Examining Puzzling Passages: Isaiah 65:17

Do We Forget Our Past Lives in Heaven?

Timothy S. Morton

There are many passages in the Bible that can be difficult to wrap one's "head around," at least they are for your author. Some passages are tough to comprehend and even harder discern what they are talking about. Other passages have generally clear words and seem pretty easy to understand, but when one tries to apply the words as doctrine, or even in practice, he soon runs into perplexing difficulties. We will look at one of those passages in this article.

Simple Yet Perplexing

Isaiah 65:17 is a well know passage,

"For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind."

The first phrase deals with the Lord in the future creating a new heaven and earth. This is a clear and encouraging statement that everything will be made new. The difficulty is with the next phrase where it states the "former" heaven and earth will "not be remembered" and then for emphasis restates it as "nor come into mind." At first glance any difficulty may not be obvious, but as they say "the devil is in the details."

An Absolute Statement?

First, lets look at the passage in an absolute, strictly literal sense. In the most literal sense the heavens and earth must be completely forgotten as if they never existed. They will never be remembered by anyone. Strictly speaking the words only say this forgetfulness applies to heaven and earth themselves and not necessarily anything that was in or happened in either, but this understanding would render the passage pretty much incomprehensible. When the Bible speaks of heaven or earth like this it is often meant as a metaphor for the object's inhabitants (Gen 6:11, 11:1, etc.), so it is reasonable to conclude, especially considering the context, that it is not just the physical heaven and earth that is intended here, but everything that occurred in them by their inhabitants as well. Thus understanding Isaiah 65:17 in the most literal sense would mean everything ever said or done by anyone anywhere would be forgotten.

This would essentially render everything that happens in this life as meaningless in the long term, but the Scriptures bear witness that some things done on earth are not meaningless. Not by a long-shot.

The greatest and simultaneously the most terrible event that the entire creation will ever see in time or eternity was something that happened on earth on a hill called Calvary. The crucifixion and murder of the universe's only innocent (Matt 27:4), actually only righteous (1Jo 2:1), man is an event that will be remembered for eternity (Heb 9:12). It was the greatest injustice that could ever occur (Act 2:23) which was allowed and motivated by the greatest love that can ever be known (John 3:16). To think that this event will be forgotten because one must retain a literal reading of Isa 65:17 is ludicrous. It will never be forgotten by the one with the nail scarred hands, by His Father, nor by those He redeemed. Christ's death and resurrection are the most prominent and salient events in the universe.

Judged by what Standard?     

Another implication if the forgetting of Isa 65:17 is absolute is, how could God judge anyone? If all memories and experiences of one's life are gone, the individual's mind is a blank slate. He remembers nothing to gain or lose rewards for. Not even in this world will a court hold a person accountable for actions he is incapable of knowing. Some may insist the judgment happens before the memories are wiped clean but this solves nothing. Is a person in eternity going to wear crowns, etc., which he cannot remember why he has them? This would render the whole reward concept as meaningless.

In Revelation 21:12-14 after the new creation it is said there are memorials to both the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles. What could these possibly mean to people who have no memory of either?

There are even more implications if the forgetting of Isa 65:17 is absolute, but I believe we have shown enough to make it untenable. 

The Classic Answer

With a hard literal meaning out of the picture, the question remains, "What does the passage mean? What is actually forgotten?" The classic answer to these questions is tied to the previous verse where it ends with, "...because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from mine eyes." The claim is only the "troubles" in life are forgotten; the "bad" experiences in life. However, does this understanding really solve anything? Was Christ not troubled while on earth? Did his betrayal not trouble Him (John 12:27, 13:21) or the torment and struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane? And what about the cross? If a personal crucifixion does not "trouble" a person, I don't know what would.

From another perspective, would you be the same person you are today without the past "troubles" in your life? Yes, you would be the same individual, but would you so-to-speak be the same "person"? A strong case can be made claiming it is the negative things in one's life that strengthens and refines him. They are what makes or breaks character. Those of you who are older believers likely know this. Often one learns the most and grows closer to the Lord the most through the troubling things in life. Like refining gold, troubles can refine a person and make him better than before. Undoubtedly Job learned a lot of salient truths from his struggles, and we as well from reading about them. Are they going to be all forgotten? If so, then what was the purpose as far as eternity is concerned?

A Personal Reflection
Many people on this earth suffer through terrible circumstances. The horrors some believers endure are so severe that one can't help but wonder, "Why? What purpose does this serve?" Why does God allow such pain and torment while others (like your author) live in relative ease?" One of the reasonings I reflect on to help understand the severe tribulations these believers endure is the troubles in some way prepare and equip their victims for a purpose in the next life. They in some way enable them to be more useful in the coming and ever expanding new heavens and new earth. I don't know of anywhere the Bible expressly says this, but it gives me a meaning to the suffering. If all memories are wiped away, especially the bad ones, then this idea is vain and we are left, again, with no lasting meaning at all.

I think we have established that the meaning of Isa 65:17 cannot be absolute and memories of this life, especially the negative ones, are not eradicated from all remembrance, but the question still remains, what does the passage mean?

Taking Another Look   

Let's take a deep breath, pray for some guidance, try to put aside our presuppositions, and look at the passage again.

First, look at the tense. The Lord says, "...behold, I create...." It is present tense. Second, the Lord creates a new heaven and earth. So when does this occur? When one reads the rest of the chapter the Lord describes what is "new." He mentions a recreated Jerusalem that the He Himself rejoices in; the absence of weeping and crying (65:19); the extension of lifetimes, but death is still present (65:20); the building of houses and vineyards and enjoyment of their fruits (65:22); and the carnivores in the animal world no longer are (65:25.) Instead of being a description of the completely new heaven and earth created after the white throne judgment (Rev 21:1), this is a picture of the Millennium!

Two Possible Views
It can be reasonably understood that in spite of Isa 65:17 appearing to refer to the new heaven and earth of Rev 21:1, its context can show that it applies to the renewal of the earth (and in some way the heavens as well) at the start of the 1000 year Millennial Kingdom. Although He doesn't then destroy and recreate the earth, the Lord creates new conditions on earth to bring in the Millennium. The Lord is speaking about His "holy mountain" which is Jerusalem on earth. Not the New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven.

On the other hand, sometimes in the Scriptures prophetic events can be lumped together with many years in between (Isa 61:1-2; 1Jo 2:18; etc.). It is possible this could be the case here. The Lord mentions how He will create a new creation in verse 17 but then immediately speaks of the messianic kingdom which must occur first. Regardless of one's view, this debate is for another time.

Examining the context some more we find in Isa 65:16 there is a hint of a metaphor because it says the "former troubles are...hid from mine [God's] eyes." Is someone hiding the past from God? Is there anyone or anything that can do this? Of course, not. He can't even hide things from Himself and retain His omniscience. God may not remember things against a person (Heb 8:12, 10:17), but He cannot not remember something (Jam 1:17). Thus something being "hid" from God appears to be a figure of speech for God choosing to not remember something against a person or nation, and this metaphorical usage sets us up to better understand 65:17.

My Current Understanding

I have thought about this passage quite a lot over the years. It is a representative passage for other similar perplexing passages, and I figured if a person could get a handle on this one it would help better deal with the others. For years I brought a presupposition with me when I read the Isa 65:17 and the presupposition was that God was decreeing or directing that memories of this current heaven and earth will be erased, but when one looks at the verse objectively, there is no such decree made at all. God is not saying "From this day forward I decree that no one is going to remember anything about the former earth. It will never enter your mind again," but that is the way I read it for years, and it is the way most others seem to read it as well. Many equate the passage with Rev 21:4 where God actively wipes away all tears and assume He is actively removing memories also.  However, instead of being a command, I now see the verse as a statement about the attitude and thought process of those who find themselves in this "new earth." It is not that people cannot remember this earth; it is that they won't want to! In their new glorious state the former memories will pale in comparison. Yes, they will remember things they want like their family members, friends, and of course the cross and other key events, but most of the rest of this vain and mundane world will be forgotten BY CHOICE!

Readers who are older can better understand this. Once a person gets 50+ years on him he can look back on his life and realize he has forgotten entire years of what he has experienced. For instance, (for you older readers) how much of 1975 do you remember? How about 1966 or even 1988? What did you get for Christmas in 1992? If a key life event happened one usually remembers that, but they are not usually very many. Actually, one doesn't have to go back that far for the memories to fade. For example, 2009 is a blur to me. After a while many of the previous years meld together, but my point is, you are not actively trying to forget anything, and neither is something or someone stealing the memories from you (barring a form of dementia). Its simply you do not choose to remember many things. Its not that the memories have been utterly forgotten because if someone brings up something that happened 50 years ago you often say, "Yes, yes, I remember that...." The memory is still there but of little importance, and that is the way I view Isa 65:17. God is not stating what He commands to happen; He is simply making a statement of what life will be like in glory like he does in the rest of the chapter! Even though we will still have the latent memories (much better than we have now), we will deem that most of them will not worth actively remembering.  

A New Testament Parallel

In my view a more fitting parallel to Isa 65:17 over Rev 21:1 is 2Co 5:17,

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

Here we find something else created "new," the Christian. The verse says than any man who "be" in Christ (present tense) is a "new creature." Then it says "old things are passed away" and "all things are become new." This is a profound statement, but as profound as it is the words cannot be taken in the absolute sense.

Even though the old things have passed away in a sense, they are still around. A believer still has his flesh and the "old man" who wants to still do the "old" things (Eph 4:22). He still can have the old desires and passions that give him fits. What has changed is the believer is no longer joined to the old life. He is a new creature. The "all things" that are new are spiritual things. We live in the same evil world and are confronted by the same evil temptations, but we are new inside where it counts and will later be put in a new environment where literally everything is new.

The parallel with Isa 65:17 is the "new heavens and new earth" as well as the not remembering or coming to mind is no more absolute and strictly literal than the "old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" statement in 2Cor 5:17. Both speak in the present tense of new things do occur, but the forgetting in Isaiah is no more absolute than the "all things" of 2 Corinthians. 

This is my current understanding of Isa 65:17 and I think it pretty much reconciles with most of the above mentioned difficulties. It will do until something better comes along.