Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-16
By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and went out to a place he was going to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was going …for he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. Hebrews 11:8, 10
Shin Dong Hyok spent every day of the first 22 years of his life as a political prisoner. His “crime” was to have been born to parents considered to be enemies of a totalitarian state. Under that country’s policy, the family members of anyone who commits a political crime are punished for many generations to come. It wasn’t until Shin was a teenager that he found out that he was being punished for something his uncles had done over 50 years earlier.
The prison camp of Shin’s birth was a “total control zone” from which there was no exit. According to a neighboring government’s report, “Prisoners sent to a total-control zone can never come out. They are put to work in mines or logging camps until they die. Thus the authorities don’t even bother to give them ideological education. They only teach them skills necessary for mining and farming.”
Prisoners labor 16-18 daily, seven days a week. They receive the same meal three times every day: a little steamed corn and vegetable broth. They scavenge whatever else they can find – from wild vegetables to insects. Torture, executions, physical and sexual abuse, starvation and disease are everyday occurrences. Punishments for any perceived violation of the rules are extreme and arbitrary.
In most of the country, buildings and walls are covered with signs bearing party slogans and pictures of the tyrannical dictator. Shin’s camp had only one slogan carved into a wooden sign: “Everyone obey the regulations!” It might as well have said – as did the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Shin’s Birth and Life
Shin was born to a prison-arranged “award marriage.” Like zoo keepers, prison officials threw Shin’s father in with his mother for 5 days and then separated them. If a male prisoner behaves well and works hard, he might be allowed to “visit” the woman given to him as a “wife” a few times each year. Children live with their mothers, who also work the same 18 hour days as everyone else in the labor camp. At the age of 11, children move into a common barracks. “I got to visit my mother only once or twice a year,” Shin said. “I never saw my whole family together. I don’t think I saw my brother more than a few times.”
Like the slaves of old, children born in the camp were taught just enough to perform their labors. Up to 1000 children were crowded into Shin’s school, but there were no textbooks. Pupils were taught basic reading and writing and to add and subtract. After school, children also worked in the fields, mines or factories.
Shin’s prison life is unimaginable. Guards cut off his middle finger at the first joint “for not working properly” and dropping a piece of equipment.
In 1996, guards suspected him of knowing about his mother’s plan to escape. “They hung me up from the ceiling, binding my feet and they put a fire under my back,” Shin said. He still bears horrible scars from being roasted alive. Eventually, he and his father were marched to a place of execution. Shin believed that his own life ending; instead, he was forced to watch as his mother was hanged and his brother was executed by firing squad.
No Other World
This was Shin’s daily life, but Shin said it did not occur to him to hate his captors. He assumed everyone lived this way. He had never heard of the capital city 55 miles to the south or the “dear leader” who ruled through fear, starvation and violence. He didn’t know, in fact, that any other nation existed or that his own nation had been divided by war.
“I thought it was natural that I was in the camp because of my ancestors’ crime, though I never even wondered what that crime was. I never thought it was unfair. … I was simply born there. I knew nothing of the outside world. I had no complaints; I just accepted my lot.”
Associating with those who had been punished was dangerous. Despite the danger, one fellow prisoner helped Shin recover from the injuries inflicted by his torturers. Shin eventually returned to his slave labors where he met a factory worker who told him about another world outside the fence. Other countries existed, he was told, and the people in them did not live like prisoners.
“Everything he told me about the outside world was fascinating,” Shin said. “I loved his stories. Once I heard about the outside, I thought I would go crazy. I wanted to get out. I couldn’t focus on work. Every day was an agony.”
Shin made his escape on January 2, 2005. He and a friend were collecting firewood near the edge of the camp. When they could not see any guards, they ran toward the electrified fence that surrounded the camp. His friend threw himself against the high-voltage wire and created an opening for Shin. “I climbed over him, through the hole,” Shin said. “I ran down the hill like a madman. I looked back and he wasn’t moving.”
Although Shin’s own legs were badly burned by the electrical fence, he walked for nearly a month. He hid and ate whatever he could find. Eventually, he took up with a group of merchants headed for another country. It would be five more months before he crossed the border into freedom after bribing the border guards with cigarettes. Even then, his journey to freedom was not complete. It would be nearly a year more – still hiding, still struggling to survive – before he would finally arrive in a land that was truly free.
What strikes me about Shin’s world is that he didn’t know that there was any other way to live. The world of his prison was the only world he knew. Some 350 years before the birth of Christ, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote “The Allegory of the Cave” that sounds surprisingly like Shin’s world.
Wikipedia described Plato’s allegory this way:
Imagine prisoners, who have been chained since their childhood deep inside a cave: not only are their limbs immobilized by the chains; their heads are chained in one direction as well, so that their gaze is fixed on a wall. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which statues of various animals, plants, and other things are carried by people. The statues cast shadows on the wall, and the prisoners watch these shadows. When one of the statue-carriers speaks, an echo against the wall causes the prisoners to believe that the words come from the shadows.
Like the prisoners of Plato’s cave, Shin mistook shadow for substance. I imagine that is true for people who grow up in all sorts of circumstances. If you grow up in an abusive home, where all you know is anger and violence, then it’s easy to mistake this shadow of family life for the real thing. You don’t hope for anything better. It’s outside the realm of possibility.
If you grow up on the mean streets of a city where drugs are sold on every corner, where children shoot other children over the color of their clothes, where good jobs are scarce and education is not valued, it’s easy to mistake this shadow of community for the real thing. You don’t hope for anything better. It too is outside the realm of possibility.
And, if you grow up in a world where the gospel is unknown or not lived, it’s easy to mistake the mundane world of daily existence for all there is. Any talk of God seems crazy and unreal.
Shin’s Three Friends
The world is filled with people like Shin who don’t know that there is any world possible apart from the misery that now pervades their lives. How will such people ever escape their twisted version of reality?
Think about three men who played such a significant role in Shin’s journey to the world of freedom.
There was one who, despite the danger, cared for his wounds. Like him, the church of Jesus Christ cares for those wounded by his world, even if no one else will. If that were all we did, however, we might have a little less misery, but we would still be without hope.
There was one who told him about another world. This is the church’s primary work. By our words and by our deeds and by our life together we tell people, “There’s another world. There’s more to life than meets the eye.” They won’t believe us, though, if we don’t live like we believe it.
Then there was one who threw himself on the electrified fence to make the way for Shin’s escape. Shin wonders to this day if his friend purposely sacrificed himself for him. The Christian church proclaims that we, too, have a friend who sacrificed himself to make a way for our escape from the world of sin into the joy of God’s eternal kingdom. He is the object of our faith and the ground of our hope. He is both the essence and the proof of the world we seek.
Hebrews 11 tells the story of Abraham who, like Shin, learned that there was another world to which God was calling him. God promised Abraham blessings: blessings to Abraham and blessings through Abraham. Beyond that, God promised Abraham two things: land and children.
Genesis says, “Abraham believed God.” As a response, Abraham and his household began a long, difficult journey to the land God promised him.
When he arrived in the land of promise, however, Abraham did not take possession of it. Instead, he and his household lived in tents on the edges of civilization. They wandered from place to place, taking their flocks to new pastures.
And Abraham and Sarah remained childless.
God promised Abraham two things – land and children – and for a long time Abraham had neither.
But, as Genesis 15:6 says, “Abraham believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness.”
Part of the promise eventually came to pass in Abraham’s lifetime. He and Sarah had a miracle son Isaac. But when Abraham died, he and his family were still living in tents.
Foreigners and Temporary Residents
Hebrews 11:13-16 says of Abraham and all the heroes of the faith:
These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. (14) Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. (15) If they had been remembering that land they came from, they would have had opportunity to return. (16) But they now aspire to a better land–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
The author of Hebrews thinks we’re in basically the same position as Abraham. We are seeking a homeland – a heavenly one. We are foreigners and temporary residents in this world in which we live.
Let me say that again. We are foreigners and temporary residents in this world in which we live.
Now pay attention. That doesn’t mean we hate this physical world. The world is God’s good creation. Christian theology doesn’t say “spirit” is good and matter is bad or irrelevant. Rather, spirit gives meaning to matter. That which is unseen gives meaning to that which is seen.
It also doesn’t mean that we all just sit around twiddling our thumbs, waiting to go to heaven. The scriptures certainly don’t tell us that what happens in this world is unimportant because there will be “pie in the sky by and by.”
But it does mean that we’ve heard God’s word – which is much more than a rumor – of what he will create someday.
The Book of Revelation puts it this way: a new heaven and a new earth are coming. A New Jerusalem is coming down from heaven. The words of Revelation are taken up by George Friedrich Handel in the Messiah:
The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever, Hallelujah! Revelation 11:15
That hope is a powerful force in our lives right now. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (alone among major translations) captures the connection between our faith and our hope in Hebrews 11:1:
Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.
In the life of Jesus we see the essence – the reality – of the world we seek. The sick are healed, the hungry fed, the oppressed set free, the demons cast out, the sinful forgiven, the outcast reconciled, the forces of nature tamed and the dead raised to life.
Jesus’ resurrection is the foundation of our hope, the Father’s vindication of Jesus’ life and message, and the proof of the unseen world to come.
The kingdom of God is our true homeland. Faith lets us see and experience God’s kingdom in a small way now. I should add, “in a small way” compared to the glory yet to be revealed but unimaginably great compared to the fallen world in which we live. How great is to have faith in Christ, to know what others do not and to see what others cannot.
Father, give us the courage and compassion to bind up the wounds of those injured by this world. Even more importantly, fill us with a living hope to share with this world. Give us eyes to see what others cannot see, and legs that will step out in faith, trusting in you even when the road is hard.
Most of all, we thank you for Jesus who opened for us the way of salvation. Give us faith to believe his word and to follow as he leads us to our true home. Amen.