The Goal of Religion
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).
Religion is man’s attempt, through his own efforts, to close the gap between himself and the transcended. In a sense, religion itself is evidence of a vague remembrance of a lost relationship. Therefore, we might conclude that the goal of all religion is to unite God and man, or what we might call the “at-oneness” of God and man. In religion man tries to bridge the chasm between himself and his God. The idea to bind back or to bind together is inherent in the root word from which we derive the word religion. Although the goal of religion is a worthwhile one, we will see that it is not achievable.
Mankind’s efforts to bind himself back to God have taken many forms throughout the history of the world. Usually these forms are nothing more than the projection of man’s wishes or a reflection of his own culture that he projects into heaven. In other words, man creates God in his own image.
Therefore, it is not surprising that most tribal gods resemble and validate the society they ruled over. They are nothing more than a reflection of the culture that created them. In fact, this is not like Western Christianity that has subverted the teachings of Jesus to justify its capitalistic system and the brutal wars it has fought to support it. Though man is and was self-deceived and often self-justified in creating these gods in his own image, he was not self-satisfied. There still remained a nagging awareness that there was something more than the dumb idols that he had created in his own image. There also remained this terrible sense of alienation that his tribal gods could not deal with. So there were a few men who began to seek the true God apart from religion.
Salvation Without Religion
The greatest example of this in Biblical history was the man named Abraham. Abraham did not seem to be an overly religious man, at least according to our standards. Yet he left his father’s home and his tribal gods to seek a new land and the true God. We are told he found God, or should we say, God found him outside of any organized religion. Not only did God find him outside of religion, but God also saved him outside and without any religion. We might say God saved him in the place where God put him, but that place was not organized religion. Though God has often used religious men to proclaim His will, when it comes to a paradigm, or model of faith and salvation, God used a non-religious Abraham. This is not to say that Abraham never practiced religion. For after God chose Abraham, we find him proclaiming his faith by making an altar to God. However, this simple proclamation of faith is a far cry from the cultic worship of organized religion.
From the story of Abraham, we come to understand that it was God’s intent from the beginning to save all men apart from religion, through a personal relationship with Him through faith. His goal was to have such an intimate relationship with His people that they would be called the friends of God. This was to be even as their father Abraham was called the friend of God (James 2:23). His method of achieving this was to create a new being or a new humanity that would relate to Him not through the mediation of religion, but directly, friend to friend. This was fulfilled when we see Jesus (God among us) calling His disciples friends (John 15:15).
God’s intent to create a new humanity or new being did not start with the coming of Christ. No, it actually began in eternity and took its first form with Adam. It was revealed in a fuller degree in the man Abraham and later revealed completely in His resurrected Son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:12 ff).
Thus in the story of the exodus we see God bringing the family of Abraham, which by that time had become a nation, out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai. Here they were to enter into a faith relationship with Him, the kind of relationship He had with their father Abraham. However, the people chose not to have a faith relationship with Him. Instead, they chose to have a mediated relationship with Him through the mediation of religion. Therefore, God gave them a religion, with the idea that the religion might mature them, or at least give them enough time to mature to the point where they could have a true faith relationship with Him in Christ (Gal. 3:25-27). He did this not because of anything He saw in them as a people, but because of the promises He had made with their father Abraham (Deut. 7:7-9). He also promised them that He would send someone in the future who would lead them into this faith relationship He had with their father Abraham (Deut. 18:17). We see this promise fulfilled in the coming of Jesus the Christ.
There is Biblical evidence to show that God, at the time He was developing a relationship with Abraham, was also in a relationship with other men of faith. For example, there was at the time, Melchizedek, king of Salem, who is referred to as a priest of the Most High God. Later on there was Balaam, the prophet of Pethor, who was outside of the covenant, yet had a relationship with the true God. In this, we might gather that God never had an exclusive people. In fact, the nation of Israel was called to be a servant and a blessing as it mediated God’s presence to all of mankind. So how can anyone interpret his or her calling as condemnation for the rest of the world? From the very beginning, the nation of Israel was a symbol that God not only loved them, but also the world. Today the body of Christ has inherited this role of being the symbol of God’s love for man. Wherever Christians go in the world, they are to proclaim God’s love in word and deed. Thus they become living symbols of God’s love for all of mankind (John. 3:16).
The Making of Religion
Though God had developed a faith relationship with a few men in recorded history, the majority of men continued to manufacture their gods and their religions. We moderns should not be too hard on ancient man. For the only difference between them and us is the number of gods we have created. They had their tribal gods, and we have our personal gods. They created their gods in the likeness of their culture, and we create ours in the likeness of the individual self. It could be a toss-up as to which is more primitive. They used their religions and gods to validate their culture, and we do the same. They used their religions to restrain and to justify their brutality, and we do the same. It seems from all of this, religion is both a blessing and a curse. The apostle Paul came to this conclusion and saw this paradox of religion when he cried out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25). God rescues us from the body-religious by judging it in Jesus as weak and unprofitable, nailing it to the cross with His Son, thus putting it to death (Heb. 7:18-19, Col 2:14).
The Paradox of Religion
The paradox of religion is by all human standards, it should work. Religion’s chief tool in binding man back to God is law, and we all know that law is good therefore religion should work. The truth is that law is good when it is used lawfully. It is here that religion fails, for it neglects to see that law is not the way for man to be at one with God, nor can man bind himself back to God through obedience to a law or through the practice of religious ritual (Gal. 3:21-22). Therefore, it is not lawful to use law (religion) as a mediator or a bridge between God and man. The lawful use and purpose of the law would be to view it as a schoolmaster or a tutor who was put over mankind until men had enough self-knowledge and God-knowledge to seek God through faith. When men become of age, they no longer need religion. The Scripture tells us that a man becomes of age when he realizes that he cannot approach God through religion, but must come through simple faith in Jesus Christ.
In other words, religion and its laws are not for the spiritually mature, but rather for those who are still spiritually immature and in need of external rules and regulations to control them. In the book of Colossians, Paul addresses the subject of religion and its rules. “Since you die with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch? These are all destined to perish with use because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:20-23).
Paul’s list of don’ts sounds a lot like many modern preachers of religion as they wail against the social sins of their congregations. To the spiritually immature, this appears to be God’s will, when in reality it reduces God to a tribal god. This tribal god is used to support one brand of morality and culture. This god is usually the kind that is chosen by and benefits the ruling class and the clergy. Preaching against social sins also show a profound misunderstanding of the nature and degree of the problem of sin.
The True Bridge to God
God intended the law (religion) to be used as a sign to point the way to the true bridge to God (Gal 2:19). It points to Christ who is the true bridge to God. In this, the law pointed to its own end or goal (Rom. 10:4). With this in mind, we might look at John the Baptist as the final embodiment of the law and prophets. He was the forerunner who was to point the way to the perfect revelation of God, which is Christ. In speaking about his mission he said, “A voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Matt. 3:3). In this act of preparing the way for Jesus, John symbolized the law (religion) and its divine purpose of pointing man to Jesus. Unlike many modern Christians, John understood the temporal nature of his ministry and the law (religion). This can be seen in his statement, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). In other words, religion must decrease in order for Christ to increase.
In contrast to the law (religion), we might say that the true bridge to God is the way of grace (promise) and that the promise has been embodied in the man we call Jesus. The pinnacle of this promise is seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus. For it is there that we see a preview of what God is going to do for and to all men on the final day. Therefore, in the Christ event we see judgment and promise. We see judgment on death and sin. Sin being death in the form of life is completely negated along with death. Moreover, in the resurrection we see God foreshadowing the fulfillment of all of His promises. In the resurrection of Christ, God is promising a life with Him that is beyond anything we can imagine (Eph. 3:11).
It is here that we see Jesus as the true end and fulfillment of all religion. If you remember, I said the goal of all religion was the oneness of God and man. It is in the resurrection of Jesus that God foreshadows the oneness He will have with His people in the final resurrection of the dead: a relationship that we now have by faith in our new place, which is in Christ, a faith that believes that whatever God did in His Son He will also do in all of His people. What did God do in His Son? He formed a new creature, a new kind of being—a being that never existed before Christ took on flesh. In the mighty acts of the incarnation and resurrection, God became man, and man became God. Thus in Jesus we have a God-man being (for a lack of a better term) who is the prototype of the new creation of God. In this new creation we see God and man coming together in the person of Jesus Christ and forming the new being. In the Christ event, God shares with man a preview of where He is taking humanity. So in Jesus Christ, we see the goal and destiny of the new humanity. Thus we see God’s eternal purpose of becoming one with humanity in and through the new being, Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10, 3:11-2). He became like us, that we might become like Him (1 John 3:2, 1 Cor.15:49).
Death, Resurrection, and Atonement
In much of traditional Christian theology, the atonement of Christ is said to have taken place on the cross through His death. However, I believe that this view of the atonement is too narrow. It does not give to the resurrection of Christ the importance it rightly deserves. I believe it is the entire Christ event that makes up the atonement. This would include the incarnation, His life, death, and resurrection, and in a sense, even His second coming. In a very real sense, Jesus Himself is the atonement. Each of the events in His life makes up a part of the whole story of how God has made man at-one with Himself through His Son. To use only the metaphors of death, sacrifice, and law to understand the atonement is too limited and tends to fragment the gospel. This limitation destroys its unity and causes the neglect of some aspects and undue emphasis on others.
I also propose that the idea of atonement is a prophetic metaphor that prefigures what will happen to all believers in the resurrection. In fact, it already has begun to happen in the new humanity. For Jesus, as the head of this new humanity, now stands in the presence of God as the one new and complete man who represents the entire race of men. The new humanity is being created in Him and in His likeness. In this one perfect and complete God-man, figuratively stands all of the new humanity in an at-one relationship with God. So we see that it was the resurrection that sealed the atonement and becomes a promise and a foreshadowing of the future resurrection and at-oneness with God. In this, Jesus is the first one of the new humanity to enter into the heavens to experience an at-one relationship with the Father. In solidary with Him, we now experience that relationship through faith (Eph. 2:4-6).
Moreover, in Jesus the final resurrection has already begun and because of our faith-union with Him, our resurrection is therefore guaranteed (Rom. 6:1-11). It is on this promise, the apostle Paul bases his argument in his letter to the Corinthians that it is in the resurrection of Jesus that we see the beginning of the general resurrection: “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised” (1 Cor. 15:12-13). Paul can argue like this because he saw the resurrection of Christ as the beginning of the end-time resurrection. For Paul to deny the general resurrection is to deny the resurrection of Christ Himself. If this is the case, how can a Christian believe in the doctrine of reincarnation? Christians believe in resurrection.
Paul adds further strength to this idea when, in the same chapter, he refers to Christ as the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor.15:20). The word firstfruits in this expression is our particular concern. There, with few exceptions, firstfruits have a specifically cultic significance. It refers to the firstfruits offerings of grain, wine, cattle and the like, appointed by Moses. The point of these sacrifices is that they are not offered up for their own sake, as it were, but as representative of the total harvest, the entire flock, and so forth. They are a token expression of recognition and thanksgiving that the whole has been given by God. Firstfruits express the notion of organic connection and unity, the inseparability of the initial quantity from the whole. It is particularly this aspect that gives these sacrifices their significance.
“These ideas of representation and organic unity, apart from the specifically cultic connotations of the Septuagint usage, find expression in the use of firstfruits in 1 Corinthians 15:20. The word is not simply an indication of temporal priority; rather it brings into view Christ’s resurrection as the firstfruits of the resurrection-harvest, the initial portion of the whole. His resurrection is the representative beginning of the resurrection of believers. In other words, the term seems deliberately chosen to make evident the organic connection between the two resurrections. His resurrection is not simply a guarantee; it is a pledge in the sense that it is the actual beginning of the general event. In fact, on the basis of this verse, it can be said that Paul views the two resurrections not so much as two events, but as two episodes of the same event. At the same time, however, he clearly maintains a temporal distinction between them. Then (v.23) makes this apparent.” (Resurrection and Redemption by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.)
Resurrection, the Goal of all Religion
In light of the above, we might say that the goal of religion and all of life is resurrection. Not just the resurrection of any man, but of God’s one and only Son. Here, it is important for us to understand that the expression “one and only Son” and “only begotten Son” are used in the Scripture mainly to denote uniqueness and authority and not order of origin. Jesus is the unique Son of God because he is one of a kind. He is the prototype of the new creation or new humanity that has been in the plan of God since the beginning of time. In Scripture we see the ongoing history of God’s creative acts as He is creating this new humanity. All of God’s mighty acts were parts of a single and progressive creative act that finds its completion in Christ.
Much of man’s emptiness and his corresponding need for religion comes from his vague consciousness of being incomplete, and much of his sense of alienation is a longing to be made whole or complete. This alienation is heightened when men try to bring themselves to completion without God. No man will find completion in anything outside of God’s plan. God’s plan for completing man is man’s bodily resurrection in the likeness of Jesus. You might say that much of human anxiety comes from the fact that mankind is only partially created as he progressively moves to his completion in the resurrection (2 Cor. 3:18). Therefore, believers should look suspiciously on any teaching or movement that promises completeness or liberation before the Parousia (second coming). We miss the mark when we try to find fulfillment or completeness in anything in this life; this includes religion, even the Christian religion. In fact, religion is one of the easiest ways to miss the mark, for it gives its practitioners a false sense of completeness. No one will find completeness and wholeness until God is finished with him. He is not finished with believers until their bodies are resurrected in the likeness of God’s Son (Rom. 8:22-30).
In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we see in capsulated form the entire history of God’s creative acts and eternal purpose. All of God’s dealing with mankind is summed up in Jesus. We might say that Jesus was God’s epitome of His creative history. Therefore, we find Jesus being referred to as the new Adam, the new Israel, the new creation, the new exodus, new Torah, etc. All of these things point to the final and complete creative act of God, which is Jesus Christ raised from the dead. This helps us to understand why such emphasis is placed on the death and resurrection of Christ. These two events are viewed in Scripture as two parts of one event and mark the coming together and completion of God’s plan for a new humanity that has been truly created in His image.The death and resurrection marked the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose in creating the new being (Eph. 3:11).
The mystery of the new being is that His body is made of many members (Eph. 3:6). Hence, we see in the death of Christ, the death of the old humanity, and in His resurrection, the creation of the new humanity. In fact, the whole thrust of Romans chapter six is that if you are really a part of this new humanity, your life will reflect it. In this chapter, Paul points to Christian baptism as a sign, promise, and a seal on God’s part that one has been united with Christ and will share in His resurrection. On man’s part it is a sign, promise, and seal that
one has entered into solidarity with Jesus and His people. Our baptism into Christ is a proclamation that we have entered the history of the one representative man, sharing not only in His history and suffering (cross), but also His future (Gal. 3:26-27). In the Christ event, the history of God and the story of man merge into one story and one history, forming one new creation, a new creation where there is no need for religion (mediator) for God is present in the person of His Son (Rev. 21:1-4, 22-27).
We have seen that the goal of all religion is the oneness of God and man. We have also seen that only Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that goal, for it is in Him that man is bound back to God in an eternal oneness. If this is the case, the Christ event marked the death or end of all religion (Rom. 10:4). As it did two thousand years ago, the death and resurrection of Christ still demands a radical way of looking at all things anew. In fact, it brings into question many aspects of the very religion that now wears the name of the crucified one. At the very least, it demands that we reflect anew on the meaning of the Christ event. For a generation, which is so close to the coming of its Lord, does not the resurrection of Christ demand that we see Him at the door at all times? Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.