The Sea: Contemporary Holiday Destination or Ancient Hell-hole?
These words from Revelation 21:1 have always felt double-edged to me. A new heaven and earth sounds good – bring that on Lord! But no more sea? That’s a different matter. I’ve lived within walking distance of the sea almost all my life and I love it. For me the sea represents beauty and fun and recreation and wildness. The associations are all positive. Who’d want to be without it?
So by the time I was a teenager I had already contextualised my exegesis of this passage to mean, “there will be no more separation.” Oceans divide people and are difficult and dangerous to cross – certainly until the advent of modern transportation. In a new and perfect order, where heaven is united with earth and God with man it makes sense that, symbolically at least, there shouldn’t be anything as potentially separating as a sea.
I still think that’s a pretty good explanation for Revelation 21:1; but while in Marseille the other week I was reading Paul Theroux’s account of his journey around the Mediterranean and think he has a better one. Wanting to understand why “every sea on earth is treated as a toilet” Theroux quotes scholar of the sea Jonathan Raban:
The sea in Western culture represents space, vacancy, primordial chaos. The sea, in fact, is that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilisation has emerged and in which, unless saved by the efforts of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse. It is so little of a friendly symbol that the first thing which the author of the Book of Revelation notices in his vision of the new heaven and earth at the end of time is that ‘there was no more sea.’ Put rubbish into it, and it magically disappears. Water being the purifying element, you can’t pollute it – by definition. Before the middle of the eighteenth century the sea was a socially invisible place; a space so bereft of respectable life that it was like a black hole. What you did in or on the sea simply didn’t count, which is partly why the seaside became known as a place of extraordinary license. The sea wasn’t – isn’t – a place; it was undifferentiated space. It lay outside of society, outside of the world of good manners and social responsibility. It was famously the resort of filthy people – low-caste types, like fishermen. It was a social lavatory, where the dregs landed up.
That cultural unpacking suddenly makes Revelation 21:1 much more comprehensible. Until very recently no one would have thought the best way to spend time relaxing would be to roast almost naked on a strip of sand next to the ocean. No, the sea was a lavatory, the place the dregs landed up. The associations with the sea were negative ones, not positive. That being the case it is unsurprising that John’s vision of a perfected world should be a sea-less one. The new world will be a place of unity and order, not this disordered and disunited one. It will be solid ground and pure light, not the primordial chaos represented by the ocean.
That makes sense. But I certainly hope the symbolism of it doesn’t mean that in the new world the reality will be nowhere to sail a boat or surf a wave or catch a fish. Rather than an unfriendly black hole, perhaps in the new creation there will be an ocean that, as in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47) is an extension of the river of God, full of fish, and bringing life, not separation. Bring that on Lord!