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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The City as Salvific Space: Heterotopic Place and Environmental Ethics in the New Jerusalem

Thomas W. Martin

Readers of the book of Revelation are increasingly persons whose self-identity, assumptions about space, and kinetic knowledge of place are constructed in urban built environments. The growth of populations shaped by urban environments makes the nature of the city a pressing moral issue. One way of looking at the city is as a moral artifact by which we shape the future. This resonates with Michel Foucault’s insight that the meaning of space is power. Building cities, we contest power to control the future. In this contestation of place, John of Patmos envisioned a future salvific city that has come to dominate the West’s view both of how the future and our cities ought to be shaped. In this article, an eclectic amalgam of theory will re-imagine how we might appropriate John’s vision.

John shaped salvation as a city. Western culture believed him. The result for the environment has not been good. John had other options. Jesus envisioned the shape of salvation as a basileia . If that shape had prevailed, the earth might have faired better. Instead, John’s city swallowed up Jesus’ kingdom. In popular thought, the Kingdom of God IS the New Jerusalem (fig. 1).

Space allows only a sketch of the theory governing this reading of Rev 21 and 22. I side with urbanists against pastoralists. In spite of theoretical trashing of the city, in popular iconography and imagination cities DO offer salvation. Cities are beacons of cultural vibrancy and provide transcendent experiences of the arts; offer the best university educations, scientific and technological advances; are centers of politics and hope for the rural poor. Cities save us. These expectations color popular iconography (fig. 2).


And not only in fiction; we encode built environments with the same message (fig. 3).

Edward Soja emphasizes the dialectic of human self-formation and built environments. We shape cities that shape us. This highlights the moral dimension of built environments. I am interested in how urban environments shape environmental sensibilities. Urban living can have an impact on environmental ethics problematically, at least in some ways.

For example, people formed in urban environments often lack kinetic knowledge of the earth in its seasonal relationship with living ecosystems and experiential knowledge of animals in natural environments. To the extent that urban people exhibit Deleuze and Gutarri’s nomadism and are shaped by Marc Auge’s non-places, they lack innate appreciation of the need for humans to conform to the uniqueness of specific environments (fig. 4).

These are a few of the ways in which urban spaces shape persons such that detrimental practices toward the natural world may result.

Modern cities encode the ideals of the Enlightenment and its assumptions about the nature of space and the purpose of built environments. If, as may often be the case even among historical critical scholars, we come to the texts describing the New Jerusalem with unconscious assumptions about built environments derived from Enlightenment city models or with a self shaped by the kinetic experience of the modern city, then our reading of Revelation may be bent in a negative way for the environment. A simplified list of the features of the modern rational city include spaces designed for efficient and rational consumption of global resources, control of the earth as raw space from which to build, accumulation of excess goods, rational universalization of space—such that the city can be imposed wherever we wish cities to be built. And we expect that they can be built with total disregard for environmental constraints (fig. 5).

The modernist city project treats the earth as an object and denies it voice.
John’s texts, when read by people formed in modern cities, can yield readings negative for the environment: 1. New Jerusalem’s eternal day plays out against and justifies our obsession with lighted cities (fig. 6).
2. Its size justifies urban sprawl. Bigger cities are better cities. 3. It can support anthropocentric assumptions about cities. Cities are about our salvation not ecosystems. 4. God dropping the New Jerusalem down on the earth mimics our building of cities wherever we wish. 5. The one-way traffic into the city supports our emphasis on cities as centers of consumption and accumulation. 6. The New Jerusalem can be read as the triumph of God. So, rational urban spaces should conquer the chaos of disordered nature.

I assume that Revelation has an impact on how we build cities. St. Augustine’s project to disentangle earthly cities from the Heavenly City failed. In spite of Augustine’s spiritualization of John’s vision, “each generation has attempted to gather all within the walls of an earthly city modeled on the New Jerusalem.”[1]

Finally, in consonance with ecological hermeneutics, we need to retrieve the voice of the earth from beneath the streets of gold. In the built environment of John’s New Jerusalem, is there any place to hear the new earth? Revelation 21 and 22 present two questions: Can salvific space be construed so that we can hear the voice of the earth that supports it? Can we model a salvific city so that the earth too experiences salvation?

I have used two theorists who focus on the juxtaposition of conflicting configurations of space: Wesley Kort and Michel Foucault. Space allows me only to say that from Kort I draw comprehensive and social space and that comprehensive space—a concept friendly to environmental concerns—is revealed at the limits of social spaces. From Foucault I draw heterotopia—impossible space revealed in contested places. For both Kort and Foucault, humans tend to totalize place. Conflicted spaces, revealing heterotopias, undermine totalization of space and offer new understandings.

Where in John’s vision can we find the interstices and transitions toward which Kort directs us and locate a Foucauldian heterotopic vision of an earth friendly place? I find four heterotopic spaces in the New Jerusalem: 1. The mountain where John views the City. 2. The City’s gates and wall. 3. The inner city park embodying a restored Eden. 4. The space opened up by the lack of a temple.

The Mountain

For John, much of his vision was driven by the need to contradict the ideology of Rome. Rome was “the city that had engulfed the world.”[2] John envisions a city large enough to actually get the job done. Fifteen hundred cubic stadia roughly cover the Hellenistic world. The size leads to interpretations of the New Jerusalem as coterminous with the recreated cosmos.[3] John seems to see the shape of salvation as a city encompassing all reality. The New Jerusalem’s soteriological function unifies all aspects of creation within the structures of a polis; even nature must fit within its walls.

This reading of the city totalizes its space. Read as totalized space we end with a city built on the model of Enlightenment city planning and architecture. Rationality of space is universalized and made applicable to all environments. One grid plan covers all space. Nothing in nature can stand against it. The mountains are brought low, the valleys filled in, the bumps smoothed for God’s city. God’s city descends, in the words of Ben Witherington, “like some enormous spacecraft”[4] from heaven (fig. 7),

an irresistible weight, cracking crust and continents, and conforming all the earth to its shape. It eradicates the voice of the earth by consuming the earth itself. Only potting soil is left for what Catherine Keller has called the “neo-classical garden” of John’s restored Eden. Nature is gone.

However, in 21:10 an angel carries John to a high mountain to view the city. Some commentators have identified the mountain as the mythical mountain-at-the-edge-of-the-world.[5] Mythical or not, it is real enough in the text and parses out textual space. The mountain reveals space set over against the universalized New Jerusalem. We cannot imagine a totalized cosmic city when there exists a wild untamed mountain large enough to dwarf it and provide a place from which it can be viewed as in miniature (fig. 8).

The transition from mountain to totalized city produces conflicting configurations of space that open up an interstice revealing a heterotopia. The juxtaposition of the mountain against the New Jerusalem contradicts the symbolism of the city’s measurements. In this now locatable heterotopia, totalized readings of the city’s size are undermined. This contradiction of spaces within the narrative reveals an “outside” resisting even Divine construction. In this new space, we can reconfigure the Holy City and its impact on city planning. We can read a city that must conform its planning to the contours, valleys, and ridges of the mountain overshadowing it, a mountain from whose crags and cliff faces the earth’s voice can be heard to affirm the salvation offered by the city. This use of the imagination stands against Enlightenment presuppositions of a rational city imposing itself upon and silencing the earth beneath its weight. It stands against the modernist vision that cities can be built anywhere we choose, ignoring environmental constraints. Even the New Jerusalem cannot be built to dominate this mountain that stands over it.

The Gates and Wall

Commentators note the contradiction between the destruction of the nations in chapter 20 and their reappearance in 21:24.[6] Chapter 20 provides a neat, tidy, totalizing, and exclusionary picture. It is undone with the reemergence of nations and unclean sinners in 21:27 and 22:15. These exist outside the city, but they exist nonetheless. Harry Maier and Catherine Keller use this contrast to undermine totalized political readings of God’s new order. Duncan Reid uses the contrast as a means of listening for the voice of the earth. It seems that there is more to the new creation than just an engulfing city, those outside the New Jerusalem’s walls need space to exist.

I want to push Reid’s insight further for what the existence of nations and sinners means for our reading of the New Jerusalem’s built environment. To Foucault and Kort I add Michel de Certeau’s idea of resistance to the social scripts of constructed spaces.

Unclean dogs, sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, and idolaters are not allowed in the city (22:15). Yet, apparently, they may huddle at the gates. Since it was typical for broken masses to gather at an ancient city’s gates and, along with aliens and the excess population of the city itself, to build shantytowns up against the walls, I think we must imagine both as true of John’s city and its gates and walls. The nations bring their “glory” to God’s city. It seems likely that the unclean tag along to see the show.

Thus, the New Jerusalem’s gates are liminal places, pores in the minimal membrane of the city wall. Here holiness is poked and prodded by the unclean. Gates are transitions from outside to in. The dust and dirt of the outside carries over. Gates are places with ineffective sound insulation; they cannot block out all images of the exterior unless closed, and John tells us the gates are eternally open. It is as if God invites the unclean to spill over into the streets of gold. Thus we must imagine that the noise of the nations and the sight of the unclean carry over into the holy city. Could this contradiction in the gates’ function be what motivates John to summon up angelic guards? Do these angels watch over this heterotopic undermining of the city’s holiness, doing the best they can, like nearly perfect filters, to strain out the unclean? The gates juxtapose space for the nations and the unclean with place for the followers of the Lamb. This impossible space revealed in the crashing together of purity and impurity forces us to imagine this city as less than totalitarian in its construction of sacred space.

The lesson repeats in the city wall. Commentators remark that the walls of the New Jerusalem are incongruous with the city’s size.[7] Even though described as “great” and “high” and 144 cubits high or wide—the text is unclear—they stand insignificantly against skyscrapers reaching beyond the stratosphere. The discontinuity in scale between the walls and the city is taken to mean that John did not envision the walls as actual defensive structures. Often that conclusion is based on the destruction of the nations in chapter 20. With no threat, protection is reduced to symbol. But the nations are still there brushing up against the relatively insignificant walls. Angels watch the gates, but not the walls. Had John not read his bible? Walls are porous things. David, Rehab, Paul—all stories of walls with holes, or ways over and under, in and out. Again we encounter a juxtaposition of conflicting spaces. We have an ideological script of protected and inviolate holiness. But the description of the built environment is incapable of fulfilling the script. It does not seem that God built this city with any real intent of keeping the riff-raff out. In this interstice and its revelation of heterotopic space, we may be able to hear the earth’s voice via the movement of people and goods John describes.

A social ideology governs the movement of peoples and goods for the New Jerusalem. Commentators note that John acknowledges only one-way traffic—INTO the city (21:24, 26; 22:14).[8] The glory and honor of the nations flow in, along with those whose robes are washed and have a right to the tree of life. A city endlessly swelling itself as all flow in—that is the ideology. But with an unguarded wall it cannot be the reality. We must imagine with an insignificant, unguarded wall that there is illicit traffic over and through, both in and out, this symbol of separation.

Space thus opens up for what de Certeau speaks of as resistance to the dominant social construal of space. Jaywalkers, children playing in inappropriate places, naps on public benches, people living on building heat exhausts all demonstrate a resistance to, a subversion of, the dominant ideology of a built environment. Similarly, those people who enter the New Jerusalem by other means than the gates bring with them resistance to the exclusionary ideology of John’s city. In addition, the citizens themselves are not natural born. This is a city of immigrants (see 7:9). We must imagine that the citizens sometimes sneak out over the wall to visit country cousins or walk old byways and pathways through the countryside. The wall, read as symbol only, is an ineffective means of enforcing the social ideology of exclusion and separation. We can see a more fluid relationship between the New Jerusalem and its environs.

Unpacked thusly, the conflict between the holy and the unholy at the gates and walls is primarily a conflict of social ideology. But in this conflict of social spaces a chink is opened up in which heterotopic space emerges and through which we can garner an echo of the earth’s voice. That echo is carried in as mud and dust on the boots and knees of those who enter the city by climbing through windows in, tunnels under, or over the wall. The earth’s voice is also echoed in the country ways, the cultural knowledge of rural environments held by hands and feet with kinetic memory of the earth. Such knowledge of the earth is carried into this holy city of immigrants. Once they are in the city, both those with papers and those without will, given de Certeau, begin to practice forms of resistance against the totalizing and exclusionary ideology of the New Jerusalem’s built environment. That resistance also carries into this holy city a memory of, and continued desire for, the earth’s voice.

The Inner City Garden of Eden

Rivers have always attracted city builders. And for just as long, those builders have sought to tame the rivers that flow through built environments. Too much is invested in constructed spaces to allow a river its own mind. We build levies, canals, concrete spillways, stone banks, sluices, and dams to control the rivers that dare to flow through cities. To the extent that rivers bring us the earth’s voice, cities muffle that voice by channeling it and as quickly as possible getting its words to the downstream side without allowing any liquid speech to spill out onto the streets. The maturation of engineering science, coupled with modernist control ideology, has come close to finally delivering the mastery over rivers we have long desired. Historically, John likely envisioned such a tame river, flowing through a gold lined canal in the middle of a straight street (fig. 9).

But why must the limitations of John’s imagination control our reading of the text when such sparse description is offered by that text? Two features of the text encourage a freer imagination.

First, commentators have noticed that John emphasizes the spaciousness of this city over against the historical expectation of first century cities as cramped.[9] A central street large enough for a river, with room left over for trees on either side, created a mental picture discordant with the reality of most ancient cities. Secondly, this is the River of the Water of Life. (Here I transition to a theological reading of the space.) It flows from God, bringing healing to the nations. The biblical story to which John stands heir portrays the grace of God as an untamed river, a river that periodically bursts its banks with mercy beyond what we can bear. The story John continues is a story of God moving where God wills to move, when God wills to move there. The image of a river is appropriate.

The series of five-hundred-year floods in the U.S. since the mid-1990s has brought to our realization that a healthy river system is one that is not controlled. A healthy river system is allowed to wander and flood. River ecosystems need spaciousness across which to practice life supporting rhythms of renewal and cleansing. Channeled rivers bring death and destruction. Free rivers bring life in their floods.

So it is with the river of God’s grace flowing from the New Jerusalem. When a flood of that life giving grace is needed, God’s river overflows its banks. This river takes healing where it is needed, not where city planning requires it. The biblical God John claims to be speaking for is wild in the dispensation of this water.

A theological read of the river, when coupled with the text’s hint at spaciousness, opens up heterotopic space. There is a conflict between the modernist river project and the reality of the wildness of this particular river. So, within the spaciousness of this super-sized city, imagine room for the river of life to flow where it will. See a completely healthy river ecosystem, flooding in season. Such a River then demands a re-imagining of the city built around it. God will have designed the city to achieve a fluid relationship with this river environment. It is built adapted to the rhythms of this river.

Ambiguity of interpretation about the tree of life may also support this rereading of the inner city. John may have envisioned a very large potted tree, like many of those lining American streets (fig. 10).

But, again, why should the limitations of John’s imagination restrict us to gold pots? Some commentators take a cue from the fact that it would be difficult for one tree to be on both sides of the river (22:2) and understand the singular as a collective.[10] Possibly this leads to a dozen trees, one blooming each month. But, again, if we make a theological move and read with a focus on the over abundance of God’s grace, then why not imagine whole forests of life, springing up here and there along this 1500 mile long river? If this imaginative step is taken, a new type of city emerges. Nature, full and replete, emerges within the city. The voice of the earth can be heard to resound and rejoice from beneath this city. Its voice is channeled into the city in the wildness of a river ecosystem and through forests of life.

The Temple Void

Finally, we can recover the voice of the earth from beneath the New Jerusalem in the absence of a temple. Commentators make much of the spiritual symbolism in this radical move on John’s part. No temple signals a new relationship between people and God.[11] What has not been given attention are the implications no temple has for the city’s built environment.

The definition of a “city” is hotly contested. Yet, there is a consensus that cities represent concentrations of human, social, and technical functions. Two important concentrated functions creating the city are power and accumulation of excess goods. Architecturally these concentrations are expressed in monumental structures. Temples signify more than a relationship with God. They express concentrations of power and accumulation. Such monumental structures have shaped city centers for millennia. In Henri Lefebvre’s thinking, monumental structures display the human will to power. While he is concerned with the modern city, an ancient temple would, in his formulation, be a shape of control and acquisition. In Lefebvre’s thought, the monumental structures of modern cities have increasingly become commercial buildings (fig. 11).

By removing a temple from the New Jerusalem’s built environment John has described an Un-City. It is an eviscerated city with no center of power and non-commercial. It has no organized, centralized systems of exploitive accumulation vis-à-vis its surrounding territories.

Before we explore what this voided space might mean for re-imagining the city, there is the objection that John specifies not exactly the absence of a temple but that God and the Lamb are the Temple (21:22). Some commentators understand this direct presence of God and the Lamb as the whole city being a Temple.[12] Would this give us a totalized city incarnating centralized power and accumulation? No. The absence of a temple building and the presence of God unmediated, instead, collapse the distinction between sacred and profane space.[13] That distinction is the necessary precondition for the power differentials required for accumulation to occur. There is no way round it. The space opened up by voiding a temple complex presents us with a radical conception of the “city.”

How shall we read it? As good news for the earth and earth’s community! John, cognizant or not, presents a city that does not exist to exploit the natural environment, accumulating excesses to feed conspicuous consumptions of luxuries. That is how he had described Babylon’s built environment. The New Jerusalem does not shape space for centralized control. It does not act as a magnet attracting the movement of yet more nodes of power toward its center. The control of the few over the many is broken. The objectification of the earth as a resource for the city is ended. God is no longer the basis of inequity, but, rather, as equally accessible, equally defuse to all; God is found in all space, not just the sacred space of a temple. The collapse of the distinction between sacred and profane disperses holiness in all space. The sanctity of the whole earth is renewed. And all of this is achieved by the stroke of a pen cutting out the heart of the city as humans have always known it. The New Jerusalem is the Un-City built without monuments of power and accumulation. Instead of a city that acquires, it is a city that gives. It gives the one thing of value in John’s new order, namely, healing for the nations.

Thomas W. Martin, Susquehanna University


[1] Etienne Gilson, Introduction, St. Augustine: City of God (New York: Doubleday, 1961), 33-34.

[2] Keith Hopkins found in Jonathan Reed, Review of Rome the Cosmopolis, RBL 01/2008, 1.

[3] E.g., Ben Witherington III, Revelation (NCBC; Cambridge: University Press, 2003), 269; M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (Louisville: John Knox, 1989), 223; Martin Rist, exegesis of The Revelation of St. John the Divine (IB 12; Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), 539.

[4] Witherington, Revelation, 268.

[5] E.g., Bruce J. Malina, and John Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 246.

[6] E.g., Rist, IB 12, 542; Wilfred J. Harrington, Revelation (SP 16; Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical, 1993), 215; Harry O. Maier, Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 190, 197.

[7] E.g., Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation of St. John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 2005), 548, 552; Witherington, Revelation, 269; Ian Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John (BNTC; London: Continuum, 2006), 302; Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1995), 165.

[8] E.g., Boring, Revelation, 222; Harrington, Revelation, 217.

[9] E.g., Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John, 310.

[10] E.g., Rist, IB 12, 542.

[11] E.g., Smalley, The Revelation of St. John, 536; Harrington, Revelation, 219.

[12] E.g., Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John, 308.

[13] Ibid.


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Figure 2. Wizard of Oz -

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Figure 4. Non Sequitur cartoon.

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