Paradise Lost: Life Without God
Imagine No Religion
Imagine walking with God. Literally…
It’s evening in your garden world. The warmth of the afternoon lingers in the meadow in front of you, but behind you a cool, fragrant breeze stirs the darkening woods. The sun, riding low in the sky, floods the landscape with gold. Soon it will paint a masterpiece over the western hills. Your senses take in the beauty, and your heart appreciates it, yet these wonders cannot explain the joyful expectancy that wells up like a song in your soul. There is another reason for it.
He is coming. Soon!
The Person who created you has promised to meet you here. He often comes during the evening, because He knows it is your favorite time for a walk. As you walk together, He shows you many things—canyons, mountains, oceans, fields, and all the creatures that call these wild regions home. Each moment with your Friend is tinged with discovery and wonder. But the greatest marvel of all is always simply Him. He is deeper than any canyon, grander than any mountain, mightier than any ocean, gentler and more inviting than any meadow, yet wilder than any of His creatures. He is your delight, and you are His. You call Him Father, and He calls you His child.
He is not like you. Yet somehow—amazingly—you are a bit like Him. He speaks to you often of your role in this Paradise. You, together with the mate that He has given you, are to nurture and rule it as His representatives. It is a staggering responsibility, yet you are unafraid, for He will always be there to teach and guide you. You are totally dependent on Him, yet content. He is all you need.
It has never occurred to you to feel frightened or guilty about meeting with Him. You certainly never find Him dull or boring! You never feel “religious.” In fact, it is doubtful that anyone could ever really explain the concept of a religion to you, even if they tried.
You have never “said a prayer,” let alone “chanted,” though you often speak with Him.
You have never organized a choir, though you often sing to Him—just as He often sings to you.
You have never given a speech about Him, though you often speak lovingly of Him to the helper that He made for you and even to the beasts of the field when you encounter them.
He is the central fact of your existence. You quite literally couldn’t live without Him. It has never even crossed your mind to try. Your life is already rich with meaning and bursting with adventure. No wonder you are waiting so expectantly for Him now!
Does that picture of life sound good to you? It should.
You were created for it.
Anatomy of the Fall
We all know how the tragedy played out: Adam and Eve sinned and lost Paradise. In its place they received—in a sense, they created—a fallen world cursed with hard labor, painful childbirth, difficult relationships, and in the end, death. You may have been created for Paradise, but you certainly weren’t born into it. Sin is the reason.
But why on earth did Adam and Eve do it? How could they have been so foolish? They had it so good—perfect, in fact. How could the devil deceive them? The answer to that question sums up the sad history of our fallen species.
Let’s read the account. You’ve heard it many times before, no doubt, but have you ever really noticed the devil’s strategy?
He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Genesis 3:2-6)
What, then, was the bait on the devil’s hook? The prospect of an independent existence without a moment-by-moment need for God. “God’s holding out on you. He knows that your eyes will be opened if you pursue the knowledge of good and evil. You won’t need Him to tell you what to do. You’ll be wise enough to decide things for yourself. In fact, you can be your own gods!”
Independence was the intoxicating bait. Unfortunately, independence is exactly what humanity got out of the bargain. And it was certainly not much of a bargain! Within a few decades of going it alone and deciding for themselves what seemed good, the first human parents had raised themselves a murderer. Within a few centuries, starvation, war, cruelty, hatred, deceit, and exploitation had appeared on the scene—everything humanity has strived so unsuccessfully to eliminate from their civilizations as the millennia pass by.
Independence wasn’t supposed to turn out that way, at least according to the snake. Somehow when he spoke of it, it sounded exciting. Intelligent. Important. Sophisticated. But he had “forgotten” to mention a crucial fact: independence always means separation. And separation from God is neither exciting nor intelligent.
Ever since that first temptation, our species has absolutely craved independence from God and has paid the price of separation from Him to get it. We still like the looks of that forbidden fruit, despite the heartache it has brought us. Like the subjects in Jesus’ parable of the ten minas, we consider the prospects of submitting to God and cry, “We do not want Him to be our King” (Luke 19:14). Most humans, it seems, want a god, but they want one who will be satisfied with token religious observances and then leave them alone so that they can lead their own lives their own way.
Humanity in Hiding
How did Adam and Eve react once they ate the fruit? Again, let’s try to read the account as if the ink were still fresh on the page:
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as He was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Genesis 3:7-11)
Adam and Eve’s first reaction after sinning was to hide from God. Sin had given them new instincts, like self-consciousness, self-preservation, and the fear of punishment. Suddenly they felt so very separate from God. So they hid—and humanity has been in hiding ever since.
The fallen man and woman knew, of course, that hiding from God in any physical sense was impossible, so they crawled out from the woods and faced Him when He called. But they kept hiding nonetheless. The difference was that now, instead of taking refuge behind the thickest tree trunks they could find, they hid behind a forest of excuses, blame-shifting, and half-truths.
In the end, God had no choice but to fulfill His word and to give the first humans the independence and separation they craved. Now He hid Himself from them. Before, they had enjoyed unbroken intimacy and friendship with Him. That relationship came to an abrupt halt. The Tree of Life, whose fruit could have extended the friendship for eternity, was hidden from their sight forever.
Within a generation, the human race was a living, breathing disaster. Killers begat killers, and then the killers got organized and began building the first cities and civilizations. It was “at that time,” the Genesis account tells us, that “men began to call on the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26). The world was still young; Adam and Eve were still alive. But because it was no longer possible to walk with God (literally) as they once had, human civilization created a substitute:
Ever since that day, humans have tried to have it both ways—to appease God through ritualized service, yet to maintain an independence from Him in practical terms. Those goals might seem contradictory. But religion was an ingenious invention, because it made both goals seem quite possible. How? By dividing life neatly into two distinct categories, the religious and the secular. The religious was relegated to certain special times and places, with certain expert holy men to serve both as a link and a buffer between God and man. The secular side of life was now free to receive the lion’s share of man’s attention.
Human culture shot off in a thousand different directions after God’s intervention at Babel. Languages, foods, clothing, and customs developed in an amazing diversity of ways. Religion developed right along with them. But no matter what the external trappings, certain constants have remained, from nation to nation, crossing the oceans and spanning the globe. Religion still sets aside certain places, days, and people as “holier” or “more special” than the rest.
Virtually every religion known to man has certain buildings or sites designated as especially holy places. Their names may change between cultures, but their function stays the same.
Many religions have constructed buildings called “temples” or the like. Historically, men have often thought of them as housing a particular “deity.” Temples literally put God in a box! We have grown a bit more sophisticated since then, or so we think. Men nowadays regard temples more as structures devoted to religious activities.
One very popular religion has temples known as Gurdwara. You are welcome to visit one if you agree to a few simple requirements. As you enter, remove the shoes from your feet and place a hat something like a bandana on your head. Leave any cigarettes or alcohol at home; no intoxicants are allowed. After you enter, walk slowly to a chair where the religion’s sacred book is enthroned. Bow humbly before the book and then make a monetary offering. You, along with all who are attending the temple, then sit cross-legged on the floor and raise your cupped hands to receive from the ushers a wafer of bread made from sweetened flour and butter.
That’s the custom of the fifth largest religion on the planet today. Really, though, virtually all religions have a similar kind of temple, with some comparable ritual to go with it. People have built a variety of religiously purposed buildings—temples, to be sure, but also monasteries, mounds, multistory towers, and elaborate edifices with ornate domes and prayer towers.
“Special places” can be enormous. The outer wall of a temple in Cambodia encloses 203 acres (nearly a square kilometer)! Other “special places” can be quite small. Many religions have constructed “shrines.” These structures usually hold a relic or image that people worship or honor. Especially committed religious folk may even construct a yard shrine devoted to a particular “deity” or “saint” outside their home. In the northern Midwest of the United States, “bathtub Madonnas,” with a religious statue sheltered in an upended, half-buried bathtub, are a familiar type of yard shrine.
Despite the differences in scale, there is a common purpose for these structures. They are a place people can attend when they want to “do” their religious duty.
It’s fascinating that many people naturally recognize the similarity of all “religiously purposed buildings,” regardless of the religion. In Southeast Asia, for example, the word wat can refer to almost any “place of worship.” A wat cheen, for example, is a building used for Chinese religions, whether Buddhist or Taoist. A wat khaek is a structure used by Hindus. A wat kris is a building used by Christians. Truly, “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks,” for to a Thai, a wat is a wat is a wat, no matter what religion constructed it. If you want to get close to God (whatever your concept of Him), you attend the wat of your choice. In contrast, if you want to pursue secular interests, you just steer clear from any wats until you are ready to be religious.
Mankind, then, has felt a universal urge to build “sacred” buildings and even to designate specific rivers, mountains, or groves of trees as particularly “holy.” It really cannot be denied that special places are a trademark of human religion. But is that really such a bad thing?
Well, please consider this: The very process of setting aside a certain place as “holy” automatically categorizes all other places as somehow less holy. If the “holy” belongs to God, then who owns the rest? If a few places are devoted to religious life, what are most places dedicated to? And if you really feel like you are “entering the presence of God” when you go into a certain geographic location, then what does it mean when you leave?
What we are saying is that religion simultaneously aims at two goals—allowing humans to draw near to God when they choose, while keeping Him at a safe distance when that’s what they would prefer. Designating some places as “special” is one crucial way religion compartmentalizes life.
Religion not only sets up “sacred” and “secular” categories to divide up the three dimensions of space; it does exactly the same thing for the fourth dimension, time. Certain blocks of time—whether hours in a day, days in a week, or seasons in a year—are counted “special.”
We could pick any religion as an example, but we’ll choose a relatively new one. During the middle years of the nineteenth century, a 25-year old merchant, claiming to be a prophet, took on a name meaning “the Gate” in his language. The local religious leaders brutally suppressed his new movement, eventually executing him by a firing squad. Soon afterwards, however, a new, even more popular “prophet” emerged from the movement. He claimed to be the “promised one” foretold not only by “the Gate,” but supposedly by all “faiths.” His teachings would form the foundation of a new religion.
In this system, Friday is set aside as a special day of worship. In addition, there are several designated “holy days” each year. On the spring equinox, for instance, adherents get together for a potluck dinner followed by prayers and readings. Then there are a series of days commemorating the founders of the religion—their birthdays, the days they declared themselves prophets, and the days they died. Finally, there is a winter festival when members typically exchange gifts.
Maybe you’ve heard of this religion; maybe you haven’t. But either way, if the whole holiday scene sounds recognizable, it should. The religions you are more familiar with (including the one you were raised in, most likely) have a “sacred calendar” that differs more in detail than in substance from what you’ve just read.
Many religions set aside a particular day of the week as special. For the members of one, any religious acts performed on Friday receive a greater reward, because God created Adam on a Friday. The members of another disagree: they observe the day after Adam’s creation as especially significant. Billions of human beings instead observe Thursday as their special day. As in the example of “The Gate,” many religions base their holidays around special events in the life of their founder. Similarly, many religions hold festivals on the first day of the year (as they define it) or at some other point in the solar or lunar cycles. Each holy day has its own culture of traditional observances, with meals, gifts, parades, religious services, decorations, and the like.
Even those who ignore the tenets of a particular faith 364 days a year may still observe its “holiest” day. And even events or historical figures far outside the mainstream tenets of the religion may eventually get a day in their honor. For example, several liberal religious bodies in the United States began in 2006 the practice of celebrating “evolution day” on the Sunday closest to the birthday of Charles Darwin! The impulse to designate certain arbitrary days as “sacred” is still universal, even in our sophisticated “post-modern” era. As a comedian once quipped, “I was an atheist once, but I quit. No holidays.”
Again, we may ask whether the holy-day habit is really so bad, since everyone seems to do it. What can it hurt? And again, we can answer that the very choice to designate a small number of things—whether geographic locations or days of the year—as “sacred” automatically creates another category for everything else. If one day is “most special,” what does that make every other day? If one day is set aside as uniquely belonging to God, then who has ownership of the rest of the days, really? Like special places, special times have the effect—whether consciously intended or not—of compartmentalizing life.
As we have seen, religion can be a relentless categorizer of places and times. But there is another commodity that it sorts into the “sacred” and the “secular”: human beings. For just as human religion picks certain locations on the map or pages on the calendar to be “sacred,” it also chooses certain faces in the crowd to be especially “holy.”
“Primitive” or tribal cultures have specific men or women who are designated as oracles and shamans—or, to be less politically correct, witchdoctors and medicine men. They are thought to be more in touch with the spirit-world than an average person can be. As a result, they typically are believed to have special powers to heal diseases or change the weather. One such religion calls its shamans “clever men” or “clever women.” Besides healing and intercession with the spirit world, these “clever ones” are involved in initiation rites and other secret ceremonies. They enforce tribal laws and are feared for their supposed ability to put an offender to death by singing a magical chant. As you move from culture to culture, many of the details may change, but the basic role of shaman remains the same.
As societies get a bit more organized, religious experts usually take on the full function of “priests.” Like shamans, priests are supposed to maintain a special connection to the deity of that religion. Their job description is expanded, however. It now includes performing the correct rituals and counseling common people on religious questions. Priests usually require specialized training or education. Typically they are financially supported. The exact job description for priests varies with each religion, but their functions are often surprisingly familiar, even to an outsider. Regardless of their affiliation, priests in western countries may teach religion classes, put out newsletters, perform weddings and funerals, serve as chaplains in the military or in prisons, and even call themselves by the title “Reverend.”
Throughout history, priesthood has had its perks. Centuries ago, one country developed a rigid, hierarchical caste system. Members of the very bottom caste were forced to perform all of the dangerous and unsanitary jobs for the society and in return they suffered strict segregation and desperate poverty. The priests, in contrast, found themselves at the top of the heap. In return for performing the “marrying and burying” rituals for society, they enjoyed the highest standard of living and received the most respect of any of its castes. This caste system can still be found today.
You may not live in a society with a recognized caste system. Regardless, most cultures still have designated “specialists” who are supposed to help common folk understand and fulfill divine requirements. But a “connector” can also be a “separator.” That’s a real problem when the person you’re separated from is God, and the person standing between you and Him is just another man. Yet every society, every religion, has chosen “holy” men and women to play the role of go-between. Why?
Humanity is still hiding from God! Most of us don’t really want to get too close to Him. He might interfere with our precious “right” (as we see it) to be our own gods. And when it comes right down to it, we are rather frightened of Him. We have a nagging sense that He is angry and might just do something rash if we are standing too close! Yet we still realize that we need Him to bless us during life’s milestones, like birth, coming of age, and marriage, and to rescue or at least comfort us during life’s crises, like illness, famine, or the death of a loved one. Religion offers a solution to the dilemma. It chooses someone to get close to God on our behalf, so he or she can take most of the risks for us while obtaining for us some of God’s blessing.
The Hidden Cost of Religion
At first glance, religion may seem like one of mankind’s most ingenious inventions. But powerful new inventions can often have unintended disastrous effects. What of religion?
To answer that question, we must think back to humanity before the fall. In those glorious days, Adam walked with God face-to-face. He needed no holy place, because every place was filled with the wonder and awe of God’s presence. He needed no holy day, for each moment was alive with the consciousness of God. And He needed no holy man to stand between them. As man, Adam took his rightful place, submitting to and learning from his Creator without reservation or fear. He dealt with God directly—as a creature deals with a Creator, to be sure, but also as a dearly loved son deals with a perfectly loving Father.
Mankind lost all of that in the fall.
Has human religion regained what was lost in the fall? Has it satisfied your soul—for real? Or has it mostly offered a substitute for the reality that Adam experienced in the garden not so long ago? Do you really want your life compartmentalized, with a few special times, places, or men placed in the “sacred” category and the rest placed in the “secular”?
What if instead God gave you a second chance at the Tree of Life? What if He offered to restore the moment-by-moment peace and friendship and life that Adam squandered?
Would you have the courage to take Him up on it?