As the song progresses and the ear is filled with some of life’s tragic moments, the argument is clear: we get very real glimpses of hell on earth. And the preacher stands there holding hell over the already fragile conscience in true Edwardian fashion. In neat and tidy reformed theological lingo, one might say that the preacher is dishing out a heavy dose of law. Now, before one draws implications that I don’t intend, I must say that the law is an absolutely essential part of the Christian message. And everyone needs to hear it in all three of its completely legitimate uses. But I don’t think the point of the song is to tell those placed in the sacred office of preaching to spare our ears the words of judgment. I don’t think the song is really even directed to those tasked with the office of preaching at all. Rather, I think the essential plea of the song seeks to remind us of one of the most fundamental needs of the soul this side of Eden: hope.
For those who have not utterly silenced the conscience by suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18), we know law and judgment are our natural internal narrative in the flesh. The law has a voice that is rarely ever silenced. The old Adam is a slave to the law. And in our most honest, broken moments, we know deep down that we don’t measure up. We cannot see or think any other way apart from the light of the Gospel. Apart from believing that Christ has settled the score and totally met God’s perfectly righteous standard in every way on our behalf, we are utterly without hope. We desperately need a word of hope. Hope is indeed named by the Apostle Paul as one of the three great theological virtues, and Heaven is precisely the direction that Paisley’s song seeks to find it.
The song bends its gaze upwards: “So, tell us about them angels How they fly around and sing Tell us how to get there ‘cause we all wanna be resting in the arms of Jesus, no shame or pain or tears. There’s hell enough to go around down here.”
The Hope of Heaven
The listener has now been introduced to the second refrain: “Tell us ’bout them angels how they fly around and sing.” And the song, much like life, meanders back and forth between these two refrains. Although the second refrain gets the last word. Perhaps this is the song’s subtle argument against cynicism and resignation.
So often, if we are awake or alive enough to see it, many of life’s moments are really great vistas giving us a glance off into the edge of eternity. Violence, drug addiction, divorce, child abuse, the unexplained loss of loved ones, poverty, terrorism, whatever. . . my time working in law enforcement has dealt me many opportunities to see people at their worst. And quite often I have to agree with the pew-holder in the song “there’s hell enough to go around down here.”
I often wonder if we (referring to the current generation of the Church) have fully realized the magnitude of our hope, or if we’ve lost touch with something a little bit. I mean we talk of hope, we even talk of heaven, but oftentimes it’s all a little bit pie-in-the-sky. Yeah sure, maybe it belongs on a $1.99 hallmark card, but do we hold on to our hope as though it is something that our souls have been uniquely branded with?
We need to recapture the Christian imagination. In a world that so often weighs us down with the weight of hell, we need hearts that burn with the hope of Heaven. Christian, the hope of Heaven completely defines your narrative and we need to learn to see life with new eyes. As Christians we are much more like Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey – out of the blue receiving word of a grand inheritance that we did nothing to earn but which is most certainly ours. Here and now we get little glimpses through Word and Sacrament, but there will be a day when the Kingdom of Heaven will come in full and we will see the true King on the throne. May we rekindle a poetic imagination to whet our appetites for this magnificent vision of glory. Without a doubt we will take up residence in the New Jerusalem – a city of perfect peace, justice, righteousness and love and we will receive our inheritance. So for now, please . . .go on, and tell us ’bout them angels.
Austin Oates is a Knox Online student in the MA (Christian and Classical Studies) program.