In Genesis 11, we’re given the historical record of an ancient building project organized by migrants in the plains of Shinar. They were probably in the region of modern-day Baghdad, and they set out to build a tower “with its top in the heavens…” Their reasoning was clear: First, they wanted to make a name for themselves. This tower would be quite the accomplishment, they imagined. People from around the world would come to gaze at its grandeur. Secondly, they hoped to settle in one place and not be scattered abroad throughout the world. In the context of Genesis, this was actually an act of disobedience. God had earlier commanded Noah and his offspring to multiply in the earth (Gen. 9:7), but the “Babelites” had other plans.
There’s much to learn from this incident. God responds to the building effort by cursing the whole project. Genesis 11:5 is meant to strike us as ironic, “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower.” It’s as if Moses (who wrote Genesis) was conveying that man’s greatest monuments are like ant hills to the LORD. He has to stoop down and take up his heavenly magnifying glass as it were, squinting to see man’s effort to reach heaven by means of human wisdom and grit. The whole scene teaches us that we can’t build our way into the heavens, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. There are two approaches people take today in order to “rebuild Babel”: the atheistic approach, and the religious approach. Both are futile.
The Atheistic Approach
Apart from God, if humans are going to “reach the heavens” they’re going to have to rely on technology, science, and medicine. The last year and a half has shone a light on just how much we’ve placed our hope in these things. Of course, technology, science, and medicine are all wonderful things! But if we treat them as bricks with which we plan to ascend the heights, we’ll soon be disappointed. That hasn’t stopped some atheists from trying, though. Consider what one popular Oxford atheist and historian wrote just a handful of years ago:
Our recent achievements are now pushing humankind to set itself even more daring goals. Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health, and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness, and divinity. Having reduced mortality from starvation, disease, and violence, we will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself. Having saved people from abject misery, we will now aim to make them positively happy. And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo Deus.1
Of course, all it takes is something like a world-wide pandemic that claims the life of more than four million people to throw this optimism into question. Even this writer had to grapple with the presence of Covid-19, attributing the massive loss mostly to political failures. And that’s just the thing—even if we can cure diseases, we can’t cure the human heart. Human failure, greed, lust for power—sin—will always keep the atheist’s Babel crumbling. Just when we think our scientific and medical advancements are going to usher us into the heavens, we’re confronted by the problem of selfish people. Science still hasn’t found a cure for that.
The Religious Approach
Some years ago, my wife and I watched a documentary on China’s one-child policy called One Child Nation. It was sobering and heartbreaking. The documentary describes a period in China’s history where the government would practice forced abortions and sterilizations in order to keep mothers from bearing more than one child.
A scene from the documentary has stayed with me. A retired doctor who worked for the Chinese government for two decades described the guilt she felt after performing tens of thousands of abortions and sterilizations during that period. She claimed that an old monk told her once that if she committed her life to helping families conceive children instead of aborting them, she could pay for the tens of thousands of children who were aborted at her hands. At one point she says to the woman interviewing her, “I want to atone for my sins.” And she begins listing her charitable contributions.
The conversation was tragic because you could see that the woman, gripped by grief, hoped to build her way back into heaven’s good graces. Sadly, this burden is one which professing Christians are often under as well. A 2020 survey put out by the American Worldview Inventory found that almost half of evangelicals believe “a person can qualify for heaven by being or doing good.” That number jumped to 70% for Roman Catholics.
We might not look to science and technology to build our way into heaven, but many are building with the bricks of charitable deeds. Good works are good, and God calls you to them, but if they’re the way you think you’re going to reach the heavens, you’ll soon learn that your efforts won’t get you higher than the tower of Babel.
The hope of heaven isn’t grasped by human might. Instead, heaven came down to us. In Genesis 11, heaven came down in judgment, and that’s how heaven comes down whenever we stand on our own efforts to merit God’s gifts. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, though, heaven came down in salvation. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid for our sins; and when he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, he took his people with him. “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:5-6). What we could never reach by grit, God gives by grace!
1 See Yuval Noah Harrari’s Homo Deus pg. 21. Homo Deus means “god-man.” Harrari’s book paints an optimistic view of the future for humanity, banking on our scientific advancements to usher us into a new stage of existence.