Twilight of the gods: The history of our faith in God

9 januari 2023


ZEUS: The case of the gods is extremely critical, Hera, and it is being fought, as the saying goes, at the cutting edge whether we should still receive honor in the future and retain the honorary gifts we enjoy on earth, or whether we should be completely out of the game, indeed no longer even in the game at all.

Thus Zeus laments his uncertain fate, which surely you would not expect from a god. It is the philosopher Lucianus of Samosata (2e century AD) who, in his satire Conversations of the Gods, shares with us his reflections on the power of the gods. Lucianus knew well that Stoics – and believers in general – believed all sorts of things: that the cosmos was created by divine providence, that it was also maintained by it, and that providence took care of man as well. But Lucianus wondered if providence, or in other words the gods, did all that. Were they indeed omniscient? Could they inform man of the future? Did they really reward good people and punish villains? And something else: why was the cosmos they formed so imperfect? Remarkably, according to Lucianus, the gods depend on the faithful. If they call it quits, if they stop believing, or stop sacrificing, then the gods are finished. It is as simple as that.

But why would people suddenly, or slowly, give up belief in the gods? How is it, that what people have taken for granted for centuries and centuries, eventually come to doubt it? According to William James, American philosopher and psychologist, the origin of belief in gods must always have been psychological in nature. People perceived that the gods provided guidance, that they protected against evil powers, that they provided fertile fields, that they were, in short, generally very useful. When this changed in later times, when the gods did not answer prayers or they no longer responded to meanwhile changed human expectations, morals or ideals, the gods fell into disuse. Among the Romans, we see this occurring first among the elite, who took offence at the rather questionable behavior of the gods as described in myths. Lucianus of Samosata expresses this annoyance. But even ordinary believers sometimes had had it with their gods when they did not do what expensive sacrifices had been made. Then the gods were reviled out loud, their temples were stoned, or the gods were punished by not carrying them around in a holy procession this year. Jews and Christians expected their sovereign God to practice justice and atone for the evil people did, in a way that later believers found simply cruel. The prophet Elijah still unconcernedly let fire come down from heaven on his enemies who were consumed on the spot, but when the disciples suggested Jesus do the same to troublesome Samaritans he resented them greatly. Nor can we today understand eternal damnation in hell, while, for example, believers in the apocryphal Revelation of Peter (2e century AD) look on approvingly as the wicked suffer the most insane hell punishments. Times change, people change, and so gods change, and the One God also changes. We see the One’s character becoming more humane as time goes by, but also his interference in the world diminishes more and more, until finally he hardly has anything to say there anymore and has to take refuge in a last refuge: the heart of the believer. Hence the title of the book: Twilight of the Gods. Twilight of the Gods is the translation of Ragnarøkkr , the title of an Old Norse myth handed down in the Edda. The German composer Richard Wagner adapted this myth into Der Ring des Nibelungen. The third part of it was given the title Götterdämmerung. In it it is narrated how Valhalla, the abode of the gods, catches fire. All the gods are consumed by the raging fire. The people look at their doom with horror. Now humanity is at its own mercy, but a new future shines on the horizon.

This book recounts the significant developments that have occurred in the faith of God on the long road throughout history in which man walked with his God. They are often far-reaching, sometimes dramatic upheavals, which without our realizing it, have shaped our thinking and beliefs (if there still are any).

We begin our journey in the Occident. In that then Western European world, Celts and Teutons roamed around offering sacrifices to their myriad gods. Far away, in the East, other peoples sacrificed to the many gods of their pantheon, but one small people there came to the conviction that there was only one God, who was Creator and Lord over all the earth. The first four chapters deal with emergence of Israel’s faith in this one God, but also tell how the One changed over time – or at least the image people had of him. Christians brought faith in the One to the Occident. But ideas about God would change several more times in the centuries that followed. The next eight chapters describe how early Christianity, and later Protestantism and the Enlightenment initiated those changes. A final chapter outlines where we are today; how does modern man believe?


A first chapter tells the story of the demise of the sanctuary, of what for millennia had been the meeting place between heaven and earth. That meeting place, this gateway to the gods or to God, turned out in the end to be no guarantee of divine protection, which was actually expected. But how could man go on living without a place of encounter with the sacred? Without a materially tangible connection to the spiritual world? A rather new thought, at the beginning of our era, found among pagans, Jews and Christians alike, was that the Holy One was to be found in the heart of the believer himself. Man could meet God in his inner being. Because of this “spiritualized” view, stone temples would, in principle, eventually become obsolete. ‘In principle,’ because Christians did not bring patience: because temples were the enclosure of demons, and sacred Scripture commanded that idolatrous shrines should be destroyed, many Christians set to work: all over the vast Roman empire temples were besieged, damaged, destroyed. To the despair of the pagans, who worriedly wondered why their gods just let them get on with it. Finally, we make a leap in time and look at a strange recurrence of these things in the Protestant iconoclasm.
In Israel there was a wonderful evolution from polytheism (worshipping many gods), to monolatry (worshipping only one god among many), to monotheism, (the belief that only one God exists). In the second chapter, we look at which gods could initially rejoice in the praise of the Israelites. But above all, we examine what events in Israel’s history prompted them henceforth to confine themselves to worship of Yahweh alone, and how Israel came to believe that, after all, there is only one God. It is a fascinating history that has had enormous consequences for many millions of believers of three monotheistic religions.

Many believers (and non-believers) have a problem with the Bible, and that is with the violence it contains. This involves violence, manslaughter, extermination of others. That’s what chapter three is about. Of course, violence is of all times, people do things to each other! But here it is about violence and manslaughter commanded by God. However, the fact that the believer experiences this as a problem is remarkable; it implies an explicit criticism of Scripture, which is after all authoritative for the believer precisely. That criticism has everything to do with a Jew who thought very differently about violence and God’s involvement in it: Jesus preached nonviolence. How did he actually get there, this revolutionary idea that seems to be at odds with what the Holy Scriptures proclaim about God, the Lord of hosts? What mechanisms led to such a changing image of God?

As if things were not difficult enough, at least the biblical God seems to punish fiercely. Misfortune strikes his chosen people many times, misfortune that not infrequently leads to dismay, to bewilderment, which was also experienced as traumatic. But just as many times that people confess that this wrath of God was justified, that they deserved it because of their own sins. The disasters that befell the people had to be a punishment for the sins of mortals; how else could they be explained? Calvinism stands in that tradition. Everything that happens to us is given to us from the loving hand of God: blessing and punishment, life and death. The alternative is utter randomness in the events of this world. But that things just happen, randomly, that what happens to you has no meaning whatsoever, who can bear that? That is what chapter four is about.

The next three chapters deal specifically with transformations in the faith of Christians. We begin in a fifth chapter with the Trinity doctrine. This is not a very popular topic of conversation today, but it was once different. In the 3e and 4e centuries, many plunged into fiery controversies about exactly how God was. We will briefly review how this developed in Christian circles and briefly describe what the Trinity means. But we will also see how some Jews were tempted to postulate some sort of secondary god in addition to the One (to the horror of the right-wing believers). And we’ll look at the reaction of Muslims to the Trinity and to the divinity of Jesus. We examine where their fierce rejection may have its sources, and how in a strange way the controversy over Jesus divinity influenced how Muslims viewed the Qur’an.

In a sixth chapter we deal with the drama of the failure of the promised coming of the Kingdom of God. And well – it seems so anyway – its eternal failure. Even before Christ, apocalyptics promised that the time of pain and misery would soon be over, that God himself would establish his kingdom of law and peace on earth. In the first century, the seer John promised that God would wipe every tear from the face of the weary believer, that he would soon come. But twenty centuries later, he still has not come, and believers still look forward to the coming of the Son of God. Fortunately, some know that now, in our time, that coming is really very near.

“What I do, I do not fathom, for I do not do what I want, on the contrary, I do what I hate.” In chapter seven we consider a difficult issue: to what extent is man’s will free? Or does God determine everything? We trace the history of thinking about this. The early Christians didn’t really see a problem with it: you just had to try hard to do the right thing; if only you wanted to, you could do it. But Paul, and Augustine in his wake, were not so sure. Augustine (354-430) would battle on this issue with his contemporary Pelagius, who also believed that you shouldn’t whine and just do the right thing. A similar discussion arose later between Luther and Erasmus, even later between Reformed and Arminians, and among Catholics between Jansenists and Jesuits. Fierce discussions were held, arguments arose, abusive language was used, sometimes people went to blows with each other, on a theme that reached deep into the soul of the believer: was he really a free man? In our own time, the discussion has shifted somewhat into scientific territory: are we our brain, or do we transcend it? Discussions about this are equally fierce.

The eighth chapter explains how, particularly in Europe, there has been an evolution from faith to unbelief. Not that there is no longer any faith to be found at all, but it has been pushed back into the private sphere. And those who testify too enthusiastically about it are looked upon pityingly. “Faith is beautiful,” someone then says, “I wish I could do it too”; indicating that one has irrevocably passed this stage in human development. In this chapter we take a bird’s eye view of how faith slowly disappeared from Europe: from Protestants who learned to think for themselves, with the growing importance of reason as a result, to deism and physico-theology. We think along with some of the innovative philosophers of the time: Descartes, Spinoza, Voltaire, Newton. All wanted to preserve faith, but faith would henceforth look different than it had always been.

Very early in history, some Greek philosophers were convinced that the world came into being and evolved of its own accord, without the intervention of the gods. Those gods, by the way, had themselves arisen from fine material matter. One should not expect anything from those gods, they were not concerned with the concerns of humans, so one did not need to fear them. We are dealing here with atheistic theories of creation. Much later, Charles Darwin would provide scientific evidence that nature had evolved of its own accord, without the intervention of God – who probably did not exist. In a letter to a friend, Darwin acknowledged that he had lost track, and could no longer find traces of a benevolent and omnipotent God anywhere. We briefly sketch in this ninth chapter what those theories of evolution of the Greeks and those of Darwin looked like. But above all, we will examine how Christians responded to them, both in the first centuries of our era, and in our own times. We will note the curious fact that, because of those theories of evolution, Christians’ view of God changed.

Radical Enlightenment thinkers like Diderot (who also had his theory of evolution) and de Lamettrie, had decided that there was no God. No one had ever seen God, no one had ever noticed him, so it was better to accept what had always been obvious. But if God was no longer there, what had been the meaning of religion in all the centuries that had passed? That is what this tenth chapter is about. Some saw only one explanation for its survival for so long: religion offered comfort to the distraught in a cruel world. But one had to admit by now that it had proved false comfort. Now the time had come when man shed the childlike, and matured and recognized that he was alone in the senseless universe, that he had better roll up his own sleeves to make something of it. Feuerbach, Marx and Freud each argued in their own way that man should finally stop projecting his desires onto a heavenly screen. A dramatic endpoint was set by Nietzsche with the “death of God,” something about which he himself was appalled, but which the average person is not very concerned about today.

The eleventh chapter deals with the dissatisfaction with the disappearance of God, and describes the yearning for the spiritual, for mysticism. Even though the world has been skillfully de-enchanted, many people still long for enchantment. If God has disappeared from nature, from the world, from society, even from the church, there is still one place where he might be met: in the inner being of man. That may not seem like much, but we will see that extraordinary adventures can be had there. Mysticism is old, but in the chapter “The Inner Light,” we will look especially at how mysticism flourished from the Reformation to the present. This both in Protestantism and in the Catholic Church. In the process, we will encounter quite a few bizarre, sometimes almost unbelievable forms of mysticism.
In the next chapter, “Mysticism Outside the Church,” we discover that mysticism could also move away from the faith of the great churches, or rather had nothing more to do with it; it leaned closer to nature, came to be impressed by the grandeur of the cosmos, or by the depths of one’s own soul, as with the Romantics. It all remained a little vague, but this flou artistique was just so charming. Anyway, somewhere in the endless universe, or in the wonder of nature, or in the soul of man himself, there one could meet God.

In the final chapter, “Our Own Times,” it is explained that today both believers and unbelievers live in an immanent, “de-enchanted” world, a world without ghosts and gods, saints and tormentors. But some still live under an open sky, others under a closed sky; that is, with or without a view of the transcendent. Why is it, in fact, that so many people take a closed heaven – the world as a closed system, without God – for granted? Why is it that many experience transcendence as threatening? While others yearn for it and focus their souls on what transcends our world? We then look at the situation of the modern, contemporary believer. In a nutshell, he will decide for himself what he believes and how he believes. Yet it seems advisable to fit into a larger whole, into a church, if one does not want to go through life navel-gazing. Finally, we reflect on the exciting question of how the believer can draw near to God, how he can meet the Entirely Other. While the previous chapters are mostly descriptive and informative, in this final chapter I also present my own, personal vision. As a believer.

The chapters are arranged only roughly chronologically. Indeed, some themes are not bound to time and recur in other centuries in a different way. Finally, it is not the intention to discuss really everything that has led to changes in views of God in human history. I do hope to have explored the major twists and turns that have taken place in our Western world.

Daniel De Waele

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