The music swells, the symphony approaches its glorious end. You’re swept up in the majestic writing and the promise of what is to come. You’re noticing the intricate detail and the way the rest of the story is being recapitulated here at the eventual end.
There is a new heaven. Wonder of wonders. There is a new earth. Joy is complete! The first heaven and earth have passed away. That’s good news. And also, there’s no more sea.
Perhaps you’re reading the great ending of the Bible in Revelation 21-22. I would encourage it, the Bible’s story is told in light of its bookends in Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22. I’ve just loosely paraphrased the first sentence of John’s great vision in Revelation 21. We normally sweep over that strange little reference to the sea and move on to the description of the splendid city, I’d like to stop a little.
I think my first response when I noticed it was disappointment. I like looking at the sea. There’s a majesty to its quiet strength and an awe at its roused power. A new earth with no more sea sounds bigger, but somehow smaller as well. I wondered if perhaps we needed more space to fit all the people in.
Well, maybe. But that isn’t what’s going on. We skip over phrases like this because we’ve lost the symbol language of the Bible. We read the Bible like a flat book because we’ve never been taught to read in any other way. Modernity has done us a disservice.
If you Google the question you get a few websites which propose largely literalist reading of Revelation which are also very flat without being aware of the bigger picture.
Why no more sea? There are two reasons. Both are tremendously good news. Both emerge from us knowing our Bibles.
In the scriptures the sea stands in for chaos and evil. This is partly based on contemporary fears of the sea as a perilous place of danger, but we can determine this from the scriptures themselves. Where do we meet the sea or the waters? Genesis 1, where the ‘waters’ describe what is a formless and void before God speaks and brings form (days 1-3) and content (days 4-6) to the chaos. The sea has an echo with chaos primordial.
It’s also where demons seem to live. Think of the Leviathan (Job 3, 40-41, Psalm 74, 104, Isaiah 27) this great demonic sea dragon, or references to the dragon Rahab (sometimes meaning Egypt, Psalm 87, 89, Isaiah 51, Habakkuk 3), or most strangely to us the creation of sea dragons in Genesis 1.21. Your translation has probably tidied that up a little for you.
The sea is emblematic of chaos, and so anything opposed to Yahweh the God who orders the cosmos. The sea therefore stands in for evil and opposition to God. You’ll notice this pattern in Jesus’ ministry, think of his calming the storm (Mark 4) or Jesus sending the legion demons afflicting a man into the sea (Mark 5).
The sea is chaos. The sea is evil, emblematically. So, when there is no more sea in Revelation 21, we are reading in great relief that the new creational kingdom has no evil and no chaos. God’s ordering of the world is completed, and all opposition has already been cast out (Revelation 20). That’s good news!
When we think of the sea and the Bible the other story that should jump into our heads is the Exodus, that great pattern that repeats throughout the Bible. One of the climatic moments of the Exodus is the parting of the Red Sea and the passing through the water of death into new life.
This is what we act out—and participate in—when we are baptised in water as new believers.
To pass through water is to move out of “Egypt” into exile on a journey to the promised land.
There’s no more sea in the new heavens and the new earth because that’s the final promised land. The last exile, that of the church, is over. No more baptisms are needed, we won’t have to leave again.
After a Bible filled with occasion after occasion of the people being sent again into one or another exile on their pilgrimage to the land where God would have them, this should be an enormous relief. That innocuous sentence lets us know that this is the final time, this is the true seventh day. We can now stop and rest.
That’s tremendously good news.
Is it literal?
But, you ask, does it mean there won’t be any sea? That’s a remarkably modern question. I think its important that we understand that the Bible wants us to see the symbols it uses as imbued with meaning. This is how God speaks, and the primary point he makes is an end of chaos and an end to exile.
Will there literally be no sea? Probably. God uses the real people and things of history to speak to us symbolically. He weaves his stories with real lives. Symbols tend to be physical in the scriptures.
The problem is that we think the ‘literal’ is the real thing the scriptures are saying. They aren’t. That’s just the sign. Like obsessing over a signpost and not looking at what its pointing at. Like seeing the sign for the turning for your destination and deciding you’ve arrived. Not quite.
The symbol is more important than the sign used to point us there, but the sign was also real and really happened. To read the Bible in a ‘thick’ or ‘three-dimensional’ way this is how we have to train ourselves to think.