Implications for Ecology in the Book of Revelation

Rapture in Reverse: Reading Revelation Ecologically, for the Love of Creation

Barbara R. Rossing


From Every People and Nation: Revelation in Intercultural Perspective. Edited by David Rhoads (Fortress, 2005) pp. 165-182


This essay interprets the story and message of Revelation through the lens of ecology. I write as a white, middle class woman who loves nature and wilderness and the out-of-doors and who also has been profoundly influenced by Third World liberation theologies. Undergirding my work on Revelation is the belief that the most urgent crisis facing our planet today is what broadly can be called the global environmental justice crisis—the exploitation of both people and nature reflected in the destruction of oceans and habitats and entire ecosystems, catastrophic changes in earth’s climate caused by humans, the growing gap between rich and poor— a whole system of globalized injustice and destruction that is not sustainable for the planet or for its peoples.

I also write as a pastor who loves preaching on Revelation for Earth Day, April 20. During the Easter season many churches’ readings from Revelation lead hearers into a rich world of creation imagery: a wondrous river of life, a healing tree, a tabernacling God who dwells in and with creation and desires to wipe away its tears. Revelation is a profoundly hopeful and earth-healing book. Such an earth-healing perspective is exemplified also in the recent use of Revelation in a Roman Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on the Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest, an ecological document I will examine in the final section of this chapter.

In reading Revelation ecologically I drew on the interpretive framework suggested by Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff who links the cry of the poor in the biblical book of Exodus to the cry of the earth. In my view, the linking of these two cries is also at the heart of the message of the book of Revelation. While the author of Revelation was not an environmentalist, he was certainly a critic of the insatiable appetites of empire. Problems of unjust exploitation of colonized lands, resources and peoples were familiar already in the ancient Roman world, and they are part of what Revelation indicts in its sweeping anti-Roman imperial critique. This important critique can serve us still today.

Ecological interests are what first drew me to study Revelation. I had always been an avid hiker and naturalist, studying geology in college. When it came time to pick a doctoral dissertation topic I assumed that those ecological interests could not be linked to biblical studies. “What do you love in the New Testament?” my professor, Helmut Koester, asked me. “You must write about what you love.” I told him that what I loved was ecology and God’s care for the earth—but I was sure that wasn’t in the Bible. 

To my surprise, my professor suggested writing on the New Jerusalem vision of Revelation 21-22, at the very end of the book Revelation. I confess that I had never read these chapters—or at least, I could not recall reading them. What I discovered is that the New Jerusalem vision offers a profoundly earth-embracing vision in which God comes down to live with us in a renewed urban paradise. Revelation 21-22 offers the amazing image of the river of life and the tree of life with its healing leaves-- imagery drawn from Ezekiel 47 that can speak to the rivers and trees of our lives and our world today. Through Revelation I discovered the life-giving vision for the world that now shapes my life.

Reading back through the chapters of Revelation, I soon saw that Revelation’s wondrous New Jerusalem vision is paired with its opposite, the Babylon city vision of Revelation 17-18, a critique of the Roman empire and its exploitive political economy. Babylon is a toxic empire, oppressing the world. In the Babylon vision we hear the cry of the poor and also the cry of a world longing to be free from domination. Revelation’s two city visions—the one toxic, the other utopic—show us contrasting visions for the future and call on us to make a choice between them. God’s people must “come out” of Babylon in order to enter into the blessing of  New Jerusalem. The contrast between these two contrasting city visions will be at the heart of the ecological reading I will propose for the book of Revelation.

Does the Earth Get “Left Behind” in Revelation?

What could possibly be ecological about the book of Revelation? In the mind of many Americans today, not much—especially if you follow the hugely popular “Rapture” industry with its violent fixation on Armageddon. Fundamentalist authors such as Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye tell the story of Revelation as leading up to the total destruction of planet earth. For Lindsey, Revelation’s proclamation of a “new heaven and a new earth” is similar to the Second Epistle of Peter’s threat of destruction of the earth by intense heat—a prediction that God plans to destroy the earth by fire, probably through thermo-nuclear war. “Christ is going to “loose” the elements of the galaxy in which we live,” writes Lindsey in his best-selling The Late Great Planet Earth. “There will be a great roar and intense heat and fire. Then Christ will put the atoms back together to form a new heaven and earth, in which only glorified persons without their sinful natures will live.” In Lindsey’s vision no animals or plants will inhabit this new heaven and new earth—only glorified humans.

The prospect of destruction of the earth does not trouble Lindsey because he does not plan to be here. He plans to be “raptured” up to heaven, from where he will watch the destruction. “Although I grieve over the lost world that is headed toward catastrophe,” he writes in his The Rapture: Truth and Consequences, “the hope of the Rapure keeps me from despair.” Lindsey belongs to a school of biblical interpretation called “dispensationalism,” first developed by a Scottish preacher, John Nelson Darby, in the 1830’s. In dispensationalists’ view, Christ will transport born-again Christians up to heaven before the world is destroyed. “Astounding as man’s trip to the moon is, there is another trip which many men, women, and children will take some day which will leave the rest of the world gasping.” That “ultimate trip” for Darby, Lindsey and other dispensationalists is the Rapture—their “great escape” from the earth. Following the rapture God will unleash a seven-year period of tribulation and destruction on the earth, they say.

The most recent version of this destructive dispensationalist view is offered by the fictionalized end-times thriller Left Behind: A Novel of Earth’s Last Days, a twelve-novel series whose sales top 50 million copies, plus kid’s books, a board game, a web site, two movies and numerous spin-offs. Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’s novels unfold like disaster movies, from the worldwide “Wrath of the Lamb Earthquake” to oceanic plagues and fiery hailstones —all leading up to the final bloody battle of Armageddon that will destroy most of the world, except Israel. Rapture proponents are confident that Revelation’s message is that the world must be destroyed over the course of seven years of tribulation and that they and other raptured Christians will get to escape and watch the terrible destruction from the grandstand of heaven. It is a gripping story.

But their version of Revelation’s storyline is not biblical. It twists the message of Revelation. There is no seven-year period of tribulation in Revelation, and certainly no predetermined script for  God’s destruction of the earth. Such a view can lead to appalling theology and ethics.

Revelation proclaims a “new heaven and a new earth,” to be sure, but that does not mean that God gives us a replacement for this current earth if we damage it beyond recovery. Rather the earth becomes “new” in the sense of resurrection or renewal—just as our bodies will be resurrected, brought to new life, but they are still our bodies. The whole creation is longing for redemption the apostle Paul writes—this is the sense in which there will be a new creation in Revelation as well. The earth will be redeemed, made new, healed.[1] The Greek word kaine used for the “new” earth in Revelation 21:1 can mean either “renewed” or “new”—but it certainly does not mean a “different” earth.

Rapture proponents love to use the image of a count-down to the end, almost like the count-down to a missile launch. A Presbyterian pastor taught me a song from his youth about the rapture that uses this space ship imagery, “Somewhere in outer space God has prepared a place for all those who trust him and obey… The countdown’s getting closer every day.” But this song reflects a key point on which the dispensationalist teaching is so false and dangerous. There is no place in outer space to which God will take us to escape the earth. This is not the biblical message. We cannot trash this planet and assume there is another.

Consider the now-infamous remark of Reagan-era secretary of the Interior, James Watt, implying that life at the brink of the end times justifies clear-cutting the nation’s forests and other unsustainable environmental policies. When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations Watt told his Senate confirmation hearing, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”[2] Watt’s “use it or lose it” view of the world’s resources is a perspective shared by many dispensationalists whose chief preoccupation is counting down to earth’s violent end.

Even more extreme is a recent remark by right-wing pundit Anne Coulter: “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’”[3]

The world cannot be saved: that is the basic Rapture credo, articulated by Darby in the 1830’s and then elaborated by Cyrus Scofield with his Scofield Reference Bible, the best-selling Bible through which many Americans learned their scripture in the early 1900’s. Hal Lindsey’s 1970’s Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novels update Darby’s “dispensationalism” with modern-day weapons and military technology, while keeping faithful to his basic interpretation of Revelation as a script for Rapture and the end-times. In their theology the Christian’s task is simply to wait for the clock to run out—confident that they have their “Get Out of Tribulation Free Rapture Card” as a ticket up to heaven when life gets too unbearable on earth.

Today’s popular-culture dispensationalist preachers love to cite statistics about how the world is getting worse: crime is on the increase, wars and earthquakes are more frequent, the oceans are getting polluted, environmental degradation is worsening. To them, these “signs” are proof that God’s clock has counted down almost all the way and then they can soon escape the earth, via the Rapture, and avoid the destruction. The dispensationalist vision invites a selfish non-concern for the world.

But that is not the Revelation’s view of the world. We are not supposed to let the world destroy itself and just wait for clock to count down. Such a sense of fatalism and inevitability is not biblical.

Instead, Revelation’s message affirms the positive value of the created world. As an apocalyptic text it can give us ethical resources that can help to renew our ecological commitments. Far from being anti-earth, as even some Christian ecologists such as Rosemary Ruether suggest,[4] in its final vision of New Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22) Revelation gives us one of the most earth-centered visions of our future in the whole Bible. Revelation offers a critique of empire and a proclamation of liberation for the world, including the created world of nature. [5]

In seeking to read the story of Revelation in a way that affirms the value of creation, I will emphasize four elements of the book’s message:

1) Revelation’s storyline culminates not in Rapture or Armageddon but in a “rapture in reverse”:  it is God who descends, or who is “raptured,” down to earth in Revelation 21-22;  

2) While Revelation is full of a strong sense of the impending “end,” the end that the book is speaking about is not primarily the end of the earth, but rather the end of imperial injustice—the end of the Roman empire;

3) Revelation proclaims not God’s curse or “woe” against the earth, but rather a divine lament on behalf of the earth—that is, the Greek word ouai is a word of lament, not a curse for the world. I will translate it as “alas” or “ouch”;

4) Ethically, Revelation affirms an ethics of healing for the world, not escapism from the world.

I will take up each of these four points before turning to an ecological reading of the final New Jerusalem vision.

God Still Loves the Earth and Comes to Dwell in It: A Rapture in Reverse

To construct a more ecological reading of Revelation we need first to make clear that there is no rapture in the story of Revelation, no vision of people snatched up from the earth.  Instead, if anything in Revelation 21, it is God who is “raptured” down to earth to take up residence, to “dwell” with us:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying “See, the dwelling of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God’s very self will be with them (Rev 21:2-3).

Traditional Christian interpretations have understood this vision of God’s New Jerusalem most of all as a vision of heaven, a place where we go after we die. Left Behind and other premillennialists interpret Revelation’s New Jerusalem as a far-off future world that only comes at least a thousand years from now, after a pre-determined sequence of the rapture followed by seven years of global tribulation, then the thousand-year millennium and the last judgment—indeed, it is a future world so far off in time that it is not treated in any of the twelve novels.

But I want to reclaim the vision back from heaven to earth, to speak to us today.  Revelation’s visions are future but their rhetorical and ethical function is to speak an urgent word to the present. In terms of ethics, we are called to “come out” of Babylon and live even now in anticipation of this final New Jerusalem vision for our world. New Jerusalem offers a distinctly earth-centered vision of our future with God. Heaven no longer exists after God descends to earth in Revelation 21. God comes to dwell with people is in a radiant, thriving city. This landscape’s beauty and radiance, its precious stones and wondrous tree and river of life invite our entry and participation. They can shape our ethical vision and commitments.

Thus, God’s dwelling on earth—a “rapture in reverse”—is the first and most important step toward an ecological reading. God still loves the world and even comes to live in it. Revelation’s incarnational message of God’s presence in the world is the same as that of the gospels and the entire New Testament. God will never leave the world behind!

“Alas,” not “Woe”: God Does Not Curse the Earth

A second step toward a more ecological reading is to see that Revelation is not pronouncing destruction upon the earth but rather is lamenting earth’s destruction by unjust powers—that is, by the power of Satan, experienced by Revelation’s original first-century audience in the form of Roman imperial power.

One frequent word in Revelation that has led many to think it predicts destruction for planet earth is the declaration of “Woe.” Beginning with the fourth trumpet in Revelation 8, in the middle of terrifying exodus-like plagues, these woes are frequent—and they are cited by dispensationalists to argue that God has sentenced the earth to suffer plagues and ultimate destruction.

But Revelation’s “woe’s” are part of the book’s overall anti-imperial political critique. In my view the so-called “woes” such as Rev. 8:13 and 12.12 declare not a curse or woe upon Earth, but rather a lament on behalf of the Earth. The Greek word ouai is better translated as ‘alas!’ or “ouch” rather than as ‘woe’, so that the verse becomes God’s cry of mourning or lamentation over Earth, ‘Alas for Earth’—lamenting Rome's unjust domination over the whole Earth.[6]

 Ouai is a cry or sound in Greek that can be used to express lamentation or mourning. Spanish Bibles simply use the sound “Ay, ay, ay.” Classical and modern Greek lament texts sometimes employ a related word, aiai, to express the sound of mourning.[7] Lamentation or ‘alas’ is the sense in Revelation 18, in the series of three-fold formulaic ouai pronounced by the rulers, merchants and mariners. Most translators render their expression as ‘Alas, alas, alas, the city’ (Rev. 18.10, 16, 19). I argue that this standard translation of ouai as ‘alas’ in Revelation 18 should be followed for the other references to ouai in Revelation as well, so that Rev 12:12 reads “Alas for the earth.”

Although no English word is the exact equivalent for the Greek, there is a subtle but important distinction between ‘alas’ and ‘woe to’ that matters ecologically. ‘Alas’ conveys a level of sympathy or concern for Earth that the English word ‘woe’ does not. ‘Woe to’ suggests that God stands over against Earth, pronouncing judgment or a curse onto Earth. This has been the predominant interpretation in the book of Revelation, despite the fact that none of the references in Revelation include the grammatical reference ‘to’ (and thus the standard translation “woe to the earth” is problematic—there is not “to” in Greek). If we translate ouai rather as ‘alas’ or “ouch,” God can be understood as sympathizing in mourning and lament over Earth’s pain, even while sending plagues to bring about Earth’s liberation from injustice. Such a translation as ‘alas’ or ‘lament’ would be similar to Terry Fretheim’s claim for Jeremiah 12.7-13, in volume 1 of the Earth Bible series, “these verses are a divine lament, not an announcement of judgment.”[8]

Earth as Captive to Imperial Rome

Why does Revelation lament over Earth? In my view, Rev. 12:12 and other negative references to ‘Earth’ (Ge) in Revelation can be understood as part of the book’s political critique against Roman imperial domination. Revelation's primary polemic is against Rome, not against the earth. Revelation’s ‘alas’ does not announce a curse against the earth, but rather laments the fact that Earth has been subjugated by Satan’s emissary, Rome, and has fallen under Rome’s domain.

Crucial to such an anti-imperial political reading is Rev 11:18, the proclamation that ‘the time has come…for destroying the destroyers of Earth’. This statement attributes responsibility for the destruction of Earth not to God but to unjust ‘destroyers’ who must be destroyed—that is, to Rome itself.

What God plans to destroy, according to the crucial verse Rev 11:18, is not the earth itself  but rather the “destroyers” of earth—that is, Rome, with its imperial economy of exploitation and domination. This makes a crucial difference both eschatologically and ecologically for the way we interpret the book.  We must situate Revelation’s eschatology over against the first century political context of Rome’s own eschatological propaganda—the imperial vision of “Roma Aeterna”—that John is implicitly critiquing.[9]  Rome viewed itself as endless and eternal, both geographically as well as temporally.  It is to such Roman claims of omnipotence and eternity that the book of Revelation says "no."  Revelation counters the "already" of official imperial eschatology with the "not yet" of the reign of God.  To the question of the duration of Roman rule ("How long, O Lord?, Rev 6:10) Revelation responds "just a little longer" (Rev 6:11).

Revelation’s lament, ‘Alas for Earth’ (Rev. 12.12) concedes that Rome’s own imperial claims of domination over the earth have temporarily come to pas. Now that Satan has been thrown down to Earth in Rev. 12.9 Earth has become an arena in which Satan’s emissary, Rome, ‘makes war’ on Earth and on God’s saints (Rev. 12:17).

But Rome’s domination of the earth will not last forever. The cry of “Alas (ouai) for Earth” (Rev 12:12) should be read not as a ‘woe’ against Earth but rather as a cosmic and eschatological cry for an Earth that will soon be free from Roman exploitation and domination. 

With its critique of Roman injustice, the book of Revelation laments Rome’s exploitation of the entire world and its enslavement of both humans and nature by violent military conquest.

Ethics of Healing for the World, Not Escape

For us, the ethical question is how Revelation’s anti-Roman ecological lament takes shape today in our own global situation. Escapist scenarios of a ‘rapture’ can only serve to deflect attention away from Earth and away from the book’s primary critique of imperialism. We need to seek a historical reading of Revelation that takes seriously its prophetic critique of the Roman empire as well as its vision for renewal of Earth.

And we must ask how such a reading can speak to ethical issues today. I team-teach a course on “Biblical Perspectives on Nature,” seeking resources for creation-affirming ecological readings in the Bible. We devote two weeks to Revelation and other apocalyptic texts, addressing these central questions about the earth: Does hope for a “new earth” (Rev 21:1) and a “new creation” (Isaiah 65) implicitly denigrate the present creation?  What are the ethical implications of the apocalyptic proclamations of new creation for the way we treat the present creation?

In my classes and writing I use especially the work of Chilean Pablo Richard. An ecological interpretation of Revelation must link the discourse of ecology to the discourse of liberation. Revelation sets its vision for Earth within an overall anti-imperial political context and giving voice to two parallel cries that Leonardo Boff  identifies: the cry of the poor and the cry of Earth. To quote Boff:

Both lines of reflection and practice have as their starting point a cry: the cry of the poor for life, freedom and beauty (cf. Exod. 3.7) and the cry of the Earth groaning under oppression (cf. Rom. 8.22-23)…Now is the time to bring these two discourses together.”[10]

Another link that Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Pablo Richard and other liberation scholars make that can be helpful ecologically is to see the parallelism between Revelation’s plagues and the plagues of the Exodus story.  The destruction of rivers, burning of one-third of Earth and trees, and other calamities in Revelation’s trumpets and bowls sequences can give the impression that the book is anti-Earth. But Revelation's plagues are modeled on the Exodus plagues.[11] They should be read not as vindictive punishments but as ‘ecological signs’ of God’s liberating action (Fretheim 1991: 387). Chilean scholar Pablo Richard links the plagues also to the assault on the poor, arguing that it is inaccurate even to call the plagues of Revelation ‘natural’ disasters:

In earthquakes and hurricanes the poor lose their flimsy houses because they are poor and cannot build better ones; plagues, such as cholera and tuberculosis, fall primarily on the poor who are malnourished…Hence the plagues of the trumpets and bowls in Revelation refer not to ‘natural’ disasters, but to the agonies of history that the empire itself causes.[12]

Richard draws an analogy to contemporary imperial situations: ‘Today the plagues of Revelation are rather the disastrous results of ecological destruction, the arms race, irrational consumerism, the idolatrous logic of the market.”

Ecological Hope and Revelation’s Choice Between Two Cities

Using this overall anti-imperial reading of the message of Revelation I want now to try out an ecological reading of Revelation focusing on the final two contrasting visions of polis or city, Babylon (Revelation 17-18) and New Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22).  These two contrasting visions of political economy can be a resource for ecological ethics and for the kind of earth-centered ecological vision of the future that is urgently needed today. 

The Babylon vision can offer a prophetic critique of environmental injustice -- including global deforestation and ecological imperialism.  Revelation 17-18 depicts the Roman empire as a powerful market economy, a great prostitute that has "seduced" and "intoxicated" rulers and nations with its trafficking.[13] Babylon/Rome is a world of buying and selling, frenetic commerce and accumulation of wealth. 

In our time when global deforestation is an increasing problem, from Asia to the Amazon, we can be attentive to hearing Revelation's astute ecological critique of Rome, together with its critique of imperialism and injustice.  The cargo list of Rev 18:12-13 is especially important.  Two of the items in the cargo list are forest products, for example: "all kinds of scented woods" (xylon; citrus hardwood imported from North Africa) and "objects made of ivory and of expensive wood." Other items on the list similarly reflect Rome’s extractive economy and militarism that forcibly brought the natural resources of conquered territories to Rome. 

God's wondrous New Jerusalem is the antithesis of the toxic Babylon with its ecological imperialism, violence, unfettered commerce, idolatry and injustice. This is the city to which those who "come out of Babylon/Rome" are invited.  The New Jerusalem is a city where life and its essentials are given "without money," as a gift, even to those who cannot pay for them.  

This is wonderful imagery.  If for no other reason, we need the legacy of apocalyptic literature because of its vivid store of images. The powerful vision of the New Jerusalem--- of a holy city with its gleaming golden street and twelve pearly gates, where death and tears are no more, on the banks of whose river of life grow luscious trees with nation-healing leaves--- has given form and voice to the dreams of God's people.  William Blake used an unforgettable image to judge the hideous factories and inhuman working conditions of England's industrial revolution.[14]  The vision fed early American visions of a "city on a hill" and a range of utopian experiments.  African-American spirituals and gospel songs invoke the imagery of a holy city and the river of life.      

Just as the cargo list of Revelation 18 gives a negative vision of an exploitive political economy, the New Jerusalem vision offers a vision for an alternative economy of justice and healing, including justice for creation. As a contrast vision, New Jerusalem offers the promise of a totally renewed urban world, where God takes up residence on earth, in our midst, along a beautiful river and tree of life.  The ethical contrast of the two cities for Revelation's audience---the call to make the choice to "come out" of the political economy of Rome (Rev 18:4) in order to participate in God's New Jerusalem[15]--- can empower the church to renewed commitment to environmental justice, to the health our cities, rivers, forests, oceans, neighborhoods and world today.

The most important verse of the book may be Rev 22:2, the image of the world-healing tree of life growing beside God’s river of life. The ecological dimensions of this verse and of God's love for the created, natural world are aspects of Revelation’s New Jerusalem vision that have not yet received significant scholarly attention.  In my view, the healing imagery of this pivotal verse can inspire us to a new, ecological vision for our world that is urgently needed. The imagery of New Jerusalem gives us a vision for addressing our urban and ecological crises—crises such as the privatization of drinking water around the world the denies access to thirsty people, the global market economy that marginalizes increasing millions of people while decimating forests and ecosystems, and the crises of loss of moral will as environmental problems become both more complex and more urgent. Revelation offers nothing less than God’s vision of healing for the entire creation, the entire world.

Water of Life "As a Gift" and the Living Waters of the Columbia River Watershed

The river of life is an example of an image in the utopian New Jerusalem that holds great promise for an ecological reading.  Water, freely given by God, flows through this paradisiacal landscape (Rev 21:6, 22; 22:17; see also Rev 7:17). Twice God extends the invitation to come and receive the water of life "without cost" (dorean)—that is, without paying money:

To the one who is thirsty I will give to drink from the spring of the water of life as a gift (dorean).   (Rev 21:6)

This promise is reiterated in chapter 22:

Let everyone who is thirst come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift (dorean).  (Rev 22:17)

This is a vision for a gift economy where creation’s resources are available for everyone, not just to people with money. God hears the cries of poor people and the cries of the earth, and God responds with the gift of life-giving water to quench our thirst and the thirst of the whole world. In the overall argument of Revelation, the invitation to drink from the "springs" of the water of life in New Jerusalem functions as healing imagery, a contrast to the deadly "springs" of waters that turned to blood and became undrinkable (Rev 16:4).[16] 

But the "living waters" of Revelation's New Jerusalem vision are not just spiritual or metaphorical waters.  This vision can speak of life for the real waters of our world, for rivers and groundwater sources, for endangered wetlands and estuaries. New Jerusalem's promise of access to pure, living water for all can offer a prophetic critique of our damage to ecosystems, of waters polluted by industrial and agricultural waste, of denial of drinking water to those who cannot pay.  At a time when waters of life on our planet are in danger of dying, the vision of the river of life can sustain our commitment to justice and healing for all creation.

A recent example of such an ecological use of Revelation's "water of life" imagery is a Roman Catholic bishops' pastoral letter on the Columbia River Watershed. Chaired by Bishop Skylstad of the Spokane Diocese, the letter was signed also by archbishops from Seattle and Portland, and by five other bishops representing dioceses in Montana, British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.  (see

The bishops write, "We propose and integrated spiritual and social vision for the watershed." The bishops underscore the beauty and sacredness of the Columbia River Watershed, a huge area that encompasses some 259,000 square miles in the US and British Columbia.  The document cites such ecological problems as the depletion of salmon, chemical and radioactive pollution from the Hanford Nuclear Reserve on the Columbia River, pollution from mine seepage at huge copper mines in Idaho and Montana, as well as human crises of loss of livelihood, the growing gap between rich and poor.  In an earlier draft, the bishops call for efforts to effect a "sacramental commons," invoking Revelation's imagery of the river of "living water".   

The entire document is organized around river imagery:  "The Rivers of Our Moment"---economic and ecological analysis; "The Rivers Through Our Memory"---historical overview of the various communities (human and biotic) that populate the watershed; "The Rivers in Our Vision"---biblical and theological visioning; and "The Rivers As Our Responsibility"---specific ethical commitments and exhortations, including a commitment to save salmon as an "indicator" species of the health of our ecosystem; a commitment to honor treaties with indigenous peoples; a commitment to save and promote family and cooperative farming; a commitment to energy conservation and community building; and to "ecologically responsible logging and mining." 

Conclusion: The New Jerusalem Ecological Vision for Today

The ecological legacy of Revelation and other biblical apocalyptic literature is highly ambiguous, to be sure, in the history of biblical interpretation. I am aware that some view the book of Revelation as hopelessly escapist, misogynist or dangerously anti-ecological.  I am not trying to deny the problematic dimensions of the book. But Revelation’s prominence in our culture is too great to dismiss this book. What is needed is to challenge the escapist and violent rhetoric of Left Behind, and to re-claim Revelation’s vision as a source of liberation and of a visionary ethics for healing our earth. What is needed is connect the cry of the earth to the cry of the poor, and to draw on Revelation’s anti-imperial critique to critique global exploitation of the earth today.

At a time when our own government officials deny the problem of global warming and seek to roll back environmental legislation with unprecedented wantonness, we need Revelation's hard-hitting anti-Roman Babylon critique of ecological imperialism and injustice--- as a critique of what Pablo Richard and others now call the "Pax Americana.”

We also need Revelation's vision of a river of living water flowing from God through the center of our cities, of green space in the center of the city, for it can be a vision of ecological renewal for the Columbia River and for all the rivers and cities of our lives. Perhaps most importantly, Revelation's vision of a tree of life with its leaves for the healing of nations can offer an ethical vision for healing—not destruction—of the wounded creation and the whole wounded world today. 

[1]Apocalyptic visions like Revelation's New Jerusalem vision are eschatological visions for the future, but they are not only for the future. As the Roman Catholic bishops' letter on the Columbia River Watershed illustrates, these are visions that can empower our ethical vision even now.  In the beauty of a river flowing through the Pacific Northwest, flowing from the heart of God; in every river, every city, every tree; here we can glimpse the renewal of the world, dawning already in our midst.




[1] Romans 8:19-23

[2] Watt was speaking before the House Interior Committee. Quoted by Grace Halsell, Forcing God’s Hand: Why Millions Pray for a Quick Rapture—And Destruction of Planet Earth (Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 1999) 103; see also Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992) 141.

[3] “Hannity and Colmes,” June 20, 2001; quoted in “The Wisdom of Ann Coulter,” the Washington Monthly, October2001; www.

[4] Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing

[5] See Barbara Rossing, “River of Life in God’s New Jerusalem: An Ecological Vision for Earth’s Future” in Rosemary Ruether and Dieter Hessel, eds., Christianity and Ecology (Harvard Center for World Religions, 1999)

[6] For more detailed argument see Barbara Rossing, “Alas for the Earth: Lament and Resistance in Revelation 12” in Norman Habel and Vicky Balabanski, eds., The Earth Story in the New Testament (The Earth Bible, vol. 5; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002) 180-92.

[7] So Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974). Spanish translations of Revelation render ouai as ‘aie’, which is more of a sound or a cry than a true word (Jose Irizarry, personal conversation).

[8] Terrence Fretheim, “The Earth Story in Jeremiah 12,” in Norman Habel, ed., Readings from the Perspective of Earth (Earth Bible 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000) 96-110.

[9]. See Dieter Georgi, "Who is the True Prophet?" (Harvard Theological Review 79 [1986] 100-26) for this "eschatological" reading of Revelation 18 as countering Roman imperial propaganda of a utopic "golden age."

[10] Leonardo Boff, Ecology and Liberation: A New Paradigm (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997) 104.

[11] For the argument that Revelation draws most extensively on Exodus traditions see the work of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, especially Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress)

[12] Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1995) 86.

[13].The intoxication accusations against Babylon in Rev 17:2 and 18:3 are paralleled by charges of deceit and sorcery (pharmakeia) in Rev 18:23.  See Richard Bauckham, "Economic Critique of Rome in Revelation 18" in Images of Empire, Loveday Alexander, ed. (Sheffield: JSOT, 1991) 47-90, for the argument that Babylon's intoxicating wine in Rev 17:2 and 18:3 refers to the seductive delusion of the Pax Romana: "Rome's subjects are... taken in by Roman Propaganda.  They are dazzled by Rome's glory and seduced by the promised benefits of the Pax Romana" (p. 56).  Allen Callahan calls the accusation of intoxication and pharmakeia a "narcotics charge," for which Babylon is guilty of "poisoning the international community" ("A Note on Revelation 18: Apocalypse as Critique of Political Economy," Unpublished Paper, 7).

[14]. "Was Jerusalem builded here among these dark Satanic mills? ... I will not cease from mental fight ... til we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." (Blake's Milton).

[15] For the argument that ethical contrast furnishes the frame for Revelation’s final two city visions see Barbara Rossing, The Choice Between Two Cities: Whore, Bride and Empire in the Apocalypse (Harvard Theological Studies; Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999).

[16].This is reminiscent of the Exodus plague that turned water to blood (Exod 7:18-24; see also Wis 11:5-7), making the water undrinkable.  See the interpretation of the plagues of Egypt by Terrence Fretheim as both acts of judgment and as "ecological signs of historical disaster.  They function in a way not unlike certain ecological events in contemporary society, portents of unmitigated historical disaster" ("The Plagues as Ecological Signs of Historical Disaster," Journal of Biblical Literature 110 [1991] 387.