Today I’d like for us to think about the question: Where do peoples’ religious beliefs come from? The answer to that question might seem simple. We might think that peoples’ religious beliefs come from the religion they’ve been exposed to, what they’ve heard that religion believes, what people have told them they’re supposed to believe. But I don’t believe that’s true. That may be where the beliefs come from that people claim to have, that people say they have, but I don’t think that’s where peoples’ true religious beliefs come from. I think sometimes people say they belief this, that, or the other, but deep in their hearts, they don’t.
So today, I’d like for us to think about where people’s real religious beliefs come from, the beliefs they have deep in their hearts, the beliefs that maybe, they don’t even admit to themselves that they have.
We Need To Make Christianity Relevant
One of the fads going around in Christianity today is the desire to make Christianity relevant to peoples’ lives. We hear that over and over in discussions of Christianity, how we have to make Christianity relevant. A lot of churches today concentrate on making Christianity relevant to peoples’ lives.
Last week was Easter. My wife showed me a picture someone had posted on social media of a group of children from a church near here. The children had on T-shirts that said, “Spoiler Alert, the tomb was empty.” My wife was upset about that kind of trivialization of the resurrection, but of course this kind of hip, trendy stuff in Christianity is all the rage now.
Someone was telling me not long ago of how their grandson had been scared to death in a church recently. He had gone to one of those trendy churches with some friends, and a light show was part of their “worship experience.” It scared him to death. A little child like that; he didn’t know what to think, with all that loud music and all those lights flashing off and on. Churches have really fallen for the trendy stuff today. They’re trying to make Christianity relevant.
But I think the real question is how Christianity got to be irrelevant. There would be no use in expending so much energy trying to make Christianity relevant if at some point it had not ceased being relevant. And so how did Christianity become something perceived as being not relevant to peoples’ lives?
How Christianity Became Not Relevant
It goes back to when Christians changed their view of the Bible and changed their view of the origin of Christianity.
Part of that, we’ve talked about before. We’ve talked about how within Christianity, until recently, it was accepted that the things the Bible says happened really happened. The account of creation, the account of Noah’s ark, God leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, the walls of Jericho tumbling down, the virgin birth of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus, the bodily resurrection of Jesus—all these things were believed to have actually happened. Seeing those things as actually having happened leads to the view that God is involved in the world. God is active in the world. God does things in the world.
For example, in the Old Testament, God led the Hebrews out of Egypt. When the Egyptians were chasing after them, God parted the Red Sea and let the Hebrews go across, then brought it back together to drown the Egyptians. When the Hebrews were starving in the wilderness, God provided manna for them to eat.
God doing things in the world is seen throughout the Bible. From the first page of Genesis to the last page of Revelation, the Bible reports God being active in the world. God is involved with the world in a real, concrete way because He does things in the world.
There is no question that God is relevant to our lives. All the time, He’s right here, doing things in the world, doing things in our lives.
But then, beginning about 150 years ago, Christians’ idea of the Bible began to change. Christians changed their mind about whether the things the Bible reports really happened. Science said, and Christians agreed, that most of the things the Bible reports didn’t really happen. Take the account of Noah’s ark, or the account of Jonah being swallowed by the whale. Surely we can’t expect sophisticated, educated, modern people to believe things like that really happened.
That’s why Christians decided the Bible is a book of myths—stories designed to teach moral lessons. Myths are stories about things that didn’t really happen. It became generally accepted within Christianity that most all the things the Bible reports didn’t really happen. With that, the whole shape of Christian theology changed. When they read and studied the Bible, Christians no longer believed they were interpreting actual historical events; they believed they were interpreting myths. They wanted to learn how to better interpret the myths in the Bible, and so they started listening to what secular authors had to say about myths and applying those concepts to the Bible.
One of these secular authors was a man named Mircea Eliade. (Mirtzea EELEE-ade) He was from Romania and lived in the 20th century. He was a religious historian and philosopher. In his view, myths were written to provide what he called “exemplars.” That means good examples for us to follow. Christian theologians borrowed that idea and began saying that the myths in the Bible provide good examples for us to follow, that what we really get out of the Bible is examples of how to live our lives.
Another author these Christians paid attention to was a man named Claude Levi-Strauss. He was French. He didn’t have anything to do with blue jeans; that was another Levi Strauss. Claude Levi-Strauss lived in the 20th century and was an anthropologist. His idea was that myths develop over time. The story line, the characters, and the way the story is presented gradually evolves and develops over time.
Another was a man named Joseph Campbell. He was an American who also lived in the 20th century. Campbell was a philosopher and author in the field of comparative religion. He is the one who coined the phrase, “Follow your bliss.” That slogan used to be fairly popular. I’ve seen it printed on signs and coffee cups.
Campbell believed that myths serve to validate the beliefs, customs, and political aims of the people who create them. In his view, myths are stories developed to justify what a particular group of people believes; myths serve as justification for a particular group of people’s way of life. He wrote that myths are “poetic musings on the mysteries of life.”
None of these people were Christians, but their ideas had tremendous influence on how Christians would come to view the Bible, and Christianity as a whole, in the 20th century. Their ideas, in other words, formed the Christianity we have today in 21st century America.
Borrowing from the thought of Mircea Eliade, who believed that myths exist to provide us with good examples, many Christians concluded that Jesus was just a regular person who provided us with an example of how to live our lives.
Borrowing from Claude Levi-Strauss, who believed that myths develop and change over the years, many Christians concluded that the accounts we have in the Bible did not originate in the form in which we have them, but that they were modified and changed many times before they finally ended up in the form we have them today in the Bible.
An example of this idea at work is the popular idea of “from Jesus to Christ.” This “from Jesus to Christ” idea is very popular today and accepted by many Christians. It says that Jesus was not a divine figure, that Jesus Himself did not claim to be a divine figure, and that the earliest Christians did not look at Jesus as a divine figure. All the stuff about Jesus being divine was made up much later, and then projected back onto Jesus and the early Christians. In other words, it was made up later, and then history was changed, i. e., early Christian writings were altered, including the books of the New Testament, to make it look like the belief that Jesus was divine had been around all the time.
Borrowing from Joseph Campbell, who believed that myths serve as justifications for the beliefs and customs of a group of people, many Christians concluded that the accounts in the Bible were more or less made up to justify and validate what people did. For example, to justify going into the land of Canaan and taking it over from the people who lived there, the Old Testament Hebrews made up the story of God promising the land to them and telling them to go there.
To explain why the Hebrews ate a Passover meal, someone at some point made up the story of God sending plagues on Egypt in order to persuade the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave.
Borrowing from Campbell again, many Christians believe that what we see in the Bible is the poetic musings of philosophers trying to make sense out of things in life that are hard to understand. This is especially seen as true about books like Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Psalms.
Campbell’s idea was influential in another way. Borrowing from Campbell’s idea about myths being the poetic musings of philosophers trying to make sense out of life, Christians began to see the Bible as a purely human product, something produced totally by human beings. God didn’t have a hand in writing the Bible at all; it’s purely a human product.
And of course, all of these secular authors agreed that myths originate in someone’s imagination. 20th century Christians used that to not just conclude that some things the Bible reports are myths but to conclude that virtually everything in the Bible is a myth. The Bible, in other words, is a collection of stories that originated in people’s imaginations, stories that people made up.
The God Who Has Never Done Anything
And so in the 20th century, Christians turned to what secular philosophers said about myths and began viewing the Bible in light of that. But seeing the Bible as myths created a big problem in Christianity, one which Christianity is still reeling under. Christians believe in God, but what can they point to that God has ever done? Apparently, God has never done anything concrete. Remember, we’ve marked down all the things the Bible says God did as myths. So if God has never done anything, why does God even matter?
God didn’t create the world. That was the result of the big bang and natural forces. God didn’t create human beings; that was just chance happenings through the process of evolution. God doesn’t do anything in the world. What happens in the world is the result of natural forces and human decisions. So what has God ever done? Apparently nothing.
Since Christians could no longer talk about God doing things, they began to talk about how God feels. Since they no longer believed God did anything, they began talking about God’s emotions. “God loves you.” “God cares about you.”
Well, I’m not trying to be sacrilegious, but, so what? If God never does anything, what difference does it make if He loves me and cares about me?
That’s when Christianity became not relevant to peoples’ lives. How are you going to convince people God matters if God does nothing but “care”? If God doesn’t do anything, what difference does it make that God “cares”?
This put Christians in the position of asking people to believe in God, but they could not explain to people why God matters.
That’s what you end up with when you say the Bible is myths. And that’s why Christianity has become so irrelevant that Christians parade children around in T-shirts with stupid slogans on them in order to get attention, make it entertaining. That’s why churches jump on the bandwagon of every trend.
Is The Bible Myths?
But how can we be so sure the Bible is myths?
Back in high school I remember having to read something written by a man named Homer. Homer was a Greek author who lived about 3000 years ago, and his works are supposedly the oldest surviving literature we have that comes from Europe.
One of the things that comes from Homer is the account of the Trojan Horse. It concerns a city named Troy, which the Greeks were trying to conquer. They besieged the city for 10 years, but they couldn’t take it. Finally they came up with the idea to make a huge wooden horse, and present it to the people of Troy as a gift. However, hidden inside the horse were Greek soldiers. When the people of Troy took the horse inside the city walls, the Greek soldiers popped out, and the Greeks were able to take Troy.
For many years that whole story was thought of as a myth. It was seen as mythical literature and interpreted the way we’re told we should interpret myths. People believed there was no city of Troy at all, until an archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann discovered a site that actually was ancient Troy. He discovered evidence that the Greeks had actually besieged the city for a long time and discovered evidence that indicated the “myth” of the Trojan Horse was likely not a myth at all but something that actually happened.
Something that was thought for years to be a myth and accepted unquestioningly as a myth turned out not to be a myth.
Wonder how many other things we’re told are myths are actually based in fact?
If you go back to the surviving historical record, just the actual things we have and not the interpretations people put on them and the things people say about them, you’ll find that our actual knowledge of the ancient world is very, very limited. We actually “know” very little about the ancient world. Most of what we “know” is actually assumptions that historians and archaeologists make on the basis of very limited hard evidence. There simply is not enough hard evidence that survived from the ancient world for us to actually “know” much at all about the ancient world.
There is no actual evidence that many of the things we think are myths are actually myths. The idea that they are myths is not based on evidence; it is based on one thing: These so-called myths talk about things that are different from things we personally have experienced. That’s the real “evidence” behind the idea that so much of what we hear from the ancient world is myths. We ourselves don’t have personal experience of things like that happening.
But is the fact that we ourselves have never seen something happen really proof that it didn’t happen? No. It’s an assumption. We assume that just because we have never seen a certain thing happen, if someone in the past said it happened, it must be a myth.
The whole idea that much of what we hear from the ancient world is myths is in fact based, not on actual evidence, but simply on that assumption.
In the same way, the idea accepted as absolute truth today by many Christians—that the things the Bible reports are myths—is nothing more than an assumption. It is unquestioningly accepted by the hierarchy of virtually all of mainline Christianity today, and it is accepted by a growing number of Christians, but it is just an assumption.
Experience As The Origin Of Religious Beliefs
But, we’re not just talking about whether the Bible is myths. We’re talking about something much deeper than that. What we’re really talking about is the origin of religious beliefs. We’re talking about where religious beliefs come from. It is accepted in today in more of Christianity than most people realize that the origin of Christianity came from peoples’ minds. After all, we’ve just talked about the “from Jesus to Christ idea,” which says that Jesus was just a regular person who people made out to be a divine figure long after His death. This is a very popular idea within Christianity today, and it says hat the origin of Christianity is from peoples’ minds, something people made up.
Today, the generally-accepted belief, even within much of Christianity, is that religious beliefs are simply thought up by people. In other words, people just sat down and made religion up. The view accepted in much of Christianity today is that the origin of Christianity came from philosophers and poets, more or less, who thought it up and then sat down and wrote the myths in the Bible in order to validate, or justify, what they thought up, in order to present what they made up as religion.
This idea is accepted in more of Christianity today than most people realize. It may not be the belief of the average Christians in the pews, but it is the belief of many of the higher-ups within organized Christianity. Sometimes it shocks people to hear that so many of the higher-ups in Christianity believe something like that, but it’s true.
I don’t know about you, but before I’m going to dismiss what the Bible says as just myths, someone is going to have to prove to me that it is in fact just myths. If they say the Bible is just myths, then the burden of proof is on them to prove it. Just because they say it is not enough for me. I went through four years in a Christian seminary where it was taught that the Bible is just myths, and it has not been proven to me yet, not by a long shot.
I remember one professor at the beginning of a semester who said he was going to lead us beyond the myths and to what he called “a deeper truth.” But he failed in that. He spent the entire semester talking about how everything in the Bible is myths, but he must have run out of time, because he never did get to the “deeper truth” part. He had a conviction that the Bible is myths, but after he had dismissed it all as myths, he had nothing left to say. All he could do, in other words, was destroy, but he had nothing with which to replace that which he had destroyed. With his conviction that the Bible is just myths, all he really had to present to us was a dusty old book of ancient myths that don’t matter to anyone.
That is the real reason why Christianity is no longer seen as being relevant.
That’s why I’m going to consider some other idea about the origin of religion. I’m going to consider that where religion originates is not in the minds of philosophers and poets but in events that really happened in the world. Some say that peoples’ religious beliefs come from the minds of philosophers and poets, but I’m going to say that religious beliefs come from things people have seen happen in the world.
Something happens in the world. Some event occurs. People witness this event. It is such a monumental event that it shapes their lives and their beliefs from that point on. It’s not an idea they came up with. It’s not a philosophy they thought up. It’s a real event that happened, and witnessing this event had such an effect on them that it made them look at everything differently from that point on.
In the case of the Hebrews in the Old Testament, the event was leaving Egypt, being miraculously delivered by God from the Egyptians, and being sustained by God throughout the years of wandering in the wilderness. That event made them look at everything in a different light. It shaped their thinking so much that it was from that event that their religious beliefs developed. Their most important observance was the Passover, which was connected with them leaving Egypt. It was that event of being led out of Egypt and protected by God in the wilderness that formed the basis of the early Hebrew religion.
In the case of the first Christians, the event was Jesus. He was a man, born of a virgin, who was an astounding teacher and miracle worker. He was killed, but He rose from the dead and appeared to His followers and then ascended into heaven in His human body with the promise to return. That event, which people witnessed, which they saw with their own eyes, became the basis for the Christian religion. It was such a monumental event that they spread the news about it far and wide, and Christianity literally exploded on the world scene in just a hundred or so years.
At what Christians call Pentecost, it was the event that happened when the disciples were talking and people from different places heard them speaking in their own language that made 3000 people that very day become Christians.
In the case of the Apostle Paul, it was the event that happened to him on the road to Damascus, where he had a direct encounter with Jesus, that forever changed him, made him a Christian, and made him a missionary, preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles.
In the case of the jailer in Acts, it was the event that happened when he witnessed the power of God release Paul and Silas from prison that made him become a Christian.
In the final analysis, it is not the thoughts of philosophers and poets that determine our religious beliefs; it is the things we see happen in life. I believe there are, for all of us, events that happen in our lives that are so monumental that they shape our religious beliefs.
Something happens, and we are never the same afterwards. Something happens that affects our life in such an enormous way that it forms our religious beliefs. These things are, I believe, encounters with God, encounters with something God has done in our life. They are something real, something concrete, and they are so monumental that they change the way we look at everything.
I can look back over my own life and see how the religious beliefs I have now come from incidents, from events, that I saw actually happen. My religious beliefs have not been shaped by reading poetry and books by philosophers. They have not been shaped by anything I have read. In the final analysis, my beliefs have not even been shaped solely by the Bible. My religious beliefs have been shaped by events that have seen happen during my life. And then, the way I read and interpret the Bible was shaped by those events.
Even today, I still remember those seminal events that happened that formed my religious beliefs. They are the reason I believe the things I believe today. I believe what I believe today not because of what I have read or been told but because of the things I have seen happen during my life.
And I bet it’s the same for you, too.
What we really believe deep down in our hearts comes not from the things we hear, not from the things we’re told, but from events we have seen happen during our lives.
Those events determine our religious beliefs.
Stop and look within deep within you right now and consider: What do you really believe about God? I’m not talking about what you’ve been told you should believe. I’m not talking about what you’ve heard are the “correct” beliefs. I’m talking about what you really do believe, deep inside you. What do you really believe about God?
I bet those beliefs, the beliefs that you really have, come from events you have seen happen during your life. Your true beliefs come from the experiences you have had and the things you have seen happen.
And I bet they’re somewhat different from what you’ve heard about Christianity.