What happens at the end? What sort of transformation does John have in mind when he says that earth and heaven “fled away” from the presence of God at the judgment of all the dead (Rev. 20:11)? Are we to suppose that the world-as-we-know-it must finally disappear—or perhaps be destroyed—to be replaced by an utterly new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1)? That has probably been the traditional view, but other interpretations are available. J. Richard Middleton, whose stimulating book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology I have been poring over recently, insists that what John describes is not cosmic destruction but the renovation of this world. Others will argue that John, like Isaiah, uses the language metaphorically to speak of the restoration of God’s people following the judgment of AD 70. Here’s why I think the “traditional” view is nearer the mark.
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them…. 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. (Rev. 20:11; 21:1)
1. Middleton thinks that we are “justified in taking the fleeing of heaven and earth as a vivid representation of the cosmic shaking that accompanies God’s righteous presence” (205). The perturbation of heaven and earth is a common feature of theophanies: “LORD, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled and the heavens dropped, yes, the clouds dropped water. The mountains quaked before the LORD, even Sinai before the LORD, the God of Israel” (Jdg. 5:4–5); “the heavens, and the earth, and the abysses are shaken at the presence of His majesty” (T. Levi 3:9). But in none of these texts do heaven and earth flee away, and we should probably assume that John is trying to make a different point here: “fled away” does not mean “were shaken”.
2. The “great white throne” is still there after earth and heaven have fled away. Does that mean, as Middleton supposes, that heaven “has not been obliterated” after all (205)? The argument seems a bit literalistic for a vision of this nature, but it is also relevant, surely, that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). At this final judgment of humanity and vindication of the creator, it makes sense that the judge is seen apart from both the heavens and earth which he created.
3. Middleton also observes that after heaven and earth have fled away “the sea gave up the dead who were in it”. So the sea is still there—it hasn’t been destroyed. But when the new heaven and new earth appear in Revelation 21:1, the sea “was no more”—it has passed away along with the “first heaven and the first earth”. Presumably the sea is kept back so that it can give up the dead who have not been consigned to Hades. Aune notes a “popular belief that the souls of those who died at sea did not enter Hades but remained where they died in the water”.1 Once the sea’s dead have been recovered for judgment, there is no further need for it.
4. To underline the fact that earth and heaven have fled away, John adds that “no place was found for them” (topos ouch heurethē autois). The phrase is found verbatim in the Theodotion translation of Daniel 2:35: when the stone hits the brittle feet of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the statue disintegrates and is blown away by the wind like chaff, and “no place was found for them” (topos ouch heurethē autois). It is not much to go on, but the force of the expression would appear to be that the thing has ceased to exist.
5. One final argument that Middleton puts forward is that the passing away (apēlthen) of heaven and earth is of the same type as the passing away of the “old” in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away (parēlthen); behold, the new has come.” Middleton asks: “Are we to believe that Paul thinks that the passing away of the old life is equivalent to the obliteration of the person, who is then replaced by a doppelgänger?” I’m not sure this works: Paul is not saying that the person “passes away”; it is the “old things” (ta archaia) that have gone, and “new things” (kaina) have come.
Also, I don’t think that the distinction between aperchomai in Revelation 21:1 and parerchomai in 2 Corinthians 5:17 can be so easily dismissed (“the prefixes… do not indicate any discernable [sic] difference in meaning”). Parerchomai has a well established existential or apocalyptic usage: “our life will pass away (pareleusetai) as the traces of a cloud” (Wis. 2:4); the “whole world shall pass away (pareleusetai)…” (T. Job 33:4). This does not appear to be the case for aperchomai, which means to “go away, depart” and in this context simply corresponds to “fled away” in Revelation 20:11.
But in any case, if there is any analogy between the transformation of the person and the transformation of the cosmos here, it is between the resurrection of the person and the remaking of creation. A person who is “in Christ” is “new creation”, but he or she still dies. When that person is raised from the dead, the old natural perishable body is replaced by a new spiritual imperishable body, because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:42-50). The new creation which John sees in Revelation 21:1 is as different from the old creation as the imperishable resurrection body is different from the perishable natural body.
So to conclude, it seems to me that John means to describe a fundamental disjunction rather than mere “cosmic renovation”. It is a mistake to imagine that the world-as-we-know-it is being progressively redeemed. A redeemed people is called to bear active corporate witness to the blessedness of created life as long as the world exists, but in the end—whatever that means—humanity will be decisively “judged”, evil and death will be destroyed, and a new creation will come into existence.
It is an obvious corollary of this argument that, at this point, the Preterist view is also mistaken. John does enough, I think, to dissociate his narrative from the prophetic metaphor. In his mind, what is at stake in the end is whether God or evil will have the final word.
- 1D.E. Aune, Revelation 17–22 (1998), n.p.