“He Came Down from Heaven”—Really?

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By on December 24, 2021

I can’t remember who it was that said it, but it stuck with me: “What the church needs is not better arguments but better metaphors.”

Christmas comes with its own metaphors, of course. One of the chief ones is included in the Nicene Creed: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” I suppose there was a day when Christians believed that “coming down” was literal, since heaven was (naturally) thought to be “up there.” These days, if anything, Christ “coming down” conjures up an image of Jesus stepping out of a spaceship to live among us.

Is there a better way of thinking about this? As with so many things, I think it was C.S. Lewis who got me thinking freshly about this. It’s a little footnote in Surprised by Joy, his autobiography:

Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The “Shakespeare” within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures.

When I was doing evangelistic speaking in universities, I was always looking for ways of connecting the Gospel to contemporary culture. One way I did this was in two talks entitled The Gospel according to Calvin and Hobbes—yes, the cartoon characters. Well, they are always discussing questions of philosophy—Is there a God? What is life for? Is there life after death? Where do we go when we die?—all the key questions. So it wasn’t difficult. (Hobbes’s answer to the last one was “Pittsburgh,” but he wasn’t sure if that was if we were good or bad.)

In the middle of one talk, I wanted to say something about the incarnation, so I would explain C.S. Lewis’s analogy of Shakespeare writing himself into Hamlet. Then I had a revelation: why was I importing Shakespeare into a talk on Calvin and Hobbes, when there was a much easier metaphor ready to hand, by the name of Bill Watterson?

“Who is Bill Watterson?” you may ask. He is the cartoonist who created Calvin and Hobbes. So I began to explain the incarnation differently. What if Bill Watterson wanted to communicate with his creations, Calvin and Hobbes? Maybe they are speculating whether there is a Great Cartoonist in the Sky who created them, or whether they just happened by chance. 

What Bill Watterson does is to create a new cartoon character, and writes him into the strip. His name? Bill Watterson. And now he can communicate directly with Calvin and Hobbes, show what he is like, answer some of their questions—even make suggestions about how they could change their behaviour towards their mortal enemy, Susie Derkins! Above all, he could establish a relationship with them.

Once my university speaking days were over, I actually discovered another cartoon strip which takes the analogy a step further. The strip is called Overboard, and it is about a group of pirates and their assorted animal friends on their pirate ship. From time to time, however, an extra character appears in the strip. He sits in his own little office, working away at a drawing board, and from time to time the characters come into his office and chat to him. Pinned to the wall is a little sign: “Overboard Inc.” Who is this character? He is the cartoonist, whose name in real life is Chip Dunham. 

The range of conversations is interesting. Sometimes they complain about the things he wants them to do or say—usually difficult or unselfish things. Sometimes they complain about what they perceive as the lack of humour. And at other times they simply come and thank him for cresting such a nice strip for them. On one occasion, the cartoonist has hurt his hand, and the captain takes over the writing of the story that day, and the result is, well—what shall we say?—a little self-indulgent. 

But for my money the most interesting cartoon is a strip where the captain is trying to climb the mast to escape a sea monster which is half shark and half dog—imagine a shark that can walk on land! As you might expect, he is calling out for the cartoonist to help. Meanwhile, the cartoonist is up on his desk, trying to escape another of the monsters he has created—and reaching for the eraser! Once the cartoonist enters his own creation, naturally enough, he is subject to all the difficulties and pains of that world. Enough said.  

“He came down from heaven” at Christmas time? Well, yes, and I will say those words—all the time aware that it is a metaphor, and not necessarily a helpful one. But in my mind, I will be thinking, God wrote God’s own self into the cartoon strip we call human life—to communicate with us, to love us, and to save us.

  • John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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