Christian Deism as a Personal Religion

I have received e-mail from individuals whose personal beliefs are similar to those expressed in my essays on “Christian Deism.” Some readers ask, “How can I practice Christian deism?” as a personal religion.

In my responses to this question, I have promised to write about what it means to be a Christian deist and how Christian deism can be practiced each day as a personal religion, as I see it. I undertake this effort with the recognition that this task may be greater than my ability to accomplish, so I undertake it with a prayer that God will guide me in expressing my thoughts. I will try to do the best I can.

Let me begin by repeating what I wrote in the introduction to my web page. Your personal religion is “the beliefs that you live by.” A “belief” is a proposition which you think is true. If your behavior (words and actions) is guided by a particular belief, then this is a “belief that you live by.” If a particular belief is only a proposition that does not actually influence your behavior, such a belief is not a part of your personal religion.

What are the basic “beliefs” in Christian deism?

A “deist” is someone who recognizes that there is “design” in the natural world. Scientists have discovered “design” in the universe, such as the orbiting of the earth around the sun at a distance that enables life to exist on earth. The natural world appears to be designed to operate in accord with certain natural laws, such as the law of gravity in the orbiting of the planets. From the recognition of “design” in the natural world, deists infer the existence of an intelligent “designer” called “God.” In other words, a deist believes that the existence of the world is “intentional” rather than “accidental.”

The name “deist” comes from the Latin word “Deus” which means “God.” So a deist is someone who believes that God exists as the “designer” of the world. But to simply believe that God exists is not a personal religion. As a Jew, a man named Jesus certainly believed that the design of the universe reflects God’s creative power, as expressed in the Hebrew psalm, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament (sky) proclaims His handiwork” (Psalms 19:1) but Jesus also believed that God created human beings and provided certain laws (“commandments”) which are intended to govern our lives.

Christian deists believe that Jesus summarized these laws for humankind as “you shall love God” and “you shall love your neighbor.” Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-39).

Christian deists believe that love for God and love for neighbor are “natural laws” that are known to everyone because these laws are inherent in human nature. Jesus referred to God’s laws as God’s “commandments” or “word,” and Jesus said that this “word” is planted like a seed “in the heart” (Matthew 13:19). Since these natural laws are known by everyone, Christian deists find no need for any “supernatural” means of revelation of truth from God to humankind. Individuals can discover these laws for themselves and must choose whether to accept or reject God’s natural laws, as taught in Jesus’ parable of the “sower.” (See essay, “The Kingdom of God”)

In Christian deism, the two basic beliefs, or principles, which are intended to guide us in everyday living are “love for God” and “love for neighbor.” “Christians” (of all varieties) would agree with this. But the difference between a Christian deist and other kinds of Christians is that Christian deists believe that these two laws are known naturally by every human being and are the “sum and substance” of true religion. Christian deists find no need for doctrines held by trinitarian Christians such as the doctrines of original sin, divinity of Jesus, and substitutionary atonement (alleging that Jesus died in our place to save us from the “wrath of God”). From church history, we know that these doctrines were developed later and are not found in the teachings of Jesus.

As stated previously, love for God and love for neighbor are basic beliefs, or principles, in Christian deism. Jesus helps us to understand the meanings and implications of these beliefs through Jesus’ teachings which we call “parables.”

Our love (appreciation) for God is seen in how we use the life that God has given to us with the expectation that we will invest it to produce something good in the world, as taught in Jesus’ parable of the “talents.” (See essay, “How Can You Love God”) This means that we should use our time and abilities to help others and to make the earth a better place in which to live. This could be something as simple as a smile and kind word to others as we live each day. It could mean doing our jobs with a positive attitude that makes our workplace more pleasant for ourselves and others. It could mean using special abilities as a physician, teacher or research scientist to help others or find ways to improve living conditions on earth. Everyone has opportunities everyday to make the world a better place in which to live.

The parable of the “talents” also illustrates the truth that the life we receive from God must eventually be returned to God. When Jesus thought that death was near, Jesus prayed to God, “Into Thy hands, I commit my spirit (life)” (Luke 23:46).

Our love (appreciation) for “neighbor” (other human beings) is seen in how we relate to other persons. It is a failure to love our neighbor if we say or do anything that causes human suffering or if we do not try to relieve human suffering whenever we have the ability and opportunity to do so, as taught in Jesus’ parable of the “good Samaritan.” (See essay, “Love Your Neighbor”) This parable also teaches us to love (appreciate) anyone who acts compassionately to help others.

Although everyone knows that we should love God and “neighbor,” each person must choose whether or not to commit oneself to following these natural laws. If a person is truly committed to following these laws of love, such a person will feel remorse and regret over any failure to love God or neighbor, and will repent of such failure to love. Any failure to love God or neighbor is called “sin.”

The meaning of “repentance” from sin is found in Jesus’ parable of the “prodigal son.” (See essay, “Repentance and Forgiveness”) Since everyone fails to love sometimes, the ability and willingness to repent has an important place in the practice of Christian deism. A Christian deist should review his or her words and actions each day to identify any failure to love. A Christian deist should confess such sin, ask for forgiveness from God and any person offended, and seek to make amends, if possible. If a person experiences no remorse or regret over a failure to love or if a person is unwilling to repent of such sin, that person has not committed himself or herself to following God’s laws of love.

If we repent of our sins (our failures to love God or others) and we are willing to forgive others who repent of their sins against us, God forgives us. The importance of our forgiveness of those who sin against us is illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the “unmerciful servant” (Matthew 18:23-35). Our forgiveness of others is very important in the everyday practice of Christian deism.

Christian deists believe that the “gospel” or message of Jesus is “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14). To Jesus, the “kingdom of God” comes “on earth” as God’s “will” is done (Matthew 6:10). Since it is God’s will that we love God and love our neighbor, it is obedience to God’s will that brings the “kingdom of God” into reality on earth.

Christian deists believe that each of us can contribute in some way toward creating the “kingdom of God” on earth by living as God intends for us to live. As a Jew, Jesus originally believed that God intended for the Jewish people to establish an independent nation which would be obedient to God. The Jews called this the “kingdom of God.” But Jesus’ encounters with non-Jewish persons (a Caananite woman concerned about her daughter, a Roman army officer concerned about his paralyzed servant, and a Samaritan woman’s interest in how to worship God) gave Jesus a deeper understanding of humanity and led him to a broader view of the “kingdom of God” that includes persons of “all nations.”

As we encounter persons who are different from ourselves, we can recognize that we share in a common humanity with mutual interests, needs and hopes. We outgrow our narrow and provincial view of humanity and develop a broader and inclusive view, just as Jesus outgrew his nationalistic concept of the “kingdom of God.”

In summary, the central beliefs in Christian deism are:

1. God is our Creator.

2. God intends for us to love God and to love each other.

3. We should repent of “sin,” which is any failure to love.

4. God forgives us if we repent of our sins and we forgive others who repent of their sins against us.

5. The “gospel” (good news) is that the kingdom of God is a reality on earth now for those who are committed to following God’s laws of love.

6. The life we have received from God must be returned to God eventually. If we try to live now as God intends for us to live, we can trust God to take care of the future.

These are some of the basic beliefs in Christian deism, as I see them. Each Christian deist can apply these beliefs in the ways that seem reasonable to the individual. The practice of Christian deism is an individual matter and no one is limited to my understanding of what it means to be a Christian deist. Christian deists believe that God gave us the ability to reason (think logically), and no person is required to believe anything that seems unreasonable to that individual.

Practicing Christian Deism

Deism is based on the premise that life is a gift. A gift is something that we receive because someone intended for us to have it.

The fact that we have life through no decision or action of our own is evidence that life has been given to us. In using the word “life,” I am referring to the individual “self” or personal consciousness that you perceive within your physical body. This is sometimes called “soul” or “spirit” or “being.”

Jesus used the term “spirit.” He said, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail,” that is, the physical body is of no value without the spirit (John 6:63). This, of course, is stating the obvious because without “life” we cannot have consciousness, and our physical body is of no use without personal consciousness.

Deists believe that a Creator (usually called “God”) intentionally created the world and humankind. Deists infer this from the complex designs observed in nature–both in the world and in humankind. Based on this premise, deists believe that we should show our appreciation to God for the gift of human life and the natural world that sustains life.

We show appreciation to God in three ways: (1) by respecting the value of one’s own life, (2) by respecting the value of life in other persons, and (3) by respecting the value of the natural resources of the Earth on which human life depends.

Respect for the value of one’s own life is shown by:

1. Taking care of your health. We should not neglect or abuse our bodies by abusing alcohol and other drugs, eating unhealthy foods, eating too much or too little, failing to exercise and rest, or neglecting personal cleanliness.

2. Doing your share of work required to maintain human society. We should not neglect the care of our home or family. To the extent we are able, we should support ourselves and contribute to the economy of the community.

3. Enjoying your life. A person can find much joy in common things and everyday experiences. Enjoyment does not depend on having wealth or expensive pleasures.

Respect for the value of life in other persons is shown by:

1. Not doing anything that causes human suffering.

2. Trying to relieve human suffering whenever possible.

3. Taking care of other persons, or helping them to take care of themselves, as a situation requires.

Respect for the value of the natural resources of the Earth is shown by:

1. Using the natural resources wisely, renewing them, and by sharing them fairly with all other persons.

2. Not damaging the land, water, and air by neglect, exploitation, or pollution.

3. Avoiding overpopulation that depletes limited natural resources. The population of the Earth has increased from 2 billion to 6 billion persons in the last 50 years. This uncontrolled growth of population is depleting the natural resources of the Earth, and is the underlying cause of most wars. Population growth must be halted by means of education, contraceptives, and voluntary sterilizations. However, in my view, abortion should not be used for birth control, and rarely used for other purposes.

“Worship” means “to honor” or “to respect.” Deists believe that we worship God by showing respect for the value of human life and the world in which we live. Deism is called “natural” religion because its principles can be discovered through our observation, experience, and reasoning. The principles of deism have been recognized and taught by great teachers in many different cultures.

A man named Jesus expressed the essence of deism in terms that came from his Jewish culture. Jesus said, “The Lord our God is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). Christian Deists see the premise and principles of Deism in these statements but we must understand what Jesus meant by these words.

These statements begin with the premise of deism, an affirmation that God exists (“The Lord our God is one”).

Then the first principle of deism is stated as, “You shall love God with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This means loving God with your whole self–soul (conscious being), mind (intelligence), and strength (body). You should show respect to God by what you are, by what you think and say, and by what you do. In other words, you should live in a way that shows that you appreciate the gift of life that you have received. Above, I have suggested how this may be done in practical ways.

The second principle of deism is stated as, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Note that “love for neighbor” is related to “as yourself.” This is important. The requirement to “love your neighbor” is based on the assumption that you love yourself. In other words, you must first recognize the value of your own life, or love yourself (have self-respect) before you can fully appreciate the value of your “neighbor’s” life.

This leads me to believe that God wants us to love our own life–enjoying it as a gift. In my view, gifts are for the enjoyment of the receiver, and for the joy of the giver. I believe that God wants us to enjoy our lives and help others enjoy theirs. From experience, we know that much joy in life comes from giving love (care) to others, and receiving love (care) from others.

Now I would call your attention to something that is usually overlooked, or ignored, in the teachings of Jesus. When Jesus said, “You shall love . . . God,” he was essentially quoting from the Hebrew scriptures (Deuteronomy 6:4). And when Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he was quoting from the Hebrew scriptures (Leviticus 19:18). But in Jesus’ definition of “neighbor,” he went far beyond the definition in the Jewish religion of his day.

The Hebrew book of Leviticus (19:18) states, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Here, “neighbor” is defined as “sons of your own people” or, in other words, your Hebrew (Jewish) neighbor. Only one exception to this definition is made in Leviticus 19:33, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; . . .”

Leviticus is known as one of the “books of Moses.” Obviously, this book defines “neighbor” as “sons of your own people” (Leviticus 19:18) and “strangers who sojourn in your land” (Leviticus 19:33). In other words, “neighbor” only included Hebrews and other persons who lived in their country. There was no requirement to love anyone else, and this was clearly demonstrated when Moses ordered the Hebrew army to slaughter or enslave people of other countries as the Hebrews marched toward Canaan to invade it (Deuteronomy 20:10-17).

When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?,” he answered with the parable of the “good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30-37). In this parable, Jesus defined “neighbor” as EVERYONE, even those who are considered “enemies.” The Jews and the Samaritans viewed each other as “enemies” but, in his parable, Jesus used a Samaritan as an example of a “good neighbor” who came to the rescue of a suffering Jew who had been beaten and robbed. This story must have shocked the Jewish audience.

On another occasion, Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor but hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:43-45).

We may resist the idea of “love your enemy” because our “enemies” are persons who have offended us or have threatened us in some way. What did Jesus mean by “love your enemy?”

Jesus certainly did not mean that we should be passive toward someone who seriously threatens our lives. On the night that Jesus was arrested, he and his disciples obviously felt that they were in danger because Peter said, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison or death” (Luke 22:33). Then Jesus urged his disciples to arm themselves with swords (Luke 22:36). Jesus obviously believed in the right of self-defense. But later, when one of his disciples made a “first strike” with his sword, Jesus condemned the action, saying, “No more of this” (Luke 22:50-51).

So what did Jesus mean when he said, “love your enemy”?

Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). Love your enemies and do good . . . for He (God) is kind to the ungrateful and selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father (God) is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).

While retaining the right of self-defense, we should try to “do good” and “be merciful” to our “enemies.” This may turn an “enemy” into a “friend” or, at least, we can find out whether there is any chance to solve the conflict by peaceful means.

In teaching “love your enemy,” Jesus went far beyond the religion that he had been taught in his culture. Just as God provides the necessities of sunshine and rain to all persons, including the “good and evil” and the “just and unjust,” we must be ready to “do good” and “be merciful” to all persons, even those we consider our “enemies.”

Loving your enemies is a keystone in the religion taught by Jesus.

Today, in our world, we see how fear and hatred can lead people to see others as “enemies” who must be destroyed. The hatred expressed in the cycle of revenge–an eye for an eye– has blinded people from recognizing that their “enemies” are often persons who are suffering from poverty, disease, ignorance, exploitation, and hopelessness. They need help. What would happen if someone tried to “do good” and “be merciful” to them?

What would happen if we sat down with our “enemies” to find out what they need from us, and to tell them what we need from them? Maybe we could find some ways to help each other, and achieve a better world for all of us–a world that Jesus called “the kingdom of God” on earth.

Call this “unrealistic” if you wish, but you must admit that the leaders on all sides of every violent conflict in the world today are accomplishing nothing but death and destruction. No causative problems are being solved. It is time to try a different approach. Jesus has a radical idea and, as a Christian Deist, I am ready to be a radical. How about you?

Bible Study and Prayer

I have written other essays relating to the practice of Christian deism as a personal religion. In the essay, “Christian Deism as a Personal Religion,” I focused on what it means to “love God” and “love neighbor” as we live each day. I also focused on repentance by us, and our forgiveness of others. In the essay, “Christian Deists: Christians Without Churches,” I focused on the meaning of worship “in spirit and in truth.”

In this essay, I will try to address the subjects of Bible study and prayer in the practice of Christian deism.

In regard to “Bible study,” my focus as a Christian deist is on the teachings of Jesus found in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament. Preceding these books in the “Bible” is the Hebrew Bible, which Christians erroneously refer to as the “Old Testament.”

The Hebrew Bible presents the story of a primitive people (the Jews) struggling to survive in an environment of conflict with other nations. In that conflict, the Jewish leaders clearly believed that “might makes right” even if it meant the slaughter of innocent women and children of other nations in the Jews’ pursuit of a land of their own (Numbers 31:13-17). What makes this even worse is that this brutality was allegedly done in obedience to “God’s will.” Although there are some valuable passages in the “Old Testament,” these are too few to be of much value to a Christian deist.

Following the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the book called “The Acts of the Apostles” provides some history about the early years of the Christian movement, at least as it was viewed by the writer about fifty years (or more) later. The remainder of the “New Testament” includes letters that Paul (a Jew from Tarsus) wrote, expressing his interpretation of Christianity which varies significantly from the teachings of Jesus. Also included are some letters and books, by unknown writers, reflecting late first Christian century theology, much of which was influenced by Paul.

Finally, in the New Testament, there is a book called “Revelation” predicting an imminent end of the world to encourage persecuted Christians to hope for a “new heaven and a new earth” after the destruction of “evil doers.” This fantasy writing continues to inspire modern-day “end-of-the-world” fanatics to lead their followers to disappointment (at best) and destruction (at worst). Christian deists should view this book as useless.

In reading the books of the New Testament, a Christian deist must put each idea to the test of reason. The basic theology of Paul, with his idea of the crucifixion of Jesus being a sacrifice to pay for the sins of humankind, should be summarily dismissed. However, a Christian deist can identify with Paul’s statements about faith, hope, and love in the letter called First Corinthians, chapter 13. Unfortunately, the scope of Paul’s love did not include persons of a different sexual orientation.

In studying the life and teachings of Jesus, a Christian deist should keep in mind that Jesus was a human being like ourselves. Some of his ideas simply express the cultural views common among Jews two thousand years ago in a pre-scientific age. Some ideas, such as “demons” causing epilepsy, have no validity. The idea of a “devil” tempting and misleading people is also a sign of that time, and has no place in a religion based on reason.

Let me say this clearly: If you find an idea in the Bible that does not seem reasonable to you, you do not have to believe it. God gave you a mind to use, so use it.

In the New Testament, it is clear that Jesus began his career as a Jewish revolutionary who was seeking liberation of the Jews from the Romans, but Jesus gradually came to recognize that the rulership of God (the “kingdom of God”) on earth would not become a reality by military force but by the gradual recognition of God’s laws “in the heart” of individuals. This concept was too “unorthodox” for his compatriots to accept at the time, but Jesus’ view of the “kingdom of God” came to be understood later when Jesus’ teachings, especially his parables, were collected.

Now, let us think about prayer. What is the meaning of prayer to me as a Christian deist? Put quite simply, prayer is communion with God. Jesus taught that “God is spirit” and it is the “spirit that gives life” to us as individuals (John 4:24 and 6:63). In other words, the essence of God and our own being is spirit. This is not an idea that originated with Jesus. Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Heraclitus over 500 years before Jesus, recognized that a “creative intelligence” (they called “logos”) was responsible for the creation of order in the world, and for the creation of “intelligence” in individual human beings. In other words, there is a “Mind” which we call “God” and we each have a “mind” through which we can communicate “mind-to-Mind.”

Prayer was important to Jesus, and we can learn much from how Jesus prayed. Usually, Jesus prayed by himself, away from the company of others (Matthew 14:23; Matthew 26:36; Luke 6:12). Sometimes Jesus prayed in the presence of a few close friends (Luke 9:28; John 17:1). Jesus cautioned against making a public display of prayer (Matthew 6:5) and he urged his disciples to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6).

Jesus urged his disciples to pray simply. He said, “And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases …. for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8).

Some Christians have a misconception about prayer based on their reading of Jesus’ statement (Mark 11:24), “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you will receive it, and you will.” Many Christians are disappointed when they fail to receive what they pray for. Some blame themselves for not having a strong enough “faith,” or belief that they will receive what they have prayed for. Others blame God for failing to keep Jesus’ promise.

The truth is that Jesus often taught by hyperbole (exaggeration). In the verses preceding Mark 11:24, Jesus told his disciples, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him” (Mark 11:22-23). This is an example of a hyperbole to express the importance of faith in God when we pray. But even Jesus did not believe that whatever he prayed for would come to pass.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed that he would not die (“let this cup pass from me”), but he prefaced his prayer request with the words, “If it be possible” (Matthew 26:39). Here, Jesus recognized that sometimes what he asked for in prayer was not possible. We, too, must accept the fact that sometimes what we seek is not possible. Nevertheless, we may not know what is possible or not possible, so we should express our hopes in prayer. Believing that something is possible may be a deciding factor in something becoming a reality. Personal faith has been proven to be a factor in healing some illnesses, but not all illnesses can be healed by faith. And faith healing is not a substitute for medical treatment.

To me, prayer is more than just “talking” to God. It is also “listening” to God. I do not mean that God’s voice will come “out of the clouds,” but I am convinced that God can help us think of some solutions to our problems. Prayer provides a means of focusing our attention on problems in a way that may open our minds to possible solutions. I have prayed about a problem at bedtime and have awakened to find a possible solution in my mind the next morning. Perhaps this is the way God communicates with us.

I also believe that prayer is a channel through which we can receive strength to cope with our problems. Jesus told his disciples to “pray that you may have strength” so they would not be “weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life” (Luke 21:34-36). The Hebrew psalmist wrote, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

I believe that prayer is not just “communication” with God. Prayer is COMMUNION with God. In some way when we direct our thoughts to God in prayer, we join our individual spirit with the Spirit that gives us life. The Hebrew psalmist claimed that God spoke these words, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Without saying a word, we can pray by just being still and knowing that God is with us.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray by giving them an example which we call the “Lord’s Prayer.”

“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven; Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us; And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:9-13).

As we know, Jesus viewed God as being like a loving father. In this prayer, Jesus distinguishes God from a human father by referring to God as a heavenly Father. Then Jesus expresses respect for the sacred authority of God by using the words “hallowed” (sacred) and “name” (authority).

Then Jesus gets to the heart of the prayer by seeking the coming of God’s kingdom (rule) on earth, which Jesus equates with “God’s will.”

The request for “daily bread” is a recognition of the fact that we are dependent on God for the very basics for life (such as bread) that come from what God provides (such as seed, earth, rain). This recognition of God’s gifts is also an implied expression of thanksgiving to God for these provisions. Thanksgiving should always be a part of our prayers.

The request for God’s forgiveness of our sins (our failures to love others) is directly tied to our obligation to forgive those who repent of their sins against us.

Finally, the prayer concludes with a request for strength to resist temptation to do evil, and a request for help in protecting ourselves against those who would do evil against us.

This prayer is a good model to guide us in our own praying.

This short essay certainly does not cover all that should be said about Bible study and prayer, but I hope that it is enough to suggest an approach consistent with our beliefs as Christian deists.

Christmas and Easter

This essay is written in response to email from readers who asked, “Do Christian deists celebrate Christmas and Easter?” This question has arisen because some readers, who have recently discovered that they are Christian deists, feel uncomfortable with the trinitarian interpretation of Christmas and Easter.

My answer to the question, “Do Christian deists celebrate Christmas and Easter?” is “yes.” But to explain this answer, I would like to provide some information about the meaning of these two holidays.

Many people do not know that the “Christmas” and “Easter” holidays are based on religious traditions that are centuries older than Christianity. As the Christian movement ventured beyond Judea and into the Gentile world, the movement encountered other religious traditions which were assimilated by Christians and redefined in Christian terminology.

From human history, we know that there are two particular times of the year celebrated by human beings in countries north of the equator. One is in the Winter, in December, and the other is in the Spring, around March or April.

From their observation of nature in the Northern Hemisphere, human beings have recognized that the longest night of the year occurs in December. After that night, the daylight increases and time of darkness decreases. This natural phenomenon has come to symbolize the “coming of light” in various religious traditions.

Some celebrate this change from darkness to light as the Winter solstice (on December 21 or 22). In Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, the mythological god called “Mithra” was the “god of light” whose “birthday” was celebrated on December 25.

In Judaism, the holiday called “Hanukkah,” or the “Feast of Lights,” is observed in December for eight days. Hanukkah commemorates the Jews’ victory in gaining freedom from Syria in 168 BCE and the rededicating of their temple. It is celebrated by lighting candles in the Hanukkah menorah.

In Christianity, the holiday is called “Christmas” and celebrates the “birthday” of Jesus who is called the “light of the world.” The December 25th date for the “birthday” of Jesus was apparently borrowed from the “birthday” of Mithra, the “god of light” in Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.

From all of the above, it is apparent that the “coming of light” has made December a special time for celebration. The increasing “light” of day that overcomes the “dark” of night is seen as a time for rejoicing and hope.

In trinitarian theology, Christmas is seen as the event in which God became “incarnated” as a human being, named Jesus, through a miraculous birth to a virgin mother. In trinitarian theology, this “virgin birth” is considered necessary so that Jesus could be born “without sin” (unlike other human beings who inherit “original sin” from “Adam”) and therefore able to be an unblemished “sacrifice” to atone for the sins of humankind.

Many of the Christmas hymns reflect this trinitarian theology which Christian deists do not accept. In the hymn “Silent Night,” the trinitarian theology is seen in the wording “all is calm, all is bright ’round yon virgin mother and child.” In “The First Noel the Angel Did Say” the fourth verse states, “Then let us all with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord who made heaven and earth of naught and with His Blood mankind has bought.” This wording claims that Jesus is God who created the world and who died as a blood sacrifice to pay for the sins of humankind.

Since Christian deists do not accept this trinitarian theology found in many Christmas hymns, the questions arise, “Can Christian deists celebrate Christmas?” and “What does Christmas mean to Christian deists?”

Let me approach these questions in this way. Christian deists see Jesus as a human being who discovered within himself the truth that God intends for human beings to live by love for God and love for each other. Jesus taught that this truth is known by all persons because God’s “word” is sown in every human heart. The “good news” or gospel, according to Jesus, is that the “kingdom of God” becomes a reality on earth as we choose to live by love. As deists, we know this from our own experience and observation. To Christian deists, Jesus was a man who taught this truth so we honor Jesus as a teacher of the truth.

Jesus referred to himself as the “light of the world” and he said, “he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). But Jesus also told his disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and its gives its light to all the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Christian deists believe that Jesus taught the truth because it is confirmed by our own experience. This truth provides a light to guide us in living every day. As we live by this truth, we are a “light of the world,” as Jesus was. Christian deists honor Jesus by celebrating his birthday because he was a man whose life exemplified the “light” that comes from God.

Christian deists should celebrate Christmas as human beings have long celebrated this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere of the earth–as a time of human joy and hope symbolized by the “coming of the light.”

The many ways that Christians celebrate Christmas, with Christmas trees, Yule logs, candles, lights, and giving of gifts, come from many different traditions. And the story of the birth of Jesus adds a tradition of love and care in the midst of human struggle, as Mary and Joseph overcame obstacles to provide for the baby Jesus. All of these beautiful symbols help us to express joy at Christmas time.

Now, let us think about Easter. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 20, the nominal date of the Spring Equinox. Easter Sunday comes in March or April. The name of the holiday, “Easter,” apparently comes from “Eostre” which was the name of the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Eostre was a Goddess of fertility. The name of the Goddess, Eostre, comes from an ancient word “eastre” for “Spring.”

Spring, of course, is a time of new life. It is a time when new plants begin to grow and new leaves appear on trees. The “dead of Winter” ends with the rebirth of vegetation in the cycle of life. Also, it is a time when many animals give birth to their young.

In human history, the celebration of “new life” in the Spring appeared many centuries before Christianity. The cycle of life that is so evident in the Spring has inspired human beings to have hope for life beyond death.

In trinitarian Christianity, the Easter holiday was adopted as the day to commemorate the “resurrection” of Jesus. Jesus was crucified by the Romans on Friday of Passover week in the Jewish tradition. He was laid in a rock tomb on Friday before sundown and the tomb was found to be empty on the following Sunday morning. Then Jesus, who was physically wounded but alive, met secretly with his disciples for some days before Jesus disappeared.

Jesus’ disciples believed that Jesus had died and was brought back to life by God. The apostle Paul claimed that belief in Jesus’ “resurrection” was one of the two requirements for obtaining salvation from sin and death. Paul wrote, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

Trinitarian Christians believe that the “resurrection” of Jesus is evidence of life after death, and Easter Sunday is used to celebrate this hope. Christian Deists believe that God’s power to give life is demonstrated in the fact that we have life now. Obviously, what God has already done, God can do again. As human beings have recognized for centuries before the time of Jesus, there is a cycle of life of which we are a part. Each Spring, Christian deists celebrate “new life” and the hope it brings for the future. Christians have borrowed the name “Easter” from a tradition older than Christianity but the basic meaning of the celebration is known naturally: God has the power to give life.

One Easter weekend, my wife and I decided to celebrate Easter Sunday at a beautiful State park that is known for its waterfalls and wild flowers. We took our little camper to the park and set our alarm clock for before dawn on Easter Sunday. That morning, in the darkness, we hiked to one of the waterfalls and waited for the sun to rise. On that fresh Sunday morning, as the dawn came, we could understand how human beings have always experienced reverence and awe in observing a beautiful sunrise and the majesty of new life in the flowers and trees. The experience of “Easter” that morning transcended any one religious tradition. “Easter” is a universal experience available to anyone who chooses to observe it.

The two “holy seasons” of the year belong to everyone. Celebrate the joy that comes from the “coming of the light” at Christmas, and celebrate the hope that comes from the “new life” we see evidenced at Easter. Different religious traditions may describe these holy days in different terms but the basic meanings are shared by all who choose to celebrate.

May you find joy and hope in the celebration of these universal holy days which we as Christians call “Christmas” and “Easter.”

What About Hell?

This essay is written in response to email asking “What do Christian Deists believe about hell?” “Hell” is often defined as a place where human souls are tortured forever by fire because these persons failed to accept some particular religion during their time on earth.

The idea of “everlasting torment in hell” was well known in Zoroastrianism many centuries before the “Christian Era” and eventually spread to other religions including Christianity, Islam, and some parts of Judaism.

Deists believe that every idea must be tested by human reasoning. No idea can be accepted just because someone said it or wrote it in a book. The idea that God would torture anyone forever in “hell” fails the test of reason. If this idea were true, it would mean that God is so cruel and sadistic that no one could love or respect a God like that. The idea of everlasting torment in “hell” is truly an insult to the goodness of God.

Some claim that the idea of hell as a place of everlasting torment comes from “the Bible.” The “Bible” refers to the Hebrew Bible (erroneously called the “Old Testament” by Christians) and the New Testament. Since this claim is frequently made by trinitarian Christian preachers, let us examine this claim.

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) makes no reference to “eternal torment” in “hell.” In the Hebrew Bible, the words “sheol” and “hades” simply refer to “the grave” or “death.” In fact, no theory of “life after death” is found in the Hebrew Bible. The psalmist prayed, “For I am thy passing guest, a sojourner, like all my fathers. Look away from me, that I may know gladness before I depart and be no more (Psalms 39:12-13).

During the two centuries before the Christian Era, some Jews began to accept the belief of life after death but others did not. The debate between the Pharisees (who believed in life after death) and the Sadducees (who did not believe in life after death) is seen during the time of Jesus, as reflected in the New Testament. Those Jews who believed in life after death saw this as a time when righteous Jews would be rewarded in “heaven” and wicked persons (especially foreign oppressors) would be destroyed in hell.

In the New Testament, the Greek word “gehenna” is always translated “hell.” I will explain the meaning of “gehenna” later in this essay. The Greek word “tartarus” is used only once in the New Testament and is translated as “hell.” The Greek word “hades” usually refers to “the grave” or “death,” and is often left untranslated as “hades,” but it is sometimes translated as “hell.” The writer of the New Testament book of “Acts” uses the word “hades” to mean “the grave” in referring to “the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption (decomposition)” (Acts 2:31). This statement is attributed to Peter, so this apostle did not view “hades” as a place of punishment.

In the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the word “hades” (translated “hell”) is described only one time as a place of everlasting torture (Luke 16:19-31). In this instance, the writer of Luke tells a story about a “rich man” suffering eternal torment in “hell” because he neglected the needs of a poor man named “Lazareth.” However, the purpose of the story was not to describe “hell” but to express the writer’s anger at Jews for refusing to accept the Christian claim that Jesus had risen from the dead (verse 31). This story of the “rich man and Lazareth” obviously did not come from Jesus whose alleged “resurrection” had not yet occurred in the story of Jesus’ life. Of course, when “Luke” wrote his gospel, he knew of the “resurrection” and used it to condemn the Jews for their unbelief.

The idea of hell being a place of everlasting torment comes primarily from the book of Revelation in the New Testament. This book was written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian (81 AD – 96 AD) who claimed to be divine and insisted on being worshipped. The Christians who refused emperor worship were subject to persecution and execution. The writer of the book of Revelation wrote his book to encourage Christians to remain firm in the face of persecution, and the writer envisioned a time when God would punish the Roman emperor (called the “beast”) and the “false prophet” (who promoted emperor worship), along with the “devil” or “Satan.”

The writer of Revelation envisioned a time when “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). Then the writer envisioned a judgment day, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and the books were open. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if anyone’s name was not found in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:12-15).

The writer of Revelation uses the Greek word “hades” (the grave) to describe where the dead must await a judgment day on which “the Lord” decides whether a person receives eternal life or is “thrown into the lake of fire” (called the “second death”) to be “tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

The New Testament book called “Second Peter,” written by an unknown writer in the second Christian century, uses the Greek word “tartarus” (which is translated “hell”) to refer to “pits of nether gloom” where the God would “keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (Second Peter 2:4-10). The New Testament book called “Jude,” also written by an unknown writer, claims that persons who “acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust” would be kept in “eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgment of the great day” (Jude 1:6-7). Both “Second Peter” and “Jude” refer to the story of the angels (Genesis 6) whose lust for human females led to the angels being cast into “nether gloom” to await judgment.

The writer of Revelation envisioned the coming of a “new heaven and a new earth” and he heard a voice saying, “Behold the dwelling of God with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

No doubt, the writer’s vision was an encouragement to those Christians who had seen their friends and relatives “beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast (emperor) or its image” (Revelation 20:4). But it must be recognized that the writer’s view of “hell” comes from an alleged personal mystical “vision” that has no verification. The vision tells us more about the anger of the writer toward the Roman persecutors than it tells us about “hell.”

The idea of “hell” as a place of unending punishment and torment has been expressed by others whose anger reflects a sadistic tendency by envisioning a time when Christians would enjoy seeing “unbelievers” suffer. The prominent Catholic Thomas Aquinas declared, “In order that nothing be wanting to the happiness of the blessed in heaven, a perfect view is granted to them of the tortures of the damned.” The famous Protestant preacher Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The sight of hell’s torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever, it will give them a more lively relish.” No rational or compassionate person would share Thomas Aquinas’ or Jonathan Edward’s beliefs about “hell.”

Preachers of trinitarian Christianity have used the threat of “hell” to coerce persons into thinking that God is going to send their souls to this “eternal torment” if they do not believe that Jesus died on a cross as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. This idea that Jesus died as a sacrificial offering to God came from Paul of Tarsus. Jesus said that God desires no sacrificial offerings (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; Mark 12:32-33) but desires that we have “mercy” (kindness) and love toward each other.

In the religion of Islam, the book called “The Qur’an” (or Koran) is filled with repetitive threats of eternal punishment in “the Fire” (hell) for “infidels” (unbelievers).

Considering the great emphasis that trinitarian Christian preachers put on “hell” in their sermons, most persons are surprised to find that the word “hell” seldom appears in the New Testament. In fact, the word “hell” never appears in the gospel of John, nor does it ever appear in any of the letters of Paul.

In the New Testament, the Greek word “gehenna” is translated as “hell.” In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the word “hell” (gehenna) appears only twelve times.

The word “gehenna” refers to the “Valley of Hinnom” near Jerusalem where once child-sacrifice had been offered to the god “Moloch” by the Hebrew king Ahaz (II Chronicles 28:3) and by the Hebrew king Manasseh (II Chronicles 33:6) who burned their sons as sacrificial offerings. At a later date, the Valley of Hinnom (gehenna) was the city’s refuse dump where rubbish was burnt. It is easy to see how “hell” (gehenna) came to be described as a place where the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48) but a refuse dump is a symbol of “destruction,” not a symbol of unending torment.

What did Jesus believe about “hell?” What did he envision “hell” to be? Most persons are surprised to find that Jesus referred to “hell” (gehenna) on only four occasions. Let us examine those references.

Occasion #1

In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults (says ‘raca’ to) his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool (moros)’ shall be liable to the hell (gehenna) of fire.”

In the statement above, Jesus appears to be teaching that an action, such as killing a person, originates from negative feelings, such as anger, toward others. Such feelings are ultimately destructive to the person who holds these feelings. Jesus advises that a person get rid of these negative feelings by becoming reconciled with the other person (verses 23-24).

It is interesting to note that while Jesus said that using the abusive language “You fool” (moros) makes a person “liable to the hell of fire,” this is the very word (moros) that Jesus, himself, used when he was angry at the scribes and Pharisees, and called them “You blind fools (moros)” (Matthew 23:17). I guess this supports Jesus’ view that he was not perfect (Mark 10:18). But I do not think that Jesus went to “hell” for his offense.

Jesus’ next reference to “hell” (gehenna) comes in Matthew 5:27-30 in reference to adultery. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell (gehenna). And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (gehenna).”

The above statement seems to be based on the same theory that a person’s action (in this case, adultery) begins in a person’s thoughts. Then Jesus seems to suggest that a person should do whatever is necessary to prevent one’s thoughts from leading to an act of adultery. Jesus was well-known for using hyperbole (exaggeration) to make his points in his teachings. The idea of plucking out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand to prevent an action is clearly a hyperbole.

It is interesting that Jesus refers to the “whole body” going into “hell.” If we remember that under the Mosaic law, adultery was a capital offense (Leviticus 20:10), perhaps Jesus’ statement was a warning that the “whole body” may be executed if one’s thoughts led to an act of adultery.

Occasion #2

Jesus’ next reference to “hell” (gehenna) is found in Matthew 10:28-31:

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (gehenna). Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs on your head are numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

This same teaching is recorded in Luke 12:4-7:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell (gehenna); yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten by God. Why even the hairs on your head are numbered. Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.”

The two references above were apparently intended to encourage Jesus’ followers to stand firm in the face of persecution and physical death at the hands of human persecutors. The view expressed in these verses is that the threat of physical death may cause fear, but it is far worse to be disloyal to God who can “destroy both soul and body in hell (gehenna).” Apparently, Jesus viewed “hell” (gehenna) as meaning the total loss of life.

Occasion #3

Jesus’ next references to “hell” (gehenna) are recorded in both Mark and Matthew.

Mark 9:33-37; 42-48 is as follows:

“And they came to Capernaum; and when he (Jesus) was in the house he asked them (the disciples), ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, ‘If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

“And he (Jesus) took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’. . . . Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; if is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell (gehenna) to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell (gehenna). And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell (gehenna), where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. ”

Matthew 18:1-9 is as follows:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’

‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary for temptations to come, but woe to the man by whom temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell (gehenna) of fire.'”

As you can see, the verses quoted above, warning against causing others to sin, are similar to the verses warning against thoughts that lead to murder and adultery. No one can take seriously the idea that a person’s eyes, hands, and feet cause a person to sin. Jesus is using hyperbole to press his point that a person should do whatever is necessary to avoid sinning or causing others to sin. Again, Jesus uses “hell” as a symbol of total destruction of life.

Occasion #4

Next, Jesus uses the word “hell” (gehenna) in lashing out with fury against the “scribes and Pharisees” in the 23rd chapter of Matthew:

Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell (gehenna) as yourselves (Matthew 23:15).” And two verses later, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees “blind fools” (moros) which, according to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:22, makes Jesus “liable to the hell of fire” for such an offense.

In Matthew 23:29-34, Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Fill up, then the measure of your fathers, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell (gehenna). Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town . . .”

In the above verses, Jesus is condemning the Jewish scribes and Pharisees for what Jesus predicts will be persecution of Christian missionaries in the future. Of course, the writer of Matthew was already witnessing such persecution by the time these verses were written. So this prediction comes with the 20/20 hindsight of the writer.

In summary, the New Testament describes only four occasions on which Jesus referred to “hell” (gehenna), as quoted above. These references indicate that Jesus viewed “hell” as being a permanent and total loss of life as most clearly stated in the phrase, “destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Other statements attributed to Jesus in the New Testament appear to confirm this. “Enter the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

In Jesus’ day, it was commonly believed that each person would be finally judged by his or her deeds. Those who were compassionate and helpful toward others would obtain eternal life, but those who were indifferent to the needs of others could be sent “to the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus, who was a man of his times, apparently shared this view but Jesus rejected the idea that “hell” would be a place where persons would be “tormented day and night for ever and ever” as described by the writer of the book of Revelation (Revelation 20:10). Jesus viewed “hell” as meaning the total destruction of both “body and soul” (Matthew 10:28).

Although Jesus made a few references to “hell,” he did not answer the question, “How bad would a person have to be in order to totally “lose his soul?” I doubt that anyone would agree that calling someone a “fool,” or looking lustfully at a woman would deserve such a penalty.

Now, back to the question: “What do Christian Deists believe about hell? Certainly, Christian Deists do not believe that God tortures people in “hell.” If God did that, no one would have any respect for God. It is ridiculous to think that a loving God would torture people.

In this essay, I have quoted the teachings attributed to Jesus in regard to “hell” but a Christian deist is not required to believe what Jesus believed. We can certainly agree with Jesus that God does not torture people in “hell.” But some Christian Deists would not agree that anyone’s life ends in “total destruction” or “annihilation.”

Matthew Tindal, the Christian Deist who wrote, Christianity As Old as Creation, in 1730, would be considered a “universalist” because he believed that God would not punish a person except to reform him/her. Tindal wrote, “It was for the sake of Man that He (God) gave him Laws, so He (God) executes them purely for the same reason, since upon His (God’s) account, He can’t be the least bit affected, whether His Laws be, or be not observed; and consequently in punishing, no more than rewarding, does He act as a Party, much less an injured Party, who wants Satisfaction, or Reparation of Honour. And indeed, to suppose it, is highly to dishonor Him, since God, as He can never be injured, so He can never want Reparation.”

Tindal continues, “Do we not bring God down to ourselves, when we suppose He acts like us poor indigent Creatures, in seeking Worship and Honour for His own sake; nay, do we not cloath Him, who hath neither parts nor passions, with the worst of our Infirmities, if we represent Him as an ambitious, suspicious, wrathful, and revengeful Being?”

Tindal adds, “If we dare consult our Reason, it will tell us that Jealousy in point of Honour and Power, Love of Fame and Glory can only belong to limited Creatures; but are as necessarily excluded from an unlimited, absolutely perfect Being, as Anger, Revenge, and such like Passions; which would make the Deity resemble the weak and impotent part of our Nature, rather than the noble and generous.”

Tindal states that God “acts purely for the Good of His Creatures; and the effects of his Justice, they never extending to Annihilation, must not only be for the Good of others, but even of the Persons punished; because God, whose Love infinitely exceeds that of mortal parents, chastises his Children (and all mankind are alike his Offspring) because He loves them, and designs their Amendment: and the Reason why God in Scripture is said to be Love, must be because all his Acts, by what Name soever you call them, are Acts of pure, impartial, and disinterested Love.”

Tindal writes, “All Punishment for Punishment’s sake is meer Cruelty and Malice, which can never be in God; nor can He hate any thing He has made, or be subject to such Weakness or Impotence as to act arbitrarily, or out of Spite, Wrath, Revenge, or any Self-Interest; and consequently, whatever Punishment He inflicts, must be a Mark of His Love, in not suffering (allowing) his Creatures to remain in that miserable State, which is inseparable from Sin and Wickedness.”

Finally, Tindal adds, “As God’s infinite Goodness appears in the Sanctions as well as the Matter of His Laws, so His infinite Wisdom knows how to adjust the Punishment to the Offense; that it may be exactly fitted to produce the desired Amendment.”

Some may view Matthew Tindal as overly optimistic regarding the reforming affect that punishment may have on human beings, but his view challenges us to recognize that the power of God is far greater than we can imagine, so Tindal’s view remains a possibility.

Another view of what happens to a person who fails to live as God intends for us to live comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher, writer, and former Unitarian minister. Emerson believed that God does not punish anyone but we, in effect, punish ourselves to the extent that we violate God’s natural laws.

Emerson expresses his views in his “Divinity School Address” which he delivered to the Senior Class at Harvard Divinity School on July, 15, 1838.

Emerson spoke on the subject of “virtue.” Emerson said that a person’s heart and mind should be open to the sentiment of virtue. According to Emerson, “The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws” that enable a person to know the good that “he ought” to do.

Emerson said, “The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus, in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. . . . Its operation in life, though slow to the senses, is, at last, sure in the soul. By it, a man is made the Providence (action of God) to himself, dispensing good to his goodness, and evil to his sin. . . . Benevolence is absolute and real. So much benevolence as a man hath, so much life hath he. . . . . While a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so far as he roves from these ends, he bereaves himself of power, of auxiliaries; his being shrinks out of all remote channels, he becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute death.”

Emerson continues, “This sentiment (virtue, or goodness) is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself. It (shows) the fountain of all good to be in himself, and that he, equally with every man, is an inlet into the deeps of Reason. When he says, ‘I ought;’ when love warms him; when he chooses, warned from on high, the good and great deed; then, deep melodies wander through his soul from Supreme Wisdom. Then he can worship, and be enlarged by his worship.”

In Emerson’s view, the affects of “good deeds” and “mean deeds” on a person’s soul or personal existence are immediate. It is not a matter of being judged in the future. Justice comes instantly as life in the soul increases or decreases, depending on how we choose to live each day.

Perhaps Emerson answers the question that Jesus failed to answer. Bad deeds diminish life in the soul by degrees, until “absolute badness is absolute death.”

A Christian Deist must use his or her own observations, experiences, and reasoning in determining one’s own beliefs, but we can discard the theory that God tortures human beings endlessly in a place called “hell.” A person can believe in “everlasting torment in hell” or a person can believe in a good God, but a person cannot believe in both. I believe that God is good.

The Christian Deists: Christians Without Churches

People often ask, “Why don’t Christian deists have churches?”

The word “church” usually refers to religious organizations that have professional ministers, and buildings for public worship. Christian deists do not have these.

Why don’t Christian deists have churches?

Primarily, the answer is, “Christian deism is a personal religion. Churches are not necessary in the practice of Christian deism.” But there are other reasons why Christian deists do not have “churches,” in the usual sense of this word.

As a Jew, Jesus attended the synagogue in Nazareth and, on special holy days, he went to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus was well aware of the problems that can accompany religious organizations.

In Jesus’ day, the Jerusalem temple had become a place of business where animals were sold for sacrifices and money-changers made profits from Jewish pilgrims exchanging their foreign currency (Mark 11:15). Jesus tried to remedy the commercializing of religion by driving the merchants and money-changers from the temple. The commercializing of Christianity is an enormous problem today, as blatantly evidenced by the numerous TV and radio “evangelists” seeking money donations in exchange for audio tapes, books, and other “gifts.”

Even in local churches, where many sincere ministers earn their livings, money often becomes a divisive issue among church members as they debate how much to pay the minister, how much to spend on new buildings, and other money-related matters. Often the amount of money spent on their churches far exceeds the amount spent on relieving human suffering.

Jesus’ view about places of worship is seen in his conversation with a Samaritan woman (John 4:20-24). The woman said, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain (a temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria); and you (Jews) say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father . . . . the hour is coming, and now is, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.”

According to Jesus, true worship takes place only in “spirit and truth.” The word “spirit” refers to the inner self of a person. It refers to a person’s attitude and thoughts.

The meaning of the word “truth” can be found in Jesus’ statement in John 3:20-21, where the New Testament Greek word for “truth” is translated “true.” Jesus said, “for every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” According to Jesus, “truth” means doing “what is true,” or good deeds.

Christian deists agree with Jesus that buildings for worship are not necessary. As Jesus said, “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” We worship (honor) God through our good atttitude and thoughts, and by our good deeds.

Christian deists do not believe that Jesus intended to organize an institutional church. Those who claim that Jesus founded the “Christian church” point to Matthew 16:16-19. Here, the disciple Peter proclaimed his belief that Jesus was the Jewish messiah, and Jesus responded by saying to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This, of course, is the scripture that the Roman Catholic Church uses to claim that the church holds the keys to heaven. It is alleged that Peter became the first “bishop” in the City of Rome, and Peter passed on the “keys” to the bishops (popes) who succeeded Peter.

The Roman Catholic Church has misinterpreted Jesus’ statement, “I will build my church.” At the time of Jesus’ and Peter’s conversation, Jesus and his followers believed that they were participating in a revolutionary movement to reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, which the Jews called the “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God.” When Peter proclaimed his belief that Jesus was the Jewish messiah who would reestablish the “kingdom,” Jesus said that Peter would have a place of leadership in the movement, as indicated in the statement that Peter would be given the “keys” to the “kingdom of heaven.”

As a leader in the movement, Peter would have authority, as indicated in the statement that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is a phrase that Jesus uses elsewhere (Matthew 18:15-18) to say that someone has authority to make decisions.

In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus told his disciples how to resolve any conflicts between themselves, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained a brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.* Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

(*Note: “Gentiles” and “tax collectors” for the Romans are examples of persons who were usually excluded from Jewish groups.)

Note that in Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus said to all of his disciples the same thing that Jesus said to Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In this instance, the phrase refers to decisions made by the “church” when settling disputes among the disciples of Jesus. The “church” would have final authority to make a decision in the dispute. What did Jesus mean by the word “church?” He certainly was not referring to the Roman Catholic Church, or any other Christian church, since no Christian church existed during Jesus’ lifetime.

The New Testament Greek word which is translated “church” is “ekklesia” which means an “assembly” or group of people. In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus was referring to his group of followers, then and there. Jesus was simply saying that his group of followers had authority to make decisions to settle disputes among themselves. It was the practice among some Jewish sects to discipline their members for offenses, and even exclude offenders from the group (as seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls sect of Jews).

It is clear from Matthew 16:16-19 and Matthew 18:15-18, that the phrase about “binding and loosing” simply meant “having authority to make decisions.” It is also clear that the word “church” simply referred to Jesus’ “group” of followers. When Jesus said that he would “build my church” in Matthew 16:16-19, Jesus was saying that personal commitment to the “kingdom of heaven,” as expressed by Peter, would be the foundation (“rock”) on which Jesus would “build” his group or assembly (ekklesia) of followers.

It should be noted that Jesus used a word which is translated as “church” in only two verses in the New Testament (Matthew 16:18 and 18:17). The word used in New Testament Greek manuscripts is “ekklesia” which actually means an assembly, or group, of people, not an organization of any kind. If Jesus had intended to “build” an institutional “church,” like the Roman Catholic Church, certainly Jesus would have said more about it.

Why don’t Christian deists have professional ministers?

Christian deists believe that everyone is responsible for “ministering” to, or serving, others. But Christian deists do not believe that a person should be paid for doing this. When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the coming of the “kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “You have received without pay, give without pay” (Matthew 10:8). On their missionary journeys, the disciples were allowed to accept only room and board from their hosts, and the disciples were prohibited from accepting money payments. This sounds like good advice.

How do Christian deists worship God?

As explained previously, Christian deists believe that we should worship “in spirit and in truth.”

For Christian deists, worship is a personal matter. This follows the example of Jesus. Jesus prayed by himself and with close friends in private homes. He opposed the public display of religious practices.

Jesus said, ” Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:1-8)

In summary, Christian deists believe that religion is a personal and private matter. Christian deists are not opposed to “getting together” for fellowship and religious education, but Christian deists do not believe in public worship “services” because such activity can easily become a hypocritical display of pretended religion.

Getting Together as Christian Deists

Christian Deism is basically a personal religion that is practiced by individuals. It does not require Christian deists to be members of any religious organization. The worship of God is essentially a private matter.

However, this essay is written in response to e-mail which I have received from readers who asked how they can meet other Christian deists in their communities. These readers suggest that it would be helpful to establish local groups to provide a visible presence for Christian deism in the community to:

1. Offer individuals a place where they can inquire about Christian deism as a personal religion;

2. Provide a religious education program for adults and children; and

3. Provide mutual support and social fellowship for Christian deists.

In response to the requests that I have received, I have promised to make some suggestions for those who choose to establish some kind of Christian Deist group in a local community. I agree that some kind of local Christian Deist group could be helpful to many Christian deists, and could offer the general public an opportunity to be aware that there is a Christian Deist alternative to trinitarian churches.

For persons interested in organizing a local Christian Deist group, I would like to suggest several matters to be considered.

SUGGESTION ONE: NAME OF THE GROUP

Should a Christian Deist group call itself a “church”? The New Testament Greek word “ekklesia,” which is translated by the English word “church,” simply means an “assembly of persons.” Unfortunately, the word “church” has acquired a connotative meaning as a special place for public worship. Christian deists believe that worship of God is a personal and private matter. Christian deists do not believe in public worship. Jesus warns that public worship can lead to a hypocritical show of self-righteousness (Matthew 6:1-6). And Jesus taught that true worship requires no special place (John 4:20-24).

I would suggest that a local group of Christian deists call themselves a “fellowship” rather than a “church”. Since the essence of Christian deism is love for each other, the word “fellowship” seems to suggest a group that provides mutual support and caring for its members. I would suggest the name: “Christian Deist Fellowship.”

SUGGESTION TWO: LAY LEADERSHIP

The Christian deist movement began in opposition to trinitarian doctrines which churches had developed after the time of Jesus. Early Christian deist writers recognized that trinitarian clergy often used their professional positions in the churches to impose their views and control over the lay members of the churches. These professional ministers opposed the deist belief that all persons have natural knowledge of God’s “truth,” and these professional ministers sought to protect their role in the church by assuming that clergy were superior to lay persons in understanding and interpreting scriptures. In response to this attitude of superiority on the part of these trinitarian ministers, Christian deist writers generally viewed such ministers as obstacles to a lay person’s freedom to read and interpret the teachings of Jesus in the light of the individual’s own reasoning.

Early Christian deists saw the organizational hierarchy of the trinitarian church as the means used by the professional clergy to enforce their “authority” over the lay membership of the church and to require adherence to so-called “orthodox” trinitarian doctrines.

Church history shows that the Christian movement began with informal gatherings of followers of Jesus, but eventually these groups acquired leaders who assumed special authority over the other members. The primary leader in a local church became known as the “bishop.” Eventually the bishop of the church at Rome tried to assert his rule over churches in other cities. This led to a split between churches in the “west,” which accepted the bishop at Rome as leader, and the churches in the “east” which refused to accept the bishop at Rome as leader. The “western” church eventually became known as the “Roman Catholic Church” out of which the Protestant Christian churches came in the sixteenth century.

The reason I am referring to this history of the trinitarian church is to point out the danger of having professional clergy in a religious organization. Such professional leaders tend to assume their “superiority” over other members of the organization and tend to impose their views on other members. In my view, if Christian deists organize local groups, it is important that such groups be led by lay persons who recognize that no member is superior to another.

SUGGESTION THREE: PLACE TO MEET

Early Christians met in small groups in private homes. This could be the place where a local group of Christian Deists could gather. I would suggest that the meeting place be called simply a “meeting house” to avoid the connotative meaning of the word “church” as a place of public worship. If the group outgrew the private home setting, the group could rent or buy a meeting place. If the group meets in a place other than a private home, I would suggest that the place still be called a “meeting house.” Some groups, such as Quakers, have found that buying a house provides a satisfactory meeting place.

SUGGESTION FOUR: PURPOSES OF MEETING

What are the purposes of getting together as Christian deists? And what can Christian deists do at meetings? Of course, there are a number of different purposes that may be accomplished at meetings, and there are a number of different activities that may accomplish these purposes. Here are some of them:

1. Social fellowship

People enjoy being with other people who share the same basic philosophy or beliefs that guide them in their everyday living. Social fellowship is an important part of any religious group. Christian deists, who feel uncomfortable with the ideas and beliefs espoused by persons in other religious organizations, seek relationships with other Christian deists who share the “worldview” of Christian deism.

Christian deists can gather in a home-like atmosphere and enjoy some refreshments and visiting while gathering for a meeting.

2. Affirmation of beliefs

After the time of fellowship, the meeting could begin with an affirmation of the basic beliefs of Christian deists. The affirmation begins with a statement that God is our creator, and continues with the personal commitment to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is a statement of the creed of Christian deists. The following could be recited by the group:

“God is my Creator. I shall love God with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my mind, and I shall love my neighbor as myself.” (Based on Matthew 22:37-39.)

3. Time for meditation

The affirmation of beliefs could be followed by a time of quiet meditation. The word “meditation” may make you think of a monk, sitting cross-legged on a mountain, having an esoteric experience beyond the capability of ordinary persons. Actually, meditation is quite simple and can be done by anyone.

The word “meditate” simply means “to think about.” A person’s concentration of thoughts can be enhanced if a person sits in a quiet place and closes his or her eyes to shut out the distractions of surrounding sights. When you do this, the first thing that you realize is the fact of your own existence. Most of our attention each day is concentrated on “doing” and we ignore the remarkable fact of our “being,” or existence. By shutting out the sights and sounds around us, as much as possible, we are confronted with the fact of our “being” alive.

Our recognition of “being” helps us to appreciate life as a gift that we have received through no action or decision of our own. Jesus said that “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and “it is the spirit that gives life” (John 6:63). As we become aware of the life, or spirit, that is within us, we become aware that there are no boundaries to our spirit and there is nothing that separates us from the Source of all life, God. In meditation, we become more aware of being part of something that is greater than, and transcends, the circumstances of our daily life. Our appreciation for life, in ourselves and in others, increases as our awareness of “being” expands through meditation.

Our increased awareness of ourselves and others, can lead a person to think about his or her relationships with others. A person can use a time of meditation to examine how he or she is living in relation to others. Love for others is the principle that should guide our relationships with others. It is important for Christian deists to review their own words, thoughts, and actions on a regular basis to recognize any way they have caused another to suffer or to recognize any failure to try to relieve suffering when possible. Where failures to love are recognized, the individual can silently confess such failures and pray for God’s forgiveness. Repentance and forgiveness are central in the practice of Christian deism and can be a part of the time for meditation.

4. Time for sharing joys and concerns

The meeting should provide a time when individuals can share their joys and concerns. Their joys may be about a birth, marriage, graduation, honor, or some other good experience. Their concerns may be about an illness, death, world event, or other matter of concern. This time of sharing helps the members to understand and support each other. A ceremony of lighting of a candle by the individual can be a way to give recognition to the joy or concern expressed.

5. Religious education

The principles and practices of Christian deism, based on the teachings of Jesus, should occupy a part of the meeting. There are many ways of doing this. One way would be to have a member read one of my essays, and then encourage comments and discussion regarding the topic of the essay.

(Under “Lessons for Meetings,” below, I am listing some basic topics which are covered by some of my essays. I apologize if I appear presumptuous in suggesting that my essays be used as “readings” at Christian Deist meetings, but I intended these essays to provide an overall view of Christian deism from historical and theological perspectives, and I do not know of other current writers who are explaining how Christian deism can be practiced today. Hopefully, there will be many more Christian deist writers in the near future.)

Another way to provide religious education at a meeting would be to have one teaching of Jesus (one or a few verses) printed and distributed to all members at one week’s meeting for each person to think about during the week, and to be discussed by the group at the following week’s meeting. By giving one week’s focus on one particular teaching, it is likely that a number of persons will gain some insight during the week to share with others. Members could be invited to discuss some experience they had that helped them understand the teaching.

If there are children at the meeting, perhaps they can have a separate story time and other activities to help them develop a healthy self-image as loving and responsible individuals having respect for God and all people.

6. Music and singing

When Jesus and his disciples were together, they sang a hymn. Music can have a place in a meeting of Christian deists. Perhaps a member can play a musical instrument and sing a song appropriate for the meeting. Recorded music can be used also. Hymns and other songs, sung by the group, can carry messages of joy, hope, love, and peace. Hymns that express Christian deist beliefs and values should be selected. Hymns based on trinitarian doctrines should be avoided.

7. Other activities

There are many other activities that may be part of a meeting of Christian deists. Poems and stories can encourage and enlighten members as they seek to live each day by love for God and love for neighbor. Individuals could bring poems or other brief inspirational writings to read at the meeting.

8. General comment

Meetings should be characterized by simplicity and sincerity. Some planning is required but the activities do not have to be complicated or elaborate. The meetings should help members grow in their personal practice of the principles of Christian deism. A relaxed and friendly atmosphere should prevail.

SUGGESTION FIVE: LESSONS FOR MEETINGS

My essays may be used as “lessons” to be read by a reader at a Christian Deist meeting:

Lesson 1. Understanding Ourselves

Purpose: To understand the importance of our own view of life.

Read Essay: “What Am I?”

Lesson 2. Natural Religion

Purpose: To understand the basic premises of natural religion.

Read Essay: “What is Natural Theology”

Lesson 3. God’s Natural Laws

Purpose: To understand the two natural laws governing humankind.

Read Essay: “The Natural Religion of Jesus”

Lesson 4. Love Your Neighbor

Purpose: To understand what it means to love your neighbor, and why causing human suffering or being indifferent to human suffering is a “failure to love” others and is called “sin.”

Read Essay: “Love Your Neighbor”

Lesson 5. Love for God

Purpose: To understand what it means to love God, and why the failure to use our God-given abilities for good purposes is a “failure to love” God and is called “sin.”

Read Essay: “How Can You Love God?”

Lesson 6. The Kingdom of God

Purpose: To understand what the “Kingdom of God” is, and that God’s laws governing humankind are known naturally by everyone.

Read Essay: “The Kingdom of God”

Lesson 7. Repentance and Forgiveness

Purpose: To understand the necessity of repentance and forgiveness as ongoing processes in life.

Read Essay: “Repentance and Forgiveness”

Lesson 8. The Gospel of Jesus

Purpose: To understand the gospel (good news) message of Jesus, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” and how Jesus’ gospel is different from the message preached by Paul of Tarsus.

Read Essay: “What is the Gospel?”

Lesson 9. The Theology of Paul of Tarsus

Purpose: To understand how Paul of Tarsus created his own message which is contrary to the beliefs of Jesus.

Read Essay: “The Theology of Paul”

Lesson 10. Trinitarian Theology

Purpose: To understand how Church councils developed trinitarian theology which is taught in trinitarian churches today. (Christian Deists do not accept trinitarian theology.)

Read Essay: “What’s in a Creed”

Lesson 11. The Humanity of Jesus

Purpose: To understand Jesus as a human being whose view of the “Kingdom of God” includes everyone who lives by love for God and neighbor, and how Jesus’ beliefs led to his crucifixion.

Read Essay: “A Man Named Jesus”

Lesson 12. Christian Deism (Part 1)

Purpose: To understand the basic beliefs of Christian deists.

Read Essay: “What is a Christian Deist?”

Lesson 13. Christian Deism (Part 2)

Purpose: To understand how one Christian deist defines his own beliefs.

Read Essay: “Creed of a Christian Deist”

Lesson 14. Christian Deism (Part 3)

Purpose: To understand how one Christian deist views the the crucifixion and survival of Jesus.

Read Essay: “The Cross and the Empty Tomb”

Lesson 15. Christian Deism (Part 4)

Purpose: To understand the history of Christian Deism, and how Christian deists rejected the trinitarian doctrines of original sin, the divinity of Jesus, the substitutionary theory of atonement, supernatural revelation, and alleged miracles.

Read Essay: “History of Christian Deism”

Lesson 16. Christian Deism (Part 5)

Purpose: To understand Christian deism as expressed by a leading Christian deist in 1730.

Read Essay: “Matthew Tindal, Christian Deist”

Lesson 17. Christian Deism (Part 6)

Purpose: To understand how Christian deism differs from cultural religions.

Read Essay: “Deism and Cultural Religions”

Lesson 18. The Practice of Christian Deism (Part 1)

Purpose: To understand how an individual may practice Christian deism in everyday life.

Read Essay: “Christian Deism as a Personal Religion”

Lesson 19. The Practice of Christian Deism (Part 2)

Purpose: To understand how a Christian deist may approach Bible study and prayer.

Read Essay: “A Christian Deist’s View of Bible Study and Prayer”

Lesson 20. The Practice of Christian Deism (Part 3)

Purpose: To understand the meaning of worship, and why Christian deists do not have professional ministers or “churches” for public worship.

Read Essay: “The Christian Deists: Christians Without Churches”

Lesson 21. The Practice of Christian Deism (Part 4)

Purpose: To understand that the basic premises of “deism” are found in the teachings of Jesus, and the practice of Christian Deism is based on these premises.

Read Essay: “Deist and Christian Deist”

Lesson 22 The Practice of Christian Deism (Part 5)

Purpose: To understand the meaning of Christmas and Easter.

Read Essay: “Christmas and Easter”

Lesson 23 The Practice of Christian Deism (Part 6)

Purpose: To understand the books known as the four gospels in the New Testament.

Read Essay: “Understanding the Four Gospels”

Lesson 24 The Practice of Christian Deism (Part 7)

Purpose: To understand more ways to practice Christian Deism every day.

Read Essay: “Practicing Christian Deism”

SUGGESTION SIX: FINANCING A CHRISTIAN DEIST FELLOWSHIP

Inevitably there will be some expense of money to support the activities of a Christian Deist Fellowship. Such expenses may be for literature, refreshments, and possibly rent and utilities. Such expenses should be paid from voluntary and anonymous donations from the members of the Fellowship. How finances are handled is important because we see some religious groups and religious leaders using unscrupulous or intimidating ways of dealing with money.

I would suggest that Christian deists make most of their personal donations of money to humanitarian causes (I personally like the Ronald McDonald House for cancer patients and their families) but some donations of money will be required to pay the expenses of having a Christian Deist Fellowship. Hopefully, these costs will be kept to a minimum, and all donations made privately. Cash donations can be placed privately in a box, and donations by check can be deposited directly into the Fellowship’s bank account by the donor who is given bank deposit slips. No one else should know how much a person donates to the Fellowship. This is what Jesus meant when he said that “alms” should be given “in secret” (Matthew 6:3-4). There is no place for high pressure fund raising in a Christian Deist Fellowship. All financial giving by Christian deists should come voluntarily out of love for God and “neighbor.”

SUGGESTION SEVEN: HOW TO GET STARTED

If you are interested in organizing a Christian Deist Fellowship, you will need to locate other Christian deists in your community. You could run a newspaper ad that suggests that persons read my web page, “The Human Jesus and Christian Deism,” and contact you if they are interested in a local group of Christian Deists. You could advertise an organizational meeting and provide copies of my Christian deist essays which you are free to print from your computer and duplicate. You may print copies and distribute them, if they are given without charge or provided on a non-profit basis.

I receive emails from individuals seeking to know other Christian Deists in their city or state. If you would like for me to notify you of any such inquiries from individuals in your city or state, you may send me your name, city/state/country, and email address. I will notify you of any inquiry from your area if the individual wishes me to do so.

I will only provide first names and email addresses to the individuals who wish to communicate with other Christian Deists in their own communities. After email communication and, perhaps, telephone conversations, the individuals can decide whether to meet in person. Since I will not know the individuals personally, I believe that first names and email addresses are all that I should provide.

If you have any other ideas about how to organize a local Christian Deist Fellowship, please let me know

Religious Education for Children

I have received a number of letters from parents asking how their children may obtain a “religious education” outside of a church setting. These parents are familiar with trinitarian churches where children are taught that human beings are naturally bad, and all people will be punished by eternal torture in “hell” unless they believe that Jesus died as a sacrifice to appease God’s wrath. These parents do not want their children to be taught such irrational and inhumane beliefs.

I am writing this essay in response to these parents and others who are interested in religious education for their children. In my view, religious education is too important to turn over to anyone other than parents (or whoever is rearing the child). I am writing this essay from a Christian Deist viewpoint.

Let me begin by recognizing that most parents want to help their children grow and develop as healthy and happy individuals. Parents usually know (or can learn) how to meet the physical and intellectual needs of their children. Parents know that a child needs good food, exercise, rest, and medical care to develop a healthy body. Parents know that a child needs education to develop academic knowledge and skills.

But parents also know that a child needs some kind of overall view of life that will help the child (now and as an adult) to cope with the questions and experiences that he or she will inevitably face in life. This “overall view of life” may be called a “philosophy of life” or “religion.”

I will use the term “religion” in referring to an individual’s “life view.” A person’s “religion” provides a framework that is useful in evaluating life experiences and choosing personal responses to those experiences.

“Deism” is a name given to a religion known naturally by everyone. Deists who recognize the principles of deism in the teachings of Jesus are called “Christian Deists” because the name “Christian” is commonly used to refer to whoever claims to follow the teachings of Jesus.

THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS

Jesus was a man who lived about 2,000 years ago. He summarized his religion as “The Lord our God is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as (you love) yourself” (Mark 12:29-30).

Christian Deists believe that religious education should be based on love for God, love for “neighbor,” and love for oneself. Before proceeding with a discussion of religious education, it is important to define the words “neighbor” and “love.”

Jesus was a Jew and his statements above refer to teachings found in the Hebrew “Bible.” The “Shema,” the basic affirmation of the Jewish faith, is stated in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 4: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” In the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 17, we find the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as (you love) yourself.”

So was Jesus only teaching what he had learned in his Jewish religion (which is now called “Judaism”)? The answer is “No” because Jesus defined “neighbor” in a very different way.

Leviticus 19:17, in its entirety, reads as follows: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This requirement meant that the Jews should love their “Jewish” neighbor. The only exception to this is found in Leviticus 19:33 which required the Jews to treat “sojourners,” or guests in their land, as “neighbors.”

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Jesus expanded the definition of “neighbor” in his parable about the “good Samaritan” (Luke 10: 30-37). In this parable, Jesus used a Samaritan as an example of a good “neighbor.” At that time, the Jews looked down upon the Samaritans as persons of mixed race and unorthodox religion. In fact, the Jews and Samaritans considered each other as “enemies.”

In the parable, a Samaritan rescued a Jew who had been beaten and robbed. The Jewish priest and Levite, in the story, appeared to be indifferent and uncaring toward the injured man. In this parable, Jesus not only redefined “neighbor” to include persons who are different from ourselves, Jesus also included “enemies” as persons who should be “loved.”

We usually think of an “enemy” as someone who has hurt us. So how can we “love” an enemy? We need to look at the meaning of the word “love.” To “love” someone does not necessarily mean that we approve of that person’s behavior. If someone does something wrong to us, we can defend ourselves but we should not seek revenge by doing something wrong in return.

So how shall we respond to injustices done to us? Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5;43-45).

Just as God does good to everyone, sending sunshine and rain for everyone including the “just and the unjust,” we should always be ready to do good to those who hate us.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and do good . . . . for he (God) is kind to the ungrateful and selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36). Here, Jesus defined “love your enemies” as meaning “be merciful.” We can be merciful even toward someone whom we view as an “enemy.” The parable of the “good Samaritan” teaches us to be merciful when we see our “enemy” suffering.

From the above discussion, we should recognize that Jesus used the word “neighbor” to refer to all human beings other than oneself.

The word “love” means having “respect for” or “appreciation for” someone. It means recognizing that someone has “value” or “worth”. Love is expressed by human behavior (words and deeds). Words and deeds come from what we think (our thoughts).

RELIGIOUS EDUCATION

Religion, as described by Jesus, consists of three parts: Love for God, love for all human beings, and love for oneself. A person shows respect or appreciation for God, other human beings, and oneself by particular kinds of behavior (words and deeds) which we call “good.” These good behaviors are also called “virtues.”

Religious education consists of the processes by which a child (or adult) develops the kinds of behavior (words and deeds) that demonstrate respect for oneself, other persons, and God. A child learns these behaviors from other persons and from the child’s own observations and experiences. In the beginning, a child learns primarily from the child’s caretaker, usually the parent or other person who provides daily care for the child.

A parent can help a child develop his or her virtues, or good behaviors, by giving recognition when the child demonstrates a particular virtue. A parent can also help a child recognize when the child needs to develop a virtue that will help the child deal more successfully with some situation or problem.

Some kinds of behaviors (virtues) are primarily related to self-respect, or to respect for other persons, or to respect for God. Some virtues may relate to respect for self and/or other persons and/or God.

For a clear definition of individual “virtues,” why each is needed, and how to practice each one, I would refer parents to a book The Family Virtues Guide by Linda Kavelin Popov, a Plume Book published by the Penquin Group.

This book also offers some good advice to parents about how to help children develop their virtues. Christian Deists view personal religion as the demonstration of love, or respect, for oneself, other persons, and God, so the essence of religious education is learning to practice “virtues.”

The “virtues” described in The Family Virtues Guide are generally recognized in all cultures but you can use your own judgment regarding which should be emphasized, or omitted, in your own use of the book. Also, you may choose to identify some virtues that are not mentioned in the book.

Below, I have taken the virtues mentioned in the book and divided them into those that relate primarily to (1) self-respect, (2) respect for other persons, or (3) respect for God. Of course, some virtues may relate, in part, to more than one of these categories.

VIRTUES SHOWING SELF-RESPECT
1. Assertiveness

2. Cleanliness

3. Confidence

4. Courage

5. Creativity

6. Determination

7. Enthusiasm

8. Flexibility

9. Honor

10. Humility

11. Idealism

12. Joyfulness

13. Moderation

14. Modesty

15. Orderliness

16. Patience

17. Purposefulness

18. Reliability

19. Responsibility

20. Self-discipline

21. Steadfastness

22. Trustworthiness

VIRTUES SHOWING RESPECT FOR OTHER PERSONS
1. Caring

2. Compassion

3. Consideration

4. Courtesy

5. Forgiveness

6. Friendliness

7. Generosity

8. Gentleness

9. Helpfulness

10. Honesty

11. Justice

12. Kindness

13. Mercy

14. Obedience

15. Peacefulness

16. Service

17. Tact

18. Thankfulness

19. Tolerance

20. Truthfulness

21. Unity

VIRTUES SHOWING RESPECT FOR GOD
1. Faithfulness

2. Obedience

3. Prayerfulness

4. Reverence

5. Service

6. Thankfulness

7. Trust

8. Unity

COMMENTS REGARDING THE FAMILY VIRTUES GUIDE

The Family Virtues Guide lists “love” and “respect” as virtues. As I explained previously, I consider that “love” means “respect.” And I consider all “virtues” to be the expressions of love (respect) through good words and deeds (that come from good thoughts). So I did not include the words “love” and “respect” as separate “virtues” in the lists above. Nevertheless, there are some good thoughts about “love” and “respect” under these titles in the book.

Also, three other virtues are described in the book but are not included in the lists above. These include “detachment” and “excellence” which are worthwhile virtues, as they are defined in the book, but I am not sure the words “detachment” and “excellence” are the best way to label them. The other is “loyalty” which is a virtue only if the loyalty is related to something good. There is no virtue in being loyal to a wrong cause or wrong persons.

One important virtue, which is not listed in the book, is “self-judgment.” Self-judgment is the ability to evaluate one’s own behavior and recognize when some behavior is hurtful to others or to oneself. It includes being willing to admit hurtful behavior. Self-judgment is of no value unless it leads to “repentance” which is a desire to stop hurtful behavior and to make amends, if possible. Repentance leads to seeking forgiveness from anyone who has been offended. Repentance is important in the practice of Christian Deism.

The Family Virtues Guide is an excellent book, in my opinion, but no book is perfect. I question two statements in the book. One is about “treating holy books and other sacred things as very special.” Christian Deists do not view any book as “holy.” Some so-called “holy books” contain untrue statements and bad ideas.

Another statement is “Believe that there is some good in everything that happens.” This is not true because there is no good in some things that happen. Of course, sometimes a tragic happening motivates someone to do something good. I’ll buy that.

Anyway, you do not have to be a slave to a book but The Family Virtues Guide can give you some good ideas that you can use with your children in their religious education.

VIRTUES AND GOD

I would like to point out the importance of relating the practice of “virtues” to a belief in a Creator with the intelligence to design the world and govern it through natural laws that are inherent in everything.

Jesus’ statement about love for self, other persons, and God begins with an affirmation of belief in the existence of God. As stated in the Jewish Shema, quoted by Jesus, “The Lord our God is one.” So let me comment on the Christian Deist concept of God as our Creator.

Christian Deists believe that it was necessary for God to create the world to operate on its own in order for us to be individuals with freedom to direct our own lives. The world is designed to operate according to natural laws inherent in everything, including human beings, but sometimes failures in operation occur accidentally or by human mistake or intention. The possibility of failure is an inherent risk in a free world.

The fact that God created the world to operate on its own does not mean that God is a “Great Watchmaker” who creates the world like a clock, winds it up, and takes no further interest in it. The “Great Watchmaker” description of God is an invalid stereotype used by the opponents of deism, but it does not represent the views of Christian Deists. An analogy of a watch and a watchmaker has been used by some deists to refer to “intelligent design” in the world as evidence of the existence of an Intelligent Designer (God) but the analogy was never intended to imply that God is aloof from and uninterested in the world. Christian Deists believe that God is interested in us, as human beings, to whom God gave the greatest gift of all — our freedom to live as individuals.

The world is not perfect. The creation of the world is an on-going process and we, as human beings, have a role in the development of the world. Jesus used the term, “Kingdom of God” to represent an ideal world in which God’s law of love reigns, and everyone can enjoy life. Jesus’ message, or gospel, is “The kingdom of God is at hand (here and now), repent (turn away from lovelessness) and believe the gospel (good news)” (Mark 1:14).

Children (and adults) need to know that they have a role to play in helping to create this “Kingdom of God on earth” that Jesus prayed for and worked for. Children need to know that each of us has been given a life to invest in making the Earth a better place for everyone to enjoy. This is our mission as Christians.

“Christian Deism,” as it has been called for the past three centuries, begins with the affirmation of belief in an intelligent Creator as evidenced in “intelligent design” that is found in the universe and in human nature. Christian Deists see “intelligent design” in how our planet Earth rotates around the sun at precise distances that allow life to exist on our planet. We see “intelligent design” in our human body. My hand is designed with my thumb opposite to my other four fingers. If this were not so, my hand would be almost useless. Modern biochemistry has discovered that the human body consists of trillions of cells which are complex “machines” that operate chemically, reflecting “intelligent design.”

Christian Deists do not presume to describe “God” but we believe that God is more than what we are. Since we have consciousness and intelligence, it is reasonable to believe that God has these powers and more. It is important for a child to have a belief in God as an intelligent Creator.

Some may believe that the “virtues” need not be related to a belief in God. This idea is most often promoted by persons who believe that the world and human life originated through an accidental process. If this were true, there would be no such thing as “good” or “bad” human behavior. If human life was never intended to exist in the first place, then it does not matter what a person does with his or her life, or how an individual lives in relation to others. If people were never intended to exist, there is no loss in killing them. “Virtues” are “virtues” only if human life is intended to exist.

Every child needs to know that he or she is a unique and special person who is important. A child can learn this from how a parent cares for and guides the child. In a way, a parent represents “God” to a child.

When a person is mature enough to wonder about his or her own existence, the person will face three “big” questions: “How did I get here?” “Why am I here?” and “What comes next?” In other words, the person is asking about the source, purpose, and future of human life, especially the person’s own life.

From a Christian Deist viewpoint, I have already addressed the first two questions. The answer to question number one is “God created us.” The answer to question number two is “To enjoy the world and make it more enjoyable for everyone.”

Question number three is, “What comes next?” The answer is, “It is God’s responsibility to GIVE life, and it is our responsibility to LIVE life. If we take care of our responsibility by living as God intends, we can count on God to take care of God’s responsibility. We know that God has the power to give us life. We are the evidence of this. We will trust in the goodness of God.”

PARENTS AS RELIGIOUS EDUCATORS

And now, a word to parents about being “religious educators” for your children. I realize that many parents do not feel capable of doing this because they have had very little experience with organized religion or churches. Actually, this may be to these parents advantage because they have not been indoctrinated with negative beliefs.

For example, a man named Paul, who called himself an “apostle,” wrote: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me (Romans 7:18-20). Here, Paul denies his personal responsibility for his actions, and he excuses his bad behavior by saying that he has no control over what he does. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT CHILDREN SHOULD NOT BE TAUGHT !

Religious education for children should be based on the child taking responsibility for his or her actions. Children should not be taught that they are naturally bad, or helpless in resisting wrongdoing. Paul’s pessimistic view of human nature can damage a child’s mental health, and discourage a child’s efforts to develop the virtues that the child is capable of developing.

If you, as a parent, are wondering about your ability to be a “religious educator” for your child, I would say that you are ALREADY a “religious educator.” Your child is going to learn more from your thoughts, words, and deeds than from any other teaching source. Your role as “religious educator” started the first time you held your baby in your arms. How you demonstrate your loving concern and respect for the well-being of your child will teach your child more about “God” and “life” than anyone else can teach. In view of this fact, you may want to be a little more aware of what you think, say, and do.

The second thing I would suggest to parents is that you think about what you believe about life, God, and the “big” questions. This does not mean that you will come up with all of the answers about life. No one ever has. But you should try to be aware of what you do believe. If your personal beliefs are in agreement with the beliefs that are propagated by a particular organized religion, such as Judaism, Islam, or one of the many Trinitarian churches, you will find plenty of temples, synagogues, mosques, and churches ready to provide “religious education” to your children. Of course, Trinitarian churches teach that everyone who does not believe that Jesus died to “save” them is going to be punished by fire in “hell” forever. According to this theology, over five billion people in the world, today, are heading for “hell,” including over one billion Muslims. On the other hand, Muslims believe that all of the Trinitarian Christians are going to burn in “hell,” according to the Qu’ran, the “holy book” of Islam. So, parents, be aware of what your child will be taught in a Trinitarian church or an Islamic mosque.

The next thing I would say to parents is that your child needs some kind of “religious identity.” Many of the other kids at school are going to call themselves, “Methodists,” “Catholics,” “Muslims,” etc. These kids usually have no idea what these names mean, but these labels say that the child has a “religion” which has some social value in a peer group. So, if your child is not a member of a church, mosque, temple, or synagogue, what is your child going to call himself or herself in terms of a “religion?” Give your family religion a “name.” If you agree with the beliefs held by “Christian Deists,” you and your children are welcome to use this name. You do not have to join any religious organization to be a Christian Deist.

Some parents provide the academic education for their children at home instead of in a public or private school. These parents provide “homeschooling” for their children through special times for study and learning. If your children are not going to receive their “religious education” in a temple, synagogue, church, or mosque, you should consider providing special times for study and learning through “homechurching” your child.

The Family Virtues Guide contains suggestions for studying and discussing “virtues” at “family times.” This could be part of your “religious education” program. When your child asks “religious questions” about life, tell them honestly what you believe or do not believe without being “dogmatic” about them believing the same thing.

I would also suggest that parents remember that children need some kinds of routines as they grow up. In regard to religion, this usually takes the form of some kind of rituals. I remember, as a child, saying certain prayers at bed time and before meals. Unfortunately, the bed time prayer taught to me was:

“Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take. Amen.”

After I married and we had children, I questioned the advisability of a child going to sleep at night with the thought that he or she may die before morning. So I revised the bedtime prayer. I must confess that I did not do much better because I was a Trinitarian Christian at the time and I got Jesus and God all mixed up in the prayer! I would do a lot better today.

The “blessing” prayer that I was taught to say, as a child, before meals was:

“God bless our food. Amen.”

At least this prayer had brevity but I always wondered why I was praying for God to bless the mashed potatoes. I revised this prayer for our family as follows:

“God bless US at this table,

And accept our thanks

For the food upon it. Amen.”

I will confess that while our three children were growing up, I was still searching for what I could reasonably believe. I knew that I did not believe what I had been taught growing up in a Baptist church and in a Baptist university, so I looked for the least “evangelical” church I could find, and personally kept quiet when the words of hymns and creeds did not express what I believed. My children essentially received little or no formal “religious education” but they were spared the damage of growing up as fundamentalist Trinitarians. By the time I left the trinitarian church, our children had graduated from high school. So their childhood days were over.

Hopefully, our children learned something good from my wife and me, “by example,” but I wish I had clarified my own “religious identity” better while they were young. This is why I encourage parents to think about what they believe. Your children want to know what you believe.

When I was a member of a Unitarian Universalist Church, I was invited to speak to a junior high Sunday School class. The class was studying what different religious denominations believe. The purpose was to help the teenagers be more understanding and tolerant of the religious beliefs of others. As a former Baptist minister, I was ask to explain “What Baptists Believe.”

The class had gone through many weeks of hearing “what OTHERS believe.” When I finished speaking, a teenage girl asked, “But what do WE believe?” I had no answer for her because a survey of our church members had revealed that one-third believed in God, one-third were agnostics, and one-third were atheists. While I personally viewed myself as a Unitarian Christian, I could only think, “We” do not believe anything in particular. We were so proud of our religious “tolerance” and “freedom” that we left the children without a religious identity. This may be why very few children who grow up in Unitarian Universalist churches continue to be members as adults.

Children need some kind of religious identity, in terms of beliefs and practices, as well as a “name” for their religion. Parents who “homechurch” their children can provide this by having special times to talk about the kinds of behavior (virtues) that show respect for oneself, for other persons, and for God. (No preaching!) Readings and meditation time can be included. Prayers of thanksgiving before meals and at bed time, or other rituals, may remind a child (and ourselves) of our dependence on God. If your religion does not already have a “name,” give it one, for the sake of your child’s “identity.”

What I have written in this essay are just some suggestions. You must do your “religious education” in your own way. Be yourself. And be creative.