Christianity has struggled from its very origins to define the god at its central core. As you know, those who initially followed Jesus were Jews. Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament, was actually a Jew who attacked Jews who participated in this early Jesus sect, probably in the 50’s CE. Because its base was Jewish, this sect first had to come to terms with the evolution of god in the Tanakh, the book that is called the Old Testament today by Christians. Later on, it had to deal with the placement of Jesus and how he fit in with this god. It wasn’t until the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE that the concept of the Trinity was agreed to as the doctrine of the Christian church.
Craig A. James, in his book The Religion Virus, outlines an excellent way to discuss and understand this evolution of the concept of god. He uses the scientific theory of evolution to outline the various changes and transformations of this concept in an interesting and enlightening way. As we know from science, genes are selfish. Their primary goal is to reproduce themselves. Those genes that mutate and are better adapted to their environment will end up surviving because of this mutation. As civilizations developed, people’s needs for a god changed as well.
In this post, I am going to discuss James’ eight step process in the evolution of god with corresponding examples from the Bible. Just like genes, this new faith would not have survived to dominate many Western cultures today if it hadn’t morphed and changed along the way. Please join me on this journey to learn more about how we got here.
Stage One – A specialist god to a general purpose god
The earliest religion, if one can even call it that, is animism. This is the belief that everything in the world is alive in a unique way. It is often described as believing that every living thing¾plant, animal, rock¾has a spirit. Each of these spirits can be revered, prayed to, and encouraged to assist the human being with a specific need. In order to provide rain, a ritual to the clouds in the sky developed. Over time, these very specific spirits morphed into more generic gods that addressed broader concepts like nature in general or emotions like love.
Stage Two – Polytheism to monotheism
As you might remember from your high school reading of Edith Hamilton’s book, Mythology, many cultures had a pantheon of gods. Isn’t it interesting that we called the study of these gods mythology? Mythology is never to be confused with religion. The pantheon had general purpose gods that were responsible for love, weather, and war with names like Aphrodite, Isis, Zeus, and Asherah. Karen Armstrong, noted religious historian, proposed that it took the Hebrews over 600 years to become full monotheists. Many authors believe that neither Abraham nor Moses were true monotheists.
Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them. Exodus 18:11
Stage Three – Tolerance of other gods to intolerance
Marija Gimbutas, an archeologist and a specialist on Bronze Age Europe in the 50’s and early 60’s, saw male gods coming into Europe through tribes she called Kurgans. Pantheons may have gotten started this way as the male gods were incorporated into the existing worship of the Mother Goddess. The Romans were very tolerant of the worship of other gods. They adopted most of the gods of the Greek pantheon and just gave them new names. When they conquered others, they were happy if you continued to worship those gods, but you couldn’t forget the Roman ones. As monotheism developed, however, religions became more and more intolerant of other gods. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam today are examples of religions that believe they are worshipping the “one true god.” With tolerance, it wasn’t necessary to fight people who believed in another god. But the move to intolerance has resulted in unfathomable wars and genocide.
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites,Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you—and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Deuteronomy 7:1-2
Stage Four – Local god to global god
Originally the god of the Hebrews was a local god. Gradually, their god became a more universal god. James explains that this process was similar to evolution where a larger population of a plant or animal comes to dominates its habitat. In particular, with the spread of Christianity, the god because the only god in the universe. In a similar vein, followers of Islam, in the Abrahamic tradition, believe that Allah is the one true god for all of humanity.
At one time they lived in Mesopotamia, because they [the Israelites] did not wish to follow the gods of their ancestors who were in Chaldea. Since they had abandoned the ways of their ancestors, and worshiped the God of heaven, the God they had come to know, their ancestors drove them out from the presence of their gods. Book of Judith 5:7-8
Stage Five – Human-like god to abstract god
It is interesting to look at the portrayal of the god in the early books of the Old Testament. God comes down to talk to Abraham. He talks to Moses. He even gets down to wrestle with Job. But as these transformations outlined above occurred, it became harder and harder to justify a god with more human-like traits. Because this new god came to be responsible for everything, he couldn’t just live and interact in one small area of the globe. Instead, he moved from the mountain top to the sky and then to the entire universe. Christian apologists like to use the argument of cause and effect to show that the entire universe required a creator so there must be a god. God took on grand new dimensions as more and more people came to believe in him. Today, confronted with science, claims are made that god existed before the “Big Bang.”
Stage Six – Pragmatic and natural ethics to god given rules
Hunter gatherers were much more egalitarian than city dwellers. They took the needs of others into consideration because they were all members of the same “tribe.” I often say it was all downhill from the development of agriculture. As private property developed, hierarchies came along as well, and rules were needed to deal with larger populations. Because religion was so intertwined with any notion of the state, god delivered the laws that people were to follow. This idea took hold in other cultures as well. Hammurabi’s tablet of rules, which can be seen in the British Museum, are another example of written rules handed down by a divine being. Christian apologists today criticize atheists saying they cannot have morality without god.
Stage Seven – Unlikeable to kind
When you have a pantheon of gods, it is easy to have gods that assist you in war and those that assist you in love. You don’t need one god to do everything for you. The war god can be vengeful, vindictive, and cruel. But if you only have one god, he needs to have a gentler temperament. I recently spoke to a Christian apologist about the god of the Old Testament and how he was portrayed. She answered, “Well, that’s just the way it was back then.” That god fit the Iron Age portrayal of gods versus being the loving, wonderful god she worshipped today. Even Christian apologists know that the nature of god changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament.
Stage Eight – Sexual to asexual
Many of the gods in the pantheons mentioned earlier led lives that would make a Playboy reader blush. They raped, they cavorted, they got drunk, just like the humans they were modeled after. As civilizations grew, however, they needed a god that was a tad less like us that we could look up to¾a pure being, one who was beyond reproach.
The last transition which James didn’t address specifically in this list in the notion of the Trinity. When Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians, he convened several different groups of bishops at Nicaea. One of the big issues that arose is referred to as the Arian controversy. In short, it dealt with the nature of Jesus¾was he human or divine? As mentioned above, this issue was solved through the doctrine of the Nicene Creed.
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
And that takes us up to today where the god portrayed by the majority of Christians is the universal god, embodying kindness, love, and generosity. James has done an excellent job of portraying this transition and I encourage you to read his entire book. don’t worry, it’s a short one!