The New Heavens and New Earth
Have you seen the cartoon? As I recall it, two citizens of the heavenly kingdom are standing atop a cloud, harps slung over their shoulders, newly won “angel wings” hanging at the ready. But the two seem bored. As they peer off into the limitless beyond that stretches before them, one complains to the other, “I wish I had brought a magazine!”
Really bad theology in a lot of ways, but peeking through the silliness of that cartoon is a popular notion that deserves to be dispelled: the notion that the eternal state—the new heavens and new earth, that blessed place where Jesus went to prepare for His own (Jn. 14:1–3)—will be a place of perpetual indolence.
A student once expressed the same notion to me (albeit a bit facetiously): “It will probably take us a millennium or two to really master the harp; but after that, what will we do to pass the time?” There is something intrinsically unsatisfying about such a prospect, and with good theological reason. Consider three theological realities that usher in an extremely different—and much more appealing—vision of what life will be like in that eternal city.
Issue #1: The Image of God
First, man is made in the image of God, and as such, he was never intended for indolence. Before the Fall, Adam was given a garden to keep and an earth to subdue (Gen. 1:28). God intended that, in tending to those responsibilities, Adam would reflect the image in which he was made, the image of a creating and sustaining God.
The responsibility to work is not a result of the Fall. However, the odious, heavy character of it—the requirement that man struggle against thorns and thistles in the sweat of his brow—is the consequence of his rebellion against God. Man is made with the capacity and the impulse to produce, and only in so doing does he honor the God who created him.
Thus people will still work in the eternal state; but the work’s onerous nature will have been eradicated.
In the life to come, redeemed men and women will finally be delivered from the presence of sin; they will live in a re-created universe that no longer groans under the weight of sin’s curse. Thus redeemed humanity will be equipped to reflect the Maker’s image perfectly.
Delightful, productive labor will certainly be an important part of the eternal state. Such is the happy assessment of Revelation 14:13, where the Spirit of God pronounces those who die in the Lord blessed because “they may rest from their labors [the Greek for labors emphasizes pain and hardship], and their works [the Greek for works speaks of the productivity and accomplishment that comes only from work] do follow them.”
Unquestionably, Scripture speaks of heaven as a place of rest (Heb. 3:11— 4:11; Rev. 6:11; 14:13; cf. Rev. 14:11). Labor’s painful dimension is so ever present in this world that it is easy to misperceive “rest” as indolence, to carelessly conclude that the only way to escape from the pain and heaviness of labor is to cease once and for all from all effort or work. Indeed, it requires a deliberate act of a sanctified imagination to conceptualize a moral/ physical universe in which there is productive “work” without the odium of “labor.”
However, though you and I have never known anything but a physical universe that fights back, resisting every effort to be productive, from the beginning it was not so. The promise of Scripture is that God will one day reshape the moral universe into a place where “his servants shall serve him” (Rev. 22:3) happily and effectively, without any of the heaviness and odium that has accompanied all effort and work from the day of Adam’s fall until today.
Issue #2: Eden Restored
Adam and Eve were not placed in the Garden of Eden to wear out hammocks! That Garden was intended to be a busy, productive place. We cannot know the earth’s pre-Fall ecology in all of its details, and the evidence is compelling that precious little time went by before the tempter appeared and the whole enterprise was thrown into disarray. Nevertheless, we can be sure that Adam and Eve were given a mandate to be busy about the stewardship God had assigned them and that they were happily engaged in fulfilling that mandate for that short time before their wickedness.
All of this is instructive in that Scripture makes it clear that the eternal state will be Eden restored. In Eden, God walked with His creatures in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8); in the new heavens and new earth, redeemed men and women “shall see his face” (Rev. 22:4).
In the Garden of Eden the tree of life enabled Adam and Eve to live in health perpetually (Gen. 2:9; 3:22, 24). In eternity, the tree of life will provide for the healing of the nations in the eternal city (Rev. 22:2, 14). The Garden of Eden was uncorrupted by sin until Adam embraced rebellion and was expelled from that holy place (Gen. 3:22–24). In the same fashion, no wickedness will be tolerated in the new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:8).
However disappointingly brief the history of mankind in Eden was before the Fall, it still shows us that God intended people to be active and productive. Therefore, we can happily anticipate that the culture God will fashion in the new heavens and new earth will intend the same.
Issue #3: The Millennium
What is the relationship of the Millennium to the new heavens and new earth?
The people of God in the Old Testament were taught to anticipate a day when the earth would be purged of sin and corruption, when the heavens and earth would be made over anew (Isa. 65:17–18; 66:22). That hope was reinforced and expanded upon in the New Testament.
Yet a problem arises in tracing how the New Testament revelation builds upon the earlier promises of the Old Testament.
Old Testament Revelation. As the Old Testament end-times picture is fleshed out, there emerges the concept of a worldwide Kingdom ruled by Messiah and established when God intervenes powerfully in human history to bring to a sudden and final conclusion “the times of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:24).
That Kingdom will be a fifth world empire (following four wicked Gentile empires); and it will be characterized in every way as a kingdom. That is, it will have a King who reigns from His capital city; an administrative structure (absent of sin and corruption); and all of the apparatus and appurtenances intrinsic to a culture (a sinless one).
In short, the Messianic Kingdom is explicitly described as a real Kingdom—a busy, productive, living society. Every facet of human life, every aspect of society and interaction intrinsic to a vibrant, functioning (albeit unfallen) culture, will be a part of that Messianic Kingdom.
But the Messianic Kingdom will be distinct from every human culture that preceded it. Among those distinctives is this one: The Messianic Kingdom will be eternal. The Scriptures are explicit in this regard (Dan. 2:44–45; 7:13–14, 27). This will be a Kingdom that has no end (Isa. 9:7; Mic. 4:7).
The Problem. At the close of New Testament revelation, we are told the Messianic Kingdom will endure for a thousand years. In fact, six times in seven verses in the final book of the New Testament (and here alone in all of Scripture), do we encounter that figure: The Messiah will reign for one thousand years (Rev. 20:2–7).
A thousand years is a long time, but it is not eternity! So how is this passage to be reconciled with the clear Old Testament affirmations that the Messianic Kingdom will be eternal?
The Solution. The apostle Paul provided the answer when he discussed the program of resurrections in 1 Corinthians 15. The apostle cataloged the various resurrections and then concluded with this remarkable affirmation: “Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father” (15:24). That is, at the conclusion of the thousand-year reign of King Jesus, the Kingdom is not dissolved or abandoned; it is handed up to the Father.
Thus the thousand-year Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 20:1–7) is not a kingdom distinct from the new heavens and earth. Rather, the thousand-year reign is the first stage of that eternal blessedness that will issue and culminate in the new heavens and new earth.
And in that truth resides a world of instruction concerning the life we will live when the heavens and earth are made new. Though there is in the Scriptures little explicit description of life in the eternal state, there is a great deal of instruction as to life in the Messianic Kingdom. But the eternal state is the Kingdom handed up to the Father; and therefore, with certain important exceptions related to God’s purposes for each stage, that which is true of the thousand-year Messianic Kingdom is true of the new heavens and new earth.
Thus the best way to understand life in the eternal city is to study the extensive description and characterization of Messiah’s Kingdom throughout Scripture. As the Kingdom is a busy, happy, functioning, industrious culture, so will be the eternal state. And just as the citizens of the thousand-year Kingdom of Revelation 20 will be living active lives as part of that vibrant society, so will the multitudes of redeemed and resurrected sons of Adam live in that day when the heavens and earth are made new by God.
So what is the sum of the matter? There is much about life beyond the ages of mortality that we cannot know. Indeed, I suspect that the surprises of God—like His compassions—will be new every morning. But I can tell you this with confidence: Don’t worry about having to bring a magazine!