The history of religion and the Axial Age

One cannot study human history without noticing and learning about the religious beliefs and practices of various people. Religion has been—and remains—a strong motivation for the actions of many people. Sometimes religious differences have led to wars within a group of people or between groups of people. More often, religion has motivated beneficial actions within a group of people or between groups of people.

Scholars who study religion fall into two groups. The first group believes that religious truth is permanent and unchanging. It was known by the earliest people and has been passed down intact from generation to generation; it still exists in the world today. But many people have wandered from the truth. They have added beliefs and practices that differ from the truth, resulting in today’s diverse religious beliefs and practices. Traditional (or conservative) Jews, Christians, and Muslims all accept this concept of a single religious truth, even as they disagree about the content of that truth. I suspect that many traditional (or conservative) Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of other religions have a similar confidence in the existence of one fundamental set of truths.

The second group of scholars believes and teaches that religion evolves. They say that primitive people, having no science, assumed that things they could not explain were caused by spirits living in the observable world. Early religious practices focused on living in harmony with those spirits, cooperating with them, gaining their help when needed, and placating them when they were angered. Over time, according to these scholars, some of these spirits (along with some revered human ancestors) became regarded as gods. That stage of religious belief is called polytheism, belief in many gods. Many generations later, some gods were viewed as more powerful than others, until belief centered around a single central god—often the national god of a powerful nation that subdued its neighbors and built an empire. From that stage, the next step was monotheism—belief in one god, denying the reality of the other gods that once were trusted and obeyed. Following the introduction of monotheism came deism: deists acknowledge a creator god who established the rules of nature and of moral behavior, but the god of deism is no longer involved in the world. That god can be compared to a watchmaker who assembles a watch, winds it, and then steps away. From deism, it is a short step to atheism—the claim that there is no god—or to agnosticism—the claim that no one knows whether a god exists.

It should be noted that, among atheists and agnostics, some are militant and some are quiescent. Militant atheists boldly assert that no god exists, and the battle against all believers who proclaim the existence of a god or of gods. Quiescent atheists also believe in no god, but they do not try to convert anyone else to their belief. Quiescent atheists are content to continue in their lack of belief but do not care what other people say or do about their god or gods. Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone. Quiescent agnostics are not sure if god exists, but they are content to remain quietly in their uncertainty. They do not challenge the conviction of believers or of unbelievers. Militant agnostics say that no one knows if god exists. They equally challenge the convictions of believers and atheists, insisting that all of us are guessing about religious truth, that no one on earth really knows for sure about god.

Both groups of scholars agree that a revolution in religious thought occurred in the world roughly twenty-five centuries ago. Dubbed the Axial Age, this time marked the beginning of several religious movements, including Confucianism, Daoism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Greek philosophy. Scholars have also sought information about the Axial Age in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament). Ezra and Nehemiah lived during the Axial Age, as did the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some scholars claim to find evidence of the Axial Age in other Biblical books traditionally regarded as older, such as the writings of the prophet Isaiah.

Axial Age beliefs began, for the most part, in Iron Age cultures long established in the river valleys of Asia, from China to Mesopotamia. Although expressed in a variety of ways in different cultures, they bear a common theme of individuality, of looking within one’s self to find truth rather than seeking it in the surrounding world. These pursuits are credited with stimulating Christianity and Islam in later generations, as well as helping to generate European science and philosophy, beginning in Greece. The Axial Age can be described as a human revolution equivalent to the Neolithic Revolution of ancient times (when people stopped hunting and gathering food and began raising it for themselves in settled areas) and to the Scientific and Industrial revolutions of modern Europe.

Vedic Hinduism in India and Shinto in Japan bear traces of the religious beliefs that prevailed before the Axial Age. So do indigenous religions still followed by small groups of people in Asia, Africa, the southern Pacific, and Native American settlements in the Americas. One common theme among the many diverse indigenous religions (at least in Africa and the Pacific islands) is awareness of a powerful creator god who, like the deist god, created the world and established its rules, but is no longer involved in the world. The religious practices in those indigenous groups involve honoring and seeking the approval of divine beings that are less than all-powerful. Often each of those beings has power in only a single area—planting, harvesting, human health, childbirth, weather, and so on. Christian and Muslim missionaries often win converts among such groups by promising to “eliminate the middle-men,” so to speak. They offer knowledge of the creator god and access to that god—Christians through Jesus Christ and the Gospel, Muslims through the Qur’an.

In coming days I will offer a more detailed study of those Axial Age movements that profoundly shaped the way religious people think and act today. J.

Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter one: the mystery of the Holy Trinity

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God the Lord is one (Deuteronomy 6:4).

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (II Corinthians 13:14).

Who is God? The first and greatest mystery of the Christian faith is the identity of the God whom Christians worship. God’s people have always declared that God is one. Christians identify the one God as three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Until the twentieth century, the Holy Spirit was more generally known as the Holy Ghost, but most English-speaking Christians today prefer to call him the Holy Spirit.)

Jews and Muslims agree with Christians that God is one. The three religions further agree that the one God is timeless and unchanging. He is eternal, not subject to the laws of time. He is present everywhere, and he knows everything, and he can do anything he wants. He is the Creator of everything that exists, and he has the right to rule everything that exists. He has the right to tell people what to do and what not to do, and he has the right to punish people who break his rules. Further, Jews and Christians and Muslims agree that God has spoken to his people through special messengers that are known in all three religions as prophets.

Jews and Muslims do not accept the mystery of the Holy Trinity. They insist that Christians are worshiping three gods instead of one God, and they further believe that the one God is insulted by the Christian teaching of the Trinity. Many Christians, in their speaking of God and to God, often speak as if they did believe in three gods rather than one God. Because it is easier to think of the three Persons as distinct beings rather than one Being, we often forget or overlook the unity of God. We betray this misunderstanding whenever we speak of the three Persons of God as “them” instead of “him,” or whenever our prayers and hymns address the three Persons individually but neglect to speak to the one God who consists of those three Persons.

(I need to pause here to address the apparent maleness of God. Only God the Son has taken on human form. The Father and the Spirit have no body, so technically the Father and the Spirit are neither male nor female. In this book, as in all my writing and speaking and thinking about God, I use the traditional male words for God. I do this for three reasons: the prophets and apostles who wrote the Bible consistently used male pronouns and descriptions of God; when the Son of God became human, he chose to be male rather than female; and in many places the Bible hints that the relationship God has with his people is pictured by the marriage of a man and a woman, in which God takes the role of a husband and his people take the role of his wife.)

That the three Persons of God are one Being, one God, rather than three beings, is a paradox. Not only is God greater than time and space, his nature appears to run counter to the very rules of mathematics. Whenever God’s people try to understand the mysteries and paradoxes of the Christian faith through reason and logic, they produce ideas that are contrary to what the prophets and apostles said about God. The early Church referred to these misunderstandings as heresies. People were heretics, not because they opposed God or were trying to change Christianity, but because they were trying to understand God and the things he said. Heretics were opposed by councils and teachers of the early Church, not as evil enemies, but as sincere people who made the mistake of trusting their own minds and thoughts more than they trusted the messages of God’s prophets and apostles.

To counter the idea that the Persons are three gods, some Christians explained that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are three job titles for the same person. When dealing with creation, Jesus expresses himself as the Father. When dealing with salvation, the rescue of sinners, Jesus expresses himself as the Son. When dealing with faith and Christian living, Jesus expresses himself as the Holy Spirit. Since it is always the same God, they reasoned, it is always the same person. In a similar way, a man might be a son, a husband, a father, a laborer, a writer, a friend, and a neighbor. He is all seven of those things, but he is not seven men; he is one man doing seven different things.

The problem with that logical explanation is that the three Persons who are God relate to each other in a way that a man with several tasks does not relate to himself. Some people talk to themselves and a few even answer, but when Jesus prayed, he was not talking to himself. He was speaking to his Father, and his Father heard and answered his prayer. Furthermore, the father aspect of my life is not going to send the writer aspect of my life anywhere. I go to the store, but I do not send myself to the store. The Bible says that God sent Jesus into the world to rescue sinners. It says that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to his Church. This sending was not leaving and then returning under a different name. It reflects a relationship of the three Persons. The Father loves the Son. The Son loves the Father. They both love the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit loves them both. This love is not God loving himself; this is genuine love that is shared among the three Persons who together are one God.

Another logical explanation for the mystery of the Trinity is that only the Father is truly God; the Son and the Holy Spirit are something less than God. Sometimes Jesus is described as a wise and devout man, a prophet and a teacher, who told people about God. Sometimes he is described as a man who was adopted by God the Father and made holy and perfect. Sometimes Jesus is regarded as the first thing the Father created and the means by which the Father made the rest of the universe. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is sometimes seen as a force or power that comes from God rather than a Person.

Once again, this logical explanation does not match what God says about himself. Jesus has the power to forgive sins. Jesus will judge all people at the end of time. Jesus knows everything, and there is nothing he cannot do. He promises to be with all his people, which means he is able to be everywhere. The Bible tells God’s people to worship only God and no one else, but Jesus is worshiped. Jesus is eternal and unchanging, but only God is eternal and unchanging.

There is only one God. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. There is only one Lord. The Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, and the Holy Spirit is Lord. There is only one uncreated, eternal, and unchanging Being. The Father is uncreated, eternal, and unchanging; the Son is uncreated, eternal, and unchanging; the Holy Spirit is uncreated, eternal, and unchanging.

Conspiracy theorists claim that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was invented by church leaders three centuries after Jesus died and rose from the dead. Because the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, they claim that the idea of the Trinity was invented by human beings and is not in the Bible. Yet from beginning to end, the Bible gives evidence that God is three Persons while remaining one God.

The Hebrew word “El” is the generic word for God; like the English word “god” it can refer to the true God, to false gods, or to other beings with God-like authority. When referring to the true God, however, the Hebrew Bible often uses the word “Elohim,” which is plural. Aside from the mystery of the Trinity, it is hard to explain why the Bible would use a plural noun for the one God. God also talks to himself in the plural: “Let us make man in our image,” for example, and “Let us go down and see what they are doing” in Babylon. These are not final arguments, but they are evidence that the idea of the Trinity was known even to Moses and the prophets.

Moses often speaks of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. The Angel of the Lord often says things and does things that can only be said and done by the true God. On the day that Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, the Angel of the Lord spoke to him and said, “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12). He then speaks a blessing that can come only from the true God. On Mount Sinai the Angel of the Lord spoke to Moses from a burning bush, identifying himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). He also identifies himself with the name Yahweh (or Jehovah) which means “I am,” a significant reminder that the true God is uncreated, eternal, and unchanging.

God spoke to many people and was seen by many people. Not only did Abraham and Moses see God, but Jacob wrestled with God, and Isaiah saw God seated on a throne in the Temple. Yet John writes, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). From this we know that Jesus (not God the Father) ate with Abraham, wrestled with Jacob, spoke with Moses, and was seen by Isaiah.

The Psalms often depict the Father-Son relationship within the Holy Trinity. Psalm 2 describes the Messianic King and says, “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you’” (Psalm 2:7); another Messianic Psalm says, “The Lord says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’” (Psalm 110:1). The prophets often said that they were guided by the Spirit of the Lord in their messages.

Jesus frequently spoke of the Father and of himself as distinct Persons, yet on the night when he was betrayed, he said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9) and, “Believe me that I am in the Father and he is in me” (John 14:11). Earlier he had said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus also told his apostles to baptize in the name—not the names—of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Many more verses could be quoted from the epistles to demonstrate the fact that the apostles knew only one God, but knew the Father to be God and knew Jesus to be God. Perhaps the most important verse about the unity and the Trinity of God is often overlooked: “God is love” (I John 4:8). The Bible says that God is almighty, but it never says that God is Power. The Bible says that God knows everything, but it never says that God is Knowledge. The Bible calls God holy but not Holiness, good but not Goodness, eternal but not Eternity. Yet the Bible does say that God is love. Outside of space and outside of time, without any regard to creation, God is love—love is the very nature of God. Yet if God is only one Person, only one Being, he could not love anything but himself. God’s love, then, would be a selfish love and not true love. “God is love” because, outside of space and time, the Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. That love, like God himself, is eternal and unchanging. That love is the reason that God wants his people to love him and to love each other, because we were created in the image and likeness of God.

Christians have tried to find analogies in creation to talk about the Trinity, but most of them fall short of accuracy. Some have spoken of the apple, for the core and flesh and skin of the apple are all apple. Yet the parts of an apple are distinct in a way that the Persons of God are not distinct. Other Christians have spoken of water, which can be vapor, liquid, or ice. Only rarely, though, is the same water in all three conditions, as the Persons all are eternally God. Patrick, the missionary to Ireland, is said to have defended the teaching of the Trinity by pointing to a shamrock and asking if it is one leaf or three leaves. When his Irish listeners could not agree among themselves about the shamrock, Patrick supposedly said, “How can you understand the Creator if you cannot even understand a small part of what he created?”

God is best understood by knowing what he says about himself. The names of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were not invented by people to talk about God; they are used by the prophets and apostles to talk about God. In the Father-Son relationship we find, not an analogy for the nature of God, but a description of God’s basic nature. People and animals in their families are pictures of God, not the other way around. Because people and animals exist in time, fathers come before sons and are greater than their sons (at least while the sons are still children). Because the Trinity exists beyond time, the Father and the Son are equal in power, authority, and glory. Jesus is begotten of the Father (as all children are begotten by fathers and conceived by mothers), but he has always existed. In other words, the Son is being continually begotten by his Father. (“Today I have begotten you” signifies not one particular day in human history but the eternal today of God’s experience.) He honors and respects his Father as human children are expected to honor and respect their parents, even when they are no longer children. The fact that he submits to the will of his Father does not mean that he is less than his Father in power and authority; in fact, the submission of Jesus shows that he is equal to his Father. Otherwise he would not submit; he would by nature be forced to honor and obey his Father.

The Holy Spirit is neither created nor begotten, but he proceeds. Eastern churches, such as the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church, teach that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Western churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches, teach that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In either case, he is eternally proceeding as the Son is eternally begotten. No one aside from God can understand what that means, but Christians believe it because it matches what the Bible says about the Trinity.

Christians often distinguish the three Persons of the Trinity by what they do. God the Father is described as the Maker of heaven and earth and all that exists aside from God. God the Son is recognized as Jesus, the Redeemer who entered creation to rescue creation from the forces of evil. God the Holy Spirit is known as the Person who grants faith to Christians and strengthens them to live as God’s people.

On the other hand, John writes that “All things were made through him [Jesus], and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). Paul wrote that “by him [Jesus] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:16). Moses wrote that, at the time of creation, “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). All three Persons of the Holy Trinity were involved in creating the universe.

Only the Son of God became human, lived, died, and rose again to redeem sinners and rescue the world. Yet the Father was involved in redemption because he sent his Son, and the Holy Spirit is involved in redemption by strengthening Jesus for his rescue mission and by drawing people to Jesus. All three Persons of the Holy Trinity are involved in redeeming sinners.

Paul wrote, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3). When Peter confessed his faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus replied, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). All three Persons of the Holy Trinity are involved in granting faith and guiding Christians in their lives.

It seems at times as though the Holy Spirit is the forgotten Person of the Holy Trinity. The apostles wrote much about the Father and the Son but did not mention the Holy Spirit as often. Christians talk more about the Father and the Son than they talk about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit apparently wants this to happen. His goal is not to draw attention to himself, but to draw people to Jesus. When people hear about the redeeming work of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is present and active in the message. One might say that the Holy Spirit is truly humble, wanting Christians to talk about the Son of God and not about the Holy Spirit.

When Christians are talking about Jesus, though, the Holy Spirit is active in their speaking. When Christians read the Bible, they are reading the words written by apostles and prophets who were guided by the Holy Spirit. When Christians gather together in the name of Jesus, Jesus is present as he promised (Matthew 18:20), and the Holy Spirit is also present. The three Persons of the Holy Trinity are present, for God the Father is known only through Jesus (John 1:18).

The prophets and apostles wrote about gifts from the Holy Spirit, and sometimes Christians wonder about those gifts. Various abilities are described as spiritual gifts, and the Bible makes it clear that not every Christian receives the same gifts (I Corinthians 12:4-27). How does a Christian recognize his or her spiritual gifts? Any ability that a Christian has that serves other Christians and helps the mission of the Church (which is to draw people to Jesus) can be considered a spiritual gift. Some Christians think that their spiritual gifts should be different from those talents and abilities they have already received through creation by God the Father. Such a distinction should not be made, since the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one God, not three gods.

No one can fully understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity, aside from God himself. Christians believe this mystery to be true because God has revealed that truth to his people. With angels and with believers from Old Testament times and New Testament times, Christians join together singing “Holy, holy, holy,” to honor the one true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.