For many years now, I have adhered to a principle that (for me) has drawn a stark contrast between religion and Christianity, and has put all things theological into a certain relative perspective, one that has been highly instrumental in helping me sort out the truths and the myths. It is:
Religion is man's attempt to reach God (or some other named form or deity), while Christianity is God's attempt to reach man.
Think about this for a second.
Sam at PR states in his essay:
Early man, in trying to understand the forces of the natural world, developed a belief system in which many gods represented forces of nature.
Those of us that know and understand history know that man has been curious about the possibility of higher beings and an unseen realm that contains answers to physical mysteries. When attempting to answer questions about why it rained and other natural elements which man could not control, it was easy to assign some kind of supernatural explanation to them. And in doing this, man also determined that adverse events out of his control, had to be the result of something he was or was not doing that the force behind this element was not pleased with.
The multitude of deities that evolved from man's reasonings about these things, was one example of man complicating things, more so than was originally intended. He could not fathom that there was one entity that was over everything, he had to have many to explain the different phenomena that he experienced.
One example found in the Bible is the story of the tower of Babel. After God sought the people to disperse and populate the earth, the people thought they'd build a tower into the heavens, to be with God. Man tried, but as the rest of the story goes, they soon found their languages confused, thus no coordination could take place. By man not doing the will of God, his actions brought on more complications to a world that seemingly had one simple directive.
But, at the time of God's choosing (and only at that time), He sent his Son into the earth to redeem mankind. By sending Christ here and offering Him as the ultimate sacrifice, God and man made contact. Not through man's doing or effort, but by God's. After that, man had need of no more rituals, no more sacrifices, and no more ceremonies to touch the mind of God, for God had provided an opportunity that man need only accept and believe. God's purpose in all of this, was not complicated at all.
What was His purpose?
I firmly believe, the purpose of this effort was to free mankind from the horrible curse that came upon mankind, from Adam and Eve's actions in the Garden of Eden. That curse was death. God had told Adam that if they ate of the tree at the center of the garden, in that day they ate of it, they would "surely die". It's obvious that He did not mean they would die that same day. But He merely meant the day they ate, they would have this onus around their necks. It meant that instead of having eternal life, they would face a day whereby they would cease to exist on this earth.
If we read John 3:16, we can see this was the distinction being made for hope of restoring an opportunity for eternal life (as it would have been, had Adam and Eve not disobeyed and brought the curse on mankind in the first place):
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
This is one of the most quoted scripture by Christians of all denominations, yet it is (I feel) one of the most misunderstood. Note that the distinction is not between spending eternity in Heaven or Hell, but having everlasting life over death.
So, when Sam asserts and asks the following:
Modern religion assures us that there is an after-life existence in either heaven or hell. Remember, one must believe it in order to achieve it . . . but one really must ask if there is a heaven or hell, what has happened to the souls of all those millions of people who lived long before Jesus or Allah? Have these ancient souls been condemned to a never-ending torment just because they happened to live at the wrong time, or in the wrong place?
I have somewhat of an answer.
I say all souls that have died (before or after Christ came and redeemed the world are now dead), are now awaiting the day when their names are called to come forth in the resurrection, the same resurrection that Christ experienced. Those that are known by God will live again. That is the hope, that is the promise. Furthermore it is my belief that the Roman Church in the Dark Ages deliberately twisted passages from the Bible that were meant to be interpreted in a metaphorical sense, and not literally. Those passages became mainstream, because Rome wanted tight control over its subjects through the Church.
In short, I do not believe that there is a special place that God sets aside for those He wishes to torment (with angels all standing around the camp fire pit saying; "Goody, goody, they are getting what they deserve"). The lost souls that have done evil, killed innocents, and blasphemed will not fry and pop in the pits of hell, throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity. They will die and stay dead forever.
The current concept of Hell is just one example of how man has overcomplicated Christianity, as has been done with most religions throughout the annals of time. God gave Moses and the children of Israel the Law, it wasn't long before they complicated it. By the time Christ came, they had it so over-saturated with unnecessary rituals, that it was unrecognizable, from it purest form.
With that in mind, it only stands to reason the same has been done with Christianity and does much to explain why so many people are confused and even turned off by something that in it's purest form, was simple and easy. God uncomplicated religion and man messed it back up as he does everything he touches.
Questions? I'll try to answer them, best I can. If not, ponder on these things and see if they do not make a little sense.