The Divine Tragedy
The book of Revelation gives a famously esoteric description of heaven. By its words, heaven is a place where god sits upon a throne of lightning and thunder. Around him are seven blazing lamps, symbolizing the seven spirits of god, a rainbow, and something that looks a lot like a sea of glass. In his general vicinity are four creatures—one like a lion, another like an ox, a third like the face of a man, and a fourth like a flying eagle. Blinded in god's presence, day and night they celebrate god's glory—“holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.” Further out from this, twenty-four elders sit upon twenty-four thrones. Every time the creatures proclaim the glory of god, the elders fall down before him, take off their crowns, and declare that he is worthy to receive glory, honor, and power.
In the book of Acts, a story is told about a man named Ananias who sold his farm to donate the money to the cause of the apostles. Unfortunately for Ananias, he decided to keep a portion of the proceeds for himself and his family. Bringing his gift before Peter and setting it at his feet, the apostle could somehow tell that not all of the money was there. Though it was by any other standard a remarkable gesture, Peter scolded Ananias for not being completely selfless in the midst of remarkable generosity. Ananias fell down dead, killed by an act of god.
At the conclusion of a Communist party conference held in the Moscow district in Soviet-era Russia, a tribute was called to Joseph Stalin. As expected, all in attendance rose to their feet and began applauding. The minutes of clapping began to tick by. First two, then three, then four and five. Though attendees' hands and arms were tiring, no one wanted to be the first to stop—it would have shown disloyalty. In what must have been an extraordinary scene, then, the clapping is said to have simply continued—six, seven, eight, nine, and ten minutes. Finally, at the eleven-minute mark, a paper factory director could take no more and sat down. With relief, so too did everyone else in the room. Arrested that night and processed for removal to the gulags, the man’s interrogator gave the cold reminder that one should never be the first to stop clapping.
Though different in their details, these stories should leave the same impression. The idea that god might strike a man dead for not being completely selfless in his devotion, or that he might (metaphorically or otherwise) exist surrounded by a circle of kings eternally proclaiming his glory and affirming that he is worthy of great power, is to envision a god on the same level as some of the very worst examples of power and vanity history has to offer.
To the extent that the concept of divinity calls for something higher, these depictions reveal how far short of the mark religions have ended up with their understandings of god.