What a beautiful description of heaven in today’s reading from Revelation 21:9-21! And yet what a disservice to 21st-century Christians who read that description as if the most important promises about life everlasting are the physical descriptions of paradise. Although controversial, I suggest that the concrete, physical language of Revelation makes it harder for Christians to maintain hope and faith in the bigger picture—that one day God will make all things right and new and welcome us into his kingdom.
How often have you heard someone say, “Pearly Gates.” We read that each of the gates to the heavenly Jerusalem were made out of one, single pearl. I like oysters, but I don’t want to meet the oyster responsible for that. Of course, that is to miss the point. So, too, is our tendency to imagine ourselves walking down streets of gold, surrounded by walls of jasper, built upon 12-layer foundations of precious jewels. That’s not what heaven is like.
Well, actually, it might be what heaven is like, but that’s not the point. Revelation conveys a promised paradise that is as over-the-top as we could ever imagine. That’s the point. Think you know what paradise will be like? Nope, it’s even better. Think you can imagine what God’s reign will really fell like? Nope, it’s even better. Find yourself dreaming about the day when all war and famine and strife cease? Well, keep on dreaming because it’s even bigger and better and more wonderful than that. Heaven isn’t just what we read about in Revelation. Revelation is asking us to dream even bigger and then realize that our hopes are not tied to a specific image. Our hopes are in God.
What are we waiting for? What are we hoping for? If it’s puffy clouds and harp-wielding angels, we’ve missed the point. God’s redemption isn’t just that. It’s the healing of every brokenness we’ve ever experienced. It’s the promise of everlasting communion with God and with his saints. If it helps to think of jasper and gold and amethyst, then go for it. But I suspect that the more specific our expectations are the harder it is for us to believe and hope for the real fullness of God’s promises.