We humans are the only animals that consciously know in advance that we must ultimately die, and because we also possess the natural instinct of self-preservation, we live in constant tension between the realization of death and the desire to continue existing—even when our existence is not immediately at stake. Thus we are estranged from our own mortality, which leads us to ponder the significance of our individual lives and the many dimensions of human life in general. That contemplation gives rise to religion and philosophy. Perhaps because we humans are the only animals estranged from death, we are the only religious animals.
All human religions are predicated on dealing with this estrangement. What differs among the various religions are the details: the nature of the estrangement, the identity of the entity from which we are estranged, and the remedy. From this we could build a taxonomy of religions. For instance we could posit, among others, the following categories:
- Religions in which the estrangement is from nature.
The remedy is to engage in rituals to restore harmony, by conforming human beings to nature on the one side, and conforming nature to human needs on the other. These religions either deal with death with resignation or by affirming reincarnation. We might place Wicca, Hinduism, and the fertility cults of ancient Palestine in this category.
- Religions in which the estrangement is from a universal, cosmic mind.
The remedy is to suppress all individual desires and to annihilate all individual identity, so that the individual can be assimilated back into the universal, cosmic mind from whence it came. These religions may affirm reincarnation, but they ultimately view death as annihilation in some positive sense. We might place Buddhism into this category.
- Religions in which the estrangement is from a large, stable society.
The remedy is to find individual fulfillment in one’s social roles within society. Death is viewed as a social necessity or a personal sacrifice to benefit all. We might place Shintō and the ancient Mayan religion in this category.
In the case of the ancient Hebrews, the estrangement is from a monotheistic personal God who is also creator, proprietor, and custodian of the universe. The story of the Garden of Eden explains how archetypal ancestors brought about death and estrangement for themselves and their descendants by disobeying God. Thus the nature of the estrangement is disobedience, and the remedy is reconciliation and obedience. The estrangement is mitigated through ritual practices, which have to be repeated, because obedience is not perfect. It leaves the remedy for death a matter of hope and speculation. By the time of the first century, there were lively, but unofficial teachings regarding heaven, hell, resurrection, and judgment, which Judaism no longer dogmatically affirms.
Christology as the Fundamental Christian Doctrine
Christianity, building upon the platform erected by Judaism, accepts its scenario and notes three problems:
- Periodic exhortations by prophets and teachers have failed to effect a permanent reconciliation.
All the rituals have to be repeated over and over again, providing each time at best temporary relief. Implicit within the temporary nature of the relief is the anxiety that there might be periods of time in which no reconciliation is in effect.
- The problem of death has not been adequately addressed.
Even the well-developed teachings on death, resurrection, and judgment in the first century have not been validated through demonstration, and in view of the first problem, there is no guarantee that, even if they were validated, they would be efficacious when needed.
- The scope is too small
It does not address the predicament of the human race in general.
In this context, Christianity advances Jesus Christ as a mediator who can effect a permanent reconciliation by finally and completely meeting all ritual obligations, who can resolve the problem of death by conquering it Himself, and who can address the universal predicament of the entire human race. Since Christian theology puts Jesus in the role of a mediator between the human race and God, Jesus Himself is the remedy to the estrangement and Christology is foundational. Therefore, Christology is the most fundamental of Christian doctrines, and one of its most fundamental tasks is to examine Jesus’ qualifications to perform His role as mediator.