The Book of Revelation is filled with frightening images: A great red dragon, beasts from the sea and land, the bowls of God’s wrath, a great whore, an apocalyptic battle, and the final judgment. When the seventh trumpet blows, we learn of God’s plan “for destroying those who destroy the earth” (Rev 11:18). American pop-culture has picked up on these horrors, such as in the apocalyptic comedy This Is the End (2013), in which Los Angeles is destroyed by earthquakes and the righteous are taken to heaven in beams of blue light. Jokes about the end-times have been around since Ghostbusters (1984), in which a character says, “Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes ... The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together ... mass hysteria!”
That’s pop-eschatology, and a lot of it is grounded in the vision of John in Revelation. Except perhaps for the “dogs and cats living together.” And much ink has been spilled by scholars trying to figure it all out. But destruction, doom, and damnation are not the final word in Revelation. Instead, the book ends with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, and the restoration of the Garden of Eden. The promise of the last two chapters of Revelation is a new relationship with God, one that is both intimate and eternal, in which people live in harmony with God and with all that God has made. This bond is a restoration of the original creation in Genesis, and it contains the best of numerous biblical images — a new heaven and earth, a city, and a garden.
First, new heaven and earth. As chapter 21 begins, John sees “a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1). This new creation is one in which the past is forgotten, and even the sea, which is a symbol of watery chaos, is “no more.” This transformed creation fulfills the expectation of the apostle Paul that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21). In so many ways, we struggle today with a creation that is in bondage to decay. We look around and see the fouling of air, land, and water. We look at our relationships and see brokenness between friends, colleagues, spouses, and family members. We look inside ourselves and see the decay of our morals and our aspirations. There is hope to be found in this vision of a new heaven and earth, in which the creation itself will be liberated from decay.
Second, a city. John sees “the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2). New Jerusalem is the new relationship that God has made with the followers of Christ — Paul says that this Jerusalem from above “is free, and she is our mother” (Gal 4:26). This holy city is the beautiful place where God and humans will live together eternally, a city that descends to earth instead of remaining in heaven. “See, the home of God is among mortals,” says a voice from the throne. “He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Rev 21:3). God chooses to live among people, in a restored and renewed paradise on earth.
Third, Revelation speaks of a garden — a Garden of Eden, restored in the center of the city. This is a powerful message about God’s desire for the human world to exist in harmony with nature, and it serves as biblical support for the church’s commitment to the stewardship of the earth. In this urban garden, we hear an echo of the creation story from Genesis, in which a “river flows out of Eden to water the garden” (Gen 2:10). In Revelation, an angel shows John “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city” (Rev 22:1-2). On the banks of the river is the tree of life, “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2). Best of all, “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face” (Rev 22:3-4). Faithful people will finally encounter God and Christ directly, as the apostle Paul dreamed when he wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). The light of God will shine directly on those who worship him, and together the Lord and his servants will “reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:5).
Revelation tells us that God has a plan “for destroying those who destroy the earth,” but the horror of this outcome can be avoided (Rev 11:18). This passage is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it tells us that we can restore the earth by creating communities that reflect the values of God’s garden in the city, places in which healthy relationships exist between people and nature, as well as between people and God. Such harmony is the goal of all of the books of the Bible, expressed in a variety of ways by a wide range of voices, from Genesis to Revelation. “These words are trustworthy and true,” says the angel of Revelation, now and always. “Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev 22:6-7).
1. Why do you think the frightening images of Revelation are so memorable?
2. What hope do you find in the new heaven and earth, the city, and the garden?
3. How will you keep the words of this book, along with other biblical books?
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