Hugging the Tree of Life: Revelation 21, Ecotopia (Part 6 of 7)

Series: Hugging the Tree of Life- Mark 1.9-13, Jesus, Animals, and Isaiah

Read part 1 of 7 (introduction) here. Read part 2 of 7 (A Lesson from the Earth) here. Read part 3 of 7 (We are so Connected) here. Read part 4 of 7 (The Cosmic Christ) here. Read part 5 of 7 (Jesus, Animals, and Isaiah) here.

Imagine the burning fires of the Terminator or the trash piles of Disney’s Wall-E. Is this with the Bible has in mind? Like in the previous posts, I will highlight one verse’s real contribution as well as expose ways that the Bible has been misunderstood or over-used for godly green living. The last post made one point crucial for us if we are to understand the book of Revelation: Revelation is the end of the Jewish story. This means that when we read this final Chapter of the Christian Bible, we can expect from it a vision of the renewal of creation. Still, this doesn’t mean that John, the author of Revelation, couldn’t have said something new in his vision. After all, he claimed to have written down exactly what he saw in his apocalyptic vision. God was revealing something about the end that was never before heard and would carry lessons to us for godly living. In Revelation, we get some insight into godly green living. Even though apocalyptic books use crazy symbolism, like Jesus riding on a horse with a sword coming from his mouth, its point is essentially about how Christians should live in their day. The symbols are thick. We can’t simply apply them to whatever problems we are encountering in our day. Gog and Magog are not Russia and China. They symbols should leave us with more questions than answers. The book brings up so many questions, such as: does it have a positive view towards the earth, and what are the implications? If it teaches us that we can hasten the end, does it suggest that we do so by saving one person from each unreached nation, or worse by helping along the future destruction of the world by increasing our exploitation of it today? If there is a new city Jerusalem, what about animals who live in the wild? Will they get to have their own domain outside the city walls? If night is destroyed, what will happen to nocturnal creatures like bats? Will they simply have to forfeit their portion of the day? What does Revelation mean for us who are beginning to realize that care for the earth is part of godly living? Among all the questions, we can focus our interest in green theology on the process of the getting to the end. Does Revelation have the renewal, replacement, transformation, or destruction of the world in mind? The answer will show us that Revelation has, what one scholar has called, eco-topia in mind rather than u-topia. That is, the new creation will be a living-place, rather than no-where. Moreover, we can hasten the day with godly living. The bulk of this comes from the end of the book of Revelation, and because it is so rich and full of detail, I have paraphrased a part of Revelation 21-22 for us: “And I saw a new heaven and new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth went away, and the sea was there no longer. I saw the new holy city Jerusalem, coming down from heaven, from God. It was prepared as a bride, adorned for her Man. Then I started hearing a booming voice from the throne: ‘Behold’, it was saying, ‘the dwelling of God is with humans. He dwells with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear away from their eyes. There will no longer be any death or mourning or crying or toiling, because the former things went away.’ Then the one sitting on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’. He said: ‘Write that these words are faithful and true.’ Then he spoke these words to me: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To those who thirst, I will give freely from the spring of the water of life. The one who is victorious will inherit these things. I will be God to them. The men will be my sons, the women my daughters. However, for those who are cowardly, unfaithful and have been loathsome, who still have murder and immorality in their hearts, to sorcerers and idolaters, people who used the former earth for prideful things and who will try to use the new for the same, and to all who demand to remain liars. They will go to that lake enkindled by fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’ Then one of the seven angels came to me, one of those who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues. He spoke with me saying, ‘I will show you the bride, the wife of the lamb’. Then he carried me off in the spirit to the great and high mountain, and he showed me the holy city of Jerusalem, the one coming down from heaven from God. Are ready for what I saw? It has the glory of God about it. Its star is like a precious stone. It has a great high wall. It has twelve gates with twelve angels stationed by them, and the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are carved on them. There were three gates facing east. Three North. Three South, and three on the side where the sun sets. The wall of the city had twelve foundations and upon them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the lamb….” “Also, the city had neither need of the sun nor the moon to shine on it. The glory of God gave it light. Her guide-lamp was the lamb, and the gentiles walked around throughout the light. The kings of the earth brought their glory into it, and its gates were never shut by day for there is no night there. The glory and honor of the gentiles were brought into it, and nothing evil from the old will come into it. Neither will the one who made desolation and falseness. If they were not written in the book of the life of the lamb, they didn’t come into the city. Then he showed me the river of the water of life; it was illustrious as ice. It flowed out from the throne of God and the lamb. It gushed through the middle of the street. On the river’s edges––on both sides––the tree of life produced twelve fruits. It gave over its fruit, one kind for each month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the gentiles. There were no cursed things there. The throne of God and of the lamb will be among them, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. They will not have need of the light of lamps or the light of the sun. God will shine on them, and they will reign throughout eternity. Revelation 21.1-22.5. Three points keep us focused on this grandiose image: (1) How things will turn from where we are now to what is described as the New Jerusalem, (2) the nature of the city, and (3) the theme of interconnection. After I talk about these points, I will draw out some implications for godly living. According to Revelation, how do we get from here to the New Jerusalem? How will the new order come about? Will it be by renewal, replacement, transformation, or destruction of the world? Revelation talks about our heaven and earth passing away with the sea. Scholars do not all agree about what this means. Some stress the metaphorical nature of it all. They consider it imagery for the drastic change in political and social reality. Others admit that what we envision in the new is so unlike what we experience today that we might as well talk about a do-over, like in the great flood. One-author talks about “transposition into eternity”, while another talks about the earth being recycled. Transposition is a gentle process of changing keys but keeping the same melody. Recycling is a destruction of a current shape but using the same raw material to make a new shape. Another author points out that even if it is a transposition or a gentle change more like our current world today, it is something that can only be done by God in his power and his timing. We can’t deny that Revelation talks about the earth and skies passing away. However, no matter if this present order is completely turned into ashes, Revelation implies that from them God will arise and purify the shapes of the old. This is why Revelation talks about the “the glory of the gentiles” coming in. What can we imagine to be the glory of the gentiles? We have our own top 7 wonders of the world and more: pyramids, standing stones, Rushmore’s, mathematics, literature, and music––just to scratch the surface. Imagine these things being strangely preserved and purified. Yes, the Bible talks about the earth being destroyed and remade, but the psalmist knew what we should know now, God’s ways are not our ways, and even if we know that the house is going to be demolished tomorrow, the Bible still wants us to paint the bedroom today if it needs it. Because in some strange way that paint will matter tomorrow. This is the renewal that we expect the Jewish story to suggest, and renewal gives us a challenge for today. So also does the description of the New Jerusalem. This is a vision that doesn’t answer all of our questions, but it is a vision of Genesis remade and a divine response to the evils of Babylon, the evils of Rome, and the evils of our empires today. It is a highly charged but beautiful symbol. The New Jerusalem is a wife and a city at the same time. It is an image of the people of God and yet a strangely concrete urban plan. In some sense it is a return to Eden, with the tree, the river, and the promise of no pain or death. It is earthy like Eden, but the sea and night are gone, and it is after all not just a gorgeous wood; it is a city where God dwells with his creatures. Immoral people and dogs are not allowed in, but the gates are open (Rev.21.25). Some scholars suggest that this means that there may be a wood beyond the gates, rather than a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Those who were cast into the lake of sulfur are living in another dimension, and the open gates suggest that the wild animals will have their own wild domain outside the New Jerusalem. It’s hard to say. One thing is clear; the evils of Babylon are expelled. If we want to hasten this day, it will be through godly living. The sea is symbolic for Rome’s oppressive shipping operation, and night is that time before dawn where sin, destruction, and violence thrive. These things are taken away with fire. So what does Revelation imagine of fire? Fire frees the waters of oppressive systems. Fire purifies the night of violence. Furthermore, the New Jerusalem is made from the bounty of the earth (Rev. 21.15-21_ verse reference?). It is the joined unity of rural and urban life. There is no question that John takes great pleasure that the peoples of the wide earth now recognize YHWH as the living God who will heal them. The New Jerusalem is an earthy place that expels evil, leaves the gate open to the wild beyond, represents a huge green urban scene, and is somehow strangely representative of a people at the same time. What holds it all together? Interconnected relationship founded in God. This is the marriage of heaven and earth. This is a web of life remade from the materials of old in such a way that the glory of the old comes into the new. This is why godly living matters today. So what are the implications for green living today? The glories of the nations are brought in, and this means that however it is possible, the fires of the apocalypse won’t destroy what can be purified. Our attempts for creation care may not be enough to construct the New Jerusalem. Our policies will often tempt us rather to build the tower of Babel. But what we do today matters and will endure. When we give away our love for something that matters to God, he transfers it into eternal currency. The creative building of godly culture and godly living matter. Who we are today and what we do matters in the end. Deep down, we inherently know that to get rid of this theology of the New Creation is to throw ourselves away. Our lives have been full of pain and strife. If we think that God will just destroy the old creation, then maybe our bad memories will get destroyed with it. We don’t like the idea of restoration and renewal, because we don’t want to have to remember our former pain. But John is clear: there will be leaves on the tree of life meant for healing. What else would need healing in the new creation other than our memories? If God would just destroy this place, I won’t have to deal with my painful memories tomorrow. Revelation offers us a vision of renewal, and this means that we will have some healing to do when we get there. So plant a tree or save a human person. It matters. God wants us to do both, because both will be part of the new creation whether the New Jerusalem is a symbol or not. In conclusion, before I write the introduction to an imaginary novel about godly green living, two authors highlight the present but not yet reality of the New Creation most clearly. Harry O. Maier emphasizes that what we do today matters: “Revelation tells us there is indeed a new world coming whenever there are those courageous enough to live and express the giveaway of the tree and water of life.” And Richard Bauckham concludes so eloquently about the interconnected end that Revelation offers. We would do well to listen carefully, for it should guide the way we act today: “The New Jerusalem is a garden city of a kind to which humans have often aspired, a place where human culture does not replace nature but lives in harmony and reciprocity with it. It represents the final reconciliation of culture and nature, of the human world and the other creatures of the earth. It lives from the vitality of the natural world without plundering and exhausting its resources.” Resource Bundle: Horrell, David. “Future Visions of Creation and Peace” and “Apocalyptic Visions of Cosmic Catastrophe.” Chapters 8 & 9 in The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology. London: Equinox, 2010. Maier, Harry O. “There’s a New World Coming! Reading the Apocalypse in the Shadow of the Canadian Rockies.” in ed. Norman Habel and Vicky Balabanski, The Earth Story in the New Testament. Vol. 5. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.

Keith Jagger first met the Sleeths when they were neighbors in Wilmore, Kentucky, and were brought together by their shared passion for creation care. After completing his studies at Asbury Seminary, Keith moved to Scotland to study with N.T. Wright. As Blessed Earth’s “Anglo Correspondent.” Keith writes both from the perspective a PhD student studying creation care and a husband/father/follower of Jesus struggling to incorporate creation care principles in his daily life. You can read more of his writing at or

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