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October 19, 2012


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A colleague taught me long ago that Gods are eternal; they never die! (Most of us would likely agree that the God we know is eternal.) Oddly enough, however, the deaths of two ancient Gods were specifically reported in ancient literature. Asclepius the Greek God of healing was killed by one of Zeus’s thunderbolts, and the Greek God Pan died of unknown causes in the early first century during the reign of Tiberius. His death overlapped that of Jesus of Nazareth (around 30-35). Pan's death was announced by what appeared to be a divine voice to one Thamus. Both of these Gods were lesser deities in the Greek pantheon of Gods—that is, not one of the canonical twelve.

     Information about Gods (entities of whom we have no first-hand historical information) is traditional, mythical, and always very personal. The Gods have provided us neither written texts nor physical artifacts, although many will cite literature and artifacts that are believed to provide us reliable data about the Gods. And people are always willing to tell us about the Gods they serve. When you get down to it, however, our data about all Gods are based on opinion, both ancient and modern—and contradictory opinions at that.

     Gods do go out of fashion for one reason or another. Does anyone today worship the Canaanite God of storms, Baal? And Baal even had religious texts to attest to His prowess! My colleague, however, preferred to describe the death of Gods in this way: What passes away is not the God but His devotees. The God is not dead but rather is waiting around to be rediscovered (time, after all, has no significance for an eternal God). Poseidon, brother of Zeus, for example, is one of the canonical twelve Greek Gods. He is the God of the seas, oceans, earthquakes, and horses, and apparently is still out there in the watery depths of the Aegean waiting for new devotees to reawaken His memory by a ceremonial sacrifice or libation.

     I know the idea of a plurality of Gods is a difficult concept for those of us who have come to theological thinking after the thrusts toward monotheism in the late Roman period. One may well ask: how can there possibly be more than one God? The answer is simple: If there can be one, why can’t there be two? In general in the Western world today, however, we think only ONE God exists. It so, He is the sole representative of His former species, which at one time apparently numbered in the thousands, maybe even millions. In antiquity a plurality of Gods was the rule. Or at least that is what the records show of the numerous Divinities people have worshipped since the dawn of recorded history. Every nation, people, or clan had a pantheon of Gods ruling over the geographical sphere of their influence. In antiquity people, like the Israelites for example, recognized the existence of many Gods, although in the case of the Israelites they served only one.

     The fashion today is to think there is, and always has been, only ONE God. Polytheism was simply superstition gone to seed. People tend to think that their view of the ONE God is the true view. All other views are simply false. Each Christian group, for example, will insist that other views of the One God are simply wrong, and that non-Christian faiths are benighted—non-Christians need to be introduced to the ONE true God, even though each Christian group has a different perception of God.

     Looking at modern Christianity in America through an ancient polytheistic lens, however, the situation appears somewhat different. The modern Fundamentalist God did not exist until the early 20th century—an infant among our American Pantheon of Christian Gods—or, as my colleague would insist, no devotees who served the Fundamentalist God existed until the early 20th century; hence the Fundamentalist God did not “exist” till then. The Evangelical God was born in the 17th century; and since then has constantly been evolving into His current 21st-century persona. The Protestant God was born in the 16th century, and since His birth, He has splintered into many different almost unrecognizable emanations. The Catholic Gods (both Orthodox and Roman) received first oblations certainly by the 4th century. The Jewish God, in the forms we know Him today, was not born until the late first century. Or if you prefer, the Jewish God in His rather long infancy did not reach maturity till the first-century Common Era.

     My own view of the matter is that God, if God there be, always is, and what I am talking about in this essay are perceptions of God through Western culture. God is ONE, but the versions of the ONE God are manifold enough to deny the adjective ONE.

     I realize that all devotees believe their view is the truth. But God, like all of us, is subject to varieties of views—and any and all views may be wide of the mark. The really odd thing is that we can hold God captive by our flawed human depictions, which are constantly evolving, some for the better and some for the worse. The question that continues to bother me, however, is this: If even one God can die, what does that suggest about the future of all Gods?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 11:42am