Heaven: Garden or City?

This is by far the best treatment on the apocalyptic book of Revelation I have ever read.

This is by far the best treatment on the apocalyptic book of Revelation I have ever read.I’m more than a little ashamed to admit that I’ve been working through this book for close to a year and a half. It’s not that the writing is dense, far from it. Eugene Peterson is incredibly well known for his accessibility and for his intent to make text approachable. No, it’s taken me this long to read this book because I keep getting distracted with other readings for work or school. It might also be because I’m going to be sad when I finish with this book. The poetry of it all is wonderful and his insight into a book I have been purposely avoiding for the last several years is fantastic.

Peterson’s chapters are organized theologically as he unpacks the topics that John broaches in the book concept-by-concept. Today I was reading a section giving voice to John’s last words on Heaven.  I was struck by the point that he unpacked in John’s Revelation and what that means about our perspective on the Kingdom of Heaven. The image that John uses to describe Heaven in his book  of Revelation is so counter to the mindset we often think about or visualize of the perfect place and fulfillment of God’s plan on Earth, but I’ll let him speak for himself because he says it very well.

The surprise of St. John’s rendition of heaven is that it comes in the form of a city: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband” (Rev. 21:2)…Other religions describe heaven as the restoration to the natural-to a formal, gardenlike paradise, or an unspoiled wilderness like Arcadia. That seems like the right way: when we want renewal and restoration of mind and spirit, want to recover intimacies in family and marriage, our usual practice is to leave the city for the country, or wilderness, or resort-some variation on Eden or paradise or Arcadia that we are apt to call “heaven on earth.”

But cities are noisy with self-assertion, forgetful and defiant of God, battering and abusive to persons. The first city, Enoch, was built by the first murderer, Cain, and destroyed in the Noachic flood. The second city, Babel, was built in an arrogant attempt to storm heaven and was abandoned in a tangle of broken languages. When St. John gave us his vision of judgment, it was a city that was destroyed: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev. 18:2).

Heaven surely, should get us as far away from that as possible. Haven’t we had enough of cities on earth? Don’t we deserve what we long for? Many people want to go to heaven the way they want to go to Florida-they think the weather will be an improvement and the people decent. But the biblical heaven is not a nice environment far removed from the stress of hard city life. It is the invasion of the city by the City. We enter heaven not by escaping what we don’t like, but by the sanctification of the place in which God has placed us.

There is not so much as a hint of escapism in St. John’s heaven. This is not a long (eternal) weekend away from the responsibilities of employment and citizenship, but the intensification and healing of them. Heaven is formed out of dirty streets and murderous alleys, adulterous bedrooms and corrupt courts, hypocritical synagogues and commercialized churches, thieving tax-collectors and traitorous disciples: a city, but now a holy city.

Reversed Thunder, Eugene Peterson, p. 173-174

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