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A general social census that has been taking place in America since 1984 indicates that ~40% of American Christians favor a literal interpretation of Scripture. This literal view is defined as:

"the interpretation of Scripture as literal, with the exception of sections of text that are clearly intended to be allegorical, poetic, or figurative." - CompellingTruth.org

And, in the "tags" function of this Stack literalism is defined as:

A hermeneutical approach in which the Bible is understood as accurate historical narrative throughout, with the exception of parts clearly stated not to be so.

A study conducted at Baylor University, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and reported on in Forbes magazine makes the following statement:

People who look at religion tend to associate literalism with evangelicals,” says Kent. “What we found is that if we break out each of these religious groups – Evangelicals, Protestants, Catholics – we found that you have literalists in each of these categories. There's more of a relationship between literalism and close personal attachment to God than there is to denomination.

I am unsure if the findings of these (or similar) studies remain true when the net is cast wider than America but the question that follows is directed towards those, of whatever denomination, who hold that, unless there is clear reason presented in the text, Scriptural passages must be taken literally. Consider the following passages:

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. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. - Revelation 21:1-2

And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. - Revelation 21:15-16

The website sizes.com has this definition for the length of a "stadion":

Various ancient Greek units of length, in concept the standard length of the furrow made in plowing with a team of oxen, = 600 podos, the size varying with the size of the pous.

The website goes on to offer a range of lengths (based on the size of the ancient pous) from 177.4 - 199.8 meters. If we take the smallest number and extrapolate we end up with a city which is 2,128,800 meters (2128 km) in all three dimensions.

This city, if literal, will cover an area of slightly over 4.5 million sq km and contain a volume of 9.6 billion cubic km. This city would be a million sq km larger than India, more than half the size of the continental United States, and half the size of the entire Middle East.

If the New Jerusalem comes down centered on the location of the current Jerusalem it's borders will roughly be:

  1. to the North - the southern coast of the Black Sea
  2. to the south - the Egypt/Sudan border
  3. to the east - the Tigris River
  4. to the west - the Egypt/Libya border up through the Mediterranean sea to the Greece/Bulgaria border just west of Kavala

In the third dimension, the height of the city will be 2, 128 km as well. This puts the top of the city well outside of the outer limits of the inner atmosphere (600 km) and into near space. The top of the city will reside just about at the delineation between low-earth and medium-earth orbits.

Do biblical literalists really understand the dimensions of this city literally and, if they take them in a non-literal fashion, what makes them "clearly stated not to be so"?

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    +1 - Great question - In Rev 5 Jesus is depicted a lamb with 7 horns. There are so many passages that are clearly non-literal! Rev 13 is another. Many of the literalists' claims collapse under the weight of their own absurdities.
    – Dottard
    Nov 2, 2020 at 1:32
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    Rather than being labelled a "literalist," I prefer to be known as a person who believes in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scriptures. The word VERBAL, of course, includes tropes of similitude (e.g., metaphors, similes, analogies, allegories), historical references, rhetorical figures, poetry, genealogies, proverbs, and much much more. Don Nov 2, 2020 at 2:56
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    @rhetorician You, like me, and most people, are not the topic of this question. There are very few if any at all of these ultra-literalists. It's mostly a straw man position.
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 2, 2020 at 6:05
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    @curiousdannii Actually some fairly prolific Christian apologists with wide readership take a strong literal view of this and other passages. Randy Alcorn is one example: epm.org/blog/2019/Oct/14/new-jerusalem-literal-massive-city Nov 2, 2020 at 13:07
  • A reality check: if the total number of people who have ever lived is 117 billion and let's be generous that 100% is saved and the world ends tomorrow, that means everyone will have a "mansion" prepared by Jesus on average of 9.6 / 117 = 0.082 cubic km, around 60,500 sq ft (1.4 acre) with 82m elevation (19 storeys of 13ft cathedral ceiling height). It will have to be 3D stacked in which people can fly to visit their neighbors, but plenty of space for everyone ! If not 3D everyone is squeezed into 348 sq ft each. Mar 13, 2022 at 20:30

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The Bible says that God will create a new heaven and a new earth and that the New Jerusalem will descend from God to the new earth (Revelation 21:1-2), the eternal dwelling place for all believers, the final state of redeemed mankind.

GotQuestions.org. (linked to CompellingTruth.org) takes a very literal view of Revelation, especially with regard to the thousand year reign of Christ Jesus on earth from a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.

Whilst I do not agree with them on such end-time matters, they do explain that the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven onto the recreated NEW earth.

the current heavens and earth (as referred to in Genesis 1:1) will be destroyed and replaced with new heavens and a new earth “where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:12–13). The new heavens and earth are the eternal home for the believer. The imagery in Revelation 21—22 seems to point to Eden-like conditions. https://www.gotquestions.org/heaven-on-earth.html

Speaking of ‘the day of the Lord’ Got Questions says this:

John writes of a new heaven and a new earth in the eternal state, having seen that “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (cf. Isaiah 65:17 and 2 Peter 3:13). To “pass away” is to disappear or be no more. This refers to the physical heaven and earth—the material world and all it contains—but not to the spirits/souls of the inhabitants of those places. Scripture is clear that people will outlast the current material universe, some in a state of eternal bliss and some in a state of eternal misery, and that the current universe will be replaced by another that will never know the contamination of sin. https://www.gotquestions.org/heaven-and-earth-will-pass-away.html

New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to a recreated, new earth:

In Revelation 21, the recorded history of man is at its end. All of the ages have come and gone... The final rebellion against God has been quashed, and Satan has received his just punishment, an eternity in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:7–10.) The Great White Throne Judgment has taken place, and mankind has been judged (Revelation 20:11–15).

In Revelation 21:1 God does a complete make-over of heaven and earth (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:12–13). The new heaven and new earth are what some call the “eternal state” and will be “where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). After the re-creation, God reveals the New Jerusalem. John sees a glimpse of it in his vision: “The Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). This is the city that Abraham looked for in faith (Hebrews 11:10). It is the place where God will dwell with His people forever (Revelation 21:3). Inhabitants of this celestial city will have all tears wiped away (Revelation 21:4).

The New Jerusalem will be fantastically huge. John records that the city is nearly 1,400 miles long, and it is as wide and as high as it is long—the New Jerusalem being in equal in length, width, and depth (Revelation 21:15–17). The city will be dazzling in every way. It is lighted by the glory of God (verse 23). Its twelve foundations, bearing the names of the twelve apostles, are “decorated with every kind of precious stone” (verse 19). It has twelve gates, each a single pearl, bearing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (verses 12 and 21). The street will be made of pure gold (verse 21). https://www.gotquestions.org/new-jerusalem.html

Whilst I am not in a position to speak for literalists, or for Got Questions.org, the impression I get is that the dimensions of New Jerusalem will be literal but will be located on a new earth in a recreated “heavens” where none of this earth’s restrictions will apply. We can have no idea of how incredible the New Jerusalem will be because it is not constrained by the physical laws of this present universe.

Edit for clarification: According to this article https://www.compellingtruth.org/new-Jerusalem.html New Jerusalem is approximately 1,400 miles in each direction according to modern measurements. The article concludes:

The New Jerusalem will be far more than an improved version of ancient or modern Jerusalem. It will be a heavenly city that exists on an entirely new earth along with a new heaven. There the Lord Himself will dwell in perfect peace and unity with those who are children of God (John 1:12).

Clearly, they take the measurements literally but the New Jerusalem is not on this earth, but on a new earth.

As for the definition of literalism being "the interpretation of Scripture as literal, with the exception of sections of text that are clearly intended to be allegorical, poetic, or figurative", without seeing that partial quote in the context of the article I am unable to comment. I suspect they are speaking about all Scripture, not just Revelation, and it is true that some parts of Scripture are clearly allegorical or poetic (Psalms, Proverbs).

As a Christian who does not support a literalist interpretation of Revelation, all I can say is that interpreting some bits of Revelation as literal and other bits of Revelation as symbolic or allegorical is an exercise in futility.

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Despite my not being a literalist in the sense of those who say the New Jerusalem on the New Earth will have the literal dimensions stated in Revelation 21:17, the question intrigued me enough to have a rummage in such a literalist site. Here are some quotes relevant to the question:

“If these dimensions are not literal, why does Scripture specifically give the dimensions and then say “by man’s measurement, which the angel was using” (Rev. 21:17). The emphasis on “man’s measurement” almost seems to be an appeal: “Please believe it—the city is really this big!” Suppose God wanted to convey that the city really is fourteen hundred miles wide and deep and high. What else would we expect Him to say besides what this passage says? Is it possible for God to make such a city? Obviously—He’s the creator of the universe. Is it possible for people in glorified bodies to dwell in such a city? Yes.

I have no problem believing that the numbers have symbolic value, with the multiples of twelve suggesting the perfection of God’s bride. However, most commentators act as if we must choose between literal dimensions and ones with symbolic significance. But we don’t. My wedding ring is a great symbol—but it’s also a real object.

Some argue, “But this city rises above the earth’s oxygen level.” Can’t God put oxygen fourteen hundred miles high on the New Earth if he wishes? Or can’t He make it so we don’t have to breathe oxygen? Such things are no problem for God… Some claim anything that big would weigh so much it would disrupt the earth’s orbit. Of course, the New Earth could be much bigger than the present one. In any case, issues of mass and gravity are child’s play to the Creator… Is it possible that the city’s dimensions aren’t literal? Of course. The doctrine of the New Earth certainly doesn’t stand or fall with the size of the New Jerusalem. However, my concern is this: If we assume the city’s dimensions can’t be real, people will likely believe the city isn’t real. If it doesn’t have its stated dimensions, then it’s a short step to believing it doesn’t have any dimensions at all. Then we think of the New Earth as not being a resurrected realm suited for resurrected people.” https://www.epm.org/blog/2019/Oct/14/new-jerusalem-literal-massive-city

Randy says he has invented a word – Christoplatonism – to refer to all those who have the ‘Christianized philosophy of Plato’ (and he’s written a book about those ones, who, he says, are contending against Scripture). He speaks of :

“...the secular philosophy of Plato that the material world is bad—it’s evil—and only the invisible, spiritual world is good. But then there were Christian church fathers who took up the ideas of Platonism and tried to read them into the Bible. They made the Bible appear to be condemning the physical material world.” https://www.epm.org/blog/2013/Jun/12/christoplatonism

I’m not sure if he goes on to use that valid point about one of the heresies that tried to creep into the church (but which was denounced) to claim that that’s why many Christians today reject a literal New Jerusalem of such immense dimensions on a literal New Earth. I don’t intend to read his book on that, or even to look at his video. On his web-page, he suggested that a New Earth could be so vastly greater in size to our present Earth, that the astronomical dimensions of the New Jerusalem coming down to the New Earth would perfectly accommodate such a literal structure.

What I read on his web-page was just to answer this question, with regard to one group. No doubt there are other groups saying similar things, or even giving different arguments to support such a literally ginormous structure, but I will not be investigating them. And, just for the record, I’m not a ‘Christoplatonist’!

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Most literalists would hold to the historical-grammatical method of hermeneutics. This recognizes that there are different genres of literature present in the Bible, each requiring its own rules of interpretation. Prophetic and apocalyptic passages use hefty amounts of symbolism. We know that Revelation falls into this category because it tells us so.

As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Revelation 1:20 ESV)

The above verse is not the only place where John informs us that the words are symbolic. In addition, Revelation uses symbolic phrases previously defined by the Apostles and Prophets. Thus locusts are invading armies, the sword in Jesus' mouth is the sword of the spirit, and horrific beasts are evil empires.

The presence of much symbolic language does not rule out the possibility that some statements are literal. Literalists debate over which is which. For example, in the eighties it was common to say that one of the plagues - the burning of the grass and trees - was an ecological catastrophe. However the Old Testament often compares grass and trees to people. Thus some later literalist commentators equate green grass to Christians and trees to churches, so the plague describes a genocide against Christians.

There is also the possibility of multiple fulfilment of prophesy. The words may apply symbolically to one era but literally to another. We do not have enough information. The best posture is to admit uncertainty. God can create a literal city as described but it may signify something else that cannot be described in words.

However, by appeal to symmetry, the Bible begins with a literal description of God's miraculous creation before reaching its symbolic, prophetic content. It would be fitting if the predominantly symbolic words of Revelation stop before the final two chapters. That would make the description of the New Jerusalem both symbolic and literal. It is because of this and other such reasoning that people who read Revelation as mostly symbolic still hold to that city as drawn in precise proportion to God's final plan.

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