The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth
“I imagine that nature will be transformed and reconciled. . . . Not tomorrow morning, but in an immensely far-off age, when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.”—Jean-Marie Pelt, French environmental specialist.
DISTRESSED by environmental and social conditions on earth, many would love to see our planet transformed into a paradise. Yet, this aspiration is not just a 21st-century dream. Long ago, the Bible promised the restoration of Paradise on earth. Jesus’ declarations “the meek . . . shall inherit the earth” and “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” are among the most well-known passages in Scripture. (Matthew 5:5; 6:10, Revised Standard Version) Today, however, not many share a belief in an earthly paradise inhabited by the meek. For most who claim to be Christians, Paradise has been lost.
The French weekly magazine La Vie explains why belief in a paradise—whether on earth or in heaven—has been abandoned, at least in the Catholic Church: “After dominating Catholic pastoral teachings for at least 19 centuries, [the notion of a] paradise has disappeared from spiritual retreats, Sunday sermons, theology courses, and catechism classes.” The very word is said to be shrouded in a “heavy fog” of “mystery and confusion.” Some preachers deliberately avoid it because it “conveys too many images of earthly happiness.”
For Frédéric Lenoir, a sociologist who specializes in religion, the notions of a paradise have become “stereotyped images.” Likewise, Jean Delumeau, historian and author of several books on the subject, thinks that the fulfillment of Bible promises is primarily symbolic. He writes: “To the question, ‘What is left of Paradise?’ Christian faith continues to reply: Thanks to the resurrection of the Savior, one day we shall all join hands and our eyes shall see happiness.”
Is the message of an earthly paradise still relevant? What exactly does the future hold for our planet? Is the vision of the future blurred, or can it be brought into focus? The following article will answer these questions.
“As in Heaven, Also Upon Earth”
“Catholic belief specifies Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven.”—Catholicism, edited by George Brantl.
NOTE that in this list of possibilities for mankind, the earth is absent. That is hardly surprising because the Catholic Church, like a number of other religions, adheres to the notion that the earth will one day be destroyed. The Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique makes this clear under the entry “End of the World”: “The Catholic Church believes and teaches that the present world, as God created it and as it exists, will not last eternally.” A recent Catholic catechism also takes up this idea: “Our world . . . is destined to disappear.” But if our planet is going to disappear, what of the Bible’s promises of an earthly paradise?
The Bible clearly speaks of a future paradise on earth. For example, the prophet Isaiah described the earth and its inhabitants in this way: “They will certainly build houses and have occupancy; and they will certainly plant vineyards and eat their fruitage. They will not build and someone else have occupancy; they will not plant and someone else do the eating. For like the days of a tree will the days of my people be; and the work of their own hands my chosen ones will use to the full.” (Isaiah 65:21, 22) The Jews, to whom God gave these promises, were certain that their land—indeed, the whole earth—would one day become a paradise for mankind’s everlasting benefit.
Psalm 37 confirms this hope. “The meek ones themselves will possess the earth.” (Psalm 37:11) This verse is not talking about just a temporary restoration of the nation of Israel to the Promised Land. The same psalm specifies: “The righteous themselves will possess the earth, and they will reside forever upon it.” (Psalm 37:29)* Note that this psalm says that everlasting life on earth is to be a reward for “the meek.” In a French Bible, a comment on this verse says that the word “meek” “has a far wider meaning than is apparent in translations; it includes the unfortunate, those afflicted or persecuted for Yahweh’s sake, humble hearts that are submissive to God.”
On Earth or in Heaven?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made a promise that reminds us of the scriptures quoted above: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5, Revised Standard Version) Once again, the earth is to be a lasting reward for the faithful. However, Jesus made it clear to his apostles that he was preparing a place for them “in the house of [his] Father” and that they would be in heaven with him. (John 14:1, 2; Luke 12:32; 1 Peter 1:3, 4) How, then, should we understand promises of earthly blessings? Are they relevant today, and to whom do they apply?
Various Bible scholars say that “the earth” mentioned in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and even in Psalm 37 is merely symbolic. In his comments in the Bible de Glaire, F. Vigouroux saw in these verses “a figure of heaven and of the Church.” To M. Lagrange, a French Bible researcher, this blessing “is, not a promise that the meek shall possess the earth on which they live, neither under the present system nor under a more perfect order, but the place, wherever it might be, which is the kingdom of the heavens.” For another, it is a “symbolic use of earthly values to speak of heaven.” For still others, “the land of promise, Canaan, is taken in a spiritual sense and represents the homeland above, the kingdom of God, the possession of which is guaranteed to those who are meek. That is also the meaning of this image in Psalm 37 and elsewhere.” But should we be quick to exclude the physical earth from God’s promises?
An Eternal Purpose for the Earth
In the beginning, the earth was directly linked to God’s purpose for humans. “As regards the heavens, to Jehovah the heavens belong, but the earth he has given to the sons of men,” wrote the psalmist. (Psalm 115:16) God’s original purpose for mankind was thus connected with the earth, not with heaven. Jehovah gave the first human couple the commission to expand the garden in Eden to cover the earth. (Genesis 1:28) This purpose was not temporary. Jehovah affirms in his Word that the earth will last forever: “A generation is going, and a generation is coming; but the earth is standing even to time indefinite.”—Ecclesiastes 1:4; 1 Chronicles 16:30; Isaiah 45:18.
God’s promises never sink into oblivion, for he is the Most High, and he ensures their fulfillment. Using the natural water cycle as an illustration, the Bible explains that the fulfillment of God’s promises is inevitable: “Just as the pouring rain descends, and the snow, from the heavens and does not return to that place, unless it actually saturates the earth and makes it produce and sprout, . . . so my word [God’s word] that goes forth from my mouth will prove to be. It will not return to me without results, but it will certainly do that in which I have delighted, and it will have certain success in that for which I have sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10, 11) God makes promises to humans. A certain amount of time may pass before those promises are realized, but they do not fall by the wayside. They “return” to him having accomplished all that was uttered.
Jehovah certainly “delighted” in creating the earth for mankind. At the end of the sixth creative day, he declared that everything was “very good.” (Genesis 1:31) The transformation of the earth into a lasting paradise is part of the divine purpose that has not yet been accomplished. Nevertheless, God’s promises ‘will not return to him without results.’ All the promises of perfect life on earth, where humans will live eternally in peace and security, will be fulfilled.—Psalm 135:6; Isaiah 46:10.
God’s Purpose Achieved Without Fail
The sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, temporarily disturbed God’s original purpose of making the earth a paradise. After their disobedience, they were expelled from the garden. They thus lost the privilege of sharing in the fulfillment of the divine purpose of having perfect humans reside on a paradise earth. Still, God arranged things to accomplish his purpose. How?—Genesis 3:17-19, 23.
The situation in Eden was similar to that of a man who starts to build a house on an excellent plot of land. Just as he lays the foundation, someone comes along and destroys what has been laid. Rather than abandon his project, the man takes steps to ensure the completion of the house. Even if this additional work entails extra cost, it does not call into question the advisability of the initial project.
Likewise, God made arrangements to ensure the accomplishment of his purpose. Soon after the sin of our first parents, he announced a hope for their descendants—a “seed” who would undo the damage done. In fulfilling this prophecy, the primary part of the seed proved to be God’s Son, Jesus, who came to earth and offered his life as a sacrifice to repurchase mankind. (Galatians 3:16; Matthew 20:28) Once resurrected to heaven, Jesus would become the King of the Kingdom. Primarily, he is the meek one who inherits the earth together with selected faithful ones who are resurrected to heaven to become corulers in this Kingdom. (Psalm 2:6-9) In time, this government will take earth’s affairs in hand in order to accomplish God’s original purpose and transform the earth into a paradise. Countless millions of meek ones “inherit the earth” in the sense that they benefit from the rule of this Kingdom by Jesus Christ and his corulers.—Genesis 3:15; Daniel 2:44; Acts 2:32, 33; Revelation 20:5, 6.
“As in Heaven, Also Upon Earth”
This salvation with two destinies, heavenly and earthly, is mentioned in a vision seen by the apostle John. He saw kings on heavenly thrones who had been chosen from among Christ’s faithful disciples. The Bible specifically states regarding these associates of Christ that “they are to rule as kings over the earth.” (Revelation 5:9, 10) Note the dual aspect in the accomplishing of God’s purpose—a restored earth under the direction of a heavenly Kingdom made up of Jesus Christ and his joint heirs. All these divine arrangements make possible the final restoration of the earthly Paradise in accord with God’s original purpose.
In his model prayer, Jesus invited his disciples to pray for God’s will to take place “as in heaven, also upon earth.” (Matthew 6:9, 10) Would these words make sense if the earth disappeared or was merely a symbol of heaven? Similarly, would they make sense if all the righteous went to heaven? God’s will for the earth is clearly evident in the Scriptures, from the account of the creation right up to the visions of the book of Revelation. The earth is to become what God purposed—a paradise. This is the will that God promises to accomplish. The faithful on earth pray for the fulfillment of that will.
Everlasting life on earth is what the Creator, the God who ‘has not changed,’ originally purposed. (Malachi 3:6; John 17:3; James 1:17) For more than a century, this magazine, The Watchtower, has explained these two aspects in the accomplishing of the divine purpose. This allows us to understand the promises of an earthly restoration that are found in the Scriptures. We invite you to look into the matter further, either by having a discussion with Jehovah’s Witnesses or by contacting the publishers of this magazine.
While many Bible translations render the Hebrew term ’eʹrets “land” instead of “earth,” there is no reason to limit ’eʹrets at Psalm 37:11, 29 to just the land given to the nation of Israel. Old Testament Word Studies by William Wilson defines ’eʹrets as “the earth in the largest sense, both the habitable and uninhabitable parts; with some accompanying word of limitation, it is used of some portion of the earth’s surface, a land or country.” So the first and primary meaning of the Hebrew word is our planet, or globe, the earth.—See The Watchtower, January 1, 1986, page 31.