Dust goes unnoticed, for the most part. It surrounds us, but unless we work in construction, we hardly ever see it. When we do, it is usually because we are trying to Hoover it up or sweep it away. Although we are continually touching and inhaling a cocktail of hairs, pollens, fibers, mites, and skin cells, we try not to think about it.
Dust speaks of decay. It comes about through the decomposition of other things, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. Dust in a home means our cells have died recently. At a building site, it means something has been knocked down or destroyed. Ghost towns and postapocalyptic movies are covered in it, highlighting the loss not just of creatures or structures but of civilization itself.
And God says: You are made of that.
It doesn’t sound very encouraging. Being dust-people means that one day we will be dead people. When humanity fell in the Garden, the resulting curse—“for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19)—clearly referred to mortality. In a world where people pursue the elixir of life as enthusiastically as ever, the Bible makes the certainty of dying unmistakably clear: “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). We came from the soil, and one day we will again be part of it.
People sometimes talk as if Christians believe in immortality and secular materialists don’t. The reality is almost the opposite. The certainty of death (something inescapably on our minds amid current coronavirus fears) is integral to Christianity. Our future does not depend on immortality but on resurrection, while those most eager to postpone or even escape death typically have no resurrection hope whatsoever. Early churches met in catacombs, surrounded by corpses. To this day, many churches have graveyards and are filled with memorials and crypts for the faithful dead. Our sacraments are graphically morbid: We bury people in water, eat a broken body, and drink blood. As the rich world spends good money trying to avoid (or avoid thinking about) death, part of the church’s mission is reproclaiming the obvious: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The language of dust also highlights our supernatural, God-breathed origins. In some of the Egyptian and Akkadian creation stories, humans are described as being made out of clay, which you can kind of imagine. Most of us, with a bit of practice, could form clay into something resembling a person. But you could never do that with dust. The most complex shape I could make out of dust would be a pile, and even then a gust of wind would instantly scatter it. What causes a bunch of particles to come together as a human being is not any property inherent in the particles; it is nothing less than the breath of God, which animates the dust and forms it into a living soul. Without it, we are nothing more than a pile on the floor. With it, we bear the divine image.
Alongside this (vital) emphasis on dignity, there is an appropriate humility that comes from remembering that “I am nothing but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). Knowing we come from the ground keeps us grounded; the Latin word humus, meaning “soil” or “earth,” gives us the words humility and human. There is great reassurance in knowing that God, in his compassion and fatherly kindness, sees us not only as princes, expected to rule the world, but also as dust and ashes, expected to fail sometimes and cry out for rescue. As Hannah sang so beautifully in 1 Samuel, one of God’s favorite hobbies is lifting marginal, broken people from dust and ashes and “seat[ing] them with princes” (2:8).
We may find it liberating, unsettling, or terrifying to contemplate, but one day our cells will be swirling in the autumn leaves, wedged between sofa cushions, and hidden behind radiators. The same is true of the world’s most powerful and influential people. Like Ozymandias in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem, even our apparently invincible empires will finally turn to dust. So will we.
But only for a while. One day, Paul says, we will no longer be modeled after the man of dust who came out of the soil, but after the man of heaven who came out of the tomb (1 Cor. 15:49).
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and author of Spirit and Sacrament (Zondervan). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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