These days to take up creation as a theme is to dare one’s fate, and the consequences are unpredictable. I think, however, that to carry out this exercise is absolutely necessary. Therefore, my series on this theme will continue for a few more columns. Thus far in this series I have seen already much I had not noticed before. My purpose is to study creation in the Bible and, in the context of our denominational history, I cannot overlook Revelation, even when I do not intend to pursue the theme in every biblical book.
As is obvious, apocalyptic literature uses a special language and takes liberties not permitted in other literary genres. One of its characteristics is the use of mythological symbols, a feature that cinematographers do not tire to greedily exploit. As a result, most modern readers feel at home in this extraordinary universe. When I read other books in the New Testament and find a universe with celestial spheres hierarchically organized and under the governments of principalities and powers, and I see that as one ascends the chain of being one leaves behind material reality and reaches to intellectual and spiritual realities, I have no doubt that I am reading descriptions accepted as truthful by their first readers. When I pass from a Platonic universe where material reality is devalued to a Stoic universe where all reality is material I have no doubt that the author is describing what he considers to be the universal reality.
Reading Revelation I find the heavens above, the earth beneath and the abyss under the earth. I have not doubt the author thinks this is the way things are. I also notice that the air and the sea have special roles. On the other hand, hell and death seem to go together (1: 18; 6: 8). Are they cosmic realities or dramatic personifications? The way in which angels descend from heaven, or from the temple in heaven, and come to earth to carry out various judgments reveal that reality is considered a unit. The universe is one. That the key of the abyss is kept in heaven (9: 1) tells us that God controls everything that takes place in the three stories of his house. Besides, one reads of the “foundation of the world” (13; 8; 17: 8) which, without a doubt, was carried out by God. Is there any reason to doubt that the author is describing what he considers to be the cosmic reality?
Basically, this book is, as its first verse claims, the revelation (apokalypsis) of Jesus Christ, to whom a long list of honorific titles is assigned. Among them stand out: The Firstborn of the Dead, The One who is, was and is to come, The Alpha and the Omega, The Beginning and the End, The Pantocrator, The First and the Last, The One who lives and was dead, The One who has the keys of hell and death, The One who was dead and lived, The One who is seated with His Father in His throne. The accumulation of titles on the part of Egyptian pharaohs, roman emperors and modern dictators is well documented. How are we to understand them here?
The revelation of Jesus Christ has become possible because John the Theologian has been invited to go up to heaven (4: 1) and enter the room of God’s throne. From there he can see inside the Most Holy Place where the ark is kept (11: 19). Apparently, after this trip to heaven, John wrote about what he had seen while in the throne room. It is to be noticed that, to authenticate their writings, apocalyptic authors appeal to either a trip to heaven on their part or to angel who came down from heaven and talked to them (as is the case in Daniel). This is considered by most scholars a literary convention. If this is the case, how are we suppose to understand the apocalyptic descriptions of the cosmos?
It appears that the abyss and hell are two designations for the same place, but we cannot be sure because we are told that Jesus Christ has the key of hell (1: 18), and an angel also has the key to the abyss (20: 1). A star has the key to the shaft of the abyss and when the shaft is opened much smoke comes out as of a great furnace (9: 1-2). Besides, there is an angel of the abyss (9: 11). Things get complicated further by the important role played by the sea and the fountains of water (are these the subterranean waters that supply the creeks and rivers?)
Here is where the symbolisms of Near Eastern ancient mythologies cannot be overlooked. The primeval ocean, the sea, plays an important role in Genesis 1: 1. Before God starts creating there already were there two things: the sea and darkness. The verse ends saying that before God called light into existence, the wind (or the Spirit?) of God moved over the sea. The Song of Moses proclaiming the victory of the Red Sea over the Egyptians (Ex. 15: 1-18) also has strong allusions to the mythological battle between the wind and the sea in the literature of neighboring nations, especially in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonians story of creation. The sea is the source of powers that oppose the will of God; therefore, the wind (Spirit) of God must subjugate it, even if it does not quite get to control it completely. Still, God has the power to divide the sea and place some of its waters on top of the firmament (Gen. 1: 6). Both in Daniel and in Revelation evil powers come out of the sea, and in Revelation we are assured that in the new earth there will be no sea (21: 1). In other words, there will not be the potentiality for the rising of agents of evil.
Another important feature of Genesis 1 is that light is not dependent on the sun, the moon of the stars. Thus, in the new earth these sources of light will be absent (22: 23). The new creation will also distinguish itself by the absence of darkness, as there were in the beginning, there are in this creation, and there were also in the first three days before the creation of the sun, the moon and the stars. When God said: “Let there be light,” God created a day by separating the light from the darkness, creating hours of light and hours of darkness. God called the former “day” and the latter “night”. In the new earth the light that illumined the hours of light before the creation of the sun will shine constantly and the days will not have “nights” (22: 25).
While the negative function of the sea in Revelation is easy to detect, the same is not the case with the fountains of water. I will only very tentatively suggest that since they are mentioned together with the sea it would appear that they also have a negative function. But the sea, the rivers and the fountains of water are also mentioned together (16: 3-4). Besides, the rivers, as victims of plagues, cease to be agents of life and become agents of death. Undoubtedly creation is being used to carry out the justice of God’s vengeance. The same is true of the air (7: 1; 9: 1; `16: 7). It would appear, then, that the creation that God declared “good in every way” when God created it can be converted by the same God in an agent of death. Even the trees and the green grass receive special mention (7:1, 3; 8: 7). The ultimate agent of death, the one that finally swallows hell and death, is the lake of fire, of whose location in the universe created by God we are not informed. On the other hand, the sea of fire and glass (15: 2) is a place of refuge of whose location we also remain ignorant. Is this theological or cosmological language?
More important than all these observations is the role played by the earth in Revelation. In the cosmologies that I have already examined in other columns the wish of the human soul is to go to heaven, to escape material reality, to enjoy life in spiritual bodies or in the hypostatic rest of God. Revelation sees this earth, once purified by fire, as the true home of human beings. The human future is not that of spiritual being in heaven. It is that of human beings on this earth. The resurrection of the dead brings out beings capable of fighting the great final battle. In this way Revelation gives the earth singular importance as the final destination of humanity. Salvation does not consist of escaping it, but of living permanently in it according to the original purpose of the Creator God, with significant differences.
The universe of the three-storied house with easy access among the levels is transformed into a universe of only one level with nothing else in existence. Even the throne of God is to be settled on this earth. With the throne on earth, there is no need for a temple (22: 22). Since the temple is the umbilical cord that transfers life to those living below, in a universe of only one floor a temple would be redundant. The earth is the future. This affirmation of John the Theologian makes him (together with the Wise of the Wisdom literature) the one who most clearly bases his theology in God the Creator, the One who can create the New Earth. Even if John’s primary goal is to demonstrate that God’s justice is retributive and effective, God’s justice depends on God’s power as the Creator capable of realizing God’s ultimate aims. People who while being tormented wish to die but cannot (9: 5-6), and the birds of the heavens being invited to gorge themselves on the cadavers of the mighty (19: 21), however, leave modern readers repelled by the sadistic overtones in which vengeance replaces justice.
God’s designs are immutable and God’s will is invincible. I hold firm my faith in this God Almighty Creator who sits on the throne and is worshipped throughout the universe on account of his glory and power. The apocalyptic descriptions of the universe in which God’s justice triumphs, however, are quite artificial and somewhat dated. In modern apocalyptic visions space travel no longer takes place in clouds.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2813