The word “Rastafarianism” often calls to mind the stereotypical images of dreadlocks (long braids or natural locks of hair), ganja (marijuana), the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, and the reggae rhythms of Bob Marley. Rastafarians have no universally acknowledged leaders, no universally agreed-upon defining principles. It is a black consciousness movement—Afro-Caribbean—and there is a split between the religion and its accompanying social consciousness, so people can appreciate what Rastas are trying to do socially while not embracing the religion.
The movement takes its name from the title “Ras Tafari.” In the Ethiopian (Amharic) language, ras means “head,” “prince,” or “field marshal,” and tafari means “to be feared.” Within the system of Rastafarianism, the term is a reference most particularly to Ras Tafari Makonnen (1892–1975), who became the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I (his Christian baptismal name) upon his coronation in 1930, when Selassie was lauded with the title “Lion of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings.” This sent a shock wave through Afro-Caribbean culture. In the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, preachers like Joseph Hibbert started declaring that Haile Selassie was the long awaited Messiah, the second coming of Christ. Thus was born one track of Rastafari, which looked to Selassie as the living God and black messiah who would overthrow the existing order and usher in a reign of black people.
Another track of Rasta has sprung up alongside the messianic track. This group traces its roots to Leonard Percival Howell and has definite Hindu elements. Sometime in the early- to mid-1930s, Howell produced a 14-page pamphlet, “The Promised Key,” which laid the groundwork for a second track within Rastafarianism influenced by Hinduism and Rosicrucianism. Many of the leaders in this track have also been Freemasons. The result has been a sort of Rastafarian pantheism that looks for “the Lion Spirit in each of us: the Christ spirit.”
A summary of Rastafarian theology, as evidenced in the pantheistic track: the belief that “God is man and man is God”; that salvation is earthly; that human beings are called to celebrate and protect life; that the spoken word, as a manifestation of the divine presence and power, can both create and bring destruction; that sin is both personal and corporate; and that Rasta brethren are the chosen people to manifest God’s power and promote peace in the world.
Both tracks of Rasta are in direct contrast to the revealed Word of God in the Bible. First, Haile Selassie is not the Messiah. Those who worship him as such worship a false god. There is only one King of Kings, one Lion of Judah, and that is Jesus Christ (see Revelation 5:5; 19:16), who will return in the future to set up His earthly kingdom. Preceding His coming, there will be a great tribulation, after which the whole world will see Jesus “coming in the clouds of heaven with great power and great glory” (see Matthew 24:29-31). Haile Selassie was a man and, like all men, he was born, he lived, and he died. Jesus Christ, the true Messiah, is alive and seated at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 10:12).
The pantheistic track of Rasta is equally false and based on the same lie that Satan has been telling mankind since the garden of Eden: “you will be as God” (Genesis 3:4). There is one God, not many, and although believers do possess the indwelling Holy Spirit and we do belong to God, we are not God. “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me” (Isaiah 46:9). Furthermore, salvation is not earthly, another anti-scriptural, “salvation by works” idea. No amount of earthly works or good deeds can make us acceptable to a holy and perfect God, which is why He sent His holy and perfect Son to die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21). Finally, Rastafarians are not the chosen people of God. Scripture is clear that the Jews are God’s chosen people and that He has not yet completed His plan for their redemption (Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Romans 11:25-27).