The popular (atheist) theory of the origins of religion states that early man, in terror of natural forces (such as storms, drought, disease, and death), felt the need to appease the unseen, supernatural beings that he believed must have the power to control them. At first, this consisted of making gifts or sacrifices to ‘bribe’ the gods. Later and more sophisticated forms of religion developed rituals and codes of ‘good’ behaviour by which the favour of the gods could be earned. These days, however, the advances of science have ‘liberated’ us from this ‘superstitious nonsense’ – hence the famous advert, “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy yourself”.
But is this simplistic picture really true? Certainly I can believe that there are many religions that are like this, but my personal experience is somewhat different.
I grew up with the popular view of religion, which wentsomething like this: If you’re good all your life you’ll go to heaven, but if you’re bad you’ll go to hell. In other words, keep the rules (in exchange for a somewhat dubious reward), or God will get angry with you. I wasn’t brought up as a Christian (my family were default atheists), but I had always assumed that this was what Christians believed. It was only when I became a Christian myself that I discovered that I had got it completely wrong.
Because the New Testament hammers out the same message over and over again: Jesus has sorted out the broken relationship between me and God, I don’t need to earn God’s favour any more, I am His child and I can trust in His love for me – so I can stop worrying and enjoy myself!
Christianity was supposed to mean freedom from the tyranny of religious rules and rituals. Instead of following the Old Testament laws, we model our lives on Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit. But the old habits of religion die hard, and rules and rituals have been creeping back into Christianity ever since the first century. There’s something in us that feels uncomfortable with unconditional love. Perhaps it seems too good to be true?