A stereotypical fairytale begins with the words, “Once upon a time.” When we hear these words, something triggers in our brains that tells us, “Oh, okay, so this never really happened.” But the phrase itself would indicate otherwise. Once upon a time actually suggests that this event took place in history, in real space and real time.
Now, I’m not going to argue that any of our fairytales are historically accurate, but watching some of these tales with my daughters got me to thinking about the biblical story. The story of the Bible happened once upon a time as well, but in the literal sense. Whenever Francis Schaeffer wrote about the story of the Bible, he would frequently use the phrase “in space and time.”
We have a tendency to think of the biblical events as though they happened in some different plane, in some parallel universe, or even in the head of a grand Author. But the Bible presents its stories to us as though they really happened. In the same space we inhabit. In the same flow of history that we experience. The Jerusalem that Jesus walked through does not belong on a map of Narnia or Middle Earth, it belongs on a map of the Middle East. The moment in history in which Jesus was laid in the manger does not fit on some independent timeline in the front of a novel, it started our calendars moving from 0 to 2012.
I know of missionaries who have gone into jungle tribes and have taught the tribesmen to read a map. They show them a map of their village, then a map of their region, then their country, then the world. The missionaries do this because they believe it is important for these people to understand that the events they will be learning about happened in their real world.
In some circles, it has been popular to think of the resurrection as an event that takes place in our hearts. There’s no need to research its historicity, it’s about our experience of the living Christ now, not about a specific date in the first century.
But the Bible will have none of this. Paul insists that if Jesus did not rise from the dead; if the resurrection wasn’t a literal, historical event; if it’s not something that you could have witnessed had you been standing in the right place at the right time 2,000 years ago; then the world should just feel sorry for us because we’ve been devoting our lives to a lie. This is his argument in 1 Corinthians 15.
Three authors in particular—Francis Schaeffer, Annie Dillard, and N. D. Wilson (all authors I’d recommend reading)—have helped me understand the significance of the literal once-upon-a-time-ness of the biblical events. Travel to Jerusalem and dip your feet into bodies of water that Jesus walked upon. Stand on the edge of the ocean and realize that this same blue matter was on this earth when Jesus healed a blind man. Contemplate the reality that molecules which flowed through Jesus’ veins dropped to the ground at the prompting of a Roman whip and have remained a part of our world to this very day; if we knew where to look, we could go and collect them. And consider the inspiring truth that the matter that made up Jesus’ body as he rose from the dead and ascended to the Father is no longer with us, but will rejoin our world when he returns. God’s true story took place in real space and in real time, and Jesus was and remains a true to life character in that story.
Once upon a time God created the heavens and the earth. Once upon a time the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And once upon a time, Jesus will return to gather his people, to judge the world in righteousness, and to set the world to rights. And we will all live happily ever after.