What’s not to like about heaven? Who wouldn’t want to go to a place where nobody ever rests, eats, drinks, sleeps, works, plays, has fun, talks to anyone, goes anywhere, or takes a shower? Where nobody ever does anything interesting, fun, or useful? Where the only ones there are twenty-four old men and four weird, mythological creatures? No pearly gates or streets of gold either. But there’s more: God sits localized and anthropomorphic on a throne in the sky, He completely ignores people, including the twenty-four old men who never, ever do anything but throw their crowns before God, get on their knees, and say fancy words to God. In fact, God doesn’t do anything at all, but thunder and lightning come out of His throne.
If you doubt that this is a description of heaven, please read the description of heaven in chapter 4 of Revelation. If you think about what chapter 4 says about heaven, it really is a strange, even absurd, description of heaven.
The strange description of heaven in chapter 4 of Revelation is in stark contrast to the description of heaven in Rev. 21:1-22:5. As we look at some of the differences between the two almost opposite kinds of heaven, I’ll use the short names “H1” (heaven number 1, the heaven of chapter 4) and “H2” (heaven number 2, the heaven of 21:1-22:5, which Revelation calls “New Jerusalem”):
H1: Even the few “elders” who are in the throne room with God don’t get very close to God. God is isolated, separated from people by a sea of glass before His throne (“Now we see through a glass darkly...” - 1 Corinthians 13:12), and God is completely uninvolved with people, not even making any kind of response to or acknowledgment of the elders and creatures who worship Him constantly day and night without ceasing. Other than the 24 elders and 4 creatures, no one else even gets into the place where God is. H2: God dwells with people and is with them (Rev. 21:3). God is everywhere giving light to every nook and cranny so that they don’t even need candles (Rev. 22:5). The multitudes of people “see his face” (Rev. 22:4) (“...but then face to face” - 1 Corinthians 13:12). The sea of glass is gone--”There was no more sea” (21:1). What happens to the sea of glass is a fascinating story that has multiple developments along the way from the first heaven to the final heaven. It’s too complex to tell in this relatively short article, but you can read about the first major step (15:2-4) in its transition in the free excerpt.
In From Fear to Love: Transforming Revelation (which I’ll abbreviate as FFTL ), you will see how the situation gradually changes between chapter 4 and chapter 21, as God gets closer to people and more involved with people and people get closer to God and know God more clearly.
H1: Out of God’s throne come thunder and lightning, fearsome (especially to ancient people who didn’t know the science of thunder and lightning), menacing, and potentially destructive. Then the transition to the next scene (chapter 5) prepares for God to become actively involved in sending all sorts of pain and destruction on earth. H2: Out of God’s throne comes a river of the water of life (22:1) which He gives freely (21:6). God wipes away tears, ends death, sorrow, and pain (21:4) and heals the nations (22:2).
The scary-angry-old-man-in-the-sky God is an ancient Bronze Age idea, which gradually gives way to the idea of the God who is love. The Mosaic law, the prophets of Israel, the teachings of Jesus, and future developments which John of Patmos proposes all play roles in the transition from God of wrath and destruction to God of love.
FFTL traces how Revelation reveals this gradual change in our understanding of God from a God of fear and wrath to a God of love. Similarly, for all the points in this list of differences between the two heavens, FFTL shows how all the changes happen in the course of the Revelation story.
H1: God sits on a throne in the sky, localized there and anthropomorphic (4:1-2). H2: God and heaven come down to earth (21:2) and God is everywhere giving light (21:23).
H1: Heaven is so small that John enters through a door (4:1). The only things there are thrones, crowns, candles, the sea of glass, and a door (throughout chapter 4). No living thing other than the elders and the four creatures is there. H2: New Jerusalem is 1200 miles wide, long, and even high (21:16), there are twelve city gates and twelve foundations (21:12-14), the city and its streets are gold (21:18-21), it is adorned with all sorts of precious stones (21:19-21), and the river of water of life flows through it, nourishing the tree of life, which gives fruit and healing (22:2).
H1: The only beings there are 24 “elders” (Even though John doesn’t say it outright, you just know that they’re all men.) and four weird mythological creatures (4:4-8). H2: There are nations of people (21:24).
H1: Only the authority figures, the religious “elders,” get to be in the presence of God. No one else is there. Apparently, even the four mythological beasts rank higher than all the other people. There is a stratified, hierarchical social structure. H2: Everyone is in the presence of God, who gives light everywhere in the city, and everyone sees God’s face. The final heaven is much more egalitarian. There are kings but they have no greater access to God than anyone else. There are no religious authorities who have greater standing with God and greater access to God than the multitudes of ordinary people.
H1: The 24 elders and four strange creatures perform submissive rituals of bowing down and saying, all in unison, formal words of worship to God. H2: There are no rituals of submissive worship; rather the people serve God. Revelation doesn’t say exactly what it means by serving God, but we could surmise that it means doing something useful, something toward achieving God’s purpose, and in New Jerusalem God’s purpose is loving, caring, healing, and nurturing. Additionally, in New Jerusalem the people “see his face” (22:4); they see Him face to face; they have a direct experience of God’s presence rather than seeing dimly beyond the sea of glass of H1.
What is the significance of these vast differences between the two heavens? First, they describe two completely different kinds of religion, including two completely different kinds of God. Why would there be two completely different kinds of religion in one book? The second point answers that question: the differences between the two heavens provide a framework for the whole Revelation story, which tells how the religious views of the first heaven gradually change throughout the story to become the views of the final heaven. The whole Revelation story is about a transformation of religion from fear, separation, authoritarian hierarchy, and submissive ritual to a religion of love, closeness to God, equality, and service. From Fear To Love: Transforming Revelation explains this gradual change which happens throughout the whole Revelation story.
Revelation is a highly organized and structured book, clearly divided into meaningful sections. The organization is important to the meaning. As we look more closely, we will see that each section of the story moves further from the religious views of the first heaven and closer to the views of the second heaven. Each section gives progressively more advanced answers to the big questions. Revelation's overall theme is a transformation of our spiritual consciousness from the primitive views of the first heaven to the exalted views of the second heaven.
Here is a very brief summary of the differences between the two heavens:
Download and read a free excerpt. (PDF - requires Adobe Reader)
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