PMT 2014-085 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
In Rev 21:1 an unusual statement appears at the coming of the new heavens and earth: “and there is no longer any sea.” Commentators have long debated the meaning of the absence of the sea (thalassa) in this text. Is this literal? And if it is literal, why would the sea not be part of the consummate order? Or is it metaphorical? And if so, of what is it a metaphor?
The Sea as Literal
Walvoord (Revelation 311) takes a strongly literal approach: “the new earth apparently will have no bodies of water except for the river mentioned in 22:2.” He even argues that this must be a consummational reality beyond the millennium because other passages speaking of the millennium make “frequent mention of bodies of water” (Walvoord 312). Ryrie (Revelation 119) states that “understood literally this indicates a complete change in climatic conditions.”
But if we understand this literally, it makes no theological sense: Why would the sea not be apart of the eternal new creation order? Did not God re-create the “new earth”? Why would he not also re-create the sea? Did not God create and bound the sea at the original creation (thalassas, Ge 1:10; Exo 20:11; Ps 33:6–7; 95:5; 104:24–25; 146:6; Pr 8:29; Jer 5:22; Am 9:6; Ac 4:24; 14:15; Rev 5:13; 10:6; 14:7). And is it not a feature of God’s creative work which is “very good” (1:31; cp. Ps 104:24, 28)?
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Nor does it make contextual sense, for what becomes of the “river” that flows through the city (22:1–2)? Does it evaporate? Does it make a complete, endless circle around the globe? Rivers naturally and necessarily end — into a pool of some sort, such as a lake, sea, or ocean (Ecc 1:7; cp. Eze 47:8; Zec 14:8). Besides, Scripture can speak metaphorically by employing the drying up of a sea, as when God judges OT Babylon (Jer 51:36; cp. 50:38). Why could not this sea absence be metaphorical? The literalistic approach is unworkable — and unnecessary.
The Sea as Chaos
Many commentators understand the sea to represent the chaos and woe in the world. In the OT the sea sometimes pictures the turmoil caused by the wicked, as in Isa 57:20: “But the wicked are like the tossing sea, / For it cannot be quiet, / And its waters toss up refuse and mud.” Jer 6:23 b, c reads: “They are cruel and have no mercy; / Their voice roars like the sea” (cp. Ps 65:7; Isa 17:12; Jer 50:42; 49:23; 51:42; Eze 26:5; Da 7:2–3; Zec 10:11).
In Rev 13:1 the beast arises from the sea. Beale (Revelation 1042) argues that “the evil nuance of the sea metaphorically represents the entire range of afflictions that formerly threatened God’s people.” This would point to the removal of opposition to God and his people in the new order, which would certainly fit the ultimate consummation order. This would also fit the postmillennial hope for the future victory and prosperity of the Church as the new covenant / new creation spoken of by John.
But again, God created the sea as an important part of his creation (Ge 1:10; Ex 20:11; Neh 9:6; Ps 24:1–2; 95:5; 146:6; Jnh 1:9). He owns his creation and claims the seas (Ps 24:1–2; 95:5). Furthermore, the sea is not invariably a negative image, for it can also represent good (Isa 48:18; Eze 47:8; Zec 14:8; Hab 2:14) and abundance (Dt 33:19; Isa 60:5). Unfallen man was given dominion over the sea (Ge 1:26–30; Psa 8:6–8). The sea’s roar does not always picture man’s rebellion, for the roaring sea represents God’s power (Psa 33:6–7; 89:9; 104:24–25; 107:22–24; Jer 31:35; Eze 43:2; Am 5:8; 9:6). And the sea rejoices in God (1Ch 16:32; Ps 65:5; 69:34; 96:11; 98:6–8; Isa 42:10).
Nor does the sea represent evil in Rev itself. Mathewson (A New Heaven and New Earth 65) speaks of the “metaphorical usage of the sea complex in the discourse of Revelation” standing as a “symbol of chaos, the source of evil.” But he only cites 12:18–13:1 and 17:1–15. Boring (Revelation 216) quite mistakenly declares that “throughout” Rev the sea represents “the chaotic power of un-creation, anti-creation.”
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More often than not, however, the sea appears simply as one aspect of God’s glorious creation, rather than as an intrinsically negative image (Rev 5:13; 7:1–3; 8:8–9; 10:2, 5, 8; 12:12; 14:7; 16:3; 18:17, 19, 21). And in those contexts it is on equal terms with the other elements, not on an inferior level. In Rev various judgments certainly befall the sea (Rev 8:8–9; 16:3), but they also fall upon the earth (Rev 6:4, 8, 13; 8:5, 7, 13; 9:3–4; 11:6; 12:4, 9, 12; 14:18–19; 16:1), without implying the earth is evil (in fact, the earth remains in 21:1). The beast does arise from the sea (Rev 13:1); but then the dragon comes from heaven (12:7) and the second beast from the earth (13:11).
So then, the absence of the sea in the new heavens and new earth of Rev 21 does not appear to be a literal lack in the consummate order. Nor is the argument for its representing chaos in the world a compelling one. What is John saying, then? You will have to come back and read my next article.