I return here to a theme I’ve looked at several times before: Calvin’s views on the new heaven and new earth in relation to those that currently exist (cf. here, here, and here).
One of the most catastrophic-sounding texts in this regard is Psalm 102:26, also quoted in the first chapter of the letter to the Hebrews. Here are verses 25-7 for context:
Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
but you are the same, and your years have no end.
How are we to understand this “perishing” of the earth? As total annihilation? As Calvin does elsewhere, he understands it here in terms of renovation and renewal. But that renovation and renewal of this heaven and this earth will be so dramatic, and will introduce such great changes, that it can be said to be the “perishing” or destruction of the old world.
In what follows, it is important to attend to what Calvin identifies as the cause for this coming “destruction”–which is to say, this coming renewal. There is nothing inherently flawed in the world as it was made; it is rather that man’s sin has cosmic consequences, even as man’s redemption has and will have cosmic consequences. The world “participates” in our ruin even as it will participate in our redemption. Here, then, is the passage from Calvin’s commentary on the Psalms:
Interpreters, however, do not all explain these words, The heavens shall perish, in the same way. Some understand them as expressing simply the change they shall undergo, which will be a species of destruction; for although they are not to be reduced to nothing, yet this change of their nature, as it may be termed, will destroy what is mortal and corruptible in them, so that they shall become, in a manner, different and new heavens. Others explain the words conditionally, and make the supplement, “If it so please God,” regarding it as a thing absurd to say that the heavens are subject to corruption. But first, there is no necessity for introducing these supplementary words, which obscure the sense instead of making it plainer. In the next place, these expositors improperly attribute an immortal state to the heavens, of which Paul declares that they “groan and travail in pain,” like the earth and the other creatures, until the day of redemption, (Romans 8:22) because they are subject to corruption; not indeed willingly, or in their own nature, but because man, by precipitating himself headlong into destruction, has drawn the whole world into a participation of the same ruin. Two things are to be here attended to; first, that the heavens are actually subject to corruption in consequence of the fall of man; and, secondly, that they shall be so renewed as to warrant the prophet to say that they shall perish; for this renovation will be so complete that they shall not be the same but other heavens. The amount is, that to whatever quarter we turn our eyes, we will see everywhere nothing but ground for despair till we come to God. What is there in us but rottenness and corruption? and what else are we but a mirror of death? Again, what are the changes which the whole world undergoes but a kind of presage, yea a prelude of destruction? If the whole frame-work of the world is hastening to its end, what will become of the human race? If all nations are doomed to perish, what stability will there be in men individually considered? We ought therefore to seek stability no where else but in God.