One word to describe religion

Question 222, from Tom

How would you describe religion, why we do it?
What is the point behind it? But on a universal religious preference. The challenge is that you have to describe all of that into one word.

What is very interesting when studying religions is how universal many of the key themes are. It is difficult to know how religions started – what prompted the first religious beliefs in human cultures – but there have been many hypotheses.There are a number of approaches to religion that seek to explain it as a social or psychological phenomenon that provides either a coping mechanism or explanation of events and circumstances in ways that make sense to human beings.

So in one word? AWE.

The world is quite big and humans are quite small. Human lives are relatively short and over soon. People are often afraid of things they don’t understand, and so seek to explain them. There is an aesthetic principle at work – humans can appreciate ‘beauty’ in a natural event like a sunset or in sandstone columns carved by winds. The sky at night is full of stars. Rainbows cut a colourful swathe across the sky. A new-born baby seems like a wonderful gift. All these things create a sense of awe and marvel and wonder and that leads to looking for reasons behind it, which in turn leads to belief in unseen powers shaping what is seen, which over time with the application of reason and, maybe, revelation becomes a religious belief system. When religious beliefs become institutions they often seek to encapsulate that sense of awe by building monuments like henges and cathedrals, recapturing the impetus that drives people towards religion.

For many Christians the universality of religious expression is testament to a shared, yet flawed, understanding of God that is apprehended through awe and a sense of the transcendent. This is reflected in the phrase in Ecclesiastes chapter 3, verse 11, that states God has ‘set eternity in the human heart’ – the ability to appreciate eternity leads to awe of the eternal God and this can be experienced outside the revealed Christian religion by all human beings.


Spells and divinations in the Bible about infidelity (cheating)

Question 221, from Gary

I heard tonight that somewhere in the Old Testament there is a “Spell, or Divination, that a man can do which will determine if your wife has cheated on you or not. It was said that doing this divination will give you an answer from God and his truthful wisdom. Have you ever read about this divination?

I heard someone talking about this question and I was curious if really is true and is it something we are allowed to do ? Where in the Bible can I find this ?

There is no such spell or method of divination contained in the Bible that can be conducted to determine infidelity. There is a ‘test’ that was apparently carried out by priests in the Tabernacle if a wife was suspected of being unfaithful. This can be found in Numbers chapter 5, verses 11-31. The woman in question ate a tainted grain offering, which had been mixed with dirt from the tabernacle floor, which would cause miscarriage, supposedly only if she was pregnant by another father.

Although the priest would pronounce a judgmental curse over the woman suspected of unfaithfulness (verse 21-23), this was not a ‘magic spell’. It does seem like a form of divination with the theory being that God would prevent harm befalling the righteous and therefore determining the facts of the situation. It has been suggested that tainted grain would contain ergotamine from fungus growing on grain or found on the tabernacle floor. Ergotamine has been known to induce labour and could possible cause miscarriage. This passage has therefore been used to argue that the Bible endorses abortion in some cases. This passage also underlines the highly patriarchal society of the ancient Hebrews as there is no test for men who are suspected of infidelity.

As the tabernacle-based religion and priesthood has been superseded, this test is no longer practiced. It should also be pointed out that this is probably a very unreliable way of determining a person’s faithfulness in a relationship and it would be wiser to base decisions on better evidence.

Four questions about the Stations of the Cross

Questions 217 – 220, from Simon, United Kingdom

I want you to do a Q&A on the stations of the cross.

Sure, no problem.

Question 217 – What are they and what is their significance?

The stations of the cross, also known as the ‘Way of the Cross’, are found in some Christian traditions as a way of communicating the events leading up to the death of Jesus. Through art or statues they represent stages of the story of the last hours of Jesus’ life. Traditionally, worshippers would (more…)

The timing of the division between Israel and Judah

Question 216, from Mike

References to Israel and Judah in the Old Testament are made prior to the division into the northern and southern kingdoms after David. When did the distinction first come to be recognised either geographically or as a polity in the history of the Hebrew people? i.e. When did the Jews first started to identify themselves by the two names?

Generally, in the textual study of the Old Testament, there seem to be recognisable attempts to edit and explain much earlier documents, from certain points of view. The strands are referred to as JEDP, the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly viewpoints. (more…)

The ‘missing’ verse in Acts chapter 8

Question 215, from Mark, United Kingdom

Hey freelance theology. I just spotted there’s no Acts 8:37 in the New Living Translation, any thoughts?

Acts chapter 8 verse 37 is part of the conversation between the apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch who is identified as a ‘God-fearer’, that is a non-Jew who believed in the Jewish God. When the eunuch asks if there is anything that would prevent him from being baptised, verse 37 says:

‘Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”’

Eunuchs were excluded from the Jewish religion of the time, so this verse shows that those people who were previously considered unable to fully be part of the chosen people were included in the fledgling church. However, this verse only appears in some manuscripts, (more…)

What was manna? Did Jesus use mandrakes? Can Christians use hallucinogens?

Question 214, from RJ

A friend and I are doing a Bible study, and it has come up regarding what manna really is, and what mandrake was used for by Jesus. Also, have hallucinogens been used in any place by Godly characters in the Bible to achieve a better spiritual enlightenment?

We are not interested or remotely tempted to test this theory! We are just interested in knowing what the Bible says.

It is difficult to know what ‘manna’ actually was. Various theories have been proposed, for example, that it was a nutritious ‘crust’ that formed on the ground as the morning dew evaporated or it was some kind of fungus (see Exodus chapter 16, verse 14). It’s impossible to know as it was extremely perishable (Exodus chapter 16, verses 19-21) and no samples survive (although a portion was sealed in the Ark of the Covenant according to Exodus chapter 16, verse 34 and Hebrews chapter 9, verse 4). (more…)

The emphasis on demons and satan in the New Testament, compared to the Old Testament

Question 213, from Ben, United Kingdom

Why are demons and exorcisms so common in the Gospels but appear to be sparse or even non-present in the majority of other books in the Bible?

The development in Jewish thought of angelology and its counterpart, demonology, is of note. There are very few explicit references to satan* in the Old Testament. The most noteworthy passage where satan features by name is in the beginning of Job (chapters 1 and 2), which is thought because of the words used in the original Hebrew to be a later addition to Job’s story. The serpent in Genesis chapter 3 is never explicitly called satan in the text – this is a later interpretation applied by at least one New Testament writer (Revelation chapter 12, verse 9). (more…)

Christian doctrine pre-dating the establishment of the Canon of Scripture

Question 212, from Phil, United Kingdom

I’ve noticed that the main Christian creeds and so on were established before the canon of Scripture – how much of Christian theology pre-dates the Bible? Is that a problem as we often say theology should be based on the Bible.

The pivotal creeds of the Christian faith include the Nicene Creed established at the Council of Nicea in 325CE and then ratified at the Council of Constantinople in 381CE. These two doctrinal statements produced by these Councils are key to the doctrines of the divinity of Jesus Christ (Nicea) and the divinity of the Holy Spirit (Constantinople). They are foundational to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, even to the point of using terms and language that are still the way the Trinity is described.

However, as Phil has pointed out, they precede the formal establishment of the Canon of Scripture, which distinguishes between (more…)

The ‘one like a Son of Man’ in Daniel chapter 7

Question 211, from Jacob

Hi freelance theology, can you please clarify whether Daniel chapter 7, verse 13 is a reference to the Second Coming or to the Ascension of Christ. If verse 14 is describing a post-Second Coming situation and if Daniel chapter 7, verse 13 is the Ascension, does that not imply a roughly 2000 year gap between verses 13 and 14?

I hope you can make this easier to understand.

Hi Jacob. Thanks for your question. One of the things that tends to happen with Daniel is that it gets interpreted very literally, when it probably should not be. Daniel’s vision of a person he describes as ‘one like a Son of Man’ being received triumphantly in Heaven has been interpreted by Christians to refer to Jesus Christ. The temptation is therefore to make the ‘vision’ fit the known events of Jesus’s life, or in this case, events after his resurrection.

Caution is advisable when interpreting parts of the Bible that are written in the style known as ‘apocalyptic’. It’s important to remember that they were written as messages of hope to people facing oppression. In the case of Daniel, this would be to Jewish people suffering under foreign, pagan rule. (more…)

When should people stop praying?

Question 210, from May

Since thousands of people have prayed for and are still praying for a conclusion to the Maddy McCann story, can we still hope for an answer from God to end the torture of her parents?

This is a really difficult question because, setting aside the tragic disappearance of Madeleine McCann for a moment, the real question is “When do we stop praying for something and assume the answer is ‘no’.” Possibly the question is even deeper, ‘Does God really listen to prayers and answer them.’ (more…)