If you asked a random person on the street what eternity looks like for Christians according to the Bible, what kinds of images would you hear about?
Angel wings? Floating in the clouds? Playing harps forever and ever?
If you ask enough people, you’ll probably hear these answers over and over. Lots of Christians believe they will spend eternity as nothing more than a soul, floating around in some sort of ethereal, immaterial existence. That might sound kind of nice, but there’s one big problem: none of that is taught in the Bible.
The good news is that what we actually find in the pages of Scripture is a whole lot better than souls floating around. Listen to the words of Revelation 21:1-5:
Then 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. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
It would take quite a bit of misunderstanding to read this passage as suggesting Christians will be beamed up to an immaterial heaven. Instead, what we see is a new earth, and a city. In this picture, we don’t go up; heaven comes down. Once, the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem was the spot where God’s presence dwelt, and now, the Holy Spirit dwells within those who have been redeemed in Christ. But on That Great Day, when God establishes his Kingdom in its fulness, he will bring heaven, along with his very Self, to the New Earth, and his presence will saturate absolutely every part of the world. This is good news!
Of course, in order for God to dwell with the people and truly reign, sin must be banished from the whole creation. So God will judge sin and death, along with everything and everyone that reflect the Fall. It is sobering to consider what this means for those we know and love who do not know Christ. We can, and should, grieve for those who remain in darkness, who have not been welcomed into the Light. Even so, we can, and should, also celebrate what this judgment means: all that reflects sin, all that bears the images of false gods, will be cast away. Everything that reminds us of the wounds we have suffered and the wounds we have inflicted on others will be gone, once and for all.
But God doesn’t stop there. He also brings restoration.
Here’s a brief Greek word study. (If that sounds super boring to you, stick with me—I promise it’ll be worth it!) There are two Greek words for “new” used in the New Testament. Neos means “new in time”; to put it how we would say it today, neos means “brand new.” If you buy a new car, the latest model with the odometer reading a number really close to zero, you are driving a shiny neos car off the lot. But that’s not the “new” that is used in Revelation 21. In this passage, John uses the word kainos, which means “new in quality.” In other words, it refers to something that has been made new. Let’s say instead of a brand new car, you have an old, beat-up car, and you take it to someone who really knows automobiles. This person fixes the parts of the car that need a little TLC. Other parts that are broken beyond repair, they throw out and replace with new parts. They work out the dents and bumps in the body, give it a pretty new coat of paint, and detail the inside until it its luster from days past returns. They might even throw in a sweet new sound system. And after all that loving, painstaking work, even though this is, in one sense, the same car you dropped off weeks earlier, you have yourself a new car. We call this restoration. This is what kainos means.
And this is something like what Revelation 21 is talking about. The new heavens and new earth, and the new Jerusalem that descends to be God’s dwelling place, are the old creation, restored by God to the way it is supposed to be. And this idea isn’t just in one chapter of one book. God’s plan, as evidenced throughout the entire Bible, is not to destroy his creation and start over, but to lovingly, painstakingly restore his creation back to the way he originally intended it. As Revelation 21:5 says, God is “making all things new,” not making all new things!
So what? Aside from an interesting theology lesson, what does any of this means for us?
It means that everything matters. Not just what we do in church. Not just when we actively share our faith with others. Everything. Every part of our life. Our studies. Our work. Our relationships. Our hobbies. The way we care for the earth. The way we engage our surrounding cultures. The way we fight against injustice. Everything matters because God created it all, and he made it good. Everything matters because when it was all broken by sin, God didn’t give up on it, but came in the flesh to redeem what had been lost. Everything matters because, as much brokenness, dysfunction, and decay as we still see when we look around at the world we inhabit, there will come a day when God will restore his creation, including all those who are redeemed in Christ, back to his design—back to shalom. This isn’t just a belief system, and it’s not just exciting propaganda. We serve the God who is making all things new, and this changes everything.
—Sam Levy is a CCO campus minister in partnership with Gateway Church at Slippery Rock University and Grove City College. He loves his family, baseball, cheese, and walking with college students as they pursue the God who is making all things new. Follow him on Twitter at @sdlevy13.
For a deeper look at restoration eschatology, see R. York Moore’s talk at Jubilee 2014.