God is a human invention. Notions about God evolve with the times, changing with cultural and societal circumstances.
These are some central themes of Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God," a fascinating book that I've about two-thirds through. He further illuminates a lot of misgivings I've had about religion.
Like, how religious leaders -- whether of East or West, a guru or the Pope -- basically are selling salvation. Not for money, usually, but in exchange for buying into a belief system.
For example, in his section on Christianity Wright talks about how the earliest descriptions of Jesus' teachings didn't say anything about Christians going to heaven.
The idea of followers of Jesus getting to join him in heaven upon dying probably didn't take shape until about a half century after he died. To be sure, his followers believed from early on that the faithful would be admitted to the "kingdom of heaven," as the New Testament calls it. But "kingdom of heaven" is just Matthew's term for what Mark had called the "kingdom of God" -- and, as we've seen, the kingdom of God was going to be on earth.
Problem was, years and decades passed with no earthly kingdom of God in evidence. What to do? Christianity was starting to look like a bait-and-switch con job. Jesus supposedly said that the kingdom of God was "at hand," but it never showed up.
So heaven had to wait.
People still wanted salvation. Happiness, bliss, eternal life -- all that good stuff. It wasn't appearing the way Christians orginally thought. No problem. Just change the thinking.
As the decades rolled by and the kingdom of God failed to materialize, there was growing concern among Jesus's followers over the state of the not-yet-resurrected dead....But by the time of Luke, more than a decade after Paul's death, that expectation was no longer operative.
Now the attentive Christian was concerned not just about whether dead friends and relatives would eventually be resurrected but about what death would feel like until resurrection, since it increasingly looked as if the Christian in question would join his or her friends and relatives in that state before Christ returned.
...Now the payoff from salvation wouldn't be expected within a person's lifetime, but it could come right after death -- the next best thing. Had Christian doctrine not made this turn, it would have lost credibility as the kingdom of God failed to show up on earth -- as generations and generations of Christians were seen to have died without getting their reward.
But now, with the kingdom of God relocated from earth to heaven, generations of Christians had presumably gotten their reward, and you could, too, if you accepted Christ as your savior.
It's no wonder religions are so successful at recruiting members. They've got the advantage of a sales pitch for salvation that would be illegal (or at least highly unethical) if used to market any other product.
Buy now and you'll see great results after you die! Guaranteed!
Of course, actually there's no guarantee, since the dead can't return and provide evidence that they didn't really die and are now happily hanging around with Jesus.
No matter. Since death is scary, gullible people will buy into a belief system that promises eternal life. Tell folks what they want to hear, and not surprisingly what you say will appeal to them.