Christianity and the origin of religion
Published: 23 January 2021 (GMT+10)
Joshua N. from New Zealand writes:
You all do a wonderful job and you keep me well informed. One of the questions I get asked or “told”, is that Christianity is one of many religions and we are not original. I know you touch upon this in articles but I think that a current video on this will be very helpful. Especially the time line from Adam and Eve - the fall / Tower of Babel and rise of humanity trying to make objects into Gods. Is there any historical evidences when humanity began to “create their own Gods” and how does this correlate to the Bible. So often are we confronted with criticism that Christianity got its “grass roots” from other ideals. We know that is false but I struggle to come up with a concise persuasive argument. Many thanks!
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thanks for writing in.
This issue is somewhat multifaceted, since similar sounding objections can actually be talking about reasonably distinct topics. I can think of three main issues that arise from the sorts of things you’re saying:
- Did humans invent gods and religions?
- Was biblical theism the original religion?
- Is Christianity a pastiche of pagan and biblical tropes?
As such, I’ll address each in turn.
Did men invent gods and religions?
The first issue runs something like this: ‘Christianity is just like all other religions: it’s false, unoriginal, and thus fully explicable in purely natural and human terms.’ In other words, it’s essentially saying that all religious claims are false, and that religion exists purely as a proxy to sate human desires that evolved (Did religion evolve?). Christianity is ‘unoriginal’ because it merely tries to satisfy the same impulses all other religions aim to satisfy.
Well, first, have all religions been shown to be false? We can’t explain all religions away by assuming an evolutionary origin for the human religious impulse; that presupposes what needs to be proved. Religions all make claims that are either true or false. That means that some religious claims could be true. So, unless we already know that they’re all false, an evolutionary story about the origins of the human religious impulse doesn’t prove that they’re all false (Is Belief in God a case of Christian wish fulfillment?).
Second, Christianity doesn’t fit this schema. The faith rests on certain historical claims, e.g. that Jesus claimed to be God incarnate, and that He was raised from the dead. And these claims were deeply countercultural for their day, in both Jewish and Gentile contexts. These are not the sorts of beliefs that are generated merely by a basic religious impulse. They are not reducible to subjective experience, and they can’t be dismissed as a case of wish-fulfilment without considering the relevant evidence.
Finally, if we have reason to believe in certain religious claims independent of such an ingrained religious impulse, we may have reason to suspect the evolutionary account is false. For instance, the Bible makes it clear that our religious impulses and concepts like monotheism did not arise merely through socio-biological evolution, because God created us supernaturally and revealed Himself to Adam and Eve from the beginning. He also supernaturally revealed Himself at other times, to Abraham and Moses, for instance. Indeed, couldn’t God have imbued us with religious impulses to help us strive for Him? In other words, men didn’t invent God; God invented men to find Him (Acts 17:26–27). Thus, if we have good reason to think Christianity is true, the conflict between Christianity and evolution gives us ample reason to doubt the evolutionary account for where our religious impulse came from.
What was the original religion?
Or is this more about figuring out what the original religion is, to try and show that Christianity is compatible with it? After all, Christianity in its fullness clearly can’t be the original religion; it’s a fulfilment religion. It claims to fulfil the religion and hopes of the Hebrew Bible. But still, was something compatible with biblical theism the earliest religion we have record of?
As expected, Scripture says the first religion was monotheistic. But there is a feature of Genesis 1–11 that’s rather unusual, if some sort of idolatrous polytheism or animism came first: Genesis 1–11 doesn’t explicitly mention any idolatry. Idolatry is mentioned everywhere in the Bible, even in Genesis (e.g. Genesis 31:19, 35:2). Of course, humans were guilty of many sins in Genesis 1–11. Indeed, we were so bad that God sent a global Flood and confused our languages as judgments. But none of it is expressly represented as idolatry (whether strictly considering the use of images in the worship of God or a false deity, or even just considering the more general notion of the worship of false deities with or without images). Perhaps the closest anything comes to it is in the Tower of Babel incident. However, even there the stated purposes of building the tower were for the people to make a name for themselves and to disobey God’s command to fill the earth (Genesis 11:4). Idolatry seems to be absent even there. Given how serious and prevalent idolatry is in the rest of Scripture (even in the rest of Genesis!), why is there such an absence of it from Genesis 1–11? It seems that idolatry (at least the sort of idolatry prevalent throughout the Old Testament) arose after Babel. There is a theory that at Babel God essentially disinherited the nations and put them in charge of lesser spiritual beings that themselves went corrupt, and this may have contributed to the rise of idolatry (see A look into The Unseen Realm for more on this). But, the Scriptures don’t really give us enough detail to explain what happened.
Moreover, there is evidence for an original monotheism among the Chinese (God’s Promise to the Chinese) and Maori (Io Origins). This also seems to reflect a broader trend. In his book In the Beginning God: A fresh look at the case for original monotheism,1 Winfried Corduan takes a broad look at the issue by examining cultures all around the world. He argues that the cultures most likely to reflect the oldest religion are those that migrated the furthest and show the least borrowing from others. These cultures tend to have one-God religions that concentrated on thanksgiving to God and keeping basic commandments (i.e. treat people well, don’t murder, and marriage is monogamous and sacred). As such, the original religion was likely a one-God religion. (Bear in mind that Corduan is an old-earth creationist, so take some of the timeframes he talks about with a grain of salt. But the basic argument doesn’t depend much on that.) See also Wilhelm Schmidt and the origin of religion.
There is an interesting consilience between the cultural/ethnographic data on religion and the relatively surprising lack of mention of idolatry in Genesis 1–11. They fit together very well if the original religion was one focused on worshipping a single, supreme deity, but they are hard to explain if some form of animism or polytheism were the original religion. Animism and polytheism look more like distortions that arose later.
Did Christianity borrow from other religions?
The third issue is more particular to Christianity. The basic idea is that Christianity is simply a tapestry of pagan and/or Jewish fables that a bunch of first century Jews made up.
Now, again, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that Christianity isn’t completely new in all respects. As a fulfilment religion, Christianity can’t be new in everything it claims.
But again, many of Christianity’s foundational truth claims are unique: the history and claims of Jesus of Nazareth (Do I have to believe in a historical Genesis to be saved?). If Christianity rests on such particular historical claims, then it can’t be dismissed by saying that it borrowed from other traditions.
Or did Christianity retool things like pagan ‘divine incarnation’ and ‘resurrection’ tropes for a Jewish setting? No: Copycat copout: Jesus was not made up from pagan myths.
Interestingly, though, we can show that it doesn’t even matter if the first Christians did borrow pagan tropes. Why? If they did, they didn’t use them to make up a fictional story from scratch. Instead, they would’ve used them to explain what they thought they saw happen to Jesus after he died.
The early Christians were claiming that Jesus was God incarnate raised from the dead within living memory of Jesus. These were claims people could check for themselves. For instance, 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 represents a tradition about Jesus’ death and resurrection that goes back to within 3 years or so of Jesus’ death (Easter’s earliest creed).
Regarding Jesus’ deity, Romans 10:8–13, 1 Corinthians 8:4–6, Philippians 2:9–11, and other passages testifying to Jesus’ deity were written within 30 years of Jesus’ death. Moreover, these passages don’t give a defence of Jesus’ deity; they presume it to be true. Jesus’ deity was thus most likely uncontroversial for both author and audience. Question: how does the deification of a crucified Galilean Jew become accepted confessional truth in any religious group a mere 30 years after his death? Especially among non-Jews? If that sounds crazy, it should. It certainly did to the people around them!2
Of course, we would argue that the early Christians believed this about Jesus for the reason they gave in e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:3–8; they really did see Jesus alive after He had been killed by crucifixion (see The Resurrection of Jesus, Can we believe the Gospels?, Proving Jesus’ resurrection without the Bible?, and Argument from miracles: Jesus’ resurrection). But we don’t even have to go that far to refute the ‘making it all up from pagan traditions’ idea. Why? Think about the setting. The early disciples were making these claims less than three years after his death. So, if devout 1st century Jews ripped all these tropes from pagan religions (which by itself is a rather ludicrous notion), they did so because they were trying to explain what they thought really happened. They would never have gotten away with completely making this story up by stitching together a bunch of pagan tropes, right in the heart of Jerusalem, right around the time Jesus died (during Passover, of all times!), right in the midst of a people very hostile to any such pagan borrowing.
While also wildly implausible, using pagan tropes to explain what they thought they saw is still more plausible than saying the disciples just made the whole thing up using pagan tropes. Why? They wouldn’t be making it all up from scratch. At least they would’ve had something (they thought was) concrete to hang their story on.
Of course, there’s no evidence in the New Testament that the earliest disciples used pagan tropes to ‘grease the wheels’ of resurrection belief, even among the pagans. The closest we get is Paul’s use of the altar to an unknown god in Athens in Acts 17. But he uses that in service of Jewish monotheism, not specifically in terms of Jesus. Indeed, he says that what was to them unknown has now become known to all in Jesus. If anything, Paul probably thought that there was no good pagan trope to compare Jesus to. But the point stands; the earliest Christians, many of whom knew Jesus himself, clearly thought something unprecedented happened with this Galilean Jewish Rabbi. The ‘stories’ they told about him can’t be explained without this fact, whether they have pagan tropes embedded in them or not.
Christianity can’t be reduced to a private religious experience, or a social phenomenon that makes people feel good. It’s theologically consistent with what the best evidence we have suggests the original religion was (i.e. the worship of a single supreme God). And Christianity can’t be explained away as a pastiche of pagan tropes. Christianity appeals to the particulars of history for its truth, and thus to history we must go.
Creation Ministries International
References and notes
- Corduan, W., In the Beginning God: A fresh look at the case for original monotheism, B&H Publishing Group Nashville, Tennessee, 2013. Return to text.
- This article gives a helpful analysis: Holding, J.P., The Impossible Faith: A Defense of the Resurrection, tektonics.org/lp/nowayjose.php, accessed 10 December 2020. Return to text.