Years ago I heard a preacher tell a story that most of you have probably encountered in some form or another. It goes like this:
“A man fell in a hole. He fell in a hole and he could not get out. A traveler passed by, he told the man to meditate to purify his mind, and when he reached Nirvana all suffering would stop. The man did as he was told, but he remained in the hole. Another man appeared. He explained that the hole didn't exist and neither in fact did the man. It was all an illusion. The man, who did not exist was still stuck in the hole that was not there. Another visitor arrived. He instructed the man to do good deeds to improve his Karma. Although he would still die in the hole, he might be reincarnated as something magnificent. Another man looked down from above, he taught the man to pray 5 times a day facing east and to follow 5 important tenets. If he was faithful one day perhaps the divine would set him free. The man prayed as best he could, but he was losing strength, and in the hole he remained. Another man appeared, but there was something different about him. He called down to the man in the hole and asked him if he wanted to be free. This man lowered himself into the earth and into the pit. He took hold of the man and dragged him into the light. The man in the hole who could not get himself out of the hole was saved.”
I still remember being utterly floored the first time I heard this story. I couldn’t get over how different the message of Christ was. The truth of Paul’s words, “Ephesians 2:8-9 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works…” are magnificently illustrated here.
Since I first heard this parable though, I’ve come to the conviction that it doesn’t go far enough in describing just how dire our situation is. You see, humanity didn’t passively “fall” into sin like a man who accidently fell into a hole, rather humanity (on both an individual and cooperate level) actively rejects and rebels against the one who gave her life. As Paul says in Romans:
Romans 1:21-23 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
The main problem with the man in a hole story is that it assimilates the Christian story into the “glory story” of the theology of glory. This story is the most common overarching narrative of the world’s religions. Although the Christian version may seem kinder and more graceful, it ultimately doesn’t differ that much. In the words of Gehard Forde the “glory story” goes like this:
We came from glory and are bound for glory. Of course, in between we seem somehow to have gotten derailed… but that is only a temporary inconvenience to be fixed by proper religious effort. What we need is to get back on “the glory road[i].”
Forde goes on to say that the Biblical story is often taken into captivity by this narrative. He continues:
The unbiblical notion of a fall is already a clue to that. Adam, originally pure in soul, either by nature or by the added gift of grace was tempted by baser lusts and “fell,” losing grace and drawing all his progeny with him into a “mass of perdition.” Reparation must be made, grace restored, and purging carried out so that return to glory is possible. The cross, of course, can be quite neatly assimilated into the story as the reparation that makes the return possible. And there we have a tightly woven theology of glory[ii].
The main consequence of the “glory story” is that in lessening the weight of our sin and rebellion, it clouds our view of just how much God loves us. If we were half decent people who just fell into a hole, the reality of Jesus dying on the cross is absurd. We don’t need a loving God to send us a Savior. On the other hand, if we’re creatures of wrath who have spit in the face of our creator, what does it say about a God who would send his one and only Son to die for us? It says, “He is love” to quote the words of the Apostle John.
So, in that vein I want to offer my own variation of “the man in a hole” parable. It’s a theologian of the cross’s take on the story. Here it goes:
“There were once two friends walking in a garden in the cool of the day. The one friend decided that he no longer desired the company of the other so he dug a hole. He dug and dug and dug until it became too deep for the man to get out. Seeing this, the other man warned his friend of his grave error in judgment. The other man responded by scoffing at his friend and continuing to dig. Finally after several days of digging the man fell down exhausted. As he peered up the large hole he then realized that he needed to get out. His friend offered help, but the man responded by shouting expletives and continuing with his escape plans. After four days of trying to escape the man was growing weary. His friend from above was now dropping notes in the hole in the hopes that the other man would receive the good news. Upon receiving the notes from above the man would rip them up.
As he grew more and more weary the man began to make up diverse schemes. He thought, “Perhaps if I meditate and purify my mind, and then reached Nirvana I’d escape this mess.” When this didn’t work the man contemplated, “Maybe if I do good deeds I could improve my status before the divine and maybe he’ll help me.” When this didn’t work the man grew more and more delirious and frustrated.
Upon seeing his situation from above the friend decided to send messengers down to the man to give him the news that he could be rescued. Every messenger the friend sent down, the man murdered.
As the man in the hole grew more delirious he thought, “Perhaps I can create gods down here to worship and they will save me.” So in excitement and hope the man grabbed some dirt and molded it into sculptures of animals and people who he believed could save him. “Those images won’t save you my friend. Let me rescue you. I love you!” his friend shouted from above, but the man gnashed his teeth and continued to mold his own creation.
Upon seeing that his friend had lost his mind, the man above sent down his own son to rescue him. Upon hearing the son’s words the man below struck him with a stone and continued to beat him beyond recognition. Eventually the son died.
Three days later the man below stared at the rotting corpse of his friend’s son and he began to come to his senses. As he looked at the wounds on his face he realized the wrong he committed. He also realized how much his friend loved him and he now longed to be in his presence. The man fell to his face and wailed. In the midst of this, the son’s eyes opened. Had he never died, or had he rose from the dead; at this point the man didn’t know. Either way he embraced the son and the son brought him to safety. Upon escaping the hole the man fell to his knees before his old friend and the old friend simply lifted him up, embraced him, and took him home.”
Although this story is a bit longer than the former, I think it does a better job of showing just how ugly our situation is while at the same time showing just how loving, gracious, and giving our heavenly Father is. Remember that God loved you when you were a sinner, his enemy, and a child of wrath. This is much better news than simply saying, “God pulled you out of a hole you fell into.”