Purging and Refurbishing the Imagination

Why all the imagery in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation?

This is one of the questions I try to answer in my forthcoming book.

My answer is three-fold:

  1. the imaginative literature in Scripture helps us value the gift of imagination God has given us;
  2. the imaginative literature in Scripture sparks our growth in godliness; and
  3. the imaginative literature in Scripture introduces us to a theology of our world.

In my book I tackle 1 and 2 and explain why I think Christians should read fictional books to cultivate our God-given imagination. And I explain how developing skills to read fiction literature has in turn helped me read the imagery in Revelation. But due to space in my book, and in hopes of keeping the book as simple as possible, I was unable to deal with 3 and I want to more fully explain this point, with help from a few paragraphs out of Richard Baukham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge University, 1993). In that book Bauckham explains that the Apostle John does not write in the imaginative form to dazzle us with his literary skill, but he writes in imaginative form to exercise theological motives.

The power, the profusion and the consistency of the symbols have a literary-theological purpose. They create a symbolic world which readers can enter so fully that it affects them and changes their perception of the world.

Most ‘readers’ were originally, of course, hearers. Revelation was designed for oral enactment in Christian worship services. Its effect would therefore be somewhat comparable to a dramatic performance, in which the audience enter the world of the drama for its duration and can have their perception of the world outside the drama powerfully shifted by their experience of the world of the drama. Many of the apocalypses could have something of this effect. But Revelation’s peculiarly visual character and peculiar symbolic unity give it a particular potential for communicating in this way. It is an aspect of the book to which we shall return. (10)

He returns to this “symbolic world” point just a few pages later.

We have already noticed the unusual profusion of visual imagery in Revelation and its capacity to create a symbolic world which its readers can enter and thereby have their perception of the world in which they lived transformed.

To appreciate the importance of this we should remember that Revelation’s readers in the great cities of the province of Asia were constantly confronted with powerful images of the Roman vision of the world. Civic and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, even the visual wonder of cleverly engineered ‘miracles’ (cf. Rev. 13:13–14) in the temples—all provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and of the splendor of pagan religion.

In this context, Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from the heaven…The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be. (17)

So what’s the point? What is Revelation teaching us today? In the conclusion to his book, Bauckham wraps these points together.

We have suggested that one of the functions of Revelation was to purge and to refurbish the Christian imagination. It tackles people’s imaginative response to the world, which is at least as deep and influential as their intellectual convictions. It recognizes the way a dominant culture, with its images and ideals, constructs the world for us, so that we perceive and respond to the world in its terms.

Moreover, it unmasks this dominant construction of the world as an ideology of the powerful which serves to maintain their power. In its place, Revelation offers a different way of perceiving the world which leads people to resist and to challenge the effects of the dominant ideology. (159–160)

In the previous paragraphs Bauckham helps us answer these important questions: What is the purpose of our God-given imaginations? And what is the function of Revelation’s images?

The book of Revelation engages our imaginations until we see the world in new and radical images. These images help us see past the dominant ideologies of our loud culture, the everyday ideologies that we simply assume and ingest daily like thoughtless breaths of air. The images in Revelation expose us to the world again, but in new and shocking ways, breaking into our imaginations and offering us a new alien way of looking at the world.

God has given us the gift of imagination. The book of Revelation comes alongside us to purge and refurbish that imagination, providing us with a profoundly fresh theological angle on the world that we have grown familiar with.

And the beach was no more…

seaFew things in life are more wonderful than a warm day at the beach with the family. I love it. It’s a little paradise on earth. Except I always leave the beach tortured by one thought. The new earth—that perfect eternal home built for God’s redeemed children—will be sea-less. And that’s what I read at the end of the Bible in Revelation 21:1—“and the sea was no more.” Now, I’m not too decisive on my favorite passage of scripture, but I am clear on my least favorite.

I know this all sounds vain. You’re thinking, doesn’t he know the presence of our Savior and the Triune God and the angels and all the redeemed singing praise to our Savior will be an overwhelming joy that will make us forget all about pain and loss and beach vacations? Yes, of course I do. I anticipate the new creation for all these glorious reasons. But this doesn’t answer my lingering question: Why no seas?

So you can imagine my delight when I recently read one sentence written by G. K. Beale, an expert on the book of Revelation. He wrote: “the presence of a literal sea in the new creation would not be inconsistent with the figurative exclusion of the sea in 21:1.” In other words, the passage does not rule out the possibility of a heavenly shoreline. While Beale’s words hardly say, “pack a beach towel,” I am more hopeful that my glorified eyes (now 10/80) will gaze upon a perfect beach for eternity.

But enough silly business. Revelation 21:1 contains layers of serious figurative meaning, says Beale:

Usage elsewhere in the Apocalypse suggests various identifications [of “sea”]: (1) the origin of cosmic evil (especially in the light of OT background: so Rev. 4:6: 12:18; 13:1; 15:2), (2) the unbelieving, rebellious nations who cause tribulation for God’s people (12:18; 13:1; Isa. 57:20; cf. Rev. 17:2,6), (3) the place of the dead (20:13), (4) the primary location of the world’s idolatrous trade activity (18:10-19), (5) a literal body of water, sometimes mentioned together with “the earth,” used as a synecdoche in which the sea as a part of the old creation represents the totality of it (5:13; 7:1-3; 8:8-9; 10:2, 5-6, 8; 14:7; 16:3).

The use here probably summarizes how all these various nuances of “sea” throughout the book relate to the new creation. Therefore, it encompasses all five meanings. That is, when the new creation comes there will no longer be any threat from Satan because he will have been permanently judged and excluded from the new creation. Nor will there be any threat from rebellious nations, since they will have suffered the same fate as Satan. Neither will there be death ever again in the new world, so that there is no room for the sea as the place of the dead. There also will be no more idolatrous trade practice using the sea as its main avenue. Even the perception of the literal sea as a murky, unruly part of God’s creation is no longer appropriate in the new cosmos, since the new creation is to be characterized by peace. Literal seas separate nation from nation, and they separated John from his beloved churches, but in the new creation such a separation can be no more, since all are in close fellowship with one another and with God (e.g., 21:22-26). There will be a “lake” of fiery punishment (20:10, 14-15), but it will be located enigmatically outside the perimeters of the new heavens and earth (21:27: 22:15). Just as there must be an eternally consummated form of the new creation in which God’s people dwell, so must there be an eternally consummated form of a realm of punishment in another dimension, where unbelievers will dwell.

… the evil nuance of the sea metaphorically represents the entire range of afflictions that formerly threatened God’s people in the old world. Uppermost in John’s mind would have been tribulations resulting from oppression by the ungodly world. There will be no trial over which to weep in the final order of things. … Therefore, the presence of a literal sea in the new creation would not be inconsistent with the figurative exclusion of the sea in 21:1. [The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 1042-1043]

Good thoughts to let loose in your mind when you’re driving your sunburned, sand-covered family home after a delightful weekend at the beach.

The Practical Value of Revelation

“…the churches are to read and reread the book in their assembly so that they may continually be reminded of God’s real, new world, which stands in opposition to the old, fallen system in which they presently live. Such a continual reminder will cause them to realize that their home is not in this old world but in the new world portrayed parabolically in the heavenly visions. Continued reading of the book will encourage genuine saints to realize that what they believe is not strange and odd, but truly normal from God’s perspective. They will not be discouraged by outside worldliness, including what has crept into the churches, which is always making godly standards appear odd and sinful values seem normal. John refers to true unbelievers in the book as ‘earth-dwellers’ because their ultimate home is on this transient earth. They cannot trust in anything except what their eyes see and their physical senses perceive; they are permanently earthbound, trusting only in earthly security, and will perish with this old order at the end of time when the corrupted cosmos finally is judged and passes away. On the other hand, Christians are like pilgrims passing through this world. As such they are to commit themselves to the revelation of God in the new order so as progressively to reflect and imitate his image and increasingly live according to the values of the new world, not being conformed to the fallen system, its idolatrous images, and associated values (cf. Rom. 12:2).”

—G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (NIGTC), p. 175.

On Reading Revelation


I suppose one reason I don’t prioritize the book of Revelation in my devotional times—along with its length and its ancient, often mystifying, imagery—is for the fact that I simply forget the book’s purpose. But I should know better, for the purpose is clearly stated at the beginning of the book, and at the end of the book. Those purpose statements form two unifying bookends around all the visions, letters, and dramatic battles in between.

To use the simple terms of Apostle John, in the book of Revelation God beckons us to hear and to heed (vss. 1:3, 22:7). We are blessed to hear, blessed to pay attention, blessed to struggle through page after page of prophetic imagery, blessed to read soberly and carefully. That one I understand. But we are also promised blessing for perpetual state of heeding (τηρέω) the book. And this is the thorny one for me. How exactly am I to apply most of the book to my everyday life?

Revelation provides us with high-def footage of the climactic conclusion of world history, it ties together and consummates all of God’s redemptive purposes in this world, and it delivers us to the doorstep of a glorious eternity. And a conscious awareness of this truth will begin to change our entire perspective of this world. If we listen carefully, this hearing will become heeding.

It appears that one of God’s main purposes in the book of Revelation is simply this–He wants to change us. He wants to change how we live, what we live for, how we treat our spouse and children and friends, how we order our goals, what we prioritize, the zeal with which we kill personal sin, the purity of the local church, our compassion towards the hurting, our counsel for fellow sinners, our love for the lost, our earnestness to obey, our diligence to pray, our disgust of our personal worldliness, our heartfelt earnest longing for the return of Christ. God wants us to be holy like His Son.

But sometimes we don’t view Revelation this way. These two bookend reminders in Revelation—to hear and heed—are not commands to chart the book out with graphics, to estimate the date of the word’s end, or to argue over different millennial views. There is a place for charitable discussion over differing interpretations of Revelation. But we are to heed the book. And as we read carefully, we pray that the Holy Spirit will use the book’s pervasive imagery to change our hearts.

In the future I want to read the book of Revelation more seriously—to allow this breathtaking, earth-scorching, imagination-stretching, sin-defeating, Christ-exalting, God-glorifying book change the way I think, act, and speak. For this, it appears to me, is the immediate purpose of Revelation.

And this leads me to think of any number of implications. For one, it forces me to believe that imagination is important for comprehending large chunks of biblical truth. As C.S. Lewis reminded us, truth and imagination are not mutually exclusive. The imaginative can be non-fictional. In fact, the book Revelation proves that some eternal truth cannot be comprehended apart from a healthy imagination! As we read the visions of Revelation we are changed; scripture passing into our eyes, sparking our imagination, stirring our affections, and settling into our hearts. However, this connection between truth and imagination—and even personal holiness and healthy imagination—is better left for another post.

Have a great weekend! I look forward to seeing a few of you in Palm Springs.


Painting: “The Adoration of the Lamb”, Jan Van Eyck, 1432.