By Jeff Boldt
Christians can be pretty forgetful. When you’ve been around 2000 years, it happens. For example, the Bible teaches that creation is the temple of God and that we are priests in that temple. Early Christian interpreters took this for granted, as did medieval and even early modern interpreters. We don’t. It would be fitting, though, this Christmas season, if we were to recover some of this vision, in light of the fact that “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). Creation indeed has become God’s dwelling.
Every Christian group remembers its favorite era, and forgets the rest. Evangelicals wish they lived in the first century. The Orthodox want to relive the Byzantine empire. Some Protestants wish they lived during the sixteenth century Reformation. Anglicans dig the 60s, apparently.
When I was first exploring the Anglican Church, I would run into these puzzling men brought up on 1960s scholarship who thought they had to throw out most of the Bible because it taught a “three-story universe.” This is the idea that God literally lives in heaven above, we on earth, and the dead below the earth. Living many decades after the 60s meant I couldn’t understand the relevance of their concern, and as an artist, I found it hard to understand people who couldn’t think symbolically. Heaven is not literally up. Instead, “up” signifies God’s transcendence –– his infinite greatness in comparison with creation. Hell is “down” in order to signify our humiliation by sin and the grave. Scientific problem solved.
I’ve begun to wonder whether there isn’t a bigger problem. After all, the creation account in Genesis 1 not only puts heaven above the earth, but separates them by the “firmament” –– a solid structure that holds up the heavenly realm. In modern cosmology, there’s no such thing as a firmament. On the one hand, lots of folks add this to the list of reasons to ignore the Bible. On the other, if you’ve watched “Beyond the Curve,” you’ll know there’s a growing movement of flat-earthers committed to a three-story universe.
The first thing to say is that biblical cosmology is not “ancient science,” though there are three groups that think it is. “Fundamentalists” think Scripture gives us true science –– a science that’s better than modern science. On the other side, opponents of religion want us to believe the Bible’s cosmology is ancient science so that they can discredit Scripture. Finally, there’s the Liberal Christian tradition which says that the biblical writers taught science, and that their science is conveyed through myths, which are glorified guesses. In hindsight we know they’re wrong. Still, Liberal Christians can separate kernels of truth from the indigestible husk of Genesis 1.
All three of these alternatives are wrong. Scholars of mythology don’t think ancient people –– let alone biblical authors –– were trying to do science. Contrary to popular myth, the vast majority of Christian interpreters prior to Christopher Columbus believed the earth was round. These traditional interpreters thought that when the Bible’s cosmology used words like “firmament,” they were figurative –– representing something deeper. (Hint: the deeper truth always has to do with Jesus.)
So, what’s the truth about the cosmos in Scripture? What does it tell us about God? We need to move on from immature thinking about Scripture to full maturity. Hebrews 5:13–6:3 says that the basics of faith have to do with repentance, faith and works, baptism, the reception of the Holy Spirit, and the last things. The greatest mystery, however, is the Cross, which is solid food. Indeed, the meatiest part of Hebrews is its deep teaching about Christ as the priest of creation.
Priesthood is central to a Christian understanding of creation, because the Bible teaches that creation is God’s temple and humans are priests in that temple.
The Israelites built temples as microcosms of creation. The tabernacle built by Moses and the temple built by Solomon were divided into three parts that correspond to the “three-story universe” in Genesis 1. The outer courtyard, the holy place, and the most holy place where the ark of the covenant — God’s “footstool” — sat. Laid horizontally, the tabernacle-temple corresponded to heaven, earth, and under the earth.
If the Jewish temple was a microcosm, then the cosmos itself was one large temple. When God gave Moses a blueprint for the tabernacle, it was simultaneously a blueprint of the universe laid out in Genesis 1. This is why the Bible constantly contrasts the Jewish temple, “made by hands,” and the cosmic temple “not made by hands”:
This is what the Lord says:
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
Where will my resting place be?
2 Has not my hand made all these things,
and so they came into being?”
declares the Lord. (Isaiah 66:1-2)
… the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. (Acts 7:48)
[Levitical priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” (Heb. 8:5)
In other words, the temple God has chosen to dwell in is creation, which is the temple he made for himself.
This is also clear from Genesis 2 and 3, because the Garden of Eden is the “most holy place” on earth where God comes to walk with Adam, whose job was to “till the earth.” Hebrew uses the same word for “tilling” and for serving as a priest in the temple. Adam was a priest. But he failed to do his job, and he was expelled from the holy of holies. Cherubim covered the entrance to Eden so that he couldn’t come back.
Similarly, when God gave Moses the blueprint for the tabernacle, the holy of holies was blocked off by a curtain embroidered with stars, just like the firmament that separated heaven and earth in Genesis 1, and with the angels that separated Eden from earth in Genesis 3.
One of my favorite children’s books is The Garden, the Curtain, and the Cross. Here’s how it tells the story:
To show [Adam and Eve] they had to stay outside, God put some warrior angels in front of the garden. The angels were like a big KEEP OUT sign…. God wanted people to remember: It is wonderful to live with him… but because of your sin, you can’t come in. So he told the people to build a special building called his temple, where he would live. In the middle of the temple was the most wonderful place in the world –– the place where God was, with nothing bad and nothing sad. It was VERY exciting … But then God told people to put A BIG CURTAIN around this wonderful place. The curtain had pictures of warrior angels on it. It was a big KEEP OUT sign. For hundreds of years, the temple curtain reminded people that God said, It is wonderful to live with him… but because of your sin, you can’t come in. … Hundreds of summers and winters passed by, and the KEEP OUT curtain stayed in the temple. Then, one day, God’s Son came to live in this world… He was called JESUS.
The book of Hebrews has Jesus fulfill the priestly role of Adam (2:5-9 with reference to Psalm 8). No Levite in Israel was able to do this fully, since they were all sinners and they all died. Jesus, however, was sinless and eternal.
The Gospel records that when “Jesus breathed his last,” “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37-38). Adam’s sin was reversed! As a result, Hebrews says
Therefore, brothers and sisters… we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body… (Heb. 10:19-20).
Jesus’s body is the curtain; it is the firmament between heaven and earth, between us and God. And when Christ’s body was torn by thorns, and nails, and spears, the way back to Eden was opened. We can ascend to the top of the “three-story universe”… or, that’s what the symbolism implies.
At the same time when Jesus was baptized it says, “when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” (Mark 1:10). The firmament is open, the Spirit floods down on us.
Because of Christ, heaven and earth are connected by a two-way street again –– a ladder. “You will see heaven open and angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). We can ascend to God, and his Spirit can descend on us.
The priesthood of believers is an extension of Jesus’ priesthood. With the descent of the Holy Spirit, it is tempting to think that we automatically carry him everywhere we go, that by our own priestly efforts we are “furthering the kingdom,” or that we are joining heaven to earth. Luther warned us about such “theologies of glory.” Our ascension is only the result of a prior descent with Christ to the lower parts of the earth. When the Son of God took the “form of a servant” and “emptied himself” in death (Phil. 2), he poured out the Holy Spirit on us. Likewise, the Holy Spirit will be poured out of our bodies when we obediently embrace a holy death. Then our descent to the grave will truly be an ascent to the throne of God. For those with ears to hear, this is the mystery of the three-story universe.
Jeff Boldt has a Th.D. from Wycliffe College and serves as a priest at Trinity Church Streetsville in Mississauga, Ontario.
St. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns On Paradise. Crestwood, N.Y: SVS Press, 1997.
Numbers, Ronald L., ed. Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Walton, John H. The Lost World Of Genesis One. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2009.
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