Popular culture includes notions about “the rapture,” a future event in which Christians will be caught up from the earth into heaven to be spared from the calamities which befall the world as Christ comes again as judge. A plethora of movies and books such as Left Behind, This Is The End, and The Rapture are based on this notion. Airplanes crash as their Christian pilots are raptured out of the cockpit; pile-ups on highways take place as drivers vanish into the air, and so on. The doctrine is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and, to a lesser extent, on Matthew 24:37-40. The doctrine is completely unknown in classical Christianity and is a recent development among strains of evangelical Protestantism.

Sunday’s reading from Revelation 21:1-6 depicts instead a God who is “raptured” to earth, to take up residence with us. Salvation is far from being an otherworldly event. Instead, the earth is the location of God’s salvation.

The promise of newness — a “new heaven and new earth” — gives a radiant image of resurrection and renewal. The first earth and the sea have “passed away” (21:1). John’s point certainly is not that the whole cosmos will be annihilated, as some argue based on 2 Peter 3:10. The “first earth” that passes away represents the earth as captive to imperial domination and sin. The earth and all things will become “new” just as our bodies will be resurrected, renewed.

C.S. Lewis’s image “New Narnia” can be helpful for approaching Revelation’s understanding of newness in terms of both continuity and transformation. Lewis depicts New Narnia not as an escape from the old Narnia, but rather an entry more deeply into the very same place. Everything is more radiant. It is “deeper country.” New Narnia is “world within world,” where “no good thing is destroyed.”

Throughout Revelation we encounter contrasting cities. There is Babylon, an image for imperial Rome (chapters 17 and 18) which is toxic, filled with mourning, pain, exploitation, and death. The city that appears in chapter 21 is the very opposite. Belief in a heavenly Jerusalem was widespread in biblical times (see Galatians 4:26, “Jerusalem above . . . is our mother”). What is so striking in Revelation — unlike any other Jewish apocalypse — is that this heavenly city descends from heaven down to earth. This city is declared to be the bride of the Lamb (see 19:7-9). The bride is not the Church alone. The bride represents the whole renewed world, radiant and holy. The city, once an emblem of rebellion against God, becomes the place of divine tenderness where every tear is wiped away. Here there is life and healing, reconciliation and justice.

The vision of the city with the gleaming golden streets and pearly gates, where death and tears are no more, has given form and voice to the dreams of God’s people through the ages. African-American spirituals and gospel songs invoke imagery of the golden holy city and its river of life. From Augustine’s City of God through William Blake’s “Jerusalem” and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” Revelation’s holy city has inspired generations to work for freedom, justice, and peace in this world, as a pledge of the fullness of such promise in God’s future.

Today as we awaken to the consequences of our heedless plundering of the earth and its creatures, we need this vision of the new heaven and new earth to sustain us in the hard work of turning from such toxic living. “God wills to restore this world to a beauty we can scarcely imagine. It is a city, not a solitude, an important distinction in the narcissistic din of American culture.” The city that descends from heaven invites us all to enter as citizens and to “inherit” (21:7) its blessings, as God’s own sons and daughters.


C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 181.

Kathleen Norris, Introduction to Revelation (New York: Grove Press, 1999), xii.