To sum up the position of our argument so far: God is perfect, morally speaking, or to use a religious word, holy. Humanity, on the other hand, is not, not in the sense of being totally evil and without the barest understanding of what is right or wrong, but rather in the sense that we know what is right and wrong yet find ourselves doing wrong things. As well as the gap between humanity and God caused by our finiteness and God's infiniteness, there is a gap caused by God's moral perfection and our own moral failure. Most, if not all religion, deals with the problem of how an individual can bridge that gap.
In an attempt at fairness I will try to briefly summarise the position of most world religions. If anyone feels I have misrepresented the position of any faith here, please E-mail me and let me know.
In Islam, the believer is expected to follow the Five Pillars of Islam - prayer at certain times of the day, the fast of Ramadan, almsgiving, and if possible a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one's lifetime. At the end of his life his good and bad deeds are weighed in the balance, and his entrance to Paradise is dependent upon the outcome. (There is an element of predestination as well, but that need not concern us here).
In Hinduism there are many schools of thought, so only the briefest overview is possible here. However, I think it is broadly correct to say that advancement to a better position in one's reincarnation depends again upon the good works one has done. Suffering is broadly the consequences of one's kharma, or debt to be paid off from previous lifetimes. A person is continuously reincarnated until he or she manages to do enough good to clear this debt and thus obtain Nirvana.
Buddhism is broadly similar, although there is less of an idea of blessed afterlife. Instead the believer is taught that all suffering is the consequence of passion, and to escape this one must keep (or try to keep) to the Noble Eight-Fold Path: purity of thought, purity of speech, etc.
At the moment I do not have enough information on Sikhism to make an informed analysis, but as it is largely influenced by Hinduism and Islam, I expect it offers a similar method for obtaining peace in this life and the next.
Judaism, the faith of the Jews, originally offered a sacrificial system for getting rid of sins. In the Old Testament a believer would have to offer an animal (lamb, sheep, oxen or pigeon, etc) to be sacrificed on the altar of the temple, the idea being that the animal took the place of the person offering it and somehow bore the penalty of that person's sins in its place. Needless to say, as given our human tendency to do wrong, such sacrifices had to made fairly regularly, and indeed there was a symbolic act of sacrifice once a year in addition to all the others. On this annual "Day of Atonement" two goats were taken to the temple or tent of worship. One was sacrificed as usual, symbolically bearing the sins of all the people, and the other had hands placed on it and was then driven out into the wilderness, symbolising the banishment of the people's sins. I am not sure how modern-day Judaism has changed, since animal sacrifices are no longer offered, but there is still an annual Day of Atonement in the Jewish calendar.
Christianity actually was born from Judaism and adopted the idea of sacrifice in a startling way. People talk a lot about Christ's teaching, etc, but a reading of the Gospels show that Christ himself actually came with the idea of giving himself up to death as some sort of supreme sacrifice. The idea is clarified in the rest of the New Testament. Basically the idea of Christ dying for the sins of the rest of the human race is that animal sacrifices were not good enough to keep a person in the clear with God, and that therefore a much greater sacrifice was needed. Christ himself, claiming to be the Son of God, was willing to die as the supreme sacrifice so that the debt could be cleared for all time. Although the Church since has often given the impression that a person still has to earn their way to heaven by giving money, going on pilgrimages, fasting and praying, etc, this is not correct. In Christianity a person who gives themself to God and Christ has the debt from their sins cancelled, and subsequently each time they do wrong then forgiveness is still freely available.
Does this sound too good to be true? Or maybe like an excuse to have a good time, say sorry and still scrape into heaven after a bad life? The Christian teaching in this area has often been misinterpreted in this way, but again closer reading of the New Testament shows that this is not so. Firstly, when a person becomes a Christian, God in some way dwells within them to help them fight against sin and do good. In an intimate way he also becomes like a father to them: hence the Lord's Prayer that begins with the words "Our Father in Heaven". Secondly the writers of the New Testament warn against trying to deceive God by making a habit of wrongdoing and then saying sorry afterwards. As one of them, Paul, points out, making a habit of wrong habits leads to becoming a slave to them. Elsewhere he also warns that whatever a person sows, they also reap. It is also true that if a person goes around proclaiming their Christianity while doing things that blatantly contradict it, the word 'hypocrite' springs into most people's minds.
By now you will probably have realised that I am a Christian and that I am encouraging you to become one as well if you are not already. The idea of becoming a Christian may bring all sorts of unpleasant memories or images into your mind: holy Joe, fanatic, religious maniac, no beer, women, fags or rock music, etc, etc. And I can't say I blame you: many religious people have often sent out those messages. Bear with me for another page and we'll look at what it means stripped down to its bare essentials.
Back to Homepage | Previous page - God, mankind and morality