I thought about posting this as a “Sunday favorites” Bible passage, but it’s from the book of Revelation, and thus requires a bit more discussion than those posted-without-comment selections usually involve.
This is an odd passage but, in some ways, a rather famous one because it’s where the whole “Pearly Gates” business comes from. You’re probably familiar with that image even if you’ve never read John’s Apocalypse, because the Pearly Gates of Heaven are such a cliché image in popular culture. Every time a famous person dies, newspaper cartoonists churn out variations of the Famous Person at the Pearly Gates cartoon. The same Pearly Gates scene gets recycled endlessly in movies, TV shows, advertising, and more jokes than we could ever get written down.
But this image isn’t just part of our pop culture. It’s also deeply ingrained as part of our pop religion — as an unquestioned and unquestionable part of the folklore that most Christians mistake for actual, mandatory doctrine.
And this passage — Revelation 21 — is where that comes from. Specifically, it comes from verse 21:
And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.
There’s your pearly gates. You’ll notice, though, that nothing else in this verse is reflected in the image repeated in our pop-culture and Christian folklore. Apart from the pearliness, everything else in that folklore contradicts the actual passage in the actual Bible.
First off, there’s not just the one gate with St. Peter sitting there at a receptionist’s desk. There are 12 gates.
And these are not the gates of “Heaven” either. This is John’s description of the “New Jerusalem,” which explicitly is not the same thing. John sees this “holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” So this ain’t Heaven. It’s from there, but the whole point is that that’s not where it remains — that’s not where this story, or our story, is headed. The Pearly Gates — all 12 of them — are here on Earth.
All those fluffy white heavenly clouds surrounding the Pearly Gates in all those cartoons and ads and movies? That’s not part of this story.
For reasons long lost to time and culture, John of Patmos felt it was really important to give us a detailed survey of the full layout and structural composition of this New Jerusalem. He measures the thing and provides an intricate run-down of all the priceless jewels and precious metals involved in its construction. Reading this so many centuries later, it’s pretty much impossible for us to understand what John was trying to communicate with all of these details. “The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian …”
Yes, he goes through all 12. No, nobody reading this in 2017 has any solid understanding of what all these specifics were specifically meant to mean by John or for his original readers. So a big chunk of Revelation 21 is simply bewildering. This city may be “pure gold, clear as glass,” but the meaning of most of this symbolism is opaque to us. All we can do with a lot of this description is be dazzled by the odd details, such as this:
The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. … Its wall [was] 144 cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using.
I love that. In John’s vision, God’s angels solicitously convert angelic units of measurement into human terms. Using cubits, apparently, allowed the angel to echo the Significant Number of 144 — twelve twelves. This number gets repeated a lot in Revelation and it clearly meant Something Important to John. But, again, just what that Something Important was isn’t something any sensible reader today is able to say with meaningful confidence. All we can know is that John wouldn’t have been satisfied to have his angel using the metric system, because 75 meters wouldn’t have provided such an inscrutably symbolic Significant Number.
I’m afraid that — lacking the original ancient context for all of this numerological and gemological symbolism — my initial reaction to that 144-cubit figure is to shudder in horror. A 75-meter wall, after all, requires gates that are also 75 meters tall. And each of those Pearly Gates, John says, was built from “a single pearl.”
So join with me in imagining the unspeakably, monstrously huge oyster it would require to produce a 75-meter pearl. It’s rare to encounter an image that is, simultaneously, so Lovecraftian and so delicious. (We’re going to need a lot of Tabasco and six lemons the size of a football field.)
But let’s not be too hasty in laughing off these 144-cubit pearls. That’s a mistake it’s all too easy to make when reading a text that’s very, very old. We humans have learned a great deal in the last 2,000 years, and it’s true that you and I know many things that John of Patmos didn’t. Sometimes that’s what’s going on in impenetrable passages like this one in Revelation 21. But just as often, such ancient passages confound us because their ancient writers and readers also knew many things that we no longer know. The problem here is not that John didn’t know where pearls come from, but that pearls, apparently, meant something to him that readers today don’t have access to knowing.
And so if you’re really interesting in trying to penetrate all the baffling symbolism here in Revelation 21, you’d be better served by consulting a whip-smart classicist like Mary Beard than you would any of the thousands of books written by self-proclaimed “Bible prophecy scholars.”
Set aside the baffling bits and the confounding symbolism of Revelation 21, though. What interests me about these Pearly Gates has nothing to do with their number or their dimensions or their single-pearl composition. The bit I want to focus on from this passage is utterly unambiguous in its meaning, but despite that, it’s something else that all of our pop-cultural and religious folklore gets completely wrong.
The thing I want to focus on here is this: The Pearly Gates are never, ever closed.
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
Think again of all those jokes and cartoons, all those ads and movies and TV shows that have traded in the stock imagery of Pearly Gates folklore. In all of those, the gates are, by default, closed. They may sometimes, briefly, be opened to admit some worthy arrival, but those are exceptional moments in this folklore. The rest of the time — most of the time — the gates are closed, locked, impenetrable. That contradicts what the text itself says — the actual text that’s supposedly the basis for this entire notion of “Pearly Gates” to begin with.
John goes on to say that, in his vision, not everybody will be welcome within the walls of this holy city. “Only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life,” he says, and not “anyone who practices abomination or falsehood.” But even so, the Pearly Gates are never closed, and people from every nation are free to enter, and their presence is counted as a blessing.
Granted, there’s a great deal left to unpack in this passage, including much that we have little hope of understanding — the whole literary genre here is a foreign country for modern readers. But I’m struck by the way that John’s delirious, psychedelic vision affords us one clear fact, and yet the massive folklore we’ve constructed around his vision yields its opposite.
Revelation 21 tells us that the Pearly Gates are never closed and we stubbornly insist on imagining that they are never open. That doesn’t tell us any more about what it is that John was trying to say, but it tells us a lot about what it is we wanted to hear.