No More Sea?

Sunset over the SeaDoes Revelation 21:1 teach that the new earth will not have large bodies of water (θαλάσσας)—no more lakes, seas, or oceans? Most think so.

The “sea” . . . must disappear before the eternity of joy can begin.1

The first hint of what the new heaven and new earth will be like comes in John’s observation that there will no longer be any sea. That will be a startling change from the present earth, nearly three-fourths of which is covered by water.2

Why would this be? Most argue that the sea symbolizes evil (or death or disorder), and thus the eradication of evil necessitates the removal of the sea.

From a metaphorical perspective, commentators have seen the absence of the sea as symbolic of the absence of evil.3

His perception that there was no longer any sea is simply another way of saying that in the new creation there is no more death (v. 4).4

Most justifiably see this void as representing an archetypical connotation in the sea (cf. 13:1; 20:13), a principle of disorder, violence, or unrest that marks the old creation (cf. Isa. 57:20; Ps. 107:25-28; Ezek. 28:8). . . . It is not that the sea is evil in itself, but that its aspect is one of hostility to mankind. For instance, the sea was what stood guard over John in his prison on Patmos and separated him from the churches of Asia. . . . The sea is the first of seven evils that John says will no longer exist, the other six being death, mourning, weeping, pain (21:4), the curse (22:3), and night (21:25; 22:5).5

Though the destruction of the sea is mentioned in Rev 21:1, it is noteworthy that the sea is not mentioned in connection with the new heaven and the new earth. This may be because the sea was a negative symbol for chaos and even for the abyss (cf. Rev 13:1 with 11:7).6

John MacArthur argues (uniquely?) that there will not only be no large bodies of water, but no water at all. His reason for arguing this is that

all life on earth is dependent on water for its survival, and the earth is the only known place in the universe where there is sufficient water to sustain life. But believers’ glorified bodies will not require water, unlike present human bodies, whose blood is 90 percent water, and whose flesh is 65 percent water. Thus, the new heaven and the new earth will be based on a completely different life principle than the present universe. There will be a river in heaven, not of water, but of the “water of life” (22:1, 17).7

I’m not so sure. Perhaps there is another option. Apart from the theological questions that it raises in my mind—like whether the absence of large bodies of water, which presumably existed prior to the fall, fully demonstrates the conquering of evil and the reversing of the curse8—there are, I think, grammatical reasons for questioning this conclusion—or at least being open to another.

Let’s look at the text and notice the differences in punctuation.

Here is the text in a few Greek editions:

NA27: Καὶ εἶδον οὐρανὸν καινὸν καὶ γῆν καινήν. ὁ γὰρ πρῶτος οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ πρώτη γῆ ἀπῆλθαν καὶ ἡ θάλασσα οὐκ ἔστιν ἔτι.

WH: Καὶ εἶδον οὐρανὸν καινὸν καὶ γῆν καινήν· ὁ γὰρ πρῶτος οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ πρώτη γῆ ἀπῆλθαν, καὶ ἡ θάλασσα οὐκ ἔστιν ἔτι.

MT: Καὶ εἶδον οὐρανὸν καινὸν καὶ γῆν καινήν, ὁ γὰρ πρῶτος οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ πρώτη γῆ ἀπῆλθον. Καὶ ἡ θάλασσα οὐκ ἔστιν ἔτι.

Here is the text in a few English translations:

ESV: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

NAS: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.

NET: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more.

NIV: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.

The punctuation differences are minor, but have bearing on the issue at hand. First, is there a hard or soft break after the first clause? Second, is there a hard or soft break after the second clause. The reason this matters is that it has direct bearing on whether the third clause is logically if not grammatically connected to the first clause or the second.

In other words, is John saying, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for (1) the first heaven and the first earth passed way and (2) the sea no longer existed. Or is he saying, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth (for the first heaven and the first earth passed away), and the sea no longer existed.

These differences could be diagrammed this way:

Sentence Diagram of Revelation 21:1

To state the issue another way: is John referring to the old sea that was part of the old created order (option 1), or does he have in view the nonexistence of large bodies of water in the new (options 2)? This question is closely related to that of the temporal deixis of ἔστιν.

It seems to me at least possible that in the third clause John is not describing the absence of large bodies of water in the new earth, but rather the destruction of large bodies of water in the old.9

What about the parallel with “the sea was no more” (v. 1) and “death will be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (v. 4)? To be sure, the similarity is not to be missed. But it is also worth noting that John switches tenses from the present to the future, suggesting perhaps that the present tense refers to the former state of things and the future to the new.10

This reading of the text is tentative since I haven’t found anyone else who suggests it even as a possibility. Am I missing anything that would make this grammatically or theologically unfeasible?

Footnotes

  1. Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 743.
  2. John MacArthur, Revelation 12–22 (Chicago: Moody, 2000), 263.
  3. Ibid., 264.
  4. J. Ramsey Michaels, Revelation, vol. 20, IVPNTC (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), Re 21:1.
  5. Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8–22: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 440.
  6. David E. Aune, Revelation 17–22, vol. 52C, WBC (Dallas: Word, 2002), 1119. Cf. Osborne, 743.
  7. MacArthur, 263.
  8. This, however, is not conclusive since not all will be as it once was—the absence of marriage being a prime example.
  9. This is how Aune seems to take it: “Though the destruction of the sea is mentioned in Rev 21:1, it is noteworthy that the sea is not mentioned in connection with the new heaven and the new earth” (1119). Though Aune doesn’t draw the conclusion I am suggesting, he does see 21:1 as a reference to the removal of the sea in the old earth rather than the nonexistence of the sea in the new.
  10. The present of εἰμί is past-referring elsewhere in the NT. E.g., see Köstenberger, “John 5:2 and the Date of John’s Gospel: A Response to Dan Wallace.”

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16 Responses to No More Sea?

  1. Chad August 25, 2007 at 9:25 am #

    Phil,

    Good points. I actually just finished teaching through Revelation. My conclusion is that sea is a symbol for evil and chaos and; thus, its removal is a symbol of death and evil absent from the new heavens and new earth. However, the sea was part of God’s good creation back in Genesis. If we maintain that the new heavens and new earth is new in the sense of renewal and restoration (a amillennial position, which I am), and not total destruction and starting over (like dispensationalists) then why would “seas” be literally taken away, but they would be renewed like the rest of creation (cf., Rom 8:22). I am firm that sea represents evil and chaos, but I am also open to the face that seas will still exists in a renewed creation. In other words, John could simply be speaking of seas symbolically (rooted in OT), while knowing that a renewed creation will literally have seas. Something else that I discussed with this passage was how seas are also symbolic of God’s people separated from each other physically. Currently God’s people are separated from each other because of large bodies of water. I don’t think this point is the primary idea with the removal of seas, but it lends to the evil and chaos idea where seas are seen as something bad toward God’s people.

    Chad

  2. Andy Naselli August 25, 2007 at 9:36 am #

    Phil (and Chad),

    Your view sounds somewhat like D. A. Carson’s. (BTW, I’m still working through all this myself. E.g., I’m taking a seminar at TEDS this fall called “Revelation and Apocalyptic Literature” with Dr. Grant Osborne.)

    1. “The absence of any sea (21:1) does not establish the hydrological principles of the new heaven and new earth. The sea, as we have noted before, is symbolic for chaos, the old order, death. And so the sea is gone.” D. A. Carson, For the Love of God, vol. 1, entry for Dec. 30.

    2. “The sea serves as a symbol for the entire fallen order; that is why in the new heaven and the new earth there is no more sea (21:1). John is distanced from the Almighty by these and related phenomena.”
    D. A. Carson, For the Love of God, vol. 2, entry for June 2.

    3. Cf. D. A. Carson’s sermon on Revelation 21-22.

  3. Phil Gons August 25, 2007 at 1:35 pm #

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Chad, I’m glad to hear that you ended up with the same basic conclusion that I did. Perhaps my analysis of the grammar would lend further support to your position. Kistemaker seems to agree that the new earth will have large bodies of water:

    The interesting phrase and the sea was no more may signify that just as the former configurations of heaven and earth pass away so the sea no longer will exist with its present boundaries. But the term sea may also have a figurative connotation referring to afflictions God’s people endured in a sinful world (555).

    Andy, thanks for the notes about Carson’s view. I wonder if he sees the absence of the sea as only symbolic or as both symbolic and literal. I can’t quite tell, but it appears that perhaps his position is the former. Keep me posted if Osborne happens to address this this semester.

  4. Mike Aubrey August 25, 2007 at 5:37 pm #

    Phil,

    I’d be inclined to think that the article in “the sea” would suggest a specific sea, or the sea, par excellance, which in John’s case would definitely be the Mediterranean Sea.

    For that reason, I think the translation “the sea” is better than “any sea.” -Two very different things.

    Combined with the tense change, I think John is most likely talking about the old order and also that John says nothing either way about the existence of water in the New Earth.

  5. Phil Gons August 25, 2007 at 6:10 pm #

    Mike, I’m not so sure that that is the most likely function of the article. θάλασσα almost always takes the article, so it’s presence doesn’t necessarily point to a specific sea. I’m still inclined to see it as generic rather than well-known.

    For a couple proximate examples, see Rev 20:8, 13.

    Even if John has the Mediterranean primarily in mind based on his experience, it doesn’t seem best to limit it to that.

    That point aside, we are in agreement that most interpreters, who think the new earth will have no large bodies of water, come to their conclusion without solid textual warrant.

  6. Rob December 14, 2007 at 10:09 am #

    Not sure about the sea, maybe it represents the law?? Since the law seperated jews and gentiles. I do believe the New earth and new heaven are now and the New Jerusalem is the church.

  7. Tom December 17, 2007 at 10:40 pm #

    One of the Revelation’s purposes is to reveal the resolutions to the negatives initiated in Genesis. If we examine day two, God, after he turned on the flood-lamp to assess the mess, separated the waters to create the firmament. God did this without making comment. It was as if He was saying, “this might be necessary, but I am not happy about it.” Why didn’t He pronounce it good? Could it be that the “sea” in Revelation was, in fact, the water that was over the heavens.

    In day 3, God gathered the waters on the earth and called them “seas” for there were many. But what is removed in Revelation is “sea”. Paul stated that there are 3 heavens. The firmament houses 2–the natural expanse we see and the expanse that the devil operates. The sea separated these from the third. Since it is God’s heart to dwell with mankind, He would not be happy about this necessary thing because evil was afoot from the beginning our this age.

    This, I think, is the sea that will be removed. Note that this happens after all evil is judged (so nothing would keep God from setting up His rule here) and it precipitates the kingdom of heaven coming in reality and power. From the beginning, for some reason, God could not dwell fully with man. Food for thought.

  8. Faith June 19, 2009 at 4:52 pm #

    When I came across that scrupture I was devastated because some people seem to interpret it literally.

    I personally hope the seas will exist after this life. I’ve had a love for the ocean since infancy and the way it makes one feel free and closer to God.

    Maybe it’s my own inability to understand, but it doesn’t make sense for God to create such a beautiful gift that is so full of life only to completely take it away in the next one.

  9. Jan December 18, 2009 at 4:41 am #

    I feel that the sea represents DIVISION of man. The oceans seperate/divide peoples. When Jesus comes to rule in the earth, there will be no division.

    • Phil Gons December 18, 2009 at 7:43 am #

      But before the fall, before sin, there were large bodies of water, and they are explicitly called good (Gen 1:10). If they are good and existed as part of the original created order, then they can at least in theory exist when Jesus comes to rule in the new earth.

  10. Brian December 28, 2009 at 7:22 pm #

    With the masive volcanic activity earlier in Revelation and the tsunami that wipes out 1/3 of the ships (1/3 of the ships are usually in ports), it seems to me quite possible that there will be some sort of geological change that eliminates the oceans and thus – no more seas. I’m curious if there is anyone reading this with a sufficient understanding of volcanology and geological processes that could present a scenario where such an event could occur that elimates the oceans. The only event I can think of… and it’s a bit of a stretch… is if hell is really located in the center of the earth. If that is the case, then when hell is cast into the lake of fire, perhaps, the center of the earth with cool. If that happens, then plate tectonics will cease as will our electromagetic cloak from the solar winds. In this case our atmosphere will be blown away by the solar winds and the oceans will evaporate. If that’s the case, then we’ll all have to have a change in our physiology to be able to survive without air or water. Anyone got a better explanation?

    • Loretta July 20, 2013 at 9:33 am #

      If you google “Pondering Confusion” the author has a theory that speaks to the the model you are presenting…very interesting concept. Also Janet Kneer on you tube has some interesting ideas. There’s no doubt that there were some MAJOR changes to earth during the flood…and more to come.

  11. Kurt August 16, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    I’m surprised that there is so little connection of the “sea” with the imagery of the temple and the presence of the “bronze sea” and its place and purpose in the temple. The writer of Revelation is always so aware of the temple and its structure and this is clearly in mind as we come to the new city. The “sea” was for washing necessary to enter the temple. There is no longer the need for a “sea,” a place of cleansing, in order to enter the great city because Jesus has provided once and for all.

  12. Paul October 18, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

    I think Phil’s suggestion is plausable and am searching for an answer to the last question you pose – has anything been published in recent years? Though I should add I can’t imagine what theological concerns might arise from this reading. At the moment though I think the sea that no longer exists is the primordial waters of chaos. After the white throne appears, earth and then heaven depart, exposing the dead in the Sea, Death and Hades to judgment. Those not in the book of life go into the Lake of fire along with Hades and Death. The only realm making part of the cosmos that remains is the sea – with the throne of God above, this takes us back to the beginning of the Bible, God over the waters. But, when the new heaven and new earth is created, the result is the primordial waters (the Sea) are no more. The second clause explains the first, the third gives the result of the first. Having said that, just as by day 7 the primordial waters are no more but there is a sea, so to in the new creation we would assume there are seas and other water bodies.

  13. Peter G. January 3, 2014 at 11:26 am #

    There is no hermeneutical reason to take John’s statement in any other way but LITERALLY. You just can’t pick and choose want you want to interpret literally or symbolically. There is nothing in the text to warrant interpreting the sea as symbolic of chaos and suffering. It’s just not there.

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