Is the New Jerusalem a Literal, Massive City?
In describing the New Jerusalem, the apostle John writes, “The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass” (Revelation 21:21). The pearls John describes are gates set in walls that are two hundred feet thick.
Commentators routinely suggest, “Of course, these are not actual streets of gold.” But why do they say that? In part, at least, because of their christoplatonic assumptions. Disembodied spirits don’t need streets to walk on. Incorporeal realms don’t have real cities with real streets, real gates, and real citizens. But isn’t John’s description of gates and streets further evidence that Heaven is a physical realm designed for human citizens? Why wouldn’t a resurrected world inhabited by resurrected people have actual streets and gates?
Likewise, most books on Heaven argue that the city cannot really be the size it’s depicted as being in Revelation 21:15-17: “The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. . . . He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. He measured its wall and it was 144 cubits thick, by man’s measurement, which the angel was using.”
Twelve thousand stadia equates to fourteen hundred miles in each direction. According to one writer on Heaven, “It would dishonor the heavenly Architect to contend that its dimensions were meant to be taken literally.” He doesn’t say why it would dishonor God, and I have no idea why it would. But, as usual, taking Scripture allegorically or figuratively is considered the high ground, whereas literal interpretation is considered naive or crass.
If these dimensions are not literal, why does Scripture specifically give the dimensions and then say “by man’s measurement, which the angel was using” (Revelation21:17)? The emphasis on “man’s measurement” almost seems to be an appeal: “Please believe it—the city is really this big!”
Suppose God wanted to convey that the city really is fourteen hundred miles wide and deep and high. What else would we expect Him to say besides what this passage says? Is it possible for God to make such a city? Obviously—He’s the creator of the universe. Is it possible for people in glorified bodies to dwell in such a city? Yes.
I have no problem believing that the numbers have symbolic value, with the multiples of twelve suggesting the perfection of God’s bride. However, most commentators act as if we must choose between literal dimensions and ones with symbolic significance. But we don’t. My wedding ring is a great symbol—but it’s also a real object.
Some argue, “But this city rises above the earth’s oxygen level.” Can’t God put oxygen fourteen hundred miles high on the New Earth if he wishes? Or can’t He make it so we don’t have to breathe oxygen? Such things are no problem for God.
Some argue that nothing could be that big. It would cover two-thirds of the continental United States. If the great pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China amaze you, imagine a city that extends five miles into the sky—let alone fourteen hundred miles! Envision the city disappearing into the clouds.
Some claim anything that big would weigh so much it would disrupt the earth’s orbit. Of course, the New Earth could be much bigger than the present one. In any case, issues of mass and gravity are child’s play to the Creator.
That the dimensions are equal on all sides is reminiscent of the Holy of Holies in Israel’s Temple (1 Kings 6:20). This likely symbolizes God’s presence, because the city is called His new dwelling place (Revelation 21:2-3). By suggesting there’s symbolism, am I contradicting my suggestion that the measurements are literal? Not at all. Many physical objects, including the Ark of the Covenant and the high priest’s breastplate and its stones, had symbolic significance.
Is it possible that the city’s dimensions aren’t literal? Of course. The doctrine of the New Earth certainly doesn’t stand or fall with the size of the New Jerusalem. However, my concern is this: If we assume the city’s dimensions can’t be real, people will likely believe the city isn’t real. If it doesn’t have its stated dimensions, then it’s a short step to believing it doesn’t have any dimensions at all. Then we think of the New Earth as not being a resurrected realm suited for resurrected people.
Christoplatonism produces certain interpretive assumptions, which in turn reinforce the Christoplatonism that Scripture argues against.