Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earth Where every son and daughter will know their worth Where all the streets resound with thunderous joy Oh how I long for heaven in a place called earth
Song writers have common themes and images that run through their work. Jon Forman is one of my favorite song writers because he resonates with a theme that has run through my thinking over the last decade: the transience of this life and the transcendence of the life to come.
In the song, A Place Called Earth, he focuses on the “borderlines” between the transience of our lives and the longing for transcendence. It’s an age-old theme. It’s a theme that has been the subject of some of the greatest writers in the history of world from the author of Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare.
The video embedded above was a recent live performance of this song off the new EP, Departures. Linked below is the studio recording of A Place Called Earth that was written by Jon Foreman with his brother, Tim, and Lauren Daigle. I encourage you to listen to it in all of its orchestral fullness.
The hope of the Christ follower is the longing for heaven, a place where everyone knows their worth through the eyes of Jesus who will greet us face to face. We have this hope, however, this treasure, in earthen vessels. (2 Corinthians 4:7) We long for heaven in a place called earth.
Oh, the wars we haven’t won Oh, the songs we’ve left unsung Oh, the dreams we haven’t seen The borderlines
Jon Foreman’s plaintive voice captures the angst of these lines perfectly. We try to notch our belts with victories, but what of all the defeats? The songs we have left unsung? The great dreams we dared to dream that we haven’t seen?
All our victories are hollow trophies at the end of our days. Memories of them begin to fade from the moment of victory. Like the entropy to which our universe is subjected (Romans 8:20), those memories will fade into utter obscurity long after we have taken our last breaths.
We see this on the borderlines. On the borderlines, where we peer out over an endless expanse yawning out into a far distant future, and beyond it into an eternity we can’t even fathom, we realize our utter insignificance…. if we can see that far.
I am starting a new Bible reading plan for the year, and so I am back to Genesis. Reading through the rich text of Genesis 1 again I am seeing some things I hadn’t really noticed before. Consider the following (with my emphasis added):
“Then God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruitafter their kindwith seed in them‘; and it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seedafter their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good.
“God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’“
“Then God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind‘; and it was so. God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.”
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it….'”
I color-coded the various provisions that form the pattern that informs my thinking today. The provisions in each color correspond with the other provisions of the same color.
Now, let me see if I can put all my thoughts together in a coherent whole.
First of all, God ordered (in the sense of designed) all living beings to multiply after they own kind. We see this everywhere in nature: apple trees bear seeds that grow into new apple trees; asparagus plants bear seeds that grow into new asparagus plants; lions beget lions; polar bears beget polar bears; yellow polka dotted salamanders beget yellow polka dotted salamanders; bluefin tuna beget bluefin tuna; and purple finches beget purple finches.
This is the order of living things. Not only that, but we now know that something (call it evolution or something else) works powerfully within living beings to reproduce and even to adapt with changes over time.
Every living thing bears seed or otherwise reproduces more of its kind. Human beings included, but only humans are made in the image of God. (Hold that thought.)
God “blessed” the living things He created, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply” and fill the earth. (Gen. 1:22) He also blessed man who He made in His own image, and gave similar orders: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it….” (Gen. 1:28)
Note that God “ordered” (as in designed) the living things He created to reproduce after their kinds and to be fruitful and multiply, but God ordered (as in not only designed, but commanded) man to do the same. The difference is an important key to understanding what God is doing.
Unlike the other living creatures which are designed to reproduce and multiply after their kinds, humans have some agency in the matter. God designed them for the same purpose, but He also commanded them to do it because humans are created in the image of God who has agency – the ability to exercise will and to do (or not do) things.
Humans, of course, had no choice in their creation, but they do have choice in whether to “participate in God’s design” and how they would participate in God’s design. This choice was demonstrated in the one tree in the garden that was forbidden to them.
It was a real choice, and it had real consequences. It had to have real consequences or it wouldn’t have been a real choice. That choice was part of what it meant to be made in the image of God. Without the ability to choose, humans would have been just like the other living things God created. The ability to choose set humans apart.
As the story goes, humans ate the fruit of the one tree that was forbidden.
They exercised the choice God gave them. In eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humans opened up their world to all the ways they might choose to go against the order of creation.
Throughout Genesis 1, we read over and over again that what God did “was good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). If what God designed was good, choosing to operate counter to that design would be evil (the opposite of good).
None of this is very revelatory so far, but I am getting there.
Genesis 1 reminds me of 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul says:
God gives [all living things] a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.
1 Corinthians 15:38-39
The order/design of life – of reality – is immutable. Life is ordered the way God created it, though humans have some choice (within limits) of whether to align with God’s design or to buck against it. Indeed, the story of the fall is the story of humans exercising that choice and of an adaptation that God built into His design to accomplish His ultimate plan.
As a lawyer, I am keenly aware of the central importance of eyewitnesses to getting at the truth of any matter. There is no better proof in the law than eyewitness testimony. The rules of law allow hearsay testimony (the testimony of what someone else said) only in extreme and limited circumstances because eyewitness testimony is considered inherently much more reliable.
Eyewitness testimony is light years more reliable than secondhand testimony, but even eyewitness testimony needs to be carefully considered along with the credibility of the eyewitnesses. People aren’t always good at observing details accurately. People sometimes fill in the gaps in understanding of what happened with details that are assumed, but which aren’t accurate. People do this consciously and unconsciously. Eyewitnesses can be influenced by subconscious biases and influences. Sometimes eyewitnesses even lie about what they have seen.
Because eyewitness testimony isn’t foolproof, we look for other evidence that will either corroborate or contradict the eyewitness testimony. Still, cases are built on eyewitness testimony.
A case can be built on the testimony of a single, good eyewitness, but multiple eyewitnesses is gold. The more eyewitnesses that agree with each other on key facts (they will never agree on all details), and the more evidence that corroborates that testimony, the stronger a case is.
We see this principle at work in the narrative accounts contained in the Bible that we call the Gospels. The Bible expressly focuses on the testimony of eyewitnesses. Following is a summary of the ways in which the theme of eyewitness testimony runs throughout the New Testament.
NT Wright commented to Justin Brierley in the 39th episode of Ask NT Wright Anything, “We live in a world in which Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, knowing that he was going to raise him from the dead.”
Jesus was able to identify with and feel the crushing sorrow and the intense grief that the family and friends of Lazarus felt. When Jesus saw Mary, the sister of Lazarus weeping, he wept too. (John 11:32-33) Jesus felt her grief, and it moved him to tears.
Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, of course, reveals his humanity, his empathy and the fact that he felt the range of human emotions that we feel in our own lives. Imagine God taking on our form and experiencing what we experience!
The most remarkable aspect of this story, for me, is that Jesus felt the grief of the loss of a loved one and was moved to tears even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead. He wept with grief though he know that joy would follow the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
In this way, we see that God doesn’t minimize our grief and suffering. He is able to identify with it because he felt the crush of it as we feel it.
He felt the crush of human grief even though he knew the miracle he was about to perform.
Perhaps, Jesus was weeping for all the people who feel grief without assurance or confidence or hope. Surely, Jesus had more than merely hope. He knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but he also realized that his friends, the friends and family of Lazarus, didn’t know or appreciate what he was about to do.
Even though Jesus told the friends of Lazarus that he was doing “to wake him up” (John 11:11), and he told Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” they didn’t fully understand or appreciate what Jesus was saying. (John 11:23) They didn’t feel the assurance or confidence or hope that Jesus had.
I imagine Jesus also thought in those moments of all the people in the world who mourn without assurance, confidence or hope in the face of death. This is the human condition, and Jesus fully embraced it. He fully felt the weight of it, and it caused him to weep with them.
A person posed this question to N.T Wright: “If my body decays, and goes on to become reconstituted into plants and animals and things, what remains? What is essentially me?” NT Wright responded by noting, first, that Tertullian and Origen discussed this question in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and CS Lewis picked up the same theme in the 20th century in his book, Miracles.
CS Lewis observed that fingernails, hair, skin and the entire the human body are in a constant condition of flux. “Bodies change their entire molecular kit once about every seven (7) years”, Wright noted.
I am not the same person physically that I was when I was born, or graduated from college at age 22, or graduated from law school at age 31 or when my last child was born when I was 39. I am not the same person, physically, at 60, as I was when I was 39.
All of the molecules in my body have switched out many times over those years, yet I am still recognizably me. Maybe a bit larger, with gray hair and visibly aged from my mid-twenties, but I am still me even though none of the same molecules exist in my 60-year body.
NT Wright re-phrased the question in different ways: If a ship goes into a port and one year later, after all parts of it have been replaced, it goes into port again, is it the same ship? If my grandfather has a spade, and replaces the blade and handle several times, is it the still the same spade?
I don’t know about a ship or a spade, but as for me, I know that I am still me even though I don’t have a single molecule left over from my 22-year old self. I have more experiences; I have gained more memories. People can see in my body and mind some resemblance of the “me” they might remember.
Though memories aren’t physical things I can show anyone, I can describe them, and people who share those experiences with me can recognize them. Those nonphysical memories are undeniably “part” of “me” – things I have picked up along the way in addition to the extra weight in my physical body.
CS Lewis says that people are like the curve in a waterfall. They have continuity of form but discontinuity of matter. Matter pours through us. The “us” matter pours through is the real thing – not the matter.
On this day six (6) years ago, Facebook informs me that I posted this quotation from CS Lewis:
“You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.”
I don’t know if CS Lewis is exactly right, but he is getting at the same idea – that we are something more than our physical selves. We aren’t reducible to our physical selves. Our physical selves aren’t even made up of the same molecules that once existed in us. Not one molecule remains from my 22-year old self – yet my self remains.
This mystery is extended in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Through Jesus, God promises to give us new bodies. Our bodies will be changed, Scripture says, but each one of us will remain the same person and be recognizable. Biblical scholars say we will be more fully us then we were before.
In a sense, it’ will be the opposite of the saying about a sick person who is “just a shadow of himself.” Except, the perspective will be reversed. We will see that our bodies were just a shadow of what we will become. Wright says there is a “real you” that is much more like you, vividly more like you, then you are now.
Getting around to attempt an answer to the question posed, NT Wright says, “Nowhere in the New Testament does it describe a soul leaving a body and going to heaven.” What does he mean?