Friday, October 09, 2015

The cosmography of Revelation

i) Dante is famous for his landscape of hell. Although he wrote a trilogy, it suffers from the dubious distinction that most readers find his imaginative depiction of hell to be far and away the most compelling section. The raw materials for Purgatory and heaven were less promising. He did the best he could, but what ought to be a climax is more of a letdown. 

Likewise, scholars have popularized a notion of Gen 1 as a three-story universe. As I've discussed on many occasions, I think that reflects a deskbound interpretation that's out of touch with the world which an anciet audience would actually experience. They spent lots of time out of doors. The details of the three-story universe don't comport with what they were in a position to know, as a matter of common observation.

Despite scholarly preoccupation with the alleged cosmography of Genesis, I'm struck by scholarly neglect in reference to Revelation. For centuries, this book has captivated readers. It has produced an immense body of exegetical literature.

Yet in spite of that, there is, to my knowledge, no monograph on the cosmography of Revelation. Yet based on various literary notices in the Apocalypse, you can piece together a picture of the world in Revelation. It would be interesting if somebody produced a mock-up or simulation. 

This post is not intended to be exhaustive. I'm just going to highlight some elements:

ii) In Revelation, "heaven" is largely a vast divine throneroom or temple. It even has a door (4:1; 11:19). 

Inside the throneroom there's an artificial rainbow. I say it's artificial because there's no rain or sunshine inside the throneroom. 

You also have lightning. From an ancient perspective, lightning might be interesting in part because it's a natural light source that's independent of sunlight. And, of course, it's especially dramatic after dark, when it momentarily lights up the night sky. 

You also have the "sea of glass." That might suggest a reflective floor that mirrors the ceiling. 

ii) In 8:8-9 you have what we'd describe in modern terms as a giant astroid plunging into the sea. Its rapid descent through the atmosphere would make it white hot. The result is to make the ocean boil on contact. 

This is reminiscent, both of doomsday science fiction scenarios as well as craters that bear witness to actual impact events in earth history.  

iii) 8:12 might be a case of occultation or transit, where one celestial body temporarily obscures another, without covering it completely. 

iv) In 9:1 you have an angel depicted as a shooting star. The abyss seems to be the prison for fallen angels. It is distinct from Hades (in Revelation).

v) In 12, the Devil is depicted as an ancient constellation. Candidates include Draco, Scorpio, Hydra, and Serpens. I doubt John intended a precise astronomical identification in mind. I suspect the terminology is impressionistic. 

At the same time, he's alluding to the primordial "snake" in the garden. That raises the question of whether the original audience for Genesis would associate the "snake" with constellations and shooting stars. How far back in time does that thinking go?  Obviously, that stellar symbolism dovetails nicely with the identification of the tempter as a fallen angel, where it is named after constellations with reptilian designations. 

vi) In 13 you have the beast from the sea. This isn't the normal ocean, but an ocean that's been contaminated by natural disasters. So if this were science fiction, the beast would be a mutant sea monster.

vii) In 16:20, the islands disappear. In theory, that could be caused by an astroid raising the sea level. I'm not stating for a fact that that's what John intends. But there is a potential narrative connection between 8:8-9 and 16:20, where the latter might be a side effect of the former. The islands were submerged by rising oceans, caused by the astroid impact. 

viii) In general, Revelation depicts an ecological disaster on a global and even cosmic scale. The flora is firebombed. The natural freshwater sources are poisoned. Marine life is destroyed by boiling water and contaminants. The sun ceases to shine. Record meteor showers empty the sky.

Recast in modern terms, the sky is reduced to white dwarves, supernovae, and neutron stars. 

The earth in general is rendered uninhabitable. The only "natural" source of heat and light is the lake of fire, which is reminiscent of magma or lava.

The earth in general is not restored to its pristine, Edenic condition. Just the opposite: it is made inhospitable to natural lifeforms.

ix) There is a singular exception: the New Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven.

It's like the domed city in science fiction. A residential greenhouse. A self-contained, self-sufficient ecosystem; 

Because there is no sunlight, the New Jerusalem is illuminated by artificial (supernatural) lighting (21:23,25; 22:5), evoking the Shekinah and the pillar of fire. 

It has its own fresh water supply: a stream that's fed from a spring under the divine throne (22:1). This, in turn, waters the "tree of life" (22:2). Possibly a bank of fruit-trees on either side of the river. In principle, the river might have fish (Cf. Ezk 47). 

x) The only other source of heat and light is the lake of fire (19:20; 20:10), beyond the confines of the domed city. 

The damned exist outside the domed city (21:27; 22:14:15). In John's cosmography, hell isn't under the earth, but on the surface of the earth. The distinction is horizontal, not vertical. Inside the city or outside the city. 

The damned are like zombies. Alive, but with nothing to live on. No sunlight. No vegetation. No livestock, fish, or game. 

xi) Finally, we might ask how realistic this is. Three options:

a) Symbolic

b) Literal

A problem with (b) is that unless you suppose John thought angels were literally dumping buckets of brimstone over the railing of the celestial city, it's hard to treat the imagine as consistently realistic.

c) Lifelike

If you take Bible history seriously, then some natural disasters are divine judgments. Although John is using stock imagery, this could be analogous to a future cataclysm. 

It's possible that the earth will be a worldwide ecological disaster zone. The damned will survive, but linger on. Supernaturally sustained, like immortal zombies. Life will only flourish inside the New Jerusalem, where the saints reside forever.

Of course, this is visionary literature. Some things that are physically impossible can happen in a dream-like vision, where natural laws don't apply. 

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