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Empty Streets: cities without people and the city as people

Rev Professor W Gordon Campbell

Rev Professor W Gordon Campbell

Empty Streets: cities without people and the city as people

During lockdown, has anyone not seen drone footage of cities emptied of people? Until just a few weeks ago, our cities were engines of economic enterprise. Now, in broad daylight, COVID-19 has robbed normally bustling cities of their traffic or trade. City-dwellers the world over now fret about whether and when normal city life, as they knew it, will resume.

Only, what is normal city life? Indeed, what is the meaning of the city? For such questions to surface - at least, for me - cities first had to grind to a halt, and people disappear from their streets. Now, it seems, people everywhere are wondering how the world will look, after coronavirus, and what this pandemic will change, with some even talking of the Great Reset. At a simpler level, as I work from home, I have simply found myself thinking afresh about cities. 

The first to come to mind is uncannily like those on our screens. It, too, lies deserted, lifeless and silent, with devastating economic consequences. That city is ‘Babylon the Great and mother of prostitutes’ (Revelation 17.5). Like many a contemporary reader, John the seer himself finds this vision difficult and needs help from an interpreting angel: ‘the woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth’ (17.18). 

For this personified woman-city - this disturbing feminine-urban duality - judgment looms. Babylon has morally intoxicated ‘the inhabitants of the earth’ (17.2), leading astray ‘peoples, multitudes, nations and languages’ (17.15). In Revelation 18.21-24, John glimpses the city’s forthcoming fall, while an interpreting angel this time sounds a chilling refrain: Babylon will never rise again.

Earlier, Revelation 18 has anticipated Babylon’s demise, as former beneficiaries of her commerce cry out in woe. Kings of the earth, who had ‘shared her luxury’ (18.9) now lament how ‘in one hour your doom has come’ (18.9, 10). Merchants of the earth, who had sold cargoes galore and ‘gained their wealth from her,’ bemoan how ‘in one hour, [everything]… has been brought to ruin’ (18.11-17). Or, sea captains and sailors ‘who earn their living from the sea’ - in solidarity with ship-owners, ‘rich through her wealth’ - echo the dirge and bewail how ‘she has been brought to ruin’ (18.17-19). The end for Babylon brings ruin for those who prospered from her exploitation.

Immediately, however, another city came into my mind, since this picture of civilisation or politics in meltdown is only one of two. In John’s vision, right where the whore-city of Babylon lies desolate, another personified city - a bride-city, this time - is soon to materialise: New Jerusalem (Revelation 21.2,9-10 etc.). 

Jacques Ellul's influential 1970s book on the theme of the City in the Bible
Jacques Ellul's influential 1970s book on the theme of the City in the Bible

I also recalled how Revelation’s tale of two cities rounds off, for the Bible as a whole, the grand theme of the human city. In the 1970s, Jacques Ellul famously categorised it as ‘neither hearth nor home’ (sans feu ni lieu) - his thought becoming known to the English-speaking world under the title The Meaning of the City. Around the same time, Ellul gave a trenchant sociological critique of the dehumanising effect of the technological turn.

For Ellul, cities ancient or contemporary are ambivalent, representing the best of human endeavour and displaying the worst of human behaviour. Since the dawn of civilisation, humanity’s project from Babel-Babylon onwards could even seem like the invention of a God-free zone. Yet, Ellul saw hope for the unrealised promise of the city, in the extraordinary new garden-city awaited in the new heaven and earth (Revelation 22.1-5). There God, by his grand design and the work of his own Spirit, would at last bring about face-to-face communion with humanity. Ellul regarded that prospect as the assumption or transfiguration of the city: the perfect city, New Jerusalem, made for humanity - where God, in Christ the Lamb, would be all in all.

Thus Revelation’s two end-time cities seem to personify people at their worst, in Babylon, and people at their best, in New Jerusalem. And by ‘best’, Revelation like the rest of the New Testament means ‘made new’ by the Creator and Redeemer’s hand (Revelation 21.5). 

My thoughts about empty streets have led me to this: cities are nothing without people. Whether by great human reset or by divine grand design - or a mixture of both - I expect our cities to rise again. I pray that, when they do, what materialises will be at once more human, with less corruption and exploitation, and more divine, with God’s light, life and love overcoming death, mourning and pain (Revelation 21.3-4).

Image of Belfast streets is from BBC Northern Ireland

Rev Professor W Gordon Campbell

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Rev Professor W Gordon Campbell

Gordon began working life as a modern languages teacher. Following theological studies at Union, …

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