Death is the mother of religion. Would faith ever have been born if not for life’s only inevitability for all: The Reaper? As the first Homo sapiens discovered, we are all renters in life until we buy the farm.
So, even before the wheel, mortals invented the first life insurance policy: religion. Each major creed became, above all, an immortality doctrine—a death escape how-to. Most focused on the only beings who supposedly created and controlled everything and never found themselves on the wrong side of the grass: gods.
Death-born religions created the foundation of civilization: writing and the arts. Man’s first publications were the Pyramid Texts, followed by the Coffin Texts and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The first novel, the Epic of Gilgamesh, told the tale of the Mesopotamian hero’s journey to the underworld to discover the secret of eternal life. While scribes were busy, temples and pyramid mausoleums—the grandest ancient stairways to heaven—were going up, filled with golden mummies, frescoes of gods, and other funerary art. Later, the most popular themes of Western painting were Passions and Resurrections, with the occasional Nativity for relief.
Necessity is the mother of invention. The first necessity of man is the divine. As even the pagan poet Ovid said: “The existence of the gods is expedient and, as it is expedient, let us assume it.” Today, there are ten thousand religions, each with its own name for the divine—some synonymous, others not.
For theocentric Westerners, a monotheist god provides mortals with the three rational and spiritual necessities.
First, the necessity of an absolute, eternal creator, the cause of and explanation for everything. Second, the necessity of an all-knowing, all-good moral ruler. Third, and most important, the necessity of a deliverer from death and guarantor of immortality.
Because for many life would be meaningless without divinity, Kant called God “a Necessary Being.” Though unable to provide any rational proofs of divinity, Heidegger, too, made the necessity, survival argument: “Only God can save us.”
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There are many legends about how gods created man and the world, but how were the first gods themselves created? In most myths—Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Greek—they have immaculately arisen from chaos and darkness.
On the first day of creation, the Hebrew god was already present in a “mighty wind” (Genesis 1:2). For the first five days, he commanded, “Let there be …” (Heaven, earth, seas, trees, stars, creatures); but on the sixth, he said, “Let us make man.” After the Fall, he added: “The man has become like one of us, knowing good from evil” (Genesis 3:22). Was God using the rhetorical, executive us? Or, inside the original void, did he indeed have heavenly relatives, as did Zeus and other pagan gods?1 If not, and he was truly the one and only as he insisted, who exactly was he?
The first to dare ask for the Almighty’s ID was Moses. After being commanded by a burning bush to free the Israelites from Egyptian captivity, the shepherd, concerned he might be taken for a madman when mustering recruits, ventured, “Who shall I say sent me?”
אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה , God replied.
Some experts translate this as, I am who I am; others, I am what I am. The difference is significant: Who implies that God is a personality; what that he is an impersonal force. Moses translated the reply into an acronym, YHWH, which, with vowels, became pronounceable as YaHWeH (a.k.a. Jehovah). To simplify matters, God told him: “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” So, long before the Catholic Church’s A-Team—Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas—devised his divine proof, God proposed his own nominal ontological proof: I AM.
This all-encompassing a.k.a. did nothing to narrow things down for Moses. After freeing his people and collecting the Ten Commandments, believing a picture was worth a thousand words, he beseeched God: “Show me Thy glory!” But the Almighty, a pillar of fire at the time, replied that the sight of his face alone would kill him.2 So, he repeated his name, Jehovah. Then, as a halfway measure, he showed Moses his “hindparts.” (Exodus 33:18–23). When the prophet returned to camp forty days later, his family and the Jews backed off because his face glowed with divine fire, so he donned a veil to prevent panic.
The first tablet God gave Moses, presumably the most important, established Hebrew monotheism. Commandment One was no other god than me; Two, no graven images; Three, no taking God’s name in vain. With these laws, Yahweh replaced the divine democracy of pagans with divine despotism.
Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, predecessor of Moses’s rival, Ramses II, had established monotheistic worship of Aten, the sun god, a century before. To him, multiple gods were unacceptable because their power was relative, not absolute, leading to diluted human allegiance. But for Moses, unlike Pharaoh, the monotheistic graven image ban was imperative because an infinite, unknowable god could only be invisible. As he had proved on Mt. Sinai, the Almighty could not be directly beheld by human eyes. So, even though he said he’d made man in his own “image and likeness,” he resisted selfies.
In lieu of an honorary statue or monument, the Lord ordered Moses to build the Ark of the Covenant. Covered with ram and porpoise skins, the golden buffet contained manna, the two tablets, and Aaron’s snake-swallowing magic wand. On the lid knelt two winged cherubim: between them, God spoke to his prophet. The Israelites carried the Ark into every battle and, by means of its powers, decimated Canaanite armies and their lesser gods. (Later, the Philistines stole the Ark, but after being plagued with mice, tumors, and hemorrhoids, they promptly returned it [1 Samuel 6:5].)
Ancient Israelites and other tribes kept personal household gods called “teraphim” —idols representing guardian spirits or deceased ancestors who blessed their crops and protected them from enemies. Despite God’s law against such graven images, Michal, King David’s wife, kept them, as had Rachel, the wife of Jacob who himself reportedly wrestled with God without being incinerated. Though the Almighty left these transgressions unpunished, he commanded the Levites to exterminate three thousand Golden Calf worshippers (Exodus 32:26–28), despite the fact that the head Levite, Moses’s brother Aaron, was not only the one who made the idol but the MC of the pagan dance.
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After the Golden Calf carnage, Moses told the surviving Israelites: “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore, watch yourselves very carefully so you do not … make an idol” (Deuteronomy 4:15–16). To emphasize his point, he burned and powdered the Golden Calf, then ordered everybody to drink it.
So, while God in Genesis was a voice in the wind, and God in Exodus a voice in the fire, to subsequent prophets he became invisible and, as such—being beyond space and time—infinite and eternal. More than eluding the five human senses, he eluded the sixth sense too—reason. Thus, he could be accessed only by the divine seventh sense recommended by his son: faith.
Realizing that their ontological argument was predicated on faith, the first Christian dogmatists introduced their doctrine of Fides Quaerens Intellectum (“faith seeking understanding or intelligence”). “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe,” wrote St. Anselm, “but rather, I believe in order that I may understand.” His colleague, St. Augustine was blunter: “If you comprehend, it is not God.” Though otherwise an unrepentant intellectual, St. Thomas agreed: “Men must believe before they can reason.” Later, even the champion of the Age of Reason parroted the dogmatists in his Critique of Pure Reason: “We cannot comprehend God; we can only believe in Him,” declared Kant.
All, then, were in agreement: God was infinite and thus everywhere at once, and he was eternal and thus would never die. Indeed, the Church Scholastics argued that God existed a priori and came to into being ex nihilo—from nothing. But, throughout history, countless different gods have come and gone, many predating Yahweh. Though Jews, Christians, and Muslims insist that the Torah, Bible, and Qur’an were dictated by Gabriel or by the Almighty himself, other faiths claim divine input as well.
Anyway, due to God’s imperceptibility by the six senses, all fideists, not just Christians, called him “incomprehensible” and “unknowable.” But if God is indeed unknowable, why did so many historic theologians spend lifetimes trying to make his unknowability knowable? And considering they all attributed essential attributes to God (Kant listed four: eternity, omnipotence, omniscience, benevolence), weren’t they conceding that he was in fact knowable, at least to this extent, to say nothing of his exhaustive biography in the Bible?
Carl Jung, the pastor’s son and great spiritual pilgrim, argued that God couldn’t be infinite and yet have specific characteristics, too. “If God is everything, how can He possess a distinguishable character?” he wrote in his 1962 book Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. “But if God does have a character, He can only be the ego of a subjective, limited world.”
Furthermore, if God is all, why are only good qualities ascribed to him, not bad? Attributing the bad to another divine entity, the d-evil, begs the question: Who created him? If the devil created himself, the monotheistic idea of an absolute creator is negated. If God is the absolute creator of everything, as dogma also dictates, then he did in fact create the devil, which would seem impossible if he were absolutely good. Epicurus was the first to deconstruct the problem: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?” Introducing a divine defense, later called “theodicy,” apologists invoked Aristotle’s original argument—that God was a “disinterested architect” (while never explaining why he would create something he had no interest in). In the end, the most honest answer to the timeless question—Why do the good suffer and the wicked thrive?—came from God himself: “I form light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).
Besides the theodicy and ontological arguments, the dogmatists tried one last God proof, which also flew in the face of unknowability: intelligent design. Early on, Pythagoras and Kepler said geometry and numbers were divine, Galileo agreed that math was “the language with which God wrote the universe,” and St. Thomas preached that God could be perceived in the supernatural symmetries of his Creation. But a presumption is presented as a logical conclusion here. As Bertrand Russell noted in 1959’s Wisdom of the West: A Historical Survey of Western Philosophy in Its Social and Political Setting: “The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading.”
Because mortals can comprehend only a finite rather than infinite entity, pagan philosophers such as Democritus and Heraclitus suggested that God, singular or plural, was born of man, not man of God. Even the fundamental human quality of gender was applied to the Lord. Making him a “he” and a “father” went beyond linguistic convenience; it implied male authoritarianism. Besides gender, other human-like qualities are ascribed to the Lord, just as they had been to Greek and other pagan divinities: love, anger, mercy, jealousy, and, early on, even the demand for meat sacrifice. Coincidentally, god kings—Egyptian, Roman, Chinese, Japanese, and Inca rulers—shared similar traits, as did divine right medieval monarchs.
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Despite being invisible, indivisible, and incomprehensible before the common era (BCE), in the transition to the common era (CE), God decided to become more gracious and user-friendly by dividing and incorporating. He fathered a son and triangulated after his martyrdom. Church dogmatists then developed the definitive God-Son-Ghost/Creator-Redeemer-Spirit team: the Trinity. Monotheistic purists, the Jews and Muslims, considered this sacrilege. Realizing they might indeed be seen as flirting with polytheism, Christian intellectuals explained God’s triangulation as a three-for-the-price-of-one package deal for immortality.
For the next, 1,500 years, theologians debated Trinity fine points in mind-numbing detail, some being excommunicated for trivial improvisation or burnt by inquisitors for challenging the equation. Indeed, in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30–33). But, later, he admits to a job difference: “The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:21–23). Moreover, the older three Gospels provide Jesus’s clearest statement that he and God are not identical: “Why do you call me good?” he challenges a follower. “No one is good except God alone” (Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19). The statement may have been confusing to the disciples because earlier, during the Sermon on the Mount, he had preached: “Be perfect, therefore, even as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
To make Jesus a messiah, the Holy See exempted his human mother, Mary, from original sin. Jews and Muslims rejected the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, too.
The Almighty might have spared the Church original sin complications had he not involved a physical mother but created Jesus from dust and his breath as he had Adam. Jesus’s dual nature, though, was essential to his messiahship—to being an intermediary between spirit and flesh, Heaven and earth, to being transformed in the Passion from a mortal body to an immortal Holy Ghost. Mary, the Church’s “New Eve,” gave him that humanity. But, in exempting her from original sin, Christians effectively washed away her humanity, making her and her son divine. Besides, if man is intrinsically imperfect but Jesus is perfect, how then can he be man and an intermediary?
In any case, the son’s humanity made him the Trinity focal point. Men could see and touch Jesus, not just his “hindparts” or a pillar of “consuming fire.” After his crucifixion and resurrection, all prayers ended with “In Jesus’ name, Amen” or “through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Amen.” His worshippers made graven images of him, which Jews and Muslims condemned as a Second Commandment violation.3 The iconic cross, with or without the body of Christ, became the most powerful icon in the history of religion. The instrument of torture became the centerpiece in every church and now hangs from a billion necks.
Christians commissioned Michelangelos, Raphaels, and Grunewalds to create countless images of the nailed, thorn-crowned Christ—body stripped to a loincloth, speared and contorted. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, crucifixion scenes far outnumbered nativities, miracles, and even the martyrdom of saints. By this time, the sanctity of the merciful Mary rivalled that of her son, adding another wing to the poly-mono Trinity. Filling the female divinity void left from paganism, statues of the holy mother were installed in churches everywhere.
So, post-Passion, God completed his three-life evolution. The ancient Canaanite storm deity, Yahweh, rebirthed himself as the solitary unknowable god of Abraham and Moses; he then recreated himself in the Trinity, the human representative of which martyred himself; and, at last, bringing humanity along for the final apotheosis, he renewed for the last time—in eternity with his creatures, beyond birth and death.
Copyright © 2020 by David B. Comfort. All Rights Reserved.
 The idea of the Divine Council is central to many mythologies: Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Celtic, Greek, and Roman. In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh presides over a “divine assembly” (Psalms 82:1), he is seated with “the whole host of Heaven” (1 Kings 22:19), and he meets with “the Sons of God” (Job 1:6).
 This Genesis passage is contradicted seven verses earlier where Moses, the alleged author, wrote: “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.” He later confirmed this in Deuteronomy (34:10) but never explained the contradiction to his Exodus 33:21 version, “no mortal man may see Me and live.” Muhammad presented yet another version in Qur’an 7:143: God shows himself instead to a nearby mountain, “sending it crashing down, [while] Moses fell down senseless.” However, in the chapter before this, Qur’an 6:12, the prophet asked: “Is Allah not closer than the vein in your neck?”
 Christians opposed iconography until the end of the second century. The first images of Jesus appeared on sarcophagi in the catacombs of Rome. The first Roman catacomb painting, created between 300–350 CE, depicted Christ healing a woman. Later, it was believed that his first image was in fact the Shroud of Turin. Pope John Paul II called the fourteen-foot linen veil “the mirror of the Gospel,” though experts concluded that the image was a medieval forgery.
Death is the mother of religion. Would faith ever have been born if not for life’s only inevitability for all: The Reaper? As the first Homo sapiens discovered, we are all renters in life until we buy the farm. So, even before the wheel, mortals invented the first life insurance policy: religion. Each major creed …