Do the heavens literally pass away or don’t they?

What you believe of bible prophecy (eschatology1 in particular) affects how you interpret some passages in the scriptures. I have been often told that the universe is decaying away, which according to standard physics, one should believe. Then there are those who teach about future apocalyptic events and that God will destroy the entire universe and make a new one.

Alderaanexplosion

Figure 1: The planet Alderaan destroyed by the Death Star’s laser weapon. Screen capture from George Lucas’s “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope”. Initial theatrical release was May 25, 1977 © 1997 Lucasfilm Ltd. Credit: © 1997 Lucasfilm / Courtesy Pyxurz.

Read,

Revelation 21:1 And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.

Some cite verses such as the following:

Matthew 24:35 Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.

2 Peter 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be dissolved in the fire, and the earth and its works will not be found.

Revelation 6:14  And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

Isaiah 34:4 And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falls off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.

Some biblical creationists use these passages and others like them to conclude that the physical heavens, the stars and galaxies, will be replaced or dissolved. But such a conclusion depends on how you interpret those verses in the context of the eschatology you accept.

I believe the scriptures make it plain that the starry heavens will be there forever, and even the sun and the moon.

Psalms 148:3-6 Praise you Him, sun and moon; praise Him, all you stars of light! 4 Praise Him, you heavens of heavens, and you waters that be above the heavens! 5 Let them praise the name of the Lord, for He commanded and they were created. 6 He has also established them for ever and ever; He has made a decree which shall not pass.

When speaking of God’s promise to the offspring of David, that is, Christ and His longevity and His rule on His throne, David was inspired to write:

Psalms 89:37 It shall be established for ever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven.

These verses from the Psalms are not prophetic, nor are they intended as allegory, or just poetry but are stating facts regarding God’s creation. That is, that the sun, the moon and the stars in the cosmos are to be there forever.

The Hebrew word used in both Psalms 89:37 and 148:6 is עוֹלָם (`owlam), which generally has the meaning of ‘time out of mind (past or future)’, but practically means ‘eternity’ and is frequently translated as ‘always’.

Therefore, how do we interpret Matthew 24:35 “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away”? This is actually a verse supporting the fact the cosmic heavens, earth, moon and sun will be preserved forever. The text is saying something like God’s words will be preserved longer than the heavens and the earth. This is clearly the correct interpretation, which is not actually saying heaven and earth will pass away, but it would be easier for them to do so than God’s words. This we read in the book of Luke, what the Lord said on this.

Luke 16:17 And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass [away], than one tittle [tiny stroke of a letter] of the law [the Word] to fail.

Since the Word of God will never fail, it will be preserved forever. Contrasted to that are the heaven and the earth, which are more likely to pass away, yet will be preserved for a very long time. And that length of time is an eternity, which we know from Psalms 148:6 and Psalms 89:37.

Once we accept the fact of the eternal preservation of the heavens, by God’s sustaining power, just as He did with the burning bush (Exodus 3:3), 2 Peter 3:10 becomes clear. The ‘elements’ there are not subatomic particles but the fundamental principles upon which the earth has been governed to this point in time. At the day of the Lord, when Christ returns (here’s where eschatology comes in), God destroys the ‘old order’ bringing in His rule not only in heaven but in earth. The passage “the earth also and its works will not be found” makes no sense interpreted literally. The ‘earth’ symbolizes earthlings, inhabitants of the earth, not the planet itself. This is evident because the ‘earth’ has ‘works’ and only people can have works. It is true that the works include mankind’s creations, and I believe that that is one reason God will refurbish the earth. But when God judges those works by fire at the great white throne judgment (Revelation 20:11) it is people He will judge and those people not found in the book of life — i.e. not saved — will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:13-15).

Looking at Revelation 6:14, it cannot mean the destruction of the starry heavens either. From the second part, it could signify the refurbishment of the atmospheric heavens because it seems to indicate from “every mountain and island were moved” that the earth’s surface is reworked. This argument is strengthened by Revelation 21:1 itself which concludes with “there was no more sea”. So if this has a literal fulfilment it must occur with the refurbishment of the earth surface, thus the earth survives but the surface is remade. Then why not “heaven” also, meaning the atmospheric heaven around the earth?

Read the verse before Revelation 6:14.

Revelation 6:13 And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, even as a fig tree casts her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.

The stars of heaven cannot literally fall to the earth. In our study on Revelation 6 we understood this to mean the dethroning of earthly rulers. It is symbolic language. Therefore, these verses probably have no literal fulfilment.

Similarly with Isaiah 34:4. Note Revelation 6:13,14 is a reference to Isaiah 34:4. Chapter 34 of Isaiah describes God’s judgments on the wicked. Verse 3 “the mountains shall be melted with their blood” cannot be literal, then why assume that the following “And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved ...” (verse 4) to be literal?

Of Isaiah 34:4 John Gill wrote:

And all the hosts of heaven shall be dissolved. “Pine away”, as with sickness, grow languid, become obscure, lose their light, and be turned into blood and darkness; this figure is used to express the horror of this calamity, as if the very heavens themselves, and the sun, and moon, and stars, were affected with it; see (Isaiah 13:10) and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll; a book, or volume, which when rolled up, one letter of it could not be read; and it was the manner formerly of making and writing books in the form of a roll; hence the word volume; and here it signifies that there should be such a change in the heavens, as that not a star should be seen, much less the sun or moon; and may signify the utter removal and abolition of all dignities and offices, supreme and subordinate, civil and ecclesiastical, in the whole Roman jurisdiction; thus the destruction of Rome Pagan is described in (Revelation 6:14) as the destruction of Rome Papal is here; from whence the language seems to be borrowed: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree; that is, the stars should fall down: by whom may be meant persons in office, that made a considerable figure; who shall fall from their stations, in which they shone with much splendour and grandeur, as leaves fall from trees in autumn, particularly the vine; or as unripe and rotten figs fall from the fig tree when shaken by a violent wind; the same metaphor is used in (Revelation 6:13).

Isaiah 34:5 “For my sword shall be bathed in heaven...”. Of this John Gill wrote:

That is, the sword of the Lord, as it is called in the next verse (Isaiah 34:6) , and it is he that is speaking; it designs the vengeance of the Lord, the punishment he will inflict on the wicked, said to be “bathed in heaven”, because determined and prepared there; the allusion may be to the bathing of swords in some sort of liquor, to harden or brighten them, and so fit them for use. Kimchi renders it, “my sword” which is “in heaven shall be bathed”, that is, in the blood of the slain; “heaven” may denote the whole Roman Papal jurisdiction, as it does the whole Roman Pagan empire in (Revelation 12:7) and may design the principal men in it, those that are in the highest places and offices, in whom the sword of the Lord shall be first drenched, and be as it were satiated and inebriated with the blood of them:

John Gill understood this verse as a metaphorical description of the removal of those in power; nothing to do with a literal heaven and stars falling or dissolving.

In support of the destruction of the earth some cite,

EarthShaking

Figure 2: Some imagine that the earth will be totally destroyed by God.

Isaiah 24:19, 20 The earth is broken up, the earth is split asunder, the earth is violently shaken. The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall, and not rise again.

But here the earth is referencing the inhabitants of the earth. The focus of the verse is on the transgression of the people. The word earth is a metaphor for the people of the earth. Context is clear. Read the verse that follows for context!

Isaiah 24:21  And it shall come to pass in that day, that the LORD shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth.

Here the Hebrew word צָּבָא (tsaba’) is translated ‘the host’ but its literal meaning is ‘a mass of persons’.  There are many other such references where God judges the earthlings but refers to them as ‘the earth’. But even if, in carrying out the judgment, as He promised in the coming Day of the Lord, God shakes up the planet literally with earthquakes and such these verses still do not imply the total elimination of the planet but are a prelude to God’s refurbishment in preparation for the new heaven and new earth, wherein dwells only righteousness. And a final point on verses like Isaiah 24:19,20 is that they have no bearing on the starry heavens, the sun nor the moon, which Psalms 148:6 tells us will be preserved forever.

Then there are verses that speak of decay in the heavens, the heavens perishing, or a garment being folded up.

Hebrews 1:10-12  And, You, Lord, in the beginning have laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of Your hands: 11 They shall perish; but You remain; and they all shall wax old as does a garment; 12 And as a vesture shall you fold them up, and they shall be changed: but You are the same, and Your years shall not fail. 

Which is almost an exact quotation from Psalm 102. Note the bold text in each passage.

Psalms 102:25-27 Of old have You laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of Your hands. 26 They shall perish, but You shall endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shall You change them, and they shall be changed: 27 But You are the same, and Your years shall have no end.

Psalms 102:25-27 and Hebrews 1:10-12 describe what we know to be true from physics: decay. Sometimes this is referred to as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Garments become old and threadbare, all physical systems run down or decay. Without the intervening sustaining power of the Creator, all useful energy will be lost from any system, including the universe as a whole, and it would eventually die. This is described by the inexorable increase in entropy, which is a measure of disorder in any physical system. In the burning bush, the Creator must have reversed the entropy increase to keep the bush burning and not dying out once the energy source was consumed.

But another point of these verses in that state that the heavens shall be changed. When does this change occur? And quite obviously, if it is a change contrary to nature, it must be by the hand of the Creator who can and does intervene in His creation.

Genesis 1-11 is straightforward narrative. That fact is the foundational bedrock of biblical creationist interpretations of the scriptures. But the psalms and prophecy texts use metaphor and simile, and are to be handled more carefully.

So how do you interpret Psalms 102:25-27 in light of Psalms 148:3-6 and Psalms 89:37? All are Psalms. So even if we don’t agree on any rules of interpretation other than to say they should obey the same rules, we should get a self-consistent meaning. I believe have one as indicated above.

We know there will be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). What form does that take? In these verses Psalms 102:25-27 my interpretation is not symbolic but it is an interpretation of what ‘a new heaven and a new earth‘ means. Interpreting scripture is not always a choice between totally literal and totally symbolic. But it is about what the word means in context. And the English word ‘heaven’ (or ‘heavens’) has numerous meanings, which include the starry heavens, the atmosphere, the spiritual realm, the sky, the angels, a city, even God.

So Psalms 102:25-27 and Hebrews 1:10-12 describe the natural physical realm decaying away. But coupled that with knowing the starry heavens is preserved forever (Psalms 148:3-6; Psalms 89:37) we may conclude that God must turn back decay at some point in time. The text in Psalms 102:26 includes “they shall be changed“. Revelation 21:1 then is a reference to when He does that. Yet He shall do that not by destroying them totally but by refurbishing them — making them new again — and sustaining His creation forever thereafter. The only rider is that God will not change or be changed. He is the one constant, Who is eternal, without change.

Conclusion

I would conclude that the scriptures overwhelmingly support an eternal universe, a universe sustained by God forever. That defies standard physics, because we see a universe running down, but with the power of God He can and will sustain it. He has promised to do so. The events around these verses may be some time off into the future yet, but I see no good reason, when all these scriptures are taken together, and especially those not involved in prophecy, to not believe that God will sustain His universe forever, as He has said.

References

  1. Eschatology i/ˌɛskəˈtɒlədʒi/ is a part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity

Related Reading

About John Gideon Hartnett

Dr John G. Hartnett is an Australian physicist and cosmologist, and a Christian with a biblical creationist worldview. He received a B.Sc. (Hons) and Ph.D. (with distinction) in Physics from The University of Western Australia, W.A., Australia. He was an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award (DORA) fellow at the University of Adelaide, with rank of Associate Professor. Now he is retired. He has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals, book chapters and conference proceedings.
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