Like a snowball rolling down a hill gathering further snow, ideas that have been handed down through the ages have gathered religious meanings and dogma to them on their journey to us. Simple concepts like life, death, sin, repentance, and God have become blurred and muddied, surrounded by millenia and misinformation. It is necessary to clear your mind of all preconceptions before considering the concepts, so that you may hear them as they really are rather than how you've learned them to be.
Life and Death: There are two kinds of life and death discussed in religious texts, the physical and the spiritual. As Jesus is speaking to his disciples and to other people he encounters, he talks about rebirth, life and death in a spiritual sense. Nearly everyone he talks to is so rooted in the physical world that they cannot imagine his spiritual concepts, and they think that he is referring to the physical versions of life, death and rebirth. This is the reason he died and was resurrected - because people could not understand through words what he was saying, he was forced to show them his meanings with his physical body. Sadly, the misunderstandings continued despite his sacrifice.
Along the way, his teachings were misconstrued. As with most great spiritual teachers, Jesus was attempting to explain a very simple yet obscure concept to beings who were blind to that concept. He struggled often to bring understanding that while his terminology described physical bodies and processes, he was in fact referring to spiritual bodies and processes. Imagine that you've found a boy in the wild who was raised by chimpanzees. You are trying to explain biology to him, so as you are preparing a chicken you point to it's various bones and parts in order to compare them to the bones and muscles in the human body. As you do this, the boy only understands that the chicken meat is food and the bone is use full for making tools, the idea that there is bone and muscle within his own body is beyond his grasp. Explaining this to him would be extremely difficult, especially if he doesn't have a grasp of the language you speak as of yet. This is what Jesus experienced in trying to teach humans about spiritual matters, and about the transformation they needed to achieve in order to become like him - to "know" God.
The death and rebirth that Jesus wanted to explain to us is the death and rebirth of our consciousness. We have our soul, and we have our body, and consciousness is the thing that links the two. In killing off the consciousness that we currently have, we cast away all the trappings of our physical world and our prior desires, needs and wants. In the rebirth of the consciousness, we see the world through the eyes of a child, but with our full knowledge and reasoning as adults. In other words, we are mature and innocent at the same time, and this allows our soul to guide us rather than our baser, animal instincts. Through this rebirth we can shut down unnecessary parts of our mind (brain) and light up parts that we haven't used yet. This allows us to become open to higher realms of thought and reasoning, true spiritual awareness and the greatest compassion and understanding one could ever know.
Sin: Thanks to teachings and churches, we have come to think of sin as a generic black mark on our soul. It can be pictured in terms of having a score card taped to our backs that gets a tick mark each time we do something bad. Then, at the end of our lives the tick marks are added up and we either get into Heaven or we don't - or if Christian, the idea is that belief in Jesus will wash the scorecard clean, guaranteeing the door to heaven is open to us. Sin is at times viewed as unerasable, irrefutable, something which follows you around forever and which you cannot escape.
In reading of the Bible with a clear and open mind with no preconceptions, sin is described in a bit of a different way. Sin is an act which has a very distinct result: Sin holds one back from enlightenment (knowing God). Sin is something which affects our own minds far more than it affects anything else, and if we cannot see through and past it, we will become trapped by the sin. Becoming trapped by sin is the true hell - we torment ourselves with the knowledge, regret, guilt, and despair over what we have done and we continue to do so until we can see past it. This is also why forgiveness is so very important - it is the ability to see past a sin and to let it go. It is not God who holds our sins against us, it is we ourselves who do that. The Bible even explains to us that we are incapable of living without committing any sins, and yet people try so hard to avoid sin at all costs. They are so terrified of sin that they trap themselves within it even harder, in their fear. Because they have sinned and they believe that sin is a condemnation to a fiery pit, they repress the knowledge of the sin, further increasing it's hold on them. It becomes a cycle of briefly remembering it, feeling the fear of what it means, the fear of hell itself, and then repressing it again.
Jesus himself tried to release us from this cycle - he said that he died for our sins - he paid the price himself so that we would no longer stress about the things which we had done wrong, and would not trap ourselves in the hellish cycle of remembrance, guilt, denial. Nearly everything that he did was symbolic, and yet it is not understood in it's symbolic sense.
Sin happens, and as the saying goes, there is no use crying over spilt milk. Repenting from a sin is the same idea as learning from your mistakes. We are here to learn how to overcome the physical so that we can be the spiritual beings we were meant to be, so when we sin we should learn from the experience in order to further that goal.
Pride is a very special kind of sin. The other primary sins are mostly externalized - you feel rage out towards others, you feel lust towards others, you feel greedy towards money or possessions, and so on. Pride, however, is a sneaky sin. It creeps up on you when you aren't expecting it, and it is incredibly hard to recognize if it wants to hide. It disguises itself as many other things, things that we have learned to find completely acceptable in our daily lives. Our most common interactions with the outside world are full of pride - we see people as "everyone else" and find ourselves more important. We push people aside, are rude and thoughtless because we value ourselves more than anyone else. We feel bad when passed over for a promotion, or if the person we're attracted to isn't interested, or even when a child is more interested in sitting in someone else's lap. This is all pride - having hurt feelings is result of a bruised ego - a sense of self importance being pushed down by the actions of another person. If we didn't view ourselves as important individual units, none of these things would bother us. We'd understand that the world turns in the way that it turns and chance occurs irregardless of who and what we are. Yet we try to control chance, we attempt to best it at it's own game. This is the pride of the self saying "I deserve more than what I have been handed" and it is an empty pursuit. The drive to advance one's own worth does nothing but separate us and set man against man. It may hold us back from enlightenment more than any other sin because it hides in the very core of our ego.
No man is more important than any other, nor better nor more special. What is important is that each man is unique and brings something special to the universe that no one else has. There is no pride in this, it is the way we were made. No one will ever see life as you see it through your eyes, no one can ever have the identical unique impact on the world that you can. This is the true value of each person and if all attempts of pride and vanity are dropped then this true value can show through. By having pride in yourself you are depriving the world of the true gift you have to offer it.
Sacrifice: Sacrifice is a common concept in many cultures, and can include both human and animal offerings. It was taught to us as a very young people, but by the time of Jesus he scoffed at the idea and declared it unnecessary. In fact, he referred to himself as the ultimate sacrifice, taking the place of the others which had come before him. But what was the point of sacrifice?
Sacrifice, tithing, giving selflessly, they are all the same idea. Humans were taught early on to sacrifice so that they would learn to give freely of their own posessions and animals. It taught that all things on earth belong to God, and that we never truely own anything. It is the finest of the flock, that which is healthy and prized that should be sacrificed, to teach that the best of what we have is what we should be giving away. It is an exercise in faith - if you have only five sheep and you are instructed to kill one and burn it's remains (so that you cannot eat it), you are to take away from the experience that in order to expand yourself spiritually you have to let go of what you treasure in the physical world. Giving your best to others shows that you have faith that what you need will be provided to you, that you have no need to cling to these nice things because you trust that God will see you through even the hardest of times. It is also a reminder that we are all of one family, of one being, and we must share and work together in order to become better.
Cross: Jesus says that anyone who wishes to know God should take up their cross and follow him. Taking up your cross is a direct reference to accepting what life hands to you in stride, no matter how difficult or impossible it may seem. Think about it - for Jesus to have carried his own cross all the way to where he was to be crucified, he was essentially putting a gun in the hand of those who would kill him, and even loading it for them. All they had to do was nail him to it. He himself carried the burden of the instrument of his death. He didn't want to die, but he knew it was necessary in order to serve the greater good. He also taught us to turn the other cheek.
When someone wrongs us, we call for their head. We want justice, we want revenge, we want to feel that we have received retribution. We feel we must fight against all those who would harm us. This is not what Jesus taught us. He taught us that if someone is causing us harm we should allow them to do so, put up no fight whatsoever. If someone is trying to steal a car from you, you should offer them more than just that. If they are trying to hurt you, lay down and accept it. If a storm destroys your home, give it all up and walk away. It's not just about accepting what is coming to you but encouraging and helping it rather than fighting. These actions must sound insane to most people - one of our most base instincts is survival, and yet here we are being told that we shouldn't even obey that basic instinct.
If you think about it in terms of spirituality, it makes perfect sense. Being capable of taking up your cross shows that there is nothing that you fear in the physical world - not even death. It shows that there is nothing you treasure in this world, because you understand that the only true treasure is that of the soul and of God. Walking away from everything you've known and walking away from security of any kind is likely the hardest thing for a person to do - but it is one of the most crucial acts of spiritual rebirth.
If you are clinging to your physical life in any way, you are valuing it more than your soul, more than God. This is not to say you should kill yourself, but that you should let go and allow the flow of Karma to bring into and out of your life anything that it chooses. It's dropping the reigns and allowing the horse to run, and not caring where it takes you because you know that your home is not a place, it is inside your soul.
Demons, Devils, Satan: These things are viewed as actual beings, fanged, horned and even winged or tailed, as metaphysical beings that follow us around and attempt to foul up our lives. They are nothing of the sort, instead these things are inside our minds. They are our fears, our doubts, our anxieties. They cumulatively represent the dark side of our minds - the part of us that holds us back. Casting out a demon is the same as casting out a fear or anxiety. It is disallowing those emotions to have control of you, it is doing that which you fear despite the imagined consequences.
Satan and his kind are described as being tricksters - and fear and anxiety are exactly that. We can be absolutely terrified of something but our mind will convince us of something else. We think we are doing certain actions because we want to, when in truth we are only doing them because we are afraid of the alternatives. Einstein's definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. This is our daily life! We have hopes and dreams of going places, doing different things, meeting other people, and yet we stay at home, we go to work, we close ourselves off, we drink, we distract ourselves, we do everything the same, day after day. Yet we continue to say "some day I'll move to the beach" or "some day I'll meet mister right", or "someday I'll get around to learning German".
We spend our lives dreaming of one thing, repeating the same actions over and over and somehow expecting that those same actions will lead us in the direction of our dreams. We are all insane, but no one can see that for what it is because it is the normal state of mind in the modern world. We are insane because of our demons - the dark thoughts we carry with us and the fears that bind us. We want to go across the country and take up our dream of being something else, but we are afraid to actually do it because it means letting go of our home, our job, the only life that we have known. So we convince ourselves that our mindless pursuit of security will somehow lead us to achieving that dream. Someday we'll save up enough money or hit the lottery, then we can go live our dream without fear. Without the demons screaming in our head.
Someday will never come, do you know why? Look at the people who are living your dream - people who have all the money that a person could want, people who own ridiculous things and live incredible lifestyles. They are the most unhappy people on the planet, because while they can achieve the things they've always wanted to do, it isn't a challenge. People will tell them that everything they do is wonderful and amazing because those people also want that money and the ability to do whatever they want. The person who is told by others how amazing everything they do is knows that these are empty sentiments because they know that they haven't risked anything to get where they are. They did so while riding a wave of monetary security. Deep down, in a corner of their mind that they never visit, they know that their achievements are hollow and empty, worthless and paper thin. They know this and it taints their enjoyment of what they have. They know that without any risk, struggle or strife, they have accomplished nothing. They haven't fought the odds or worked for success, or maybe at one time they did and it got them to where they are now, and that sense of accomplishment has faded with time. Now they feel hollow and empty again and cannot understand why, they don't understand that one can't sit back and enjoy one's accomplishments, one must give away that which they have achieved and continue making new accomplishments. It is through the strive to better onesself that we find happiness, any manufactured comfort or achievement will bring only emptiness.
These people who have all of this money and power are even more afraid than the rest of us, because now they fear that they will lose it all. It's not making them happy, but they are terrified of losing it. They strive incessently to aquire more because it staves off the fear of loss, and maybe they can find that sense of achievement again if they aquire more and more and more. They may have the most rare bird in the world as a pet, and yet when they look at it they feel a sadness deep in their heart. They may burry it but the knowledge is still there - that their desperate needs have caged a beautiful creature that should be allowed to fly free. Yet another demon to pull them further into fear.
The differences between our understanding of these concepts and the original meaning of them is staggering in some cases, mild in others, but in every instance it affects our ability to truely see the world as it is. Religion has been sculpted and changed over the years to be a beast that breeds fear and misunderstanding, leading to depression, strife, war and death. You need look no further than the above paragraph to understand why - those who have been in power want to stay in power because they are so very terrified of what they will have to face if they lose that power.
We're all afraid of facing the same thing, we all run from it in different ways. We are afraid to face ourselves. Our fears, our shortcomings, our knowledge or the wrongs we have committed. Rather than face them, accept the pain of them and walk forward through them, we stay where we are and cover our eyes to pretend they aren't there. Before long we are surrounded by a wall of these things, and now the only escape is to walk through it despite the pain. When faced with this wall of fears, most people will assume the fetal position and desperately wish it will all go away. They will drown themselves in vice just to make it through each day. Then, one day, if they never face those fears they will die alone. Alone, because no one could break through the wall of fears for them and they didn't have the strength or knowledge of how to do it themselves.
This is why Jesus died symbolically on the cross. He carried the implement of his own death, though it was heavy and he was afraid, and allowed himself to be killed in a most tortuous way. This was his most powerful message to us - that even though what we face seems insurmountable, we will prevail and we will rise from the dead just as he did. There is nothing of this world to fear because there is nothing of this world that is permanent or of consequence.