The Destiny of the Species

Jason J. Stellman
Friday, October 30th 2009
Nov/Dec 2009

There’s a not-so-subtle irony in the fact that our education system promotes the idea to our nation’s young people that they are little more than highly evolved animals, and then, when little Johnny grows up and behaves like one, we conclude that his real problem is his lack of education.

The idea that man is simply a product of his past, the cumulative effect of genes and environment, is one way to tell the human story, but it utterly fails to take into account the most profound aspect of man’s psyche. If man were an animal, then he would indeed be pushed by his past. But if man is a creature made in God’s image, then he is necessarily pulled by his future.

Due to the fact that many American Christians narrowly equate “eschatology” with the events immediately preceding the return of Christ (such as the Rapture and the rise of the antichrist), the significance of this term is obscured or often lost altogether. The word “eschatology” is derived from the Greek word eschatos, which means “last.” Eschatology, then, refers to the study of last things and, more specifically, how the future relates to the present.

Which Came Last, the Chicken or the Egg?

Anyone familiar with the hit television program House knows the value of a proper diagnosis. The show’s main character, Dr. Gregory House, is a physician with an uncanny gift of identifying rare maladies in his patients by noticing symptoms that most doctors overlook. If the patient is suffering from numbness in his left ring finger while simultaneously feeling acute kidney pain coupled with a rash on his right pinky toe and an unexplained taste of lemon in his mouth, Dr. House will somehow figure out that the patient must have visited Borneo last month where he surely contracted a rare strain of a virus carried by the fish that swim in the lake next to the hotel that are caught and served for dinner in its restaurant. And he’ll make this diagnosis without even getting up from his desk.

There is a danger, however, in focusing too much attention on man’s ailments, an error G. K. Chesterton calls “the medical mistake.” In his book What’s Wrong with the World, Chesterton writes: “The first great blunder of sociology…is stating the disease before we find the cure. But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease.”

Man, Chesterton insists, is distinct from an animal at precisely this point: while all that needs to be known about a cocker spaniel can be found by examining its past, the owner of the cocker spaniel can only be understood by examining his future. In other words, the cure for man must be identified before we can diagnose his illness, for we will never properly understand man’s condition until we determine his telos, until we ask what man is made for in the first place. Chesterton’s point, therefore, is that man can only be understood from the vantage point of the future, after running on ahead, as it were, and then looking back.

Chesterton uses the famous chicken or egg quandary to illustrate his point. The real question, he insists, is not which came first, but which comes last.

Leaving the complications of the human breakfast-table out of account, in an elemental sense, the egg only exists to produce the chicken. But the chicken does not exist only in order to produce another egg. He may also exist to amuse himself, to praise God, and even to suggest ideas to a French dramatist. Being a conscious life, he is, or may be, valuable in himself.

Chesterton’s point is that we mustn’t think of ourselves solely in immediate, practical terms, but also in ultimate ones. Eggs have only one purpose: to produce a chicken. Chickens, on the other hand, have more options than merely to be egg-layers. When considering ourselves solely from the perspective of this present age, it is easy to see ourselves as little more than consumers, as workers, as cogs in a cruel machine with no ultimate purpose. But when we think in more idealistic terms, we begin to see that we were made for something much grander than this world.

We need to be more idealistic, Chesterton argues, by which he means that we must “consider everything in its practical essence” or what it is ideally designed for. He points out that “idealism only means that we should consider a poker in reference to poking before we discuss its suitability for wife-beating.” He continues:

But I know that this primary pursuit of the theory (which is but pursuit of the aim) exposes one to the cheap charge of fiddling while Rome is burning….There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft agrees:

Men live not just in the present, but in the future. We live by hope. Our hearts are a beat ahead of our feet. Half of us is already in the future; we meet ourselves coming at us from up ahead….Animals’ lives are like an arc coming to them out of their past; they are determined by their past. They are pushed; we are pulled.

After all, the gospel transforms lives not by changing our past but by changing our future, for it is the latter, and not the former, that makes us what we are. “God,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, “has put eternity into man’s heart” (3:11), and whether he is conscious of it or not, man’s job is to chase it.

The Unworthiness of Egypt

Our dual citizenship–the fact that we live in this age with a longing for the next–results in a tension characteristic of all pilgrims. This tension is illustrated for us by the lives of two Old Testament saints mentioned in Hebrews 11’s “Hall of Faith.” The first is Joseph and the second is Moses.

In Hebrews 11:22 we read: “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.” This cryptic passage is referring to the account in Genesis 50:24-25 in which Joseph, the son of Jacob, said to his brothers: “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”

A cursory reading of these verses would suggest that Joseph’s desire to escape Egypt (even postmortem if necessary) was for obvious reasons. After all, wasn’t Egypt a cruel land, a place of slavery and a house of bondage (Exod. 20:2)? Not for Joseph it wasn’t. As Exodus 1:8 makes clear, Egypt did not become a place of oppression for Israel until “a pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph.” Joseph’s own tenure in Egypt was characterized not by oppression but by the power and wealth that accompanied his own exalted position as second-in-command to the king himself. Thus, whatever it was that caused Joseph to long to escape Egypt and enter the Promised Land, it certainly wasn’t Egypt’s difficulty or discomfort.

The second saint whose misgivings about Egypt may cause us to scratch our heads is Moses. Having been brought up as the adopted son in the royal family, Moses’ experience of Egypt was similar to Joseph’s. Stephen tells us in Acts 7:21-22 that “Pharaoh’s daughter adopted [Moses] and brought him up as her own son. And [he] was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.” Yet, Moses’ pedigree notwithstanding, Scripture says of him:

When he was grown up, [he] refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God…. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt…he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king. (Heb. 11:24-27)

What was it then that brought both Joseph and Moses to come to despise the land that symbolized such protection, pleasure, and power?

Thankfully, the text of Hebrews 11 spells out very clearly these saints’ reasons for refusing to give Egypt their allegiance, despite all it had done for them. What is only hinted at in Joseph’s mention of “the exodus of the Israelites” is made explicit in Moses’ own refusal to claim Egypt as his true homeland: The “pleasures” of Pharaoh’s land were “fleeting,” and its “wealth” and “treasure,” though impressive to be sure, could not hold a candle to the “reproach of Christ” and the “affliction” suffered by the people of God. Because Moses “endured as seeing him who is invisible,” all the enticements of earth’s most powerful kingdom could not sufficiently capture his heart or affections, nor could it distract him from “looking to the reward,” the “city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (vv. 25-27, 10).

Was Egypt a place of comfort for Joseph and Moses? Did it abound with provision and pleasure? Indeed it was, and it certainly did. But according to Scripture, that was never the issue. It is not Egypt’s goodness or badness that Hebrews 11 highlights, but its worthiness of these saints’ devotion. Speaking of all the saints of Hebrews 11, verse 38 sums up the problem with a beautiful succinctness: “Of [these saints] the world was not worthy.”

The “unworthiness” of Egypt in particular, and of this present age in general, is defined throughout the New Testament in terms of their fleeting, passing, and temporal nature. Paul argues that the sufferings that characterize life in this world “are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us,” and that the “slight momentary afflictions” we face here and now only serve to prepare us for “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17). Paul’s own life and ministry bear this out. Upon his final departure from Ephesus to Jerusalem, where he would face immediate imprisonment and eventual martyrdom, Paul confidently assured his flock, “But none of these things move me, nor do I count my life dear unto myself” (Acts 20:24, KJV). It was utter folly for Paul–as for Joseph and Moses–to choose earthly comfort, which is fading, over eternal blessedness, which never ends. For two of these saints, however, this choice did not only mean the loss of present pleasure but the gaining of present persecution. Although eternal concerns always trump temporal ones, the choice was obvious.

Groaning for Glory

It is not my intention to downplay the goodness or beauty of this present creation. Much has been said, both biblically and extra-biblically, about the wonders of nature (one need only think of Thoreau’s Walden, King David’s Psalm 8, and Krakauer’s Into the Wild). The apostle Paul has something to say on this topic as well, a passage that may be the most sublime of all:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Rom. 8:19-22)

Scholars have called this passage Paul’s commentary on Genesis 3:17-18, which is where God pronounced his curse upon creation because of man’s sin. In the apostle’s version, the cosmos itself is said to actually feel the burden and the weight of its own bondage to decay. The way creation deals with its own futility is to eagerly anticipate, and even groan for, the day on which it will experience the lifting of the curse and the fullness of God’s redemption of all things fallen. Apparently, according to Paul, the fate of the cosmos is bound up with the fate of the elect. And creation knows it.

It would stand to reason, therefore, that if the subhuman created order can recognize that there is something unsettling and off-kilter about its own situation, then the same recognition should be found in those who, unlike the rest of creation, are made in the very image and likeness of the Creator. Just as the Book of Ecclesiastes is a description of the vanity of life “under the sun,” it seems not only reasonable but experiential that all who look at earth from this vantage point can tell, at least intuitively, that this age is but an un-merry merry-go-round, a wild goose chase without the wild goose.

The fact that God has placed eternity into man’s heart–essentially rendering him restless, frustrated, and ruined for earth’s spoils–is what makes the unbeliever’s art so profoundly meaningful (more so than even the artist often realizes). When we consider Edvard Munch’s The Scream, The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” or the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix film trilogy, what else do we see but proof that even fallen man is haunted by a longing he cannot explain, only feel.

In the Romans 8 passage, Paul moves from considering the cosmos to all people in general and then from all people in general to the people of God in particular. If it is true that all men and women share an inexplicable ache for eternity, how much more ought the believer to recognize this longing and give expression to it? This is exactly what Paul argues in Romans 8:

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (vv. 23-25)

Yes, the cosmos may groan, Paul argues, but “we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” ache with an even greater frustration than both the non-believing human and subhuman created order. Or at least we should. The irony, however, is that the unbelieving world often displays, through its art and other media, an even greater frustration with earth than many believers exhibit. We of all people should recognize our provisional “cocoonish” condition; and yet the more we talk about redeeming the culture and reclaiming America for Christ, the more one gets the impression that if we were actually given wings and bidden to fly, we would be disappointed to leave our cocoon behind untransformed. What does that say about where our true devotion lies?

As hesitant as we may be to admit it, when we compare contemporary evangelicalism’s fixation with earth with contemporary paganism’s frustration with it, the conclusion seems inescapable that–sometimes at least–the latter does a much better job of imaging the God they deny than the former does of imaging the One they confess.

Will the Real Escapist Please Stand Up?

“Ah,” says the cynic, “isn’t all this talk of ‘heaven’ and ‘eternity’ just escapism, a desire for ‘pie in the sky when you die’?” It would be quite tempting (and maybe even truthful) to answer yes to this question. After all, does not the fact that heaven is ultimate while earth is only penultimate necessarily demand the conclusion that a willingness to settle for the latter is foolish at best and masochistic at worst? Who wouldn’t hope to graduate from the temporal and attain the eternal, to “escape” the provisional and arrive at the permanent?

But no one wants to be dismissed as an escapist, right? In my mind, the only way the Christian can admit guilt is with a few qualifications. Heaven is to earth what the outside world is to the womb. If there is such a thing as birth, then it follows that the womb is only temporary. Likewise, if there is such a thing as the new birth, then earth must be temporary as well. Is it “escapist” for a fetus to want to emerge from the womb? As Peter Kreeft says, “‘There is a tunnel under this prison’ may be an escapist idea, but it may also be true.” In other words, whether or not a hope is escapist is incidental to whether that hope is grounded in fact. If it is factual, then its being escapist is beside the point. Consider Kreeft’s parable:

There was a rumor among the caterpillars that they were destined to become butterflies. Some caterpillars believed it; others disbelieved; and still others doubted. Now what would be the reasonable attitude of each of the three groups of caterpillars toward this rumor? Which could reasonably call it escapist? Would not even the uncertain want to explore it further? For if it is true…it is not escapism. The charge of escapism therefore logically boils down to the charge of falsehood; only those who are certain the rumor is false can reasonably call it escapist. Otherworld-liness is escapism only if there is no other world. If there is, it is worldliness that is escapism.

Did you catch Kreeft’s point? In order for the label “escapist” to apply to the one who is homesick for heaven, the cynic making the charge must be certain that heaven does not exist. But such certainty is impossible to attain, which is why the charge of escapism is mere wishful thinking on the part of the one making it. And if the unbeliever is merely skeptical about heaven’s existence rather than certain of its nonexistence, then is it not he, rather than the believer, who is the real escapist? After all, sometimes heaven is that which we desire to escape from rather than to. Avoiding God is easier than embracing him. Before the prodigal can come home, he first must run away.

What about the charge often leveled against Christians that they are “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good”? If we spend all our time hoping for harps and halos, it is asked, when will we ever find the time to work toward earthly happiness and humanitarianism?

As Kreeft points out, the charge that heavenly mindedness diminishes earthly goodness is not necessarily true (though in some cases it might be). Let us answer the question with a question: Who is more likely to quit smoking during pregnancy, the mother who plans for an abortion or the one who plans to give birth? The answer should be obvious. Roads that actually lead somewhere are usually better maintained than dead-end ones, and likewise, when our earthly sojourn is seen as just that–a sojourn on the way to our heavenly home–then it is reasonable to assume that this pilgrimage will be taken with great seriousness and care. If death is not the end of the road but actually ushers us into the presence of the God who gave us life and demands an account of how we lived it, then is it not to be expected that the pilgrim with an eye on his destination will live more purposefully than will the tourist, the goal of whose trip is to get the greatest possible bang for his buck?

Bananas, BlackBerrys, and the Narratives That Define Us

As we live in this world, we are constantly faced with the challenge of choosing among the narratives that compete for our allegiance and seek to define us. Are we merely highly evolved animals, apes that climbed down from their trees, put on suits, and went to work? Did we just exchange our banana for a BlackBerry? Are we simply pushed by our past, driven by mere instinct and the desire for the survival of the fittest? Or, as God tells us in his Word, are we creatures made a little lower than the angels, whose fall from such heights precipitated our being lifted even higher?

It is only when we embrace our eschatologically oriented, future-focused identity that our present status as dispossessed pilgrims becomes at all tolerable. But God wants to lift us higher still, to the point where we not only tolerate our obscurity but embrace it, boasting like Paul in our infirmities, knowing that divine strength is perfected in human weakness. In short, we must realize that if we are to live as the divine image-bearers we are rather than the animals the Darwinists want us to be, the first thing we must do is dwell less on our past and more on our future. The chicken is indeed produced by the egg and, likewise, we are the product of our ancestry in some sense. But all of that pales in light of the deeper question of what the chicken is for. Sure, the “origin of the species” is important, but not nearly as important as its final destination.

1 [ Back ] G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 3.
2 [ Back ] Chesterton, 6.
3 [ Back ] Chesterton, 7.
4 [ Back ] Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 29.
5 [ Back ] On this topic, see my book Dual Citizens (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009), 120-22.
6 [ Back ] Peter Kreeft, Heaven: The Heart's Greatest Longing (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 164 (emphasis added).
7 [ Back ] Kreeft, 168 (emphasis added).
8 [ Back ] See
Friday, October 30th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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