Older than Christ: Zoaraster and the Afterlife
by Jonathan Wilson
Yes, other religions believe in one life only, and Heaven and Hell.
As the esotericists have pointed out, what Christians believe is much older than anything Jesus Christ himself taught. This leads Sir Laurence to suggest that we might as well return to the pagan concepts and leave the fantasy of Jesus Christ behind. To his credit, Dan Brown puts that suggestion only into the mouth of Teabing who turns out to be the arch villain in the novel.
In "meat and mystery" I dwell on one of Israel's points of origin, Egypt. Israel's other self-attested point of origin is Mesopotamia. For Israel, the Euphrates basin represents two distinct epochs of national formation. There is the ancestral formation, in which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are promised the land of Canaan on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea. Even while living in Canaan as nomads, these ancestors feel the pull northward and find their wives from their kin in Mesopotamia.
During this Bronze Age time frame, Mesopotamia had a diverse population and religious composition. Perhaps its most famous distinguishing feature is its astrological base. Ziggaruts were built with observatories on the pinnacles. The movement of the stars was closely mapped. It became apparent that seasons changed when stars were in particular places, so the superstition developed that it was the stars that in fact controlled these events on earth.
There is little that remains of the astrological in Biblical faith. The song of Deborah refers to the "stars in their courses" fighting against her enemies. And the New Testament begins with a puzzling story about the visit of "Magi" from the East coming to Israel to look for its new king, having been guided by omens in the stars.
The second Mesopotamian epoch in Israel's formation came between eight hundred and five hundred years before Jesus of Nazareth was born. During this period, Egypt's power was failing, but Mesopotamia was giving rise to a rapid succession of mighty empires. These empires gradually carved up the Biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah until no Israelite monarch remained in power and Jerusalem lay in ruins. Hundreds of thousands of Israelites were taken as hostages, and then as prisoners, and then as captives forcibly removed from their homeland.
That is a troubling development in the theological reflections of the Israelites. The promised land and the beloved monarch have been taken away. Historical determinists point to various sociological causes for these developments. However, Bible-believers accept the testimony of the Israelites themselves that they had not been faithful to God's commandments. Instead, they had defiled the Temple of God with the pagan practices of those nations that surrounded them.
This is an interesting counterpoint to Gardner's assertions about the use of the Temple (as noted in "The Sacred Feminine). The Israelites themselves admit that they had worshipped the Asherim of the Canaanites and involved themselves in pagan practices. This does not prove what Gardner hopes, however, since the prophets themselves point to these developments and declare God's anger. Indeed, Israel had been warned of its doom should it perservere in the sin of idolatry and Asherah worship, and that doom came.
What follows is a complicated picture of national formation in the life of Israel, a picture that remains complicated to this day in the generations following the United Nations partition in 1948. It is sufficient here to say that while a good number of Jews were able to depart Mesopotamia and return to their "land of promise," a large number stayed in what became known as "the dispersion." The Jewish people became international and have remained so after 25 centuries.
It was also during those centuries before Christ that a new religious practice took shape in the Persian Empire. This became known as "Zoarastrianism," after its founder Zoaraster. In this conception each person is appointed one life to live, and should strive therefore to live with piety, because at death the almighty God will judge whether the soul is worthy for a paradise of enjoyments or a hell of unimaginable torments. Zoaraster himself describes various tortures in hell with great relish.
What we have developing six centuries before Christ is a belief in which the knowledge that we will not have another reincarnation, but that at death we face a judgment, should make a difference to our behaviors and attitudes. Eschatology, that is, your belief in what happens when people die, will influence your ethics, that is, the way in which you behave. This is very similar to what Christians teach and believe.
It troubles some Bible scholars that there does not seem to be much conception of an afterlife in the Hebrew scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), whereas the resurrection of the just and the unjust fills the New Testament. I personally believe that the Hebrew scriptures testify to eternal life, but that is another complex argument, so for our purposes I will grant that the Old Testament is silent on the subject.
What is universally agreed is that Jewish convictions about the resurrection became much more developed in the four hundred years between the last Old Testament writing and the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. It is in those four centuries that Zoaraster's influence became felt throughout the Persian Empire, which included not only the Jews in Mesopatamia, but for several hundred years included the ancient land of Israel itself.
Jesus Christ did not come to teach the world a new, radical religious concept. Instead he came to affirm that which has always been true: First, that sin needs atonement by blood (see "Meat and Mystery), Second, that we are appointed to one life and after that to face the judgment, Third, that we should live in this world with a view to our eternal destiny.
What is distinctive about Jesus Christ is the hope that he brings. He has made atonement with God on our behalf. When we trust in the name of Jesus We are set free from the task of trying to earn our way into paradise. The Zoarastrians and other faiths that call for ethical living on the basis of an afterlife belief, miss the grace of God that has secured our atonement in Jesus Christ. By God's grace it is our faith in Jesus, rather than the impossible achievement of moral and spiritual perfection, that opens the gates of heaven.