Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Is it possible that the God we think we know doesn’t exist?

He who asks questions, our elders say, never loses his way.

• September 26, 2021
Prophet T.B. Joshua
Prophet T.B. Joshua

Before Prophet T.B. Joshua of the Synagogue Church of All Nations, there was Bishop Michael Nwaobi Amakaeze, also known as Evangelist Musa of the Holy Sabbath of Christ the King Mission International Church, in Nnobi, Anambra State. 

The day I heard that Musa died, I could not believe it. He could as well have been Jesus Christ, but I never cared. Neither did many people from Nnobi. After all, the good book noted that ‘a prophet has no honor in his hometown.’ But for thousands of his followers, who came from all over the globe on a yearly pilgrimage to Nnobi, Musa was a prophet. 

As a student of Nnobi High School, I watched them walk along the street of Afor Nnobi, barefooted and in white gowns. Musa’s Sabbath Mission was the greatest industry Nnobi had, so we never really minded. But passing the highly fenced walls of the tabernacle, I always wondered what was going on in there.

The shocking death in the year 2000 of about 400 souls, including 78 children in Kanungu, Uganda, made me reexamine the import of the cult Musa of Nnobi built and the potentials of such ventures. The members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments could no longer wait for God to call them. 

They were in so much hurry they had to facilitate their journey to heaven. And they took with them children who were not old enough to make decisions on their own as to who God is, where He lives and why He exists. The members were simply tired of life on earth that they packed up and left.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time members of a cult chose to go and meet God. In Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, 914 people poisoned themselves with cyanide-contaminated kool-aid under the guidance of Reverend Jim Jones. In Waco, Texas, in 1993, 80 followers of David Koresh of the Branch Davidian set themselves on fire. And in California, Marshall Applewhite and 39 of his Heaven’s Gate members quickly killed themselves in order to hitch a ride with a spaceship flying behind the Hale-Bopp comet. And there were many more.

Because it had happened in Vietnam, Switzerland, and Canada, Karl Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels could not be right. In these cases, religion was not simply the opium of the poor. The Heaven’s Gate members were not necessarily poor, at least not in a material sense. 

Neither were members of the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland and Canada. The poverty of the mind is probably why mass suicide attracts those who could not wait to get to heaven.

Robert Altman described a cult as a group of people who could not get enough people to make a minority. And it is significant in the sense that one-fifth of people on earth will support any idea any crazy person could come up with. So any philosopher who could not get one-fifth of the people to support an idea deserves to be relegated into a cult and would remain a cult until they achieve the status of a minority.

Interestingly, the Ugandan cult members wanted to restore the Ten Commandments that they believed some people had distorted. How they achieved that by killing themselves was beyond my comprehension. Started in 1987 by a Catholic Church catechist, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments had former catholic priests and political activists as members. They accused the Catholic Church of ignoring some of the commandments and believed their leaders talked directly to God.

Could this have happened in Nigeria? In the year 2000, it was questionable. But since Boko Haram members emerged and trained and deployed suicide bombers who blew themselves up for a cause and with the promise to make paradise, that question of Nigerians killing themselves to make heaven had become mute. 

While a few kill themselves physically, many more kill themselves figuratively just to make heaven. Religious groups who isolate themselves from the world that they live in, the world that they know, for the sole purpose of making heaven have, for all intents and purposes, kill themselves to make heaven.

The media analysts blamed poverty, AIDS, and total disillusionment as reasons why the Ugandans believed the teachings of a charismatic cult leader. The feeling of emptiness and suffering fuel the passion for religion. The multiplication of churches in Nigeria is an indication of that. The market for meaning to life is booming. It booms most in those societies where nothing works.

And so it is that poor Ugandan souls, whose forefathers knew nothing about Moses and his Ten Commandments, were the ones who were locked up in a battle for the restoration of the Ten Commandments. This cult’s challenge to the Catholic Church is another aspect of this tragedy that needs to be re-examined. 

In their book, THE END OF THIS GENERATION, this cult articulated several doctrines that opposed the teachings of the Catholic Church. If only they had learned about their Nigerian counterparts, they would have simply formed their own church and stayed alive and in business on this only planet we know.

As we have seen in the last twelve years, just like the Ugandan cult members, followers of the Boko Haram sect are also determined to restore true Islam in Northern Nigeria. These are Africans who knew nothing about Prophet Muhammad besides what they read and what they were taught. Those who are born in the Arabic region where Prophet Muhammed was born are not this fanatical.

Some questions that beg for an answer for those who set themselves on fire include what omnipotent God will need the help of fuel and fire to get His followers to heaven? Is it the same God that took Elijah straight to heaven on a chariot? What kind of God will give man free will and ask another man to brainwash others for Him? When did God cancel the idea of coming down Himself, like a thief in the night, to take his people? When will religion, a personal relationship with God, be moved out of the hands of men who claim they know Him better?

When Nietzsche said, “God is dead,” he was denounced as a nihilist. But God dies when men succumb to the temptation of the void, which was what the Ugandan cult did. And that is what those who tie suicide vests around their bodies to blow themselves up. 

You and I kill God when we establish absolute values and eternal truths. If God is here, why should men run after Him? Unless God has disappeared? How then do men know where to run to and find Him? Nothing kills God like men who allow uber-mensch(free-spirit) to die, which is what one sees in many religious fundamentalists- from cults who can no longer wait for God to come to those who want Sharia for all or death for everyone.

Some of the questions we need to begin to ask ourselves are, does religion exist to relieve suffering or perpetuate it or both? Are we being subjected to obedience? Did God die to make us guilty and indebted to Him? Are we living under slave morality? 

Are we, through religion, achieving something that shows our better self or just a decline of faith? If there were no souls and no eternal life, what would our values be? How did Jesus’ death lead to the atonement of our sin? How do we explain the trinity? Could it be possible that the God we think we know doesn’t exist?

He who asks questions, our elders say, never loses his way.

The idea of manipulating God for personal benefit is very rampant around the globe. People magnify their idea of God and make others believe it. Everywhere, people are creating God in their own image. The French writer Voltaire noted that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him”. 

Man needs God to account for zero. Man needs God to explain faith. Man needs God to rationalise reason. And when the God in circulation is inadequate to answer some of the questions of Man, Man invents a new God.

I was not at Nnobi when Evangelist Musa died. But those I spoke to told me that day; it was as if God died. Not even T.B. Joshua had the same effect on his followers.

(A version of this piece was first published on Nigeriaworld on February 22, 2000, following the death of Bishop Michael Nwaobi Amakaeze.)

– Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo teaches Post-Colonial African History at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He is also the host of Dr. Damages Show. His latest book is “The Secret Letters of President Donald J. Trump, aged 73.”

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