Lately, I have been bombarded on my Facebook and Twitter pages with this question. It frequently comes up, too, during my radio interviews and at my speaking events. Part of the upsurge, I am sure, is due to the various Christian authors who have recently addressed this subject. While I devoted a whole chapter to the question in my book, A Matter of Days, I recognize that it is time for an updated answer.1
Many people think the answer must be “yes” based on what the Bible says about God restoring all things (Acts 3:21). Others think the answer must be yes based on the natural beauty and harmony of our planet in those parts of Earth that are unspoiled by human abuse. However, for a number of biblical reasons, I think the answer is “no.” Similarly, for a number of scientific reasons, I conclude the answer cannot possibly be “yes.”
Acts 3:21, which includes the phrase “until the time comes for God to restore everything” must be understood in its original context. The statement appears in an evangelistic message Peter gave to a large audience in Solomon’s Colonnade after Peter had healed a man who had been crippled since birth. In this message, Peter said nothing about a physical restoration. His focus was on encouraging a spiritual restoration. His challenge (Acts 3:19) to his listeners was to “repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”
The Bible passages most frequently cited to support the notion that the present Earth will be the final, eternal home of humans redeemed by Jesus Christ are Psalm 148:5–6, Ecclesiastes 3:14, and Daniel 12:3. These verses state that God set the Sun, Moon, and stars “in place for ever and ever,” “that everything God does will endure forever,” and that the stars will shine “for ever and ever” respectively. The Hebrew word in these texts that is translated as “forever” and “for ever and ever” is ‘olam. Psalm 148:5-6 and Daniel 12:3 also include the Hebrew word ‘ad. When ‘olam is used with or without ‘ad, it most often denotes “long continuance into the future.”2 Unlike the word “eternal” or “forever” in English, the Hebrew word ‘olam does not have to mean eternal or forever unless the context clearly indicates otherwise.
Citing these three passages in support of the case for our eternal home being the planet on which we currently dwell overlooks an important biblical interpretative principle. That principle is not to decide upon an interpretation until one has examined all the relevant biblical texts.
In reading through the whole of the Bible, I found no other texts that imply or suggest that any of the stars, Sun, Moon, or Earth are eternal. However, I found many texts stating that they are temporal. For example, Psalm 102:25-27 declares:
In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.
Isaiah adds (34:4, 51:6, 65:17), “all the stars of the heavens will be dissolved,” “the heavens will vanish like smoke,” and “the former things [the heavens and the earth] will not be remembered nor will they come to mind.” 2 Peter 3:7, 10 continues, “The present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction. . . . The heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (or “will be burned up” in some early manuscripts). Matthew 24:35 records Jesus saying “heaven and earth will pass away.”
The words “perish,” “wear out,” “discarded,” “dissolved,” “vanish,” “not be remembered,” “destruction,” “disappear,” “destroyed,” and “pass away” imply that a time will come when the universe and Earth will cease to exist. These words are consistent with what Jesus told his disciples when he was about to go to the cross and depart from them, “I am going away [to my Father’s house] to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). Here, Jesus plainly declares that the eternal home for redeemed humans is away from Earth in the house of God the Father.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:9 declares,
However, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no mind has conceived’—the things God has prepared for those who love him . . .
Everything on our present planet is something we can either see, hear, or conceive. On the other hand, a realm beyond the space-time dimensions of the universe and the laws of physics that govern the universe would indeed be beyond what is possible for any human alive on Earth to see, hear, or conceive.
Revelation 21 describes a new heaven and a new earth that will be the eternal dwelling place of redeemed humans. Revelation 21:1 states, “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” Revelation 21:5 adds, “I [Christ] am making everything new.” These statements imply that the new heaven and new earth will replace the present earth and universe. That is, our present planet will not be restored. It will be replaced. This conclusion is sustained by further descriptions of the new earth in Revelation 21. It is a place with no death, decay, or pain. There is no darkness and no Sun. God is the source of all light. Thus, the new earth must be a place with no thermodynamics and no electromagnetism. Revelation 21 also describes structures that defy the law of gravity.
Some restorationists argue that before the fall of Adam there was no thermodynamics and that the restoration of our present planet will include bringing it back to its original thermodynamics-free state. However, this argument runs counter to biblical declarations of the fixity or constancy of the laws of physics. In Jeremiah 33, for example, God declares his immutability. In verse 25 God uses an analogy. He states that as the laws governing the heavens and the earth do not change, neither does he change. In describing conditions before the fall of Adam, Genesis 1–3 states that the Sun was shining in a manner that allowed the existence of physical life on Earth: plants and trees were growing, and Adam and Eve and the animals were eating and digesting food. Such activities require the operation of the thermodynamic laws in exactly the same manner as they operate today. Furthermore, in their measurements of distant stars and galaxies, and hence, because of the velocity of light, measurements at different times before God created Adam and Eve, astronomers detect thermodynamics operating just as it does today.
I have also heard restorationists argue that Earth will be placed under laws of physics and space-time dimensions that it never before possessed. Such a scenario, however, is not a restored Earth or a restored universe. Such a “restored Earth” and “restored universe” would be so radically different from any past or present condition of Earth and the universe as to no longer be recognizable as Earth or the universe.
The universe and Earth never were designed to be a permanent habitat for life. In my book, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, I explain why the universe and Earth offer no hope of eternal life.3 First, the universe is headed for a heat death. Eventually, the flow of heat from hot bodies to cold bodies will bring everything in the universe to the same temperature. When that happens, metabolism must cease, and with the cessation of metabolism comes the cessation of all physical life.
Second, long before the universe experiences a heat death, all the stars in the universe will burn out. Physical life is not possible without stably shining stars. Third, before the Sun is five billion years old, it will so expand in size as to vaporize Earth. Fourth, in just a few tens of millions of years the Sun will be too bright to sustain photosynthetic life on Earth without Earth’s atmosphere possessing a carbon dioxide level much below that which is necessary to sustain photosynthetic life. Fifth, in less than 100,000 years the Sun will no longer be stable enough to sustain global, high-technology civilization.
In my book, Improbable Planet, I describe how God designed Earth to be a place of unspeakable beauty and splendor for humans to enjoy.4 Given the laws of physics, Earth presently displays the maximum natural beauty that is physically possible. God placed us on Earth at the zenith of its splendor. However, the time window during which this spectacular natural beauty can be sustained is brief, briefer than 17,000 years, and we already have gone through more than 15,000 of those years. The laws of physics simply do not permit Earth to be sustained in a permanently beautiful state.
I also describe in Improbable Planet why the time window during which Earth can sustain a human population above 5 billion is even briefer.5 The maximum permitted by the laws of physics and the characteristics of the solar system is less than 10,500 years, and we have already gone through 9,000 of those years. The human population limit of 5 billion assumes a standard of living and technology equal to the global average. The limit drops to 1–2 billion humans for a standard of living and technology equal to the United States average.
A Bigger Habitat
My reading of the Bible persuades me that the redeemed host of humanity will be a lot more than just 5 billion souls. Revelation 7:9 proclaims that it will be an uncountable number. While it is true that the gateway to salvation isj narrow (Matthew 7:12–14), implying that the majority of humanity will choose to reject Jesus Christ’s offer of salvation, the gate evidently is wide enough to include a large minority of humanity.
Christ’s command to his followers to make disciples in all of humanity’s people groups sustains the conclusion that the number of redeemed humans will not be small. There are people groups on Earth today where the percentage of actively participating evangelical Christians exceeds 30 percent. This encouraging number provides additional evidence for a large number of redeemed humans.
Prophecies in the book of Zechariah (12:10–13, 13:8–9) predict that there will come a time when one-third of all living Jews will grieve over the one they have pierced and repent and call upon the Lord for salvation. Since God does not play favorites, it is likely that a similarly large minority of Gentiles likewise will repent and call upon the Lord for salvation.
If one-quarter or more of all humans who have ever lived have passed or will pass through the gate that leads to salvation, the population of the redeemed host of humanity must be quite large. The Population Reference Bureau determined that the number of people who have lived on Earth up until 2011, assuming that all humans owe their descent from one man and one woman whose origin occurred 50,000 years ago, must be at least 108 billion.6 One-quarter of that number equals 27 billion human beings. Our present planet is far from large enough to feed that many humans—let alone comfortably house them all—in the mansions that Jesus promised in John 14.
Part of the joy of life with Christ in the here and now is exploring the wonders of what God has created on our Earth. Since none of us will live beyond about 120 years (Genesis 6:3), there is no way we will run out of earthly wonders to explore. Eternity, however, is a different matter. I believe part of the joy of eternal life in the new creation will be exploring the wonders of the new creation. If that new creation is limited to the present Earth, I think we will shortly run out of things to explore.
Besides the biblical and scientific challenges to Earth being the eternal home of the redeemed, another problem I have with our present planet being our eternal home is that it is too pessimistic about the number of humans God intends to redeem. A second problem is that the present Earth would too severely limit the reward God can bestow upon the redeemed. Yes, our original parents enjoyed a paradisiacal existence in the garden of Eden, but Scripture appears to promise blessings and rewards for the redeemed that are far beyond anything that was possible in Eden.