The Church takes its second reading on the Sundays of Easter from the book of Revelation in order to meditate on the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for us. This Fifth Sunday the reading is from John’s vision of the ultimate future for God’s people. Here is a comment and reflection on Rev 21:1-5a from Peter S. Williamson Revelation (forthcoming, Fall 2014).
In his final series of visions John sees the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy to create a new heaven and a new earth where “the things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create” (Isa 65:17-18). The mention of a new Jerusalem is entirely fitting here since the prophecy that promises a new heaven and earth also promises that God will “create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight” (Isa 65:18).
John sees this city coming down out of heaven from God to indicate that the city where God’s people will live is not be the result of human effort, but will be God’s doing, God’s provision
It is significant that the heavenly Jerusalem (mentioned in 3:12) descends and is established in all its fullness on a re-created earth. This text reveals that God’s ultimate plan for the human race is not that we go to heaven, but that heaven, the dwelling of God, descends to a re-created earth. When the resurrection occurs, besides receiving back real but radically transformed bodies, we will live on a transformed earth.
Most Catholics think that if they remain faithful, their ultimate future will be to spend eternity with God in heaven. But this is not the teaching of Revelation and not exactly the teaching of the Catholic Church. A close look at the Catechism shows that it devotes one section to “Heaven” (par. 1023-1029), and, after the section on the “Last Judgment” (par. 1038-41), a separate section to “The Hope of the New Heaven and the New Earth” (par. 1042-50).
Summing up the Catechism, heaven is where the souls of “those who die in God’s grace and friendship” go to live with Christ immediately after death (or after their purification is complete in Purgatory) before the resurrection of their bodies (1023). There they live in a “communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed” (1024), a reality beyond human understanding. Already, “They reign with Christ.” (1029). In heaven God gives souls the ability to see God in his heavenly glory, what theologians describe as “the beatific vision” (1028).
However, turning now to Catechism 1042-1048, the ultimate future of God’s people, after they have been raised in their glorified bodies and passed through the last judgment, is to reign with Christ in a re-created cosmos. Then “the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness….The righteous will reign forever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed” (1042). “Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, “new heavens and a new earth” (1043). “In this new universe, the heavenly Jerusalem, God will have his dwelling among men” (1044). “For man, this consummation will be the final realization of the unity of the human race, which God willed from creation…. Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, “the holy city of God, “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb…. The beatific vision… will be the ever-flowing well-spring of happiness, peace, and mutual communion” (1045). “For the cosmos, Revelation affirms the profound common destiny of the material world and man (1046). The visible universe… is itself destined to be transformed, ‘so that the world itself, restored to its original state… would be at the service of the just,’ sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ” (1047). “‘We know neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man, nor the way in which the universe will be transformed’” (1048).
So what’s the difference? When the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, God’s people will receive their resurrected bodies and live on a renewed earth.
Nevertheless, there is continuity between heaven now and the new creation in the future age. In both human beings enjoy the beatific vision; in both they reign with Christ, in both they are freed from all suffering and sorrow. If heaven is defined as where God is present and reigns completely, it is clear that when the new heavens and the new earth are created, heaven comes to earth.