Allow me to expose you to a bit of Americana. Most evangelical protestants have participated in the religious experience called the altar call. After preaching about the prodigal son, the clergyman implores his congregation to come forward to the altar and dedicate their lives to Christ, to repent of their sins. The transient nature of life is emphasized. Now is a unique occasion to renew ones relationship with Christ. Such an opportunity may never present itself again. Death might strike one down before he has another chance to renew his vows. A swell of musical chords and sentimental hymns augments the ministers exhortations. The congregation sings, “Come home, come home, Ye who are weary come home.” Often the congregants manifest tears and quiet emotional outbursts. An amazing number of the parishioners will respond to the preacher’s call to the altar. A powerful preacher such as Billy Graham was able to persuade thousands to come forward and accept Christ.
What causes a person to respond to a religious plea highly charged with sentiment and emotion? One might dismiss it as a minor manifestation of mass hysteria. No doubt it has some features in common with teen agers swooning at a rock concert or a million people coming to see the pope. However, I believe there are other forces at work. From time immemorial humans have learned to appease the gods. This may take forms ranging from the sacrifice of virgins to ripping out a beating heart from the chest of a living victim. The apparent purpose of these rituals is to alleviate the terror humans experience when facing their own death. The promise of living forever and joining Jesus in paradise is a very powerful and reassuring message. The corollary experience of spending eternity in the fires of Hell is both frightening to the worshipers and most unpleasant.
Many of the hymns sung during altar calls implore the sinner to come home. It is as if the true home of the believer is not in this life but in the next. Do humans have an innate longing to return to paradise? After all, life is short, nasty and brutish according to Hobbs. The Buddha agreed when he postulated that all life is suffering. Do we have unconscious longings to experience the peace and serenity of Nirvana? Is it our lot to feel an existential void that can only be remedied by the bliss of returning to our heavenly home?
The genesis story suggests that when Adam and Eve bit the fruit they were expelled from the garden and could never return. Their punishment would be sorrow and death. This allegory also suggests that once we bite our mother’s breast (are weaned) we never can re-experience the unconditional love that was ours as infants. We are expelled from Eden. Christianity promises that a return to ecstasy and perfection is possible if we follow its creeds and demand.