Comparisons between Zoroastrianism and Christianity

©Kile Jones 2006

Storiestold1@yahoo.com

Abstract: What are the similarities and differences between Zoroastrianism and Christianity?  Is Zoroastrianism monotheistic, polytheistic, or henotheistic?  This paper attempts to answer these questions by analyzing Zoroastrian and Christian views on Theology Proper, Anthropology, and Eschatology.  During this process these religions are compared and contrasted to establish their similarities and differences.  

             “Zoroaster taught nothing about God which a Christian would not endorse and much that a Christian should add”- James Moulton[1]

            James Hope Moulton, a Wesleyan minister and missionary, wrote these words after spending numerous years studying Zoroastrianism in India.  For Moulton, Zoroastrianism interested him by its unique connection with the Judeo-Christian worldview, especially its heritage as an ancient monotheism.  Moulton would eventually come to conclude that Zoroastrianism had the very foundation as its western counterparts, and much of its doctrinal infrastructure.  Was he correct in his assessment, or was he mislead?  How do the teachings of Zoroaster compare with the teachings of Jesus, or better put, the Zoroastrian system with Christianity?  Comparing these religions to one another in their views of God, humanity, and the future should aid in our discovery of the veracity or falsity of Moulton’s claims.

Theology Proper: Zoroastrian and Christian

            As Moulton suggests there are numerous similarities between the Zoroastrian and Christian view of God; both see God as ontologically infinite, immaterial, and impassible.  In connecting these two faiths it is of prime importance to understand that both agree that in God’s essentia there is unity of multas personas, that is, that He is simultaneously self-united and multipersonal.  Here is where Zoroastrianism and Christianity part ways with Rabbinic Judaism and Islam.  To the former, God has a plurality of characters that make up His being, while to the latter, God has a strict oneness, or monopersonality.

            The difficulty of a Zoroastrian theology proper is in defining the six “Amesha Spentas”, or “Holy Immortals”[2], who interpreted by some scholars are part of Ahura Mazda’s (the Zoroastrian name for God) essence, and by others as deities created by and independent of Him.[3]  Mary Boyce, a leading scholar of Zoroastrianism, sums this problem up by describing these Holy Immortals as following:

These divinities formed a heptad with Ahura Mazda himself, and they proceeded with him to fashion the seven creations which make up the world.  The evocation of the six is variously described in Zoroastrian works, but always in ways which suggest the essential unity of beneficent divinity.  Thus Ahura Mazda is said either to be their ‘father’, or to have ‘mingled’ himself with them, and in one Pahlavi text his creation of them is compared with the lighting of torches from a torch.[4]

Lawrence Mills goes a step further in calling them “God’s character” and “His very nature”[5], while Miles Dawson calls them “the elements of God” and say that they “make up God”.[6]  If these spiritual beings are connected with Ahura Mazda’s substance then we have a close connection with the Christian’s ontological trinitarianism, if they are not then we have a very unrelated polytheism.[7]

            Regardless of the diverse opinions within Zoroastrian scholarship there remains an overall commonality between the Zoroastrian and Christian metaphysical systems, whether by a plurality within the Godhead or a pleroma of celestial beings similar to archangels, the former being more likely.[8]  The Spenta Mainyu (Holy Spirit) and Angra Mainyu (Evil Spirit) also enter into a Zoroastrian theology proper.  These two spiritual beings are called “the Primal Spirits” and the “twins” in Yasna 30:3.  Their genesis is debated, whether they are created and have their origin in Ahura Mazda,[9] or whether they are uncreated and thus co-eternal with Him.[10]  If the latter is true then the Spenta Mainyu  becomes intrinsically connected with the being of Ahura Mazda, much like the Holy Spirit is in the Christian Godhead.

In terms of divine attributes both religions share much in common.  In the Avestas, Ahura Mazda is depicted as the Creator of the world (Yasna 31:7), omniscient (Yasna 31:13), omnipresent (Yasna 44:2), personal (Yasna 31:21), and just (Yasna 44:3), and in the Bible Yahweh is given such descriptions (Gen 1:1, 2 Chron 16:9, Psalm 139:1-2, Deut 32:4).  It is evident that in the Bible we have a more clearly defined theology proper yet even in the Avestas, though sometimes difficult to understand and contextualize, there remains clear pictures of these divine attributives.  Yet difficulty arises when we attempt to organize a systematic Zoroastrian theodicy.  The problem is in the concept of what S.A. Nigosian calls “the two uncreated Mainyu’s”.[11]  The majority consensus in scholarship understands Zoroastrians to teach that both the Spenta Mainyu and the Angra Mainyu are uncreated,[12] and obvious problems arise with this system.  If Angra Mainyu is uncreated, then is he eternal?  How could both an omni-benevolent being coexist in eternity’s past with an evil being? 

            Here is where Christianity parts ways with the Zoroastrian theodicy.  In Genesis chapter one there is no conflict or war among any spiritual beings, only a creation of the material world with a divine sanction “And the Lord (singular) said that it was good” (Gen 1:31).  Lucifer is seen as a contingent being who was created good but had the ability to lack that goodness and bring in sin and death, and eventually did.  C.S. Lewis, a major spokesman for Christianity, sums up the difference between dualism and Christianity:                                 

I freely admit that real Christianity goes much nearer to Dualism than people think…The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong.  Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war.  But it does not think this is a war between independent powers.  It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.[13]

Anthropology       

            Like Lewis notes, Christianity believes that the world is at “war”, and that man has a part or role to play in that war.  Zoroastrianism too sees the world at war, a world divided into two camps, those who believe the Lie (druj) and those who believe in Order (asha), and “by the endowment of intelligence man can ‘frame his confession’ and determine his own destiny by following the Right or the Lie”.[14]  Herein lies Zoroastrian anthropology: humanity was created by Ahura Mazda to live in this war zone and to triumph over the Lie and it’s chief exponent, Angra Mainyu.  Regarding Angra Mainyu, Boyce notes that “it was to overcome him and destroy evil that Ahura Mazda made this world, as a battleground where their forces could meet”.[15]  Thus the rubric of both religions is the allegiance that must be given to God and His cause in the spiritual war contained in this world.[16]                                                                                     

Since humanity has two spiritual roads to decide between, it is obvious the significance that moral choice plays within these religions.  Regarding Zoroastrian ethics, one scholar notes, “if there is in any sense an ultimate principle in Zoroastrianism it would appear to be the ultimacy of moral choice”.[17]  Christianity reveals this idea in the Mosaic description “today I set before you the way of life and the way of death, therefore choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19), and the great pronouncement of Joshua “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15).[18]  Both religious systems see humans as responsible creatures, as those whom must give an account of their moral decisions before God.

            Viewing the supremacy of moral accountability along with allegiance pledging, one must ask how sin is viewed within their anthropology.  What we will see here is that a great chasm unfolds, which separates these two religions, on the issue of sin.  For Zoroastrians sin is more an error, or misplaced understanding, whereby a person wrongly understands himself and Ahura Mazda, R.C. Zaehner comments: “Man’s original sin, then, in Zoroastrianism is seen not so much as an act of disobedience as an error of judgment: he mistakes the Devil for the Creator”.[19]  Sins, then, as Zoroastrians understand them, are credited to the account of the individual, and along with their good deeds are placed on the scale.  Salvation then comes through performing more good deeds than bad, by outweighing his sin with his “daena.”  James Hope Moulton answers

the Zoroastrian question of sin and salvation this way:

What provision does Zarathustra make for the annulling of sin?  The answer appears to be that there is none, except the piling up of a credit balance of good thoughts, words, and actions.  If a sinner turns his evil way and does what is just and right, he shall save his soul alive-if he can crowd into the rest of his life merit enough to outweigh his sin.[20]

            Christianity on the other hand, sees sin as a legal transgression of moral laws established by God.  The Apostle John writes: “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4), and Paul states that “where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Romans 4:15).  So then Christian anthropology starts with humans as guilty of breaking God’s laws and then works from there to a legal salvation, or as Paul puts it, justification.  Wayne Grudem, a leading evangelical scholar defines justification as “an instantaneous legal act of God in which he think our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and declares us to be righteous in his sight”.[21]  Clearly, then both sin and salvation are viewed differently in the Christian worldview, and humanity is placed in more of a strictly positional category before God. 

Eschatology

            Both Zoroastrianism and Christianity are eschatological religions, they ultimately look forward to the consummation of all things and the end of “this present age.”  The ‘now but not yet’ is a tension placed upon these worldviews by this eschatology and brings about both existential angst and religious fervor.  If Moulton was right in the first clause of his statement, that there are many doctrines which a Christian would endorse in Zoroastrianism, it would most closely relate to their elaborate eschatology.  Both religions view death as a beginning to a new series of events that the soul must encounter in the afterlife.  Judgment, ultimate reward and retribution, resurrection, and heaven and hell are all didactic currents flowing through both eschatological systems. 

            In Zoroastrianism “the soul’s eternal condition is determined by its conduct on earth in relation to the moral law of Ahura Mazda”.[22]  So when one dies he is judged for his thoughts, words, and deeds and how closely they conformed or departed from Order.  At death, the soul rises and is greeted by his “daena” which takes the shape of a woman, who’s beauty or ugliness corresponds to the amount of good or bad thoughts, words, and deeds that were performed on earth.  This personified daena meets the soul at the famous “Chinvat Bridge”, or “Bridge of the Separator”, where Boyce notes there is “impartial judgment for each soul at death, with the sum of its good thoughts, words, and acts throughout adult life being weighed against the sum of its evil ones, and its fate decided accordingly”.[23]  The individual’s thoughts, words, and deeds are then placed upon the scale, and if the amount of good outweighs the bad then the bridge is easily wide enough to walk across into paradise, but if the bad outweighs the good the bridge becomes razor thin and the person falls into hell.  S.A. Kapadia sums up this whole process beautifully:

From the midst of his worldly nearest and dearest relatives, friends, and neighbors, the soul, having been bidden adieux in holy blessings, ascends in the company of his guardian angel, Shros, to render his account at the gate of “Chinvat Bridge.”  In his upward ethereal journey, floating in the region of the sweet-scented balm of the south soft wind, he meets his own astral self, transformed into a handsome figure of graceful-ness and sepharic beauty.  This figure reveals itself to him as his Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds.  Pleased with his welcome, and having rendered his account to Mehr Davar, the recorder at the gate of Heaven, he passes the barrier to eternal bliss and happiness, and awaits his body on the great day of resurrection.[24]

            Within the Christian worldview death is also just the beginning of the soul’s journey through the afterlife.  Paul, speaking about the second coming of Christ, describes life after death:

For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.  When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’.[25]

During the processes of the soul in which theologians title the ‘intermediate state’ (before the resurrection) judgment does occur, at which God will “render to each one according to his deeds” (Romans 2:6).  This would compare to the Zoroastrian time of the scale weigh in, though scales are never used,[26] rather God’s omniscience is assumed, for “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to

whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).  At this judgment, God views two types of people, those who’s sins are pardoned and justified on behalf of Christ, and those who’s are not.  The justified who have put their faith in Christ then enter paradise,[27] while the unregenerate are cast into outer darkness and face “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).

            Ultimate reward and retribution are both common themes within Zoroastrianism and Christianity.  Zoroastrianism teaches the eventual triumph of Ahura Mazda and the eternal defeat of Angra Mainyu and his cohorts.  This consummation is described in the Yasnas as “the last turning point in creation” (Yasna 43:5), when the world will be purged of evil and the kingdom of Ahura Mazda will reign triumphant.  One passage in particular gives account:

So when there cometh the punishment of these evil ones, then, O Mazdah, at thy command shall Good Thought establish the Dominion in the Consummation, for those who deliver the Lie

O Ahura, into the hands of the Right[28].

At this time the metals in the mountains will melt forming a river of molten metal through which every soul must pass and be purified.  Then, these souls can enter thepresence of Ahura Mazda and enjoy eternal bliss forever.  Zaehner notes, “in addition to this the soul is said to actually see God.  Ohrmazd gives him spiritual senses and he rejoices at what he sees”.[29] Therefore, the inhabitants of this renovated world can actually see the God whom they equate with the invisible “world of thought.” 

            The Christian consummation echoes many of these concepts but forms them in different patterns.  The Christian consummation starts with the second advent of Jesus Christ to the earth, at which the archangel will blow the trumpet and God will judge the world (1 Thessalonians 4:17).  The Apostle Peter describes this event:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.  The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare…That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in heat.  But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.[30]

Familiar to Zoroastrianism, the God of the Christians will judge the world by fire and destroy the elements with intense heat.  This is when the “New Jerusalem” will come down and become the new place for God’s people and the eternal throne where God’s kingdom will prevail.  So we see both of these religions remaining within close proximity in their consummational eschatology.

            Resurrection is also a predominant doctrine in both of these religions, it is where anthropology meets eschatology.  Zoroastrianism holds that every human will receive back their  very body that he lived in, S.A. Nigosian describes this process:

When the appointed time arrives, all the dead, righteous and wicked alike, will arise on the spot where they died.  Thus the earth and sea will surrender their dead and will be gathered before the judgment seat.  The souls of both the righteous and the wicked will be reunited with their bodies-the bones being demanded back from the earth, the blood from water, the hair from plants, and the life from fire- so that they are reconstituted once again in their original materials.[31]

This literal resurrection process creates an atmosphere of sanctity concerning dead bodies within the Zoroastrian community.  Dead bodies are to be cared for in special ways because of the resurrection that will occur.  This shows what an integral part that the resurrection doctrine has within the Zoroastrian community.

            Christianity also relies heavily upon the future resurrection.  Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is deemed the “firstfruits” because those who believe in him will rise to life as well.[32]  Jesus is looked at as the model for resurrection, whereby he conquered death, and received back his actual physical body.  Paul uses Christ’s resurrection to prove that one day all men will rise in the same fashion and be judged.  This is of central concern for Paul who states that if the dead do not rise then “we are found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:15), and if Christ has not risen than “your faith is futile and your still in you’re sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).  Therefore both Zoroastrianism and Christianity look towards a future resurrection from the dead when all men will rise before God for judgment, right before the great consummation of all things.

Conclusion

            We have seen that Zoroastrianism parallels Christianity in many ways, from its theology proper and anthropology to its eschatology; both religions find themselves on

many a common ground.  Moulton was correct in seeing these similarities and recognizing them for what they are worth comparatively.  In my opinion Moulton was also right in concluding that there was “much that a Christian should add”, that is, there are many places where Zoroastrianism parts ways with central Christian beliefs.  From its close relation to polytheism and dualism, to its uncreated Evil Spirit, and its works based salvation there is an insurmountable gulf set between them.  Therefore, we must conclude along with Moulton that there are both great similarities and differences between these two faiths and value their connections and uniqueness’s.  Hopefully, then comparative religious studies can move forward in understanding and insight as we appreciate what both of these religions have to offer as an explanation to fundamental human questions.

Endnotes

1.      James Hope Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism: The Origins, The Prophet, The Magi, Philo Press, 1972, pg 8.

2.      S.A. Nigosian sees this difficulty: “The relationship of Ahura Mazda to other divine powers or entities, known as Yazad (Yazata), described by Zoroaster is not easy to define”.  S.A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993, pg 21.

3.      Peter Clark seems to hold their separation from Ahura Mazda by emphasizing their distinction from Spenta Mainyu and their point of creation: “Each Amesha Spenta retains his or her own individual nature and life which was given at their creation”.  Peter Clark, Zoroastrianism, Sussex Academic Press, 1998, pg 30.

4.      Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Routledge and Kegan Paul Publishing, 1979, pg 21.

5.      Lawrence H. Mills, Avesta eschatology compared with the books of Daniel and Revelation, Open Court Publishing Company, 1908, pg 68.

6.      Miles Menander Dawson, The Ethical Religion of Zoroaster, The Macmillan Company, 1931, pg 23.

7.      At best we could avoid polytheism by affirming a Modalism in which the Amesha Spentas are merely modes which manifest Ahura Mazda to His creatures.  This view is held by Lewis Hopfe who says “In Zoroaster’s understanding of his god, Ahura Mazda revealed himself to humankind through the agency of six modes”.  Lewis M. Hopfe, Religions of the World, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991, pg 276.

8.      The majority of Zoroastrian scholars see at least some connection between the Amesha Spentas and Ahura Mazda’s essence.  Unlike Christian theologians who have hammered out Trinitarianism through various councils Zoroastrianism maintains an overall ambiguity regarding plurality in the Godhead.

9.      Trevor Ling holds this view, saying that Zoroaster “seems to have regarded the twin cosmic principles as having their origin in the one supreme Wise Lord, Ahura Mazda.”  Trevor Ling, A History of Religion East and West, Macmillan Press, 1968, pg 77.

10.  Peter Clark sees the Spenta Mainyu as coming to be synonymous and intrinsically connected to Ahura Mazda’s being over some time in Zoroastrian doctrinal development.  He describes this process as follows: “This can be understood as a legitimate and indeed logical extension of a process of hypostatic integration which Zarathustra himself sets in motion in the Gathas when he intimately and indissolubly identifies the supreme being with his co-eternal spirit in Y. 30.” Peter Clark, Zoroastrianism, Sussex Academic Press, 1998, pg 30.

11.  S.A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993, pg 22.

12.  As was mentioned earlier their genesis is debated, but it is more commonly held that they are uncreated.  Mary Boyce, a leading scholar, calls Angra Mainyu “equally uncreated.”  Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, pg 20.

13.  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Harper Collins, 1952, pg 45.

14.  E.O. James, Comparative Religion, University Paperbacks, 1961, pg 207.

15.  Mary Boyce, Handbook of Living Religions, Penguin Books, 1984, pg 177.

16.  Christians would call this “allegiance” “conversion”, while Zoroastrians would call it “daena” (good thoughts, good words, and good deeds).

17.  Trevor Ling, A History of Religion East and West, Macmillan Press LTD, 1968, pg 78.

18.  The difference between Zoroastrian and Christian anthropology lie in their divergent views of sin.  Depravity and thus inability to make “free choices” is a long debate within Christianity to this day and is not so in Zoroastrianism.

19.  R.C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1961, pg 267.

20.   James Hope Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism: The Origins, The Prophet, The Magi, Philo Press, 1972, pg 144.  Moulton’s footnote on this passage brings interesting light on the Zoroastrian view of sin and salvation.  He notes that the Persians viewed legal matters in a similar fashion, he quotes Herodotus as following, “I commend this custom, as also the following, that neither does the king himself put a man to death on a single charge, nor does any other Persian on a single charge inflict irreparable penalty on any of his slaves.  Only after computation of his wrong deeds and his service does he indulge his anger, if he finds the former to be more numerous and greater than the latter”, Herodotus, 137 E.Z.  Linda Edwards states Zoroastrian soteriology succinctly: “The eternal consequences of personal choice are found in Zoroaster’s teaching of individual judgment.  Sins are not washed away but rather balanced out”, Linda Edwards, A Brief Guide to Beliefs, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, pg 255.

21.  Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine, Zondervan Publishing, 1999, pg 316.  I recognize that this is an evangelical/protestant definition of justification, yet it is used because I feel it is a biblical definition which most closely reflects biblical soteriology (cf. Romans 3:20, 4:15, 8:30-33, Philippians 3:9).

22.  E.O. James, Comparative Religion, University Paperbacks, 1961, pg 208.

23.  Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism: It’s Antiquity and Constant Vigour, Mazda Publishers, 1992, pg 74.

24.  S.A. Kapadia, The Teachings of Zoroaster, Power Book Company, 1905, pg 46-47.

25.  1 Corinthians 15:53-54, New International Version.

26.  The imagery that is used within Christianity is the book of life.  In Revelation we read “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done…And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:12,15).

27.  This statement is assumed on numerous statements of exclusivity in Scripture.  Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the Father but by me (John 14:6), and Paul says “there is one God, and one mediator between man and God, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5 cf. Acts 4:12).

28.  Yasna 30:8.

29.  R.C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1961, pg 306.

30.  2 Peter 3:10, 12-13.

31.  S.A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993, pg 94.  The Zoroastrian texts that most clearly sums this process up is Bundahishn 30:6,10.

32.  Paul describes this: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).