (Phil. 3:21) in the eternal age to come (Mark 10:30, cf. Luke 20:34-36; Eph. 1:20f.).
There is yet a fifth point worth making which, as far as I am aware, is ignored by Ladd and many others like him, that is, the fundamental difference between what is “made by hand” (cheiropoietos) and what is “not made by hand” (acheiropoietos). The first relates to the OT, the second to the NT or more specifically to the new covenant. A simple illustration is the redemption by hand of the Israelites from Egypt and the spiritual redemption of believers from this world which is not by hand. (See further my article Manufactured or Not So.)
There is a problem, however. How can we who are products of a temporal earth and notable for our birthdays inherit eternal life. Does not Paul specifically deny that the perishable (corruptible) can inherit the imperishable (incorruptible)? The answer to this lies in the nature of our salvation. First, while it is corporeal (somatic) (Rom. 8:23), it is not physical but spiritual. Second, as spiritual we were made in the image of God and had to achieve his likeness. (2* Anthropological dualism, which surely relates to eschatological dualism, is clearly and extensively taught in the Bible. Though he strongly stresses the latter, pp.75ff.,530ff., Reymond, dominated as he is by sin, with blatant inconsistency denies the former, Paul, p.323.) Though failures ourselves we achieve the perfection of God through Christ who, as flesh, was himself made perfect (Mt. 5:48; Heb. 1:3; 5:9, etc.). Third, as the song has it we were on the mind of God before the world began (cf. Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 1:2). (3* On the eternal nature of our salvation, Reymond, inconsistent though he is, has helpful things to say, Paul, pp.332-354.) Fourth, we are born of God and/or of the Spirit (John 1:13) and are therefore the seed of God (1 Pet. 1:23; 1 John 3:9). And as Jesus points out in John 3:6 like produces like. It was Mary not God who gave birth to the baby Jesus! Fifth, this means that we share the eternal life that characterizes God himself alone. In elaboration of this it is vital for us to note that we are not as physically corruptible human beings immortalized and eternalized, that is, merely granted extended or everlasting life which Paul says is impossible. Rather, as flesh we are destroyed (1 Cor. 6:13; 2 Cor. 5:1) or changed (1 Cor. 15:50ff.) But as his children we participate in the glory of God (Rom. 5:2; 2 Cor. 4:17; Col. 1:27) and share his nature (1 Pet. 4:6; 2 Pet. 1:4).
So what the Bible teaches is that we human beings created in the image of God can achieve his likeness in Christ and thus share his glory. In simple terms, it means that we, unlike the animals which are merely flesh (Isa. 31:3), can escape from the corruption of this created world (Rom. 8:18-25) and enter the presence of the eternal God himself. It was precisely to make this possible (Heb. 2:10; 1 Pet. 3:18) that our Saviour became man with the intention of regaining as man his former glory as God (John 1:1f.; 17:5,24).
Truly may it be said that believers in Christ travel from here to eternity.
G.E.Ladd. Jesus and the Kingdom,
R.L.Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Nashville, 1998.
Paul Missionary Theologian, Fearn, 2000.
C.J.H.Wright, The Mission of God, Nottingham, 2006.