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Will The Earth Be Renovated?

Many believe — based chiefly on Romans 8.19-23, Psalm 102.25-26, and 2 Peter 3.13 — that once the material universe vaporizes, it shall undergo a resurrection-transformation.


Ostensibly, at the end of time, God will reverse the “curse” of entropy humanity’s sin put upon the “ground” (Gen. 3.17) by “delivering” nature itself “from the bondage of corruption” (Rm. 8.21) and “changing” it (Ps. 102.26) into a “new heavens and new earth” (2 Pt. 3.13).


At present, I have no intention of critiquing this view with any vigor, except to make the following generic observations.


An Ambiguous Passage

First, Romans 8.19-23 is an exceedingly ambiguous passage, with

“no explanation proposed which is perfectly satisfactory, or in which commentators concur” (Barnes, p. 188).

There are explanations of this passage other than the renovated earth theory that are also plausible, some more or less compelling than the rest. In light of this obscurity, surely a dogmatic interpretation of this passage is unwarranted.


Figurative Language

Second, each of these passages employs figurative language. Even advocates of the renovated earth theory acknowledge this.


If by “creation” Paul was referring to the material universe, then when he says “the creation” “eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rm. 8.19) and “groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Rm. 8.22), he is using prosopopoeia to personify the world. In other words, he is assigning human characteristics (e.g., sentience, thought, feeling) to inhuman things — a common figure of speech in the Bible (cf. Ps. 114; 96.12; 98.8; Isa. 35.1; 55.12). The material universe does not literally wait eagerly or groan for anything.


Though not incontrovertible, the figurative nature of the passage does not bode well for the belief in a literal renovation of the universe.


Replacement, Not Transformation

Third, Psalm 102.25-28 specifically contrasts the unending existence of God and his people with the universe, which shall “perish.”


When the psalmist speaks in simile of the earth being “changed” like a piece of clothing, he does not mean it will be re-knitted. Rather, it will be exchanged for another dwelling place. The NIV captures the sense. Just as we take off one article of clothing when it is old, moth-eaten, and filled with holes to exchange it for something newer and better, so this decrepit and crumbling universe “will be discarded,” and we’ll don a new dwelling place. Instead of “changed,” the ESV says the universe “will pass away.” The idea, then, is not transformation but ruination and replacement.


By way of further contrast, the psalmist next says God “remains the same, and (his) years will never end” — i.e., he neither ages as the universe does, nor ends as the universe will. Hence, to suggest, based on this passage, that the universe shall be effectively re-sown into a newer and better garment and so last forever is quite a stretch.


Cessation, Not Continuation

Fourth, again, 2 Peter 3.10 says the universe will “pass away” (parerchomai). The term signifies

“to come to an end and so no longer be there, pass away, disappear” (Danker, p. 776).

Revelation 20.11 expresses this concept vividly:


“The earth and the heaven (i.e., the sky —AP) fled away. And there was found no place for them.”


But if the universe will be restored or renovated, then it will still “be there.” Indeed, a “place” will be “found…for” it after all. How does one explain this discrepancy? Will the universe “disappear” and “cease to exist” or will it continue in a different form?


New Heavens and Earth

Finally, both Peter (2 Pt. 3.10ff) and John (Rev. 21.1) speak of a “new heavens and a new earth.”


“Heavens” does not refer to God’s dwelling place but to the skies above. The phrase is a picturesque way of describing a new environment — a fresh habitation. It is “new” (kainos) not in the sense of time but in the sense of quality — a pristine environment.


In Revelation 21, John explicitly distinguishes the material universe from the “new” environment, “for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea” (Rev. 21.1). Hence, the new heavens and the new earth are not the same as the “first heaven and the first earth.” Rather, the material universe will cease to exist. It will not endure in any form or fashion, renovated or otherwise. It will be “no more.”


Instead, we shall be taken to live in a new environment “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3.13). Scripture repeatedly identifies this “new” or pristine environment as Heaven, God’s dwelling place (cf. 1 Pt. 1.4; Phil. 3.20; Col. 1.5; Mt. 8.11; Heb. 10.34). Unlike the material universe, Heaven’s skies and land (so to speak) shall be pristine and unending.

Conclusion

When there are obscure passages couched in figurative language that seem to suggest the universe shall be transformed, while plainer passages expressed in literal language indicate the universe shall “pass away,” “melt,” and “be dissolved” and that our material dwelling place shall be exchanged for the “new” or pristine environment of Heaven, it is more responsible to interpret the obscure passages in light of the plain — not the other way around.


In short, the case for a renovated earth is less than compelling.


 
Resources
Barnes, Albert. Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament: Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1956.

F. W. Danker, et al. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000.

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