Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our new weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month J. Richard Middleton will be discussing interesting things he learned about eschatology while working on A New Heaven and a New Earth.
Also, as part of this series we are giving away three copies of A New Heaven and a New Earth. The winners will be announced at the end of the month, and you can enter here.
“Despite vivid apocalyptic imagery of stars falling from heaven, the Bible never imagines the literal destruction of the cosmos in the eschaton.” – J. Richard Middleton
Among the issues I addressed in A New Heaven and a New Earth were “problem texts” in the New Testament that seemed to suggest the destruction of the cosmos when Christ returns.
I was already convinced that that the main thrust of New Testament eschatology is the redemption of creation—God wants to restore this earthly world to the flourishing he had intended from the beginning. Thus even 2 Peter 3, which speaks of the destruction of the heavens and the elements by fire (verses 10 and 12), says that after judgment the earth and the works in it will be “found” (not “burned up” as the KJV has it).
But why distinguish the heavens from the earth in this way?
Jesus himself used language of heavenly destruction in the Olivet discourse, when he predicted that the sun and moon will be darkened, the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken (Matt 24:29; Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25-26).
Similar imagery is found in Revelation 6 when the angel opens the sixth seal: “the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.” (Rev 6:12-13)
When I began writing chapter 9 of A New Heaven and a New Earth (where I addressed a multitude of such “problem texts”) I already had a hunch that this imagery of heavenly destruction depicted the purification of the cosmos rather than its literal destruction (what will be eradicated is sin, not creation). And I found this to be a helpful perspective on many of the texts I examined.
No Old Testament Precedent for Stars Falling From Heaven
It turns out that New Testament depictions of the sun and moon being darkened have multiple precedents in Old Testament prophetic texts that speak of the world-shaking significance of God’s judgment on the nations or on Israel.
I addressed many of these texts in chapter 6 of A New Heaven and a New Earth, including Isaiah 13:9-10; 24:23; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 2:30-30; 3:15-16; and Habakkuk 3:7-8. In none of these biblical texts does the language of celestial destabilization mean the literal eradication of the heavenly bodies.
But, surprisingly, there is no precedent in the Old Testament for stars falling from heaven—at least not in the Hebrew. But there is one reference in the Greek. Some manuscripts of the Septuagint of Isaiah 34:4 render the Hebrew for “all their host shall wither” with the Greek for “all the stars shall fall.”
That the Septuagint of Isaiah 34 is in the background of Revelation 6 seems clear not only from the reference to stars falling, but also from the analogy of the fig tree in both texts (falling leaves in Isaiah 34:4, falling fruit in Revelation 6:13) and from the mention of kings (basileis) and great ones (megistanes) being judged in Revelation 6:15 and Isaiah 34:12 (in each case Revelation 6 specifically matches the Septuagint, not the Hebrew, of Isaiah 34).
The Fall of Angels in the Enoch Literature
This image of stars falling from heaven in the Septuagint of Isaiah 34 probably derives from Jewish apocalyptic works known as the Enoch literature (see especially 1 Enoch 86, 88, 90). It is this literature that identifies the angelic “watchers” of Daniel 4:14 with the “sons of God” from Genesis 6:1-4 (and note the reference there to the nehpilim or “fallen ones”).
The reason the Enoch literature refers to the watchers as “stars” is based on those Old Testament texts that depict the stars as corrupt heavenly beings, which are being judged at God’s coming. For example, Isaiah 24:21 says that YHWH will “punish the host of heaven in heaven and the kings of the earth on the earth.”
The Fall of Satan, Angels, and Stars in the New Testament
In the New Testament, all the references to the fall of Satan or his angels describe the victory of God’s kingdom over the powers of evil. So when the disciples report to Jesus that demons have submitted to them in his name (Luke 10:17), he responds: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” (Luke 10:18).
Likewise, the fall of Satan, along with angels (often identified with stars), is a significant theme in the book of Revelation (9:1; 12:4, 7-10; 20:1-3; 20:10).
In the Bible, imagery of evil heavenly powers “falling” has nothing to do with some primeval event. Rather, the references in Luke and Revelation describe God’s judgment on the powers of evil in the ministry of Jesus or the church, as God’s kingdom progresses towards it goal. We could say that these angelic forces are being “taken down” or stripped of their power.
In short, the imagery of stars falling from heaven in the Olivet discourse and Revelation 6, and even the destruction of the heavenly “elements” (stoicheia) in 2 Peter 3, does not describe the literal dissolution of the non-earthly cosmos, but rather God’s judgment on corrupt angelic powers, which sets the stage for the judgment—and ultimately the redemption—of the earth.
There simply is no destruction of the cosmos taught in the New Testament.
It is, of course, impossible to cover every aspect of this topic is a short blog post. For a more extensive treatment you’ll have to read A New Heaven and a New Earth.
J. Richard Middleton (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary and adjunct professor of theology at Roberts Wesleyan College, both in Rochester, New York. He authored The Liberating Image and coauthored the bestsellers Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be and The Transforming Vision.