Even to consider the question seriously starts the tectonic plates shifting beneath one's feet. If the earth passes away, it takes along with it human consciousness, history, and civilization. As unthinkable as it may be, the impermanence of the earth has been considered even by the biblical writers, although God pronounced his creative act "very good" (Genesis 1:31). The biblical myth, however, is that God once destroyed every living thing on the earth (Genesis 7:4, 21-23), so something went very wrong. The flood event was not understood by the writers as a destruction of the earth, but (as we would say) a global destruction of life, which God promised never to do again by floods (Genesis 9:11-17). God promised that the earth and earthly life cycles would continue "while the earth remains" (Genesis 8:20-22), which is not quite a promise that the earth is permanent. Hence, in this expression the biblical writer raises the specter of the earth's impermanence.
The threats of destruction involving the earth in Hebrew Bible are usually like the flood incident—threats against a particular people for a particular reason (e.g., Zephaniah 1:14-18; 3:1-8). The earth abides, but certain peoples are destroyed. Even the "Little Apocalypse" of Isaiah 24-27 (First Isaiah) predicts only a devastation of the earth and not its destruction. Isaiah 65:17-20 (Third Isaiah), however, foresees a "new heavens and a new earth" and asserts that "the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind."
Paul's letters seem inconsistent. In one letter he suggests that even the (old) earth is anticipating redemption, because of its being in bondage to decay (Romans 8:19-23), which suggests that the present earth will continue after its redemption. Yet in another letter he writes that "the form of this world is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:26, 31). The writer in Second Peter unambiguously announces the destruction of earth:
The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. (2nd Peter 3:10).
The prophetic writer, John, echoes Third Isaiah in foreseeing the advent of a "new heaven and a new earth," and echoes Paul in announcing the "passing away" of the first heaven and first earth (Revelation 21:1-4).
Do you suppose that God's mind for some reason was changed about the creation being "very good," and as a result what began "good" in God's judgment will end up in a fiery cataclysm? If so, why would God decide to destroy a "very good" and perfectly innocent creation? Animals, plants, and the "material stuff" of earth are not unrighteous, evil, or unethical, and scarcely deserve punishment. Such insentient things and creatures would scarcely even be able to appreciate that they were being punished. Perhaps the biblical writers are wrong in foreseeing the end of the world, for they cannot actually read God's mind. When it comes to God, all of us human beings are limited and see things only "in a mirror dimly" (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12)—even prophets, preachers, and TV evangelists.
Nevertheless, that said, the transience of our habitable blue and white planet earth has always been threatened by natural causes. A large enough wandering comet striking earth would cause catastrophic devastation. In 1908 a comet about the size of a football field, among other things leveled 2000 square kilometers of forest in central Siberia. Perhaps some other cosmic catastrophe might occur, such as a "super nova within ten or twenty light years of the solar system," an event that some conjecture was the cause of the passing away of the dinosaurs "some sixty-five million years ago." Super novae are huge exploding stars.
Our Sun is a star, or put another way, the stars you see in the night sky are suns. They have a limited life span. "Billions of years from now, there will be a last perfect day on earth. Thereafter the Sun will slowly become red and distended," on its way to becoming a red star, then degenerating to a white dwarf; ultimately it becomes a dark and dead black dwarf. Our earth would have then long since become uninhabitable to life as we know it. Sagan's description of the death of the earth echoes Second Peter: Earth will "swelter even at the poles" and then,
The Arctic and Antarctic icecaps will melt…Eventually the oceans will boil, the atmosphere melt away to space and a catastrophe of the most immense proportions will overtake our planet.
Will we earth people be able to survive without our mother, the earth? We were spawned millions of years ago in an earthy primordial soup of dust from the stars and nourished at mother earth's breast on our way to becoming human beings. Perhaps, we will, but what might we become without her?
How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980): comets, 73-76; death of the sun, 230-32; death of the dinosaurs, 283; origins of life, 30-31; super nova, 238-39.