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Why are the nations in the new heaven and new earth?

The popular view is that when Christians die, they go to heaven to be with God for ever and ever. This is a sub-biblical notion that has to some extent been corrected in recent years, thanks not least to Tom Wright. We are now much more likely to recognize that the biblical narrative terminates not in the migration of saved souls to heaven but in the renewal of heaven and earth and the descent of God to dwell in the midst of his new creation.

This is what Wright calls “life after life after death”. The two views appear to be quite easily reconciled: when we die, we go to heaven to wait until we can become re-embodied as part of the new creation. I call it a fudge, for reasons that I have given elsewhere. It seems to me that in the New Testament it is the early martyrs—in particular, those who lost their lives in the conflict with Roman paganism—who are raised, exceptionally, to reign with Christ at the right hand of the Father. Everyone else simply dies, is dead, and is raised at a final resurrection of all the dead, to face judgment.

But the issue I want to address here, in response to a couple of questions from Chris, has to do with the political landscape of the new creation, as John depicts it in Revelation 21:22-22:4. What are the nations doing there? Who are they? Are they Christians? And if not, how did they get in?

The relationship between the new Jerusalem and the nations is described by John in two different ways, in accordance with two different Old Testament motifs. On the one hand, the nations will walk by the light that emanates from the city, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it (cf. Is. 60:3, 5, 10). On the other, the nations will be healed by the leaves of the tree of life, which grows along the river that flows from the throne of God (cf. Ezek. 47:12).

John appears, therefore, to envisage a new world structured politically in much the same same way that the prophets structured the eschatological renewal of Israel. At the centre is the new Jerusalem, which is the “Bride” of the Lamb, clothed in the “righteous deeds of the saints”, who function as “priests of God and of Christ”. It is not the church as we know it, I would suggest, but the early martyr church through whose faithful witness the pagan enemy was overcome (19:7-8; 20:4-6; 22:3-5). There is no reference to the surrounding land of Israel, presumably because national Israel, following the final judgment of AD 70, has been superseded—a dangerous conclusion to draw, but I think an unavoidable one. The Bride is a multinational community of the saints: it makes up the new Jerusalem because this is the city of God, but it does not need its own land.

No less for John than for Isaiah, however, the new Jerusalem is in a dynamic, life-giving relationship with the nations. The nations will live by the light of the creator God and of the Lamb; they will bring “glory and honour”—their “goods”—into it; and the gates of the city will never be closed because it will no longer be necessary to exclude hostile forces. The nations will all be reconciled to the creator God.

But who are the citizens of these nations? Those whose names are “written in the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27). They have been “judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (20:12-13). Those who have done evil, whose names are therefore not written in the book of life, are destroyed in the lake of fire, which is the “second death” (20:15; 21:8, 27). The nations, therefore, are made up of people who are there because they have done good things.

Are they Christians? That is not so clear, but I think not. They are still “the nations”, in some sense the other, seen from a Jewish perspective. They have done nothing for the sake of Jesus. They can enter the city in order to honour the creator God but they do not take up permanent residence in it as priests or servants (22:3-5).

So it appears that the political landscape of the new creation is a little more complex than we might have expected, with a new Jerusalem, made up of a holy priesthood, in dynamic relationship with righteous nations.

John’s is an absolute and final vision—there is no more death, and all that is evil has been destroyed in the lake of fire. But it is foreshadowed in Paul’s argument in Romans 2 regarding a more immediate temporal judgment of the Greek-Roman world, when righteous Gentiles, who “by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality”, who did not have the Law but, nevertheless, “by nature do what the law requires”, would receive “glory and honour and peace” (Rom. 2:7, 10, 14). Paul believes that these Gentiles will be vindicated by the creator God, the God of Israel (2:13-16).

The Jewish eschatological model does not exclude the righteous nations; it does not restrict the consummation of all things, whether temporally or finally, to the covenant people. Isaiah envisaged a restored physical city of God, Israel’s capital, in the midst of foreign nations (cf. Ex. 19:5-6). Paul’s vision differed from this only really in that he thought of the restored priestly people of God as a dispersed, Spirit-filled multinational community, which would mediate between God and nations which confessed that God had made his Son Lord and King. Christendom, I would suggest, was the immediate expression of this. Today, the post-Christendom church is trying to work out what this model looks like in a post-imperial, globalized context.

John then transposes this schema, having allowed a “thousand years” of history to pass, on to the final ontology of his new heaven and new earth. The new creation is not peopled exclusively with born again Christians. Like both Isaiah and Paul, John places the priestly people of God in the midst of nations that acknowledge the truth and glory of the creator God.