Book Excerpt: Revelation: The Way It Happened

After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. –Relevation 4:1-2

Early Christians envisioned this passage in Revelation very differently than we do today. Let me paint you a picture of common first-century cosmological beliefs, which will help explain how a door “opened in heaven” and a trumpeting voice said “come up here.” John writes in Greek, in which the word for heaven is the same as for sky.

Picture a flat earth, unmoving, poking up out of the waters. A bowl, or dome, covers and protects the entire earth, which separates the waters below from the waters above. Doors in the heavens (the top of the dome) allow water from above to come through as rain. If you think of a snow globe—one of those Christmas scenes you shake upside down and then turn right-side up to watch the snow fall—you’ll have the general idea.

The sun and the moon—the two great lights—track across the underside of this dome every day and night to provide light. At night, most people imagined the stars to be either gods or angels, while some still pictured them as little holes in the dome for the gods to peek through. The earth rests on pillars reaching down through the waters to hell (Sheol). The only path to hell passes through the grave, where the spirits of the dead all go, down, down, to a shadowy, joyless, ghostly form of life, awaiting their resurrection.

This basic understanding, shared among many ancient Mediterranean civilizations, fits well with the description we read in Genesis 1. Heaven is up, and hell is down, with the earth caught in the middle. When writers of the King James version translated “bowl” or “dome” into “firmament”—the closest word we could find in English to describe what we then believed about the world around us—this shrouded the original picture. Although alternative theories about the universe had been proffered by the time of John the Apostle, including a multilayered heaven, the Genesis description still held popular appeal.

–Revelation: The Way It Happened, 2010, pp. 12-13, by Lee Harmon

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