17. What is Paradise For?—Revelation 21:1–22:5
[This is the seventeenth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation. I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]
The book of Revelation ends happily, with a vision of paradise. The book contains several allusions going clear back to Genesis, and I think we are meant to read Revelation as in some sense the conclusion to the entire Bible.
Revelation is about now, not the future
I like this vision. But for somewhat different reasons than I used to. The first book I wrote, published in 1987, was about Revelation. Back then, I read Revelation to assure its readers that indeed everything will end up okay. There will be a happy ending. But I don’t quite read it that way now. It’s not that I don’t hope for a happy ending to the human project—but I think Revelation is all about our now, not about what will for certain be in the future.
When I read this vision of the New Jerusalem, I see three key points that have to do with now. First, this vision affirms that the brokenness caused by the plagues that dominates much of the book of Revelation is not the truest picture of reality. The vision envisions healing. And, second, the point of the vision of resolution is not predictive so much as exhortative—it does not so much say, this is what will be. It says, more, this is the direction you should live toward. And, third, the vision re-emphasizes that Revelation’s main concern is method, not future gazing. It’s not that God has this set in concrete plan for the future where the dragon and beast are defeated and the kings and nations healed. It’s that God shows us how to go about the work of defeating the dragon and healing the nations.
The New Jerusalem as a true picture of reality
Part one: This vision insists that the plagues, chaos, and conflict of the earlier visions are not the truest picture of reality. The plague visions in chapters 6–18 picture human history in the present time. The present time—looked at from a certain angle—is a time of sorrow, of pain, of domination, of oppression. In Revelation’s way of saying, it’s a time when the Dragon and the beast exercise a lot of power.
Revelation 21–22, though, envisions an alternative way to see human history. It’s a history where the plagues and turmoil can end, even now. It’s a history of healing. There are people who remain humane, who—in Revelation’s terms—“conquer.” They conquer the brokenness and cycle of retaliation with love. They reject the ideology of necessary violence as a way of life. They do this even when they suffer as a consequence. Revelation 21 promises vindication. The conquerors will be made whole.
Something else, though, is that those human actors who had tried to conquer the humane conquerors with their violence will also find healing, according to this vision. The kings of the earth also find healing. The spiritual forces of domination, the actual destroyers of the earth, the great Dragon, and its minions, the Beast and the False Prophet, are themselves destroyed. The end of the Dragon sets free those humans who had trusted in its distorted picture of reality. Then these human beings may find their way to wholeness.
And the nations are healed as well. The “kings of the earth” catch up the biblical tradition of human leaders committed to opposing God. We go back to the Pharaoh in the exodus story, to the leaders of the Assyrian empire that crushed the kingdom of Israel, to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who destroyed the temple and the kingdom of Judah and on down to the Roman Empire’s puppet king, Herod the Great who massacred new born sons out of his great fear and to the various Caesars who oversaw the killing of Jesus and of Peter and of Paul. Throughout the Bible, the kings of the earth indeed do side with the Beast in gathering their forces to crush God and God’s people. But in Revelation 21–22, the Beast is gone, the kings find healing. So too do the nations themselves, the human collectives organized so often to exploit, to buy and sell even human souls, to shed the blood of prophets.
The New Jerusalem as an exhortative vision
This is the second point: The vision of resolution in Revelation is not predictive so much as exhortative. It’s not telling us about the future so much as challenging us about how to live in the present. It pictures the nature of reality even now—worship amidst chaos. And we are called to live in light of the world seen in the worship visions—a world of solidarity and healing.
An interpretive key here is the close parallel between two city visions. First, in chapter 17 is the vision of Babylon. John is told by an angel, “Come and I will show you…” And he sees chaos and violence. Then in chapter 21, he is told by this same angel, “Come and I will show you….” And he sees healing and worship. The judgment of Babylon in chapters 17 and 18 is now seen, in chapters 21 and 22, as the healing of the nations and their kings. The judgment leads to the destruction of the powers behind the kings, the Dragon and Beast and False Prophet. And, as we see in the New Jerusalem vision, the judgment leads to the healing of the kings themselves and their nations. We may actually be seeing here two visions of the same city at the same time.
What the two visions of the contrasting cities show, then, is two ways to interpret the present. There are plagues and there is worship. There is violence toward prophets and the vulnerable and there is healing. There is warfare and there is reconciliation.
Remember John’s agenda in writing this book. He wants to challenge people in the churches: Do not give your loyalty to empire. Revelation gets its name from its first verse—“the revelation of Jesus Christ.” This word, “revelation,” in Greek is apocalypse. But its original meaning is simply “unveiling,” not catastrophe, not punitive judgment. “The unveiling of Jesus Christ” has two senses. One sense is unveiling who Jesus is and who God is—paradoxically and with a profound challenge, they are seen most definitively in the resurrected Lamb. The second sense is that of unveiling what the Lamb wants of humanity—persevering love.
The priority on method
My third big point is that this vision is about method. How is the Dragon defeated? How are the kings of the earth converted? How are the nations healed? God’s agenda is transformation, in history, from brokenness to blessing. There is only one way for this transformation to happen: Follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Counter the tyranny of the great ones with care and compassion. Refuse to let the domination system shape your values.
The final vision in Revelation, the picture of the New Jerusalem, gives us some powerful images, images—we could say—of paradise. These images mean to inspire us to live in paradise now.
Here’s one nice image: The door to this city is always open. The invitation to return to God’s true city is permanent. It’s for everyone. Another nice image: Even the kings of the earth may find healing. One last image looms large in the Bible as a whole. “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22). God is present everywhere—not contained in some restricted institution. And, God is present in the form of the Lamb—gentle, persevering love. This is paradise; this is now.