© Anthony E. Larson, 2002
New Heavens, New Earth: Suddenly or Slowly?
The heavens and the earth are repeatedly referenced in the scriptures as the objects of remarkable, sweeping changes in the past and in the future.
“For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.” (Isaiah 65:17.)
“Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” (2 Peter 3:13.)
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.” (Revelation 21:1.)
“And there shall be a new heaven and a new earth; and they shall be like unto the old save the old have passed away, and all things have become new.” (Ether 13:9.)
And the end shall come, and the heaven and the earth shall be consumed and pass away, and there shall be a new heaven and a new earth.” (Ibid.)
“For all old things shall pass away, and all things shall become new, even the heaven and the earth, and all the fullness thereof, both men and beasts, the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea …” (D&C 29:23, 24.)
Descriptions of these alterations are couched in emphatic terms that strongly suggest dramatic changes – differences so great that only the terms “new,” “old,” “consumed” and “pass away” seem to suffice in order to fully illustrate the radical degree of change seen in the past and foreseen for the future.
Typically, these changes are said to occur in transitional eras, relatively short periods of time, either during the Deluge at the end of the Patriarchal Age or in a time immediately prior to the Second Coming of the Savior at the ushering in of the Millennium.
Of course, we learn from modern geology and astronomy that such a dramatic change is physically impossible in the space of a few years or decades. Change comes very slowly, we are told by scientists and scholars. The renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, given science’s view of the tediously slow rate at which these things seem to change, was fond of saying “billions and billions of years” when referring to the periods of time needed to change the heavens above us and the face of the earth at our feet.
Nevertheless, the preponderance of the evidence from the scriptures, cited above, indicates just the opposite: A rapid and dramatic change has occurred in the past and will occur yet again in the future.
This contradiction puts Latter-day Saints on the horns of a dilemma. Do we believe science or the prophets with regard to this issue. How rapidly does change takes place on the Earth and the solar system – indeed, in our universe? And why is this of any concern to us?
The answer comes in two parts. The first part rests in a brief history lesson to examine two opposing scientific theories of how change comes about in the earth and in the heavens. The two opposing theories were passionately debated in the scientific community in the mid-19th century.
One group of scientists and scholars felt that the most profound change in the earth and in the heavens came in sudden, sweeping, dramatic and catastrophic events, such as Noah’s Flood. Hence, the term “Catastrophism” was coined to designate that theory.
A second group insisted that such change comes only very slowly and gradually, in the same consistent and uniform manner as we see it operating in the forces of nature all around us today. It’s how mountains rise ever so slowly while water and wind ever so slowly wear them away, gradually and inexorably altering the entire face of the earth. Hence, the term “Gradualism” was coined, also sometimes called the Theory of Uniformity or Uniformitarianism.
By the end of the 19th century, the debate was over. The precepts of Gradualism carried the day – to such a degree that the scientific community unwaveringly refused to seriously considered Catastrophism for nearly two centuries. Scientists and scholars derisively lumped catastrophists together with religionists as a class of people for whom rational thought and empiricism were foreign processes.
Even today, when the patently catastrophist idea of an asteroid impact catastrophically wiping out the dinosaurs – suddenly and irreversibly changing the face of the earth and its entire ecosystem in an instant – has made an unprecedented comeback, reconsidering Catastrophism still seems to be out of the question for mainstream science. Even when the whole world has been treated to a graphic demonstration of the sudden, catastrophic, planet-altering power of incoming comet fragments when Shoemaker/Levi 9 repeatedly impacted Jupiter in 1994 – a celestial visual aid presented by the Creator, if you will – science steadfastly refuses to re-evaluate its decision to opt for Gradualism as the primary mechanism of change on the earth and in the heavens.
Even more incomprehensible still is the religionists’ proclivity for turning a blind eye to these things, ignoring the implications of these discoveries for their perception of scriptural accounts.
The second part of our answer seems to lie in a short declaration made by Elder Orson Pratt, an early Apostle and confidant of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
“Many geological speculations have been put forth to account for the great changes that have happened in the surface strata of the earth. But it is not our intention to examine the probability of improbability of those conjectures; but merely to give some few facts from divine revelation to show that the present geological conditions of our globe are not, in their general characteristics, the result of slow and gradual changes; but the effects of sudden convulsions and catastrophes under the control and superintendence of the All-powerful Being who formed all things.” (The Seer, Vol. II, No. 4, April, 1854, italics added.)
Once again, we see that revealed knowledge pointed to the more correct of the two theories and foreshadowed the most recent discoveries at the end of the 20th century about our world that have only recently begun to revolutionize science and replace old scientific dogma.
Elder Pratt was a recognized scientist and mathematician in his day, having worked out part of the equation to more accurately describe planetary orbits. In addition, his direct observations of the phases of the moon from a small observatory constructed on the temple grounds in Salt Lake City formed the basis for that temple’s Moon Stones, which accurately depict the phases of the moon in its walls.
That said, it becomes evident that Elder Pratt spoke with both the authority of good science and “divine revelation.” Indeed, it is apparent that he could appropriately be called a catastrophist. Moreover, he emphatically declares that the idea of slow and gradual change is not the scriptural perspective revealed to the prophets.
So, how should modern Saints see all this? What is the benefit of altering our views?
Only by seeing scriptural references such as those quoted at the beginning of this article through the eyes of Catastrophism, as espoused by Elder Pratt, can we properly conceive of the import of their message. Otherwise, seen from a gradualist perspective, they seem like largely inconsequential, lyrical rhetoric, indicative of little.
Seen in the catastrophist context, the only circumstances that would cause the ancient prophets to speak of changed heavens and earth would be dramatic changes in Earth’s orbit and position in our solar system. Though science vehemently denies that possibility, the only logical conclusion is that our planet has changed its position in the solar system with respect to the other planets, the stars and our sun and that it will do so again in the last days. Only such sweeping changes could give earthlings a “new heaven” and a “new earth.” Given Elder Pratt’s assertions and the scriptural statements of past and future changes, the conclusion is inescapable.
No wonder the prophets characterized the Earth as reeling “to and fro” during such events.