Cyrus L. Lundell was just out looking for gum. What he found was far more interesting.
The year was 1931. Thanks to Chicago’s Wrigley Company, the world had an enormous appetite for a new confection called chewing gum, made from the sticky sap of the tropical tree Manilkara chicle. The problem: the tree can only be tapped a limited number of times. Lundell, a biologist and pilot for the Mexican Exploitation Chicle Company, was flying around an uncharted area of southern Mexico in search of new chicle reserves when he noticed what looked like several small hills poking up out of the dense jungle. Flying closer, he realized that what had looked like a rocky peak on the highest of them was, in fact, dressed stone. It wasn’t a hill—but a massive pyramid. He reported his find (which he named Calakmul) to an archaeologist friend.
Later investigations at the site showed that Calakmul had been occupied for about 400 years, until roughly A.D. 900. A Mayan superpower whose dominion had extended as far as a hundred miles away, Calakmul had, at its peak, 50,000 inhabitants, who left behind ruins of 6,750 ancient structures.
But until it was rediscovered by Cyrus Lundell, Calakmul had been lost to the world for almost a thousand years. Its inhabitants gone, the jungle had reclaimed it. Everything was obscured by the rain forest except for the tallest 180-foot pyramid. Where once massive buildings lined noisy, crowded streets, there remained only silent, half-buried, vine-choked ruins.
The empty planet
We human beings are this planet’s most aggressive builders. We construct cities, highways, buildings, and machinery. Nearly 7 billion of us occupy this globe, and we’re always busy. We dam up rivers and tunnel through mountains, erect skyscrapers and stadiums, farm millions of square miles, and extract minerals from thousands of feet beneath the surface of the earth. We travel through the air, over and under water, and even into space, from which we can see our cities by the brilliance of their never-extinguished lights. The signs of our presence on this earth seem permanent and enduring.
Yet a time is coming when it will all be gone! When all the earth’s inhabitants will disappear, the great works of humankind will succumb like Calakmul, not to intentional destruction, but to neglect.
This story begins with the return of Jesus Christ to this earth. Scripture promises that when Jesus comes back, “every eye will see him” (Revelation 1:7). And that will include some who had been dead, for Scripture says that when He appears, “the dead in Christ” (faithful believers who have passed to their rest) will come fully alive and ascend into heaven to meet Jesus. As for those of us who are still alive, we “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17).
Picture the scene: all around the globe graves will gape open. Jesus will reassemble the molecules of every believer who has ever lived, forming them into billions of living beings who, with the righteous living, will accompany Him to heaven.
On the other hand, those whom Christ has judged to be unworthy of a heavenly reward will be destroyed “by the splendor of his coming” (2 Thessalonians 2:8). The earth will be eerily quiet: no cars, no sirens, and no hustle and bustle in the streets. The ground will be littered with the corpses of the wicked, but there won’t be a living person on the planet!
According to Revelation, our world will continue to exist as a depopulated planet for the next 1,000 years. Students of prophecy call this period of time “the millennium,” from two Latin words, mille, meaning “one thousand,” and annum, meaning “year,” hence, 1,000 years. While the term millennium is not found in Scripture, the idea it describes very much is.
What earth will be like
The fate of a suddenly depopulated world is the subject of a History Channel television documentary called Life After People.1 The producers don’t say, as I do here, why people might disappear from planet Earth, but they do predict the fate of our human creations when we are no longer here to maintain them.
Some disasters will happen quickly. Without human operators, oil and gas refineries will catch fire, spawning massive fireballs. There will be no engineers at the controls of dams, so they will overflow and burst, sweeping away entire cities. Electrical power will go out and with it all automatic and computerized processes, such as the controlled atomic reactions in the cores of nuclear power plants. These will eventually malfunction, spewing deadly radiation. Tanks of toxic chemicals will burst open, fouling land and water.
Farm crops, bred to be cared for by human beings, will die out, leaving weeds and native plants to take over. Animals, both domestic and wild, that were once held in check by civilization, will overrun the land, feeding on whatever they can find. Cars, planes, and ships will rust away. Without firefighters, flammable suburban tracts will disappear in vast firestorms. Water will seep into the world's largest buildings through unmaintained roofs, eroding the steel frames. The tallest building in the world, the massive Burj Khalifa in Dubai, will eventually collapse and become a heap of steel and concrete. The roots of plants growing in the cracks of streets and buildings will tear apart even the thickest cement.
By the time 1,000 years have gone by, there will be little to show that Manhattan, London, Shanghai, Tokyo, or Dubai ever existed.
The sole spectator
There will be someone on hand to see all of this happen, though he will hardly be a happy tourist. Revelation 20:2, 3 says that when all the people are gone, and angel will seize
Satan and cast him into the Abyss ("bottomless pit," KJV). The Greek word translated "Abyss" is abussos. IN Genesis 1:2, abussos is translated as "the deep" in many of our English Bibles (see NIV, KJV), and it describes the earth prior to the time when God formed it into a habitable planet. Revelation is telling us that during the millennium, the earth will revert to that primordial state.
And Satan will be confined to this desolate planet. He will still be, like the angel he once was, a powerful spiritual being. For thousands of years, he has tempted human beings to rebel against God and destroy their planet. But now Satan will have no one to tempt. Our world without people will become Satan's penitentiary!
But will 1,000 years of solitary confinement turn Satan into a penitent? Hardly! What happens next will make clear to the entire universe the inherent self-destructiveness of evil.
At the end of the millennium, God will transplant the New Jerusalem—a 1,400-mile cube2 with walls of transparent jasper (Revelation 21:2, 11, 16)—back to this earth. As the giant city touches down on this earth like a massive spaceship, God will bring back to life “the rest of the dead” (Revelation 20:5). These will be the people who had refused to accept God’s grace while they lived, and thus had been passed over for the resurrection of the righteous at the beginning of the millennium. Satan will once again be surrounded by his human followers, which is what the Bible means when it says that he “will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to gather them for battle” (Revelation 20:7, 8).
The battle that Revelation refers to will be Satan’s final, vain attempt to defeat God. It’s an astonishing picture. Think of the countless billions of people Satan will have on his side. Picture them marching toward the New Jerusalem. You and I, on the inside of the city, will be able to watch this vast throng as they come nearer and still nearer. We will not be afraid, though, because we will know the end of the story. The Bible says that shortly before the armies of the wicked reach the city, fire will come down from heaven and destroy them (see Revelation 20:9).
A new world
Indeed, our entire planet will at that time be burned up. Every possible reminder of evil will be incinerated. Peter said that “the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” and “the elements will melt in the heat” (2 Peter 3:10, 12). However, in typical Godlike fashion, our Creator will turn this tragedy into something beautiful. He will create “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1; see also verses 3–5). Presumably, you and I will be able to watch this re-creation of our planet from our vantage point in the city.
When our world is restored to its pristine beauty, we will stream out of the New Jerusalem’s jeweled gates onto the surface of a world that has been restored to its Edenic perfection. Human beings will once more roam the earth, and this time we will be better stewards of the planet than we are now.
Isaiah says that we “ ‘will build houses and dwell in them; . . . plant vineyards and eat their fruit’ ” (Isaiah 65:21). There will be no more war, sickness, or death, for “ ‘they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain’ ” (verse 25). We will never again “ ‘toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune’ ” (verse 23). What’s ahead for us will be an eternity of joy!
I plan to be a citizen of that restored planet. Do you?
Life after Humans
A preview of what life is like after humans can been seen in the Ukrainian city of Prypiat after the April 26, 1986, radioactive leak at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Prypiat was founded in 1970 to house workers of the Chernobyl nuclear plant with a population of almost 50,000 prior to the accident. The evacuation of Prypiat was only planned to be temporary and many personal belongings were left behind. The city, however, has remained abandoned for almost 25 years, giving scientists and researchers an insight into what happens when people are unexpectedly removed from a place of normal civilization.
Vegetation has taken over many of the buildings, causing even imposing concrete buildings to fall apart. Structures continue to accumulate rust and sit in a state of decay. There is a resurgence of wildlife with a thriving population of red deer, and the soccer field in the former Prypiat soccer stadium is fast transforming into a dense forest.