In case you haven’t had the chance to watch the news lately, something appears to have gone wrong with the world. Not only are we dealing with a worldwide pandemic, but there has also been an increase of violence and social unrest in recent years. Often the way that story is told is that all the strife we are witnessing around us is the result of liberal policies and programs — or on the other side of the political fence, the conflict is actually the result of conservative inaction to address problems such as injustice, inequity, climate change, etc. As time marches on, each side continues to blame their political opponents for all the problems in the world, and if we could just get rid of these people who are destroying our country, then everything would be fine.
But as we know, the problem doesn’t simply lie with this group or that. No, the problem is that no group of human beings have ever been able to create a kind of utopia here on earth — nor will they ever be able to do so. This is why if you pick up any newspaper, or just about any history book, you’ll see that conflict, war and strife are actually universal constants. Once our first parents committed high treason against their creator, they and all their posterity, were banished from paradise. In fact, Gn. 3:24 tells us that “God drove man out of the garden, and at the east of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”
This is what’s wrong with the world. In fact, in Genesis 4 we begin to see the horizontal effects of sin, as Cain ends up murdering his own brother. Cain, of course, wasn’t the victim of failed government programs or corrupt social institutions, because none of those things were even around yet. No, the problem had to do with his own sinful inclinations. Later in Genesis chapter 6 we’re told that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” and this what motivated God to send a great flood. But in the midst of judgment, God also remembered mercy (Gn. 8:1).
Unfortunately, however, the flood didn’t end up solving the world’s problems. For as soon as the waters began to recede, we see the effects of sin taking hold in the lives of Noah and all his descendants. By the time we get to Genesis 11, those descendants began to multiply and fill the earth, and verse 4 tells us of on particular group of men who banded together, saying, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” To the question, “What is the chief end of man?” the Westminster Shorter Catechism famously answers, “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” But that’s not the answer we would likely get from any of the tower builders here in Genesis 11. No, their goal was to build a great towering city in order to make a name for themselves.
In verses 5 and 6 of Genesis 11, “the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.” And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” And so, just as God had earlier cursed the ground so that it produced thorns and thistles as well as fruit bearing plants, here in Genesis 11, he cursed the people by confusing their the language in order to frustrate their plans. In effect, they were attempting, by their own technological ingenuity, to create a kind of heaven on earth. This was to be a kind of virtual paradise, and in a way, you might say that it was an attempt to bypass the cherubim with his flaming sword (Gn 3:24). Of course, the main difference between this new “virtual paradise” that the men of Babel were attempting to build for themselves, and the one described in the early chapters of Genesis, is that in this latest iteration, God is the one who has been banished — if only in the hearts and minds of Babel’s citizens. Their chief end, after all, was not to glorify God, but to make a name for themselves.
This is what’s wrong with the world. You see, we’re all descended from rebellious parents, and the fruit hasn’t fallen far from the tree. All of us in a variety of ways are seeking in vain some kind of autonomous existence. Though we long to get back to paradise, we don’t want God to be there, telling us all how to behave. We don’t want to glorify God, we want to glorify ourselves. The stark reality however is that whenever men have attempted to create some kind of earthly utopia, instead of creating heaven on earth, they usually end up creating not utopia, but dystopia. This is due to the fact that ever since the fall, the human race has been continually barred from paradise. We are unable to build it from the ground up, nor can we lever it down from heaven.
I recently discovered a fascinating book by Chris Jennings titled, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism. In this work Jennings chronicles a variety of nineteenth century communities here in the United States that were essentially attempting to create a kind of heaven on earth. In his introduction he says that during this time in our nation’s history, “The new faith in limitless, human-driven progress merged with the old faith in an immanent golden age. Perhaps human genius—manifested in new ideas, buildings, machines, and social institutions—would be the lever by which the millennium of fraternity and abundance was activated. The New Jerusalem was coming, but it would not be winched down from above. It would be built from the ground up, by planners and engineers.” However, Jennings went on to note that “the failure of the nineteenth-century utopians to produce even one enduring society cannot be ignored…The cumulative moral is precise: Anyone nuts enough to try building heaven on earth is bound for a hell of his own making.” Sounds familiar? This account almost reads like it could be a missing paragraph from the story of the Tower of Babel recorded in Genesis 11.
One of the most fascinating chapters in Jennings’s book recounts the story of a man by the name of Robert Owen, who was a Welshman who experienced an incredible amount of business success in New Lanark, Scotland. In fact, all of us may have Owen to thank for the idea of an 8 hour work-day, since back in 1817, he was the first to promote the idea of “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” And as a result of many of his successful reforms, he decided to plan a community from the ground up, by purchasing land in a place called New Harmony, Indiana.
According to Jennings, “Robert Owen had come to North America to initiate what he called ‘the New Moral World’—a new type of society founded upon total equality, brotherly love, and reason.” In fact, this New Moral World, Jennings observes, was to be a kind of “secular New Jerusalem, a rationalist’s answer to the millenarian fervor that was already sweeping the United States. Owen believed that technology, new social structures, and mass education would soon create a perfected human society.” In 1816 he reportedly told a group of millworkers, “I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty…and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundred fold: and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment except ignorance to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal.”
Robert Owen’s particular form utopianism was socialist. Private property in his view was one of the three main sources of evil. In his perspective, man was good by nature, and corrupt social structures ended up being the cause of society’s collective ills. In fact, he later made the claim that, “None are or can be bad by nature…and it must be a gross error to make him responsible for what nature and his predecessors have compelled him to be.” Therefore, since man wasn’t corrupt by nature, all the problems with the world were now potentially solvable, and he would be the one to usher in the new millennium. “Ere along there shall be but one action, one language, and one people…Even now, the time is new at hand when swords shall be turned into plough-shares…” In fact, he even referred to his own work as a kind of “second coming of truth.” In his book, The New Moral World, he writes,
The causes which continually prevented the creation of universal charity, of universal kindness, which kept men ignorant, wicked and miserable, which made men hate or dislike each other, and maintained war and ill-will among the human race, were hidden until now in impenetrable darkness…The second coming of the truth declares to the world, that all which is now required to ensure the permanent progressive improvement, and consequential happiness of every succeeding generation, is…to rationally educate and employ the human race, from birth through life to death; and to effect this change immediately, by scientifically superseding all existing human inferior circumstances…
Owen concluded by saying that this is “the only remedy which can remove the causes of evil, and ensure the attainment of all that is good for man.” In other words, he wasn’t merely propagating naive utopian political views. Rather, Owen was actually disseminating a completely false gospel.
During 1825 and 1826, Jennings notes that Owen’s views had a wide influence and a total of ten Owenite communes were formed in various parts of the United States. In fact, Friedrich Engels worked as a reporter for Owen’s newspaper and referred to him as “one of the few born leaders of men.” And in their famous Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels noted that “Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen.” And yet, with all his fame, influence, and apparent success, trouble began to brew in his new utopian socialist community which he founded in New Harmony, Indiana. According to Jennings, it didn’t take long before “an air of mutiny began to prevail in the village.” By 1827, Owen himself was forced to abandon the community. At one point he even referred to the divisiveness that took over the city he founded as a kind of “Babel-like confusion.”
My point in relating this story is to highlight the fact that ever since the fall, the human race has been banned from re-entering paradise. C.S. Lewis once observed that the trouble we encounter all around us — all the disease, conflict and strife — is actually God’s megaphone reminding us that all is not right with the world. Because we’re created in God’s image, we all have eternity written on our hearts — we all long for paradise. But we simply have no means of getting there, apart from God’s gracious intervention.
This realization, however, leads us to another important scene from the book of Genesis, namely, the story of Jacob’s Ladder. The story is found in chapter 28, just after Jacob deceived his father and stole his brother’s birthright. And because Esau threatened to kill him, we find Jacob fleeing the land of Canaan and heading for the land of Haran in Northern Syria. And it was on this particular journey that the patriarch stopped for the night, and dreamed of “a ladder set up on the earth, with the top reaching to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!”
There are some obvious and clear parallels here to what we’ve considered already from the Tower of Babel story of Genesis 11. In both cases we have kind of bridge between heaven and earth. In the first case, the building of the tower was never actually achieved because, according to Gn. 11:5, God came down and cursed the inhabitants of the city with division and confusion. Yet here in chapter 28, another bridge comes into view. But this time, the stairway isn’t something built my man, but is something God provides in mercy and grace. As you may recall, Jacob wasn’t even looking for God — much less trying to engineer some kind of utopian society. In fact, he was actually in the process of abandoning the land of promise as a result of his own treachery and deceit (Gn. 27:35-45).
God “came down,” we’re told in chapter 11 and cursed the people of Babel. Yet here in Genesis 28, God “came down,” not to curse, but rather to unexpectedly bless Jacob. What we witness here is this passage is the very same principle that would later be revealed to Moses in Ex. 33:19 when he said, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” In short, what both these passages make clear is that God does not bless those who attempt to bridge the gap between heaven and earth. He doesn’t come to rescue those who try to save themselves and who just need a little additional help. No, he has aways rejected every form of self-salvation (cf. Lk. 18:9-14, Rom. 4:4-5, Eph. 2:8-10).
At the end of the day, there are only two religions in the world. There’s the religion of Genesis 11, in which man by his own strength and ingenuity attempts to build a tower reaching to the heavens, and the religion of Genesis 28 in which God graciously descends to us in order to rescue us by his grace. This is precisely the point that Jesus made to Nicodemus in John chapter 3. In verse 13 of that passage, Jesus specifically says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” Jesus, of course, wasn’t inventing a new doctrine at this point. This is essentially the same message we find in Psalm 24 which asks, “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord?” The answer isn’t terribly encouraging. “He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” Since none of us have clean hands or pure hearts, we’re all banned from entering. In fact, as Jeremiah put its, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” So at the end of the day, the only one who does quality to ascend the hill of the Lord is the second Adam, the one who never gave in when he was tempted in the wilderness. He is the Lord of glory for whom the gates of heaven open (Ps. 24:9-10). But if you have been graciously united to Christ, you will enter with him.
So now, think about the contrast between all that we’ve been considering from Genesis 11. The residents of Babel we’re attempting to build a tower reaching to the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. They wanted to be the heroes of their own story. But rather than bridging the gap between heaven and earth, they ended up bringing down a curse that further divided mankind. By contrast, when Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,” Paul expalins in Phil. 2:8-9, “God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.”
Also, recall that in the latter part of John 1, Philip found his friend Nathaniel and brough him to Jesus. And in his very first encounter, Jesus said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” We’re not exactly sure why this shocked Nathaniel, but for some reason he responded by saying, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Then in verses 50-51 Jesus answered him saying, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
There is a remarkable affinity here between this passage and the words recorded in back in Genesis chapter 28. Essentially, Jesus is claiming to be Jacob’s heavenly staircase. He is the one who bridges the gap between heaven and earth. To borrow language from John 14, he doesn’t merely show us the way, “he is the way the truth and the life.” This, I believe, is one of the errors that many religious people end up making, including many people who consider themselves followers of Jesus. In many cases, God is thought of as a kind of physician who first diagnoses our problem and then gives us a to-do list, “You have to stop eating x, y and z, you need get more exercise, and you need to get this prescription filled and take it twice a day.” Viewed this way, religion is all about following God’s advice. But this is far from the Christian faith. The foundation of true faith is not good advice, but good news.
J. Gresham Machen once noted that Liberalism is in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative — it describes not what we need to do to save ourselves but rather what has already been done for us. All the religions of the world that reject this gospel-centered approach, are essentially following the same storyline that we find in Genesis 11. Just keep climbing, step by step, and you’ll make your way to the pearly gates. But no matter how hard we try, we cannot ascend the hill of the Lord. We cannot make our way back to paradise. We cannot create any form of earthy utopia. No, what we need is a theology rooted in the message of Genesis 28. We need a gospel that declares to us that God is the one who graciously descends to us, even when we’re not looking for him. We need to be continually reminded that “No one has ever ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven.” In short, we need a theology that points us away from ourselves, and of all thoughts of self-glorification, but which instead reveals a God who came to be our righteousness, and who’s ultimate mission was to be “lifted up” on our behalf.
Three times in John’s Gospel Jesus referred to himself as the one who came to be “lifted up” for his people (Jn. 3:14, 8:28, 12:32). Though it may initially sound like a reference to his exaltation and glorification, as you keep reading and reflecting on those passages, you soon begin to realize that he’s actually referring to his forthcoming humiliation and death as he’s lifted up on a cross. Actually, it’s a little of both. Christ’s humiliating crucifixion, according to John, is actually the high point of his glorification. This amazing truth was revealed some seven hundred years in advance by Isaiah, who in his famous prophecy of the suffering servant said, “He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted” (Is. 52:13). Then the very next verse says “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—so shall he sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him.”
Typically in the ancient world, a king would be the one to commission the construction of a great building project — usually in his own honor. But here, in Isaiah’s strange prophecy, we find the report of something that causes kings all over the world to shut their mouths. In this unparalleled story of the suffering servant who was both “marred” and “exalted,” they would hear an account of something greater than themselves. It was not a list of instructions about improving their own societies, or suggestions on how to make a name for themselves. Rather, it was a report of one who suffered in their place, and who ends up sprinkling all of us clean. Though, at times we may be tempted to look around and ask, “Who has believed this report?” But as you’ll recall, Isaiah anticipated that as well, and responded with a question of his own: “To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” (Is. 53:1).