“Revelation and the Final Word on Heaven”
August 28, 2022
John’s book of Revelation is a masterpiece in many ways. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very strange and squirrelly book, but it is brilliantly written. For twenty chapters John has been weaving this grand narrative about a cosmic battle between good and evil. There are angels and demons, dragons and beasts, battles of a cosmic scale. John switches so easily between metaphor and reality, between poem and prose that it’s easy to lose our way if we try to read his book as a secret source code that helps decipher the end times. But even though John is talking about the big picture of what God is doing behind the scenes, his letter is still addressed to his churches, who are oppressed and abused by the Roman Empire.
It’s a letter that invites our imagination as John paints a picture of reality that shows us more than what our eyes can see; but it’s also a letter that doesn’t try to sell us a fantasy, it offers us a firm hope that is grounded in the real-life circumstances of his people. Because, after all, he’s their pastor.
And all of the beauty and brilliance of this letter comes to a conclusion in these two chapters I read for us today. It is the denouement, the long-awaited conclusion to the problems of evil and empire that have been named throughout his letter—these are the perennial problems that still haunt us. While God has been active throughout the whole book, John shows us now where exactly God is taking us. To a new heaven and a new earth. This vision is perhaps the most important, the most hopeful of all the visions in his letter. Because it not only shows us where we’re heading, it also shows us how we get there.
But unfortunately, for centuries, John’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth has been ripped from its context and used in unhelpful ways that John did not intend.
A few years ago I did an Escape Room with a few buddies. How many of you have heard of an escape room?
Escape Rooms are all the rage right now. Basically, you get a few of your best friends or family together and you pay to get locked in a room full of puzzles and a storyline and you have one hour to solve your way out.
My buddies and I were put in a room that was meant to replicate a space shuttle. And the storyline we were given is that we were on a mission in space when all of the sudden our ship stops working and there’s one hour’s worth of oxygen to get it running again. So we had to rush through all these puzzles which included figuring out how to eject our seat belts, how to open doors to other parts of the shuttle; we had to take moon rock samples which gave us colors that then corresponded to a lock box with a key in it (I know, that part doesn’t sound super realistic). But it’s a ton of fun.
And of course, the goal is to get out in under one hour. The faster you escape, the better.
As I’ve reflected on this funny game, I’ve wondered if sometimes we can treat life kind of like an escape room. Something to be survived, something to just kind of get through, as we wait for the next big thing, whether that be a new promotion, a new grandkid, a new stage of life, or whether it’s heaven, the ultimate escape we wait for where there will be no more pain or tears.
Because in a world where the polar ice caps are melting, political violence is on the rise, the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer; where systemic racism is still a stronghold, it’s hard to foresee an ending to all of this that’s good. Sometimes all we feel like we can hope and pray for is an escape.
But blessedly, the vision that John shows us, the vision of God’s final solution, offers us more than just an escape. Oh I’m well aware that too many Christians and religious fanatics treat John’s vision of heaven like an escape, believing John to have an attitude of “well, the world around us may be burning, but it’s ok, because heaven.”
Imagine how that would go over in the churches John is writing to, who I might remind you are horribly oppressed and abused by the Roman Empire: “I know everything is horrible right now, but just wait until the end times (whenever that is) and then all things will be made right. Because heaven.”
How do you think that would go over? “Umm, thanks John, I guess. We’re not really sure how that helps us now, but thanks. You really know how to make us feel better.”
But thank goodness, contrary to how many have read and interpreted John’s letter, he has no such escape in mind. His view of heaven is so much more than some pie-in-the-sky other-worldly paradise we are waiting to go to after we die.
Because we’ve seen throughout all of his visions that heaven and earth are not separate realities…they’re woven together. And vision after vision throughout his letter has shown us heaven invading earth.
Did you know that the Hebrews and the Greeks used one word to do the work that two of our English words do? The Hebrew word shamayim and the Greek Ouranos both meant either the visible sky over us or the invisible realm of God invading us—heaven. One word was used to mean both the visible sky and the invisible heaven.
You see, throughout scripture, heaven – shamayim—is not actually treated as some other worldly place we get beamed to when we die—heaven is the metaphor that tells us that there is far more going on here in this life and on this planet than meets the eye. Calling the word “heaven” a metaphor doesn’t make it any less real; it simply recognizes that there is a reality inaccessible at this point to any of our five senses. There is a force at work behind and beneath all things, bringing it to completion. John’s letter shows us what this force is: it’s God, the slain lamb, who is judging the empires of the world and bringing all of creation to wholeness, not through violence, but through compassionate sacrifice.
The biblical “heaven” – shamayim— could be used to refer to a visible reality and an invisible reality—and this I think was intentional. Because to the Hebrew and Greek mind, there was always a connection between the two—between the visible and the invisible. When they speak of shamayim, it “keeps our imaginations working to make connections between what we see and do not see, both them equally real, each a reminder of the other.” (Peterson)
And John has been shaping our imaginations to see that God is up to more than what we can visibly see; and that thing God is up to is called heaven—Jesus also calls it God’s kingdom. And this is good news, because just as in John’s day, if we’re only going off of what we can see in the world around us, things aren’t looking too hopeful right now.
John’s final vision is of a new heaven and a new earth. New does not mean brand new, it means “renewed, redeemed.” God isn’t hitting the reset button on the old heaven and earth and starting over with new ones. God is renewing and bringing to completion what has already begun in this current earth and heaven we inhabit. God’s not ditching this earth for a different one. Let’s make sure we get that straight.
We’ve mostly assumed that heaven and earth are separate things—they have little to do with each other. But John’s vision reveals that God is bringing heaven and earth together, to be united in one reality where God reigns and is renewing all things.
The first thing we might notice about John’s vision of heaven is that it is so…material. It’s so familiar. It’s not some community up in the clouds, where the streets are made of cotton balls and the toilet paper is all triple ply, but it’s a city that looks a lot like our cities.
This is strange, because cities get a bad rap throughout scripture. They’re always rebellious and defiant. We know from our own experience that they’re noisy and dirty, they’re cramped and crowded; they’re usually run by corrupt money- and power-hungry people. They have all sorts of issues of injustice and poverty. You know, haven’t we had enough of cities on earth? Doesn’t God have something better in mind for heaven—why not just return back to a garden?
Many people want to go to heaven the same way they want to go to Florida—they think the weather is nicer and the people an improvement. “But the biblical heaven is not a nice environment far removed from the stress of hard city life. It is an invasion of God’s City into our cities.” (Peterson). John is showing us here that we enter heaven not by escaping what we don’t like or what is broken, but by joining in God’s work of sanctifying the very place God has put us. God has recruited us to the heavenly invasion force.
Because all of our city building is after all, a conspicuously unsuccessful attempt to live in peace, in justice and community. What cities are good for is making money and acquiring power. But now descending out of heaven we see the city as wonderfully diverse community made up of every tribe and nation, ready to receive God’s love, a bride adorned for her husband.
And what we also notice is that this city isn’t run or created at the expense of the earth it is built upon. The city and Creation are entangled together in John’s vision. There’s a river of life flowing right down the middle of the city’s main street. Planted on each side of the river are trees of life, bearing fruit. We have pitted ourselves against Creation, exploiting it for our own means and city-building. God’s heavenly invasion is at work reuniting us to our Creation roots.
And finally, we notice that there is no longer a Temple in the city. There is no church building. There is no singular place for people to continue to box God up and believe him to be separate from the rest of their lives. Because God is everywhere. This is true already, but it will become even more apparent. God’s presence in the whole city is a great light that illuminates everything. God can be found everywhere.
You see, John’s vision of heaven doesn’t offer us an escape, but it embeds us even further in our current contexts, on this earth, in this city, in this body you were given and with each day of life you’ve been gifted. Because John is adamant that we’re not waiting to go to heaven, we’re witnessing heaven coming down to us.
John’s final vision shows us how God is taking the stuff of this earth, the familiar stuff that makes up our lives and joys and our anxieties, like our cities and our bodies and our relationships, and is bringing it all to completion, to wholeness.
I feel this most poignantly whenever I hold Iona in my arms. Because whenever I hold her I can’t help but acknowledge that there is so much beauty, so much wonder and hope in this world. Sometimes when I look at her face I feel as if I catch a glimpse of heaven.
The good news of John’s letter is that this means there are surely moments and places in our lives where we do catch glimpses of heaven, of the invisible breaking into the visible; moments we feel like the curtain has been ripped back and we can experience a clear picture of what God is up to. Moments that despite whatever craziness is going on in the world or in our lives, gives us peace knowing that God is still here with us and heaven is inching ever closer.
Because after all, the point of an escape room isn’t just end goal of escaping. The point, the whole fun in it is the winding journey to the finish. May we embrace the winding journey that is this life, trusting that God is still here with us and heaven is always inching ever closer. Amen and may it be so.