Consider this quote from an essay contained in The HarperCollins Study Bible, entitled Israelite Religion by Ronald Hendel:
Early biblical texts seem to acknowledge that gods of other nations exist (see Deut 32.8). The nations each have their own god, but Yahweh is Israel‘s god. This seems to be the earliest sense of the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20.3). Yahweh is Israel’s high god, who delivered his people from slavery and oppression, and he is entitled to Israel’s exclusive worship and loyalty. Other national gods exist, but Yahweh is Israel’s god and is the greatest god. This type of worship is sometimes called monolotry (the worship of one god without denying the existence of others) or henotheism (belief in one god without denying the existence of others). A more thoroughgoing monotheism, which denies the existence of other gods, is the product of the prophetic and Deuteronomistic critique that developed during the eighth through the sixth centuries BCE.
Here is Deuteronomy 32:8 (NRSV):
When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixethe boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods.
Christians will obviously interpret this differently, and their Bibles likely contain a different translation of the above verse. Just goes to show you how different a picture you can construct of history and religion when not confined within the boundaries of faith.
In the spirit of this blog, I cannot let this universal season go by without some kind of commentary. Therefore, I shall comment on the perversity of the doctrine of hell.
Just who thought up the distasteful, sadistic and immoral idea of hell? We know from history that it was not a feature of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures – the word sometimes translated into English as hell, sheol, did not refer to an underworld, but rather referred simply to the grave – implying that an afterlife did not enter the imagination of the early Jews. The idea of a conscious afterlife of torment predates the New Testament, being featured in a number of different sources. In other words, it was a ‘pagan’ idea that became known to first century Jews, and gradually morphed into a doctrine after the death of Christ.
In light of our historical awareness, it seems that the Bible does not contain one God, but many. We may as well go back to ancient Greece and pick a name for each unique deity, for they certainly seem to be diverse! For the sake of this discussion I’ll focus on the assumption of one God, who obviously does not really like his creation, for most people end up in endless torment. To even conceive of such barbaric behaviour brings us back in time to when it was fashionable to watch people being tortured for all manner of stupid reasons. To think that people died very cruel deaths for saying or thinking things contrary to common belief! Yet this is exactly what is demanded as the basis for avoiding the tortures of hell.
This Easter we mustn’t forget that much of the seasonal reflection of Christ’s death and resurrection rests on this absurd and pathetic idea, that Jesus died to save people from hell. In reflection, I stagger to think that I actually believed and promoted this doctrine! The twisted notion that I inherited a curse from my forefathers, for whom I must be sorry, is unbelievably unjust and immoral. I think something inside must have always questioned Paul’s reasoning in Romans 1, and no matter how many theological mind-bending answers I encountered, I was not satisfied.
So when I am told by the priest in the newspaper that I should “remember the reason for the season,” I’m caused to reflect on the fact that I spent many years of my life believing a brutal lie. Hell is the pillar of religious guilt which enslaves many in a cage of mythological ideas about reality. I let it go, and I wish to God everyone else would do the same!