The lectionary reading for last week was taken from Revelation 21-22 which describes the New Jerusalem at the end of John’s apocalyptic vision. A single verse in this reading completely debunks every irresponsible interpretation of Revelation by the doomsday-lusters and Left Behind series fans: Revelations 21:24 — “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of earth will bring their glory into it.”
Here’s the problem: all the nations and the kings of the earth who survived the seven trumpets (Revelation 8) and and the seven bowls of wrath (Revelation 16) had gathered in battle at Gog and Magog to attack God’s holy city (Revelation 20) and were destroyed by fire and brimstone. The first trumpet in Revelation 8 destroyed a third of the Earth and its inhabitants. If the trumpets, bowls of wrath, and final battle are all added together, then everything on Earth should have been destroyed at least four or five times over. There shouldn’t be any kings of the earth left to bring their glory into the New Jerusalem.
So what gives? I’m sure an inerrantist at this point is going to try to quibble and say well some of the kings of the earth must have been written into the book of life. But in Revelation 20:8, it says Satan will deceive “the nations,” not some of the nations, just the nations. Plus all the cities of the nations had already crumbled in the earthquake with the seventh plague (Revelation 16:19), so what kind of glory do the kings of the earth have to bring into the New Jerusalem if their cities have crumbled? Revelation 9:20 had already told us at the conclusion of the seventh trumpet that “the rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood.” There should not be any kings of the earth or nations left.
When the Bible talks about the nations and the kings of the earth, it’s talking about people who are outside of God’s covenant. The word ethnoi can be translated as Gentiles or nations; the concept is the same — they are not part of God’s chosen people. If they were Gentile Christians, they would be called adelphoi (brethren), not ethnoi. What’s more, if they’re bringing their glory into the New Jerusalem, then they’re coming from outside it. That’s the whole reason it’s an honor for the New Jerusalem to receive the glory of the kings of the earth, because they’re powerful outsiders who have finally come to recognize the sovereignty of the God of Israel, the tiny beat-up sojourning people who were kicked around by every ancient empire for more than seven centuries by the time John writes these visions down.
So my point is that Revelation 21:24 shipwrecks any reading of Revelation that attempts to map it allegorically onto actual events that will occur. John never says anywhere in the book of Revelation, This is exactly what God is going to do. He simply saw a series of visions. Thus, just like a series of dreams that any of us might have, the whole world can be destroyed multiple times. In one vision, all the inhabitants of the Earth are evil. In another, there’s a small remnant that is elect. In another, there’s a multitude too great to be counted from every nation who are worshiping God. The visions don’t need to be consistent because they don’t need to be burdened with the task of predicting the future.
What we need to know is that God will one day destroy everything about our world that makes it hopeless and impossible to change so that His perfect peace can be established. In this new reality, “nothing accursed will be found” (Revelation 22:3). A reality that utterly lacks accursedness means a reality that lacks people whose moral deterioration has made everything about them a curse for others, however big or small that group of people is (though I personally believe the idea of a hell filled with 80% of humanity is based upon an egregious misinterpretation of Romans 3).
However all of this transpires, there will be kings of the earth to bring glory into the city, because God values “the glory and honor of the nations” (Revelation 21:26). Our many cultures are not a subject of indifference to God. He doesn’t want every culture in the world to repent and become middle-class American. It’s very comforting to me to think about the New Jerusalem as a place filled with the glory and honor of the nations instead of being a giant version of the many sterile, utilitarian praise domes that litter the landscape in my part of the world. I don’t know what the rest of Revelation means, but I’m glad that Revelation 21 is clear that the glory and honor of the nations will not be annihilated.