Everybody knows about the Middle Eastern monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But few people know there is another religion that originated in the Middle East whose adherents also believe in and worship one God. That little known religion is called Zoroastrianism, or the Parsi faith.
As we saw in my previous article, Zoroastrianism is the ancient Persian religion that dominated Iran prior to the coming of Islam. The prophet Zoroaster (c. 628–551 BC) affirmed and proclaimed a monotheistic faith that identified Ahura Mazda as the almighty God. An ancient religion that reflects a moral dualism, the Parsi faith places a strong emphasis upon individual human choice and responsibility.
The religious idea that heaven is an earned reward and damnation a just punishment is held by many more people than just the small number of individuals who embrace the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism (estimated to be about 200,000 worldwide). The idea that heaven is reserved for those who try to live good, decent, and just moral lives and hell a just punishment for those who are evil is an extremely common belief. It is a belief held by many within the institutional religions of the world and by people who identify themselves as not being religious per se, but rather “spiritual” in self designation.
The Natural Self-Help Religion of Man
So why do so many people, both formally religious (Zoroastrians and Muslims) and the so-called spiritual, think heaven is an earned reward and hell the result of a failure to live a moral life? I think this belief reflects what I call the natural religion of man. The seeming instinct or impulse of religious people in general is to think that heaven is a choice of the will. So good, decent people go to heaven whereas truly bad people end up in hell. And the natural religion might even allow for God to cut some slack for the many people in the middle. The motto for this common religious perspective might rightly be: “God helps those who help themselves.” Unfortunately, sometimes even people within Christendom mistakenly believe this way.
Historic Christianity: A Religion of Divine Rescue
Christianity at its heart is a religion not of self-help but of divine rescue. According to the New Testament, all human beings are fallen and cut off from God because of their sin (Romans 3:23, Ephesians 2:3). Broken sinners can’t earn entry into heaven (Romans 8:7–8). What human beings need most is not moral guidance from a prophet who shows the way of earning salvation like Zoroaster and Muhammad, but rather a Savior like Jesus Christ (John 14:6). In fact, the central message of the New Testament is that God the Son has come to Earth in the person of Jesus Christ to rescue sinful human beings from God the Father’s deserved wrath (Ephesians 2:4–5; Titus 3:5). So while all people deserve hell because of their sins, heaven is a gift of God’s saving grace through the forgiveness of sins found in Jesus Christ.
Zoroastrianism and Islam, as reflections of the religion of natural man, are works-oriented religions. The deities of these religions offer no saving grace and accordingly give no assurance that a person will achieve heaven or paradise. But historic Christianity is distinct in being a faith of grace that the triune God gives to repentant sinners, who by their own efforts could never earn heaven.
Thank the Lord for salvation by grace!
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.