Childbirth and Death in the New Heavens and New Earth: An Amillennial Interpretation1
I’m often asked or receive emails making inquiry about Isaiah 65:17-25 (see also Isa. 66:22) and the new heavens and new earth. Continue reading . . .
I’m often asked or receive emails making inquiry about Isaiah 65:17-25 (see also Isa. 66:22) and the new heavens and new earth. The problem this text poses for all Christians, regardless of their millennial beliefs, is found in vv. 20 and 23. There we read that in the New Heavens and New Earth there shall not be “an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed” (v. 20). And in v. 23 it appears to suggest that people during that time will bear children.
The following explanation is adapted from my book, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative. The principle that will aid us in interpreting this text is clearly articulated by Don Garlington:
“Prophecy is characteristically cast in terms of the limited understanding of the person to whom it was given. That is to say, the language of prophecy is conditioned by the historical and cultural setting in which the prophet and the people found themselves. . . . [Thus] the future kingdom is beheld as an extension and glorification of the theocracy, the most common representation of which is its condition in the reigns of David and Solomon. The prospect for the future, accordingly, is portrayed in terms of the ideal past, in terms both familiar and pleasing to the contemporaries of the prophet. This phenomenon has been termed ‘recapitulation eschatology,’ i.e., the future is depicted as a recapitulation or repetition of the past glory of the kingdom” (“Reigning with Christ,” 61).
The point is that the Old Testament author frequently spoke of the future in terms, images, and concepts borrowed from the social and cultural world with which he and his contemporaries were familiar. Since he likely could not fully grasp how his words would find fulfillment in a distant time and altogether new world transformed by the coming of Christ, he clothed the eschatological purposes of God, including the glory of the New Heaven and New Earth, in the beliefs, fears, and hopes of those to whom they were originally delivered.
Thus, when prophets spoke about the future, says Christopher Wright, “they could only do so meaningfully by using terms and realities that existed in their past or present experience” (“A Christian Approach to Old Testament Prophecy Concerning Israel,” 3). These realities included such things as the land, the law, the city of Jerusalem, the temple, the sacrificial system, and the priesthood. Therefore, “to speak of restoration without recourse to such concrete features of being Israel would have been meaningless, even if it had been possible” (ibid.).
It should also be noted that the fulfillment of such prophecies, cast in terms of those contemporary realities with which the original audience was conversant, would often go beyond and transcend them. There is almost always an element of escalation or intensification in the fulfillment of any particular promise. The best and most intelligible way that the original author of this prophecy could communicate the realistic future glory of the New Heaven and New Earth, to people who were necessarily limited by the progress of revelation to that point in time, was to portray it in the hyperbolic or exaggerated terms of an ideal present. What greater glory was imaginable to the original audience to whom Isaiah wrote than to speak of an age in which a person dying at one hundred would be thought of as an infant, an age in which the all too familiar anguish of childbirth was a thing of the past? His point isn’t to assert that people will actually die or that women will continue to give birth. Rather, he has taken two very concrete and painful experiences from the common life of people in his own day to illustrate what to them, then, was an almost unimaginable and inexpressible glory yet to come. The explanation of this principle by Alec Motyer should suffice:
“Things we have no real capacity to understand can be expressed only through things we know and experience. So it is that in this present order of things death cuts life off before it has well begun or before it has fully matured. But it will not be so then. No infant will fail to enjoy life nor an elderly person come short of total fulfilment. Indeed, one would be but a youth were one to die aged a hundred! This does not imply that death will still be present (contradicting 25:7-8) but rather affirms that over the whole of life, as we should now say from infancy to old age, the power of death will be destroyed” (The Prophecy of Isaiah, 530).