The Greatest Mystery of Bible Prophecy
The Eternal State
There are many mysteries in Bible prophecy. For example, when Revelation 17:5 mentions “Mystery Babylon” as the end times headquarters of the Antichrist, is it referring to the site of ancient Babylon or to modern day Rome? And what about 2 Thessalonians 2:8–12? Does this passage mean that those who hear the Gospel and reject it before the Rapture will continue to do so throughout the Tribulation?
These are difficult and hotly debated questions. Even those who believe in the interpretation of prophecy for its plain sense meaning disagree on the answers. And the reason is simple: prophecy is not always precisely clear. And that, in turn, provides room for honest disagreement as to its meaning.
I have studied Bible prophecy intensely for 40 years. Most of it I think I understand. But there are definitely areas where it’s like looking into a dim mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12). And so, I have compiled a list of questions for the Lord, for we are promised that when He returns He will make all things clear to us (1 Corinthians 13:9–12).
The great Bible teacher, Vance Havner (1901–1986), put the problem this way:1
There are a lot of questions the Bible doesn’t answer about the Hereafter. But I think one reason is illustrated by the story of a boy sitting down to a bowl of spinach when there’s a chocolate cake at the end of the table. He’s going to have a rough time eating that spinach when his eyes are on the cake. And if the Lord had explained everything to us about what’s ours to come, I think we’d have a rough time with our spinach down here.
With regard to prophecy, the Bible contains a lot of detailed prophecies about Israel in the end times and about end time events like the Rapture, the Tribulation and the Millennium. But it has very little to say about the Eternal State.
We are told that the Redeemed will live in New Bodies in a New Jerusalem which will be located on a New Earth (Revelation 21:1–8).
Beyond that, all we are told is that God will descend to the New Earth to live in the New Jerusalem with us and that we will see His face and serve Him forever (Revelation 22:3–4).
The Greatest Mystery
For me, the greatest mystery of Bible prophecy relates to something that is said about the Eternal State.
But first, for those of you who may not be so familiar with the book of Revelation, let me lay it out for you in chronological order.2 In chapters 1 through 3, Jesus appears to the Apostle John on the Isle of Patmos 65 years after His death, burial and resurrection. Through John, Jesus assures His churches that He is with them in the midst of their persecution by the Roman Empire. At that point, John is raptured to Heaven (Revelation 4:1) where he experiences the incredible throne room of God and the glorious worship that fills it constantly (chapters 4 and 5).
The Lord then begins to give John a prophetic panorama of end time events:
Chapters 4–18 — The Tribulation
Chapter 19 — The Second Coming
Chapter 20 — The Millennium
Chapters 21–22 — The Eternal State
Near the end of chapter 21, as John is describing in detail the various aspects of the New Jerusalem where the Redeemed will reside forever, he suddenly interjects what is to many a jolting statement about nations that will be on the New Earth outside the New Jerusalem:
24) The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.
25) In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed;
26) and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it;
27) and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Nor is that all that is said about these nations. In the next chapter, John tells about seeing a River of Life flowing from God’s throne with the Tree of Life on each side of the river bearing twelve kinds of fruit every month (Revelation 22:1–2). And then comes the next mysterious statement: “…and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2).
These verses pose some intriguing questions:
- Who are the nations on the New Earth outside the New Jerusalem?
- Why do these nations need healing?
Proposed Solutions to the Identity of the Nations
Most commentaries just ignore these verses and the questions raised by them. For example you will not find any commentary in books about Revelation written by such notables as Charles Swindoll, W. A. Criswell, Donald Grey Barnhouse, William Hendriksen, H. A. Ironside, Herbert Lockyer and Ray Stedman.
Even the best and most detailed book ever written about the Eternal State — Heaven by Randy Alcorn — fails to develop these enigmatic verses in any depth.3
Applied to the Millennium
Many commentators over the years who have paid attention to the mystery of the nations on the New Earth have tried to solve it by arguing that the verses are a flash–back to the Millennium when we know for certain that people in natural, sinful bodies will be living on the earth — these being the believing survivors of the Tribulation and the children born to them during the Millennium.
A good example of this view can be found in the commentary by G. R. Beasley–Murray (1916–2000): “The symbolism is more suitable to the order of life in the kingdom of Christ than in the new creation.”4
But there is simply no textual basis for assigning these verses to the Millennium. They are located in the midst of the description of the New Earth and the New Jerusalem.
Furthermore, the New Jerusalem does not descend to earth until after the Millennium when the present earth has been consumed by fire and remolded into the New Earth.
Saved Nations of Glorified Saints
A second solution for the mystery is based upon faulty manuscripts of Revelation 21:24. This is the easy way out of the mystery for most of the authors who even bother to pay attention to it.
The King James Version reads, “…and the nations of them which are saved . . .” Based on this reading, many commentators simply conclude the Redeemed will be able to live either inside the New Jerusalem or on the New Earth outside the city or both. Some of the authors who take this position include Adam Clarke, Albert Barnes, Daymond Duck, John Walvoord, Salem Kirban, Tim LaHaye, Herschel Hobbs and Mark Hitchcock.
The problem is that the phrase, “of them which are saved,” is not found in any of the oldest manuscripts. It was apparently added by some scribe along the way who was attempting to solve the mystery. This phrase has been deleted from nearly all modern versions (NIV, NASB, RSV and ESV). The New King James Version keeps the phrase but provides a footnote that explains it is not found in the oldest manuscripts.
So, based on this manuscript error, one cannot conclude decisively that the nations referred to as being outside the New Jerusalem on the New Earth are made up of glorified saints. And this “solution” does not solve the second problem as to why the nations need healing.
Other Redeemed People
A third solution to the mystery is the idea that those saved during the Tribulation who entered the Millennium in the flesh, and those born of these people during the Millennium who accept Jesus, will be transferred to the New Earth in their natural bodies and will live outside the New Jerusalem and repopulate the New Earth.
Take, for example, the famous illustrator of the Bible, Clarence Larkin (1850–1924). He argues that before the earth is consumed in fire, God will “take off the righteous representatives of the Millennial nations that He proposes to save, and when the earth is again fit to be the abode of men, place them back on the New Earth, that they may increase and multiply and replenish, as Adam and Noah were told to multiply and replenish the current earth” (Genesis 1:27–28 and Genesis 9:1).5 He further states that when the ever increasing population of the earth becomes too large, the excess will be used to populate other planets.6
Larkin concludes with this observation:7
God will not permit Satan to block His plans for peopling this earth with a Sinless Human Race. The death of Christ was not merely to redeem a few millions of the human race, but to redeem the Earth and the Race Itself from the curse of sin, and the dominion of Satan.
Likewise, Henry Morris (1918–2006), the renowned creation scientist, speculates that the nations on the New Earth could very well be those saved during the Tribulation and Millennium who will be transferred to the New Earth in natural bodies.8 He admits that this interpretation is “fraught with difficulties,” but he points out that it solves several problems. After all, the Scriptures refer many times to “perpetual generations” (Genesis 9:12) and to “everlasting covenants” (Genesis 9:12–16). Also, we are told in Isaiah 9:7 that “there will be no end to the increase of His [the Messiah’s] government or of peace…forevermore.”
Morris admits that his proposal is “highly speculative, but does appear somewhat reasonable.”9 He then states that perhaps “the more likely alternative exposition” is that these are “nations of the saved” who are residents of the New Jerusalem, “but have also been given national boundaries on the new earth.”10
David Hocking agrees with Morris’ speculative proposal. He writes: “Probably those who come out of the Tribulation period, those described as ‘sheep’ in Matthew 25:31–46, and those born during the Millennium who do not rebel against the Messiah, are all a part of the ‘nations’ on earth in the eternal state.”11
John MacArthur agrees: “Another possible interpretation is that this phrase [nations on the New Earth] refers to the believers living at the end of the Millennium. According to that view, the statement…refers to the translation of those believers before the uncreation of the present planet.”12
Others agreeing with this idea include E. W. Bullinger, J. A. Seiss and Keith Krell. It is also the position of Hal Lindsey.
J. A. Seiss (1823–1904) wrote: “I …hold it to be a necessary and integral part of the Scriptural doctrine of human redemption, that our race, as a self–multiplying order of beings, will never cease either to exist or to possess the earth…Ransomed nations in the flesh are therefore among the occupants of the new earth, and the blessed and happy dwellers in it, as Adam and Eve dwelt in Paradise.”13
Keith Krell, pastor of Fourth Memorial Church in Spokane, Washington and associate professor of biblical exposition at Moody Bible Institute in Spokane, explains his position in the following way:14
It is clear from the context that John is talking about a group of people who have access to the New Jerusalem but who don’t live there.
There is only one group of people left on earth to go into eternity in their physical bodies — believers that served Christ during His millennium kingdom. They go into eternity in their physical, glorified bodies, not spiritual glorified bodies like we [Church Age saints] will have because they did not experience death and resurrection. These people will go into eternity with bodies like Adam and Eve had at their creation before they were flawed by sin.
This explanation raises another mystery: What is a “physical glorified body”? This is something never mentioned in the Scriptures.
Two very renowned biblical expositors present highly imaginative and challenging explanations of the nations on the New Earth. They are J. Vernon McGee (1904–1988) and David L. Cooper (1886–1965).
McGee taught that the New Jerusalem would never come to earth. Instead, he thought it would become a new planet, with the present earth becoming a satellite orbiting around the city. He believed that Israel and Gentile nations would occupy the orbiting earth and would have access to the New Jerusalem. Only Church Age saints would live in the New Jerusalem.15
Cooper believed the New Earth would be much larger than the current one in order to keep the gigantic New Jerusalem in proportion. He also believed that the nations on the New Earth would be composed of “a new race of people who will be created” and will be immune to sin, living “in perfect harmony with the will of God throughout eternity.” It is this “new race of people” that the Church Age saints will rule over forever.16
A third well–known Bible prophecy expert, George Eldon Ladd (1911–1982), is the only person I could find who took the position that the nations on the New Earth would be composed of unsaved people. He wrote: “Taken literally, this verse suggests that in the new earth there will be two companies of people: the redeemed who inhabit the new Jerusalem, and unregenerate nations of earth who live outside the city but who are influenced by its presence, walking in its light and bringing their glory to the city.”17 But he goes on to say: “However, it is equally possible that John is using conventional human language to describe the universality of the knowledge of God in the eternal order”18 — whatever that gobbledygook means!
Hilton Sutton (1924–2012) took the position that only Church Age saints would live in the New Jerusalem. All the rest of the Redeemed — Old Testament Jews and Gentiles, and the saved of the Tribulation and Millennium — would occupy the New Earth.19 But this flies in the face of the fact that Abraham was given a revelation about him and his descendants living forever in a new Jerusalem (Hebrews 11:10, 16).
The most detailed discussion of the nations on the New Earth that I have been able to find in a published commentary is the one by Robert L. Thomas who is professor of New Testament language and literature at The Master’s Seminary in California. He also served on the editorial board of the New American Standard Bible, and in 1990 he served as the president of the Evangelical Theological Society.
In his highly detailed, two volume commentary on Revelation, he considers nine different interpretations of the nations on the New Earth.20 He dismisses all nine for various reasons and then presents his theory:
…the “nations” are composed of saved people who survive the millennial kingdom without dying and without joining Satan’s rebellion and who undergo some sort of transformation that suits them for life in the Eternal State. They will be like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden prior to the Fall. They will be unresurrected human beings who will inhabit the new earth …These will be the ones over whom God’s resurrected saints will reign. Nations, peoples and men on earth must continue in the flesh as Adam and Eve did before the Fall.
This explanation leaves me wanting more information. For example, what is meant by “some sort of transformation that suits them for life in the eternal state”? And why must “nations, peoples and men on earth” have to continue in the flesh?
There are two very detailed articles about perpetual generations that can be found on the Internet:
- Darrel Mitchell: “God’s Plan: Eternal Inhabitants.”21
- F. M. Riley: “A Thousand Generations”22
Both of these authors agree that there will be nations of people on the New Earth who will exist in natural bodies. They also agree that these people will be composed of unresurrected saints who come from two groups:
- Those saved during the Tribulation who live to the end of the Tribulation and are allowed to enter the Millennium in the flesh.
- Those born during the Millennium who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
The Scriptures indicate that both of these groups will have their life spans extended to the “lifetime of a tree” (Isaiah 65:20– 22), meaning they will live to the end of the Millennium, at which time these writers assume they will be transferred to the New Earth in their natural bodies.
Both of these writers affirm that “the earth was created to be inhabited by ‘natural’ beings that were promised the earth as an ‘eternal inheritance'” (Exodus 32:13; Psalm 37:29; and Matthew 5:5).23 They also make the point that God originally created Man to live forever in his natural body, and that those existing on the New Earth in such bodies will fulfill God’s original purpose of replenishing the earth with natural people (Genesis 1:27–31 and Genesis 9:7).24 Both authors also agree that the sin nature will be removed from these inhabitants of the New Earth, restoring them to “the state of purity and innocence that Adam and Eve were in when God created them.”25
Both writers recognize that an objection to their concept is the Apostle Paul’s statement: “Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:50). Their counter argument is that these nations on the New Earth are subjects of the Lord’s kingdom and not inheritors. Only resurrected saints in glorified bodies are co–heirs with Christ in His eternal kingdom (Romans 8:17).
Proposed Solutions to the “Healing of the Leaves”
Just like the references to nations on the New Earth, the comment in Revelation 22:2 about the nations being healed by the leaves of the Tree of Life is usually overlooked in commentaries or else spiritualized into meaninglessness.
As an example of spiritualization, consider this explanation by Robert Hawker (1753–1827):26
Look at Jesus as the Tree of Life…He bears twelve manner of fruits, that is, all variety: He hath pardon, mercy, peace, grace, love, strength, comfort, deliverance in temptations, recoveries in back–slidings, helps in times of need, preparation for ordinances, and blessings in the use of them.
Mercifully, most commentators are more down to earth. The vast majority take the position that the word, “healing,” should be translated as “health” or “service.” They point out that Revelation 21:4 proclaims that when the Eternal State begins, death will be abolished and there will no longer be any mourning, crying or pain. Therefore, the “healing” provided by the leaves of the Tree of Life must refer to the maintenance of perfect health and not the healing of sickness.
Here are some representative samples of this explanation:
- Clarence Larkin: “The leaves of the trees are for the Healing of the Nations that shall occupy the New Earth. Not that there will be any sickness, but to preserve them in health, as Adam would have been preserved in health if he had eaten of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.”27
- David Hocking: “It means that the Tree of Life is the key to the perpetual health of all peoples who find themselves in the Eternal State. It is hard to conceive of the need for healing in the Eternal State when all pain and death has been removed forever.”28
- John MacArthur: “Perhaps a better way to translate it would be ‘life–giving’ or ‘health–giving’ since the Greek word for ‘healing’ can also mean ‘therapeutic.’ The leaves of the Tree of Life can be likened to supernatural vitamins, since vitamins are taken not to treat illness, but to promote general health.”29
So where are we? What can we conclude with certainty? Not much. We mainly have to speculate and refrain from dogmatism.
The only thing I feel like I can personally say with certainty is that in the Eternal State there will be nations living on the New Earth outside the New Jerusalem.
The identity of the nations can only be guessed at. My best guess is that they will be the believing survivors of the Tribulation who will enter the Millennium in the flesh, as well as their descendants born during the Millennium who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. All of these people will live to the end of the Millennium in natural bodies. We are never told that these people will receive glorified bodies like the ones that resurrected believers will receive.
Regardless of their identity, I believe the nations on the New Earth will be in bodies that are capable of reproduction because the Bible says that there will never be any end to the growth and expansion of Jesus’ eternal kingdom (Isaiah 9:6–7).
We are also told that those of us who receive glorified bodies and whose residence will be the New Jerusalem will reign as priests and kings with Jesus forever (Revelation 5:9–10). To do so requires a population for us to minister to and to reign over.
The major problem I am left with is whether or not the nations on the New Earth will be capable of sinning. Most commentators believe they will not, and they have good reasons for believing this. Again, the Bible says the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and the Scriptures also tell us that in the Eternal State death will be abolished (1 Corinthians 15:25–26 and Revelation 21:4).
But the prohibition against sinners entering the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:27) seems to indicate that the people who compose the nations will be capable of committing sins. And if they are not, why would they need priests and kings? This is a mystery to me for which I have no answer.
Consider also that God has never created robots. Even the angels are capable of sinning, and many did so when they joined Satan’s rebellion. All of God’s created beings have free will. Is this to be removed from those in natural bodies who will inhabit the New Earth?
I wish I could give you the answers to these questions, but I cannot. To me, the answers are a mystery.
But what is not a mystery is that God has promised that in the Eternal State the Redeemed are going to be blessed beyond anything imaginable: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has the mind of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Because of promises like this, I yearn with all my heart for that day when Jesus will appear in the heavens and call us home to Him.
1) Keith Krell, “It Just Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This! (Revelation 21:1-22:5),” https://Bible.org/seriespage/29-it-just-doesn-t-get-any-better-revelation-211-225, page 4.
2) For an overview of the book of Revelation, written for the lay person, see: David Reagan, Wrath and Glory: The Meaning of the Book of Revelation (McKinney, TX: Lamb & Lion Ministries, 2nd edition, 2016).
3) Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2004)
4) G. R. Beasley-Murray, The New Century Bible Commentary: Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), page 332.
5) Clarence Larkin, The Book of Revelation (Philadelphia, PA: The Clarence Larkin Estate, 1919), page 206.
6) Ibid., pages 206-207.
7) Ibid., page 207.
8) Henry M. Morris, The Revelation Record (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1983), page 458.
9) Ibid., page 459.
11) David Hocking, The Coming World Leader: Understanding the book of Revelation, (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1988), page 303.
12) John MacArthur, Because the Time is Near (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), page 325.
13) J. A. Seiss, The Prophetic News and Israel’s Watchman, edited by Revs. M. Baxter and T.J. Malyon, August 1883, “The Apocalypse,” page 225, https://books.google.com.
14) Keith Krell, “It Just Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This! (Revelation 21:1-22:5),” https://bible.Org/seriespage/29-ti-just-doesn-t-get-any-better-revelation-211-225, pages 7-8.
15) J. Vernon McGee, Revelation, Vol III, Chapters 14-22 (Pasadena, CA: Through the Bible Books, 1979), pages 183 and 195-196.
16) David Cooper, An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Los Angeles, CA: Biblical Research Society, 1972), pages 252-253.
17) George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), page 284.
19) Hilton Sutton, Revelation: God’s Grand Finale (Tulsa, OK: Harrison House, 1984), pages 226-227.
20) Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8-22: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), pages 476-478.
21) Darrel Mitchell: “God’s Plan: Eternal Inhabitants,” http://www.netbiblestudy.com/00_cartimages/Ages-15.pdf.
22) F. M. Riley: “A Thousand Generations,” https://twelvebooks.wordpress.com/2009/02/05/fmriley-4-feb-2009-a-thousand-generations-a-biblical-study-about-the-future-of-humanity.
23) Mitchell, page 1.
24) Ibid., page 2.
25) Riley, page 8.
26) “Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary: Revelation 22:2,” Hawker’s Poor Man’s Commentary (1828), www.studylight.org/commentary/revelation/22-2.html, page 13.
27) Larkin, page 208.
28) Hocking, page 305.
29) MacArthur, page 326.