Falling up the stairs to heaven.
Speaking from experience, falling up the stairs is probably one of the more embarrassing things you can stumble into (pun intended). Your brain is conditioned to look at stairs and automatically take into account the approximate height of each stair and adjust your gait accordingly to take them with ease. But if you go too fast or don’t look where you’re going, what’s supposed to be a routine flight of stairs turns into an embarrassing display of graceless ineptitude. Falling down stairs is excusable and will almost always trigger a sympathetic response by any standers-by. But falling up stairs doesn’t often warrant the same consideration or compassion. More than likely, anyone witnessing you fall up stairs will either be guffawing or trying their hardest to stifle laughter. Unmistakably, though, falling up stairs causes immediate damage to your dignity and ego. All notions of dexterity, skill, and athleticism are dashed in a moment, in one fell swoop, all because you forgot to look where you were going.
Believe it or not, an analogous fall has happened to all of us. Mankind has suffered a universal upward fall, face-planting into God’s righteousness. In falling up the stairs to heaven, we stumbled into the unflinching perfection of the Triune God, a realm in which we have no business being. Thankfully, we’re met not with bellowing or belittling but with a very different response.
In Genesis 3, we have what is known as “The Fall” — it is the record of Adam and Eve’s disobedience against God’s command to refrain from eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil under penalty of death. (Gn 2:16–17) Eve is tempted of the serpent (Gn 3:1–5) and eats of this tree, with Adam following suit (Gn 3:6), thus bringing condemnation and damnation upon all mankind. (Gn 3:24) As Adam and Even disobeyed, they plunged humanity into disfavor. Where once they fellowshipped in God’s pure and peerless favor, they now felt the heat of his fury. Where once everything was good, “very good” even (Gn 1:25, 31), existing in the perfect favor of the Trinity’s divine purpose in creation, now the world is warped, polluted, “cursed” because of the poisonous intrusion of sin. (Gn 3:14, 17) Where once we lived and breathed in flawless harmony with the Godhead, now an infinite chasm precludes any intimacy with our Creator. (Gn 3:24; Lk 16:26) By yielding to the enticements of the serpent, Adam and Eve failed in their priestly duty to tend and keep the garden. (Gn 2:15) They allowed themselves to be manipulated by serpent’s craftiness, thereby marring and maligning God’s masterwork of creation. Much like the king of Tyre in Ezekiel, what was once the “signet of perfection” is now full of unrighteousness (Eze 28:11–16) — what was once the picture of beauty is now a portrait of blasphemy.
But this failure and fall from grace was not merely a result of mankind’s disobedience to a divine ordinance. No, more significantly, man’s severance from God stems from his insistence on being God. Without a thought for the ramifications of the deed, Adam and Eve are beguiled into eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, wherein they thought Jehovah was harboring the secrets of divinity. They were not seduced by the grit and grime of lustful passion but by the supposed glitz and glamour of deity. Recall the serpent’s coaxing: “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gn 3:4–5) “You will be like God.” The temptation wasn’t one to come down to some lower, debased level of existence; it was one that wooed them with the promise of ascending to new levels of enlightenment and awareness. The suggestion of being “like God” sounded too good to their ears — and thus they ate, thus they fell up the stairs to heaven.
“Adam and Eve fell into sin. The fall is really not what the word implies at all,” writes Gerhard Forde. “It is not a downward plunge to some lower level in the great chain of being, some lower rung on the ladder of morality and freedom. Rather it is an upward rebellion, an invasion of the realm of things ‘above,’ the usurping of divine prerogative. To retain traditional language, one would have to resort to an oxymoron and speak of an ‘upward fall.’”1 This loathsome oxymoron is the perfect description of what Adam, our representative head, did in the Garden. As the chosen federal type of mankind, Adam did what all of us would have done, reaching for divinity but coming up with only depravity. More than that, “falling upwards” continues to describe mankind’s persistent pursuit of life outside of the bounds of God’s gospel.
Ever since the Garden, mankind has sought to reclaim the peace of Eden by fervently searching for it in a million and one avenues, save for the One that promises transcendent peace. (Phil 4:7) We are so often looking for eternity but searching amongst things that are temporal. We love boasting in our independence, rejecting the notion that God’s staircase of righteousness is too difficult to handle. But soon enough we find that it’s not only too difficult, it’s impossible. For all of man’s efforts at attaining peace on his own, he never finds it. By claiming we don’t need God, we’re trying to lay claim to God’s territory. Much like Adam’s sin, which wasn’t first a plunge into something below, it was an upward ascension into divine domain. This really is the essence of sin itself: man substituting himself for God.
The upward fall of Adam and Eve perfectly predicted that we are all addicted to saving ourselves. We all trust more in ourselves to do what only Another can do. For, you see, while the nature of sin is laying claim to God’s realm, the nature of the gospel is God invading man’s realm. We aren’t left to continuously fall up the stairs of heaven because of the inherited corruption of the first Adam. We are told of a second Adam, who instead of bringing condemnation on all brings justification for all. (Rom 5:18)
The concept of substitution may be said, then, to be at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone; God accepts penalties that belong to man alone.2
While we seek to promote ourselves, Christ humbled himself. (Phil 2:5–11) The first Adam ventured into things above and brought death; the second Adam ventured into things below and brought life. This is the gospel.
Jesus takes our embarrassing upward fall and turns it into an exaltation of his glorious condescension. God the Father sees us chagrined by this upward fall and doesn’t disdain us but treats us with compassion, seeking us out in his grace, not unlike the Samaritan who mercifully cared for the Jew who fell prey to thieves on his way to Jericho. (Lk 10:29–37) We have fallen up the stairs, but instead of roars of laughter ringing in our ears as we try and pickup ourselves up, we hear the sweet sound of grace. “Faith is not a climbing of the mountain,” asserts Horatius Bonar; “but a ceasing to attempt it, and allowing Christ to carry you up in his arms.”3 Or as Christ himself might say, “Come to me all who have fallen up the stairs and I will help you up.” (Mt 11:28)
The pathway to heaven isn’t found by competent Christians climbing their way up. It’s found in Christ carrying cripples on his shoulders. “Lay down, stretch yourself out on Me, and I’ll carry you up the stairs Myself.”
Gerhard Forde, quoted in Tullian Tchividjian and Nick Lannon, “March 15,” It Is Finished: 365 Days of Good News (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2015).
John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 159.
Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Peace: A Book for the Anxious (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1864), 159.