When I was in high school, I started reading the works of Ayn Rand, and her ideas really threw me for a loop and made me rethink everything I had come to assume in life. I liked many of the things she said, but she seemed too extreme, and some of her statements seemed completely upside-down compared to what I felt was evident in the world around me. One of the reasons for this was the fact that, in her criticism of various concepts and constructs, she started by assigning them a private definition. For instance, according to Ayn Rand, sacrifice is “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.” Naturally, I do not want to give up something of great value for something of no value, so I should never sacrifice, right? Well, the dictionary definition of sacrifice is “the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim.” It is easy to hate something when you give it a definition that is the complete opposite of its actual definition.
In his recent FoxNews opinion piece, professional minister Alex Himaya proclaims that Jesus hates religion. And what is religion? As he says: “Religion, for me, is a man-made path to God. That’s how I define it in my new book.” Certainly, if that were the actual definition of religion, I would hate it as much as Himaya and his fictional Jesus do. However, that is not the definition of religion. Like Ayn Rand, Himaya thinks he can attack concepts that are not easily attacked by simply identifying them as something other than what they are. A description of religion that is truer to the common understanding of the word would be “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional or ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” In stating that he and Jesus both hate religion, Alex Himaya not only ignores the undeniably religious nature of Jesus’ mission and ministry, but he also shows himself to be religious in more ways than he realizes.
Let’s talk about Jesus first. In modern times, anti-establishment spiritualists have tried repeatedly to reinvent Jesus as a cool hippie who never said anything the slightest bit controversial and accepted everyone and everything, never intending to tell people what to do or teach anything that could hurt people’s feelings, such as repentance. However, while it does illustrate a certain side of Jesus’ teachings, this mindset is simply not honest. The Jesus of the New Testament is an undeniably religious figure – and a very controversial one at that. In fact, if we were to judge the religiosity of Jesus’ ministry based on the aforementioned dictionary definition of religion, Jesus and the Gospel would pass on every point with flying colors. Consider the following:
- Cause of the universe: In John 8:58, in a fashion that was undeniably clear to His audience, Jesus claimed to be the very Creator spoken of in the Old Testament.
- Nature of the universe: In 1 Corinthians 15:22, and in many other scriptures, we are taught that this life is a fallen state, and that we are all hopelessly fallen without the help of Jesus Christ.
- Purpose of the universe: In the Book of Revelation, John writes the resurrected Jesus’ words when he is given a glimpse of the fulfillment of the purpose of this world and this mortal life. As Jesus says: “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” The purpose of this life is to give us a chance to grow by overcoming trials and thereby, with God’s help, partake in the fullness of God’s glory.
- Ritual observances: In Matthew 14:22-24, we read of Jesus teaching the ritual of partaking of the bread and wine as an outward expression of acceptance of His Atonement. Baptism is another ritual that He taught by example. As is prayer. He also apparently had great respect for the ritual observances performed in the temple – enough for Him to temporarily abandon His usual calm demeanor, fashion a whip, and violently drive away those who had turned that holy site into a place of commerce. (He actually did this twice.)
- Moral code: Jesus constantly taught people what they should and should not do. The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) are the most famous example of this. He also taught people that they should give tithes and offerings, not get divorced, not commit adultery, not be hypocrites, etc. Even Himaya’s new-age rendition of Jesus’ teachings – suspiciously heavy on the “judge not” part and not much else – shows that Jesus did, in fact, give us a strict moral code that is intended to guide our lives. Even after Jesus famously saved the adultress from being stoned, He did not excuse her sins, but actually commanded her to stop sinning.
- Organization: This was not mentioned in the dictionary definition cited above, but many attribute it to religious observance. Some seem to believe that Jesus Christ did not set up any kind of organization, but this is false. For example, He clearly established a church and appointed Peter to lead it in his absence (Matthew 16:18). He also encouraged His followers to gather together in His name (Matthew 18:20).
Jesus was and is a religious figure. Alex Himaya can deny it to his heart’s content, but the truth of the matter is plainly evident to anyone who has actually read the Bible. And Jesus is not the only one. Alex Himaya is most definitely a religious man, too. However he may deny it, it is true. He is a minister! He is clearly aware of the contradiction here. The title of his article, assuming this, was written with the express intent of arousing curiosity. “Why would a minister say that Jesus hates religion?” Things like that get clicks. Where Himaya goes wrong is in defining religion based on a few of its common but unessential properties instead of on its core properties. He might as well say: “Jesus hates government, because government is something that murders people by the millions.” While government has certainly done such things, and while Jesus would certainly disapprove of such actions, I think it would be a mistake to label Jesus an anarchist who hates government.
I will say that, while Jesus did not hate religion, He did hate certain specific manifestations of religion. This became evident in His many run-ins with the Sadducees and Pharisees. His disapproval of their teachings and activities spanned many issues, but Alex Himaya actually touched on the core of it with his very limited definition of religion: Like the builders of the Tower of Babel, the Sadducees and Pharisees sought to build a highway to heaven with their own hands. Theirs was a man-made code of conduct masquerading as something divine. Jesus was right to hate it, of course. And so is Alex Himaya. And yet, despite Himaya’s similarities to Jesus in hating (certain aspects of) religion, he is also painfully similar to the Sadducees and Pharisees in a number of ways. For example:
- Authority: The original apostles received their authority when they were ordained by Jesus (Mark 3:14-15). Matthias – the apostle who replaced Judas Iscariot – received his authority from the other apostles (Acts 1:21-26). These were unlearned men. The Jewish leaders were amazed that they could teach so effectively when they had not attended the proper schools (Acts 4:13). The Sadducees and Pharisees, on the other hand, were quite learned. They had a rigid educational structure in place in which prospective leaders were made to learn the scriptures to great depth. It was common for them to have the Torah completely memorized. And yet, when faced with the Savior and living prophets, the Sadducees and Pharisees failed to recognize them for who they were. If we want to see Himaya’s credentials for telling us about Jesus and religion, we need only to look at the foot of his article: “Himaya received his bachelor’s degree from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas and his Masters degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. He finished his Doctorate in Church Growth and Evangelism in May 2002.” Did Jesus Christ found the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary? Did the apostles? Did someone who could trace his authority to the apostles? If not, how does this institution have the power to grant someone the authority to speak for God?
- Occupation: Jesus was a carpenter. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector. None of these men were preachers or ministers by profession. While they all clearly found ways of studying the scriptures sooner or later, none had gone through the Pharisaic schools. Paul came from this background, but he became what he became because he obeyed when Jesus appeared to him and told him to repent, and not because he was a professional minister. Upon becoming apostles, none of these men became wealthy.
- Courage: Himaya may claim to be different from the Pharisees based on the fact that his teachings are on the opposite end of the spectrum. While the pharisaic dogma was on the far right, the antinomian dogma that Himaya preaches is on the far left. “Nothing we do – our behavior, our beliefs, our best efforts – will ever make us good enough to approach God.” While this statement is true to scripture, like so many ministers preaching an unobtrusive cotton-candy Christianity, in practice, Himaya is merely encouraging people to profess faith in Jesus, and not to actually make the sacrifices needed to undergo the great change of heart that is associated with said faith. Himaya is similar to the Pharisees in the sense that he is more concerned with pleasing the worldly mind than with bringing people closer to God. The Pharisees succeeded in maintaining their paradigm for as long as they did because they gave people a set of easy rules they could follow in order to get to heaven. Himaya does the same. While the Pharisees obsessed over following the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law, Himaya essentially throws away the law altogether. In doing so, like the Pharisees, Himaya would seek to build his own road to heaven with his own hands. He is merely paving his road with good intentions instead of lawful deeds. In both cases, God’s expectations of humanity are redefined to please those who think that they should be allowed to transcend into a better world while still hanging onto this one.
Religion is not necessarily good or bad, right or wrong. It can go either way. True religion, however, is quite good, and Jesus Christ paid the dearest price ever to give it to us. To define it as something bad or even as something mostly bad would be to give it an incorrect definition – especially from a Christian perspective. Religion is most clearly characterized not by a judgmental mentality as Himaya says, but by devotion. We all can be devoted to either truth or wickedness, and we all tend to maintain something of a mixture. It is unfortunate that people are hyper-judgmental. It is unfortunate that people obsess over the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. However, it is also unfortunate that some people water religion down to such a point that it has lost all usefulness and efficacy, such that its adherents do not even recognize it as religion anymore.
Despite such unfortunate deeds, though, those who would turn the cross into a cudgel do not make religion intrinsically evil any more than those who would turn it into a doobie. Christ preached true religion, and He gave us salvation that, though unearned, still requires sacrifice. Salvation is free, but it was never easy. (If it were, attendance at Himaya’s congregation at theChurch at Battlecreek™ would be pointless.) Salvation is free, but it will cost you everything you have that is of no value. Salvation is free, but it is not cheap. Salvation is free, so you do not need to buy it from Alex Himaya for $11.02 on Amazon. As the apostle Jeffrey R. Holland once said, “How could we believe it would be easy for us when it was never, ever easy for Him?” If Alex Himaya feels that religion is a man-made path to God, it may very well be that his religion (as everyone has a religion) is just that.