What Is Behind Christendom’s Religious Architecture?
SURPRISING as it may seem to many, the architecture of this world’s religions does not have noble origins. It has much in common with a building project undertaken many centuries ago in defiance of God’s purpose for mankind to spread about in the earth.—Gen. 11:4.
This happened not long after the global flood in the days of Noah. A considerable number of the human family settled in the plains of Shinar along the Euphrates River. (Gen. 11:2) There they began building a city, Babel, and a tower. That tower was doubtless a ziggurat, to be used in the worship of false gods. Says the Encyclopædia Judaica:
“Scholars agree that the edifice referred to in Genesis 11 is clearly a ziqqurat, or Mesopotamian temple tower. The ziqqurat . . . was the central feature of the great temples which were built in all important Mesopotamian cities.”—Vol. 4, p. 23.
The one who instigated the building of Babel and its tower was doubtless the man Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah. This is suggested by the fact that, according to the Bible, ‘the beginning of Nimrod’s kingdom came to be Babel.’ (Gen. 10:9, 10) Furthermore, Jewish tradition, recorded by Josephus of the first century C.E., links Nimrod with this project. We read: “He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power. . . . Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod, and to esteem it a piece of cowardice to submit to God; and they built a tower.”
The Creator, Jehovah God, frustrated the plans of Babel’s builders. He confused their language and forced them to scatter. (Gen. 11:7-9) Nevertheless, this did not put a stop to the building of lofty structures for worship. Observes the book Error’s Chains: How Forged and Broken:
“The sacred buildings [of Chaldea] appear to have been often built in the form of a pyramid, with steps or stages, forming a series of terraces, each smaller than the one beneath it. This is the traditional style of buildings of the Tower of Babel. The same tendency to build high sacred buildings is seen in the pagodas of India, Burma and China, in the Mohammedan towers, like the Koutub Minar, and the spires of Christian churches [italics ours]. The object at the first seems to have been the getting nearer to the heavenly bodies, the object of their worship.”
Thus even in its architecture Christendom has not escaped coming under non-Christian influence. This influence has distorted basic Christian truth. Regarding the design of Christendom’s religious buildings, André Biéler, in his book Architecture in Worship, writes: “The constructors passively submit to all kinds of hidden pressures, to conventions, to unconscious custom and to religious traditions which are quite foreign to the Christian faith.” How has this come about?
In the case of the early Christians, there was little danger of their wanting to build temples like the one once situated on Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah. They knew that this temple had served God’s purpose and, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.—Matt. 24:1, 2.
Another force, however, exerted pressure upon professing Christians. Writes André Biéler: “Oriental and Graeco-Roman pagan cults continually led Christianity astray.” Ancient pagan cults put the emphasis on the things seen. The temples were designed to fill the worshipers with awe and wonderment. The deity, represented by an image, was regarded as residing in the sanctuary. A special place was set aside for the priests alone.
True worship, on the other hand, does not depend upon any fixed location nor upon the presence or use of visible things. As Jesus Christ explained to a Samaritan woman: “The hour is coming when neither in this mountain [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem will you people worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know . . . Nevertheless, the hour is coming, and it is now, when the true worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth, for, indeed, the Father is looking for suchlike ones to worship him.” (John 4:21-23) Similarly, the apostle Paul told the Athenians: “The God that made the world and all the things in it . . . does not dwell in handmade temples.”—Acts 17:24.
These truths soon became distorted, as professed Christians yielded to pagan influence. In the centuries following the death of the apostles of Jesus Christ impressive edifices were built. These buildings were much more than just places for professed Christians to assemble. Like the pagan temples, the buildings themselves were designed to fill the worshipers with reverential awe and came to be regarded as sanctuaries, houses of God.
The worshipers lost sight of the fact that the word “church,” as used in the Bible, applied, not to a building, but to people. They no longer appreciated that material temples, cathedrals and like edifices in themselves were not sacred to God. They did not understand the truth that spirit-anointed Christians on earth make up a temple that God inhabits by “spirit.”—1 Cor. 3:16, 17.
Christendom’s religious architecture distorted truth in yet another way. The interiors of cathedrals and churches were designed in such a way as to separate the priestly or clergy class from the laity. In the special area set aside for them, priests performed ritualistic ceremonies at the altar. Greater sanctity was thus attached to one group of professed Christians than to another. This contradicted the truth that all of God’s devoted servants are “holy,” all are “brothers.”—Matt. 23:8-10.
Furthermore, most of Christendom’s places of worship, like the pagan temples, continue to be adorned with images or pictures. Generally, some representation of Jesus, or perhaps just a cross, is placed somewhere in or on the edifice. As the majority teach that Jesus is the “second person” of a “triune God,” they are really imitating the ancient pagans who placed images or representations of the gods in their temples.
How can this knowledge benefit you? The design of places of worship can be an aid in identifying the people who represent true Christianity today. One should expect true Christians to place the emphasis, not on imposing edifices, but on people. The meeting place should be designed in a way that suggests that all assembling together form just one congregation of brothers and sisters. Neither the interior nor the exterior should be adorned with images and icons that are viewed as sacred. The architecture should harmonize with the fact that instruction from God’s Word is the truly important thing. Do the Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s witnesses measure up to these requirements? Why not visit them and see for yourself?