Pulling the Plug on Eternity in their Hearts

I took one for the team! I read Eternity In Their Hearts by Don Richardson! I see why some Christians like it so much! If the book is true, it validates there is only one god, ever! No matter how many pantheons humans have invented or how wildly different the myths are, there is just one God! My mocking of Richardson’s overuse of exclamation points ends now!!!

Thesis of Eternity In Their Hearts

Richardson describes two forms of revelation central to his thesis. Specific Revelation, which are the stories in the Bible as revealed to the Israelites. And General Revelation, which are similar stories as revealed to other cultures by the Christian God. Richardson claims these General Revelation stories are planted by God to pave the way for Christian missionaries centuries or millennia later. Even though the stories are about other gods, Richardson cites examples of commonality between the stories to argue they are all about a single supreme being.

Richardson also claims that the Bible challenges Christians to be a blessing upon other people and cultures. He cites examples from the Bible—as all theologians do. As we know, the Bible supports almost any argument a believer can come up with. Richardson’s interpretation is no exception. Arguing Bible passage versus Bible passage is a no-win game that’s been going on for millennia. Not surprisingly, other Christians find fault with Richardson’s interpretation of the Bible.

I find the be a blessing message to be part marketing strategy and part just be nice; but not a revelation of any truths about any particular god. If the commonality claim falls short, there is little reason for the marketing efforts. Yes, charity is good, but let's skip the false pretenses and do it for the sake of charity. I won’t discuss this part of the thesis any further.

Mythological commonalities in early civilizations

A quick point first: Ancient civilizations faced similar problems. Similar problems lead to similar myths.

The richest soil for agriculture was in flood plains, and that’s where the earliest civilizations formed. They could not control floods, they had to adapt. And, as people do, they formed myths around those floods. They all had flood myths.

Other myths formed as mnemonic devices. The ancients needed to remember when the seasons would change and when to plant crops. Stories helped them remember the patterns they saw in the stars, in the weather, in the behavior of animals, etc. They surely knew the stories were just stories—useful stories for sure—but eventually some people started to believe the stories were real.

As ancient civilizations grew, they formed social and political structures. They had to with many people concentrating in relatively small areas.Stories will follow patterns of our own behaviors, so it is not surprising that ancient myths followed the basics of organization: a few leaders at the top, or maybe just one. The stories of the ancients had leaders and followers, they had the just and the rebellious, helpers and hinderers, villains and heroes, and so on. Having a top god in a mythology is a common detail of insignificant weight. It is exactly what we should expect. Yet, this trivial detail of all cultures having a top god is a cornerstone of Richardson’s argument.

An orchard of cherry-picked details

Richardson provides examples of similarities between the tribal myths from many different cultures and myths from the Bible. His is not a methodical correlation. He defines no criteria for success or failure of his thesis. The similarities vary by type and by depth. It an exercise in counting the hits.

Richardson tries to paint a picture of too-good-to-be-true coincidences, like saying all ancient religions had the same name for god. Richardson might have a point if all ancient cultures— geographically and culturally isolated—simultaneously came up with a highly specific name of "God". But the names are varied, and suggestive of a role, not a distinct name. The Santal have a god named Thakur Jui which Richardson translates to mean “Genuine God”; and the Mizo have Pathian which probably means “Holy Father”. The Karens’ have Y’wa which is suggestive of the Jewish Yahweh, but that is the only example Richardson has of a name that sounds similar. Richardson makes a big deal out of these similarities in semantics or sounds. The translations kinda match, but not impressively so.

Nor do all the names translate well. Richardson refers to Karai Kasang as the Kachin's "Creator God" but never attempts a translation. The Inca god Viracocha (Wira-cocha) could mean "Creator of all things", but it also could translate as Foam of the sea. Richardson ignores all those misses.

The Santal flood myth

The Santal believe their god Thakur Jiu hid a holy couple in a cave on Mount Harata before destroying the rest of mankind with a flood. Richardson points out that Mount Harata sounds similar to Mount Ararat of Genesis fame. It’s a minor resemblance, but Richardson ignores a wide variety of differences. Genesis is about eight people, a boat, and two-maybe-seven of each "kind". The Santal myth has only two people: a "holy couple", who were transmuted into birds, hidden in a cave, away from other angry gods. Many misses, but a slight resemblance.

The Incas worshiped God

The Incas are best known for worshipping the sun god Inti, but they worshipped dozens of other gods too. Of those, the Incan's creator god is called Viracocha. Richardson claims Viracocha is really a stand-in for the Christian god, and that Viracocha was part of pre-Incan mythology too. While the history may be true, the Icans were similar to the Romans allowing assimilated cultures to keep their established religions. That means there were a lot of gods and myths in pre-Incan mythology. Syncretism was alive and well in Incan society, and this gives Richardson a hit to count.

But there are significant misses:

  • According to Inca mythology, Inti was Viracocha’s son, but oddly Inti doesn't represent Jesus to Richardson.
  • Viracocha had two daughters that were also gods.
  • In their flood myth, it was Inti, not Viracocha, who returned to dry the waters.
  • Cuichu is their rainbow god. While Noah's flood tells of a rainbow, the rainbow does not have a separate god.
  • The Incans worshiped at least 19 gods, probably more considering all the smaller societies they assimilated.

In Empire of the Inca, Burr Cartright Brundage notes that Inti is often represented as a Trinity:
By imperial times this fetish had become an effulgent male god, generally young, who gave oracles of greatness to his people but who in cult was otherwise the actual sun-disc called Punchao. Corresponding to the three diurnal stages of the sun, the priesthood had broken Inti up into three diurnal stages of father, son, and brother, represented by three images made up tightly packed woolen blankets and named Apu Inti (Chief Inti), Churi Inti (Inti the Son), and Inti Huaoqui (Inti the Brother).
Brundage also describes the Incan storm god Illapa as a trinity:
In Coricancha he was one of the high gods, being lesser only than the Creator and the Sun, and like them he too was theologized into a trinity. As such his names were Chuqui Illa, Catu Illa, and Inti Illapa, each avatar being modeled in woolen blankets.
And what of "God's" son? More from Brundage:
It reminds one of the religion practiced in Exodus, Judges, and Chronicles. In Viracocha's scheme of things his son Punchao very roughly fill the role of a Saviour. One might think of Christian analogies, but Punchao was either the physical sun-disc that banished the damps of night or he was, as Inti, a bloodthirsty Inca idol interested solely in his kith and kin and in no others. It is God the Father here who is the late-comer, the compassionate friend to all, and not the Son. So the roles are reversed.
The differences are striking and significant.

Richardson finds any resemblance to his preferred god from a polytheistic pantheon, and calls that the seeds of monotheism.

More on the Incas: ancient hymns

Richardson on the Incas:
Almost everyone who knows anything about Incas knows that they deified Inti—the sun. Yet in 1575, in Cuzco, a Spanish priest named Cristobel de Molina collected a number of Inca hymns—and certain traditions associated with them—which prove that the deity of Inti was not always left unquestioned by Incas themselves.
(1575 was 56 years into the 75-year Spanish Conquest. More on this later.)

The Incans had a large pantheon. We expect to find rituals and traditions related to all of their various gods. But do the hymns clearly represent the Christian god? Here are two (from Empire of the Inca by Burr Cartright Brundage)
Oh ancient Load, remote Lord, most excellent Lord, who createth and establisheth, saying: "Let there be man; let there be woman"; molder, maker; because thou hast made me and established mankind, may I live peacefully and safely.
Where are thou? Without? Within? In the clouds? In the shadows" Here me, respond and consent! For ever and ever give me life, taking me in thine arms, lead me by they hand; receive this my offering where thou art, oh Lord.

Oh Lord, happy, fortunate, victorious Lord, who hath compassion on men and showeth affection for them, let the people, those who serve, the poor, thine unfortunates, whom thou hast made and established, endure in peace and safety with their children, with their sons; walking in the straight road, let them not think on temptation; long years let them live; without interruption, without breaking, let them continue to eat, let them continue to drink.
More are translated here.

Judge for yourself, these hymns seem pretty generic. They could represent just about any god. "Let there be man" does have a familiar feel to it, but that's only because of "Let there be light" from Genesis. The Genesis myth did not have Yahwah speaking men and women into existence, instead man was supposedly created from clay, and women from a rib. Richardson doesn't include any in his book. Perhaps including them would show the readers that the hymns aren't the stunning match that Richardson implies.

Entnographer’s influence

This is where Eternity suffers its worst hits. Richardson’s story invokes a movie-plot image of missionaries machete-chopping their way into a clearing filled with cheering natives—natives who had no previous contact by westerners. In truth, these cultures often had decades of contact with traders, government administrators, and missionaries. The earlier missionary contact was often from competing Christian sects.

A good example: Richardson describes the Kachin’s god Karai Kasang :

In their folk religion the Creator is called Karat Kasang—a benign supernatural Being “whose shape or form exceeds man’s ability to comprehend.” Sometimes the Kachin called him Hpan Wa Ningsang—the Glorious One Who Creates, or Che Wa Ningchang—the One Who Knows.
And later:

Kachins are known to cry out to this distant Great Spirit.”[ 12] And the Kachin, like the Karen, believed that Karai Kasang once gave their forefathers a book which they lost.
However, the term Karai Kasang was a late introduction and not common to all tribes. From Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life By Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah:

An example if this can be found in Leach’s own records. “The Christian missionaries (Catholic and Baptist) and also the earliest British administrators, who worked among the Kachins of North Burma at the end of the nineteenth century all reported that the Kachin name for the Supreme Being is ‘Karai Kasang’.” The Greco Catholic missionary, Father Gilhodes, devoted a whole chapter of his monograph (The Kachins: Religions and Customs) to this subject “largely because he had been given special instructions by the German-Catholic Pater Schmidt to look out for evidence of an original autochthonous belief in a High God. But no cult or mythology of Karai Kasang was recorded by any of the early ethnographers, and Gilhodes notes that Karai Kasang is quite unlike any analogous term in neighboring languages. Therefore, Leach finds it plausible to suggest that “the name Karai Kasang is a corruption of some version of Christian/Chretien.” But he would not on that account treat is as a “loan word”. Modern Kachin Christians are distinguished from non–Christians by the fact that they worship Karai Kasang.

Even with Karai Kasang as introduced by Christian Missionaries, Karai Kasang does not play a significant role in the Kashin religion. From The Kashins by Rev. Ola Hanson:

The knowledge of a supreme power exerts no particular moral influence over the Kaschins. He is regarded as too far above man to taken any interest in the everyday affairs of mortals. Only in extreme cases will he punish a hopelessly wicked individual, but when and how no one seems to know. But when war, pestilence or and the nats* do not seem propitious or able to help, people will call in their distress to the Lord of all. But when the trouble has passed there is no further thought of him, and no form of worship exists by which homage or gratitude is shown.
*Nats are the primary “gods” of the Kachin’s mythological beliefs. Nats are reminiscent of gremlins who cause mischief, disease, and ill fortune. The Kachins work to appease the nats so the nats will stop causing problems. This is far from the structure of Christianity.

The "Blessing" of the Spanish Conquest of the Incas

We've seen the not-so-subtle influences missionaries can have on their converts, and the subtle ways they mis-represent that influence. For a more egregious example, let go back to the Spanish Conquest:

The Spanish conquest began in 1519 and lasted 75 years. The conquest included both force and religion. The Requerimiento was a Spanish declaration that natives must submit to Spanish rule and to Christianity. They were not shy about using force when necessary.

In one episode, the Spanish feared a revolt by the Incan King Atahualpa. A Spanish Conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, arranged a trap for King Atahualpa. A Dominican friar offered a breviary —a book containing daily services—to King Atahualpa explaining that the Spanish were there to spread Catholicism. When King Atahualpa refused to accept the breviary, and with it Catholicism, Pizarro launched a surprise attack. Atahualpa’s guards panicked and the confusion lead to the capture of King Atahualpa.

The king paid a huge ransom—several tons of gold and silver—for his release but was still to be executed. To avoid being burned at the stake, the king agreed to a last-minute baptism and was hanged instead. Richardson fails to mention any of this history, choosing instead to only portray Christian missionaries as being kind and loving.


This review only covers a small portion of the various tribes and cultures that Richardson describes in Eternity In Their Hearts. The pattern is clear: a few similarities do not unify multiple myths into a single god, especially when the similarities are generic, the myths revolve around common problems, and there are an overwhelming number of details that do not match. Richardson does cover a large number of cultures, but his attempt at correlation is neither methodical, consistent, nor does it consider all the inconsistencies of the myths.

Missionaries compete for converts and for the support of their benefactors back home. They influence the cultures they contact in ways they seem unwilling to admit. The self-reporting of their results often cannot be trusted. Yet, these are the primary sources Richardson cites.

Syncretism has long been used to transform one religion into another. The process should be familiar to most regulars here: newer religious myths get adapted from older religious myths. It's effective. It is easier to evolve one story into another, than to introduce new and unfamiliar myths and make them sound believable. Richardson advocates syncretism as a process for swaying converts and simultaneously calls it a proof of a single god that has existed all along.

A Final Observation

It took a lot of Googling to find suitable sources for the examples presented here. There were many interesting cultures and myths in Eternity…, but little information could be found online. Of those hard-to-research topics, most of them linked back to Eternity In Their Hearts as the sole source of information.