by Lien-yueh Wei





The Imagery Transformation of Heaven and Earth

in Book of Revelation and Its Theological Meanings



I. Introduction

In the narrative of Revelation, there are many catastrophes caused by actions of divine wrath. Literally, the victims in those catastrophes include not only humans and other living creatures but also heaven and earth. Heaven and earth are destroyed or removed in those catastrophes. In the end of John’s vision, the old heaven and earth pass away; a new heaven and a new earth are in the world. This kind of description may raise some questions: Does John indicate that heaven and earth will be destroyed together with sinful people? Why must the old heaven and earth be removed and pass away? What are the meanings of the new heaven and earth to believers?

It seems that the image of heaven and earth is transformed intentionally and purposefully from an image of destruction to one of renewal. John seems to describe the transformation of imagery of heaven and earth in order to convey some important messages to his hearers or readers. If so, the meanings of this transformation should be understood theologically rather than literally. This study finds four primary theological meanings in this transformation: showing the almightiness and reign of the creator, admonishing people to repent, urging believers to keep faith, and reiterating and enhancing the ultimate promise of God.


II. The Imagery Transformation of Heaven and Earth in Revelation

In the Bible, the word “heaven” is used to describe both a physical part of the universe and the dwelling place of God. “Earth” refers to the habitation of human beings and is viewed cosmically as the opposite of heaven and symbolically as the entirety of material existence. Together, heaven and earth make up the world, universe, cosmos (Gen 1:1; 2:1; Ex 31:17; Ps 102:26; Isa 48:13; 51:13, 16), and the phrase “heaven and earth” denotes the totality of God’s creation (Gen 1:1; Deut 4:26; Ps 121:2; Mk 13:31; Acts 17:24).[1] However, the image of heaven and earth is used by biblical authors not only to signify the world or universe, but also, most importantly, in expressing theological messages.

The image of heaven and earth plays a significant role in the narrative of Revelation.[2] John, the author of Revelation, appropriates many biblical allusions and images of heaven and earth into his narrative, but he uses them in ways that differ from other biblical authors. That is, he constantly and impressively transforms the image of heaven and earth; namely, he tries to construct a transforming, rather than unchanging, imagery of heaven and earth. At least four transformations of the imagery of heaven and earth can be found in John’s visions.

The transformation of the imagery of heaven and earth first appears in Rev 6:12-14. With the opening of each seal, a major catastrophe strikes the earth. The sixth seal marks the climax, a disaster proceeding from earthquake and then intensifying into cosmic proportions, in which the structure of heaven (or universe) itself breaks down and the sky vanishes. Finally, every mountain and island is removed from its place.

The second transformation of the imagery appears in Rev 16:18-20. After the seventh angels pours his bowl into the air, there comes a violent earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since people have been on earth. This earthquake is so “great” that not only does “the great city” split, but also every island and mountain flees away.

The third transformation of the image of heaven and earth appears when the judgment of the dead takes place. Heaven and earth flee from the presence of God, and no place is found for them. The narrative of the vanishing, destruction, or escape of the natural bodies is ended here (Rev 20:11). The final description of heaven and earth appears in Rev 21:1-5, 10. God is making all things, including heaven and earth, new. The first heaven and earth pass away because they are transformed or renewed into a new heaven and earth. Then, the holy city, the New Jerusalem, comes down into this world out of heaven (the dwelling place of God). Finally, God dwells with people in this world in the new heaven and earth, forever and ever (22:5).


III. Theological Meanings of the Imagery Transformation of Heaven and Earth

Clearly, the image of heaven and earth in Revelation has been transformed from an image of destruction to one of renewal. What was John’s intention in transforming the image of heaven and earth? What are the meanings that we can find in these four transformations of imagery?

If we interpret the transformation literally, we might think that heaven and earth will be destroyed, with demons and sinful people, by the actions of divine wrath. Or heaven and earth will be removed or protected during catastrophes because they are innocent. However, this kind of literal interpretation of the transformation may have many illogical and inconsistent outcomes. How, for example, can heaven be rolled up like a scroll, since the sky is not a physical reality but an optical illusion, according to the facts of modern astronomy? How can people still survive when the sun becomes black and the sky vanishes?

Moreover, how can heaven and earth be annihilated, since God has promised that the earth shall never again be destroyed (Gen 9:11).[3] The rainbow (a sign of this promise or the covenant between God and earth described in Gen 9:13) around the throne that John saw in his heavenly vision (Rev 4:3) seems to remind us that God does not forget or forsake this promise. If God will not keep God’s past promise and will annihilate the innocent heaven and earth, God’s creatures, how can people trust the present and future promises of God described in Revelation?

Further, it is clear that John not only deliberately uses apocalyptic hyperbole but also intentionally uses many biblical allusions to construct the narrative about heaven and earth and to convey some significant messages through this narrative.[4] Considering the apocalyptic hyperbole, we may speculate that John’s intention is not to describe or predict some astonishing natural catastrophes but to convey some theological messages by those catastrophes. Thus, the meanings of the four transformations of heaven and earth should be understood theologically, rather than literally.[5] Considering biblical allusions, we may also interpret the transformations in their biblical context and tradition, rather than only as part of the narrative of Revelation.[6]

Adopting this kind of interpretative approach, four theological meanings can be explored in John’s description of transformations of the imagery of heaven and earth. 

1. Showing the almightiness and reign of the creator

The first theological meaning of the imagery transformation of heaven and earth is to show the creator’s almightiness and reign. The descriptions of natural bodies changed by catastrophes in Revelation, like in many other biblical narratives (e.g. 2 Sam 8:8; Joel 2:10-11), illustrate that the divine power is so great that the entire physical world, including heaven and earth, can be shaken by it.

After severe catastrophes occurred at the opening of the seven seals and the sounding of the six trumpets, John began using divine designations, such as “the Lord of earth (11:4),” “Lord God Almighty (11:17),” or the one “who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it (10:6).” After the blowing of the seventh trumpet, there were “loud voices” in heaven saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever…for you have taken your great power and begun to reign (11:15,17).” An angel also says in loud voice, “Fear God…worship him who made heaven and earth (14:7).” It is explicit that, through the descriptions of disasters caused by the actions of divine wrath, John expresses one of the most known prophetic or biblical messages that the almighty God is the creator and ruler of all things (e.g. Gen 1:1; Ps 72:8; Isa 40:26; Jer 51:15; Dan 4:26).

However, unlike other biblical authors, John reiterates and highlights this message impressively by showing that God has power not only to destroy creatures but also to transform them. Since no one has the power to transform heaven and earth, the description that heaven and earth are transformed constantly by the divine power in Revelation noticeably reveals God’s almighty and reign over everything. In this sense, heaven and earth become God’s servants to present the divine message; their transformative movement becomes the divine language to disclose God’s almightiness and reign.[7]

It is reasonable to speculate that the first message― which John may want to express through natural catastrophes― or the first meaning― which we may perceive from the description of the imagery transformation of heaven and earth― is that God, the creator, is manifesting divine almightiness and reign over everything. 

2. Admonishing people to repent

The second theological meaning of the transformation of heaven and earth is to admonish people to repent. The description that heaven and earth are transformed by divine power is not merely to show God’s almighty and reign but also to arouse people’s response to the divine action.

The descriptions of the destruction or change of the world and the coming of the new heaven and earth in John’s vision are similar to that in Isa 24:8-18, 34:4-5, Jer 4:23-28, and Joel 3:16, these biblical passages urge people to repent by describing the great and destructive change of heaven and earth. However, in Revelation, the kind of descriptions are magnified, making the message for repentance more urgent than in other biblical texts, because the imagery transformation of heaven and earth in Revelation is more violent, frequent and intensive than that in other biblical books.

Moreover, Rev 20:11 says, “Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them.” It seems that as soon as heaven and earth encounter God’s presence, it or its images must be transformed (6:13-12-17; 20:11).[8] The statement that every one has to hide in the caves from the face of God (6:15) also echoes the descriptions of the sky vanishing, the earth being shaken, and heaven and earth fleeing from their places when they encounter with God’s presence.

Like the author of Isa 64, John may also use the transformation of the imagery of heaven and earth to indicate a required transformation of people’s status quo when they encounter God’s presence.[9] Namely, this transformation demonstrates people’s required response to the divine presence and action. The response that John highlights most is repentance.[10] In this sense, the transformation of heaven and earth has become an arena displaying divine signs and thus a catalyst, admonishing people to repent.[11]

3. Urging believers to keep faith

The third theological meaning of the transformation of heaven and earth is to urge believers to keep faith. While some Old Testament prophets uses the image of heaven and earth as the witness of the divine covenant between God and God’s people (e.g. Deut 30:19; 32:1; Isa 1:2; 51:6; Jer 2:12), John, like some New Testament authors (e.g. the authors of Matthew, Mark and 2 Peter), prefers to use the transformation of heaven and earth as a sign to exhort believers to keep this covenant.

Transformations of image of heaven and earth in Revelation are very similar to three passages: Mt 24:29-30; Mk 13:25-26; and 2 Pe 3:10-12.[12] Obviously, John intends to restate and underline the messages these passages express by quoting or appropriating their descriptions into his narrative. The primary message expressed by these passages is that believers must keep faith. As the author of 2 Peter writes, “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things [the destruction of the world and the coming of a new heaven and earth], strive to be found by him at peace, without spot and blemish…(2 Pe 3:14).” This message is emphasized by John through a similar way. For instance, following the narrative of the destruction of heaven and earth in 6:12-16 (which is also similar to the description of Mt 24:29 and Mk 13:25), it is declared by angels that people who have the seal of God on their foreheads will not be hurt in disasters (7:3; 9:4). This promise that believers will be protected by the divine in eschatological tribulation urges Christians to keep their identity and faith during suffering, temptation, or persecution. 

Further, Bauckham believe that the judgments which are so vividly described in Revelation should “appear not as judgments on their [Christians’] enemies so much as judgments they themselves were in danger of incurring,” since many Christians also worshiped the beast like their pagan neighbors.[13] Hence, the description that heaven and earth flee from the presence of God in the judgment (20:11-12) may remind believers to keep faith in order to escape from the judgment of divine wrath.

In addition, for John, the Christians’ witness of faith is more powerful and effective than divine judgment in moving people to repent and convert.[14] Therefore, the transformation of heaven and earth in his visions may be less a prediction than a call to provoke believers to keep faith and to be faithful witnesses before God and others.

4. Reiterating and enhancing the ultimate promise of God

The fourth theological meaning of the imagery transformation of heaven and earth is the reiteration and enhancement of the ultimate promise of God. In Revelation God speaks directly only twice: 1:8 and 21:3-4. John clearly wants to emphasize highly what God says the second time not only because this divine message is waited for twenty-chapter long and is situated in the concluding part of the entire narrative but also because this message expresses an ultimate promise of God. The emphasis on this passage is underlined by God’s own command that John write it down. This promise is that God is making everything new, and a new heaven and earth is to be in this world, in which God will dwell with people physically and forever.[15] John, like the authors of Ezekiel and Zechariah (Ezek 37; Zech 2), sees this promise as the climax of all divine promises within biblical tradition of prophets.[16] However, unlike them, John reiterates and enhances this promise by transforming the image of heaven and earth.

Augustine points out that, compared with other descriptions in Revelation, God’s promise described in Rev 21:1-5, is “a plain statement.” Hearers and readers can totally understand it without speculation or confusion.[17] It seems that John aims to make this promise most definite and conspicuous. Hence, this promise should be regarded as the primary and ultimate theological message in Revelation. In this sense, every description or metaphorical image, including the image of heaven and earth, in John’s vision should be seen as a guide to finding this promise and an amplifier to reiterate it.

Moreover, this promise is enhanced by the imagery transformation of heaven and earth because it indicates that this promise is being realized, rather than will be realized. This promise that everything is made new by God seems to parallel the imagery that heaven and earth are transforming by the divine power from the old to the new. If God is able to transform, and is transforming, heaven and earth anew, there can be no doubt that God is able to convert, and is converting, the existential status quo of human life and society. Heaven and earth are actors to show, or mirrors to reflect, that God is intervening in human affair and is fulfilling God’s promise.

The fact that God’s promise is being realized gives hope for God’s people. In this hope, people can find the direction, purpose, destination of their lives. Because this eschatological hope is based on the promise of a faithful and almighty God who is making everything new for people, it cannot be lost or taken away. This hope maintains and upholds faith, an outlook which embraces all things, including death.[18] At this point, the transformations of heaven and earth may be seen to link the divine power, God’s promise, and people’s faith, with hope all together.


IV. Conclusion

John basically inherited and identified with the traditional imagery of heaven and earth and its meanings. However, he enhances and enriches this imagery and its meanings by transforming the imagery of heaven and earth. The description of heaven and earth being transformed constantly may not be understood literally, as a prediction or a secret code, to show the annihilation of the world in the future, but theologically as a metaphor to express messages of faith for people. 

The purpose of the description is not to display the destruction of heaven and earth, but to manifest the divine almightiness and reign. It is not to disclose the divine wrath, but to admonish people to repent and to urge believers to keep faith. It is not to reveal that God is violently transforming heaven and earth, but that God is actively converting the situation of human life and society and is realizing the ultimate promise.

The ultimate destiny of humanity is not to go to heaven with God, but to stay in this world with God because God is coming toward this world from heaven. The ultimate destiny of this world is not to be destroyed, but to be renewed as God’s home, in which all creatures live harmoniously, blissfully, and immortally (Rev21:3-5). The space of this world is to become God’s home, God’s ultimate dwelling place. All of creation is in movement; this movement is toward fulfillment, consummation, the attainment of the divine promise,[19] which is reiterated and enforced by the description of the imagery transformation of heaven and earth.



Augustine. The City of God: Against the Pagans. ed. R. Dyson. UK: Cambridge University, 1998.


Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation.UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.


Heide, Gale Z. “What’s New about the New Heaven and the New Earth?” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 40. (Mar 1997): 37-56.


Janzen, Waldermar. “Earth,” in David Noel Freedman, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. NY: Doubleday. (1992):245-248.


Moltmann, Jürgen, The Coming God: Christian Eschatology. trans. by Margaret Kohl. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.


         . Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatolog. trans. by James W. Leitch. N.Y.: Harper Collins Press, 1991.


Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. Michigan: Baker Academic, 2002.


Peter, Ted. “Where are we going? Eschatology,” in William C. Placher, ed., Essentials of Christian Theology. Kentucky: WJK (2003): 347-365.


Reddish, Mitchell G.. “Heaven,” in David Noel Freedman, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. NY: Doubleday (1992): 90-94. 


[1] Mitchell G. Reddish, “Heaven” & W. Janzen, “Earth,” in David Noel Freedman, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary (NY: Doubleday, 1992), 90, 245-246.

[2] The image of heaven appears fifty times in Revelation, and earth sixty-four times.

[3] Adherents of the view that heaven and earth will be annihilated claim support from 2 Peter 3:10-12. But Gale Heide argues that the author of 2 Peter makes no reference to what will happen to his hearers’ physical existence when heaven and earth will be destroyed by fire at the day of the Lord. If he is speaking of total destruction, one might at least expect him to make a passing reference to their future existence in some form to assure them that they would survive during the total annihilation. After all, they are still a part of the world. Gale Z. Heide, “What’s New about the New Heaven and the New Earth?” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 40, Mar 1997, p. 51.

[4] Richard Bauckham demonstrates the necessity of knowing the theological meanings in Revelation’s messages by appealing to Old Testament allusions. He writes, “John’s very precise and subtle use of Old Testament allusions creates a reservoir of meaning which can be progressively tapped. The Old Testament allusions frequently presuppose their Old Testament context and a range of connections between Old Testament texts which are not made explicit but lie beneath the surface of the text of Revelation.” Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 18.

[5] With regard to the interpretation of the biblical heaven and earth, Waldermar Janzen points out, “Clearly, heaven and earth do not function only as cosmological realms, but as theological horizons.” Waldermar Janzen, “Earth,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 247.

[6] For instance, John almost quotes Isa 65:17-19 into his description of the new heaven and earth in Rev 21:1-5. Obviously, John intends to use an image, which can be found in prophetical tradition and is already known by his hearers, to reiterate and highlight some theological messages to his contemporaries. Hence, we may understand the theological messages that John intends to express by knowing what the author of Isa 65 intends to express.

[7] As Ps 119:91 says, “By your [God’s] appointment they [heaven and earth] stand today, for all things are your servants.” One way that heaven and earth serve God is to manifest God’s power and almightiness.

[8] For Jürgen Moltmann, Rev 20:11 indicates the special transformation of the heaven and earth when they encounter God’s presence. He points out, “God’s presence changes over against his creation, the space of his creation changes too. Heaven and earth can no longer exist in detachment from God.” Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming God: Christian Eschatology, Trans by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 296.

[9] Clearly, the author of Isa 64 uses the imagery transformation of heaven and earth to require people’s repentance. He cries out, “O that you [God] would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence― as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil― to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! (Isa 64:1-2).”

[10] Bauckham claims that the descriptions of natural disasters or judgments in Revelation are “designed to bring humanity to repentance.” Bauckham, 82.

[11] The authors of Joel and Acts also regard the heaven and earth as an arena or platform showing the divine signs in order to urge people to repent (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:19, 21, 37).

[12] Grant Osborne emphasizes that the description of the earthquake in Rev 16:17-20 as greater than that had ever happened since people were on the earth is “reminiscent of the Olivet discourse (Mk 13:19-26), where Jesus spoke the day of tribulation as unequaled from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.” Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2002), 598.

[13] Bauckham, 19.

[14] According to some passages (e.g. 9:20-21; 16:11,21), John indicate that severe disasters in judgments do not effectively lead to repentance. 

[15] The evidence of the physical presence and dwelling of God with people in the new heaven and earth can be found in some texts: 1) God’s city will come down out of the heaven into the world (21:2-3). At that time, God will live in the heaven, but in the world with people. 2) God will wipe every tear by God’s self (21:4). 3) This city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for God is the light and lamp (21:23; 22:5). 4) People will see God face to face (22:4). 

[16] According to Bauckham, John “is certainly very conscious of writing within the tradition of the Old Testament prophets,…He stands at the culmination of the whole tradition, on the brink of the final eschatological fulfillment to which all prophets had ultimately pointed.” Bauckham, 11.

[17] Augustine, The City of God: Against the Pagans, editor, R. Dyson (UK: Cambridge University, 1998), Book XX, Ch.18, p.1005.

[18] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatolog, trans. by James W. Leitch (N.Y.: Harper Collins Press, 1991), 33.

[19] Ted Peter, “Where are we going? Eschatology”, in William C. Placher, ed., Essentials of Christian Theology (Kentucky:WJK, 2003), 347-348.


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