Religious beliefs are expressed in words. Since a word may have several different meanings, it is important to know how a speaker or writer defines the meaning of a word.
Throughout the essays on Christian Deism in this web page, there are key words that carry specific meanings from the viewpoint of Christian Deism. Some of these words are used by Trinitarian Christians who give the words very different meanings. Therefore, I think it is important to define, in this essay, the meaning of key words as used in Christian Deism.
1. GOD. “God” refers to the Creator of the world, including human life. From the evidence of “intentional design” seen in the nature of the world and human beings, Christian Deists infer the existence of an “Intentional Designer” called “God.”
Christian Deists do not presume to describe God. Christian Deists view God in the same way that Jesus viewed God. Jesus said that “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and “It is the spirit that gives life” (John 6:63) to human beings. An individual’s “spirit” is the “life” or “personal self” that a person perceives within his or her physical body. Christian Deists believe that the “spirit” in a human being comes from, and is of the same essence, as God’s “spirit.”
It is the “spirit” within our bodies that gives us consciousness and the power to “reason.” Reason is the ability to “think logically” about what we perceive through our five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. It is through the power of reasoning that we analyze and evaluate what we perceive through our senses concerning what is happening to us and around us. Then, based on our evaluation, we use our mental power to decide how to respond, and to initiate any physical and/or verbal response to what we perceive.
Christian Deists believe that God created the world to operate on its own and be governed by natural laws. These natural laws are inherent in the design of whatever exists. Human beings are designed to live in accord with two basic laws which can be discovered by any human being within his or her own nature. Jesus discovered these laws within himself and called these laws “God’s commandments” (Matthew 22:37-39).
2. NATURAL LAWS. “Natural laws” are the ways that God intends for the world to operate. Various natural laws are inherent in different things. For example, the planet called “Earth,” on which we live, is designed to revolve around the Sun at precise distances that allow life to exist on Earth. This is controlled through the natural laws of “gravity.” Likewise, the laws of gravity enable us and all other inhabitants of the Earth to remain on this planet instead of being hurled into outer space as the planet Earth zooms at 67,000 miles per hour around the Sun.
Also, natural laws are inherent in the design of seeds, soil, and rain that enable plants and trees to reproduce and provide food required by human beings. From our own observation of ourselves, we know that our “happiness,” or personal satisfaction in living, is determined by whether we choose to live as we have been “designed” to live. Jesus identified two natural laws by which God intends for human beings to live: (1) love for God and (2) love for “neighbor” (Matthew 22:37-39). Failure to love is destructive to ourselves because we are acting contrary to human nature.
3. LOVE. Jesus used the word “love” to mean “respect for” or “appreciation” for God and “neighbor.” Respect for God is based on the recognition that our individual life is a gift, from God, to be enjoyed and to be invested in making the world more enjoyable for all others. Respect for God also includes caring for the natural resources of the Earth that God has provided for the maintenance of life.
Love for “neighbor” means respecting the value of every human life. As a Jew, Jesus had been taught to “love your neighbor as (you love) yourself,” as stated in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 19:17). But this law only required Jews to love (value) their “Jewish neighbors,” defined as “sons of your own people” (Leviticus 19:17), and any “stranger” who “sojourns (lives for awhile) with you in your land” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Jesus expanded the definition of the word “neighbor” to mean ALL persons, including persons who are different from ourselves, and even persons whom we consider to be our “enemies” (as seen in the parable of the “good Samaritan,” Luke 10:30-37).
Jesus defined the word “love” to mean “do good” to others. 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 is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36). “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).
As God is good to all persons, we must be ready to “do good” and “be merciful” to all persons, even those whom we consider our “enemies.”
It is important to notice that “love your neighbor” should be “as (you love) yourself.” Respect or appreciation for oneself is something that God expects of us. Our own life is valuable and is to be appreciated. We show our respect for ourselves by the way we treat our bodies and minds as valuable. Living in a way that is harmful to our physical and mental health shows a lack of appreciation for the life that God has given to us.
4. KINGDOM OF GOD. Jesus used the term “Kingdom of God” to refer to wherever God’s will is obeyed. Jesus prayed to God, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). As a Jew, Jesus originally viewed the Kingdom of God in a nationalistic way. According to their tradition, the Jews believed that God had promised their ancestor, Abraham, that his descendants would have a land of their own if they were obedient to God. Jews equated the “Kingdom of God” with the political “Kingdom of Israel” and attempted to establish it by military force. The Jews were defeated and controlled by Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Egypt, Syria, and the Roman Empire.
In Jesus’ time, the Jews were ruled by the Romans. Jesus joined the religious/political movement of John the Baptizer calling for the reestablishment of the “Kingdom of God” (Kingdom of Israel) to provide peace, freedom, and plenty for the Jewish people. As he preached the coming of the “Kingdom of God,” Jesus came to recognize that persons of all nationalities yearned for the same good life that the Jews were seeking. Jesus began preaching a new kind of “Kingdom of God” based on love for all people. Jesus called for people to repent (turn away from) their lovelessness so the Kingdom of God could become a reality in the hearts of individuals and in society.
Jesus’ new view of the “Kingdom of God” was considered heretical by the Jewish religious leaders, and Jesus was considered a Jewish revolutionary by the Romans. Jesus was crucified, as a political revolutionary, by the Romans but he survived his brief crucifixion and met with his disciples for a short time before leaving them. Some of his disciples believed that Jesus would return as the Jewish “messiah” during their lifetime but this did not happen. When Jesus’ teachings were recollected and written between the years 70 CE and 100 CE, it became apparent that the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus envisioned was different from the “Kingdom of Israel” that the Jews expected.
5. GOSPEL. The word “gospel” means “good news.” “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1:14). Eventually, Jesus came to view the “kingdom of God” as coming “on earth” as people followed God’s “commandments” or laws of love for God and for each other. This is the “gospel,” or message, found in the parables of Jesus. Unfortunately, after the time of Jesus, a man named Paul began preaching another “gospel” based on his belief that Jesus had died (by crucifixion) like a lamb was sacrificed in the Jewish temple to atone for the sins of people. Paul never claimed to have seen or heard Jesus, except in some kind of “vision” after the time of Jesus. Paul’s “gospel” promised “eternal life” to those who believed Paul’s theory about Jesus. Paul’s message was rejected by the Jews but was received by many Gentiles (non-Jews) in Asia Minor and Greece.
Paul established congregations, or churches, that later assumed leadership in the Christian movement after the deaths of Jesus’ closest disciples. Paul’s gospel, as modified by church councils, eventually became dominant in Trinitarian churches.
6. SIN. “Sin” is a word that refers to disobedience to God. Since it is God’s will for human beings to love God and love each other, any failure to love is “sin.” We sin against God if we fail to appreciate and use our life as God intends for us to use it, or if we fail to take care of the natural resources of the Earth on which life depends. We sin against other human beings if we cause human suffering or if we are indifferent to human suffering, as illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the “good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30-37).
7. REPENTANCE. “Repentance” was a central theme in the teachings of Jesus. When Jesus proclaimed that “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” he said “Repent” and believe this good news (“gospel”). The word “repentance” means “turning away from.” It is used in relation to “sin.”
Jesus defined “repentance” by his parable of the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:11-24). The process of repentance includes:
1. The recognition of and acceptance of personal responsibility for sin.
2. A sincere feeling of remorse and sorrow for having sinned.
3. A conscious decision to stop the wrong-doing.
4. An actual “turning away from” the sin. This is a change of direction in behavior.
5. A confession of sin and a humble request for forgiveness. The request is made to God and (if possible) to any person who has been hurt by the sin.
6. An offer to make amends for the hurt that was caused by the sin.
Jesus said that we should “believe in the gospel (good news)” that the “kingdom of God is at hand.” The reign of God is a reality here and now for those who commit themselves to love God and to love each other. How do we know if we are committed to God’s way of love? We know by our experience of “repentance” whenever we fail to love.
If we have chosen to follow God’s natural laws of love, we will experience remorse and sorrow whenever we fail to love. This should lead us to repent (turn away from) such unloving behavior and to seek forgiveness. If a mentally competent person is not committed to following God’s natural laws, such a person will not feel remorse or sorrow over a failure to love.
The ability to repent of any failure to love is evidence that a person is truly committed to trying to follow God’s will for us to live by love.
8. FORGIVENESS. In his parable of the “unmerciful servant” (Matthew 18:23-35), Jesus taught that God will forgive us of our sins in the same way that we are willing to forgive those persons who repent of their sins against us. In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, Jesus makes this same point, “And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:4).
Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in a day and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). Also, Jesus said, “If you forgive men their sins (against you), your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their sins (against you), neither will your Father forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Christian Deists reject Paul’s theological theory that God cannot forgive sin unless the “death penalty for sin” is paid by Jesus’ dying as a “substitute” for humankind. The theologian Athanasius, the architect of the Creed of Nicaea (325 C.E.), adopted Paul’s theory of “salvation by the death of Jesus” and this “substitutionary theory of atonement” became central in Trinitarian churches.
Christian Deists believe Jesus who taught that God forgives us of our sins if we repent of our sins and we are willing to forgive those who sin against us. Christian Deists totally reject Paul’s “substitutionary theory of atonement.”
Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice'” (Matthew 9:13). Here, Jesus is quoting the Hebrew prophet Hosea who claimed to be quoting God: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).
9. JESUS. Christian Deists believe that Jesus was only a human being. Jesus described himself simply as “a man who told you the truth which I heard from God” (John 8:40) but Jesus did not make any exclusive claim to “hearing” the truth from God. Jesus said, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God’ (Isaiah 54:13). Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45). Jesus only claimed to know the truth in the same way that “all” can know the truth about how God intends for us to live.
Jesus did not claim to be “God.” Those who claim that Jesus is “God,” or “the only Son of God,” usually quote John 10:30 where Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” But those who claim that Jesus was more than a human being fail to read John 17:11 and John 17:21-23 where Jesus explains what he meant by being “one” with God.
Let us examine John 10:30-38. “(Jesus said,) ‘I and the Father are one.’ The Jews took up stones again to stone him (to death). Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘We stone you for no good work but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your law*, ‘I said you are gods?'” (*Note: Jesus is quoting Psalms 82:6, “I say, You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.”)
“(Then Jesus said,) ‘If he (the psalmist) called them gods to whom the word of the God came, do you say …. ‘You are blaspheming’ because I said that I am (a)** son of the God? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father’.” (**Note: Greek manuscripts do not have a definite article “the” before the word “son” so this should be read as “a son of God” not “the son of God.”)
The unity, or “oneness,” that Jesus claimed with God did not mean that Jesus claimed to be God because Jesus prayed that his disciples “may be one, even as we (Jesus and God) are one” (John 17:11). Later, Jesus prayed that his followers will “all be one, even as Thou, Father, are in me and I in Thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that Thou hast sent me. The glory which Thou has given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and Thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that Thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as Thou hast loved me” (John 17:21-23).
The “oneness” that Jesus had with God was a “oneness” that Jesus wanted his followers to have with each other, with Jesus, and with God. According to Jesus, it is through our love for God and each other that we experience a “oneness” with God and each other, and we come to know that God “hast loved them (us) even as Thou hast loved me (Jesus).”
Although Jesus spoke of spiritual unity that he and we can have with God and each other, Jesus clearly distinguished between himself and God.
When someone addressed Jesus as “Good teacher,” Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18). Jesus refused to be called “good” like God.
Jesus prayed to God on many occasions. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus “fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to Thee; remove this cup (danger of death) from me; yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt'” (Mark 14:35-36). Jesus’ “will” was clearly separate from God’s “will.”
Jesus said, “For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has Himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49). Jesus did not claim to have the same authority that God had.
Jesus told his disciples, “You heard me say to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). Jesus claimed that he did not have equal status or rank with God.
When Jesus was being crucified, Jesus “cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabschthani ?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Here, Jesus felt “forsaken” by God. Jesus clearly viewed God as Someone other than Jesus.
After he emerged from his tomb, Jesus was surprised to see that he was still alive on earth. He told Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and to your God” (John 20:17). Here, Jesus refers to his relationship with God as being the same as the relationship between his “brethren” and God. Again, Jesus did not claim to be God.
There are other verses in which Jesus distinguishes between himself and God, including John 14:1, 14:24, 14:31, 15:15, 16:28, and Matthew 20:23.
Jesus was conscious of his “inner self” or “spirit” within his physical body, just as every human being is conscious of one’s own “spirit” within. Jesus viewed this “spirit” as coming from, and having the same essence as, God. But Jesus did not claim to be more that any other human being. Jesus viewed God as the Source of the life-giving spirit that is in every human being, including Jesus himself.
Jesus believed that when a human body dies, the person’s life-giving spirit returns to God. When Jesus thought that he was about to die on the cross, Jesus prayed to God, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46), trusting God’s care for the future. This is the prayer that Christian Deists should pray, trusting in God’s care beyond the life we have now.
Deists believe that God designed human beings to love (care for) each other, and if a person tries to do this, and repents of failures to love, that person will enjoy the inner peace that comes from satisfaction with oneself in this life, and will have reason to hope for another life from God in the future.
September 23, 2009