Thoughts on Christian Theology and Pastoring

Man of Dust, Man of Heaven

It is hardly possible to exaggerate the marvel of what Paul is presenting here. Without saying that our “dust-like” existence will be completely undone, he is setting forth a vision in which our human existence will take on a new form, a form which, like Jesus’ post-resurrection body, is suited for an endless life in…

Suppose you were to read the book of Genesis, starting in chapter one and moving into chapter two. As you read, you would feel a sort of “seam” in verse four—like the place where two pieces of cloth are stitched together—after which the narrative takes on a different pace and pattern.

It was once popular among some scholars of the Bible to point to “seams” such as this one as evidence that Genesis was a patchwork of materials from a several different authors. After all, chapter two does present a second account of God creating humans, and this second account consistently uses a different name for God: “the Lord God” (Yahweh elohim) instead of just “God” (elohim). The first author, they thought, must have written during a time when elohim was the favored name for God. Later on, another author preferred to use the name Yahweh elohim. As time goes on, however, more and more people have begun to see the weaknesses of this theory. I believe that there are much better reasons to take the view that Genesis was written by one primary author, Moses—and this view turns out to make better sense of why the “seams” are there at all.

Suppose Moses wants to teach us something very important about God and human beings, and to do so, he gives us two views of the same creation event. In the first view, he presents a wide-angled view of God as the Almighty Creator who brings the universe into existence by merely speaking. From this panoramic vantage, we see God exalted, transcendent, and omnipotent.

But in the next view—which focuses on God’s creating human beings—the author zooms in and gives us a slow-motion account. In this close-up view, we see more clearly God’s nearness, intimacy, and tenderness. He reaches into the soil and shapes man’s body. He breathes into his nostrils the breath of life. He gently places him in a garden. Now it makes sense also why Moses has chosen in this section to use the expression “Lord God” (Yahweh elohim), for Yahweh is God’s personal covenant name. When God creates the universe, he displays his transcendence and majesty, so Moses refers to him as elohim (Mighty One). Now when God creates humans, it is still the same mighty God (elohim), but now as coming as the Personal One, Yahweh elohim, who establishes a loving commitment with his people.

Far from being evidence for a cobbling together of various sources, the similarities and differences between Genesis 1 and 2 are there on purpose: to teach us that the God above us is also the God near us. This is perfectly in harmony with the rest of the Scripture, including passages such as Isaiah 57:15 which declares, “For this is what the high and exalted One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’”

This intimate depiction God’s creating of human beings, therefore, forms the foundation for our understanding of what it means to be a human in relationship with God. But it must also be seen in light of the New Testament. The Apostle Paul quotes this very passage as follows:

It is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall webear the image of the heavenly man. (1 Corinthians 15:45-59).

Taken together these passages teach us something about (1) our present condition, (2) our future expectation, and (3) a present assurance.

1. Our Present Condition

Our present condition as human beings is described as “bearing the image of the man of dust” (1 Corinthians 15:49). This simply means that our bodies share the same constitutional makeup as the earth we inhabit. God didn’t reach into the galaxies above and mold us from stardust. He reached down into the ground and formed us from the dirt beneath us. This is not only a theological point; it is also a practical and scientific one. Our bodies have six main elements: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, calcium, and phosphorus—the same elements you can find in nearly any clod of dirt on the ground.Study the periodic table, and you will not find a “human element.” There isn’t a single atom in your body that you couldn’t also find somewhere on earth, and most right beneath your feet.

But it is undeniable that humanness involves something more—something that cannot be discovered with an atomic microscope or weighed on the finest of scales. The Bible calls it the “breath of God” (Genesis 2:7), the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27-28). We refer to it as the “soul” or “spirit”—much easier to grasp intuitively than to define. It is that by which I think of myself as a “self,” a unity over the course of time, even though I slough off a million atoms or lose a leg—a self in distinction to the other beings and objects around me; it is something by which I am constantly aware that what is me is inconceivable apart from my physical existence, but which is more than my physical existence. The Bible teaches me, and rightly so, that what makes us human is bound up within physical matter, but beyond that matter, it is something that is distinctly God-given, God-sustained and God-directed. Indeed, “from him, and through him, and to him are all things,” including our souls (Romans 11:36).

The Wisdom of this View

Many modern people tend to doubt that an ancient book can give us a reliable account of what it means to be a human. It will be worthwhile, therefore, to point out the wisdom of this biblical view. Notice what happens when we deny either part of what the Bible tells us is essential to our humanness—the body or the soul.

On the one hand, someone might be skeptical about the idea that humans have a soul. The physical body, they say, is all we know, and it is all that matters. But this view has serious consequences. The logical conclusion of such a view is to discard the value of anything the body does that does not benefit it—such as pursuing of justice, beauty, and truth. If every single body—human and non-human—will eventually be decomposed, and if everything that is decomposed will eventually reach final equilibrium, or heat-death, it is very hard to find any solid reason why I should, for example, make a private donation to the children’s cancer research project—unless that donation had the added benefit of making me feel better about myself. But, to be strictly logical, it shouldn’t make me feel any better about myself since I have done no real good, since by this view, there is no such thing. Everyone is at liberty to reject the Bible’s view of the soul, but they do so at the peril of the things they hold most dear.

On the other hand, others might be skeptical about the worth of the body—or, to be more specific, might insist that our bodies have relatively little to do with our souls. They might go so far as to say that the body is a prison of the soul or self. If they are very religious, this view might result in extreme denial of the body and its appetites: going without food, comfort, or sex. If they take a view of the soul/self that sees it primarily as the sum total of one’s current feelings, they may believe that they must change their body to match their feelings. If a person has a male body but feels that his soul or true self is female, he believes he cannot be authentic or satisfied until his body is changed to match that feeling. Notice what has happened: When you begin with the belief that the body is the prison of the soul, you will not rest until you have made your soul the ruthless captor of your body.

We should acknowledge that something has happened to disrupt the relationship between soul and body, and this is what has led to the confusion we tend to feel and experience. For now, however, the point is that the closer we examine these views, the more we see how impoverished they are, and how their logical conclusions take us down the road to absurdity. The more we see that they fail to take into account the richness and depth of the human experience, the more we see the wisdom of the way the Bible presents our condition. To be a human is to be soul and body—not one to a lesser degree than the other. In Scriptural terminology, that soul is God’s breath—or, to use imagery from Genesis 1, God’s image.

The Consequences of this View

If we accept that this view is wise, however, we should also accept that it comes with dire consequences. As humans we are intended to live in a relationship with God marked by love and obedience, but this we have failed to do. The fact that we have souls means that we will be forever conscious of our condition—whether as those who have turned toward God in love and worship, or as those who have turned away from him in hatred and disobedience. Jesus, whose words we should trust, gave this warning: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). We are given terrible descriptions of hell—a place of torment and separation from God.

To “bear the image of the man of dust,” is to have bodies and souls created for a relationship with a God we have spurned, and therefore set on a course which will in which we will suffer the consequences for such disobedience.

2. A Future Expectation

This dire consequence serves as the gloomy background for the good news that is the highlight of this verse. “We have borne the image of the man of dust”—yes, but here is a glorious future!—“we shall bear the image of the man of heaven”!

This “man of heaven” refers to Jesus Christ, and the phrase “of heaven” corresponds to the phrase “of dust.” Just as Adam’s body came from and was suited for an earthly existence, Jesus’ body came from and is suited for a heavenly existence, “heaven” referring to the realm of God’s presence.

It is hardly possible to exaggerate the marvel of what Paul is presenting here. Without saying that our “dust-like” existence will be completely undone, he is setting forth a vision in which our human existence will take on a new form, a form which, like Jesus’ post-resurrection body, is suited for an endless life in the presence of God himself. This is clarified later in the chapter when he writes that “we shall all be changed,” and “this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51, 53).

This will sound to some people like “pie-in-the-sky” talk—the sort of things people imagine as a way of coping with the brutal realities of life. Those who think this way fail to realize that nearly everything meaningful they do in life is motivated by this vision of the future, or at least something very much life it. In other words, if you want to live a meaningful life, you don’t necessarily have to believe this, but you must usually hope it to be so.

This struck me in a fresh way several years ago when I was reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. As Isaacson recounts,

One sunny afternoon, when he wasn’t feeling well, Jobs sat in the garden behind his house and reflected on death. He talked about his experiences in India almost four decades earlier, his study of Buddhism, and his views on reincarnation and spiritual transcendence. “I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God,” he said. “For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.” He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds out of a desire to believe in an afterlife. “I like to think that some thing survives after you die,” he said. “It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.” He fell silent for a very long time. “But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch,” he said. “Click! And you’re gone.” Then he paused again and smiled slightly. “Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.”

Whether or not it was tongue-in-cheek, Steve Jobs toyed with the idea that even the design of his devices was influenced by his wish for an afterlife, by how unconscionable it is to believe that at some point everything gets switched off.

C. S. Lewis writes about this longing for eternal life in a sermon entitled “Weight of Glory.” He refers to it as a homeland we have never visited, a country whose balmy breezes blow to us through art, literature, and mathematics.

In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.

Lewis makes the point that we will not be satisfied merely by seeing this beauty. We want to be part of it.

What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more—something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

Of course, merely longing for something does not prove that it exists, but then we should ask why the life of Jesus Christ so astonishingly fits what we are talking about.

The accounts of Jesus’ life show such a clash of heavenly and earthly cultures as we would expect if we were to be visited by a “man of heaven.” Into a society fractured by the fault lines that divided the haves from the have-nots, the insiders from the outsiders, the wealthy from the poor, the healthy from the sick, Jesus came. He bridged those chasms—hewn out by human pride and fear—by touching the untouchables, eating with “sinners,” and confronting the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. He spoke only the truth, feared no one’s opinion, and talked with God as easily as if were continuing a conversation he had from all eternity. Parents intuited his strength, tenderness, and moral purity, and so brought their little children just so he could hold and bless them. He spoke constantly of the kingdom of heaven, and in his descriptions of it we feel it is just the state of affairs we desperately need, but which we are utterly unwilling and incompetent to bring about ourselves. It is a place inherited only by those who may be described as the poor in spirit, the tender-hearted, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. It is a place where not only murder is out of the question, but even so much as an irritable thought toward another person.

If someone was ever a “man of heaven,” Jesus is that someone! And if there was anyone whose life shows us what we should be, Jesus is that someone! If eternity were inhabited by people who possessed anything less than a Jesus-level of goodness, it would, sooner or later devolve into hell itself. Yes, “we want to be united with the beauty we see.” Yes, we want to “bear the image of the man of heaven”!

3. A Present Assurance

This future expectation—that somehow people may “bear the image of the man of heaven”—would serve only to intensify our sense of alienation if it were not for the fact that Paul presents it as a present assurance: “we shall bear the image of the man of heaven.” It is presented as a future the assurance of which we can enjoy now.

The context of this verse teaches us the basis on which we can claim this future for ourselves. Jesus came from heaven to give new life to us, the “men of dust.”

But how did he do this? We rightly expect that a life such as Jesus’ should climax in glory—but it didn’t. It ended in utter misery and loss. Jesus, the “man of heaven,” was killed by “man of dust.” Mere humans—one of his own followers, the Jewish religious leaders, and the Roman authorities—were responsible for his betrayal and crucifixion.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death tells us that “when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). This expression “gave up his spirit” doesn’t just tell us that he died: it also tells us why he died. In Greek, the word for breath and spirit are the same. By telling us that Jesus “gave up his spirit,” Matthew was also telling us that Jesus was giving his spirit, his life—for others. Paul put it this way: “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam [that is, Christ] became a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45).

This did not become clear, and could not have been true, until Jesus rose from the dead. His resurrection vindicated the reason he died: not because of his sin, nor because he was a mere “man of dust,” but because he was the “man of heaven,” giving his life for us.

Mild He lays His glory by,
  Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth;
  Born to give them second birth.
Come, Desire of nations, come!
  Fix in us Thy humble home:
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring seed,
  Bruise in us the serpent’s head;
Adam’s likeness now efface,
  Stamp Thine image in its place:
Final Adam from above,
  Reinstate us in Thy love.

– Charles Wesley

This gift of life is to be received by faith. Those who have trusted in Jesus Christ as their “life-giving spirit” can say with the Apostle Paul, “I shall bear the image of the man of heaven! Not only will my behavior and morals be suited for life in the sunshine of God’s presence, but also my body as well!”

I cannot imagine a more satisfying assurance for the future. Moreover, I cannot imagine an assurance that gives to this present such hope, joy, and motivation. In light of this present assurance we can be “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord [our] labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

If it is true that through Christ we can enjoy the assurance that we will bear the image of the man of heaven, we should not despise our own bodies. True, we suffer the effects of sickness and aging. Our bodies do not look as we want them to look. They do not work as we want them to look. They do not feel as we want them to feel. Still, these bodies remain, for the time being, the way we live out the life of Christ. Beyond that, we should not despise the bodies of others. Others also “bear the image of the man of dust.” But if that “dust” received such care from God in creation, and from Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry, shouldn’t we show the same kind of care and compassion? Christian ministry that deals only with “souls”—that boasts in sharing the gospel, but not seeking to help the whole person by sharing medicine, food, and shelter—is a contradiction in terms.

This care for people’s bodies, on the other hand, cannot be separated from care for their souls. As important as our present bodies are, priority must always given to a person’s eternal state, since experiences then are intensified and prolonged forever. Jesus himself said: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” He did not mean that there will be in heaven who are bodily maimed. He was making the point no amount of physical pain in this life can compare with the pain of an eternity apart from God—or will detract from the joy in God’s presence.

We always bear in mind that everyone we encounter is on a path to either heaven or hell. Everyone will someday forever bear the image of the man of heaven, or forever bear their own self-made distortion. This lifts all our words and actions onto a plane of importance so high we can hardly grasp. Something as seemingly trifling as giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name can end up being an eternal reward. By trusting Christ more deeply, may we learn to live in the joyous expectation that “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, so we shall bear the image of the man of heaven.”

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