For a long time now, I have wanted to write about what the Bible teaches concerning the salvation of humankind. Coming from a background as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I thought the task would be relatively simple. That has not turned out to be the case.
Part of the problem has to do with clearing the mind of years of false doctrine. The devil has done a most effective job of confusing the issue of man’s salvation. For instance, the idea that the good go to heaven and the evil to hell is not exclusive to Christianity. Muslims also share it. Hindus believe that by achieving Muksha (salvation) they are freed from the endless cycle of death and reincarnation (a sort of hell) and become one with God in heaven. Shintoism believes in a hellish underworld, but influence from Buddism has introduced the alternative of a blessed afterlife. Mormons believe in heaven and some form of hell. They also believe that the Latter Day Saints will be appointed to rule over planets of their very own. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that only 144,000 humans will go to heaven to rule over earth for 1,000 years and that the rest of humankind will be resurrected to the prospect of eternal life on earth. They are one of the few religions that do not believe in hell, except as the common grave, a state of nothingness.
In religion after religion we find variations on a common theme: The good die and go to some blessed form of afterlife elsewhere. The bad die and go to some damned form of afterlife elsewhere.
One thing we can all agree on is that we all die. Another thing is that this life is far from ideal and the desire for something better is universal.
Starting from Scratch
If we are going to discover the truth, we must start with an empty slate. We mustn’t assume what we’ve been taught is valid. Therefore, rather than enter the study trying to prove or disprove past beliefs—a counter-productive process—let us instead clear our mind of preconceptions and start from scratch. As the evidence accumulates, and the facts are understood, it will then become obvious if some past belief fits or should be discarded.
The question then becomes: Where do we start? We have to agree on some core truth, something we take as axiomatic. This then becomes the premise upon which we can venture forth to discover more truths. As a Christian, I would start on the premise that the Bible is the reliable and truthful word of God. However, that eliminates hundreds of millions from the discussion who do not accept the Bible as God’s word. Most of Asia practices some form of religion that is not based on the Bible at all. Jews do accept the Bible, but only the pre-Christian part of it. Muslims only accept the first five books as God’s word, but have a book of their own that supersedes it. Oddly enough, the same can be said for the so-called Christian religion of the Latter Day Saints (Mormonism), who put the Book of Mormon above the Bible.
So let us see if we can find a common ground upon which all sincere truth seekers can agree and upon which we can build a consensus.
The Sanctification of God’s Name
A major theme in the Bible is that of the sanctification of God’s name. Does this theme transcend the Bible? Can we find evidence for it outside of Scripture?
To clarify, by name we do not mean the appellation by which God may be known, but rather the Hebraic definition which refers to the character of the person. Even those who accept the Bible as God’s word have to acknowledge that this issue predates the writing of the Bible by over 2,500 years. In fact, it goes back to the time of the first humans.
Due to the suffering which humanity has experienced throughout its history, the character of God has been brought into reproach with many believing him to be cruel, or at the very least, uncaring and indifferent to the plight of humanity.
Axiom: The Creator is greater than the creation
To date, there is nothing to suggest that the universe is not infinite. Each time we invent stronger telescopes, we discover more of it. As we examine creation from the microscopic to the macroscopic, we uncover awe-inspiring wisdom in all its design. In every way, we are surpassed to an infinite degree. It follows that in issues of morality, we also are surpassed; or are we to believe that we are capable of more compassion, more justice, and more love than the one who made us?
Postulation: To believe in the salvation of all humankind, one has to believe that God is neither indifferent nor cruel.
A cruel god would not offer a reward, would not care about saving his creation from suffering. A cruel god might even offer salvation then snatch it away out of vindictiveness or to take sadistic pleasure from the suffering of others. One cannot trust someone who is cruel, and an all-powerful being who is cruel is the worst nightmare imaginable.
We detest cruel people. When people lie, deceive and act hurtfully, we react viscerally because our brains are made that way. Pain and disgust are sensations we feel due to processes occurring in the brain’s limbic system’s cingulate cortex and the anterior insula. These also react when we experience lies and injustice. We’re wired that way by the creator.
Are we more righteous than the creator? Can we look down on God as inferior to us in justice and love?
Some reason that God is indifferent. This was the philosophy of the Stoics. For them, God was not cruel, but rather devoid of emotion altogether. They felt that emotion implied weakness. An unfeeling god would have his own agenda, and humans would merely be pawns in the game. A means to an end.
He might grant some eternal life and freedom from suffering while arbitrarily denying this to others. He might use some humans merely as a means to perfect others, smoothing off the rough edges as it were. Once they’d served their purpose, they could be discarded like used sandpaper.
We would find such an attitude reprehensible and condemn it as unfair and unjust. Why? Because we are made to think that way. God made us that way. Again, the creation cannot surpass the creator in morality, justice, nor love.
If we believe that God is indifferent or even cruel, we are exalting ourselves over God, for it is plainly evident that humans can and do love even to the point of sacrificing themselves for the welfare of others. Are we to believe that we, the creation of God, surpass the creator in the manifestation of this fundamental quality?[i] Are we better than God?
The fact is plain: The entire concept of the salvation of all humanity is incompatible with an indifferent or cruel God. If we are to even discuss salvation, we have to acknowledge that God is caring. This is our first point of intersection with the Bible. Logic tells us that if there is to be salvation, then God must be good. The Bible tells us that “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Even if we do not yet accept the Bible, we have to start on the premise—based on logic—that God is love.
So we now have our starting premise, a second axiom, God is Love. A loving God would not allow his creation to suffer (whatever the reason) without providing some form of escape—what we will term, Our Salvation.
Applying the Logic of the Premise
The next question we can answer without the need to consult the Bible nor any other ancient writings that men may believe come from God is: Is our salvation conditional?
To be saved do we have to do something? There are those who believe we are all saved no matter what. However, such a belief is incompatible with the concept of free will. What if I don’t want to be saved, if I don’t want whatever life God is offering? Will he reach into my mind and make me want it? If so, then I don’t have free will anymore.
The premise that we all have free will also discounts all thought of an eternal afterlife of damnation.
We can demonstrate this logic by a simple example.
A rich man has a daughter. She lives comfortably in a modest house. He tells her one day that he has built a mansion for her with all the amenities. Further, it is built in a paradise-like park. She will never again want for anything. She has two choices. 1) She can move to the mansion and enjoy all that life offers, or 2) he will put her in a prison cell and she will be tortured until she dies. There is no option 3. She cannot simply remain where she lives. She must choose.
It seems safe to say that any human from any culture past or present would find this arrangement to be unfair—to put it mildly.
You were born. You didn’t ask to be born, but here you are. You are also dying. We all are. God offers us a way out, a better life. Even if this offer comes with no strings attached, no conditions, we may still choose to refuse. That is our right under the law of free will. However, if we are not allowed to return to the state we were in before we were created, if we cannot return to the nothingness of pre-existence, but must continue to exist and be conscious, and are given one of two choices, eternal suffering or eternal bliss, is that fair? Is that righteous? We’ve just accepted that God is love, so would such an arrangement be consistent with a God of love?
Some might still feel that the idea of a place of eternal torment makes sense from a logical point of view. If so, let’s bring it down to a human level. Remember, to get this far we’ve agreed that God is love. We also take it as axiomatic that the creation cannot surpass the creator. Therefore, though we may be loving, we cannot surpass God in this quality. With that in mind, let’s assume you have a problem child that has given you nothing but heartache and disappointment throughout his or her life. Would it be appropriate—assuming you had the power—to cause that child eternal pain and suffering with no way out and no means of ending the torture? Would you call yourself a loving father or mother in those circumstances?
To this point we’ve established that God is love, that humans have free will, that the combination of these two truths require that there be some escape from the suffering of our lives and finally that the alternative to that escape would be a return to the nothingness we had prior to coming into existence.
This is about as far as empirical evidence and human logic can take us. To get more details as to the why and wherefore of the salvation of humankind, we have to consult with the Creator. If you can find convincing evidence of this in the Quran, the Hindu Vedas, or the writings of Confucius or Buda, then go in peace. I believe the Bible holds these answers and we will explore them in our next article.
[i] For those of us who already accept the Bible as God’s word, this issue of salvation goes to the heart of the sanctification of God’s name. Every wicked and evil thing said about and/or attributed to God will be seen as a lie when man’s salvation is finally realized.Take me to the next article in this series