The Meaning of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”

Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 hit, “Spirit in the Sky” is one of the most memorable songs of the classic rock era. Released as part of his 1969 album of the same name, “Spirit in the Sky” reached the top three on the Billboard charts, where it remained for 15 weeks, has remained quite popular in the decades since.

Listening to “Spirit in the Sky” you may be surprised to find that Norman Greenbaum is in fact Jewish, as the lyrics contain the clearly-Christian themes of making it to heaven after you die.

According to a 2006 interview Greenbaum did with the New York Times, the idea for the song came about while watching a television broadcast featuring country gospel legend Porter Wagoner doing a number about forgiveness and redemption.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that,’ knowing nothing about gospel music,” Greenbaum told the Times. “So I sat down and wrote my own gospel song. It came easy. I wrote the words in 15 minutes.”

The lyrics contain a positive message, though maybe a bit misguided at times in terms of their religious accuracy. Regardless, the song is an enduring hit that has made an impression on many listeners. In that same Times interview, Greenbaum even mentions how he receives fan mail from kids as young as 9 or 10 years old, telling him that “Spirit in the Sky” is their favorite song.

Let’s dive into the lyrics and see what they’re all about, starting with the first verse:

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky

First verse to “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum.

The meaning here is pretty straightforward, with Greenbaum singing about what is going to happen after he dies. He sings about going “to the place that’s the best”, which is a clear reference to Heaven and a blissful, eternal afterlife that is central to the Christian belief system.

As for the actual “Spirit in the Sky” that he sings about? This is a reference to God, or the Holy Spirit (which are really one in the same), whom Christians believe they will meet when they arrive at the pearly gates.

After this he rolls straight into the chorus, which is basically a reiteration of the first verse, sung in a slightly different way:

Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
I’m gonna go to the place that’s the best

Chorus to “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum.

It’s no wonder that Greenbaum said he wrote this song in 15 minutes. The lyrics are very simple, and based upon a very well-known story.

The second verse dives a little deeper, with lyrics that lay out what one must do in order to make it into heaven after they die:

Prepare yourself you know it’s a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He’s gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky

Second verse to “Spirit In The Sky” by Norman Greenbaum.

Here, Greenbaum explains that you’ve got to be friends with Jesus, also known as the Son of God, so that he recommends you for a place in heaven when your time comes. By this he means that one must follow the teachings of Jesus, and live by his virtues in order to achieve entry. This is another basis of the Christian belief system.

Greenbaum is pretty accurate thus far in terms of his theological take on things, as we roll into another jubilant chorus. However, in the third verse that follows, Greenbaum invites criticism from the staunch believers:

Never been a sinner, I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up
With the spirit in the sky

Third verse to “Spirit In The Sky” by Norman Greenbaum.

The third verse has been the subject of much debate and criticism, as Greenbaum wrongly interpreted another core tenet of the Christian faith: the notion of original sin. This is the belief that humans are born sinners, and in order to get into heaven they must repent and receive forgiveness for their sins.

“A lot of them say, ‘We’re all sinners, we were born sinners, how dare you,’ ” Greenbaum told the New York Times in 2006. “O.K., so what do I know? ‘Sanford and Son’ was written by Jews and what did they know about being black?”

Some have also proposed that “Spirit In The Sky” is drenched in sarcasm, and rather than being a song about the Christian faith, it is a song that makes fun of the Christian faith. This is a possible explanation for the theological misstep in the third verse, though the common belief is that Greenbaum simply misinterpreted the faith, as he explained to the Times.

The song closes with another chorus before fading out into a righteous guitar solo. Listen below.

One comment on “The Meaning of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”

  • October 2, 2022 at 10:30 pm

    Regarding the third verse, I think Greenbaum might have accidentally hit the nail on the head. One of the doctrines of the New Testament is justification through faith or being justified. Somebody once explained that justified means “just as if I’d never sinned.” The blood of Jesus Christ has made us free from the law of sin and death and cleansed us from all unrighteousness. We who believe now bask in the forgiveness He bought us on the cross, the righteousness he has imputed unto us and the promise of Heaven. All of this by simply believing on Him.

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