Photography by Eric Brown
Illustrations by Christina Chung
Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in February 2019.
In her latest book, “Even Better Than Eden: Nine Ways the Bible’s Story Changes Everything About Your Story,” author and Bible teacher Nancy Guthrie “traces nine themes throughout the Bible, revealing how God’s plan for the new creation will be far more glorious than the original.”
In each case Guthrie illustrates how “When we enter the new Eden, our Sabbath rest, the final temple, the New Jerusalem, we’ll begin to experience all that God has intended for us all along.” ByFaith editor Richard Doster asked Guthrie about a few of the book’s major themes.
You’ve written a number of books on grief and loss as well as numerous Bible studies. Why did you choose to write “Even Better Than Eden: Nine Ways the Bible’s Story Changes Everything About Your Story”?
I wrote the book because I’m on a mission. I’m on a mission to introduce and infiltrate women’s Bible study in the local church with biblical theology. I’ve noticed that, even in churches in which pastors preach with a sense of redemptive history week to week, oftentimes the materials used in women’s Bible study have no grounding in rich, biblical theology, but are oriented more toward felt needs.
I want to help readers get a better grip on the storyline of the Bible so that they can better interpret smaller parts of the Bible. For most of my life, even though I was very saturated in the Bible, I would have been unable to trace the basic storyline of the Old Testament — patriarchs through slavery, redemption from slavery, entering the land, establishment of the kingdom, exile, and return. And as I speak in various churches, it becomes obvious that I am not alone in that.
A firm grasp on this storyline is essential to understanding the Bible. In the chapters of this book, I tell the story that runs from Genesis to Revelation from nine different angles, tracing nine major themes including wilderness, the tree of life, the image of God, clothing, Sabbath rest, marriage, the offspring, the dwelling place of God, and the city.
I often ask those I’m speaking to if they are able to tell the story of the Bible in just four words. We’re usually on the same page for their first three — Creation, Fall, Redemption. But then there are a number of different suggestions thrown out for the fourth word. What I hear most often is “restoration.” But I’ve become convinced that the Bible’s story is not merely pointing us toward a restoration or return to the original Eden. What God is preparing for us in the new heaven and new earth is far more glorious, far more secure, far more satisfying than Eden. It’s my hope that this book will create a deeper longing for the greater garden-city to come in the hearts of those who read it.
You begin by teaching readers the Hebrew phrase tohu wabohu. Why are these words foundational for the book?
The Bible begins by saying that God created the heavens and the earth and that it was, in Hebrew, tohu wabohu. Tohu means “unformed, chaotic wilderness,” and bohu means “empty.” So Genesis 1:2 tells us that when God created the heavens and the earth, it was initially an uninhabitable wasteland, a barren wilderness. In fact, there were three significant problems with the earth as God initially created it, according to this verse. It was formless, empty, and dark. But it was not without hope. Why? Because “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). The Spirit of God was there hovering — or fluttering — over the deep darkness of the unformed earth like a hen hovering over an unhatched cosmos. Something was about to happen. God, by His Spirit, through His Word, was about to illumine and order and fill His creation.
The city of man is a city of greed and is marked by a rejection of God’s word and the shutting out of God’s presence. The spiritual city of God is built around calling upon God rather than keeping God out, humility instead of pride, dependence instead of independence. Those who reside in this city recognize that the security and significance they need can come only from God.
So right there in the first chapter of the Bible, we discover that tohu wabohu is not a problem for God. As His word, “Let there be,” goes out, and as the Spirit’s creative energy hovers, what was dark was flooded with light, what was chaotic came to order, and what was empty was filled with life and beauty and purpose.
And this is great news for us as people who sometimes sense that our lives are, in a sense “tohu wabohu.” Many of us have a deep sense of emptiness in our lives that we long to have filled. So, right at the beginning of the Bible, we learn that emptiness is not a problem to God. We see that God fills the emptiness of His creation with light and life, beauty and relationship. This fills us with hope that He can and will accomplish the same new creation work in the interior of our lives.
Though it seems impossible, Adam and Eve grew discontented in Eden. You talk about how Eve saw an empty place in her life, diet, and knowledge. As we think about eternity, why is it important to understand Adam and Eve’s discontent?
Adam and Eve had every reason to be perfectly content. Their world was filled with so much goodness. Yet when the serpent suggested to Eve that there was something she didn’t have, something she really needed to be happy — namely, the wisdom that would come from eating from the forbidden tree and the taste experience of eating its delicious fruit — Eve allowed the perspective of the serpent to shape her perspective. Rather than being content with all the goodness showered on her and surrounding her, she began to see an empty place in her life. Her desire for something more, something other than God’s provision, combined with her growing doubts about God’s goodness, led her to reach out for what she thought would make her happy, fulfilled, and satisfied.
Of course, this sense of discontent must have been magnified when she and Adam were expelled from the garden into the wilderness that surrounded it. In fact, throughout the Bible’s story we’re meant to see the lack of contentment that is inherent to life in the wilderness. When the children of Israel wander in the wilderness for 40 years, their lives are punctuated by discontentment with God’s provision of manna and His provision of a godly, humble leader, and they pretty much grumble about everything.
There is one person, however, who proved to be content in the wilderness. Jesus, sent out into the wilderness to be tempted, responded to Satan’s temptation to turn stones into bread by expressing His contentment with God’s provision. This compels us to be joined to Him, not only so His perfect record of contentment will be credited to us, but also so that we will become increasingly, if not yet perfectly, content as we wait for the day when He will lead us into the greater garden where we will forever be perfectly and completely content.
Chapter 4 is called “The Story of Clothing.” From Genesis to Revelation, how does the Bible’s discussion of clothing heighten our anticipation for eternity?
When we read in Genesis 2:25, “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed,” we tend to think of this as the ideal. But ancient Near Eastern readers would have recognized this nakedness as an undesirable condition for human beings — particularly for royal representatives. Consider Joseph and his coat of many colors that indicated he would be head of the family, Joseph given royal robes by Pharaoh when made prime minister, Jonathan giving his royal robe to David, Daniel clothed in purple when made third in the kingdom, and Mordecai being clothed with the king’s robes. Throughout the Bible, royal representatives are always dressed for the part.
Adam and Eve were created to rule over the world under God, the Great King. Had they obeyed God regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, rather than serving as means of the downfall, it would have led to their exaltation. They would have been transformed from glory to glory.
But, of course, that’s not what happened. After they rebelled against God, the image of God in them became marred, and we find them trying to cover themselves in leaves from a fig tree. In grace, God came and clothed them with the skins of an innocent animal. In this way He demonstrated how it would be possible for all of His people to one day be clothed in the royal splendor He had intended for Adam and Eve. One day He would deal with human sin in a pervasive and permanent way — through the covering provided by the atoning death of one precious, perfect Lamb. Christ has made it possible for us to actually be clothed in the greater glory Adam and Eve forfeited.
Even now, as the Holy Spirit works in us, we are being changed from one degree of glory to another. As we bring ourselves naked and exposed before the Word of God, this living and active Word goes to work in the interior of our lives, discerning our impure thoughts and ugly intentions of the heart so that we can confess, repent, and truly change (Hebrews 4:12–13). The Spirit does His work of transformation so that we are increasingly wrapped in the robes of the righteousness of Christ — not simply in a judicial sense, but in the reality of our lives.
This heightens our anticipation for eternity because, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:4, we find ourselves longing to be “further clothed.” This will be the ultimate outfit: immortality. Unending, unstoppable life. He describes the day when we will get the wardrobe we’ve longed for this way: “The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15: 52–53).
In Chapter 8, “The Story of a Dwelling Place,” you tell readers, “The story of human history is a story of God’s ongoing intention to make His home with us.” How, by understanding that story, will our outlook change?
It is significant to take note of how much space is given in the Bible to home and a place for God’s dwelling. Consider how many chapters in Exodus are given to the design for the tabernacle and then a record of the tabernacle being constructed according to that design. They are constructing the place in which God will come down to dwell among them. God leads His people into the Promised Land with the promise: “I will be with you.” The law of God is given to God’s people so that they will know how to live in a holy land in which a holy God has come down to dwell in their midst. Then in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, we have another significant number of chapters devoted to the design and construction of the temple. As the Old Testament continues, its story centers on the destruction of the temple and the rebuilding of the temple. And it ends, in Malachi, with the promise that the Lord is going to come suddenly to His temple.
As we trace the story, it is staggering to consider God’s passionate desire and intention to dwell with His people — especially in light of our often-dispassionate desire to be near to God. We often voice our desire to escape the sin-sickness of this world, but I’m not sure that is the same thing as having a deep and abiding desire to be in the presence of God. Yet that is where history has always been headed for God’s people. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus showed the true zeal for God’s house that we often lack. God will be faithful to His commitment to come and dwell with us, His people, even though our desire to dwell with Him often wavers or fades. But I also think immersing ourselves in this story of God’s desire to dwell with us nurtures greater longing for that in our own hearts. The day is coming when we’ll hear a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). On that day we will feel and know the closeness of God like never before.
In the final chapter, “The Story of the City,” you reference Psalm 87 and its roster of those who will be in the eternal city. At first glance, there seem to be some surprises. What’s the lesson there?
When we trace the story of the city throughout the Bible, we discover that it is the story of two cities from beginning to end — the city of God and the city of man. The city of man is a city of greed and is marked by a rejection of God’s Word and the shutting out of God’s presence. The spiritual city of God is built around calling upon God rather than keeping God out, humility instead of pride, dependence instead of independence. Those who reside in this city recognize that the security and significance they need can come only from God.
In the final chapters of the Bible, we witness the final destruction of Babylon, the city of man, as well as the long-awaited entrance of the people of God into the true and lasting city of God, the New Jerusalem. The day is going to come when we will make our home in the most livable city in the world. In fact, this city will encompass the whole world (Revelation 21:12). The tohu wabohu will have been gloriously and completely filled with radiant life and rich relationship.
In Psalm 87, the psalmist leads God’s people in singing about those who will make their home in the city of God. We discover that it will be inhabited by people who were physically born in the city of man but have been spiritually reborn in the city of God. He lists a number of cities that we would not think of producing inhabitants of the city of God, including Babylon. This may have been difficult for the original singers of this song to grasp, as the list includes numerous enemies of Israel. But really it is a song that celebrates how God, in His grace and mercy, turns enemies into friends. The list of those who will make their home in the New Jerusalem is good news for all of us! It tells us that the day is coming when all who have taken hold of Christ will come away from our exile in Babylon to make our home in the New Jerusalem.
Nancy Guthrie teaches the Bible at her church, Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and at conferences worldwide. She and her husband, David, are the cohosts of the GriefShare video series used in more than 10,000 churches nationwide and also host Respite Retreats for couples who have experienced the death of a child. Guthrie is also the host of “Help Me Teach the Bible,” a podcast of the Gospel Coalition.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine.