What, exactly, is the future Christian hope? What are we supposed to be looking forward to? We long for heaven, of course—and Scripture definitely exhorts us along these lines: “Set your minds on things above” (Col 3:2), Paul says.
But what will those things be like when we reach them? What is the precise shape of our hope? What are the features of the architecture of heaven? How, exactly, will we spend the eternity we are to enjoy with Christ?
Many Christians have come to realize that the images of Christians floating on eternal cotton clouds, strumming harps, and wearing togas are a caricature. But there is an alternate image of the future—the biblical image—that has not fully taken shape in the minds of Christians.
Well, in his Word, to inform and energize our hope, the Lord displays a host of images and pictures of the age to come. He feeds our hopefulness with the blessed but confusing phrase, “a new heaven and a new earth.” It is, then, profitable for us to borrow a few moments to explore what God teaches us about this new heaven and earth.
God could have provided a 3D-video tour for us, so that we could experience heaven in advance through a VR-headset. But Scripture doesn’t present a systematic blueprint of the new heaven and earth. Instead, it publishes a kaleidoscope of metaphors.
The Bible nearly always speaks of the age to come with figurative language—by symbols, metaphors, and figures. Such language is not inaccurate or fictional; rather, it is calibrated to our earthly understanding. Candor requires that we admit that our insight into the future cosmos is dim and fuzzy. We see through a glass, darkly. Our God likes his surprises, and the glories Christ has prepared for us far exceed what we could imagine or fully process with our yet earthly minds.
Therefore, when speaking of eternity, the Lord imparts to us “this-worldly depictions of otherworldly realities.”1 These are earthly pictures clothed in concrete truth and emotion that portray the surpassing splendor of the mysterious and unfathomable age to come. Therefore, we should not read the revelation about heaven literalistically, and the Bible doesn’t give us a firm foundation to speculate about our curiosities. Scripture’s picture of the new heaven and new earth is reliable and spiritually edifying, but limited.
Key biblical terms
How, then, does the Bible refer to the everlasting cosmos to come? As Scripture employs a plethora of pictures, so it offers numerous names or titles for the future glory.
1. New heaven and new earth
The “new heaven and new earth” is a phrase that appears just four times in Scripture:
The force of this reference flows from the ubiquitous biblical phrase, “heaven and earth,” which is a merism referring to all of creation, the entire cosmos. In the beginning, God created heaven and earth; and at Christ’s second coming, he will fashion a new heaven and a new earth. Hence, new creation is a shorter synonym for the new heaven and earth.
2. The age to come
The New Testament labels the future cosmos as “the age to come” (Matt 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; Eph 1:21; 2:7; Heb 6:5), which is contrasted with “this age” or “this present, evil age” (1 Cor 2:6,8; Gal 1:4). Scholars refer to this as “two-age cosmology”: present age versus the coming age.
3. The new Jerusalem
The “new/heavenly Jerusalem” or “the Jerusalem above” depicts new creation (Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22; Rev 3:12; 21:2, 10).
“Glory,” or “the glory to come,” is shorthand for the undying age of the new heaven and new earth (Rom 8:18; 2 Cor 4:17; 1 Pet 4:13; 5:1,10; 2 Pet 1:3). This name reveals how new creation is like the earthly Jerusalem in the Old Testament, but now perfect and eternal for all of God’s people.
“Heaven” signifies new creation when it is used in places like “the kingdom of heaven”—Matthew’s favorite term for the present and consummate kingdom of God. “Your reward is great in heaven,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:12). Entering the kingdom of heaven includes both being saved now and having eternal life (Matt 5:20; 7:21). Our citizenship belongs “in heaven” (Phil 3:20) and our hope is laid up “in heaven” (Col 1:5). In the Bible, “heaven” can have several meanings depending on context. It can mean either the celestial realm of God unseen by mortals, the visible plane of stars and the sky, or the age to come. Hence, Abraham’s faithful gaze was set on “a better country, a heavenly one”—the new heaven and earth (Heb 11:16).
6. The resurrection
“Resurrection” or “in the resurrection” points to new creation and everlasting life (Matt 22:28; Mark 12:23; Luke 20:35; John 11:24).
7. The kingdom
“Kingdom” also directs us to the new heaven and earth in a host of places in Scripture. Jesus tells those on his right, “Come … , inherit the kingdom prepared for you” (Matt 25:34). Christ’s kingdom is described as having “no end” (Luke 1:33); it is “not of this world” (John 18:36). Paul warns that the wicked “cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9,10; Gal 5:21), neither can flesh and blood (1 Cor 15:50). And of course, our prayers are modeled on the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come.” In some passages, “kingdom” centers on the present reality and fulfillment of Christ’s salvation—the already, as it were; in others, it zooms in on the future glory—the not yet. But in Scripture, the already and the not yet are never separated.
8. The latter days
In the Old Testament, the age to come is foreshadowed and viewed from afar with the phrase “latter days” (Gen 49:1; Isa 2:2; Ezek 38:16; Hos 3:5; Mic 4:1; Dan 10:14). In other places, the future cosmos is signaled by “in that day” (Zech 13:1; 14:8, 9). Both of these time indicators possess an inherit ambiguity as they introduce both God’s great acts in Christ’s earthly ministry and the everlasting glories of new creation, which were regularly portrayed together in the Old Testament.
This list of names for the new heaven and new earth is not exhaustive. The Bible loves its diversity of language for the age to come. But these more common names orient us to the future cosmos and expand our horizon to the vast scriptural data upon new creation.
Key biblical concepts and images
Beyond this variety of names, the Lord imparts to us a foretaste of glory by regular teaching on certain essential motifs or themes. These are organizing concepts that are given prominence not merely in a single passage but throughout all Scripture. They echo, grow, and develop from the innocence of Eden through the Mosaic theocracy to the work of Jesus Christ and on into forever. And it is by these that we learn the most about the new heaven and earth and that our hope is made firm in our Lord.
1. The temple-garden-city of God
The primary concept for new creation in Scripture is both complex and ancient. Its antique roots feel foreign to us, but it was the daily dessert of the writers of Holy Scripture. This concept is the temple-garden-city of God. The ideal image is God’s glory dwelling in his temple within a garden paradise of Jerusalem (the holy city), with his redeemed people worshipping him forever. For short, we will call this the Zion motif. And the significance of this motif is large and pervasive. The Zion motif encapsulates Immanuel (God with his people), incarnation (Word becoming flesh), Exodus–salvation, covenant (I will be their God; they will be my people), God’s glory, everlasting life, holiness, worship, and feasting.
The Zion motif begins in Eden, where God planted a holy garden, a type of sanctuary, and placed Adam and Eve to live with him in righteousness. Yet, a higher more permanent life was offered beyond Eden. Man had to obey to earn everlasting life in God’s paradise sanctuary. Therefore, once Eden was forfeit by sin, God’s redemptive plan picks up the Zion motif in force after the Exodus. In fact, the goal of the Exodus redemption was dwelling on God’s holy hill forever (Exod 15:17–18). Hence, in the tabernacle/temple, the architecture and decoration recall the garden imagery with pomegranates, almond flowers, and the Menorah as a stylized tree of life. The Lord’s glory filled the tabernacle/temple (Exod 40:36; 1 Kgs 8:10), and God’s people worshipped in holy joy and splendid feasting.
As the Zion motif develops, the holiness of the temple gets extended to the entire city of Jerusalem/Zion. The paradise imagery of the city flowers, and the sweetness of holy communion with God and his people deepens. Thus, in the Psalms, otherworldly features are added to Jerusalem. A river gladdens the city of God (Ps 46:4); the righteous flourish in Zion like a cedar—a metaphor for everlasting life (Ps 92:12). After exile in the second Exodus, the prophets especially champion holy Zion as the fullness of God’s never-ending salvation. Zion/Jerusalem will be filled with God’s glory (Zech 8:3; Isa 4:5); the redeemed will be led to the holy city (Isa 51:11) and in the new heavens and new earth, the Lord will create Jerusalem to be an everlasting joy (Isa 65:18). The scholar Jon Levenson summarizes this Zion motif well:
The Temple serves, among many other things, as a survival of the primal paradise lost to the “profane” world, the world outside the sanctuary (Latin, fanum) and as a prototype of the redeemed world envisioned by some to lie ahead. It connects the protological and the eschatological, the primal and the final, preserving Eden and providing a taste of the World-to-Come.2
With this as background, we are well prepared for Revelation’s description of the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21–22). In this august vision of glory, the apostle John beholds the new cosmos (21:1), yet his description is preoccupied with the New Jerusalem (21:2). There is little to no interest in the wider world of mountains and wildlife, but he has tunnel vision for the temple–city. Inside the new Jerusalem, God dwells with his people (Immanuel) and all things are made new, being free from death (21:3–4). He then surveys the holy city with its twelve gates and twelve foundations, whose precious stones recall the jewels in Aaron’s breastplate. The glorious metropolis has no need of a temple as the Lord and the Lamb are its temple (the glorious presence of God). Nothing impure or profane may enter the holy realm, but only those who are written the Lamb’s book of life (21:27). Cascading from the throne, the river of life streams forth flanked by the tree of life, and the people of God will see the face of the Lamb and will worship and reign forever and ever. Every feature of the heavenly Jerusalem fits into the Zion motif as it is woven through Scripture.
Whatever the new world is like, John has eyes only for God’s glory in the new Jerusalem with his worshipping saints. A new heaven and earth communicate a physical, material world similar to the one we presently reside in. But the geography and fullness of this new creation seems a pale distraction from the overwhelming glow of Zion’s glory. In fact, the new creation varies in significant ways from this present age. Besides the extinction of death and evil, the new Jerusalem has no sea (21:1), sun and moon are irrelevant and possibly missing altogether (21:23; 22:5), and there is no night any longer (22:5). Upon deeper reflection, this blueprint of glory gets more mysterious, for the angel tells John that he will show him the Bride of the Lamb only to be exposed to the holy city. This vision pictures a place as representing the people.3 The imagery reveals more about the glorified saints than it does about the actual features of new creation.
The next key concept for the new heavens and new earth is that of kingdom. Scripture defines the kingdom of God as new creation, and so in heaven, God’s kingdom reaches its zenith and essential expression. Kingdom is linked to the Zion motif in that the temple was God’s royal palace and throne. Yahweh was enthroned above the cherubim of the Ark (Exod 25:22; 2 Sam 6:2; Ps 99:1). His throne resided in Zion (Isa 6:1; Ps 9:11). The royal chair of God and the Lamb sits in the nucleus of the new Jerusalem (Rev 22:1,3), and the dawning of the age to come proclaims that the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of God (Rev 11:15). When we petition our Heavenly Father for the kingdom to come, we are seeking in hope the new heaven and new earth.
3. Feasting in worship with God
Another prominent image of new creation is that of feasting in worship with God. The baseline of this motif sprouts from the Old Testament feast of Booths, the climatic and final pilgrim feast (Lev 23:34–43; Deut 16:13–15). Booths was the zenith feast of the Exodus redemption, where Israel enjoyed a foretaste of Sabbath rest in the Promised Land by rejoicing before God in the temple. This banquet goal was foreshadowed at Sinai (Exod 24:9–11). The melody of the Psalms regularly crescendo on this type of festive joy (Pss 48:11; 53:6). Isaiah delivers a breathtaking scene of the heavenly feast, with well-aged wine and prime beef (Isa 25:6–8). During his earthly ministry, our Lord lifted our hope towards this lavish dinner, when we will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt 8:11). The eschatological fulfillment of Booths is related in Revelation 7, when the international, glorified saints worship while being continually adorned with white robes and palm branches. And of course, the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb crowns our culinary hope as the opulent banquet of the heavenly Zion (Rev 19:7–9). Scripture doesn’t inform us about every activity that will fill the unending days of new creation, but dining with God and worshipping him unceasingly will be our eternal joy and good.
4. Resurrection and everlasting life
Resurrection and everlasting life are another essential element in the molecule of new creation. The passages that lay this gift of God before us fill the New Testament and are widely imaged in the Old Testament. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). When Paul was standing before Roman judges, he insisted that he was on trial for the resurrection (Acts 24:31). The Bible’s insistence upon the bodily resurrection differs greatly from immaterial notions of the immortality of the soul. Resurrection also shines a light on the issue of continuity and discontinuity. How will the new heaven and earth be like this cosmos? There is more we don’t know than we do, but by the body we can map some of the changes. Our glorified flesh will be like our Resurrected Lord’s (Phil 3:21), which can be seen, touched, and dined with (Luke 24:40–41; John 21:9–10). Yet, Paul trumpets the superior character of the heavenly body as imperishable, powerful, and spiritual compared to the dusty, weak, and perishable flesh we presently inhabit (1 Cor 15:42–51). Scholars debate the similarities and differences between this age and the age to come, but bodily resurrection is one of the firmest data points revealed in Scripture.
The final concept that is found in the DNA of the new heaven and new earth (though this list is no attempt to be exhaustive) shines forth in the very glory of God. The magnificent realm of forever is covered and bathed in the resplendent glory of the Lord. The doxological refrain peppered throughout the Bible is, “to God be the glory forever and ever” (Ps 96: 8; 1 Tim 1:17; Jude 25; Rev 1:6). In his second coming, the Son of Man will ride the clouds of heaven in his glory and the glory of the Father (Luke 9:26). The whole earth will be filled with his glory (Ps 72:19), every tongue will confess that Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father (Phil 2:11), and Jesus will offer all things up to the Father, so that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15:28).
Indeed, God being all in all and his glory filling all things is humanity’s chief end (Eph 1:22–23); the never-ending destiny in Christ’s mission is “to bring many sons to glory” (Heb 2:10). Hence, as we flip back to Rev 21–22 for a second read, it becomes evident that God’s glory is the main character of the eternal state. John describes the avenues of the New Jerusalem as a picture of Christ’s bride, but every feature is saturated with the Lord’s glory. The heavenly Zion possesses the glory of God radiating as a rare jewel. So powerful is the illuminating glory that the sun and moon are unnecessary; lamps become an irrelevant technology of a lost age. The dazzling light of the Lord God will fill every nook and cranny of new creation so that the redeem people of God will worship him and reign with him forever more.
Faith in the future
These truths are more than enough for our hope and present lives walking by faith. These are the things above that we set our minds upon, that energize our hope. Our curiosity enjoys speculating about the details of the new heaven and new earth. Will there be peaches and puppies in heaven? Well, Scripture may not grant us a firm amen on such minuscule inquiries; nevertheless, in the physical and holy new creation, God will be all in all. We will rest in the Sabbath Glory of the Lord, and we will live by the light of Christ’s face. Around the banquet table of Lamb’s Supper, we will feast and worship unendingly. And most importantly, all the glory and praise, the adoration and joyful reverence will be to the One Seated upon the throne, to the Lamb, and to the seven Spirits before the throne.
Come Lord Jesus, come quickly. Soli Dei Gloria.
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- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 4:719–20.
- Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of God of Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 90.
- See the article by Robert H. Gundry, “The New Jerusalem: People as Place, Not Place for People,” Novum Testamentum 29.3 (July 1987), 254–64.