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Religion Enslaves People. But is this Good in the Sight of God?

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According to the writings contained in the New Testament, Jesus Christ said “who the Son sets free is free indeed” (John 8:36). In this article, I will be considering the kind of freedom that Jesus might have been referring to, and I will also look more generally at the major Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) and the relationship between personal freedom and the concept of being enslaved to God through sacrificial service.

I first became a Christian during a spell in psychiatric hospital. My admission to hospital followed a period of intense turbulence in my life, but it was a kind of turbulence that in retrospect I can see was very meaningful and spiritually significant. For instance, I spent some time sleeping rough outside a mosque, and even attended a prayer session in the mosque, despite having had no prior interest in Islam. During the same period of time I was watching The Da Vinci Code on repeat — not the best introduction to Christianity, of course, but still evidence of a soul that was spiritually searching.

My mental state at this time led to erratic behaviour that it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable to recall, and is not directly relevant to this article (I tell the story of this episode in my life in my book The Philosophy of a Mad Man). But what’s important to note here is that following this spell of spiritual and mental turbulence, which resulted in me ending up in hospital, I asked the staff on the ward for a Bible, which I took back to my room on the psychiatric ward and read with real interest for the first time.

As I read sections of the Old and New Testament in my hospital room, I had the experience of becoming acutely aware of my sin. Before long I was on my knees and repenting to God for all the many sins of my youth, including wild sexual promiscuity, dabbling in illicit substances, and being prone to lying in order to make my life easier. Reading the Bible is like holding a mirror up to oneself — it causes us to examine our actions past and present in light of the law of God and the various kinds of religious writings (prophecy, psalms, parables, etc) contained therein.

Exploring the Bible during this spell in hospital was my full-time work. I had a Bible from the Gideons, a King James Version, which contained a useful section at the beginning indicating where readers should go in the Bible for different kinds of spiritual direction (for example, relationship issues, anxiety, or anger). I would recommend the Gideon Bibles to any new Christians who don’t know where to start on their faith journey for this reason.

Reading my Gideon KJV Bible in that ward room changed my life. While the doctors may have perceived that I had a brain disorder that needed medicating, I was aware that God was using this time to awaken me to the reality of his existence, and to the spiritual direction revealed in the Bible. Before long I surrendered my life to God and asked him to help me live the rest of my life in dedication to him. On learning more about Jesus and the gift of forgiveness of sins in his name, I was compelled to surrender everything to follow him; to accept the gift of grace and mercy that God was offering to me through the pages of Scripture.

When we make the decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour, two things happen. One is that we feel immensely joyful and grateful to God that our sins are forgiven and that he has brought us into his family. The other is that we become slaves to the will of God, as revealed through Jesus Christ. This slavery is very serious indeed — it is a kind of slavery so intense that it produces martyrs. Let there be no mistake, following Jesus is a kind of slavery, and it’s not even controversial to say so; all true Christians would agree.

But is this slavery to Christ a cause for fear and dread? Well, Jesus is described in the Bible as the ‘prince of peace’ (Isaiah 9:6) and he said, ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30). I have already quoted John 8:36, which says ‘who the Son sets free is free indeed’. What I found as I embarked upon my journey as a Christian was that a sense of peace undergirded my daily life. The more immersed I was in the Bible, the closer I felt to Jesus, and the more at peace I was.

In addition to the comforting scriptures quoted in the preceding paragraph, Jesus is also quoted in the Bible as saying, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25) This is serious. Jesus is indicating the very real possibility that serving him may lead to death, and it’s no secret that many of Jesus’ first followers, as well as many Christians throughout history, have been martyred for their faith.

So while Jesus promises peace, the Christian faith necessarily involves the likelihood of persecution and even martyrdom. Christians expect to suffer for their faith, and this in itself is a kind of slavery. But a Christian would argue that slavery to Jesus is the best kind of slavery, because orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus is God, and so slavery to Jesus is slavery to God — the God who created the universe and who is in control of all things. Isn’t this kind of slavery to be embraced; slavery which God requires of us and which pleases him?

Having briefly discussed the spiritual burden of slavery involved with being a Christian, I will proceed to make a few comments on the same subject but in relation to the religion of Islam.

Muslims believe that the Qur’an is divine revelation — perfect in form and given by God to the Arabs via the Angel Gabriel who revealed the text in portions to the prophet Muhammad over a period of many years. Muslims believe that the Qur’an exists in heaven on a ‘preserved tablet’ (Surah 85:22) and contains divine instruction for all people.

In the religion of Islam, there is not the kind of radical ‘born again’ transformation that Christians experience when they come to believe in Jesus the Messiah. While in Christianity our sins are erased when we accept Jesus, in Islam the spiritual perspective is on our lives as a whole — how we live, our conduct, and our obedience to the obligations required of Muslims by God.

The ‘five pillars’ of Islam are as follows: profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage (if one is able). These five pillars are not mentioned as such explicitly in the Qur’an, however Muslims believe they are what God requires of them, and they are derived from the teaching found in the Qur’an.

Good deeds are central to the life of Muslims. So the type of slavery to God that Muslims experience is that they must be ever-mindful of their conduct, always doing good and fleeing from evil, and always turning to God in repentance when they stray from the right path and make mistakes. The Qur’an repeatedly emphasises the bipolar distinction between paradise and hell, the good on the one hand and the wrongdoers on the other, and Muslims must live a life of good moral conduct, even though the Qur’an is clear that God guides whomever he will and leaves to stray whomever he will, so all that we do is in God’s hands.

There is another type of slavery found in Islam which must be discussed, and that is the obligation to fight under certain circumstances. While in the New Testament Jesus teaches us that we should never fight (Matthew 5:39), in the Qur’an, Muslims are encouraged to fight back when attacked, especially in the case of persecution (see, for example, Surah 2:191). In fact, in the Qur’an, God describes how those who do fight in God’s cause will be afforded a better place in paradise than those who are too fearful to do so. We can see in this another form of religious slavery — that for Muslims there is the yoke of having to perhaps fight, and potentially die as a martyr, in order to fulfil one’s obligations to God.

Of course, in the Scriptures of Judaism, the other major Abrahamic religion I have not yet discussed in this article, there is a very prominent form of bondage, which is the Mosaic law given to the Israelites, which includes the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) and the whole host of laws given by God to Moses and incumbent upon the Jewish people. The animal sacrifices which formed such a central part of Jewish ritual in Old Testament times were an obligation from God, and the Jewish people were in slavery to God in having to fulfil the obligations of the law.

We are all familiar with the story of the Exodus in Judaism. The Jewish people were in bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt, and through a series of miracles brought about by God, the Jews were set free from Pharaoh when they crossed the Red Sea safely while Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the waters. While the Jewish people were saved from bondage to Pharaoh by God, this came at the expense of entering into a different kind of bondage — bondage to God and to the law which would be given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

I have discussed how all three of the major Abrahamic religions require submission to God in a way that could be understood as a yoke, a burden, bondage, or slavery. But what I haven’t yet discussed is the reasons why God would want us to be in bondage to him. In all three of the Abrahamic religions I have discussed, the religious obligations incumbent on people are in their best interests. Christians are ordered to choose the way of peace. Muslims are commanded to be charitable. Jews are commanded by the law not to murder or commit adultery. God’s obligations are designed to rein in human excess and sin, and help us to live lives of goodness, so that we can be happy and please God.

The other component to this is that in all three of the Abrahamic religions I have discussed we find the belief that one day all human beings will be bodily resurrected to face God in judgement. The way we are justified (made right with God) is a big topic in its own right, and there is not space for an in-depth discussion here. But what I will say is that while these religions differ in their views on justification, they all agree that there will be a heaven and a hell, and that every human being will be an inhabitant of one or the other destination.

Our slavery to God during our lives on Earth is meant to prepare us for the great joy of being entirely free — free from fear, from fighting, from sin, from evil, and from suffering, in the life to come.