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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Tryin’ to get to heaven-My ponderings on Bob Dylan and the Christian Faith

Posted by Gary on March 26, 2009

For the past few months I have been listening to Bob Dylan’s Christian music and have been greatly helped by it (“I Believe In You” from Slow Train Coming has become a song that says it all for me-I don’t seem to tire of listening to it). I cannot help but think (as I know many others do) about where Dylan stands in regard to Christ. I don’t take discussing someone else’s standing before God lightly. While some might think it wrong to speculate and write publicly about the potential salvation or damnation of another I think in some way Dylan is up for this himself.

I’ve watched a number of Dylan interviews and there is no doubt that he likes to keep us at a distance and even more, guessing about where he is spiritually. At one time Bob did speak very plainly about his beliefs (through his Christian music and testifying during his concerts-see the embed above). Dylan’s pointed gospel music and pointed public statements allow some place to conjecture about where he is. Though we have never met, my thoughts flow from a genuine concern for Bob Dylan and a desire to see him finish his days declaring the gospel and writing songs for Jesus Christ.

In the course of my listening I came across a song of Dylan’s from his “Time Out of Mind” album called, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.” While Time Out of Mind is not a gospel album something is being said through “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and I have thought about it much.

First of all, let’s take Dylan at the simple meaning of his words, he’s trying to get to heaven. This would imply first a belief in the existence of heaven and without much assumption Dylan must believe it is not going to be entered by everyone, hence his effort, he is “trying’” to get there.

The initial lines would seem to indicate that Dylan thinks that the time is getting close when the question of whether or not he is going to get to heaven will be answered.

The air is getting hotter, there’s a rumblin’ in the skies
I’ve been wading through the high muddy water
With the heat risin’ in my eyes

This next phrase has been much on my mind as I think of Dylan. I am assuming that if Dylan is thinking about heaven, he must also be thinking about the God who inhabits heaven and determines who will enter heaven. Here Dylan’s former statements both in music and even what some called preaching in his concerts would remind us that Dylan claimed at one time to know Christ and that he was “Saved” (A great song from the album titled, “Saved”-check out the lyrics here). Here is my question, who is Dylan talking about when he says this?

Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before

I have wondered if Dylan is speaking about Christ here. Why might I think this? Quite simply because one does not come to the place of such commitment and public declaration about Jesus Christ as Dylan did at one time only to revert back to cryptic statements that leave one uncertain about a person’s relationship with Christ. As a disciple of Christ there is no stationary position, one either moves forward or is falling back and when you listen to the things Dylan was saying about Christ during his gospel era and listen now, it is obvious something has happened. Perhaps some will not understand this. In fact, unless you have been born again you cannot understand this. You don’t come to the place of bearing public scorn and persecution for Christ and then revert back to near silence and loss of evangelical zeal without something having gone wrong spiritually.

I remember very clearly meeting a man while in Bible college as I walked around a lake at a park near my college campus. He was fishing and as I approached him I hoped to witness to him about Christ. After just a few minutes he said, “You’re trying to witness to me aren’t you?” I admitted I was.

This man went on to tell me how close he had been to Christ at one time  but had somehow gotten away from Him. I will always remember him saying, "If you would have told me a few years ago that I would be away from Christ and straying like I am I would never have believed it possible.” This man went on to say that he knew that he needed to get back to Christ but then admitted that he was not willing to just then.

What happens when we get away from Christ and stay away? His memory grows dimmer. We don’t hear His voice the next day as clearly as we did the day before. Refusal to draw near to Jesus results in an increasing hardness of heart. While we at one point might have been alarmed by what was happening to us, refusal to get right hardens the heart. For a time a person will be “haunted” by Christ’s absence but with time we are not haunted anymore. Christ is gone and we don’t care. Am I saying that this has happened to Bob Dylan? I am saying I wonder.

During my first listening to “Tryin’” this line stood out dramatically:

“You broke a heart that loved you”

Wow. If these lines pertain to Bob Dylan and Christ and I do wonder if they might, what a sad thing and how greatly truth needs to be applied to the heart. There was something happening during the late 70’s and early 80’s with Bob Dylan. The songs he wrote about Christ were powerful, watch “What Can I Do For You?” Do we find songs like this coming out of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM)? As you watch ask yourself if this is just a mere performer doing his stint for the night. I think not. I am not a Dylan expert but I believe his most powerful singing came while he sang during this era.

The accusation that Christ has broken someone’s heart…I have witnessed this a number of times in the course of my journey. Someone comes alive to Christ and has great zeal for Him only a short time later to lose this zeal. Often the claim from the person is that Christ deserted them. This of course cannot be for He has promised never to leave or forsake His people (Hebrews 13:5). Such people end up very disillusioned, they feel Christ let them down, or “broke their hearts”. Somehow such people believe that they are more faithful in their love to Jesus than He is to them. Very often what has happened in someone is as the Savior describes:

Matthew 13:20-21  "The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and
when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.

Jesus never takes His love from His people. If something happens in the relationship it must be our heart toward His. Of course we hardly ever think we are the ones who are to blame even to the point of blaming God. Again, this cannot be, for God’s love for His people is everlasting:

Jeremiah 31:3  "I have loved you with an everlasting love;”

Why else do I think “Tryin to Get to Heaven” might be about Dylan and Christ? Because of these lines:

Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore. I’ve been walkin’ that lonesome valley. Tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door.

Seal up the book? Sounds like very Biblical phraseology doesn’t it? The Bible tells us again and again that God has a book, actually books:

Exodus 32:33  “The Lord said to Moses, "Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.”

Psalm 56:8 “You have taken account of my wanderings; Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?”

Psalm 139:16 “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them.”

Revelation 3:5 “He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.”

Revelation 20:12 “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.”

God’s books being most likely scrolls have a seal or seals on them signifying the completion of the document so that nothing can be added to or taken from what has been written:

Revelation 5:1-2 “I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?"

There are many things that we should not and by grace must never say to God. At the top of this list must be a statement like, “Seal up the book and don’t write anymore”. Could we ever want God to be done with us? To tell Him to stop being a part of our life and essentially to depart from us? God is literally not just emotionally the source of  our life. We live because of Him and without Him we have not life no matter how much glitter and paint we may paint upon our existence.

I am sure some will think it strange that I have gone to such length in my thinking about Bob Dylan and where he stands with Christ. I don’t think I am alone. My previous post on Dylan’s Christian music has risen almost to the top of the list of my most read posts on my Blog. The searches that bring people to my Blog often include “Dylan” and “Christian”.

I have no greater fear than to end up away from Christ. I think this concern makes me mindful and diagnostic with others. If I am wrong about my interpretation of “Trying to Get to Heaven” I would be very glad. But again, there is no reverting backward from where Dylan was. To know Christ and be with Him is to declare Him, to make Him known. Something has happened here that is not good.

Earlier I mentioned the man I met as I walked who had gotten away from Christ. Perhaps more than anything I remember him saying to me as he mentioned his former closeness with Christ and then his sad condition, he said, “Don’t think it can’t happen to you.”

Lord, keep us close to you. Give us the grace to remain in your love…

Jude 1:21   “keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life.”

Matthew 24:12-13 "Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.”


19 Responses to “Tryin’ to get to heaven-My ponderings on Bob Dylan and the Christian Faith”
  1. Singing Bear says:

    As a Christian AND a Dylan fan, I found your thoughts interesting but I’m a little uncomfortable with some of what you say. I suppose that, as a public figure who’s art is of acknowledged importance, there is a certain value in examining the state of Bob’s relationship with The Lord. However, ultimately this is something that only God can judge and the skimpy evidence of the lyrics of a single song do not add up to much. Yes, he MAY be talking about Jesus but, equally, he may not be. We must also be careful not to assume that Dylan is necessarily always being ‘himself’ in all is songs. He is a songwriter and story-teller – some of his songs may very well be works of fiction.Of course, this doesn’t invalidate them as works of art.

    It is also worth noting that since he wrote ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’ he has continued to perform such songs as ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, ‘Solid Rock’, ‘Every Grain of Sand’ and ‘I Believe In You’ in his live shows. Indeed, he has sung the latter song this week. What do you think this means? He has also publicly stated that Jesus is his ‘hero’. This actions do not sound like those of a ‘back-slider’ to me.

    It’s a good thing that you care about Bob’s relationship with God – all need to care about one another – but let’s be careful to get the plank from our own eyes before checking the dust in his.

    Keep up the good work and peace.

  2. 4theluv says:

    I am both a Christian and a Dylan fan. If you listen to his 2006 Album “Modern Times”, which contains some very interesting lyrics in “Spirit on the Water” and “Thunder on the Mountain” you walk away with a definite idea of Dylan’s call for deeper spirituality.

    His song “Every Grain of Sand” from his album “Shot of Love” I think hints of a the true progress of the Christian journey of faith. Dylan states, “Sometimes I turn there’s someone there, other times its only me”. That “zeal” is ultimately unsustainable and true faith is not expressed in “What Can I Do for You” but rather in the realization that there is nothing we can ultimately do for Him. It is all of grace.

    I think what Dylan hints at is the great lie that Christians constantly live on “fire”, rather than on faith. And that is the lesson he has learned. He know longer sees a need to justify himself to others, only to live his talents to their fullest and trust Christ ultimately or salvation.

    I will not speculate on Dylan’s ultimate salvation. In the end, it is not or me to decide. He is one of the most brilliant musical and lyrical talents of the last 200 years, and I am content with that. He is indeed enigmatic, and a bit eclectic. And at the end of the day, I think all Dylan wants is to make his music, and express himself thereby but never wants to justify himself to anyone.

  3. shastadaisy says:

    If Bob is connected to his Jewish roots, he doesn’t need your concern.

  4. Mickvet says:

    I wouldn’t agree with your interpretation of ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’. One could argue that when saying to Christ to “Seal Up The Book…” that he is referring to a post-death situation, when the ‘Book’ of this life will certainly be over. On the same album, remember, is ‘Make You Feel My Love’ which seems a complete devotion to Christ-I interpret the narrator as Christ-‘…I’d go black and blue, I’d go down the avenue’ seems a reference to the Via Dolorosa. God bless.

  5. Joaquin says:

    I think you have great discernment. If his statements are true that he doesn’t adhere to any religion now and the reports that he supports the Jewish faith, he has strayed. I feel the same way you do, except you articulated it much better than I would have. Some times people put a lot of faith on people (Dylan) and get offended by someone questioning them. Man is man, Christ is The Savior. Thank you for quoting scripture as well.

  6. Gary says:

    Dear Joaquin,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Some I’m afraid may misunderstand my ponderings about Bob Dylan and the Christian faith thinking that I am attacking him. I can honestly say my thoughts are born of concern for him. When I listen to the music he wrote for Christ it is undeniable that God was at work in him.

    The frightening thing is that work can take place in us that does not ultimately lead to salvation. Peter speaks of the man who turns away after hearing the truth (2 Peter 2:20-22. It is my prayer this is not the case with Dylan.

    I think my thoughts ultimately rest here…There is no going back from where Dylan was. Can we imagine Paul preaching and suffering for Christ for a time only then to draw back and become cryptic about where he is? Many have thought mistakenly that somehow Dylan is allowed an exemption because of who he is, it is alright if he is cryptic about where he is. This is not an option for a Christian is it? Nor does the Christian want this option. Some might say, “How do you know he has gone back?” Well, I am only saying you don’t go to where he was in a willingness to declare Christ and then stop. You cannot declare and suffer as Dylan did and go back. The path he was on is the path that we travel further down not retreat from no matter what it may mean for this life.

    I really like Dylan’s “Pressing On” in which he sings, “Shake the dust off of your feet, don’t look back.”

    People now speak of Dylan’s gospel music as a “stage” in his life. A stage? I would never want people to think that Jesus was a stage in my life. I want people to know that I am with Him now, not just that I was at one time.

    Sometimes it is easy to consider our friends enemies. If I seem to speak as one who is against Dylan I can assure you it that is not the case.

    Proverbs 27:6
    “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.”

  7. JL says:

    I don’t read Bob’s word as a disconnect from God —
    rather, I think he is just simply tired of the human journey.

  8. PJY says:

    I totally agree with the first 2 comments. Gary, I think you are reading to deeply into the lyrics. The heart that was broken may not be his? From Dylan’s previous statements he has a story to tell & he feels it can take on a different meaning for each listner. I am also not here to judge, but to enjoy the music. Because he is not singing “all” gospel songs doesn’t mean he has lost his christian faith. I don’t feel he is tired of the journey either. I think he is just comfortable & thankful where he is at in his life & with the Lord. His continual Bliblical references in every album (no matter how minimal) leads me to believe he is still a faithful believer. You may correct me, but from what I have read Bob is of Jewish lineage, but his family did not practice Judaism, he was not a born again christian, but had a personal experience with God,was saved through Jesus Christ & reborn. He has always believed in a superior power & nothing can change his mind that there is another place he will dwell & earth is only temporary. What we do here determines where we will reside permanently. I think he is always mindful of his existance here because he has his sites set on Heaven. If that is not being a Christian then what is? From the “RS” 2009 inteview I think he wants to continue to work as long as God allows him & when his time comes he is ready. May the Lord bless & keep you.

  9. Garth says:

    Hi Gary,

    I just Googled Dylan’s Trying to Get to Heaven–trying to find it on Youtube and found this link. First, thank you for your thoughts and your caution in what you wrote. I grew up a great fan of Dylan. The last album I ever bought was Time Out of Mind. I listened to it endlessly (three song in particular that I played over and over were Trying to Get to Heaven, It’s Not Dark Yet, and Standing in the Doorway). This was the last album I listened to before I bowed my knees to Christ and asked Him to be my Savior and Lord. These three songs, parts of them anyway, described my life perfectly, and my distance from God accurately. I soon threw out all my secular music, to include my Dylan collection (with the exception of his Christian albums from the late 70s/early 80s).

    For years, I have been praying for Dylan. I was always deeply moved by songs like When He Returns and Every Grain of Sand. After a few years as a born-again believer, I was moved to tears as I listened to Every Grain of Sand. Such powerful, meaningful lyrics. It was then that I began to pray for Bob. I did, and still do, pray that God would move in his heart. As you said, I want to be careful in judging someone else’s walk, but we are to let our light shine among men. And it is true that the man who wrote Time Out of Mind is looking backwards and forwards and looking for God. I am comforted that the Lord has placed Bob Dylan in the hearts of others as well. Let us pray together for God to penetrate Bob’s heart again. As Corrie ten Boom wrote, “There is no place to deep, where God is not deeper still.”

    I recently purchased Time Out of Mind again. The Lord put it in my heart to write a stage play, and parts of the three aforementioned songs fit like a glove into different areas of the play. It is my hope that God will use this play to draw others to the Cross.

    Thanks again, Gary, for sharing your wisdom and discernment. God bless and keep you always!

  10. Gary says:

    Dear Garth,

    Thank you for stopping by my Blog and for your comments regarding Bob Dylan. I have wanted to be so careful not to seem to be the judge but I fear that many Christians do not seem to grasp the spiritual principle that you cannot go backward from the heights Dylan lived and wrote at to where he is now without something being wrong. I get comments from people saying that I shouldn’t read so much into lyrics such as “Tryin to Get to Heaven” and I think lyrics? This is much more than lyrics. Dylan essentially preached in concerts. He made statements like he wouldn’t sing any song that the Lord had not told him to sing. His intention was clearly to glorify Christ. This has not been the case with him for many years and how other believers do not see how this must be a sign that something is wrong I don’t know. I am afraid many take me as harsh and judgmental. They do not know that my heart is concerned and grieved.

    I like you have had quite a burden on my heart for Bob. His Christian music is so powerful, certainly God’s hand was upon it. “I Believe In You” is probably my favorite Dylan song, it moves me every time I hear it and that has been many times. I think it so clearly shows the price he was paying at the time…”They show me to the door, they say don’t come back no more…” You mentioned, “Every Grain of Sand” which I also love. They lyrics to “Saved” are amazing…”I was blinded by the devil, born already ruined, stone cold dead as I stepped out of the womb.” If only we had such sound doctrine coming from our pastors and pulpits today.

    It is strange isn’t it that you can care for someone that you have never met but I cannot seem to be at rest concerning Dylan. I want to see him back where he was first for his sake for again, coming away from where he was cannot be a good thing spiritually but I also want it for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. Only a Christian can understand for certainly it is God who has burdened our hearts this way.

    I was so glad to hear from you Garth and to know that someone else is thinking and feeling what I am. It gives me hope that God is behind it. Your note was such an encouragement.

    May God bless you in your relationship with Him and your life for Him.

    In Christ,


  11. Tom Wheeler says:

    Thank you for your thoughts about Bob Dylan. I hesitate to comment on Dylan’s spiritual condition (or anyone else), however I believe that he has consistently presented Christian ideas, though subtle. In the article, “Christmas: Jesus and Dylan,” it asserts that half of Dylan’s songs since 1981 contain Christian imagery ( It also indicates that Larry Norman thought that Dylan’s Slow Train was the best Christian album ever. I agree with the late Norman to a point, yet I also believe that Dylan’s greatest or deepest Christian songs are not on the Slow Train album, and many of these have been recorded in the past twelve years.

    Thanks for your excellent article as a prompt, and letting us present our ideas.

    Only by God’s Grace,

    Tom Wheeler

  12. Tom Wheeler says:

    Sorry for the mistake with the above URL. This should work:

    Tom Wheeler

  13. Gary says:

    Dear Tom,

    Thank you for coming by and for your thoughts. As you can tell from my post, Dylan’s Christian music has effected me profoundly. When I think about the price he paid to perform it I am convinced he was at the heart of real faith to a degree that today’s Christian music artists know little about.

    I am aware that Dylan still sings some of his Christian music today and I am glad for it. Haven’t heard much of the Christmas album. Have you?

    Thanks Tom.

  14. Tom Wheeler says:

    Yes, I purchased the Christmas album. Sadly, one of the most enjoyable is not a Christian song, but “Must Be Santa.” Yet, the Christian songs are great, and though his voice is raspy, it really seems to be that he put a lot of heart in it (maybe just wishful thinking). “Little Drummer Boy” was pretty good. Durig this year’s concerts, I’ve been to a couple, he has included some songs with a biblical perspective that he hadn’t performed for a while. With the Christmas album and increased spiritual emphasis, my guess is that, being age 68, death is more on his mind. His yearning for the highlands may be intensifying. However, I could be wrong, you never know with Dylan. Thanks for letting me share. Another interesting article, really a story this time, is called “What Good Am I?” from From time to time Dylan gets in a self-examination mood. I believe he is now experiences in it. Prayer is certainly warranted. Tom Wheeler

  15. Bill says:

    Dylan is a christian.T Bone Burnett speaks of it in an interview.TBone was one of the first to witness to him.Look for an interview where Burnett speaks on his christianity and Dylan”s. Donald L Hughes wrote it.There is a little nugget there that will ease your mind………………….

  16. Gary says:

    Dear Bill,
    Thanks for stopping by and for your thoughts. I have not tried to say that Bob Dylan isn’t a Christian although again I must confess my concern. As to the T-Bone interview I would say that it should not be left for others to make it known we are Christ’s. Our Christianity is not something we should leave to question or leave for someone else to declare for us.

    I am not Bob Dylan’s judge but am making the point that when one considers the boldness with which he sang and spoke at one time even telling others that they needed to be saved in comparison with now…there is reason for concern. I pray for Bob Dylan and would rejoice to see him close out his life being the witness He once was.

  17. With a men’s group, I’m exploring the meaning(s) of John 6:44,64: “No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draw him…And he said, For this cause have I said unto you, that no man can come to me, except it be given unto him of the Father.”

    How does the Father draw us to believe that his Son is our divine savior? How does He give us the acceptance of Jesus as the Christ and our redeemer?

    We are studying the stories of selected converts in the New Testament, saints, and authors, spanning the past 2000 years, in hopes of gaining some insight and understand of this mystery.

    A few years ago, I bought the CD, “The Essential Bob Dylan,” principally for the song, “Things Have Changed.” It won the 2000 Academy Award for Best Original Song for a Movie (“Wonder Boys”). That’s how I first heard “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Shelter from the Storm,” and “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

    Curiously, I think he belongs in our study (not that we will understand him, his music or his spiritual journey). God moves in mysterious ways, my friend, to accomplish his purpose, and we see through a glass, darkly. It is clear, however, even if something appears to have gone wrong, in your opinion, that Dylan continues to seek God’s face. He has been drawn to Jesus. Leave the rest to the Father and the Son. Enjoy the music of his life.

    Glenn Ledbetter

  18. J.G. says:

    Hi! I was realy shaken,when I read this post.From time to time i have wondered what happened to Dylan? I was born again 1980,and Dylans album Saved,was played and danced to,there was such dedication in those songs.I have been very dissapointed with church,and i think the song Man of peace,is a sobering song,that all in christianity is not good,and in his dissapointment he turned to judaism.It would fill my heart with joy,if Dylan returns to his first love.Thank you for one of the best articles i have read about Dylan.

  19. Maybe I am too much in love with the idea of Dylan being a true believer. Has he denied the faith, publicly or privately? Maybe some well intentioned believers were telling him things he should or should not do, instead of praying to God to lead him. Dylan is a man who has been pushed and pulled by many who wanted to co-opt him into their agendas. Maybe he still believes but wishes to do so privately (which is next to impossible) and distances himself to the point that many believe he no longer believes. Could this not be the case? I welcome your readers’ feedback.
    In His Shalom always….

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