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7. Big Brother’s Watchful Eye

When we were small we probably met God first, or certainly most forcefully, as a Judge. I remember a spiritual reading book we had at home, a picture book designed to teach children religious truths. One picture showed a little boy (me?), precariously standing on a chair in the kitchen, his arms eagerly reaching to the top shelf where Mum had cunningly hidden a box of sweets. Hovering in the clouds high above the kitchen scene was shown the face of God, looking down on the boy (that is: on me) with a frown of displeasure. The caption read: “Mum may never know; God sees everything!” Aware of the punishment that can be unleashed by just an earthly Mum, I was thus warned of the spanking I would one day get from this awesome, inescapable Parent.

We are not a law to ourselves. We have to render an account for the good or evil that we do. A sense of deep responsibility should pervade all our thoughts, words and actions. I firmly endorse these fundamental principles of human morality. What I feel needs to be challenged is the role of capricious tyrant, law enforcer and executioner which has been attributed to God. He is none of these things, as we shall see.

In Christianity we speak of a particular judgement when the individual dies, and of a universal judgement at the end of time when the whole of humankind will be judged. Popular spirituality expressed these truths—often at the expense of other Christian values—in strong images which inspired fear and trembling. Michelangelo’s magnificent painting of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel in Rome may be a masterpiece; one only needs to look at the tortured faces of the men and women hurled into the abyss of burning pitch, to capture the dread and terror that lived in the medieval mind. Remember those famous stanzas of the Dies Irae hymn which describe the last day so graphically:

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning!
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!

Oh, what fear man’s bosom rends
when from heaven the Judge descends,
on whose sentence all depends!

Wondrous sound the trumpet flings.
Through earth’s sepulchres it rings.
All before the throne it brings!

Death is struck, and nature quaking—
all creation is awaking,
to its Judge an answer making.

Lo! the book exactly worded,
wherein all has been recorded;
thence shall judgement be awarded.

When the Judge his seat attains,
and each hidden deed arraigns,
nothing unavenged remains

What shall 1, frail man, be pleading,
who for me be interceding,
when the just are mercy needing?

King of majesty tremendous,
who cost free salvation send us,
fount of pity, then befriend us!

Righteous Judge of retribution,
grant thy gift of absolution,
ere that reckoning-day conclusion. . . (1)

Before discussing what is wrong in this picture from a Christian point of view, I would like to turn to Islam, where the idea of God’s judgement has been worked out in even greater detail. We have all the more reason for doing so because there have been some great Islamic spiritual masters who replaced the traditional view with a more profound, mystical understanding. But first, let us see what Islam teaches about God as the Judge.

The Koran which contains the revelation given through Muhammad, describes Allah, God, as compassionate and merciful, but also as the king of the day of judgement (Sura 1,1). He is the wisest of judges (S. 95,8), who rewards the good (S. 9,120-1), but whose wrath destroys the wicked (S. 7,97-9). He is swift in taking account (S. 24, 39). He tests all (S. 3,142, 154) and sees all (S. 3,163). His decrees are unalterable (S.6,34; 18,27). No one can escape his judgement (S.27,83-90).

The scene of Judgement Day is described in 39 of the 114 chapters of the Koran. The Jewish/Christian image of the judgement is reinforced. People will be judged not only on their good or evil conduct, but also upon their acceptance or rejection of Allah’s revelation.

We have sent you a message from our presence. Whoever turns away from that message, truly shall carry a burden on the day of judgement. Grievous on the day of judgement shall it be for them to bear.

That day shall come with a blast on the trumpet and we will gather the sinners on that day bleary-eyed (with terror). . .

Humble shall be all faces before Allah—the Living, the Self-Subsisting, eternal; forlorn shall be the person who carries the burden of iniquity, but whoever shall have acted rightly and who has believed shall fear neither wrong nor loss of reward.

That is why we sent down to you an Arabic Koran explaining therein instruction in detail, so that people may fear Allah. (2)

In order to face God with tranquillity on that last, terrifying day, religious people will naturally want to know what precisely God demands of them. Organized religion obliges them by enumerating precise prescriptions. In Islam we find, first of all, the five “pillars”: the confession of Allah as Only God; prayer five times a day according to precise formulas; fasting during the month of Ramadan; almsgiving; and making the pilgrimage to Mecca if at all possible. These principal requirements were soon augmented by numerous smaller prescriptions contained in the Shari’ah, a code of laws based on verses of the Koran and oral traditions. Typical rulings of the Shari’ah are: the circumcision of males, the prohibition of wine and pork, principles of marriage and divorce, the laws of inheritance.

It is obvious that principles and norms are helpful to guide people and groups of people in their conduct. What is characteristic of much religious law is that it claims to express in precise detail the actual will of God. In a recent document, “The Universal Islamic Declaration”, this concept lS expressed again:

There are no intermediaries between Allah and man. Allah’s guidance is available to all in the form of his Book al-Qu’ran and in the life example of his prophet the Sunnah (tradition). . . The Shari’ah is the supreme law of the Muslim community and must be enforced in its entirety in all aspects of life. Each and every Muslim country must explicitly make Shari’ah the criterion by which to judge the public and private conduct of all, rulers and ruled alike, and the chief source of all legislation in the country... Obedience to the legitimately constituted authority is obligatory on people only as long as it is in conformity with the Shari’ah . . . Islam exhorts the believers to strive incessantly to establish Allah’s will on earth. (3)

The Shari’ah is the will of God! And, if we question its logic or appropriateness, we are referred back to Allah’s absolute authority. The very irrationality of many of the requirements, we are told, is a test of the believer’s devotion. (4)

Now it is precisely this aspect of God as lawgiver and judge which, in my view, needs to be challenged. Since God is our creator, as we believe, what could be his motive in revealing special laws? Does it not show up a defect in his original creation? What could the function of such laws be? To put the problem in perspective, I would like to present it as a parable, one which I request sensitive readers not to take as a mockery of religion. Our purpose is to get to the root of a very important spiritual absurdity.

Once upon a time there was a headmaster who ran the only school in his home town. In order to get jobs and to advance in life, all children had to attend this school. The headmaster only allowed children to enter the school on certain strict conditions.

Little boys were only admitted if they had their right ear lobes cut off in the rite of “concision”. Girls were allowed to attend class like the boys except for geography; this was a subject totally forbidden to them. Three times a day the bell was rung. Then all teachers and pupils were to rise from their seats, turn in the direction of the headmaster’s office and bow deeply. The little sweet shop outside the gates and the canteen in the school offered sweets and refreshments; but under no circumstances was any student to eat chocolate or drink Pepsi Cola. Questions about the reason for such rules were met with a curt demand for blind obedience.

On assessment day the headmaster would call all children together in the assembly hall. Large registers were opened in which the actions of each pupil, good or bad, had been meticulously recorded. Those who had done well were given a pass. Those, however, who had failed in any way, and particularly if they had sinned against the special rules, were humiliated in public. They left the school with empty hands, doomed to carry the hurden of their evil deeds.

If the story seems crude, why is it so? If God acted as such a headmaster, would he not inspire more fear than love? And what about the treatment of the pupils? If God were to treat us in like manner, would it not show a lack of regard for the autonomous judgement with which he endowed us at creation? How could we justify the revelation of divine laws that seem capricious and irrational? Could God’s will really be like the petty capers of a narrowminded headmaster?

Throughout history people have claimed to know “God’s will”. To fulfil “God’s will”, Christians and Muslims slaughtered each other during the Crusades. “God’s will” was invoked to start wars, conquer more land, persecute heretics and witches, deprive people of their freedom. Some Christian Boers in South Africa justify apartheid as “willed by God”. In fact, religious fanatics at all times have covered deeds of violence and unspeakable atrocities with the excuse that it was “God’s will”. The more absolute the revelation adhered to, the stronger was their conviction and the more extreme the injustices they inflicted.

But the question of “What is God’s will?” arises equally in smaller matters. Consider, for instance, the question of clean and unclean food. A Muslim, we are told, may not eat the flesh of any animal which is forbidden by Allah. This includes: wild animals, birds of prey, pigs, animals that creep. However, birds with long flattened beaks (except crows) are permitted to be eaten. Birds with hooked beaks (except parrots) are forbidden. Hare and rabbit are permitted. The drinking of wine or the milk of a mare is forbidden (though this does not include the milk of a she-donkey). Most important of all, the flesh of an animal may only be eaten if the man slaughtering the animal utters the words “Bismillah, Allahu Akbar” (“In the name of Allah, Allah is the greatest”), otherwise it may not be bought or eaten. The flesh of animals slaughtered with the help of machines is strictly forbidden.

These, we are told, are the rules of halal, which is defined in this way: “Halal means the eating of those things only which have been permitted by Allah. One who does so will be rewarded by Allah; and one who does not do so will be punished by Allah.” (5) The implications of such rules are quite clear. Orthodox Muslims in Europe, for instance, cannot eat meat served in any ordinary restaurant, for the food will either include forbidden meats, or the “bismillah” formula will not have been used!

If some external action is considered to be “God’s will”, the temptation will be great to define the requirement of that action to the last, and often the most ridiculous, detail. This is what happened in the Catholic Church through the so-called Sunday Mass obligation, until the reform of Vatican Two. The ancient Christian custom of celebrating the Eucharist on Sundays had become an “ecclesiastical law” by the time of the Middle Ages. In the nineteenth century moralists hammered out the finer points of this obligation, the transgression of which, they asserted, was a mortal sin (which means: deserving eternal punishment if not repented and forgiven!). To fulfil the obligation, they decreed, one should attend at least the three principal actions of offertory, consecration and communion. These three parts, however, could be added up from different services; so that if one arrived halfway through one service and attended a communion, it was enough to take part in the offertory and consecration of a further service. It was, they said, fulfilling the external obligation that mattered. Even if one was mentally distracted throughaut the service, one had fulfilled the obligation. Or if the person had been in church on a Sunday for some other reason (to do some repair, or as a tourist) and afterwards realized that it was a Sunday, he or she had still fulfilled the obligation by being physically present when the Eucharist took place. (6) This is what an excessive stress on the external action can lead to. The clever moral theologians knew precisely “what God willed”! But did they?


1. Dies Irae by Thomas of Celano, 13th century; transl. W.J. Irons, 1812-83.

2. Sura 20, 99-102, 111-13, my own free rendering based on the classic versions of J.M. Rodwell (Dent and Sons, London 1909), G. Parrinder and Abdullah Yusuf Ali (Islamic Foundation, Leicester 1975).

3. Universal Islamic Declaration, Islamic Council of Europe, London 1980, passim.

4. J.S. Moon, Introduction to Islam, H.M.I., Hyderabad 1981, p.37.

5. M. Tayyib Bakhsk, A Short Handbook of Fiqh, Kazi Publications, Lahore 1970, pp. 64-7; 76.

6. M. Pruemmer, Manuale Theologiae Moralis, Vol. 2, Herder, Freiburg 1936, pp. 390-9 (who, fortunately, rejects some of the worst legalist interpretations).

Next? Go to:

Layer upon Layer of Radiance

The Way in to GOD

Creator in us

Inner Judge

Beyond thought



This course is based upon the book God Within Us by John Wijngaards and published by Collins, Fount Paperbacks, London, 1988..

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