Revelation 21:1a: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and the sea was no more.
Many casual readers of Revelation assume this refers to the new, eternal heaven after the thousand years’ reign. In fact, most progressive dispensationalists read it that way. Perhaps it is so, but that is to read Revelation chronologically. Gill sees it differently. He thinks the Apostle John introduces the “new” earth in the first half of Revelation 20, proceeds on to play out the final end of the wicked in the second half of Revelation 20, and then circles back to describe the future joys of the righteous in the Millennial Kingdom in Revelation 21. In fact, he takes all of Revelation 21 and 22 as describing the “new” earth during the thousand years’ reign. Here is how he sees: (1) the new heaven and (2) the new earth.
The New Heaven
Gill takes the “new heaven” not as the third heaven, or the eternal heaven, but as the sin-purged sky or atmosphere of the existing earth. He describes a transformation of the “airy heavens, and of a new air in them.”1See Gill, “Of the New World and the Inhabitants of It,” in A Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, 638 (Book VII, Chapter VII, Section I).
He believes land, air, and sea will receive its redemption when the great conflagration purifies it to a Garden of Eden-like form. The Psalms and the OT prophets speak often of fire consuming the wicked (Ps 11:6; 97:3; Is 24:6—and then Christ sets up reign, Is 24:22-23; Zeph 1:2–3, 18; Mal 4:1–3) and of the hills and mountains melting (Ps 97:5; Nah 1:5). Isaiah appears to tie together Armageddon and the conflagration in his last chapter (66:15–24).
The NT author, Peter, picks up on this prophetic witness. He wrote, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done in it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). Peter goes on to indicate only the righteous will dwell in the “new heavens and a new earth” (though progressive dispensationalists see this differently). Gill believes the Psalms, the prophets, and Peter all are referencing the same prophetic event: the great conflagration which prepares a new, redeemed heaven (and earth). Further, he suggests, it cleanses the air of demons who were cast out of the third heaven in their first estate into the earth’s invisible atmosphere.2Ibid.
The New Earth
In like manner, Christ purifies the earth with fire to redeem it like new. The language in Revelation 21:5 does indicate it’s “new” in the sense of a renovation, not an entirely new entity, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” The verb, “I am making” (ποιῶ) is a present, active, indicative. This suggests a process of purification to its original state, which includes the conflagration, and aligns with the idea of the curse of original sin being lifted/purged. Gill comments it not only redeems the physical elements, but it also restructures the entire world system:
[T]he new administration of his kingdom in a very singular and glorious manner; so that it respects a new people, a new habitation, and a new manner of ruling over them; all which is his own doing, and is marvellous [sic].John Gill, comments on Revelation 21:5
The idea is that the present, sin-cursed earth (and heaven), as we know it, will pass away. It will be redeemed and restored to its original state before sin corrupted it. This, of course, aligns with the Apostle Paul’s declaration that even creation groans for its redemption (Rom 8:18–23).
Gill does have trouble with the phrase, “and the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1). What makes this problematic is “the sea gave up the dead who were in it” (Rev 20:13) at the end of the thousand years. The best Gill can do is this:
[W]herefore it seems best to understand it with respect to its use and qualities; and that as heaven and earth will pass away, not as to their substance, but quality, so in like manner the sea will be no more used for navigation, nor may it be a tumultuous and raging one, or have its flux and reflux, or its waters be salt, as now.John Gill, comments on Revelation 21:1
This might not leave you completely satisfied, but it isn’t groundless, either. First, John was imprisoned by the sea’s thunderous, crashing waves on the island of Patmos when he wrote this. Second, this matches Gill’s understanding of “new” as “renewing” or “restoring to new” rather than an entirely separate creation. Third, it mirrors the Christian’s new, glorified body. That is, just as the sinner receives his/her freedom of glory in his/her glorified body, Paul says creation does likewise. Romans 8:21–23:
[T]he creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
The sea returning to its original state means the tumultuous sea, as we presently know it, is no more. We’ll delve more into the details of the new earth later (Rev 22), but I hope this offers some insight into Gill’s thinking.
We have discussed before, and so here, the main problem: recapitulation. In other words, the chronological sequence is out of order. Progressive dispensationalists will cry afoul here. Yet, this one is easier to explain than some of the other instances. That is, it makes sense for John to go ahead and play out the timeline for the wicked—i.e., the loosing of Satan, the last battle, the Great White Throne judgment, etc.—before circling back to focus specifically on the future glories of the Millennial Kingdom for the righteous.
On the other hand, Gill’s concept of a “transformed” heaven and earth appeals to the OT prophetic witness of a sin-purged earth with only the righteous remaining. As well, it incorporates Peter’s testimony of the earth’s purification by fire (2 Pet 3:10–13) and Paul’s testimony of creation’s redemption (Rom 8:19–23). The grammar of Revelation 21:5, “I am making all things new,” also lends textual support to Gill’s position.
Certainly, there are other legitimate positions (amill, postmill, and progressive dispensationals all make good exegetical cases), but we if we are objective, we must admit this position, too, has equal (or better) merit. The chief textual problem is accounting for the phrase, “the sea is no more” (Rev 21:1).
On that note, last week a congregation member returned from a cruise. Excitedly, he recounted how he and his wife swam with dolphins. It was in a controlled environment, mind you, and the dolphins had been trained to interact with humans. I couldn’t help but let my mind wander: I wonder in the new earth, if we safely will swim not only with dolphins, but with sharks and whales and all other sea creatures . . . and with no threat of drowning in roaring waters or stormy oceans. Rather, a sea of glass which is perfectly peaceful invites us to enjoy all its glories. These are pleasing thoughts, indeed. If the first heaven and first earth passed away, as Revelation 21:1 says, perhaps the first sea with its sin-cursed thrashings will pass away, too. I suppose it groans for its redemption like everything else.
I don’t know if Gill is right. Maybe he isn’t. Yet, exegetically, I can’t say with certainty he is wrong, either. I’m happy to keep an open mind (and imagination) while we wait to see!