Rev. 21:4, “and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
This promise of no more tears has traditionally been applied to our life in heaven, not while still on earth. I really believe that is the correct way to understand it. Otherwise, it would rob us of our glorious perfected afterlife hope.
[From Ed Stevens] First of all, we need to not allegorize this text. There certainly may be some Preterists who do spiritualize it, but I am not one of them. This is one of those apocalyptic texts that needs to be understood within its eschatological context.
Some Preterists argue that Rev. 21:4 is talking only about the effect of the arrival of the Eternal Kingdom upon people on earth in the SEEN realm only. However, I believe that Rev. 21 and 22 are talking about the effect of the Eternal Kingdom upon both the SEEN and UNSEEN realms (i.e., the whole cosmos – both the heavens and the earth). That is clear from verse one of chapter 21, where it mentions both the heavens and earth.
In regard to verse 4, some Preterists have argued that the wiping away of tears, no more death, mourning, crying, or pain, simply refers to the new way in which Christians view these things from a spiritual perspective. They would say that we Christians on earth after AD 70 have such a spiritual worldview and hope within us now, that we no longer grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). We no longer cry and shed tears in the same way as those who have no hope. We no longer suffer pain in the same way non-Christians do. We have spiritual life which conquers spiritual death.
All that is certainly true. However, I do not believe that is the best explanation of this text. Even though that approach may be meaningful, it still ignores the other half of the story (heaven itself) where these blessings are literally true in their fullest possible sense. So, to be fair to the context, those other Preterists who teach that idea, need to at least take a both/and approach, which would see verse 4 as including the dead (and resurrected) saints in heaven who were literally enjoying these blessings. It is not just the living saints on earth that enjoy these blessings in some kind of allegorical or spiritual sense. It has to also include the saints in heaven who enjoy those blessings in the fullest literal sense.
There is a fuller way to understand this text when viewing them within the context of the following verses: Notice specifically verses 7 and 8 below.
Rev. 21:4 and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
Rev. 21:5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.”
Rev. 21:6 Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost.
Rev. 21:7 He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.
Rev. 21:8 But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
Here John is talking about the actual inheritance of both the righteous and the wicked. The wicked will inherit a place in the Lake of Fire (the second death). But notice what it says about the righteous (the overcomers): “He who overcomes will inherit these things.” What “things” will they inherit? Obviously the things mentioned in verse 4. When do they inherit these things? Obviously after they overcome.
So the living on earth cannot inherit these things until after they have overcome. That immediately raises the question about the meaning of overcoming and overcomers. What does it mean to be an overcomer (Gk. NIKE)?
This Greek word (NIKAO verb, or NIKE noun) is found 17 times here in the book of Revelation: Rev. 2:7, Rev. 2:11, Rev. 2:17, Rev. 2:26, Rev. 3:5, Rev. 3:12, Rev. 3:21, Rev. 5:5, Rev. 6:2, Rev. 11:7, Rev. 12:11, Rev. 13:7, Rev. 15:2, Rev. 17:14, Rev. 21:7.
Almost all of these imply that the overcomers (victorious ones, or conquerors) were martyrs who died for their faith. It is not always used in reference to martyrdom, especially outside the book of Revelation, but here in Revelation, it almost always has the sense of martyrdom. And that is the sense that seems to be attached to it here in Rev. 21:7.
Therefore, if it is the “overcomers” who inherit these things, and overcoming is by martyrdom, then it becomes clear that the inheritance of these things is in the unseen heavenly realm, not upon the earth. On earth they had tribulation and persecution (tears, death, mourning, crying, and pain). But after they overcame these things (by their faith and their martyrdom), they inherited these blessings of heaven.
So, I tend to favor the idea that Rev. 21:4 is talking about blessings that the overcomers would inherit after they had been killed in the persecution and taken to heaven. Other Preterists who insist that it is only talking about the spiritual experience of saints on earth, are simply misunderstanding the text in light of its immediate context. At the very least, it has to include heaven, if it is not exclusively about the heavenly inheritance of the overcomers. I tend to think it is only talking about the heavenly reward to those who had overcome through their faith and/or martyrdom on earth. The martyrs were always considered a special class of the dead, with corresponding special status and rewards in the afterlife. So it is not difficult to see that idea expressed here in this text (Rev. 21:4-8).
We must keep in mind that the book of Revelation was written to the seven living breathing churches in existence at that time in Asia about great tribulation that was about to come upon them (Rev. 3:10), and just as Christ had overcome in Rev. 3:21 (martyred) and sat down with His Father on His thrown in the “unseen heavenly” realm, so too, He promises those same people in the churches who overcome (martyred) would also sit with Him on His thrown in the “unseen heavenly” realm (heaven afterlife).
See also Rev. 3:12 –> which is clearly referring to the heavenly “unseen” realm for after they overcame (were martyred). This all fits with perfect contextual harmony with the rest of the Revelation which was given to these 1st century saints –> where ending the book reiterates the same earlier promises –> now, here in Rev. 21:7, they are promised that their heavenly existence with Him in the unseen Eternal Kingdom realm will be one of bliss and happiness, and no more tears, sorrow or death.
Related full “Study Series” (available upon request if not hyperlinked):
[For a more in-depth study see eschatology “Study Series 16 Lesson 9 Rev. Chapter 21”]