One God, One Gospel, One Book

October 15th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

I heard it said the other day that Christianity would be much more attractive and peaceful if all we had were the four Gospels. The God of the Old Testament and even the God of the rest of the New Testament is a God who is angry and offensive. There is a huge amount of truth to this statement. As Dawkins, Dennet, et al., are correct to point out, the God at the end of the Bible makes the God at the beginning of the Bible look like a pacifist pushover.

Some might wish to argue that the Bible charts the progress of the God-consciousness of a particular group of people. As they progress through history, they learn more of who God is. Their earlier ideas are corrected, and by the end of the book this group of authors is much closer to understanding True Religion, or What God Really Is.

But that argument doesn’t hold water. I agree with my atheist friends, here, at least. The God at the end of the book is worse, in some sense, that the God at the beginning. This is not what might be deemed a positive trajectory. If we want a God who is nice, peaceful, and attractive, we must at least cut off the two ends of the book.

Now we come to the final fall-back position of those who love the Bible but cannot accept much of it as true. The Old Testament is rejected because it is full of a God who throws temper tantrums and wipes out whole nations. Revelation must be rejected because it makes that God look tame and pacifistic. Next we must reject Paul and the other letters because they are full of condemnation, especially regarding homosexuality and all sorts of other things that really aren’t bad. (C’mon, guys, we live in the 21st century. We’ve moved past that.) So we’re left with Jesus.

In Jesus, we find true virtue. He has compassion on the needy. He rails against the self-righteous religious establishment. He hangs out with prostitutes and drunkards. He heals the untouchables. Finally, he gives himself in an act of impressive self-consistency: He does not merely love his neighbor as himself, but he loves his enemy, and does good for those who hate him, even so far as he allows those enemies to kill him.

No doubt, this is love, and an impressive and unparalleled love. We have much to learn and emulate here. With that, no one could disagree.

But Jesus isn’t the tame figure that we may think him to be. More than any other character in the Bible, he talks about hell. As a part of my discussion the other day, I mentioned that Jesus talks about a place where there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth, this being typically understood as a euphemism for hell. My interlocutor challenged the claim that Jesus would say something like that. To be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure that he used that phrase. So I went home and I started reading the gospels again. (Because one can never read the gospels too many times.) Yes, Jesus did say that. In fact, I’d forgotten how much he said about it. After reading just the first 12 chapters (less than one-third) of Matthew, I felt like my point was made and then some. Jesus was full of compassion, but he was also full of condemnation. To take one without the other is to reconstruct a teddy-bear Jesus, a Jesus who is who we want him to be, who comforts us as we want to be comforted, not a Jesus as-he-is, who comforts us more powerfully than we could imagine from a condemnation more dangerous than we are willing to admit.

Below are just a few references:

  • Matthew 3:12. Here, John the Baptizer says of Jesus that he will “gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Sure, these are not the words of Jesus, but they are how this particular gospel presents him before he’s even said a word. Is it a true characterization, consistent with the rest of this book?
  • Matthew 4:17. The very first words of Jesus public ministry are “Repent.” He does not tell us, “You’re basically good. You just need to tweak a few things about society.” Rather, he says we need to turn around 180 degrees. The ministry of Christ is not one of confirmation and encouragement, but a call to radical change.
  • Matthew 5:21,22. In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to lecture about the Old Testament Law. Of murderers, he says that they will be liable to judgment. But he goes farther than the law, increasing the burden on the listener when he says, “[E]veryone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment… and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus here condemns more strongly even than the Ten Commandments. To be murder is bad, but if, in anger, I call my brother an idiot, then I deserve hell.
  • Matthew 5:27-30. We may or may not agree on whether adultery is bad, but again, Jesus goes far beyond the words of the Ten Commandments, claiming that those who lust are guilty of adultery in their hearts. Jesus then launches into this strange discourse where he says that we should cut of parts of our body and throw them away rather than have our whole body cast into hell. What Jesus might be saying about gouging out eyes and cutting off hands is very interesting (and worthy of its own discussion). But that is not the point I’m interested in here. Rather we must see the larger point that we need to get rid of whatever causes us or allows us to lust. Why? Because lust will get us thrown in hell.

Excursus: Jesus vs. Paul

Let’s take a break to contrast the condemnation of Paul with the condemnation of Jesus. Paul is most infamous for his condemnation of homosexuals. But Jesus’s condemnation is actually far more direct and broad. No person gets missed by Jesus’s condemnation. Have you been angry at your brother? You deserve hell. Have you lusted? You deserve hell.

In my case, at least, I find that Jesus has clearly condemned me to hell. This makes him much less comforting. This is a Jesus I might not like quite as much. He does not at all feel like a teddy bear. He takes the Old Testament and does not soften it, but hardens it. If anything, he beats Paul to the punch: “All have sinned” and “The wages of sin is death.” Jesus said that before Paul ever wrote it down.

So of these two, who do you think just condemned more people to hell? Who sets the higher moral standard?

  • Matthew 7:12,13. To over simplify a bit: Many will go to hell. Few will get to heaven.
  • Matthew 7:21-23. Even some of those who claim to minister in the name of Jesus will not be accepted into the kingdom of heaven. (Talk about high standards.)
  • Matthew 10:15. Jesus declares that it will the final judgment will be gentler on Sodom and Gomorrah than for certain towns and houses that he is sending his disciples to.
  • Matthew 10:34-39. Jesus does not talk about hell, here, but he mentions that he did not come “to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter agains her mother, and a daughter-in-law agains her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” I’m not going to explain what I think that all means, but surely this is not the teddy-bear Jesus we’ve been told to expect in the gospels.
  • Matthew 11:20-24. Jesus condemns an entire city to Hades. He says again, that it will be easier for Sodom at the day of judgment than it will be for that city.

Excursus: Sodom and Gomorrah

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is simple. God told Abraham he was going to destroy the cities because they were so hideously immoral. Abraham begged God for mercy on the cities’ behalf. He was able to negotiate with God to where if Abraham could find 10 righteous people, God would relent from the disaster he had planned.

So God sent a couple of angels down to check out the situation. They stayed at Lot’s house. (Lot was Abraham’s nephew.) During the course of the night, the men of the city came to Lot’s house and told him to let them rape the angels or they would break down Lot’s door and rape them anyway. Lot negotiated with them, saying that he would give his virgin daughters to them (so they could rape them all night long) if they would leave the messengers alone. They did not find that acceptable.

At this point, the angels struck the people of the city with blindness and took Lot and his family to safety. Then, God destroyed the cities with fire and brimstone.

The reason why Jesus alludes to this story (twice!) is this: for some the final judgment will be worse than judgment already was for Sodom and Gomorrah.

But this is also a striking picture of a merciful God in the Old Testament. God did not have to save Lot. In fact, I don’t believe Lot deserved to be saved. He offered to let an entire city rape his virgin daughters. Is that a picture of righteoussness? Frankly, I think that the Jesus I just presented would probably condemn Lot to hell. Perhaps we read a story like this and say, “How could God be so harsh that he would destroy an entire city?” I read that story and I wonder, “Why did God even save Lot?” He didn’t have to. Lot was not righteous. But God is merciful, even on the wicked.

The examples above are taken merely from the first 1/3 (less, really) of the first of the four gospels. I’ve cited examples from less than 10% of the gospels. I’m barely getting started. This is Jesus. This is who he is and what he says. It isn’t pretty, nor is it what we might expect. It is full of talk of swords and fire, of condemnation for trivialities that harm no one, of Old Testament justice visited on an oppressed people.

Some have argued that Jesus was, after all, only human. He was not perfect. He was just a really good example. But when people say that, it is interesting to ask them what Jesus could have done better. they may argue that Jesus was just the best of his age. He understood God better than the Jews of the Old Testament, but we know better yet. We know that God is love, and that he welcomes all.

But then what we end up saying is that Jesus really isn’t that good of an example. He got a lot of stuff right, but we already knew about that, about being kind, not murdering, etc. But we also know that God is a God of love and not a God of condemnation.

So we know better than Jesus.

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