Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Isaiah 65:20 that says there will be death in the new heavens and new earth. How could that be?
This is what the verse says: “No more shall an infant there live but a few days, nor an old man who has not fulfilled his days; for the child shall die one hundred years old, but the sinner being one hundred years old shall be accursed” (NKJV). This promise of long life in the presence of sin and death comes in the context of a divine announcement: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth” (verse 17). The context (verses 17-25) describes the transformation of society (verses 18, 19, 22-24), nature (verse 25), and the people’s relationship with God (verses 19, 24). To answer this question we need to explore the concept of the “new” in Isaiah.
1. New Heavens and New Earth: The phrase “new heavens and a new earth” designates a new creation (verses 17-25; 66:22; cf. Gen. 1:1), which, according to Isaiah, will totally displace and bring an end to former things. The “new” work of God is so radical that “the former shall not be remembered” (Isa. 65:17). Absolute joy will prevail (verse 18), weeping and crying will disappear for ever (verse 19), and the nature of wild animals will be transformed (verse 25). The prophet even announces that God “will swallow up death forever” (Isa. 25:8, NKJV) through the resurrection of His people. This will be the ultimate defeat of death. For the prophet this is an end-time expectation, a return to God’s Paradise.
2. Israel and the New in Isaiah: The “new” is a very important concept in Isaiah. God announces to His people new things “before they spring forth” (Isa. 42:9). In fact He is already doing “a new thing” (Isa. 43:19). This new thing is His work of redeeming Israel, their deliverance from exile, and their return to Jerusalem. The new is His work of salvation within the flow of history. This event will affect nature (verses 19, 20), and bring healing to His people (Isa. 42:16). What is particularly new is that in the deliverance of Israel, the nation itself will not play any role at all. God will use the Persian king (Isa. 44:24-45:7), it will be based on God’s forgiving grace (Isa. 43:25), and the nations will benefit from it (Isa. 45:22-24).
This new, radical, and unique work of salvation takes place within the history of Israel and does not immediately bring the history of the nations to an end. The Medo-Persian kingdom is still in power, but God uses it to bring into existence something totally new. The old oppressive powers coexist with the new creation that God is already bringing into existence. What the New Testament calls “this age” and “the age to come” (Matt. 12:32, NKJV), is described in Isaiah as simultaneously present in the arena of human history.
In Isaiah the new creation is not totally in the future. It has entered suddenly into the present through God’s glorious work of redemption and forgiveness. The verse you quoted announces that even now, in the present existence of Israel, God is already defeating death. This idea is expressed through the promise of longevity and the elimination of infant mortality (Isa. 65:20). This promise points to the limits imposed on the power of death and predicts the future end of death. Through that language God informs them that the new creation is already here, that death is being defeated, and that it is heading toward extinction at the consummation of the new creation.
3. The New in the New Testament: In the age of salvation, begun by Christ, the evil age of sin and death coexist (cf. Gal. 1:4; Heb. 6:5). Death’s defeat is already a reality through the redemptive work of Christ (Rev. 1:18; Heb. 2:14). Through Him the new creation is a present reality, and believers are part of it (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 1:4). It is already here as a promise, as a gift, as a process by which sinners are transformed into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 4:16). We are now waiting for the perfect ending of that salvation (Rom. 8:19-23; Rev. 21:1).