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TRUTH IN ART: From hippos to eternity

ST. LOUIS (BP)–I have a true fondness for the jumbo hippopotamus. The hairy nose, stubby legs and red-pigmented skin are magnets for my eyes. I like their gigantic shiny bellies. I like their pointy tusks exposed with theatrical yawns. As a child, I stared at my fat hippopotamus friends through iron bars. Modern zoos now give me the opportunity to see them in gigantic aquariums, hippo-paddling around the water with ease.

We should praise the comical artistry of God who created a 5,000-pound balloon with legs that can run twice as fast as a human. What a delight!

But did you know that hippos are dangerous? When threatened, they can overturn boats, smash cars, bite an alligator in half or crush enemies with just a step! Imagine being a farmer in marshland inhabited by groups of hippos. You might go to the fields one morning only to discover an entire acre of crops eaten or trampled. The culprit? One single hippo. Nowadays, a rifle could solve the problem, but what about in the ancient world? Sticks and stones don’t easily break bones with a six-inch layer of blubber for protection.

Above is a hippo figurine unearthed with ancient Egyptian mummies. These type of small figurines are frequent finds in the pyramids. What can we say about the worldview behind the artistry of this piece? Is it just an adorable object meant to amuse, or is there something more profound?

The hippo’s placement in an elaborate tomb reminds us that the Egyptians believed in life after death. The mummification process was designed to preserve the body for use in the life to come. The fact that these bodies are around 3,500 years later testifies to their cultural belief in an afterlife.

Egyptians believed physical preparation should be made for the life to come. Entire pyramids were constructed to store up provisions for the afterlife. Gold and treasure would be placed in the tomb for an eternity of spending. Buried weapons and tools were for defense and industry. Slaves would sometimes be buried in the tombs in order to serve the needs of the Pharaoh. Egyptians were people who did not want to be caught empty-handed upon their death.

But what about the hippo? The Egyptians recognized a relationship between what goes on in this world and what goes on in the world to come. Before placing the hippo into the tomb, a priest would ceremonially break off two or three of the legs. The figurine pictured above has been restored by the museum. It was believed that the spirit-world hippo would be rendered harmless by the actions of the priest. This reveals the Egyptian belief in potential danger for the life to come. If hippos could kill a man in this world, what could they do in the realm to come?

In summary, the Egyptians believed in the existence of an afterlife with potential danger, and that a person must be prepared for the afterlife by performing actions in this world.

Wow! The Egyptian worldview was a lot closer to biblical truth than the belief system of many of our neighbors.

John Lennon “Imagined” a world without heaven or hell, but not the Egyptians. Isaac Asimov once boasted, “I don’t believe in an afterlife, so I don’t have to spend my whole life fearing hell, or fearing heaven even more. For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse.” The Egyptians did not think this way.

Without a true knowledge of God and of our Savior Jesus Christ, Pharaoh’s soul is in no better position than the atheist Asimov. Both men now know the eternal error of their earthly thinking.

However, in sharing our faith in Christ with an unbeliever, perhaps it is made easier when the person shares our belief in the existence of God, the reality of the afterlife and the need for preparation. This is at least a starting point for the discussion. When you tell someone about eternal life through Jesus Christ, do they respond back with, “I don’t believe there is anything beyond death?” If so, then Satan has blinded their eyes to a greater extent than even that of the Egyptians.

Blindness is blindness, and all spiritual life is a grace from God in changing a person’s heart. However, when a culture is flooded with practical atheism and no fear of the afterlife, the stagnant water of unbelief has far reaching consequences.

No fear of eternal punishment? Then live however you desire. No eternal perspective on suffering? Then live in despair because of the meaningless nature of pain and sorrow.

Dear Christians, we have been given the words of life. We must take the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. To those who have an Egyptian worldview and to those who have an Asimovian worldview -– both need to come to the saving truth of God in Christ.

When we talk to people about our Lord, discern just how deep their unbelief lies, and pray accordingly. Perhaps your neighbors are piling up for themselves gold, silver and little broken hippos. Show them from the Scriptures that there is a place where moth and rust does not corrupt, where thieves do not break in and steal and where hippos do not kill nor destroy. Teach them the fallenness of this world, the redemption offered through Christ and the truth of the world to come.

Most importantly, live out that truth in your own life. Do not simply reject the atheism of Asimov. Also reject the materialism of the Pharaoh. Live life in light of eternity. Let your actions give testimony to the truth that this world is not your home.

And take your children to the zoo to see the big fat hippos that God made.
Scott Lamb is pastor of Providence Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

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  • Scott Lamb