In “sky and land in Revelation” Jefferson Vann shows why the overuse use of the English terms “heaven” and “earth” have led to confusion over the meaning of the biblical Book of Revelation. Revelation is a description of a divine plan, not a glimpse into an extraterrestrial place.
two technical terms
As we each surveyed each book of the Bible, we have seen examples of text after text where references to the sky above us have been misrepresented by the English word heaven – a word that naturally denotes the residence of God. Likewise, we have seen numerous references to the land around us, or the ground below us – misrepresented by the word earth – a word that we tend to use today in reference to our home planet. I have suggested that this overuse of these two technical terms are due to a “heaven and earth” cosmology that is foreign to the Bible. Nowhere else has this overuse been more prevalent than in the translation of the final book of the New Testament – the Book of Revelation.
the legitimacy of “sky” and “land” as translations
Let me also say at the outset that all the modern translations recognize that “sky” is a legitimate translation of the Greek word οὐρανός. This can be seen in the consistent use of the term to translate the word οὐρανός in four texts of the book (6:13-14; 11:6; 20:11). This is the case for the ESV (English Standard Version); NASB (New American Standard Bible), NET (New English Translation); and the WEB (World English Bible). However, if that translation is consistently correct in those four verses, why is it not correct in the other 46 verses, containing 133 other references to οὐρανός?
In a similar way, modern versions consistently translate the Greek word γῆ as “land” in three verses (ESV, NASB, NET, WEB 10:2,5,8). Yet they insist on rendering the word as “earth” in the other 64 verses, rendering the translation misleading 242 out of 245 times.
“heaven and earth cosmology”
Part of the reason for this is that the translators reflect a “heaven and earth cosmology.” They believe the universe is made up of two significant places – a planet called earth, and the invisible residence of God called heaven. Every time the terms appear in the Bible, they reinforce the heaven and earth cosmology if they are thus translated.
Jordaan claims “that the author of Revelation subscribed to the ancient Jewish cosmology, with a three-tiered cosmic division of heaven, earth and underworld.”¹ But when we actually look at the descriptions of the cosmos in the book itself, they appear to contain more than those three elements, and less at the same time. Many of the descriptions of (what has been translated) heaven contain things not associated with God’s abode – like birds and stars. The earth (as it is often translated) is often separated from the sea and rivers and trees. So, instead of portraying a consistent cosmology, there appear to be a number of competing cosmologies.
land and sea:
- Revelation 10:2 and he held a little scroll opened in his hand. He put his right foot on the sea, his left on the land,
sky and land:
- Revelation 13:13-14 It also performs great signs, even causing fire to come down from the sky to the land in front of people. It deceives those who live on the land because of the signs that it is permitted to perform in the presence of the beast, telling those who live on the land to make an image of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived.
- Revelation 20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and one seated on it. Land and sky fled from his presence, and no place was found for them.
sky and land and sea:
- Revelation 10:5-6,8. Then the angel that I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to the sky. He swore by the one who lives for ages and ages, who created the sky and what is in it, the land and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it: “There will no longer be a delay, Then the voice that I heard from the sky spoke to me again and said, “Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.”
- Revelation 12:12 Therefore rejoice, you skies, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the land and the sea, because the devil has come down to you with great fury, because he knows his time is short.
sky and waters and land:
- Revelation 11:6 They have authority to close up the sky so that it does not rain during the days of their prophecy. They also have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the land with every plague whenever they want.
sky and land and under the land:
- Revelation 5:3 But no one in the sky or on land or under the land was able to open the scroll or even to look in it.
land and sea and trees:
- Revelation 7:1-3 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the land, restraining the four winds of the land so that no wind could blow on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel rising up from the east, who had the seal of the living God. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were allowed to harm the land and the sea: “Don’t harm the land or the sea or the trees until we seal the servants of our God on their foreheads.”
sky and land and sea and springs:
- Revelation 14:7 He spoke with a loud voice: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship the one who made the sky and the land, the sea and the springs of water.”
sky and land, under the land, and on the sea:
- Revelation 5:13 I heard every creature in the sky, on land, under the land, on the sea, and everything in them say, Blessing and honor and glory and power be to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, for ages and ages!
an open sky
There is no place in Revelation at all where the word sky is inappropriate to translate οὐρανός. There are numerous places where the literal sky is meant (and compared to the literal land and literal sea). When God is revealing new truth via a new vision, this fact is depicted by the sky being opened like a scroll.
- Revelation 4:1 After this I looked, and there in the sky was an open door. The first voice that I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”
- Revelation 11:19 Then the temple of God in the sky was opened, and the ark of his covenant appeared in his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder, an earthquake, and severe hail.
- Revelation 15:5 After this I looked, and the sky temple– the tabernacle of testimony– was opened.
- Revelation 19:11 Then I saw the sky opened, and there was a white horse. …
The obsessive use of heaven in translating οὐρανός actually introduces another element in an already complicated cosmological framework, and it is totally unnecessary. John uses the sky as a visual reference to something God is doing.
Likewise, translating γῆ as “earth” suggests that John implied reference to the planet. He never did. The word “land” is without exception the best translation for γῆ in Revelation. In John’s Gospel, the word is usually best translated “ground” (3:31; 12:24, 32; 17:4) or “shore” (6:21; 21:8, 9, 11). It is used once there to refer to the “land” of Judea (3:22). But there is no place where “earth” is a better translation. John uses the land as a visual reference to something God is doing among its inhabitants.
a plan, not a place
The purpose of the Book of Revelation is to reveal God’s ultimate plan for restoring the entire universe to himself in Christ. John is not as much interested in describing a place called heaven as he is in explaining what God is doing from heaven. The details about this divine plan and its progress were conveyed to him via visions in the sky. In some of these sky visions, creatures would emerge from the sky or sea or the land would be affected by fire or plague. Sometimes John would see resurrected bodies worshiping. Some of these visions represent what is going on now, but some of them depict what will take place later (1:19). But the most helpful way to look at the book as a whole, is to see it as a description of a divine plan, not a glimpse into an extraterrestrial place.
¹G.J.C. Jordaan, “Cosmology in the Book of Revelation” die Skrifig/ in Luci Verbi 42/2 Art #698 (8 pages).
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