15 December 2017


Every generation stands on the shoulders of those who go before.  I’m sure every generation considers itself the wisest, best, most knowledgeable, most scientific, most accomplished the world has ever seen.  Yet each generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessors, building on its achievements, benefiting from its discoveries, learning from its experience.  Western thought stands on some very ancient shoulders, for it is said that the philosophical foundations of Western culture were laid by three Greek  philosophers who lived four centuries before Christ – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. A N Whitehead, a prime British philosopher, has said that all of western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato.

It is Plato who has drawn a very challenging and suggestive picture of man with his immortal longings. We looked at his image of leaky jars. He has also a very famous allegory about a cave where prisoners are chained unable to turn their heads.  All they can see is the wall of the cave in front of them.  Behind them burns a fire and, on a parapet between them and the fire, puppeteers  hold up puppets which cast shadows on the wall of the cave.  The prisoners are unable to see the puppets, the real objects; they see only their shadows on the wall in front of them.  .

That is the allegory and it has to do with appearance and reality.  The prisoners talk about what they see on the wall before them and to them the figures are real enough.  They may discuss their form and their actions and those are real to them, and they can become animated about them, but still they are talking only about shadows of a reality they do not see.

That allegory of the old Greek philosopher fits well with our lives. We have immortal longings.  There is an inner hunger which shows itself in a restlessness, a dissatisfaction with much of life as we experience it. We have not yet found reality but we see shadows on our wall of life, shadows which we believe have a reality we do not yet see; the very longings we have are indications of a reality we have not yet grasped.  But then, bearing in mind our eternal origin, it is not possible that anything on earth can satisfy us.  If God has created us to find our true joy in the riches of heaven, how could we ever think of being satisfied by the things of earth?  At the same time, assuming our high, divine and  extraterrestrial origin, we should expect that life here will at times  be like the shadows on the cave wall, pointing  to a reality beyond our vision which we have yet to experience.  Thus, as one writer has put it, ‘ we live in anticipation, not fulfillment.  Experiences which we have on earth are hints of something greater which is yet to come.’   Now let us explore that a little further.


BEAUTY  Consider beauty. Isn’t our experience of beauty a shadow on the cave wall?  We listen to a piece of music by Mozart and it is beauty delighting  the ear with sounds that sink into and satisfy the deep places of the heart. Or we look at a landscape and it is beauty chiseled into the earth. We come close to a rose and it delights us with beauty both in form and smell.  Or we look at a great building and its proportions are so right, so precise, with every part necessary and  so well finished, that we say it is beautiful.  A mathematician may see beauty in a mathematical formula, a scientist may find it in the discovery of a process, an engineer in a great construction, a sportsman in the execution of a particular piece of athletic skill, an antiquarian in  ancient artifacts.   Beauty has many forms but, whatever the form, we are still seeing only the shadow on the wall. We feel that there is a perfection to beauty we have not yet seen, a loveliness which is complete and  entire of which all our experiences are only a shadow and an expression. They are the out flowing of something which has been corrupted and diluted as it has flowed from its source where it  is perfect and utterly and permanently satisfying.  Yet, this source lies outside our cave,  outside our world.


KNOWLEDGE Or consider knowledge. Isn’t the same  true with knowledge? We rejoice at the explosion of knowledge in our day when it has become so detailed that most of us can know in detail only a little part of any broad subject. Doctoral theses are done on minute aspects of subjects.  From time to time  scientists confidently express the hope that soon knowledge of our universe will be complete, and then some other discovery is made which reveals how little we do know. Such an event is  like the discovery of the new world by Columbus or splitting the atom.  It takes us into a whole new realm of understanding and exploration and opens up new fields of knowledge. But while we do rejoice at all we now know, we have a feeling that this knowledge is again  only shadows on the cave wall, reflections of a complete reality which lies beyond the cave.  We guess at what it might be, multiple universes, glimpses of perfection and we feel that out  there beyond the cave it is possible to have immediate knowledge, so that we have no need to learn facts, to research, explore and win knowledge by dint of often lengthy and difficult work. And also  to have entire knowledge, so that nothing is unknown which it is possible for a creature to know. We believe that our knowledge, vast as it seems to us, is only the furthest flowing of a stream that, like the Nile, needs to be traced back  to its source in the vast waters of eternity.  It is a world that lies outside the cave.


JOY Then consider joy. Is it not the same with our experience of human joy.  It is found in many of life’s experiences.  The scientist shouts  Eureka,’ the sportsman raises his fist to the sky and shouts ‘Goal!’  The lover says’ I love you,’ Young parents can hardly believe their eyes or contain their emotions when a child is born. The result of all this is joy.  Human joy is wonderful and is carried by all sorts of life’s experiences. At times it can be overwhelming, so that the winner of the Open Golf Tournament or the bride at her wedding or the granny at the birth of the first grandchild cannot hold back the tears.  Yet our experience of such joy is so temporary and the joy  is so transient. One writer says its like the afternoon of Christmas Day. We have the joy  only for a little while; it fades away, leaving us with only a memory and a sense of disappointment. But is that all there is to joy? Is joy not a richer thing than that? Is there not something more and more permanent than that?  Is there not a joy that never fades? Are our experiences not a partial and temporary experience of something greater and real beyond our confined world?  Are our experiences of joy not hints to lead us to a world beyond our world?  Are they not anticipations of a joy that does not fade? Are they not shadows on the cave wall, reflecting  a reality we do not yet know?


INNER LONGINGS  Then, consider, too, our own inner longings?  We have immortal longings which this world cannot satisfy.

We have  longings after immortality.  We live life and enjoy its experiences and gather up a rich store of delights in achievements,  pleasures, relationships, wisdom and knowledge.  It seems so wasteful that all this should be cut short just when we are so rich in all these things and when we are in a position to use all that to the full and to the benefit of many, so wasteful that we go down to the grave so richly laden and endowed. Oh that there were somewhere this rising curve of skill, knowledge and achievement would go through the roof! Still, the greater longing in this regard  is that, regardless of how accomplished we are, this destructive thing called death should not have the last word over us, that it should not be able to say ‘Time Up’ and  end  everything. We want to deny it the power to  consume us  and obliterate us. We have a longing for a world beyond the cave, a world where the joy of relationships is perfect and unbroken and where the weaknesses and failings and imperfections of our experience of life here are taken away, where anxiety and fear and stress and all the negative experiences of life have no place.  We have a longing for immortality. And it’s widespread too.  There are few atheists at death and few mourners either who believe that barren creed.  Even if they have lived without God in life, they usually want to feel that the dear departed have gone to some sort of  heaven.  We have a longing for immortality.

We have also a longing for meaning.  We look at the small picture in which our lives are set and try to arrange the jigsaw of our own circumstances to get a complete picture.  Yet, the more we try, the more we find pieces of the jigsaw that just won’t fit in – that illness, that death, that accident, that loss of a job, that family trouble, that unpleasantness at work.  It just won’t fit in. And when we look at the big picture of the meaning of the universe and how the large events of history fit together, there are some that won’t fit into any pattern or purpose we devise -such as Hitler and other monsters of history, HIV and other epidemics and famines. These befuddle us and defy our attempt to create a purpose in history.  Some want to tell us that there is no order, that life came about as the result of chance.  They say, ‘ Sure the universe is full of order and of laws which scientists have discovered so that they can explain how the planets and constellations came about and how life is sustained today, but at the beginning,’ so they say, ‘ it was pure chance; there was no super brain that put all this process together.’ Carl Sagan, the astronomer, opened his television series Cosmos  with the statement, ‘The cosmos is all there ever was or is or ever shall be.’   Many, however, find that unsatisfactory, and Sagan himself was not so sure afterwards, for in his later writings he seemed to be moving towards the belief that there must be some mysterious, divine force behind the universe.  It seems strange to many that a universe filled with laws and with such order in it should be the result of chance.  There has to be meaning behind it all, and so the longing persists and the desire for answers.

So we ask are these longings, for immortality and meaning, not shadows on the wall of the cave, indications of a reality beyond us, of a world where these things are plain and real?


OUTSIDE THE CAVE We come back again to those prisoners in the cave who have never known any other  life or anything other than the shadows of the wall.  But what if someone were to come to them from outside the cave and describe in their own language what life out there is like, how bright the sun is, how the sky is a brilliant blue, how the birds sing and the streams burble on their way to the sea and the sound of music and the taste of a new potato in early summer or of an apple in the autumn, the smell of a rose, the flash of lightning, the power of the wind, What if that were to happen?  What if someone from outside were to come into the cave and tell the captives in their own language what life beyond the cave is like?  Then surely they would be dissatisfied with their captive  life and would want to leave the shadows behind and have a taste of the reality of life  out there.


THE MAN FROM OUTSIDE  That’s where we come to that Man again, the Man who  defies explanation as a normal human being.  As we said before, apply to the record of his life and death the same principles you would apply to any other historical document and his story still stands and demands to be taken as seriously as Caesar’s Gallic Wars or Herodotus’s history of the Persian Wars. The nearest document to Caesar’s work is 900 years later and there are but ten of them.  The nearest copy of Herodotus is 1000 years later and there are but eight of them The nearest document to the NT originals is within a century of them and there are 5000 of them. His record stands analysis and if you have an open mind, you must confront this Man, the strange, high quality of His life, the universal and continuing superiority of his teaching over any other before or since, and the claims  He made about Himself. He is THE figure of human history, a figure to be reckoned with and one who defies  explanation in normal terms.

He claims to be One who comes into our world – into the cave – from out beyond.  He said to his opponents,  ‘ I am from above.’  He speaks of that other, outer world as heaven and says, ‘ No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.’  In the profound prologue to the Gospel of John it is  said that He was the creative force which brought everything in the universe into being.  His was the mind that put the thinking and order into the world and the principles which govern everything. It tells us that He was in the world from the beginning but the world did not know Him and then He came in to the cave from his world beyond. He, the divine wisdom behind everything,  took on the flesh and blood of humanity so that He might confront humanity on its own ground, speaking its own language and living its own life.

He says that He has come to bring reality, that life from the world beyond, to describe in our language what life ‘out there’ is like.  He said He was the bread of God come down from heaven and gave a guarantee that whoever came to Him would never hunger and whoever believed on Him would never thirst.  And there, you see, is the hope of one of these immortal longings being satisfied once and for all; He promises satisfaction.  On another occasion He spoke of natural water and said that whoever drinks of it will thirst again but then came the so startling claim,  ‘ Whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst again. Indeed the water I will give him will  become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’  That phrase ‘ eternal life’  is his way of describing that life from beyond the cave; that is how he puts it in human language.  It defies our vocabulary adequately to describe it and so He uses this term   ‘ eternal life’ and that defines its origin.  It is life from that  world beyond the cave.

However,.  He may come from that world beyond the cave and describe to the captives what life is like out there beyond.  But they are captives, chained inside the cave and have no power to release themselves so that they may go out and get a taste of that life beyond.  They need someone to break the chains and remove the shackles, to release them and set them free and this is exactly what this Man promised to do.  Right at the very beginning of His work He said that it was for this purpose He had come.  He said God had sent Him to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind and  to release the oppressed.  Was there ever a better description of what those captives in the cave need.  They need to be released from the oppression of the cave.  They need to be set free.  They need to have  their eyes opened to see life beyond the cave.  That is what Jesus offers them.

So we see how  Plato’s allegory fits into our lives with our immortal longings, and, as before with the leaky jars, the solution lies with the Man from outside.  He comes to us and offers to set us free and take us into a world where all our longings are satisfied.  But at that point He waits.  He does not overpower nor override our freedom.  He makes us His offer and waits; the Infinite waits for the finite; the Creator waits for the creature, God waits for man – how amazing!.  We must make a move to Him since He has come to us. Yet, He encourages us by a promise that under no circumstances will He turn any away.  That’s the Gospel! That’s good news, the biggest sensation this sensation-hungry world could ever have. He waits for you and will not turn you away. And one whom He set free from captivity wrote a poem about the experience and one of the verses has these lines-

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth and followed Thee.

Sidlow McFarland