Each of us came into existence through no decision or action of our own. So each of us may wonder, “Why do I exist?” and “How shall I live the life I have?” These are the questions that “religions” attempt to answer.
The word “religion” comes from the Latin word “religio” which has a meaning influenced by the verb “religare” to bind, in the sense of “place an obligation on” (World Book Dictionary).
The World Book Dictionary defines “obligation” as “duty” which, in turn, is defined as “a thing which a person ought to do; a thing which is right to do.”
In other words, religion deals with “how a person ought to live” or what is “right to do.” What duties or obligations do we, as individuals, have in living our lives?
When we look around us, we see many different “organized religions” such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and others. In their attempts to say “how a person ought to live” or “what is right to do,” these organized religions place many different “obligations” on their members. Since these organized religions began at various times and in various geographical locations, none of these religions have been known by all human beings in all places and at all times on earth.
Is there any “religion” which is known by all humankind? The answer is “yes.” It is a natural religion that “places some obligations (duties) on” everyone. How is this natural religion known to everyone, and what are the obligations (duties) that are placed on everyone?
This natural religion has had many proponents through the centuries. The proponent who is best known to me was an intinerant Jewish rabbi (teacher) named Jesus. An “organized religion,” called “Christianity,” has developed over the centuries based on theological theories “about Jesus” but this organized religion has very little to do with the natural religion “of Jesus.” By disregarding the theological theories “about Jesus,” we can discover the basic principles of natural religion in the teachings “of Jesus.”
Jesus was considered a religious heretic by the leaders of the organized religion in his time and place. Jesus was a Jew and his cultural religion was the traditional Jewish religion (an ancient form of what we now call “Judaism”). In his day, Judaism had accumulated a complex structure of religious “obligations” that were placed on Jews. The natural religion of Jesus reduced these obligations to two: love for God and love for neighbor.
Jesus referred to these two obligations as God’s “commandments” (laws) or God’s “word” (truth). Jesus taught that these two obligations are known by everyone because they are planted like a seed sown “in the heart” (Matthew 13:18-23).
Natural religion, as taught by Jesus, is based on these two natural laws that are inherent in human nature. Violation of these two laws by anyone is life-destructive. Obedience of these two laws is life-creative. This is known through human experience.
What Jesus meant by “love for God” and “love for neighbor” is defined by Jesus in his stories called “parables.” Jesus believed that it was his mission, and ours, to establish the “kingdom of God” on earth. Jesus used the term “kingdom of God” to refer to the rule of God’s laws in the lives of individuals and in human society.
We should note that the “gospel” that Jesus preached was, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). In his “gospel,” Jesus said nothing about “saving” anyone by Jesus’ death (the “gospel” which is preached today in trinitarian churches). Obviously, Jesus’ death had not occurred at the time he asked people to “believe in the gospel.” Jesus’ “gospel” (good news) was about the “kingdom of God” on earth. This was the only “gospel” that Jesus knew.
The so-called “gospel” heard in trinitarian churches today was developed by church councils over a period of four centuries. These councils modified the theology of Paul, a man who never claimed to have seen or heard Jesus except in an alleged “vision” after the lifetime of Jesus. Paul was a Jew who interpreted Jesus’ crucifixion as a human sacrifice to God to atone for the sins of humankind. At the time when Jesus and Paul lived, a “ram without blemish” was sacrificed in the Jewish temple as a “guilt offering” to God as an atonement for sins. Paul used this as an analogy to interpret the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrifice to atone for sins. (Romans 5:6-10; Ephesians 5:2).
Jesus taught that God required no sacrifices to atone for sins. Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’.” (Matthew 9:13). Here, Jesus is quoting the Hebrew prophet Hosea who claimed to be quoting God: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).
The theological theory that Jesus sacrificed his life, as a substitute for us, to atone for (pay for) the sins of humankind is called the “substitutionary theory of the atonement.” This theory, which was adopted in trinitarian Christianity, is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus made it very clear that God forgives us if we repent of our sins and we are willing to forgive others who sin against us (Matthew 18:23-35; Luke 11:4; Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 6:14-15; Luke 15:11-24).
It is important to know what Jesus meant by love for God, love for neighbor, repentance, forgiveness, and the kingdom of God on earth. These are key concepts in the natural religion of Jesus. Jesus explained the meanings of these concepts which I will present in this Web Page. In my view, life becomes more understandable from what we can learn from these teachings.