I have been asked by a full preterist (FP) to discuss the relationship between the “earth and heaven” that flee in Revelation 20:11 and the “heaven and earth” that “pass away” in Revelation 21:1. Do these two “heavens and earths” have the same identity? Are these two passages referring to the same event?
The question may sound trivial but has great importance. The imagery appears, on the surface, to be the same in both cases, and thus we have the possibility—again, on the surface—of some relationship, even identity. And if this is the case, then the contextual events of each passage must bear a similar if not same relationship. This is where a big issue opens up:
Revelation 20:11 opens the Great White Throne Judgment, and Revelation 21:1 pertains to the “New Heavens and New Earth” that is “New Jerusalem.” Most “partial” preterists I know, including me, believe that Revelation 21 was at least initiated in the first century—AD 70, in fact—and describes an idealized perspective of the church. The old Jerusalem passed away and the New Jerusalem has come. But this now implies a great potential problem: if the “heaven and earth” “passings” of these two passages are the same, and the passing heaven and earth of Revelation 21:1 happened in AD 70, then the Great White Throne Judgment must also have occurred at AD 70.
Yet nearly all partial preterists believe this final judgment is yet in our future. So, either the partial preterists are wrong in this belief, or they are inconsistent in their hermeneutic. So goes the FP argument.
The argument sounds decent, but I think it fails. The “passings” of these two passages are not related in the way this FP argument assumes, and thus the argument built on that assumption is substantially weakened.
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First, is there a relationship between these two references to “passings” of “heaven and earth”?
Yes and no.
The passages do have some relationship in semantics and imagery.
The semantic relationship is both direct and indirect: both passages refer directly to “heaven” and “earth”, and both present these as a pair. Both passages also mention some form of “departure” of heaven and earth. Revelation 20:11 speaks of heaven and earth having “fled”; Revelation 21:1 refers to them having “passed away.” In this detail, the two passages thus have an indirect semantic similarity.
Likewise, both partake of the same imagery—that of of biblical creation. “Heaven and earth” obviously derives—as both a theme and a reality—from Genesis 1 (I have written more on this in relation to 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21 elsewhere). In short, God is the creator, and the heaven and earth are His creation. The creation is subservient to its Creator, and subject to His will. It is also totally separate from Him in nature.
God revisits “creation” imagery quite often throughout Scripture to describe different events—notably, for example, the restoration of His people from captivity (Isa. 51:15–16). Its application throughout Scripture is broader than just that, but pertains mostly to great works of God for His covenant people. In these cases, the “making” of something new, restored, or more glorified than before is likened to the fundamental miracle of God’s original creation ex nihilo. There is the same Agent, same power, same progress. Always redemption and glorification are new creations of God, never the work of men’s hands.
Likewise, when God acts in judgment, He often uses language of decreation to describe it. He undoes His creation: He makes the stars fall, the sun and moon darken, gardens and paradises turn to wastelands and wildernesses, rivers dry up, or floods overwhelm the dry land from which they had formerly been separated. This type of imagery (and even actual event) is widespread in Scripture (Isa. 13:9–10; Jer. 4:23–6; Ezek. 32:7–8; Ezek. 34:4–5; Matt 24:29; just to name a few).
These ideas come into play in differing ways and degrees in both of the Revelation passages in question. To the extent that this is the case, we can say that there is a relationship between them: they both partake of the same “creation” language and imagery used many times in Scripture to denote monumental acts of God.
But the differences must also be noted.
To begin with, the language is simply not the same in regard to the actual passing away. Revelation 20:11 says earth and heaven “fled away” (ESV) from the face of the enthroned One. The verb here is ephugen (from pheugo). It means “run away” in the Monty Python sense: “retreat” or “flee” in the sense of seeking safety from an imminent threat. We get our word “fugitive” from pheugo.
Pheugo is a common word used some 279 times throughout the New Testament and Old Testament LXX, but almost always has the distinct meaning of running away out of fear or self-protection. For example, Genesis 39:12, 13 and 15 (LXX) use the word to describe Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife who had him by the garment. The Exodus is described with this word (Ex. 14:5). So is David fleeing Saul who wants to murder him (1 Sam. 19:18), Ahaziah fleeing Jehu (2 Ki. 9:27), God’s enemies in general (Ps. 68:1; Prov. 28:1), Jonah fleeing God’s presence (Jon. 1:3), Baby Jesus’ family fleeing Herod (Matt. 2:13), persecuted disciples leaving town (Matt. 10:23; 24:16), fearful disciples scattering after Jesus’ crucifixion (Matt. 26:56). The list is long, and the word is consistent in this meaning.
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Revelation 21:1, on the other hand, says “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” The verb here is apelthan (an aorist of aperchomai). This word is used 346 times but doesn’t have anywhere near the pedigree of consistency. It generally means “pass” or “pass away,” but has various shades of meaning such as “pass by” (momentarily), “go out” or “leave” (to another place, or on a journey), or to pass away for good never to return, everything in between, and more (in Rev. 10:9, it even refers to John as he “went to the angel” instead of away from or passing by).
In Revelation 21:1, the emphasis is toward the meaning of passing away for good never to return. This is clear from the same usage of the word and the new heavens and new earth imagery in the subsequent verse 4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away [apelthan].”
This dissimilarity does not in and of itself mean that the two verses are speaking of two different things. But it should at least be noted, if not thoroughly explored. This is important, for I have not seen a FP yet who makes a connection between Revelation 20:11 and 21:1 who has addressed this difference at all. Some I have seen simply sweep it under the rug: either saying without qualification that both instances are “passing away”, or by using that phrase but noting the actual words of Rev. 20:11 in parentheses (“fled”) while assuming identity. Even if it were the case that the difference is of no consequence (and it is not), it is still only right to note the obvious difference, explain it, and only then move on. I have not yet seen this done. (This does not mean no one has done it, it simply means I have not yet seen it. Links welcome in the comments.)
I personally think the semantic difference here is not just a diversity of synonyms. I think different words are used because the references to heaven and earth in these instances are present for different purposes. The different words carrying different emphases express and support these different purposes.
What are these different purposes?
The identity of the Creator and the Judge of creation
In Revelation 20:11, the purpose is merely to emphasize the nature and identity of the one sitting upon the throne in that same vision. Here’s why:
The verse reads, “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.” I don’t like the ESV here. For starters, there is no period. This is not supposed to be two sentences, and most other translations don’t make it so. I think Young’s literal is much better here: “And I saw a great white throne, and Him who is sitting upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven did flee away, and place was not found for them” (Rev 20:11 YLT). This is about as literal, and I think correct, as you can get.
The importance brought out in the proper translation is that of emphasis. The phrase “from whose face the earth and heaven fled away” functions as a modifier of a subject, not as a descriptor of a separate event. The purpose is more to tell us something about the person sitting on the throne, not about this earth and heaven themselves.
So what is it telling us, specifically? What function does the inclusion of this phrase perform here? It informs us that this is no ordinary person sitting upon an ordinary throne. It tells us that this is the Person before whom heaven and earth are totally subservient and in fearful awe—the Creator God.
Two things here: First, the distinction is not unneeded considering the book of Revelation itself. The word for “throne” alone is used 47 times in the book. References are made to Jesus’ throne (1:4, et al), Satan’s throne (2:13), thrones for faithful believers (3:21; 20:4), twenty-four thrones for heavenly elders (4:4), the dragon’s throne which was given to the beast (13:2; 16:10), a throne within the temple (16:17). In short, there are many thrones mentioned. When we get to Revelation 20:11, it simply would have been confusing to mention “one sitting on the throne” with no designations.
This is even more important given the fact that the nearest proximate mentioning of throne is just a few verses prior and refers to different occupants: “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed” (Rev. 20:4). These were the faithful martyred saints who reign with Christ in heaven during the millennium. Since the very next mention to a throne is to describe a different Ruler—the Head of those ruling, enthroned saints—an appropriate signifier is required.
Second, the particular distinction given in 20:11 provides that appropriate signifier quite well. This great white throne is inhabited by the One from before whose face all of fallen creation has no standing, and thus flees away. This is an expression of the total sovereignty, majesty, power and might of the enthroned one, the total vanity of all of creation in and of itself in comparison to Him.
But more importantly, it also announces the vital relationship between the two. This is not just any great and powerful enthroned One, but the One and Only One before whom creation is totally in awe: this is the Creator Himself. No higher credential can be given in heaven or on earth, and no part of heaven or earth can stand before Him with any claim to sufficiency or sovereignty—thus they have no place before Him.
In other words, this phrase in this passage is simply announcing and identifying the enthroned One as the God of Genesis 1:1.
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Note in this regard especially some of the pedigree of this imagery throughout Scripture. The exact same ideas are expressed in Psalm 104 which celebrates God’s splendor and majesty as Creator and simultaneously as the One at whose word the earthly elements flee:
Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, 2 covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent. 3 He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind; 4 he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire. 5 He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved. 6 You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. 7 At your rebuke they fled; at the sound of your thunder they took to flight. 8 The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them. 9 You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth (Ps. 104:1–9).
“Fled” in verse 7 is pheuxontai (from pheugo) in the Greek LXX, same root word as in Rev. 20:11.
The same language is used in Psalm 114 to express the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan River during the deliverance of Israel:
When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, 2 Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion. 3 The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. 4 The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs. 5 What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? 6 O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? 7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, 8 who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water (Ps. 114).
In both of these cases the ruling—indeed, absolute mastery—of creation is used to express the majesty and power of the God who brought these things to pass. In neither case is the “ruler of creation” language or imagery there for the purpose of signifying the nature of the event itself. This latter purpose could be argued to have some role in the case of Psalm 114, but that purpose would still not be primary.
This, then, is how we should understand the reference to a fleeing earth and heaven in Revelation 20:11: it serves the primary and perhaps even exclusive purpose of identifying the enthroned One as the awesome Creator God Himself. This is the same God who rules all of creation, before whom creation itself is powerless, in whose holy and powerful presence no part of creation, no man, can stand without His grace.
But this is most certainly not the case with the other reference, Revelation 21:1.
Transition from Old to New
In Revelation 21:1–5, the passing away of the former heaven and earth is a clear reference to the nature of a particular event, and less so to the identity of the Agent who brings it to pass. He is there and clearly identified again as the enthroned Creator God (21:5), but it is not the purpose of the “passing away” language to make that identity. The passage reads,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Rev. 21:1–5).
This passage is describing among other things the results of an historical event: namely, the passing away of the Old Covenant “heavens and earth” and the arrival of the New Covenant “new heavens and new earth.” The New Heavens and New Earth complex is also called New Jerusalem, which is the bride-city-dwelling place of God, or “the church” as we commonly say.
The passing away here refers to the passing away of the Old Covenant order. It is passed away for good never to return, and has been replaced by the New Covenant order. This replacement “event” began with the Incarnation of Christ, and culminated with his Ascension and Session at the right hand of God. The final expression of the demise of that old order was the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70.
This connection is made clearer by considering Christ’s prediction of the temple’s destruction as well as Peter’s repetition of that prophecy. First, Jesus warned of the destruction in Matt 24:1–2:
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
He described the times and tribulations leading up to that event, and then added, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:34–5).
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Here we have a clear parallel. Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem within the generation of His audience, and we know it occurred in AD 70. His phrase “heaven and earth will pass away” is in this instance only an allusion, but is an indicator of at least some interest in comparison to Revelation 21:1–4. Interestingly, He uses a very close Greek word—not pheugo as in Rev. 20:11, but a version of parerchomai, which is near cousin to the aperchomai of Rev. 21:1 (Cf. Mk. 13:31; Luke 21:32–3).
The is strengthened by 2 Peter 3:10, which I’ve covered elsewhere: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away [from parerchomai] with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Pet. 3:10). As I noted, “the event Peter is describing is not a destruction of the physical planet, but a transition from one type of world order to a new one.”
This same transition is what is mentioned in Revelation 21:1, except whereas Jesus and Peter speak of it as a purely near future event, John is speaking from a future perspective in which he can describe the transition as a past event.
Then Revelation 21 and part of 22 give us an idealized glimpse—a picture of the heavenly pattern, so to speak—of the New Covenant order and the perfections it holds for believers.
I have dealt with the issue of “new heaven and new earth” more here, although certainly not exhaustively. Part of what I wrote there bears repeating here for the purposes of this article:
[V]erse 1 [of Revelation 20] should better read, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away.” This is perfectly allowable within the range of normal meanings for protos and fits better with what else we’ve learned so far. This interpretation also fits better with the common translation of protos in the following verse 4: “former [prota] things have passed away.” . . .
Second, we are introduced to another new creation theme, and that is the new Jerusalem. This is yet another reference to the church, for Paul tells us in Galatians 4:26, “But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” This is in contrast to the earthly Jerusalem, which was in bondage to the Old Covenant, and which was soon to be destroyed, or “cast out” in Paul’s allegory (Gal. 4:21–31).
Indeed it is just this “Jerusalem above” which we meet again in Revelation 21, for this “new Jerusalem” was above, but descended “down out of heaven from God.”
This image is nowhere made more forcefully brilliant than in the book of Hebrews, where the author culminates his pro-Christian argument against the Old Covenant systems by telling the saints,
you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:22–24).
So it’s clear that this new Jerusalem is indeed the New Covenant church. We also have here reiterated the righteousness that dwells in this new creation which houses “the righteous made perfect.” . . .
Third, the connection between the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and the New Testament body of Christ/new Temple is seen in the language of the relevant passages:
the household of God, built on the foundation [themelio] of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Eph. 2:19–20).
And the wall of the city had twelve foundations [themelious], and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Rev. 21:14).
Unless this foundation that is the apostles has more than one superstructure erected upon it, we must assume some vital organic connection between the New Testament “temple in the Lord . . . dwelling place of God” of Ephesians 2 and the “new Jerusalem . . . dwelling place of God” of Revelation 21.
In short, the passing of the former heaven and earth in Revelation 21:1 refers to the covenantal judgment predicted by Jesus in Matthew 24, and expected by that generation of Christians (2 Pet. 3:10; Heb. 8:13).
Do, therefore, the “passings” of heaven and earth mentioned in Revelation 20:11 and 21:1 refer to the same event? No.
As we have seen, they have different semantic backgrounds and perform different functions in the different contexts in which they appear. While they do obviously partake of the same creation imagery, they do so for considerably different purposes.
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This does not necessarily preclude that the events described in the two passages occurred at the same time, however. But if they did there would have to be justification other than the surface similarity of the passing references to heaven and earth. Personally, I don’t see any further reasons that mandate the great white throne judgment occurred in AD 70 (as did the transition between Old and New Covenants).
Instead, I maintain there will be a final judgment day on which all the dead shall be resurrected and stand before the throne of our Creator, before Whose awesome judgment all fallen creation must flee and seek refuge, but outside of Whose grace no place will be found.
This is the same final judgment described by Jesus in John 5:
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:25–29).
And again in John 6:
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. . . . Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:39–40, 43–44, 54).
These general judgments and resurrections take place at the last day (paralleled in Rev. 20:11–15), not at the transition event from Old Covenant to New (described in Rev. 21:1ff). Thus the two events are separated by a great gulf in time.
In summary, then, the two “passings” of heaven and earth described in Revelation 20:11 and 21:1 are different in nature, purpose, identity, and time.