First A Story
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you understand."
—God to Job in the whirlwind
To a child of four or five, the rejoinder sounded something like the response of a parent who had reached the end of her rope with the current line of questioning.
“Mom, what happens when we die?”
“We go to heaven to be with Jesus.”
“What’s heaven like?”
“It’s a place where all of our tears are dried up, and we dance on golden streets in the presence of God.”
“For how long?”
“But won’t we get tired of dancing?”
“No, we won’t.”
“But why not?”
“Because we’ll be with God.”
“But what if it’s boring?”
“It won’t be.”
“Because God said so.”
A child learns quickly that there are certain lines parents use to signal the end of the current arsenal of questioning. Coming from a parent, “Because I said so” is intended to be a conversation stopper. “Because God said so” is even trickier. There was nothing my five-year-old mind could even begin to conjure up to counter that one.
Though it certainly wouldn’t be the last time I drilled my mother on the subject of heaven, I settled into an unsatisfied—albeit silent—contemplation of eternity. It scared me and sounded horribly boring. What did a world without end look like? It hurt my head to imagine. “Never ending” had a tiring, circular ring to it. Eternity seemed altogether vast and full of time.
Even at five, I understood that time was moving forward, that stories had endings, and that even the most delightful of pleasures must draw to a close, or somehow lose their delight.
And yet, I am certain that like most children I fought these endings on a daily basis. What child has not warded off bedtime though fighting heavy eyelids and perfidious yawns? What child has faced the last day of summer vacation without a sigh of loss? I found myself, like every child, delighting in the monotonous, longing for another minute with grandpa, another page of the story, another trip down the slide. I was also finding myself forever the subject of surprise over time’s escape. “I can’t believe how tall you’ve grown!” “It seems you were just learning to walk only yesterday.” “Your school days have just flown by so quickly!”
Author and former skeptic C.S. Lewis inquired as to these strange and yet common patterns of behavior: our longings within time and yet our surprise with it. In a letter to a man who found himself longing to believe in an eternal story, but so finding obstacles of doubt, Lewis wrote:
A wish may lead to false beliefs, granted. But what does the existence of the wish suggest? At one time I was much impressed by Arnold’s line “Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.” But surely tho’ it doesn’t prove that one particular man will get food, it does prove that there is such a thing as food! I.e., if we were a species that didn’t normally eat, weren’t designed to eat, would we feel hungry? You say the materialist universe is “ugly.” I wonder how you discovered that! If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it you don’t feel at home there? Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures? Notice how we are perpetually surprised at Time… In heaven’s name, why? Unless, indeed, there is something about us that is not temporal. (1)
The young man who received the letter found truth in these observations, including, in time, Lewis’s remark that God was on his trail.
The observations of C.S. Lewis are worlds apart from Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins. In his book River Out of Eden, Dawkins explains, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”(2) In an interview with Skeptic magazine, Dawkins was asked if his view of the world was not similar to that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: namely, life is but “A tale told by an idiot, filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
“Yes,” Dawkins replied, “at a sort of cosmic level, it is. But what I want to guard against is people therefore getting nihilistic in their personal lives. I don’t see any reason for that at all. You can have a very happy and fulfilled personal life even if you think that the universe at large is a tale told by an idiot.”(3)
His words attempt to remove the sting his philosophy imparts. Yet, if I am but a poor player fretting my hour upon the stage of a tale told by an idiot, what is a “fulfilling” personal life? There is no room in the naturalist’s philosophy for intrinsic dignity, human worth, or human rights. There is no room for moral accountability, right or wrong, good or evil. There is no room for the layers of my love for my husband, the cry of my heart for justice, or the recognition on my conscience that I am often missing the mark. There is no room for my surprise at time’s passing or my longing for something beyond what I am capable of fully reaching in this moment. This is not the story I know.
In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “I had always felt life first a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”
The beginning and the end
At first hearing, God’s response from the whirlwind to a questioning, anguished Job sounded to me like the response of an exasperated parent. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” In reality, God’s response to Job is always a timely reminder: This story is bigger than my own.
Someone once told me that the most comforting premise of the Christian worldview was, for her, the assurance of a beginning. The first words of Genesis 1 boldly claim that we are not lost and wandering in a cosmic circle of time and chance. Moreover, there is one who stood at the foundation of the world, who with wisdom, majesty, and purpose, caused life and history to begin. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It is a most hopeful assertion. There was a first word, and it was uttered by a creative God. There is a story that emerges from the beginning, and we have a place within it.
The voices of Scripture initiate us into a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. “Indeed,” concludes Peter, “all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days. And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed’” (Acts 3:24-25).
God’s Word places us in the timeline of our true history, delivering us from the deceptions of the enemy, telling us who we are, and where we came from, what is wrong with us, and how we are made whole. Moreover, we are told where we are going. We are placed within a story of which we know and celebrate the outcome, even as we wait for it through time and trial. In Christ, history’s outcome—its ultimate end—is revealed. Dark days may follow, but the ending is known.
The hope of the Christian message is that human life and fulfillment are not in our hands. We seek a source and a power that is far greater than chance and not limited by time, for we follow a God who proclaims through the reaches of time that we have a hope and a future.
In fact, my childhood misjudgment of an eternal future was rooted in a hopeful understanding of the storyline. Time is always moving toward something. Yet eternity is not more time, as I once imagined. Eternity is arriving.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
1.) C. S. Lewis letter to Sheldon Vanauken, December 23, 1950. Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), 93.
2.) Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 133.
3.) Skeptic magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1995, (80-85).