“In the beginning…” The opening line of human history is unmistakably the signature of story. God’s word immediately captures the imagination as he begins to reveal himself to his “story-shaped creatures.”
Faith and story are connected. Literature professor Daniel Taylor puts it well: “The single best way of conceiving of faith, and of a faithful life, is as a story in which you are a character. Your life task is to be a character in the greatest story ever told. It is what you were created for.” Christians do not need more “how-to” lists. We need captivated imaginations that are immersed in the best story ever told. We need to see ourselves in a story that “engages all of what we are—mind, emotions, spirit, body.”
Imagination is a necessary part of God’s grand story. It takes imagination to answer basic worldview questions like What is real? What is meaningful? Worldview and story are two sides of the same coin. Our world has a story. We are en-storied people. Alasdair MacIntyre famously said “I can’t answer the question, ‘What ought I to do?’ unless I have already answered a prior question, ‘Of which story am I a part?.’” To unpack this more, we need to see how imagination relates to creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
Creation starts with a God who imagines. “In the beginning, God created…” Genesis 1:26a says, Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Imagination is present from the very beginning: “Though we cannot fully imagine God,” Veith comments, “He imagined us.” And while we may not “capture” the infinite, eternal God in our minds, he gave us ways to think about him in our minds. It is a gift to be able to think of him as a “father, king, potter, shepherd, bridegroom, and on and on.” God is the great artist and creator.
Notice that God’s creation is good—therefore man’s imagination was good at the time of creation. “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” As God’s imagebearers, we can rejoice alongside George MacDonald who said, “O Master-maker! They exultant art / Goes forth in making makers.”
At the base of a tree Adam and Eve imagined a different story than the one God had told them. Eve saw the world in a new way as she listened to the serpent’s words. “When Adam sinned, every human faculty was corrupted.” That includes the imagination. Now each unbelieving mind has a gravitational pull toward sin.
Sin is blinding. Understanding is darkened. There is no appreciation for the glory of God and his creation. The unenlightened imagination does not comprehend the “serious damnable nature of sin.” In fact it is “unwilling and unable.” Michael Reeves points out that “sinners are completely culpable and completely impotent as they willingly wallow in their sin.”
Sinners need salvation because they are dead in their sins. Ephesians 2:1–2 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” This “deadness” is not corpse-like stillness. It is an aversion to Christ. There is a detesting of God, a desire for sin, a distaste for God. Reeves points out that “it involves an active hostility to God (Rom. 8:7).” The sinner is unable to come to Christ, not because he has some physical or mental shortcoming, but he is unwilling. John 6:44 shows us that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him.
For students of the Bible, these points are not new. Here is the point: our sinful deadness has acquired our God-given imaginations and used it for its own dark purposes. It is the like One Ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s magisterial Lord of the Rings trilogy. Anyone who puts on the ring will use it badly, but it is used badly in different ways depending on the individual person’s desires or imaginations. Gollum wanted to use the ring differently than Boromir, and both desires were according to the wrong-headed imagination of the individual.
Distorted loves and self-love takes imagination. This imagining is what “the Bible calls ‘idols’—‘images’— and the religious systems that grow around these images the Bible calls ‘idolatry.’” Idolatry is often constructed from “empirical observations, isolated truths, and personal experiences” rather than from the word of God. The truth is we will embody a story, but sin helps us embody stories such as consumerism, nationalism, egoism, atheism, or nihilism. Because of sin we need a renewed nature, an awakening, a new birth. It is not just our behaving that is off; it is our being.
It is a little unnerving that we do not control redemption. Just as a baby cannot cause himself to be born, a person dead in their trespasses and sins cannot make himself be born again. Redemption is a miracle that God works in the human heart. In John 3:3 Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” New birth is the only way that the eyes of the heart can open to see God’s kingdom. Conversion is the only way the imagination can wake up to the reality of God. Ephesians 5:14 says,“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
So how do we wake up? How do we walk out of these shadowlands? 1 Peter 1:3–5 is helpful: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
Notice three things. First, God causes the new birth. God calls us to himself, and his call is effective. Second, He redeems us through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension (1 Pet 1:3). And third, the new birth comes “through the living and abiding word” (1 Pet 1:23).
Redemption is about seeing and valuing Christ. Redemption is being rescued from something (sin), and to something (Christ). God ransoms us from the futile ways that we inherited from our forefathers (1 Pet 1:18). Christ paid the debt of sinners. He bore the wrath of God so sinners could inherit eternal life.
Vanhoozer diagnoses the problem like this: many Christians suffer from imagination malnutrition. They cannot see Christ. An overactive imagination is not the real problem. We actually have a dire need for increased imagination. We must treasure Christ with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Thus far we have been arguing the importance of imagination. But it should be said here that imagination is not the goal of the Christian life. God is. In this life we see in a mirror dimly, but soon we will see Jesus face to face. Imagination aids in sustaining us until that day. Imagination is a down payment of the reality that we will one-day experience. Horatio G. Spafford sang about his hope and this restoration after experiencing the death of several of his children. He prayed, “And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight, / The clouds be rolled back as a scroll, / The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend, / Even so, it is well with my soul.” When Jesus comes back and we are restored, we will not have to imagine him anymore. We will know him with our senses. Imagine that!
- Part 1 of Pure Imagination
- John Piper and Justin Taylor, eds., The Power of Words and the Wonder of God (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2009), 106.
- Michael Ward, “How Lewis Lit the Way,” Christianity Today, November 2013, 41.
- Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 108, 129.
Wilbourne, Union with Christ, 20.
- Genesis 1:1; Genesis 1:27; Genesis 1:39; Jeremiah 13:10; 1 Corinthians 13:12.
- Veith and Ristuccia, Imagination Redeemed, 35, 60.
- Kilby and Dyrness, The Arts and the Christian Imagination, 12, 239
- Michael Reeves, Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ, Theologians on the Christian Life (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2018), 93, 97.
- Dorothy L. Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World: A Selection of Essays (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1969), 143, 152.
- Mathis, The Romantic Rationalist, 82-88, 95.
- John Piper, Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2010), 84.
- It Is Well With My Soul.
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