The Bible as Mirror, Map and Metaphor

The last time the world ended, only a few thousand of us survived. That’s probably the way it will be the next time the world ends. The world has ended at least five times (Near extinctions, the experts call it) since it evolved to the point where we would recognize a beginning and an end. Life as we know it has practically ceased to exist at least five times since life as we know it came into existence. Who knows how many more times it will come and go. The same thing goes for the universe.

We have no reason to think that this particular configuration that we call the universe is the only configuration ever. This universe just happens to be the one we are living in now. But why think that this is the only one that ever has been or ever will be? As far as we know, universes have always been coming and going, and always will be.

The Bible thinks this is the only world that ever was, and this is the only universe that ever was. The Bible thinks this world that we live in right now had a beginning, and it will have an end, and the universe that this world is a part of had one beginning, and will have one end. Of course, we can’t fault the Bible for thinking of things in this way. That’s the way things were thought when the Bible was written. We can’t think that way ourselves just because the Bible does.

The world did not begin the way the Bible says the world began, and it will not end the way the Bible says the world will end. The Great Beast that the Book of Revelation describes as being destroyed in the Final Battle was the Roman Empire. There was no Final Battle. The Great Beast had some internal problems, and disappeared without much of a fight. The barbarians were enough to put an end to it.

Then, there is the idea of the Apocalypse, and Agamemnon, and the War for Complete Domination and Absolute Eternal Control between the forces of the Christ and the forces of the Anti-Christ. How does the Prince of Peace wind up commanding the heavenly legions? Does anyone see a fundamental incompatibility at work here? Doesn’t the Anti-Christ win if he forces the Christ, of all people, into a War of Last Resort? But, it is a popular view, even if it does completely discount the probability that the next time the world ends it will be when the Yellowstone caldera, which is the world’s largest active super-volcano, erupts again–unless the environment collapses first!

But you might as well know that the Yellowstone eruptions have been calculated to take place every 600,000 years. And it has been 630,000 years since the last one. Yellowstone Lake is tilting to the south. Under the lake there is a huge magma bubble waiting to blow any millennia now. Just saying…

The Bible’s depictions of the physical and spiritual realm, with God sitting on a royal throne in a different dimension, plotting the course of time, and planning the events of history, down to the number of hairs on our heads, and the deaths of the robins and the sparrows, are limited to the world-view of the people who wrote the Bible. They did what they could with what they had to work with, but they didn’t have much to work with. They thought the world was flat. They thought the sun moved around the earth. We cannot live in this world shackled to the way they thought about that world.

The same thing goes with the world to come—the one that is waiting for us on the other side of death. It’s all speculation, what happens when we die, but it’s such a stretch to think in terms of pearly gates, and streets of gold, and angelic choruses without end in the heavenly court. Any description of life after death must be by its very nature short on the details. It’s more than we can say. But we can say at least two things.

The first is that we have no reason to think that life actually ever ends. Oh, sure, bodies cease to live, decay, and dissolve back into the basic elements from which they came. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Bodies certainly die, but that doesn’t mean life dies, that life ceases to exist. We don’t have a clue about life, what it is, where it comes from, where it goes.

Life is like the wind. We see the effects of the wind, but we don’t see the wind. We can tell it’s there by what it does. We don’t see life, we only see the effects of life. When we take “vital signs,” we know life is in there somewhere because the “signs” say so. If we have brain activity, we have life. If we have a flag flapping, we have wind. But, what is life apart from the activity we associate with life? We don’t know.

The bodies we walk around in are made up of atoms—hydrogen atoms, oxygen atoms (We’re mostly water, you know, H2O), carbon atoms, and nitrogen atoms. It’s like we stepped right off some periodic chart. Well, not one of those atoms that make us up is alive. Not one. You could pull all the atoms that make us up off some periodic chart and stack them in a corner and they would never be us. They would just be a pile of cosmic dust. Where does life come from?

Isn’t that the question, though? We’re always wondering how life began as though its beginning is a greater mystery than its continuing, than its being. How do we get the atoms that compose us, and the life that is us, together? How is it that the life that is in my body and yours isn’t in a rock or a marble? And, what makes us think that when that life is no longer in my body and yours, it dies?

Why not think that life continues? Flowing, we might imagine, from the Source to here, and back to the Source, picking up experience, becoming conscious and aware, one might say “personal,” along the way. We might also imagine that living well brings the Source to life here and now. Jesus was an epiphany of the Source of Life and Being on earth. Eternity broke into the Temporal plane through Jesus of Nazareth—and does so through all of those who do it like Jesus, and the Buddha, and all the Bodhisattvas would do it, by doing it as only they–individually–could do it. We make the Source real, we bring the Source to life, the Source becomes a tangible aspect of life in this world, when we live in ways that fulfill our destiny, serve the good, and exhibit the truth of life and being in the world.

All the Biblical depictions of heaven attempt to convey the deep truth that heaven is—beyond all imagery and flights of fantasy—an experience with the good. The catch seems to be that the goodness is wasted upon those who do not develop a capacity for goodness—for appreciating, creating, and expressing goodness—for being good—in this life in this world. “A tree is known by its fruit,” says Jesus. What goes around, comes around. If you “sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” We prepare for the goodness of the world to come by being sources of goodness in the world of here and now.

This leads to the legitimate place of the Bible in our lives, which is that of a mirror reflecting who we are to us, a map pointing the way, and a metaphor (like an inkblot that everyone sees a bit differently) revealing the heart of how things are to those who have eyes to see. “Isn’t that just the way it is, though?” is the question the Bible brings to life as it shows life to us.

The Bible is the story of our life. In the beginning, we are one with ourselves. We were at one with our core. Every baby starts out like this. Then, we begin to get ideas. We begin to have notions. We begin to think that life would be better if we had more, did more, went more, were more. We hatch the idea of success, and tie it up with achievement, and acquisition. Life then is about the external stuff, the bigger barns, the money in the bank, the lifetime memberships in the right clubs, and we are always only one more major purchase away from complete happiness ever after. We are sure of it. And, all of the commercials declare it to be so.

Of course, as we drift off in this direction, we lose connection with the core, forget what is truly important, can’t find our way back to where we came in—or to who we were when we came in—and try to compensate ourselves for the emptiness within with more of the external stuff. That’s the story of the Bible, and it is our story—the story of every single one of us. You will hear this from me again: All of the wonderful old themes of the Bible have a place in our life: Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Guilt and Redemption, Bondage and Freedom, Death and Resurrection, Lost and Found… It’s all there. We can’t read the Bible without meeting ourselves on every page. The stories deal with Adam and Eve, Jesus of Nazareth, John of Patmos, and all the others but they are about each of us.

The thread running through the Bible is the same thread that runs through our life. It’s about finding our way back home, back to the core, back to the heart, back to who we are, back to the “face that was ours before we were born.” That’s the Hero’s Journey, the Spiritual Journey, the Quest for the Holy Grail, the search for the Kingdom of God and the Land of Promise, Vitality, Integrity, Sincerity, Spontaneity. It’s the journey to ourselves, to who we are, to the experience and expression of what is undeniably, irrefutably, us in the world.

The journey is about the sacred old values like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, generosity, compassion, hospitality, justice, and the like. The journey is about creativity, about oneness, about reconciliation, about being true to ourselves within the context and circumstances of our lives. It is about drawing lines, and taking chances, and exploring new worlds, and making where we are a good place to be. If we spend our lives taking care of this world in these ways, the next world will take care of itself.

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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