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Three Demystifying Points about Christianity
by William McGaughey
The points are these:
1. Jesus did not promise that his followers would go to Heaven after death.
2. Jesus assumed a role prescribed in fictional literature.
3. The Christian religion took its earliest ideal and its later institutional form from political empires.
The mystifying aspect of religion hides the fact that this institution is born of worldly motives and circumstances. Besides its expression in the Bible, Christianity has cloaked itself in theological justifications, pageantry, and a request for unquestioning belief. Most people do not have time to explore its roots but simply accept the religion as a culture handed down from their parents and a possible means of retaining life after death. In this short paper, I will discuss what the message of Jesus originally was and what became of it.
Point #1 “Jesus did not promise that his followers would go to Heaven after death.”
The idea of human immortality goes back to primitive beliefs in a spirit world where ancestral spirits dwelled. The pharaonic cult of the dead illustrates this concept in ancient Egypt. Plato’s dialogues tell how Socrates drank the cup of hemlock believing that his soul would last forever. While there are many sources of the idea of an afterlife following death, Jesus’ teachings are not one of them.
The principal message of Jesus is stated in Mark 1: 14: “After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: ‘The time has come; the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent, and believe the Gospel’.” In other words: The Kingdom of God is about to arrive. Prepare for it by repentance and belief in its impending arrival.
Was what the Bible calls “the Kingdom of God” what we mean by Heaven? No, it was not. Our concept of Heaven is a place where the souls of people go after they die. If that had been Jesus’ concept, he would have been saying: Prepare for mass deaths followed by elevation to a place of immortal life. Jesus was not promising divinely induced genocide.
The concept, “Kingdom of God”, as meant by Jesus and other religious thinkers of his day arises from Jewish religious prophecy. The writing prophets began with Amos, a Judaean herdsman and dresser of fig-mulberries who preached at Bethel in the 8th century B.C. The northern kingdom of Israel was then reaching a peak of power and prestige although many saw it as a wicked regime. A major earthquake had shaken the region shortly before Amos wrote. He wrote about the coming “Day of the Lord” when God would punish Israel for its wickedness but would later restore it in righteousness.
Biblical prophecy followed the model created by Amos. His was a scenario of history including past history followed by a description of events in an imagined future. Amos wrote around 750 B.C. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 720 B.C. The southern kingdom of Judah survived until 586 B.C. when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem.
The prophets who followed Amos - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc. - were writing against the historical backdrop of Jewish national decline. God had promised Moses that the Hebrews would always prosper so long as they kept his Commandments. They had prospered during the righteous reigns of David and Solomon. But then the Hebrew empire split in two and the two halves fell successively to foreign conquerors. The explanation was that God was punishing the fallen kingdoms for their wickedness. However, there was a silver lining in God’s renewed promise, delivered through the prophets, that God would restore the Jewish nation in a kingdom ruled by a righteous descendant of David called the Messiah. This was the “Kingdom of God”.
We see that this “Kingdom of God” was meant to be a worldly kingdom. The Jews would again have their empire. However, the empire would be established by divine intervention. God would suddenly create it, bringing ordinary human history to a close. When fanatics today carry signs reading “the world will end soon”, that is close to what Jesus said. God’s kingdom would come to earth.
We see that the coming of God’s kingdom did not mean an afterlife for individuals. However, the resurrection of the dead (which the Pharisees accepted but the Sadducees rejected) did play a part in scenarios of the coming Kingdom. Even though its arrival would take place in history, some prophets were worried that righteous persons who had previously died would miss out on that glorious event. As a solution, they prophesied that the righteous dead of previous generations would be resurrected to life so that they, along with others then living, could be admitted to God’s kingdom. However, the resurrection of the righteous dead did not mean that they would receive eternal life; it meant only that they would be present at the coming of God’s earthly kingdom and in the Kingdom itself.
Point #2 “Jesus assumed a role prescribed in fictional literature.”
The books of Biblical prophecy were fiction - the religious analog of today’s “science fiction”. They were the creation of certain prophetic writers. Normally one would not pay much attention to the products of individual imagination. However, prophetic literature is given greater credence because it is believed to have been divinely inspired. God is the omnipotent, omniscient creator of the universe. Therefore, whatever God says must be true. If God communicates directly with a human being, that communication must also be true. Such is the case, for instance, with Moses to whom God spoke as if man to man. What Moses reported that God said must therefore be true.
Although the writing prophets did not have the same personal relationship with God that Moses had, they wrote under divine inspiration. How do we know? It is because they wrote of certain events before those events happened. They had certain powers of foresight which could only have come from God. As a mundane analogy, part of Babe Ruth’s mystique is that during the 1932 World Series the famous New York Yankee slugger pointed to a certain section of the Center Field bleachers and hit a home run to that very same spot on the next pitch. So the Biblical prophets “called their shots.” They made historical predictions that came true.
The two principal prophets who predicted events in advance were Isaiah and Jeremiah. The prophet Isaiah lived in the kingdom of Judah during the 8th century A.D., beginning his work around 740 B.C. At this time, Israel and Judah were being threatened by Assyria. Isaiah advised against Hebrew kings putting their trust in Egypt to save their nations; they should trust in God alone. When the Assyrian armies approached Jerusalem, they were suddenly destroyed. Isaiah gained prestige as a result of his prescient advice.
Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah lived in Judah during the late 7th and early 6th centuries B.C. when the kingdom of Judah was threatened by the rising power of Babylon. Jeremiah preaqched that Babylon would take Jerusalem. To embrace false gods would only make matters worse. Although Jeremiah was persecuted for his defeatist message, subsequent events proved him right.
In both cases prophecy fit the scenario that the Hebrew kingdoms would be punished for their sins but in the end God would restore the nation under a righteous descendant of David. The accurate prediction of defeat established the two prophets’ prophetic credentials which, in turn, suggested that the second half of the prophecy might also come true.
Some of the later prophets cheated on their prophesies. For instance, the writer of Isaiah, chapters 40 through 66, was not the historical Isaiah who lived in the 8th century B.C. but another person called “Second Isaiah” who lived in the late 6th century B.C. and attached his writings to the earlier body of Isaiah’s writings. We know this because Second Isaiah refers to the Persian king Cyrus II allowing the Jewish exiles to return home in 538 B.C. to rebuild the Jerusalem temple. This suggests that some of the prophetic narrative, purporting to be foreseen in the future, was actually a report of past experience.
The book of Daniel, ascribed to a Jewish administrator of the Babylonian and Persian empires in the early 6th century B.C., includes the famous vision of four beasts coming from the sea in Daniel 7: a lion with eagle wings (which might represent the Babylonian empire), a bear with three tusks (which might represent the Median empire), a leopard with four wings (which might represent the Persian empire), and a beast with iron teeth , ten horns, a little horn and human eyes (which might represent the Greek empire of Alexander the Great and his successors).
After this came an empire with a human ruler. It is written in Daniel 7: 13-14: “I was still watching in visions of the night and I saw one like a man coming with the clouds of heaven; he approached the Ancient in Years and was presented to him. Sovereignty and glory and kingly power were given to him, so that all people and nations of every language should serve him; his sovereignty was to be an everlasting sovereignty which should not pass away, and his kingly power such as should never be impaired.”
The book of Daniel was actually written during the turbulent period when the Greek emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. Because this writer mentions the reconsecration of the temple but not Antiochus’ death, he must have finished the writing between December 165 B.C. and June 164 B.C.
In The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity, Albert Schweitzer calls this type of work an “apocalypse.” He explains: “An apocalypse ... is a prophetic writing with the peculiar characteristic that its author does not publish it under his own name but under that of some well-known religious personality of the past ... In the classical apocalypse (such as we have in the book of Daniel) the alleged writer undertakes to predict the course of history from his own day in the remote past to the age in which the real writer lives, as something glimpsed in a series of visions, and rounds it off with visions of the final age. Since the reader can establish the accuracy of the prophecies of past events, it is hoped that he will continue to be convinced that the events still to come will occur as foreseen.”
Officially, the book of Malachi, written around 450 B.C., is the last book in the Old Testament canon. In fact, prophetic writings continued for several more centuries. After Second Isaiah came the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, who both lived in the period during the late 6th century B.C. when the temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt. Malachi lived during the 5th century B.C. After him came the prophet Joel (around 400 B.C.) and the writers of Isaiah chapter 24-27 and Zechariah 9-14 which belong to the period when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire around 330 B.C. The Hebrew people were continuously subject to foreign rule until the Hasmonean dynasty of the Maccabee family was established in the mid 2nd century B.C.
Religious prophecies continued to be written even after the Romans took control of Judaea. Some of them, produced by Pharisaic writers, include the Apocalypse of Enoch, written in the first half of the 1st century B.C.; the Psalms of Solomon, written in the same period; and the Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra, both written after the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. Showing Zoroastrian influence, the later prophecies present an elaborate scheme of the final days. The Apocalypse of Enoch may be closest to Jesus’ own view.
What we have, then, is a dialogue between history and prophetic scripture. First, the prophet reacts to an event in history; and he produces a piece of literature. The literature carries a scenario of history forward into the future. As time goes by, a new scripture is required. This, too, carries events forward into the future. Empires rise and fall through the centuries but still religious Jews anticipate the coming of God’s kingdom and the Messiah.
Keep in mind that written language was then a bit of a novelty. Present-day standards of textural fidelity did not then exist. It was all right to publish under someone else’s name. It was all right to mix history with prediction. Although current-day standards of truth were lacking, biblical scripture was considered true by virtue of God’s imprimatur.
Originally, God’s kingdom represented the restoration of the Jewish empire under the Messiah, a descendant of king David. The Jewish people had been humiliated by continual subjection to foreign rule. How could their God, supreme ruler of the universe, permit this? However, when Jewish rulers regained control of Palestine, they were unable to keep it due to dynastic bickering.
Later prophesies retreated from the idea that the Messiah was “son of David”. They retreated from the idea of political kingdoms. Starting with Daniel, the Messiah became “son of man”. This is what Jesus called himself. Son of Man was a purely supernatural figure. The events described in prophecy became increasingly fantastic and supernatural. God was intervening miraculously in human affairs apart from historical context.
How did Jesus fit into this scheme? Like the prophetic writers, he had to establish a connection with God. That was done through the performance of miracles. The Gospels tell how Jesus turned water into wine, healed mental illness, and raised the dead through acts of magic enabled by God. The chief miracle, of course, was his own resurrection from death. Today one must take these various acts largely on faith since the written evidence cannot be verified.
However, Jesus also had a unique relationship with prophecy. Until the Christian era, the coming of God’s Kingdom was an event described in literature that was always being deferred. The time between Malachi and Jesus’ birth was four and a half centuries. The prophetic writings became disconnected from the real world. It did not seem that this Kingdom would ever come to pass.
But then, suddenly, the scenarios of the future moved into present tense. A wild-looking man living near the river Jordan began preaching that the Kingdom of God was here already and that all one needed for salvation was to repent of sin and be baptized in water. Jesus allowed himself to be baptized by John. After John’s arrest, he began his own ministry. Like John the Baptist, Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand.
The problem was that Jews had a particular conception of the Kingdom and how it might come. This kingdom would come with a dramatic replacement of worldly dynasties with a supernatural and perfect order. Obviously, this had not happened yet. Therefore, God’s kingdom, while it was “at hand”, had not yet arrived. Attention fell upon when and how it might arrive. Jesus said it would arrive soon.
Biblical prophecy had established that certain events had to occur before the Kingdom came. Chief among those preconditions were, first, that the prophet Elijah had to return to earth and, second, that humanity had to endure a period of unprecedented suffering. The latter became known as the pre-Messianic tribulation.
It was the mission of Jesus to help fulfill those preconditions while also preparing his followers to be eligible to enter God’s kingdom when it arrived. With respect to Elijah, Jesus pointed out that Elijah had already arrived in the person of John the Baptist. With respect to the pre-Messianic tribulation, Jesus first expected that this event would occur when he sent out the disciples to preach throughout the land of Israel. However, they returned to him before those events took place.
Then, according to Albert Schweitzer, Jesus had the idea that he might spare the world of the expected suffering if he took the suffering upon himself. That led to his voluntary submission to execution under Pontius Pilate. Jesus was crucified and he died. According to Christian belief, he was then resurrected from death three days later. Jesus was now in a supernatural form befitting the Messiah who would usher in the long-deferred Kingdom of God.
We can see that the dialogue between religious scripture and history had moved to a new phase. It was no longer history driving scripture, but the reverse. We now had a man acting in accordance with the requirements of prophecy. Jesus was like a character in a play, following a previously written script. He was acting out a series of events that would put him in the role of Messiah. Jesus was producing his own story in a dialogue with prophecy.
But then, of course, a religious movement was created following Jesus’ death and resurrection that produced the Christian church. Christianity now became an important part of history. The prophetic canon was meanwhile becoming closed. We had only the completed story of Jesus told in the Gospels along with expectations that the Kingdom would come with Christ’s “Second Coming”. This remained a kingdom in which God’s will would be done on earth.
Point #3 “ The Christian religion took its earliest ideal and its later institutional form from political empires.”
The Hebrews were a proud people. In those days, gods and goddesses were associated with particular cities, tribes, or nations. Jehovah was the god of the Hebrew people. However, Jewish religious ideology also asserted that Jehovah was the only real God. Other people’s gods were unreal. This posed a problem when the Jewish nation was destroyed and its people became subject to foreign rule.
Political empires predated world religions such as Christianity. There was then no idea of universal religions. There were, however, political empires that seemed universal in scope. For example, the Egyptian pharaohs of the New Kingdom ruled over a vast domain extending from upper Egypt to Syria. There was effectively only one political order in that world. The idea of monotheism mirrors that of a universal empire. One God controls the world spiritually as one emperor rules many nations. It may be no accident that Pharaoh Ikhnaton, ruler of the Egyptian empire, conceived one of the world’s earliest schemes of monotheism.
So it was that, when the once great Jewish nation fell on hard times during the first millennium B.C., religious writers would have imagined how that nation might be restored. The “Kingdom of God” was originally a political restoration. A descendant of King David would again rule Palestine. With God’s help, this nation would again become powerful and great as it had once been. The idea of a strong and powerful nation was behind prophetic scripture in its early phase. A political empire for the Jews was the model for this kingdom.
Christians have become used to separating religion from political empires. After all, the Jewish high priests accused Jesus of wanting political power so the Romans would kill him. We know that, even if a sign hung over the cross mockingly calling him “king of the Jews”, the kingdom of Jesus was “not of this world”. It was something belonging to God.
Even so, Christianity was cut from the same cloth as worldly empires. The Davidic Kingdom of God was related to an empire that had once been. In time, the Christian church became the state religion of Rome. It inherited the structure of the Roman state. This church endured after Rome’s western empire fell.
The ecclesiastic model of the church thus came to mirror that of the political empire. As the empire had established separate capitals in Rome and Constantinople, so the Christian church became split between its western and eastern branches. Cities chartered as municipalities within the Roman commonwealth became the seats of Christian bishops. The prefectures of the eastern empire at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria became Christian patriarchies. The patriarchy at Rome assumed the same role in the western part of the empire.
The spiritual discipline of Christian martyrs was compared with the physical discipline of Roman soldiers. St. Cyprian wrote admiringly of “the orderliness, the pliancy, the submissiveness with which they (the Roman soldiers) carry out their orders.” The monks who extended the Christian religion to places in northern Europe resembled armed garrisons of the Roman state.
What is different about the Christian church is that, unlike the Roman empire, its ecclesiastical organization has lasted for two thousand years. The Pope, bishop of Rome, rules an organization much like an earthly kingdom even if it has a spiritual focus. There is a resemblance between the Christian church historically and that imperial order described in the seventh book of Daniel whereby “sovereignty and glory and kingly power were given to him, so that all people and nations of every language should serve him; his sovereignty was to be an everlasting sovereignty which should not pass away.”
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