Reflections on Revelation (5): Why I disagree with Gentry on 21:1-22:5

I have been heavily using Gentry throughout my study of Revelation, and I owe him a great deal of debt for all I have learned from him. I had to part ways with him, however, when I got to 21:1-22:5 and read his interpretation of this glorious vision of the New Jerusalem. After acknowledging that 20:7-15 predict the (still future) second coming of Christ, Gentry claims that 21:1-22:5 revert back to the first century and describe (in highly poetic language) the glory of the church and salvation. Gentry argues that John’s major theme is the replacement of the old Jerusalem with the new Jerusalem, and thus “the coming of the new Jersusalem down from heaven (chaps. 21-22) logically should follow soon upon the destruction of the old Jerusalem on the earth (Rev. 6-11, 14-19), rather than waiting thousands of years” (Four Views on the Book of Revelation, 87). Gentry finds additional support for his view in:
(1) the time frame indicators which follow this section immediately in 22:6, 10.
(2) the progressive nature of “new creation” language, in line with Isaiah 65:17- 20
(3) the alleged harmony between this view and the imagery employed elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., the depiction of the church as the bride of Christ in Eph. 5)

As a fellow partial preterist who has much respect and appreciation for Gentry’s general contribution to eschatology and interpretation of the book of Revelation, I find Gentry’s view of 21:1-22:5 unconvincing for the following reasons:

1) The book of Revelation builds in momentum as one moves through the book: its vision grows exponentially more and more grandiose. The praise songs get longer and grander, the judgements get fiercer, the warfare gets more intense, and so on. There is definite crescendo. As Gentry himself writes, “the closer John approaches his conclusion, the more glorious the outcome appears” (82). It would be strange, therefore, if, after painting such a glorious vision in 20:7-15 of Satan’s defeat, Christ’s glorious return, and the final judgment, events which Gentry admits were thousands of years away from John’s lifetime, John were to return to first century events in chapter 21. 21:1 begins, “Then I saw …”, implying continuity and escalation. Gentry’s reading seems to disrupt this movement, this crescendo. This reading of Revelation makes John’s conclusion quite underwhelming: instead of going out with a bang, the book trails off with a thud.

2) Since 22:6-21 is the conclusion of the entire book, it is illegitimate to insist that the time frame indicators of 22:6 and 22:10 limit 21:1-22:5 simply because they are textually near. On this reading it is not clear why 20:7-15 are not also bound by these time frame indicators. It seems better to see the time frame indicators of chapter 22 as referring to the book as a whole, without demanding that every single event in the book (such as those specified as a thousand years long!) be completed within John’s readers’ lifetimes.

3) The events of 21:1-22:5 seem too glorious for Gentry’s view. When arguing against the futurist interpretation of 1:1 and 1:3, Gentry asks, “why not accept John’s statements at face value?” (92). Can the same question be asked regarding Gentry’s interpretation of 21:4: “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (21:4)? Admittedly John’s language in 21:1-22:5 is very symbolic, but the symbolism here seems to draw from the height and the grandeur of the events described. To restrict the fulfillment of 21:4 to gospel salvation which begins to remove ultimate grief and death does not seem (to me at least) to be taking John’s statements at face value.

4) I agree that the old Jerusalem/new Jerusalem (prostitute/bride) contrast is a strong theme in Revelation, and that a decisive redemptive historical shift occured in 70 A.D. with regard to the nature of God’s people. But none of this entails that the church (the new Jerusalem, the bride) does not also feature prominently at the second coming of Christ at the end of history.

5) Personally, I find the vision of heaven painted in 21:1-22:5 very encouraging. If this language is merely “expressing, by means of elevated poetic imagery, the glory of salvation” (89), I must admit I am thoroughly dissapointed. The trajectory of the whole biblical story is that God will renew his fallen creation into its original theo-centric harmony and bliss. Wouldn’t one expect a glorious conclusion to this glorious story? As I said earlier, this interpretation of Revelation seems quite underwhelming. I think of T.S. Eliot’s poem: “this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”

For these reasons, I conclude that the glorious vision of 21:1-22:5 awaits future fulfillment and that Christians can therefore find great encouragement in this passage’s prediction of a new heavens and a new earth in which “the former things have passed away” and thus there is (quite literally) no more mourning, no more pain, and no more death. But the best part about it is this: “behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3).

I am sure it will be greater than we can even imagine.

But if we hope for what we do not yet see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25).

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  1. Gavin, I share your concerns, but I do wonder if Gentry has a point here. Perhaps we can get away from the issue of what is “primary” and say rather that the fulfillment of Rev 21–22 is an already-not-yet sort of thing. It is in its fullest sense a description of the church in its future glory after Christ’s second coming, but the church in its present state is a preview and foretaste of that future glory. To put it another way, the church experiences a partial and initial fulfillment of Rev 21–22, but she will not measure up to the fullness that vision prior to Christ’s return, and many aspects of the vision will await their ultimate fulfillment until then (no death, no tears, the beatific vision, no more unclean, etc.). This already-not-yet reading of Rev 21–22 would seem to do justice to the parallels that Gentry points out, without necessarily asserting that it is *primarily* about the present. This more generic view would leave room for putting primacy on the church’s post-advent experience, or on the church’s pre-advent experience, or in refusing to identify either as more primary than the other, so long as it is admitted that the church’s pre-advent experience is only a partial and initial fulfillment and its post-advent experience is full and ultimate fulfillment. After all, the “new heavens, new earth” of Isa 65–66 seem to have an initial fulfillment in the church here and now. Why wouldn’t we say the same of the new heavens, new earth of Rev 21–22? (Or maybe you wouldn’t agree about Isa 65–66!)

    Also, are there any books or resources on Revelation that you’ve found particularly? I currently feel drawn to a preterist reading of Rev 1–19, but haven’t looked into it extensively. I intend to start looking into it more this summer.