When we envision the “new heaven and new earth,” how do we envision it? What is new about it? What is its relationship to the old heaven and the old earth? [For instance – the dead who have been raised to life seem to be present in it; what does this tell us about the kind of “newness” here?] What gives us our understanding of this new condition – impressions we gather from the text, impressions we have from other sources, what? What seems most significant about the new condition to us? Why is that?
These seem like some of the vital questions raised by the verses we are studying for Sunday, August 7: Revelation 21:1-9. They include the announcement of the new heaven and the new earth, the poetic announcement that “the home of God is among mortals,” or human beings, the confirmation of God’s supreme authority, and the ultimate separation of those blessed by God from those consigned to the lake burning with fire and sulfur.
Some notes on the text are here. Here are a few additional questions we might want to think about, or to discuss:
What is the import of the announcement that “the home of God is among mortals”? Is this part of the “newness” of the new creation?
[Theological, but also personal] Does this imply that the home of God is not among mortals now? Or do we think God is at home among mortals, but differently? Or …? What is our impression of the difference in “the presence of God” between “now” and “then”? Thoughts and feelings about this?
[This may be a disturbing question] Why does there need to be a new creation, do we think?
Does it matter how we answer this question? Why?
What is the lake burning with fire and sulfur doing in this picture? How do we ourselves see it? [E.g., as a good thing, because …; or, as something that doesn’t really belong there, because …; or, …?]
[There are at least a few specific lines of questioning we might think of: do we envision it as a literal, physical phenomenon? Do we think it is important that we do that? Why? Or, do we think it is a way of representing something else? If so, what else? Is that something else preferable to a literal, physical phenomenon? Why? These are questions about the representation, and how we think it might relate to reality.
A different set of questions has to do with what the lake of fire says about the structure of reality.
- What does it say about God? How do we think that fits, or does not fit, with what we know about God from other parts of the Bible, or other parts of the tradition, or other sources?
- What does it say about the nature of justice, the resolution of conflicts, or what it means for a story to have a happy ending?
- What does it say about us? In particular – what does our own reaction to the lake of fire tell us about ourselves?
- What does it say about our understanding of consequences – like, the consequences of people’s choices in life? In particular, our own?]
Overall, this text, and the ones coming up, will make us think about our “eschatology” – what story we tell ourselves about “how things will turn out in the end” – our expectations about the “the end of the story.” So we will want to pay some attention
- to what we think we are reading in the Bible; and
- to what we understand the relationship to be between the text of Scripture and the reality it is talking about (that is, does Scripture simply describe reality, something like an instamatic camera? Or, is it more like a painting? And if so, what kind of painting? Neo-classical, romantic, impressionist, expressionist, cubist, … ?) and
- to how we put this together for ourselves into a story about reality; and
- to why THAT’S our story, rather than some other story – that is, who taught us this story? Or, did we come up with it ourselves? And why? That is, in working out what concerns, what hopes, what ideas …? And
- to what relationship this has with our faith – that is, what difference does this make to us? And why is that, do we think? What does that tell us, about ourselves, and about our faith?
Image: “Figures in Conversation – Étaples,” Leslie Hunter, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons