What Happens When You Die? Glorified and Free on the New Earth
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.
Why God Revealed What Will Happen When We Die
The reason God revealed to us in the Bible what will happen when we die is that knowing what happens to us when we die takes away fear and fills us instead with hope and confidence and anticipation. And when fear goes and hope in God overflows, we live differently. Our lives show that our treasure in God is more precious than the fleeting attractions of sin.
When we relish the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2), we don’t yield to the sinful pleasures of the moment. We are not suckered in by advertising that says the one with the most toys wins. We don’t devote our best energies to laying up treasures on earth. We don’t dream our most exciting dreams about accomplishments and relationships that perish. We don’t fret over what this life fails to give us (marriage, wealth, health, fame).
Instead we revel in the wonder that the owner and ruler of the universe loves us and has destined us for glory and is working infallibly to bring us to his eternal kingdom. We live to meet the needs of others because God is living to meet our needs. We love our enemies, and do good, and bless those who curse us and pray for those who despise us because our reward in heaven is great and we are not enslaved to the petty pleasures that come from returning evil for evil.
All this flows from our unshakable hope. When you know the truth about what happens when you die — and you believe it — that truth makes you free. Free from the short, shallow, stupid, suicidal pleasures of sin.
I am preaching these messages to make you free to live for the glory of God.
In this fourth message in the series I want to talk about the final, eternal state. Where is it all going to end up? Before we look at our text in Romans 8, let me give an answer from another place in the Bible and pose a problem that I think our text answers.
Let’s look first at Revelation 21:1–4. John says that there will be a new earth and that heaven will come down, as it were, and God will make his eternal dwelling among men on the new earth.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
This is a beautiful picture of what is coming: a new earth, the people of God living there with no death, no pain, no tears. And best of all, God will not be far away, but will pitch his tent, as it were, in our midst, and dwell among us forever.
“The First Heaven and the First Earth Passed Away”
The question raised here is this: When John says in verse 1, “The first heaven and the first earth passed away” (cf. Matthew 24:35), does he mean that the earth we live on and the sky over our head will be totally done away with and that God will start over with a totally new creation? It’s a question like the one two weeks ago concerning our resurrection bodies: Will God raise us up or will he start over with a totally new creation of different bodies for us? I argued for continuity between our bodies now and our bodies in the resurrection. And this is what I am going to argue for concerning the earth.
The Present Heavens and Earth Will “Be Destroyed”
But what does John mean, “The first heaven and the first earth passed away”? Peter, in his second letter says something similar, but even more graphic. In 2 Peter 3:10–13 Peter describes how the present earth and heaven will “pass away.”
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.
Peter says that our great hope for the final state of eternity is new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells — the same as John in Revelation 21. He also speaks of the heavens passing away (v. 10). And he goes farther and three times says that there will be destruction of the present world. Verse 10: “the elements will be destroyed with intense heat.” Verse 11: “these things are to be destroyed.” Verse 12: “the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat.”
The question then is: Does this mean that the earth we live on and the heavens we live under will be totally done away with? And will God start over with a totally new creation?
What Does “Be Destroyed” and “Pass Away” Mean?
First, I would say that when Revelation 21:1 and 2 Peter 3:10 say that the present earth and heavens will “pass away,” it does not have to mean that they go out of existence, but may mean that there will be such a change in them that their present condition passes away. We might say, “The caterpillar will pass away and the butterfly emerges.” There is a real passing away and there is a real continuity, a real connection. Or we might say, “The tadpole passes away and the frog appears.”
And when 2 Peter 3 says that this heaven and earth will be “destroyed,” it does not have to mean entirely “put out of existence.” We might say, “The flood destroyed many farms.” But we don’t mean that they vanished out of existence. We might say that the immediate surroundings of Mt. St. Helens were destroyed. But anyone who goes there now and sees the new growth would know that “destroy” did not mean put out of existence.
And so what Peter may well mean is that at the end of this age there will be cataclysmic events that bring this age and this world to an end as we know it — not putting it out of existence, but wiping out all that is evil and cleansing it, as it were, by fire and fitting it for an age of glory and righteousness and peace that will never end.
Well, it may mean that. But does it really mean that?
Romans 8: Four Evidences for a Renewed Creation
Now we are ready to read this morning’s test from Romans 8 with this question in mind. There are at least four reasons in these verses suggesting that the creation we know and the earth we live on will not be annihilated but will be renewed for our eternal joy.
1. God Subjected Creation to Futility in Hope
In Romans 8:19–20 Paul says, “The anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope.”
In verse 19 he pictures the creation — the heavens and the earth — as having longings and eager expectation. Something is coming that makes creation, as it were, stand on tiptoe that something good is going to happen to her. Then verse 20 gives part of the reason why creation is so full of longing and expectation, namely, because the futility of creation — the decay and disaster and disease and pain — is a temporary curse that God put on creation, but there is a great hope coming. “The creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope.” God did not curse the creation with futility as his final word. He did it “in hope.”
This means that creation is not appointed for annihilation but for restoration. He subjected it in hope.
2. The Creation Will Be Set Free from Corruption
The second reason Paul gives for why we should not expect creation to be annihilated is found in verse 21 (the content of the hope). “The creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
The creation is not destined for annihilation. It is destined for liberation. It will be set free from the “slavery to corruption” — the futility that God subjected it to in hope. I think this is the clearest statement of all that the earth and the heavens will not “pass away” or be “destroyed” in the sense of going out of existence. Paul says plainly, they will be set free from corruption. The futility will be destroyed. The bondage to corruption will be consumed in the purifying, liberating fire of God’s judgment. But the earth will remain. And there will be no more corruption. No more futility. No more crying or death or pain.
3. Creation Is Suffering Labor Pains
The third argument Paul gives against the annihilation of the present creation is found in verse 22: “We know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.”
What he says here is that the upheavals of creation are like labor pains during the last stages of pregnancy. In other words, something is about to be brought forth from creation, not in place of creation. Creation is not going to be annihilated and recreated with no continuity. The earth is going to bring forth like a mother in labor (through the upheavals of fire and earthquake and volcanoes and pestilence and famine) a new earth.
Jesus used the same imagery of labor pains when he said in Matthew 24:7–8, “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.”
This earth is like a mother about to give birth to a new earth where righteousness dwells and where God reigns in the midst of his people.
4. The Redemption of Our Bodies
Finally, Paul gives one last argument against annihilation of the earth in verse 23: “And not only this [not only does the natural world groan], but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.”
The reason this is so crucial is that he connects the redemption of our bodies — that is, the resurrection and restoration of our bodies after a lifetime of groaning — with the restoration of the creation. Our bodies are part of this present creation. What happens to our bodies and what happens to the creation go together. And what happens to our bodies is not annihilation but redemption: “we await the redemption of our bodies.” Our bodies will be redeemed, restored, made new, not thrown away. And so it is with the heavens and the earth.
Our Final Habitation: This Earth Made New
So my conclusion is that our final habitation will be on the new earth, which will be this earth made new.
In Matthew 19:28 Jesus calls it “the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne.” Creation will be “born again.” In Acts 3:21 Peter calls it “the times of the restoration of all things of which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets.”
And what did the prophets say about the new earth? Isaiah 11:6–11 gives us an example.
And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze; their young will lie down together; and the lion will eat straw like the ox. And the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Cf. Isaiah 65:25; Micah 4:3.)
So history as we know it will come to an end with God at the center. His glory will be so bright as to make a moon out of the sun (Revelation 21:23). And on the earth there will be a great sea of knowledge reflecting the glory of the Lord back to him. And just as the rejection of that knowledge brought a curse on the creation, so the restoration of that knowledge will bring blessing to the creation and the animals themselves will be free from the curse and reflect the beauty of the Lord.