For two quarters, I have been teaching the Book of Isaiah to the adult Bible class. I covered the entire 66 chapters in one quarter and then rotated classrooms and repeated the same 13 lessons to a different group of adults. It has been a tremendous learning experience.

People unfamiliar with the nuances of the biblical text are often surprised at what the text actually says and does. Take Isaiah for example:

  • In chapters 1-39 we are rolling along discussing the world in the 8th century B.C. (740-701). Assyria is threatening, Israel is falling, Judah is being sacked.
  • In chapter 40 we are suddenly transported 200 years into the future. Babylon has conquered the world, the Jewish people are at the end of their captivity, and Cyrus, king of Persia, is about to take over the world.

What is amazing is that the text does not bat an eye. It simply makes the shift and assumes the reader will come along for the ride with no question.

However, careful modern readers have many questions. First, what happened and why was I not warned of this sudden shift in time and space?

Second, now that you have rocked my world, why is there no explanation of what just happened?

Third, how is it possible that the person who was alive to witness and report the events of chapters 1-39 now appears to be alive and reporting on events that are happening 200 year later?

To add to the mystery, Jesus cites Isaiah chapter 40, which is reporting events that are happening around 540 B.C., and ascribes that writing to “the prophet Isaiah” (Matthew 3:3). Is this the same Isaiah who wrote chapters 1-39, which describe events occurring 200 years earlier? How is that possible?

I am confused. Very confused.

More than confused, I am afraid to even ask the question. Why? Because I’ve seen people who point out these nuances of our sacred text accused of “not believing the Bible.”

Huh. I believe the Bible. I devoted my life to teaching and preaching our sacred text. I just believe the Bible is filled with mysteries that cannot be explained away with a simple, “says what it means and means what it says.”

It says a lot. It does a lot. And it does not always make perfect sense to my little pea brain. I have lots of questions – sometimes more questions than answers. But my questions relate to the nuances and mysteries of the sacred text, not the God who inspired the text.

The God who inspired the Bible is a glorious and worthy God. He has gone to extreme lengths to rescue me from my confusion and distress. He rescued Israel by sending His Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12) to accomplish His mission. And that rescue mission was for more than just the people of Israel – it was for everyone, me included!

For that I will always serve Him. I will always preach and teach His holy word. But be warned, as I labor in this earthly vessel, I may not be able to fully explain everything I know about the nuances of our sacred text.

Inside the New Jerusalem

My preaching ministry has me in the middle of a nine-sermon series from John’s Apocalypse–the Book of Revelation. My teaching ministry has me teaching Isaiah for the second quarter in a row.

Obviously, I have run up against the biblical teaching on “last things”–eschatology for the theologians and seminarians.

Many scholars assert that the Bible does not present a consistent picture of what will happen at the end of time.

  • Some argue that the gospels do not coincide with what Paul presents.
  • Others claim that John is in opposition to Paul.
  • Some even argue that Paul is not consistent with Paul! (e.g., his eschatology in 1 Thessalonians is different from his eschatology in 2 Thessalonians).

I can’t sort out all the nuances of each school of thought but this is clear: no consensus exists among biblical scholars regarding Scripture’s presentation of the end of time.

And this is equally clear: the average person sitting on the pew thinks very little about the nuances of the issue. The basic understanding of many Christians seems to be:

  1.  Christ will return,
  2. The dead in Christ will rise first,
  3. Then those who are left alive will be gathered together
  4. And all will be taken up “in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1Thessalonians 4:17, NIV).

End of story. Seems pretty clear. What’s the problem?

Jesus confirms this in John 14:1-3 when he says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

Finally, Peter weighs in on the conversation to tell us what will become of the earth: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10, ASV).

So Plato and all those Greek philosophers were correct. Our bodies die, decay, and are never more. Our souls go to heaven to live with Jesus forever and this nasty ol’ material creation is disposed of as it should be. End of story; what’s the problem?

Well, the biblical story is not that clear cut.

First, according to the New Testament, our physical bodies are going to be raised from death, just as Jesus’ physical body was raised (1 Corinthians 15). Second, there are a number of passages that talk about a “new heaven and a new earth.”

Take the 2 Peter passage as an example—the classic proof-text for a “the world is going to be burned up” position on the matter. If we keep reading, just two verses later we see that “according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” (2 Peter 3:13, ASV).

Isaiah talks about a new heaven and new earth that follows God’s judgment (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22).

John does too in his Apocalypse. In fact, the new heaven and the new earth is the precise climax to which John leads the reader of Revelation (see Revelation 21).

According to these passages, the hope we have is not to wind up floating around the clouds in a vaporous realm in the sweet by and by, but rather an entirely new creation in which God’s perfection finally prevails (“wherein dwelleth righteousness,” to quote Peter again).

So where do a new body, a new heaven, and a new earth fit into the mainstream Christian understanding that at the end of time our bodies go into the ground, our souls go to heaven, and all matter will be destroyed? That we go to live with God in a non-material realm and leave this terrible place in the far reaches of our memories?

And what exactly does Paul mean when he says, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”? (Romans 8:19-21, NIV).

That sounds a whole lot like a new earth following God’s judgment, which would be consistent with other passages on the subject.

At this point I have more questions than answers. And I have a much deeper appreciation for those scholars who wrestle with this and come away scratching their heads.

I remember a Bible teacher many years ago telling us his view:

  1. We will get new bodies at the resurrection
  2. In those bodies we will go to heaven to live with God forever
  3. God will then re-create the earth
  4. So we can all sit around in heaven and watch re-runs.

At the time I thought he was joking. Now I’m thinking, “Maybe not. Maybe he is on to something.”

Artwork by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992. From the series “Revelation Illustrated.” Used by permission. It is available in fine art prints and visual teaching materials. Call 1-800-327-7330 for a free brochure or visit her web site at http://www.revelationillustrated.com.