Will those who love God and keep his commandments live for ever in heaven or on earth?
Heaven or earth?
“If we believe in Jesus, shall we spend eternity on earth or in heaven?” For many Christians the answer is obvious: it will be in heaven. That’s certainly the answer given by many traditional hymns. Before my sisters and I went to sleep our mother sometimes used to sing a hymn that ended: ‘Take me when I die to heaven, happy there with thee to dwell’.' Similarly the Christmas carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, which starts off every Christmas Eve carol service at King’s College, Cambridge, ends with the words:
Not in that poor lowly stable with the oxen standing byWe shall see him, but in heaven set at God’s right hand on high,When like stars his children crowned, all in white shall wait around.
The trouble is that if I had to wait around for ever, even with a crown on my head, I’d die of boredom. And for the average non-believer who doesn’t particularly desire to see Jesus anyway, telling him that he can have eternal life in heaven in the presence of Jesus and his angels is simply a turn-off. In fact I am sure that the rather nebulous image of eternal life that most of us Christians have is a principal reason that we don’t share the gospel more enthusiastically. How can we hope to excite anyone about something if, to be honest, it doesn’t excite us very much?
I was once at a church luncheon club where an elderly man was complaining that his body was wearing out.
“Never mind,” I said. “If you trust in Jesus you can live for ever.”
“I don’t want to live for ever,” he replied.
Strangely enough the Bible itself doesn’t seem to agree with traditional church teaching on this subject. Almost without exception it teaches that the eternal destiny of believers will not be in heaven but on earth, on earth with the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. For example, we are to pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth. (Matthew 6.10) The Lord will become king over all the earth. (Zechariah 14.9) The saints from all nations will reign on earth, Revelation tells us. In a vision of heaven John heard angelic beings worshipping Jesus with this song:
“Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”(Revelation 5.9,10)
So do such scriptures describe in some symbolical way how things are now, while we are still on the earth, or are they a literal description of how things will be in the life to come, in eternity? Let’s have a closer look at what the Bible teaches about God’s plans for our future.
The kingdom of God
In John’s gospel the good news is mainly about eternal life, but in the other three gospels the good news is all about the kingdom of God:
- Matthew And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel (good news) of the kingdom… (Matthew 9.35)
- Mark …Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand…”’ (Mark 1.14,15)
- Luke When you pray, say… “Thy kingdom come.”’ (Luke 11,2)
- Acts To his apostles, Jesus …presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. (Acts 1.3)
Jesus based all his teaching on the Old Testament, which he said he had come to fulfil. “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5.17) All his audience were Jews, and they would have understood from the Old Testament what he meant by the kingdom of God. The Old Testament taught that God would send a king, a descendant of King David, who would rule the earth with justice for ever on the throne of his famous ancestor.
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse (King David’s father), and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. …with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. (Isaiah 11.1-4)
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. (Isaiah 9.6,7)
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. …he shall be great to the ends of the earth. (Micah 5.2,4)
The prophets realized that if the coming descendant of King David was to reign for ever over the earth he would have to be more than human. His origin would be ‘from ancient days’ (a description normally reserved for God – see Daniel 7.9); he would have to be an ‘everlasting Father’ (again, a description previously applied only to God – see Deuteronomy 33.27 and Malachi 2.10); in fact he would somehow have to be the ‘Mighty God’ himself! Obviously these were all prophecies of Jesus, who was both the Son of Man and the Son of God. But what’s important here is that they all foretold that Jesus’s everlasting reign would be on the earth. And Jesus said that he had come to fulfil all that the prophets had foretold.
A new earth
The old Jewish prophets had two dilemmas. First, if the coming king was to rule for ever he would have to be more than human. Second, if he was to rule over the earth for ever, then something serious had to happen to the earth. For they were realistic about the present earth’s condition: it could not last for ever. ‘Of old thou didst lay the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of thy hands. They will perish, but thou dost endure; they will all wear out like a garment.’ (Psalm 102.25,26) “…the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment…” (Isaiah 51.6)
We can see the earth wearing out right now, in the alarming loss of topsoil and the increasing desertification of once fertile lands; the disappearance of tropical rainforests and vital sources of fresh water like Lake Chad in western Africa; the pollution of the air, oceans and outer space by industrial waste products and human garbage; the fast diminishing natural resources of oil, gas, copper, rare earths and other elements that are vital to contemporary life; and the continuing loss of species in the animal, plant and other kingdoms.
However, the Lord told the prophets not to worry. Just as he had made this earth long ago so he planned to make a new one, even better than the one we have now. “…the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be for ever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” (Isaiah 51.6) “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65.17) In the New Testament Peter wrote, ‘…according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.’ (2 Peter 3.13) And John was given a vision of this new earth: ‘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.’ (Revelation 21.1) The Bible consistently tells us that God is going to make another planet Earth.
The present earth has acquired many defects since God first made it, when it was ‘very good’. (Genesis 1.31) Thorns and thistles have appeared. Mountains have risen up resulting in earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and avalanches; oceans have spread out producing storms, floods and tsunamis. Some regions have become too hot or dry for comfort, while others are too cold or wet; animals and plants suffer from diseases and compete against each other for survival; too much sun causes skin cancer and too little produces vitamin D deficiency. But God has promised to put everything right by starting again, and this time the earth he creates will not be spoilt as a result of mankind’s sin.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom… (Isaiah 35.1)
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle… (Isaiah 55.13)
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling for ever, and a little child shall lead them… They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11.6,9)
There shall no more be anything accursed… (Revelation 22.3)
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the earth had passed away… God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21.1,4)
In the Authorized Version’s literal translation of Matthew 19.28 Jesus tells his disciples, “Verily, I say unto you, that ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” According to my vast Greek-English lexicon¹ the Greek word paliggenesia, which is translated as ‘regeneration’, means ‘recreation, or the restoration of a thing to its pristine state.’ Again, in the Authorized Version of Acts 3.21 Peter declares that heaven must receive Jesus ‘…until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.’ According to the lexicon the words translated as the ‘restitution of all things’ mean ‘the restoration not only of the true theocracy (rule by God) but also of the more perfect state of even physical things which existed before the fall.’
Thus the Bible unambiguously declares that the new earth which God will make will be just like the present earth was before Adam and Eve fell into sin. Thorns and thistles will no longer be the bane of gardeners and farmers. All the species of animals and plants that perished in the flood or have disappeared in more recent years will be restored. Woolly mammoths, dinosaurs of all kinds and even the duck-billed platypus will be back! But the wildest animals will be so tame and friendly that even a child would safely be able to hitch a lift on a velociraptor!
People will inhabit the new earth
If God is going to take the trouble of making a brand new earth fit for human beings it’s obvious that human beings are going to live in it. Otherwise what would be the point of making it? Since death will be no more, those who live in it will not die. And if they are not going to die they will have to be people who have been granted eternal life, either through their faith in Christ while they were alive, or else at the last judgement in response to how they lived without any knowledge of him. In other words, only the saved will inhabit the new earth. And that is pretty well what the Bible says: ‘Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and every one who loves and practises falsehood.’ (Revelation 22.15)
The saved will have been resurrected from death in physical bodies that no longer have any defects. ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.’ (Isaiah 35.5,6) When Jesus healed the blind, deaf, dumb and lame he was giving people a foretaste of his kingdom to come, when no one will be disabled or sick.
These resurrected bodies will be real bodies, just like Jesus Christ’s resurrection body. ‘…the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body…’ (Philippians 3.20,21) On the evening that Jesus rose from the dead he told his astonished disciples, “…a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24.39) In his resurrection body Jesus ate fish and bread; he looked forward to eating another Passover meal when he returned; and he looked forward to drinking some fresh (‘new’) grape juice with them. (Luke 24.42; John 21.9,15; Luke 22.14-18) People won’t need physical food or drink in heaven, which is why Jesus said that he wouldn’t eat a Passover or drink again of the fruit of the vine until he came back to the earth in his resurrection body to establish his kingdom. And it’s a resurrection body like his body that we shall have if we believe in him. We shall have a body that’s designed to eat earthly food and drink earthly drink, in other words a body designed to live on the earth.
The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the sons of men. (Psalm 115.16)
In fact the Bible clearly states that everyone who is saved through faith in Christ and is granted a place in his kingdom will live on the wonderful new earth that God has promised.
- The meek will live on the earth. (Matthew 5.5)
- Jesus’s original apostles and the saved people of Israel will live on the recreated earth. (Matthew 19.28)
- People from every people group, language and nation who have been saved by the blood of Christ will live on the earth. (Revelation 5.9,10)
So we shall not go up to the heavenly city: instead the heavenly city will come down to us. We shall not dwell for ever with God: instead he will dwell for ever with us, in the person of Jesus Christ the king.
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 of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21.2,3)
When Jesus is king…
Try to imagine life in a world in which everyone lives in perfect accordance with God’s will. A world in which everyone loves his neighbour as himself, in which everyone is kind and helpful and generous and cheerful and truthful and responsible and trustworthy. A world in which nobody is selfish or greedy or dishonest. In such a world no one will starve, no one will be homeless, no one will be lonely, no one will be afraid. There will be no war, no terrorism, no robbery, no violence. There will be no need for armies, police, judges or prisons, all of which consume labour and material resources and leave society poorer. People will never have to lock their doors or windows or cars or bicycles. In the business world there will no longer be vast and morally unjustifiable differences in the pay of owners and employees; disputes will be resolved amicably and fairly without any need for strikes, and no one will have to work excessive hours in a stressful environment. With no disease and no physical or mental handicaps there will be no need for an expensive health service. Everyone will have everything they need! That’s how it’s going to be in the world to come!
…nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. (Micah 4.3-4)
Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust for ever. (Isaiah 32.16,17)
“…all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your beasts, the increase of your cattle, and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading-trough.” (Deuteronomy 28.2-5)
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 51.11)
 A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament. Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti, translated, revised and enlarged by Joseph H. Thayer, fourth edition, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1901.
THIS ARTICLE IS AN EXTRACT from my book Z: Answers for the Final Generation. Read more about it or buy it here.