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In the last article, One Way or Another, I suggested that God is present in the teachings of other religions than just Christianity. But aren’t these religions just deceptions of the devil? Well if they are, then the devil seems to have a pretty strange agenda. Let’s look at the lives of three famous people of other faiths.
Let’s start with Ashoka the Great – an emperor who ruled most of India in the third century BC. According to tradition, Ashoka began his reign as a ruthless tyrant, purging dissent and violently conquering his neighbors. But as he surveyed the death and destruction of his latest conquest in Kalinga, and heard the wailing of the mourners, something changed in him. He became a Buddhist, and completely reformed his life and his empire. He made peace with his neighbors, forgave his enemies, released many prisoners, built schools and hospitals, and encouraged compassion and kindness in his laws. He protected the forests and animals and encouraged all religions.
“Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought “Let me glorify my own religion,” only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others.” 1
H. G. Wells, said of him:
“Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star.” 2
So who would inspire an enlightened empire of peace and compassion. Satan or God?
Guru Teg Bahadur
Let’s look now at a Sikh, Guru Teg Bahadur who became the ninth guru of the Sikhs in 1665. He was a humble but powerful leader of the Sikh’s but also wrote beautiful verses that became part of the Sikh scriptures. Such as this one:
“Oh mind, love the Lord. With your ears, hear the glorious praises of the Lord of the Universe, and with your tongue, sing his song.” 3.
When the viceroy of the Mugal emperor began trying to convert the Hindus of Kashmir to Islam by force, their leaders approached Teg Bahadur for help. He told them to tell the viceroy that if he could convert Guru Teg Bahadur, they would convert also. But after four months of prison and torture, the Guru still refused to convert, and the viceroy had him beheaded.
Many Christians have found the grace and strength to die for their faith. Guru Teg Bahadur died not merely for his own faith, but to protect others of a different faith. Does satan inspire this kind of grace?
Finally, let’s look at Rabia Basri, a Muslim saint and Sufi mystic who lived in the 700’s AD. Captured by bandits and sold into slavery, she would spend most of her nights in prayer after finishing her duties. When her master overheard these prayers he realized what a saintly person she was and released her. She moved into in the desert where she taught about divine love to a group of disciples. Many religious leaders came to seek her counsel.
She once said to God,
“Everyone prays to You from fear of the Fire;
And if You do not put them in the Fire,
This is their reward.
Or they pray to You for the Garden,
Full of fruits and flowers.
And that is their prize.
But I do not pray to You like this,
For I am not afraid of the Fire,
And I do not ask You for the Garden.
But all I want is the Essence of Your Love,
And to return to be One with You,
And to become Your Face.”
As we close up this discussion of heaven and hell, I wonder how many of us come anywhere close to understanding God like Rabia did? How many of us only try to be good out of fear of hell, or a desire for heaven? How many of us understand the true object of our search?
I carry a torch in one hand
And a bucket of water in the other:
With these things I am going to set fire to Heaven
And put out the flames of Hell
So that voyagers to God can rip the veils
And see the real goal.
Is Jesus Christ essential to the salvation of humanity? If so, how? One verse in the Bible in particular is often quoted by Christians to suggest that no one who does not explicitly believe in Jesus can be saved:
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.1
On it’s face, this seems to be pretty bad news for anyone who hasn’t known about Jesus during their lifetime. Billions of people have lived and died on earth and never heard the name “Jesus”. Among these were some very good people – some probably better than the average Christian. Among these were some very sincere people, who tried to follow the truth as they understood it – possibly trying harder than the average Christian. Would God really deny someone entry into heaven simply because they hadn’t heard of Jesus, while allowing someone to enter who was less moral, less sincere – but who said a “sinner’s prayer” and used the name of Jesus?
In spite of all attempted defenses or explanations of this by Christians, we all know deep down that something’s wrong with this picture. When our deepest moral intuition conflicts with our understanding of a particular scripture – we need to at least ask ourselves if we have possibly misunderstood the scripture.
The Gospel of John, in addition to the above scripture, includes many similar “I am” scriptures in which Jesus claims great power and authority, for example:
And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. 2
Or… Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: 3
Or… Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. 4
Critical readers may be willing to simply dismiss all these saying of Jesus as later additions by Christians who had developed a much more elevated Christology than Jesus originally claimed. And they have a point. But let’s follow this train of thought a little further.
Remember what God told Moses his name was from the burning bush? “I AM that I AM”. 5 “I Am”, in other words, is one of the names of God, and it is no accident that Jesus is portrayed in John as constantly using it. In the last scripture quoted, Jesus claims to be the “light”, not simply of his disciples, or his town, or the Jews in general… but of the entire world – including, by implication, people who had NEVER HEARD OF HIM. This echoes a similar set of statements earlier in John’s gospel:
In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not…the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. 6
Who is this “He” who is the “light of the world”? John identifies it as the “Word” (“logos” in Greek). This “Word” is coequal with God himself. The “Word” is eternal, and creates all things. In the Greek philosophies, “logos” was used to speak of the underlying reality of the universe – the animating power, the supreme truth. John implies that this “Logos” is, in fact, Jesus. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”.
It sounds almost like we are talking about two different beings. In other gospel accounts, particularly earlier ones, Jesus (although a miracle worker) seems very human in many respects. He was born, suffered, and died. He didn’t know who touched him in the crowd. He asked God to save him from suffering. He was hungry and thirsty. Then there are these statements in John about the eternal, uncreated, omnipotent, omniscient Logos of God. What is the relationship between these two descriptions?
The answer worked out and agreed to by some Christians (after centuries of squabbling) is that Jesus Christ had TWO completely different “natures”. He had a human nature (let’s call that one “Jesus”) and he had a DIVINE nature as the Logos of God (let’s call that one “Christ”) and these two natures were seamlessly united in one person. In eastern or New-Age terminology – one might say that Jesus was an “Avatar” – a person completely united with the Divine Nature so as to be an incarnation of God. Others believed Jesus had a nature that was single, but was human AND divine at the same time. These distinctions (over which people killed each other in an earlier age) are probably not that important to modern Christians. The key point is that in some way, Jesus is united with a particular aspect of God, called The Logos.
This helps us to understand some of the otherwise incomprehensible claims of John. How, after all, could Jesus – one individual man – be the light which enlightens EVERY SINGLE PERSON who comes into the world? (even those who’ve never heard of him). The answer is that it is the Logos of God who enlightens all people.
As the Logos, Jesus created everything 7. Even invisible spiritual realities such as angels 8 And all human beings have this Logos inside them giving them life 9 All people, in other words, have access to the underlying Reality of the cosmos. All of them are connected to the creative energy which animates the universe. All of them have access to the universal Truth at the root of all things. All people who have ever lived are immersed in the Logos. All people are enlightened by “Christ”, even if they have never heard of “Jesus”. Only in THIS way can Christ be the light of the world, and enlighten all.Such a statement fits in Jesus’ mouth only because he is united with the Logos of God.
But now let us re-examine our problem scripture: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But does this refer to the human nature “Jesus”? Does it refer to the preacher of Nazareth, born in Bethelem and crucified in Jerusalem? Or does it refer instead to the divine nature of “Christ”, the light of the world?
If it refers to “Christ” the Logos – then the whole puzzle is solved. We might imagine a person worthy of heaven who didn’t know the name “Jesus” – but can we imagine a person in heaven other than by the path of universal truth and light? Everyone who comes to the Father comes through the Christ principle – but many of them do not know the name of Jesus.
Paul says that when Moses made water come from the Rock, that the Rock was really Jesus. 10. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says:
“Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up a rock, and you will find me” 11
If Jesus is in everything. If he was in the symbol of a rock, where else might he be? Might he be in the hearts of everyone, urging them toward God? Might he be in the lives of millions of people every day who are examples of forgiveness, and gratitude, and joy?
Every person who has ever lived is in touch with the Christ principle. It lives at the core of every soul. It enlightens the world’s great religions, and inspires all the world’s great saints. Every good deed is done through Christ. Every beautiful thing expresses Christ. Every truth embodies Christ. And it is through Christ the Logos that God is approached.
I’ve quoted it several times here, but one of my favorite passages on this is from the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. In “The Last Battle”, a soldier who worships a demon (named “Tash”) meets Aslan (Jesus) in a final judgement. He is accepted into heaven, and is confused, because he has served Tash all his life. Aslan explains to him:
“For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou shouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.“
In the last installment, we saw that the idea of everlasting punishment is not compatible with a God of love. But isn’t a a hell of everlasting punishment taught in the scriptures? No, but they have been aggressively mistranslated and misinterpreted to make you THINK they do.
Let’s start with the Old Testament. When Moses and the prophets gave the law, they warned people that whoever broke God’s laws would suffer in hell forever. Oh no wait. They didn’t say that at all. The curses for breaking the law included famine, sickness and war, but NOT eternal torment. 1
But doesn’t the Old Testament mention hell? No. The Old Testament uses the Hebrew word “Sheol”, which means the grave or the place of the dead. Both the righteous and the unrighteous go to Sheol. But the translators of Bibles like the King James pulled a trick on us. They knew that whenever Christians hear the word “hell” they think of eternal flames. So whenever the Old Testament mentioned wicked people going to Sheol, they translated the word as “hell”, and whenever it mentions righteous people going to Sheol, they translated it as “the grave” – even though they are the same Hebrew word. It’s simply the place of the dead. There is no mention of screams and torment in Sheol. In fact it was called a land of silence 2
This is similar to the use of the Greek word “Hades” in the New Testament. As you may remember from Greek mythology, Hades was simply the underworld. Like Sheol, it was a place of the dead, good or evil. But Jesus does use another word that is translated as “hell”. Most of the images of flames and punishment come to us from Jesus’ use of the Hebrew or Aramaic word “gehenna” or “gehinnom”. For example:
“If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out! It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell (Gehennah), where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.” 3
So what exactly is “Gehenna”. It sounds like a punishment of everlasting fire. But is it? Well, it turns out that it’s actually a valley just outside of Jerusalem. Depending on which historians you read, this valley was either a dump where the garbage was burned, or a valley of tombs, or the place where in ancient times they sacrificed to the god Molec. Perhaps all three of them. It’s also a place where Isaiah claimed God would burn the bodies of the wicked after a great last battle. In fact, Jesus is quoting Isaiah when he mentions it. Here’s what Isaiah says.
“They shall go forth, and look on the dead bodies of the men who have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” 4
But Isaiah isn’t talking about souls in hell, he’s talking about dead bodies. So many that the fires go on and on. And it’s interesting that many of the people Jesus preached to ended up slaughtered a few years later when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and the Roman 10th Legion burned the bodies of the dead in Gehenna valley. 5
So was Jesus simply warning people about the destruction of Jerusalem? Some commentators think so. But about this time, the rabbis also began to use Isaiah’s prophecy of physical destruction as a symbol of a purification process after death. A person who had been wicked would suffer fiery pain in this spiritual Gehenna, but after their wickedness was purged, they would come out. The fires of Gehenna might continue to burn, but no one would spend more than a year in Gehenna, and some would come out much sooner, after they had paid their debt in full, as Jesus said. 6
But what about all the scriptures that talk about eternal suffering and punishment? Here’s where the biggest mistranslation comes into play.
With no exception that I can find, when the Bible mentions eternal or everlasting punishment, the word it uses is “aionios” This is derived from the Greek word “aeon”. That word probably looks familiar, because it’s where we get the word “eon”, meaning a long period of time. But in Greek it could apparently mean ANY period of time, from a week to many generations. So these “eternal” torments are actually “age-long” torments. They may last a long time, or at least seem to, but they come to an end. Also the word Jesus uses for these punishments is “kolasis” 7 which is the word used for pruning away the dead wood from a tree to improve it and help it grow. It is purification to improve a person, not endless punishment to torture them. There’s no point in pruning a tree forever. But over the centuries, theologians began to translate “aionios” as eternal and everlasting, to make the punishments seems more horrible, probably to frighten people into being obedient.
If God had wanted the scriptures to convey the idea of a hell of everlasting torment, surely he would have mentioned it in the Old Testament? Surely Jesus and the apostles would have chosen words that really meant “eternal” or “everlasting” when describing God’s purification (there are several Greek words to choose from). The idea of hell hardly appears in Paul’s writings at all.
St Augustine said that whoever interprets the scriptures in a way that doesn’t teach love – doesn’t understand them. And we’ve just seen that in order to get the Bible to teach a God who tortures most of humanity forever, you have to mistranslate and misunderstand quite a bit.
So what DOES happen to the wicked after death? There are a lot of possibilities, and we don’t need to sort it all out right now. All that’s important for this episode is that we realize that if there are punishments after death, then they are limited, and they are redemptive. As for the rest, some early Christians, as well as some today, believe that God will save everyone. This is called universalism. Some early Christians, as well as some today, believed in some kind of reincarnation. Some believe that the wickedest souls will be destroyed, rather than punished forever. This is annihilationism. You don’t have to believe any of them. Some people combine parts of all of them. I’m going to refer in the annotations to a video of my mentor Bishop Lewis Keizer where he explains the mystical Jewish view of what happens to these various parts of the soul after death. 8
But the moral of the story is that God is just and merciful. We will be punished for our sins, but only to the extent necessary to purify us so that we can move on. You can still follow Jesus without having to think God is a monster who punishes most people forever and ever.
Until next time, I’m Keith Campbell for Godsmarts. See you soon.
Most people in the world will die and go to hell, where they will spend an endless eternity burning in unimaginable agony with no hope of release, ever. This is what many churches teach, often enthusiastically.
But these days, more and more Christians are secretly embarrassed by this teaching, but are afraid to question it. But perfect love, says the first letter of John, drives out fear. 1. Remember in an earlier post, we say that Jesus, Paul and St. Augustine all said that love is the real meaning of the scriptures, and if you think the scriptures are teaching something other than love, then you’ve misinterpreted them.
So is it really loving of God to condemn most of humanity to be an object lesson of everlasting pain? Of course not. Not only is this not loving, it’s not even just. The scripture says God is just 2, but I would argue that a God who dishes out infinite punishment in an infinite hell is infinitely unjust.
Justice means that the punishment fits the crime. “An eye for an eye”. 3 As limited, finite humans, by our very nature, we can’t commit an infinite crime, therefore, so infinite punishment is unjust.
Let’s take an example. Imagine the worst person who ever lived. Nominations vary, but Hitler is always a popular choice, so let’s use him as an example. Hitler lived for 56 years.Because of Hitler’s evil, millions of innocent people suffered horribly and died. So, let’s suppose that after death, Hitler is thrown into a hell of unimaginable suffering and torment. Let’s leave him there a good, long while.
We check back on Hitler after 20 million years. For 20 million years, he has been in unimaginable agony, screaming in incoherent torment day and night, year after year, century after century, for 20 million years. Doing some calculation, let’s suppose we find that he has suffered more than the combined total pain of all the people who suffered because of him. Adding up the pain of everyone who was tortured, everyone who starved, everyone who was gassed, everyone who was shot – or everyone who died in the war… Hitler’s agony has now exceeded that combined total. At that point, justice is satisfied.
But let’s be thorough. Let’s also add up the suffering of everyone who was affected in any way by Hitler. We’ll calculate the suffering of all the people who lost loved ones. We’ll add in all the people who suffered grief, anxiety – heck, even annoyance. We come up with another suffering calculation – and we send Hitler back to the flames.
And 200 hundred million years later, we come back. Once again, for all this time – for a time longer than recorded human history, Hitler has been screaming in agony. He has now suffered all the sufferings of everyone remotely affected by his evil and then some.
But we want to be very sure about this. After all, it’s Hitler, and early parole will be frowned upon. So we send him back to hell, and this time we take a really long vacation.
We come back in two hundred trillion years. Hitler, all this time, has been in excruciating agony – worse than any pain anyone can imagine. for every second of every day and night. He has suffered more than the combined pain of everyone who ever lived – not only on earth, but (if there is life on other worlds) every inhabitable planet. His life on earth, during which his misdeeds occurred, is less than a microscopic dot in the long, long tale of his unimaginable suffering. The whole history of human suffering is insignificant compared to the suffering of this one man.
Can ANYONE tell me that at this point – justice has not been satisfied – even for Hitler? He has paid completely out of proportion to his crimes. He has suffered so horribly that all other human suffering is a drop in the bucket. And yet, the doctrine of an infinite hell says that at this point, his suffering hasn’t even begun.
He will continue to scream in guttural anguish – on into eternity, until there is nothing to remember of his entire existence but an eternity of suffering.
Is this justice? No, it is infinite injustice. I venture that there isn’t a normal human being who, if they had to watch this, would not have pulled even Hitler out of this kind of torment ages before this point. Are we more merciful than God? And yet millions of Christians think that not only will God continue to torment Hitler forever, he’ll also give the very same punishment of endless suffering to Gandhi, Socrates, Buddah, Hipatia of Alexandria, and anyone who hasn’t accepted Jesus, including people in now and in the past who live in areas where Christianity hasn’t reached.
The idea of infinite suffering is infinitely unjust. The God of the Bible, if he insisted on such a thing, would be worse than the most bloodthirsty god of the Aztecs. He would be worse than Molech. The Aztecs sacrificed less than 1 percent of their population every year hoping to keep their culture in favor with the gods. But by most estimates, only 7 to 14 percent of humans in the history of the world have been Christians. So God allows 86 to 93 or more percent of humanity to be sacrificed forever in hell to save 7 to 14 percent in heaven. Such a God would be such a monster that the most noble thing we could do would be to oppose him.
Now some Christians suggest that we ARE guilty of infinite sin, because our sins are against an infinite God. Just as I receive a worse punishment for insulting a judge in a courtroom than for insulting a guy on the street (because of the more exalted office of the judge) it is said by some that ANY sin against God is an infinite sin, because God is infinite.
But this leaves out an important detail. We can only commit sin to the limit of our own capacity to understand sin. A monkey wouldn’t be found in contempt of court for making faces at a judge. Neither would a small child. They don’t understand the seriousness of their offense (although a child might understand enough to be at least scolded).
To commit a great sin requires greater understanding. To commit an INFINITE sin requires INFINITE understanding, and no human being is capable of infinite understanding. No human being can even understand the nature of an infinite sin, far less commit it.
Even so, there are some people who are willing to accept God being more cruel than Molech if that’s what the Bible says. Even though Jesus, Paul and St. Augustine all say that only loving interpretations of the scriptures are correct ones. But is that really what the scripture says?
We’ll take that question up in our next episode. Spoiler alert – the answer is NO. The picture is a lot less grim.
Until next time, this is Reverend Keith for Godsmarts.