Why does the Bible say that Heaven will be destroyed by Fire and a New Heaven Created?
2 Peter 3:11-13 predicts that heaven and earth will be destroyed by fire and a new heaven and earth will be installed in its place:
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, because 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.
Why was the old heaven supposed to be destroyed according to the Bible? The answer to this question is scattered throughout the Bible. The destruction of heaven is symbolized in the Bible by celestial omens like that found in Matthew 24:29 in which the sun and moon darken and the stars fall from the sky. According to the Midrash, the sun and moon represent the political and religious authorities, and the stars represent the priests or rabbis.[i] This interpretation is illustrated in the Bible. When the sun is darkened, this is often a sign that a king is about to be overthrown or killed: “He [the king] will endure as long as the sun. . . .” (Psalm 72:5) Also in Isaiah 24:21-23, God overthrows the kings of Israel and reigns as king in their place to the embarrassment of the sun. In these verses, Isaiah, like Jesus in Matthew 24:29, implies that the state of the sun reflects that of those in political authority. When the sun is darkened this is sometimes a sign that a king’s reign is about to be terminated. Likewise, when the moon is darkened and the stars fall from the heavens, the priests or rabbis are also about to suffer a similar fate. Though the above earthly interpretation is likely true, there is additional meaning to this celestial symbolism.
Before addressing the additional meaning to this symbolism, we must first backtrack a little and present some background information. The Bible often portrays heaven as a glorified reflection of earth and the earth as a dark shadow of heaven. Galatians 4:26 reads, “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” Hebrews 12:22 echoes Galatians 4:26: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” Notice that according to Galatians 4:26 and Hebrews 12:22 Jerusalem is more than just a city on earth, there also exists a heavenly Jerusalem. The fact that there is a Jerusalem in heaven and earth might also shed light on why the new Jerusalem is sometimes described in the Bible in ambiguous language pointing to both the Jerusalem on earth and the Jerusalem in heaven in Isaiah 65, Isaiah 66, Revelation 21 and Revelation 22.
The same can be said about Eden. Ezekiel 28:1-19 strongly suggests that there is an Eden in both heaven and earth. In Ezekiel 28:1-19, Ezekiel addresses the king of Tyre. In v. 7 Ezekiel predicts the destruction of Tyre. This prediction was fulfilled in 573 B.C. when Tyre was destroyed by the Babylonian army. While addressing the king of this city, Ezekiel writes, “You [the king of Tyre] were in Eden, the garden of God.” Ezekiel then goes on to say that the king of Tyre was “anointed as a guardian cherub.” A guardian cherub is an angel of the presence of God. Then in v. 17, this guardian cherub, the king of Tyre, was cast to the earth. The imagery in Ezekiel 28 simultaneously points to both events in heaven and earth with the casting out of an angel of the presence of God from heaven and the destruction of Tyre and the death of its king as seemingly simultaneous or related events. Because of the fulfillment of Ezekiel 28 in both heaven and earth, Eden must be more than just a place on earth. Like Jerusalem, there also exists an Eden in heaven.
Not only does Ezekiel 28:1-9 suggest that kingdoms on earth may have idealized versions in heaven, these verses also seem to suggest that some events in heaven have earthly types or shadows. Notice that the death of the ruler of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:17 corresponds with the hurling of an angelic authority from heaven to earth.
Another example in which events in heaven and earth seem to be strangely linked is found in Ezekiel 37:1-14. In these verses, the Israelite exiles in Babylon are depicted as a valley of skeletons. After seeing these skeletons take on flesh and come to life, Ezekiel is informed by God that his people will return to Israel.[ii] In Ezekiel 37:1-14 the resurrection of the dead is somehow symbolically linked to the return of the Jewish exiles to Israel. In other words, the return of the Jews from exile appears to be an earthly shadow, sign and symbol of the resurrection of the dead and vise versa.
As illustrated in Ezekiel 28 and 37, some events in heaven and earth seem to be symbolically related. This occasional linkage between some events in heaven above and the earth below may help explain verses like Isaiah 24:21. In Isaiah 24:21 God punishes the authorities of heaven and earth together: “It shall come to pass in that day that the Lord will punish on high the host of exalted ones, and on earth the kings of the earth.”
This linkage between heaven and earth might also shed some light on the fact that in the Bible whenever a kingdom on earth is renewed by foreign conquest, its heavenly counterpart also occasionally experiences renewal together with it. For example at the start of the Maccabean Wars of the second century B.C. was marked by a mass vision of a war in heaven. (2 Maccabees 5:1-4) The same thing was reportedly witnessed at the very beginning of the Jewish War with Rome in the middle of the first century.[iii] The destruction of heaven and earth are linked in Biblical prophecy in Psalm 102:25-26, Isaiah 51:6, Matthew 5:18, Matthew 24:35, Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33, Hebrews 1:10-12 and 2 Peter 3:10. Both heaven and earth are then renewed as a new heaven and earth in Isaiah 65:17-19, 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1.
Having addressed examples in the Bible in which some events and kingdoms appear to have heavenly counterparts or reflections, let us now turn our attention to what appears to be meant by the prophecies in the Bible concerning the destruction of heaven. Recall that according to Isaiah 24:21 there would come a time when God would punish the kings of heaven and the kings of the earth together: “It shall come to pass in that day that the Lord will punish on high the host of exalted ones, and on earth the kings of the earth.” Revelation 1:20 indicates that the stars in Christ’s hand are “the angels of the seven churches.” The Book of Revelation was a letter written to the human ministers of seven churches in Asia Minor. Are these stars people or angels? I believe that this ambiguity is intentional. They are both.
The destruction of the sun, moon and stars in Matthew 24:29 signifies the destruction of heaven and earth, not just the earth. Above we addressed the earthly referents of these astral symbols when it was stated that the sun, moon and stars represent the king, the religious authorities and the priestly class. Now we shall address the heavenly referents of these astral signs. Though it is true that stars represent priests, they also represent the angels of heaven. In Revelation 12:4, Satan is said to cast a third of the stars to the earth. These stars are the angels of heaven. Stars also represent angels in Deuteronomy 4:19, Judges 5:20, Job 25:5, Job 38:7, Psalm 148:3, Isaiah 14:12-14, Daniel 12:3, Revelation 9:1-2, and Revelation 22:16.
When the sun and moon turn black and the stars fall to the earth in Matthew 24:29 these signs also signify the fulfillment of Ephesians 6:12. Ephesians 6:12 states, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Why are there spiritual forces of evil in heaven? And why does Isaiah 24:21 predict that God would punish the kings of heaven together with the kings of the earth?
The kings of heaven that God was expected to punish at the time of the end according to Isaiah 24:21 is presumably Satan and his loyal angelic authorities. Revelation 12 explicitly indicates that during the first century, Satan’s throne was in heaven. 2 Corinthians 4:4 echoes this point by calling the devil the “god of this age”: “The god of this age [Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers . . .” Satan is called the God or prince of this world or the god of this age in several places throughout the Bible including Ephesians 2:2, John 12:31, John 14:31 and John 16:11. John 12:31 states, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” As a heavenly king, Satan is presumably also represented by the sun in Matthew 24:29 and is ultimately cast out of heaven at Christ’s return according to Revelation 12:7-10. The fact that Satan ruled the earth from heaven and that there were spiritual forces of evil in heaven during the first century explains why heaven was to be destroyed by fire in 2 Peter 3:7-13. The casting of the stars of heaven to earth predicted in Matthew 24:29 is also an apocalyptic symbol of the casting out of “the spiritual [angelic] forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
As quoted above, Ephesians 6:12 reads, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Why are there spiritual forces of evil in heaven? The answer is scattered throughout the Bible.
In Daniel 7:13-14, Daniel is given a vision of the Messiah coming on the clouds of heaven to receive a kingdom. The unavoidable implication of these two verses is that before his coronation, Jesus must have temporarily lost some substantial element of his authority. This temporary loss of power correlates with his presence in Israel in middle earth. It was during this time that Christian theologians say that Jesus “emptied himself” of his previous power. Perhaps nowhere is this loss of power clearer than in Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4.
In Matthew 4:8-9, the devil shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’” How could this be a tempting offer? If Jesus had all power at this time and Satan was therefore under his authority, this offer would not be tempting at all since it would be a demotion, not a promotion. This verse emphasizes the power that Jesus lost and the power that Satan had acquired over the world during Jesus’ absence from heaven. 2 Corinthians 4:4 highlights the power Satan had over the world during the first century by calling him the “god of this age”: “The god of this age [Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” As stated above, Satan is called the God or prince of this world or the god of this age in several places throughout the Bible including Ephesians 2:2, John 12:31, John 14:31 and John 16:11.
Revelation 12 suggests how this transition of power between Jesus and Satan ultimately occurred. In Revelation 12:3-4, the Devil is depicted as a dragon casting a third of the stars representing angels to the earth around the time of Jesus’ birth. It seems that while Jesus was present in the womb of the virgin there was a power vacuum in heaven that was quickly filled by Satan. Satan’s usurpation of authority in heaven is described in Revelation 12:4 by the casting out of a third of the stars from heaven. Satan’s rule, however, is short lived. In John 12:31 Jesus declares, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” Satan is ultimately cast out of heaven at Christ’s return recorded in Revelation 12:7-10:
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah.
Notice in the above verses that upon the casting out of Satan, the God of this world, the power, kingdom and authority of Christ immediately begins. The fact that Satan ruled from heaven and that there were spiritual forces of evil therein during the first century explains why there was a war in heaven and heaven had to ultimately be destroyed by fire in fulfillment of 2 Peter 3:7-13:
By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. . . . But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
Revelation 12:7-9 clearly states that there is a war in heaven. How could there be war or fighting in heaven? Isn’t heaven supposed to be perfect and sinless? How could there also be forces of evil in heaven (Ephesians 6:12)? Ephesians 1:3; 1:20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12; and 2 Corinthians 12:2 indicate that there is more than one heavenly realm. Ephesians 1:3 reads, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms . . .” 2 Corinthians 12:2 echoes Ephesians 1:3: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.” As explained in Near-Death Experiences confirm Biblical Theology, near-death experiences (NDE’s) confirm the fact that there are several heavenly realms or dimensions with each heavenly realm being brighter and more beautiful than the level of heaven immediately below it. Dr. Harold A. Widdison and Dr. Craig Lundahl, two NDE researchers, say the following: “But no matter what level or city [in heaven] a person qualifies for, each city is so superior to any on earth that it is indescribable, and each succeeding realm is indescribably better than that immediately below it.”
If there is more than one heavenly dimension as indicated in the Bible and NDE’s then it stands to reason that the lower heavenly realms may still be occupied by less than perfect beings still capable of sin as stated in Ephesians 6:12. This notion is echoed in 2 Enoch 7 and 18 where rebellious or evil angels are seen in the second and fifth heavens. In fact, Satan was sometimes thought to rule in one of the lower heavens.[iv] If there is still the possibility of sin in the lower heavenly realms, then a war like the one in Revelation 12:7 might not be wildly implausible. Perhaps heaven is only truly sinless in the highest heavenly dimension? This notion is suggested in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. In the Testament of Levi 3:3-4 the second heaven is occupied by the angels set to battle Satan at the end of the age: “And in the second [heaven] are the hosts of the armies which are ordained for the day of judgement, to work vengeance on the spirits of deceit and of Beliar. And above them are the holy ones. And in the highest of all dwelleth the Great Glory, far above all holiness.” See How the Sinful and Flawed State of Mankind is Ultimately Made Perfect in Heaven.
[i] Midrash Rabbah Lamentations Proems 23.
[ii] Ezekiel 37:12.
[iii] Josephus The Wars of the Jews 6.5.3; Tacitus The Histories 5.13.
[iv] Isbon Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (New York: Macmillan, 1919), 617.