DEATH WILL BE NO MORE
Revelation 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
There is an ‘already but not yet’ aspect to this passage. It is the gospel story and it is the end time promise. Heaven, earth and God are now and will be on the same plane; heaven, earth and God are relocated. Most of us have been raised with the notion that God somehow floats above; but now the new heaven and the new earth are descending to this earth. We are no longer looking for God, apart and above, because “…, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…” It echos the prologue to John (1:14) —”And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
It is ‘God with us’ in the here and now and it is ‘God with us for all time’. Our human temptation to decided who is in and who is out, what is good and what is bad, is transformed. Because God has created a new heaven and a new earth and because God dwells among us, all of creation is holy again. We are part of the creation and stewards of it. God joins together what humans separated. Even heaven and earth are united. Earthly life is not to be rejected in our effort to find a heavenly home. Heaven is here. I find the poetry of the passage comforting and inspirational.
The problem becomes parsing out what the new heaven and new earth might mean in ordinary life—-and especially the line: “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” How can this be. We know all too well that the new heaven and a new earth has not eliminated mourning and crying, much less death.
Traditionally, a common way to manage the problem is to read this verse as a promise of a future reality. Everything will be made right—but it will occur after we’re dead. That could be true but I am more interested in how this line can make sense in the here and now. (I also have a problem with the implication that if everything will be made right in the end, we don’t have to address the pain and inequities of today—but that is for another time.)
So here is a possible here and now application. We often find biblical passages promising the end to pain for the redeemed—and the converse, the promise of pain for the sinful. That kind of dichotomous thinking is almost the universal human way to view the world. It allows us to tell where we stand and to know who is in or out of God’s care. In this passage, I will call such thinking ‘ the first heaven and the first earth. Tears, mourning and death are bad in themselves bad and/or are indicators of human failing. But this is actually a rather self centered view. We become arbitrators of the world. We attempt to be like God, knowing good and evil.
Almost always when we say something is bad, we are really saying, we don’t like it. We tend to equate death with ‘bad’ because we do not like to contemplate the end us. But in real life, if death were ended, we would all starve. The paradox is that dying is not only part of living, it is required for living. Death is part of creation. Something has to die in order for something else to eat. Human beings may not eat each other but if the human species were exempt from death, we wouldn’t have room to turn around, much less live. The idea that death is bad may well be true for our own well being but that has nothing to do with where death fits into the creation.
The general principle is easy to see, but it is much harder when we see a child, a young mother or our spouse face death. We want such deaths to be no more. We try to mitigate and explain. We try to decide what is timely and what is untimely— but in the end, death comes when it does. We have no protection. And, as often as not, when death arrives outside of what we think is reasonable or fair, no explanation satisfies. Much of grieving is living through the reality that we are helpless. It is only after we are forced to confront what we cannot do, can we experience the possibilities of the new heaven and the new earth.
Just as death is part of creation, mourning and tears are part of grieving. The vast majority of people—not necessarily all—cry when they are in pain or when they have lost someone important to them. But all too often, we are embarrassed and/or apologize for what we feel. We treat our tears as a sign of weakness and our mourning as a lack of faith. We view strength and faith by our ability to manage ourselves into stoicism. In the absence of visible feelings we frequently comment: ‘Look how strong that person is’. And there are many who would make that judgment about us. But God does not.
When God joined us, God united what humans had divided. Even death, pain and suffering belong to our lives. God did not avoid them. We needed to be shown that new heaven and new earth because our default view—the first heaven and the first earth—suggests that these hard aspects of creation should be avoided or indicate our failure or faithlessness. Just this week, in our grief group, a woman reported that family members still said, ‘He was so young. This shouldn’t have happened, and worse, ‘How could you let this happen?’ Better it be someone’s fault (our’s or another’s) than to face our limitations and helplessness.
The new heaven and the new earth does not take away tears, mourning and death but it does take away the idea that they shouldn’t happen. It was the whole point of God becoming one of us. In the new heaven and the new earth, we are freed to bring our whole selves before God. When God joins us we are redeemed. There is no part of us that must be hidden and there is not part of us that cannot be loved. There is no greater grace.
Tears, mourning and death are not literally ended because they are part of our creation—-but the idea that death is the end, is no more. Faith is not managing and containing our tears. That is a leftover from the ‘first heaven and the first earth’ which has passed away. We will die. We will mourn. Faithfulness is the willingness to bring our depression, lostness, questions, anger and despair before God—all in the promise that God is with us—even when we cannot imagine it so.
“Bidden or unbidden, God is present” (Erasmus) “See, I am making all things new.” Let it be so.