Revelation 21 begin with the promise of newness: “a new heaven and a new earth,” according to John, who delivers these visions to us. The old earth has passed away. The sea — a symbolic source of turbulence, a site of unrest — is gone. What now? Something spectacular, something brand new.
The promise of this new heaven and earth is generally looked upon as good, a promise of renewal and healing. Yet there’s something disconcerting about it: Before the new earth comes, the old one must die. That’s not the most uplifting thought.
In this new world, John sees a holy city, which he likens to a woman in wedding finery — I picture layers of tulle, shining gems at her throat, thick false eyelashes, rosy blush, uncomfortable but beautiful shoes on her feet. Fancy. Flawless. Unnecessarily decadent.
This perfect city floats down from on high. It becomes heaven on earth.
And so, God makes God’s home among mortals, according to verse 3. This vision of newness, in which the first earth dies, brings heaven and earth together. The divide between the two has also been eradicated. The new earth is heaven. No more death, no more tears, no more pain. When the old earth dies, death itself dies with it.
And yet, verse 8 reminds us it’s not all glory. For “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers,” and so on, Revelation promises fire, sulfur, a “second” death. Thus Rev. 21:1-8 leaves me with unsettling questions about what the death of death means for those it condemns.
Moving on to verses 9-27, John confronts us with numbers and measurements as he describes this heavenly city on earth with its streets of pure gold. This passage stokes the imagination with details of jewels and other grand finery, even as it has also inspired speculation over the centuries as to what it all means.
There is plenty of symbolism in the seven angels with their seven bowls, the perfectly cubed walls, the streets that reflect the glory of God. Many writers and scholars have pondered the meaning of these visions, their apocalyptic fantasies inspiring readers to search for significance between the layers of the text.
I find such imaginings fascinating, if also a bit fruitless, at times. Yes, the Bible is full of symbolic meaning, especially in the Book of Revelation. Sevens and 12s light up my brain with connections to other texts, other stories, other meanings. But sometimes all I want to do is wonder at the glory of it all.
“And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain,” John writes, “and showed me the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.”
As I read this description, I liken it to my own experiences in high places — mountain tops, ferris wheels — looking down on cities that now seem tiny down below.
I think too about approaching large, beautiful cities from a distance, watching through the tiny window of an airplane window seat, how a city grows more grand with each second that brings me closer, until I disappear into it upon landing.
I love city skylines, and I’m fascinated by this imagery of a glorious, heavenly city sinking down from on high to eye level, to earth. Usually you only see a skyline from afar, and as you get closer you lose sight. John gets the far-off, big-picture view, and the details as well, somehow able in the spirit to take the whole heavenly city in all at once, from the pearl gates on jeweled walls to the streets inside.
Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., works in the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.