The Book of Revelation as Symbolic

Everyone says it. Everyone says “Revelation is symbolic.” Then everyone proceeds to decode the symbols — and it is the decoding that gets tricky. Tom Wright has famously argued that the vision of the new heavens and the new earth is a vision of heaven coming down to earth — and he has made the case that the Bible’s vision of the future is not out there but down here. A new earth, to be sure, a new heavens, to be sure, and a new Jerusalem, to be sure — but still down here. A new creation of what is here — continuity and discontinuity.

Tom knows that this view counters what is popular in the church, namely, that heaven is out there and up there and spiritual and soul-ish and nearly disembodied. And not down here.

How do you envision the final state of affairs? the kingdom? heaven? (Whatever term you think best to use.) Do the new heavens and new earth folks miss the beatific vision? Does the beatific vision side neglect the social dimension? Is the New Jerusalem a vision of utter indwelling with God or more about a kingdom society?

Perhaps the most enduring conception of heaven in the church is that it will be consumed or oriented toward the beatific vision. That is, it will be absorbed with endless gazing in the face of God. Tony Thiselton, as I read him — he does not directly enter into this discussion in his Life after Death, contends heaven is not primarily as Wright describes it but as the beatific vision folks described it. Namely, heaven is an endless worship service. As I read Wright, the new heavens and new earth combine a worship service with a full-orbed kingdom social life. As I read Thiselton, the latter is not part of it. 

I say this because of how he unpacks the “symbols” of Revelation. He’s with Bob Gundry in seeing New Jerusalem as the saints. It is not a place but a people. If it is a place, it is God’s dwelling place: namely, God will indwell his people. There are symbols of marriage (the bride), of “coming down” which means a “fresh creation by God,” and of happiness (no tears, water in abundance). There is the image of conquering, which taps into the rhetoric of the book: it is for those who are suffering and they are to know that God is sovereign, God is on the throne now and God will be on the throne and God will vindicate his own. Other images of place are about security — not place (high wall, pillar, gate). And there is no temple because God is the temple.

Thiselton’s final chp explores the beatific vision and the Trinity, and this chp extends our post Wednesday and illustrates that his vision of “heaven” is shaped by the beatific vision more than the redemption of all creation into a society of perfection.

1. The cross and resurrection will transform our pain and increase the joy of healing and redemption.

2. The Holy Spirit will enhance sense experiences.

3. All of our prayers and worship will be aimed at the Father, who will be all in all.

"Regarding "I’ve been called a traitor enough times by my fellow Jews to know that ..."

Near Christianity: A Review (by Michelle ..."
""Look at that calendar and you will notice how Christo-centric it is. The church’s calendar ..."

Why Anglican?
"4. The spirituality of attentive Israelites was formed then on the basis of the major ..."

Why Anglican?
"Hi John,You certainly could unpack this some more. It seems what you wrote in mystical ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Heaven is too big for earth. God will fill the whole universe with his Kingdom.

    “The consummation of the Kingdom on earth will not be the end of all things. God will not go into retirement and rest forever. He started his action on earth by placing people in a garden, with instructions to push out and fill the entire earth. Having achieved the fulfilment of his Kingdom on earth, he will want to push out and fill the entire universe. The spiritual and physical dimensions will continue to be integrated and a few extra dimensions may be added. Those who have learned to serve Jesus during life on earth will continue to work with him to fill the universe with wonderful worlds and kingdoms” (Times and Seasons).

  • Michael

    You should listen to Bishop Malcolm Smith’s 1970’s twelve hour teachings. They are still timeless. Unconditional Love is his website.

  • Scott Gay

    Elaine Pagels also sets out in 2012 to bring Revelation portents back to earth. To her it’s essentially by an expatriate who wants the way to remain within an Hebraic story. Then at the end she gets to her main agenda.

  • Robert A

    The over-realized eschatology of too many these days seems to neglect reading Revelation in light of its a) deep reliance on OT and Second Temple literature and b) obvious highly symbolic language.

    We all know the trend of the current pre-trib, pre-mil dispensaitonal is almost unchallenged in popular Christian culture, essentially we need to devleop a cogent, simplistic view of a reply. I’m sure we’ve all got stories about people who read in one theological tradition about this book and could argue verse-by-verse against any points raised against them.

    Ironically the exposure to Qumranic literature, and more robust interpretations helps move the conversation along. Unfortunately too many popular leaders in our churches haven’t taken that information. One reality is the traditional (pre-trib. pre-mil dispensational) position preaches way better than the symbolic. Maybe that’s because those of us using an eccletic intepretation haven’t preached through it well. Anyways, I think the book is meant to be taken symbolically (mostly) given the extraordinary language and significant ontological shift that would permit a “literal” interpretation. Of course we should also be ready to point out that nobody, even the literalists, takes Revelation literally. There is always symbolism or allegory at some point.

  • Sherman Nobles

    I see Revelation as a painting, or movie (dare I say); it’s artistic and thus can speak to a wide range of things. It can speak preteristically to the issues the church faced at the time of its writing. It can speak historically to the church in every generation. And it can certainly speak spiritually to the church today in any and every culture. And it can speak futuristically of the ultimate triumph of God and the church!

    We misinterpret it though when we try to limit it to one such approach, or we try to nail down what each symbol means in one or all perspectives. Being apocalyptic literature, it’s not meant to be interpreted didactically or technically, but inspirationally. This piece of literature was meant to inspire, to encourage, to pull us together in tough times! Sadly though, it’s often misused to tear us believers apart, to divide us, to keep us from the revelation of Jesus Christ in and through our lives!

  • John W Frye

    Thiselton’s view(s) seem too gnostic for me. I prefer the view that God fully embraces material and immaterial with no dicotomy (e.g., the incarnation). I would call Revelation 21-22 “the beatific vision” rightly portrayed. An eternal worship service gazing at the face of God falters on definitions: what is worship? what is service?

  • Despite the constant repeating of the refrain that ‘heaven comes down to earth’ the Bible doesn’t say this. It says

    Rev 21:1-4 (ESV)
    Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

    The New Jerusalem comes ‘down out of heaven from God’. We are not told it comes to earth. Clearly this is imagery. The point I take it is that this is city/people heavenly in origin.

    I get quite frustrated by those who simply assume that new creation is merely creation restored. To my mind this is far too Judaic a view of new creation. I am happy with some sense of heaven and earth becoming one but beyond that I think it is impossible to go.

  • CGC

    Hi John,
    I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean by “Judaic?” Isn’t the book of Revelation written by someone who is Judaic?

  • Yes, the writer of Revelation, John, was Jewish.

  • It seems to me that much of the confusion over “symbolism” in Revelation and other apocalyptic literature actually stems from a more basic confusion over different kinds of “meaning”. When we talk about what a text of visionary symbolism like Revelation 5:6-8 “means”, we rarely distinguish (as we should) between “meaning” in terms of *referent* and meaning in terms of *significance*.

    In fact, the visionary symbols of Revelation have no less than four different parts: (1) what the author experienced (in this case, the image of a slain lamb), (2) what the author conveyed to his audience (in this case, the text of Revelation 5:6-8), (3) what the author’s conveyed experience refers to in the real world (in this case, the risen Messiah, enthroned to God’s right hand), and (4) the implied meaning or significance which the author’s conveyed experience carries with it (in this case, the connotation of the imagery of the lamb, the seven eyes, the seven horns, the taking of the scroll, etc).

    It’s simple enough to recognize those various levels of meaning with a text like Revelation 5:6-8, but it’s easy to forget when dealing with many other passages throughout Revelation. Unfortunately, interpreters often acknowledge only one or two parts of a visionary symbol when they speak of what any given passage “means”. For instance, literalists regularly collapse the first and fourth parts (the visionary experience and the larger meaning or significance) into the third part (what the experience refers to in the real world), and so they boldly proclaim that an image such as the binding of the dragon must speak of a literal, premillennial incarceration of Satan, as if Satan was actually a dragon and John was simply witnessing history in advance. On the other hand, though, idealists are often guilty of collapsing the third part (what the experience refers to in the real world) into the fourth part (the implied meaning or significance that the experience carries), and so they often speak of the meaning of an image as timeless and applicable to the church’s whole experience between Jesus ascension and his return, without any one specific referent.

  • CGC

    Hi Matt and all,
    Then there are people like Crossan who said I believe in Jesus second coming like I believe he is the lamb of God.
    In other words, its all metaphor with no real historical connection or referent. I only say this because we seem today to focus so much on fundamentalists and literalists while the creative progressive metaphorists seem to get a pass.