Science Ch.14 - Ecology and the New Earth

Ecologists warn us to look after this world, but the Bible says there will be a “new Earth,” so why bother? Details in the Bible text suggest that the Earth will be renewed, not replaced.

Flash Gordon, James Bond, Superman, and Margaret Thatcher. Can’t see the connection? Well, when it came to saving planet Earth, the intervention of Mrs. T in the late 1980s was just as dramatic as the exploits of these fictional superheroes. Unlike almost all other political leaders, she had a science background, so she immediately recognized the dire consequences of the growing hole in the ozone layer. She galvanized the world to do something about it, and it is now being dealt with very successfully.1 What could have been the end of our history is soon to be history itself.

       Subsequent politicians have taken much longer to recognize the reality of another threat to the planet: global warming. And now there is a panic, because despite all the available energy from wind and sun, the world is still burning carbon like there’s no tomorrow. Much of the coal, oil, and gas that was laid down over millions of years has been consumed between the generations of James Watt and Elon Musk. Unexpectedly, the warmer Arctic has extended the polar jet stream to produce alternating extremes of cold and hot, which in turn produce stronger tornados and droughts than before. These unpredicted consequences are on top of the ecological changes and raised sea levels that had been foreseen; and perhaps there will be more surprises around the corner.

       Christians have been among the last to take this seriously. Some still regard it as unimportant because of the promise of a “new Earth.” The Bible talks about a “renewed,” “redeemed,” and “restored” Earth, but it never mentions a “replacement” Earth. Isaiah was the first to see a vision of this new Earth, and his vision makes clear that this was still the same structure as the old Earth. He was shown Jerusalem in the new earth, and outside it lay the corpses from the final battle (Isa 66:22-24). The wonderful act of God that Isaiah described was the planet’s renewal after a terrible ordeal. It can’t have been a replacement planet because God wouldn’t have created copies of the corpses to decorate the new world.

       Paul said the old Earth was ruined by sin, and it will be redeemed by Jesus’ death, just as its inhabitants can also be redeemed (Rom 8:20-23). The death of Jesus means that God doesn’t have to destroy humanity in order to remove sin, and he doesn’t have to destroy the Earth in order to make it good again. Peter said the new Earth will be revealed when the old Earth is destroyed by fire, just as water destroyed civilization in Noah’s day (2 Pet 3:5-13). This implies that the earth will be restored after the cleansing by fire, just as it was restored after the cleansing by a flood. Nowhere in the Bible is the new Earth portrayed as a replacement planet.

5-minute summary

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New Earth

Tom Wright and other scholars have now reminded us that the Bible promises resurrection bodies and new life on a new earth – not in the heaven that we normally think of.2 Although Revelation pictures the saints in heaven as “harpists harping on their harps” (Rev 14:2 KJV), this isn’t their eternal occupation (as many of us will be glad to know). Revelation says believers are in heaven until the kingly Messiah initiates his rule on earth. At the end of the book, the church is envisioned as a city and a bride descending to the earth, which now has no ocean (21:1-2), and this presumably includes all those who had previously been kept safe in heaven (14:1-4, 13).

       Even if God’s renewal of the earth includes clearing up our mess, we should be looking after it for the sake of future generations, just as God asked previous generations to do for our sake. In the Old Testament God taught the Israelites how to be good stewards of their natural resources. Deuteronomy has a law against cutting down fruit trees even during wars: when the Israelites besieged a city, they were not to use fruit trees to make siege works (Deut 20:19-20). Fruit trees were the limited resources of that day.

       God commanded the first humans to “increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over … every living creature” (Gen 1:28). This is sometimes seen as an anti-ecology charter, and to some extent the wording supports this interpretation. The Hebrew kabash (“subdue”) is normally used for defeated enemies or slaves. And the word radah (“rule”) can imply a “ruthless” rule (Lev 25:46). It can even carry the sense of “asset stripping,” as in Judges 14:9, where Samson “scraped” the honey out of the lion’s carcass.

       However, God gave Adam a very different kind of command in the garden: there he was told to “work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15). This translation doesn’t quite express the nuance of the Hebrew. The word avad (“work”) is normally translated “to serve” (as in the work of servants and priests), and shamar (“care for”/“keep”) normally means “to guard, preserve” (as in Gen 3:24; 4:9) or “to obey, honor” (as in Gen 17:10; 18:19). In other words, Adam was asked to be the custodian of Eden, looking after it like a servant looks after his master’s house or like a priest looks after a temple. It was only after the fall that Adam was told he’d have to subdue and rule nature, because outside Eden he had to do battle with weeds and carnivores.

Like Eden

If we want the Earth to be more like Eden, then perhaps we should treat it in the way that God asked Adam to treat Eden. One day God will come in judgment to audit not only what we have done in our lives, but what we have done with his gifts. Jesus’ parable of the wicked steward (Luke 16:1-9) suddenly has a very modern ring. His crime was wasting his master’s resources, and his redemption came by planning for the future.

       But this notion of a renewed new earth gives rise to a question: If this planet is going to be the home for our resurrected bodies, will it be big enough? And how will it last us for eternity? The Bible doesn’t give us a full answer, but it does give us some clues.

       Revelation suggests that we will live in a city, the new Jerusalem, that is even larger and more high-rise than New York: “The city was … 12,000 stadia [about 1,400 miles] in length, and as wide and high as it is long” (Rev 21:16). This description reads like science fiction, but it may not be as fantastical as it sounds. Our atmosphere is only a few miles thick, and the international space station is only 220 miles above us, so the city cannot be 1,400 miles high, but perhaps it extends underground. (This might explain the mysterious details about the foundations in vv. 19-20 – although this depth is beyond anything we can imagine building).

       Whatever the actual shape of the city, it implies that people will live close to each other – and that they will love it. Perhaps in a sinless world, we will get along better. When Crocodile Dundee moved from his one-street Australian town to New York, with its population of six million people, he concluded they must be the friendliest people on Earth – because they’d all chosen to live close to each other! John has the same trusting and hopeful vision: a huge city filled with the redeemed from all of history, living peacefully together.

       Cities get a bad reputation because many are poorly designed and most grow without careful planning. But John describes tree-lined waterways in this perfect city. And it has many gates – it isn’t a prison – so presumably we’ll be able to take trips around the restored Earth (Rev 21:12-14; 22:1-2).

       Will there be enough room for us all in this city? Well, cities like Paris and Athens house about fifty thousand people per square mile. A few calculations (see below) show that even if the New Jerusalem has homes that are a hundred times larger than those in Paris, there would be room for a thousand times the total population that has ever lived on Earth until now (about 100 billion). And if we all lived in this city, we’d still have a whole natural planet to explore. I’m not concluding that the vision in Revelation is completely literal, but it isn’t as impractical as one might first assume.

       Does that mean we will all live on Earth forever? As things are now, that’s clearly impossible because the fusion energy of the sun and the fission energy that heats the Earth’s core will one day die out. However, the God who has planned things this far presumably has a plan for the longer term too.

       Whether or not the new Earth is this planet, we should be planning for our future’s children to be able to live here. Imagine if our grandparents’ generation had decided to continuously heat their porches all night, so that if they felt like sitting outside at any time it would be nice and warm. If they’d done that, the oil and gas would have run out long before today. The ancient law that God gave Israel concerning fruit trees is a principle that he still wants us to follow: don’t squander the next generation’s inheritance.

Some ballpark calculations:

• Paris has a population of 55,000 per square mile and Athens has 44,000 per square mile – so let’s assume a rounded average of 48,000 per square mile. This includes public areas as well as homes.
• Now let’s assume that in these cities an average building has three stories: some taller and some shorter; and some very tall ones that will compensate for large parks and roads, which are on a single level. So, the population living on a single level is 16,000 per square mile (48,000 ÷ 3).
• The New Jerusalem is a cube measuring 12,000 stadia or 1,400 miles (Rev 21:16). If each floor is 20 feet high (i.e., twice as high as normal ceilings), the number of levels will be about 370,000 (1400 × 1760 × 3 ÷ 20 = 369,600).
• Each level is 1400 × 1400 square miles. At a population density of 16,000 per square mile on each level, this allows for a total population of about 11,600 trillion (1400 × 1400 × 16,000 × 369,600 = 11,590,656,000,000,000).
• If we give everyone a hundred times the average living space of someone in Paris, (i.e., everyone has a palace, and they also have access to a hundred times as much public space), this cuts the possible population to 116,000 billion.
• The population of the planet throughout history has been about 107 billion.3
THEREFORE there would be room for about one thousand times as many people who have ever lived, just in that city. This is if (and it is a huge “if”) the description is meant at all literally.


• Some Christians neglect conservation because there will be a “new Earth.”
• The Bible says this is a restored planet, not a replacement, and we will live on it.
• Aspects of the envisioned new city of Jerusalem may be literal.
• Proposal: We should follow Old Testament guidelines to look after the planet and not squander its resources.

1^ See India Bourke, “Will Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan Be the Unlikely Saviours of the World from Climate Change?,” New Statesman America, October 14, 2016 (
2^ Wright distills this well in Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007). See the useful review by Barry Seagren at BeThinking (
3^ See Wesley Stephenson, “Do the Dead Outnumber the Living?,” BBC News, February 4, 2012 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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