Note especially the comment in the next section below- “Irresponsible environmental alarmism”, and “Climate deniers”.
Content in this section: The Chronology (unconditional was first, Paul rejected it); The Christian Contradiction- arguably history’s greatest religious scandal; Bob Brinsmead comment from discussion group.
I’ve brought this comment up from the basement because it may be the most important material on this site. If you can get the central insight of Historical Jesus clear, in contrast to the entirely contradictory message of Paul/Christianity, then you have gained some real ground on understanding the greater human story, what went wrong and how it can be made right.
The Christian contradiction (Jesus versus Paul) intensely focuses the struggle between the unconditional treatment of all people (i.e. “love your enemies”) and the traditional payback justice approach toward others (justice as getting even, or punishment). The Christian contradiction illustrates how these two approaches have struggled to shape human ethics over history.
Our treatment of others is very much based on how we view others. Do we embrace the tribal dualism view of humanity as divided into opposing groups of good versus bad. Or do we hold the view that all people are equal members of one human family, all “magnificent beings”, despite our differing imperfections (see “What are we, really?” in next section below).
The comment in this section is about liberation at the deepest levels of human consciousness, liberation from the great metaphysical monsters of historical mythology and religion, none worse than the violent and punitive deity monsters that have too long terrorized the human psyche.
This is about fully humanizing our highest ideals and authorities that inspire, guide, and validate our behavior and lives. It is also to ask some very basic questions regarding the human search for meaning and purpose- What is ultimate Goodness or Love really about? What is authentically human or humane?
And yes, as with much other comment on this site, it is about getting to the root of alarmism. It is about bringing down the greatest monster of all.
This comment refines the point that Jesus’ core theme- the unconditional treatment of all people- is the original teaching, the original gospel of Jesus. All else in the New Testament must be evaluated in light of that most original message of Jesus. The subsequent NT material buries this unconditional theme of Jesus.
What was original and what followed. The long-standing order of the New Testament books (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke… on to the varied letters of Paul and others) does not present the actual historical order in which these books were written.
Note the actual chronology- what came first- in order to make things more clear. Here again is the rough dating of the Christian New Testament writings. Jesus taught his wisdom sayings (an oral tradition known as the Q Sayings Gospel) somewhere around CE 27-36. Paul then wrote the first NT material, his letters to the Thessalonians around 50 CE, and the rest of his ‘authentic’ letters through the remainder of the 50s CE. Mark wrote around the early 70s CE. Matthew wrote about 80 CE. Luke wrote about 80-85 CE. John was written later.
The correct chronological order, then, for the New Testament would put Matthew 5-7 (and a few other passages of Jesus’ wisdom sayings) right at the beginning of the NT, followed by the two Thessalonian letters of Paul, and the rest of Paul’s letters. After this would come Mark, followed by the rest of Matthew, and then Luke and later John.
Paul was a dominating, controlling personality and did not tolerate disagreement. With his threatening approach (e.g. Galatians 1:8-9), he coercively shaped early Christianity. See for example, Charles Freeman’s chapter “Paul: The founder of Christianity” in his book The Closing of the Western Mind. The gospel writers later adopted and followed Paul’s theology of retaliation and conditional atonement. Note the details of this in the following essay- The Christian Contradiction.
The “core teaching of Jesus” is basically Matthew 5-7 (note that Matthew makes changes and additions that contradict the central theme of Jesus). A few other sayings and parables are included in the original teaching of Jesus. But to laser in more- the statement below of Matthew 5:38-48 is considered to be the core theme in the core teaching of Jesus. It is the “core of the core”, as Robert Perry says. And the key point in this core statement is about a stunning new theology, a stunning new view of God as absolutely no conditions love. A God that does not retaliate against evil people, but instead, loves his enemies. James Robinson focuses on the non-retaliation element, which is one feature in the broader ideal of unconditional love, and says that this new view of a non-retaliatory God is “Jesus’ greatest contribution to the history of human ideas”. I would emphasize more broadly the unconditional ideal itself- that the God of Jesus forgives all unconditionally, includes all unconditionally as one family, and treats all with unconditional generosity.
Here is the statement of the central unconditional theme that is embedded in Jesus’ core teaching of Matthew 5-7. I have merged this Matthew 5:38-48 section with the very same material from Luke 6:27-36.
“You have heard that it was said “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:23-27). But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your shirt, give him your coat also… Give to everyone who asks you and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Do not ask for things back… You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. .. But if you love only those who love you, if you lend only to those from whom you expect repayment, if you do good only to those who are good to you… What are you doing more than others? What credit is that to you? Even ‘barbarians’ love those that love them, even ‘barbarians’ lend to ‘barbarians’ expecting to be repaid in full…But I tell you, Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting anything back… that you may be the children of your Father in heaven (that you may be like God). He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust…He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”
This statement of Jesus is from his original teaching, his actual gospel (see Q Sayings Gospel research). This is a statement of his main theme on the unconditional treatment of all people, both good and bad. He rejects the old ‘eye for eye’ justice of getting even, paying back evil with like evil, of excluding and punishing the “bad” people, or demanding payment or sacrifice.
He says nothing in this original teaching about coming as a savior to die and pay for sin, to meet some divine condition for salvation. He says, instead, just love unconditionally because that is what God does. It is all about no conditions. Absolutely none. He does not use the word unconditional but this is the meaning of his statement on loving enemies.
In this central theme of Jesus there is no discrimination between people, no tribal separation of humanity into groups of true believers versus unbelievers (good versus bad), with favoritism and reward shown to one’s insider group, while the outsiders are rejected and punished. There is no exclusion of anyone, not even enemies. All are to receive the same forgiveness, inclusion, generosity and love. Because this is what God does. This is what God is like. He gives the good gifts of life- the sun and rain for crops- to all people, both good and bad. He treats all the same, with unconditional love. (I use the traditional “He” of these contexts, understanding that there is no gender in deity)
Put this central theme of Jesus right at the chronological beginning of the New Testament because it is the most original and authentic statement of his teaching. It is the closest that we can get to the actual message of the man (James Robinson). So get its central theme and meaning clear. Every person, good and bad, is to be treated with absolutely no conditions love. Because that is how God treats every person, both good and bad. Act like God. Be like God. If you love your enemies then you are acting like your Father. You are being merciful just as God is merciful.
With this core statement set at the very beginning, you then have the baseline from which to evaluate all that follows in the rest of the New Testament. Because the rest of the gospels- Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John- were all written decades later. Paul also wrote his epistles decades later but before the gospel writers. And all this later material was written by people who outright rejected the central unconditional theme of Jesus. They opted instead for the old God that threatened eye for eye retaliation and punishment. The God who demanded that conditions be met first before he would forgive. Hebrews 9:25 says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”. This sums up Paul’s gospel, his Christian atonement religion.
Matthew, when he wrote his gospel around 70 CE, he included the core teaching of Jesus in chapters 5-7 because it was well-known among the earliest followers of Jesus. Matthew could not ignore that material in any account of Jesus’ message and life. But he immediately tampered with that central teaching, adding all sorts of conditions and threats, contradicting the main theme of Jesus as stated in chapter 5:38-48. This is because Matthew followed the atonement teaching of Paul, who taught the myth of a savior that came to pay for sin, to meet the conditions for salvation, to appease an angry, threatening, and highly conditional God. A God that will not forgive until the debt is fully paid or sin fully punished. That message of Paul was in direct contradiction to this earliest teaching of Jesus that God demanded absolutely no conditions be met, but just forgave, included, and loved all without conditions.
To correct the later distortion of Paul, let the core theme of Jesus from Matt. 5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-36 be your baseline criteria for evaluating all the other material that follows in the rest of the New Testament.
And once again, I would continue to clarify this ideal of unconditional, taking it further than what we find in the Jesus statement. We need to improve on what history has handed us from these spiritual traditions. We know better today that unconditional love is the ultimate definition of authentic humanity.
Note: I have not included Matthew’s sentence, “Be perfect as your Father is perfect” (actually meaning “be complete as your Father is complete”) because that distorts the central point of unconditional that Jesus was making. Luke is more accurate in making the unconditional point by saying, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful”. He adheres more closely to the overall thrust of the passage which is about unconditional love for the imperfect, for the “enemy”.
Also, note the need for balance when considering this core unconditional theme of Jesus. It is not about a rigid ethical standard to be applied unthinkingly in all life situations, like some dogmatic pacifism. Arthur Herman in The Cave and The Light comments on Plato’s ethical “mean”- that virtue aims for the mean, for the mid-range balanced approach. He says, “Hence, the courageous man is neither cowardly (shunning all dangers) nor foolhardy (embracing all dangers); the generous man is neither a miser nor a man who gives away everything so that his family has nothing, and so on” (p.56). Again, this is about struggling with our ideals in an imperfect world. And whatever the outcome of our struggle to apply the ideal of unconditional, we should act with the attitude and spirit of unconditional toward all. That is to say, we should act as human toward all.
(New insert before ‘Christian Contradiction’)
If you claim to be Christian or have any sort of interest in Jesus, then I would suggest that you should embrace the minimal obligation to become familiar with the ongoing research on Jesus. Notable here is the past few centuries of search for the Historical Jesus, and Q Sayings Gospel research, a sub-category of Historical Jesus research. Recent decades, in particular, have offered some of the best evidence available on what Jesus actually said and did (i.e. Jesus Seminar research). If you claim to be Christian, then I would argue that you need to familiarize yourself with the basic discoveries of these projects. Surely, this is only a basic Christian responsibility.
Related to this I would also argue that if you are Christian, then you should take Jesus seriously. You need to take his central message seriously. And to the contrary, why Christians continue to take Paul more seriously than Jesus? Why do they place the gospel of Paul (his Christ myth) above the gospel of Jesus (his wisdom sayings- the Q gospel)? Yes, these are two very different things. A corollary question would be- Why do many Christians continue to try to harmonize the irreconcilable contradictions between these two messages (i.e. the non-retaliation of Jesus versus the supreme retaliation of Paul)? Could this be due to the fallacy of Biblicism- that everything in the Bible must be accepted as truth and harmonized somehow?
The Christian Contradiction (full version)
(Note: The following comment is related to sound historical research, namely Q Sayings research which is a subsection of general Historical Jesus research)
A significant historical misunderstanding, distortion, and consequent scandal. That refers to the Jesus/Paul contradiction noted below, and its recognizable impact on public consciousness and general human existence. Varied historians have stated that Paul has been the single greatest influence on Western consciousness and society. Some of that influence has been good. Some has been harmful. Note the difference because it is important. This contradiction between Jesus and Paul is about significant validating ideas that have shaped human existence for better and for worse.
Qualifier: A note on the Jesus tradition and Historical Jesus research. Ultimately it does not matter what Jesus said, or did not say. Historical Jesus research shows that we will never know his actual original teaching with finality. It is more important to get the insight on unconditional reality that is found in the Matthew 5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-36 statements, and pull that out of the highly conditional Christian context where it has been severely distorted by Paul’s atonement theology- i.e. the demanded payment for sin, the fulfillment of an ultimate condition. Jesus’ unconditional insight is better understood in new contexts aside from conditional religion. As he said, put the new wine in new wineskins. The diamond of unconditional has too long been buried by the overwhelmingly dominant Christ myth of Christianity. That is my paraphrase of Thomas Jefferson’s point that the diamonds of Jesus- “his sublimely moral teaching”- were buried among the other inferior teaching of the gospel writers. He used a stronger term to describe the inferior teaching in the New Testament, but I am trying to be nice.
Further, unconditional does not need validation by a religious authority figure like Jesus. It is self-validating as the ultimate definition of authentic humanity. Therefore, I am advocating that we get the unconditional insight clear, pull it out of the Jesus tradition, and then create a better context aside from the conditional features of a religion like Christianity. Jesus points us in the right direction on unconditional thinking and practice. Now we need to move on further.
One more: I am not claiming below that Paul set out to intentionally deceive people. I assume that he sincerely believed that his Christ myth explained what Jesus was all about. But the outcome is the same- whether just serious misunderstanding or intentional deception. Paul proclaimed something that was not true. His Christ mistake has harmed people more than is commonly recognized. See comment below on Paul’s influence on Western consciousness and society, and the psychological impact of his ideas.
Distortion and Consequent Deception (propagating belief in things that are not true)
This is about the claim to represent someone, but then distorting and burying entirely that person’s central theme. The very name Christianity expresses the basic problem. It is not Jesus-ianity. It is Christ-ianity. Its all about the Christ myth of Paul, a myth that contradicts the original message of Jesus entirely.
I recognize that the ideas that Paul used to shape his Christology were also common in Judaism and other traditions- i.e. Messiah myths. See, for instance, Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels. But note that Boyarin dismisses the critical issue of an original Jesus teaching and its distortion in Christianity.
Boyarin is useful to note how the Christ myth develops around Jesus. The development of Jesus as the Christ was about the move away from the wisdom message of Jesus to focus on the messenger himself. The new gospel about the messenger began with previous Jewish messiah mythology and then developed into the full-blown Christ of Paul, in his Christology. Paul rejected the message of Jesus and created a new message about Jesus- i.e. his coming as a messiah savior, a violent messiah that would destroy all his enemies. Paul’s Christ was about violent retaliation against enemies and that contradicted entirely the actual non-retaliation message of Jesus (no more “eye for eye”).
This focus on the Christ, the messenger, then led to the violent disputes at the great church Councils over what detail about the Christ was true or not. See, for example, James Carrol’s Constantine’s Sword. Was Jesus fully God in human nature or just an ordinary human? Was he two persons- God and human with two natures, human and divine- or was he two natures united as one God? The patent ridiculousness of these esoteric debates compares to the silly theological discussions about how many angels might balance on the head of a pin.
Tragically, the violence spawned by this Christ mythology continued against heretics that refused to believe some details of the Christ and increased against unbelievers in the Christ (i.e. against Jews and Muslims during the Crusades). The Christ myth of Paul- the focus on the messenger, not the message- has repeatedly incited such violence in stunning contradiction to the central message of Jesus about non-retaliation, non-violence, and love of “enemies”. Such contradiction at the heart of Christianity.
It ranks high as probably the greatest deception and scandal in the history of mythology and religion- that Christianity rejected and then buried the earliest gospel of Jesus. This is much more consequential than the discovery of the ossuary of Jesus. Or the pedophile priest scandals. Or any other scandal/deception. The distortion and burial of Jesus’ teaching within Christianity has resulted in the “spiritual abuse” of countless people over the past two millennia. See psychotherapist Zenon Lotufo’s statements at the bottom of this line of comment.
Christianity as spiritual abuse? That’s an extravagant and unsettling claim to make. But take into account the widespread influence of Christianity and the nature of its foundational ideas. To get this abuse issue fully, note, for instance, Lotufo’s comments on the harmful impacts from atonement theology- i.e. the belief in divine anger that demands suffering and death as payment for imperfection. He wrote an entire book outlining the damage to human personality from these ideas-‘Cruel God, Kind God’.
There are two sides to this claim of abuse. There is the Christian denial of something that could powerfully liberate and heal human consciousness and life- i.e. the proper knowledge of the highest expression of authentic humanity ever presented. I refer to the Jesus breakthrough on the unconditional treatment of all people. Christianity’s contrary retaliation themes have denied people the full understanding of this supremely humane ethic and its power to liberate from the dehumanizing influence of hate, vengeance, and violence. (See details just below on Matthew’s tampering with Jesus’ teaching.)
And just as important, Christianity has denied people the healing impact of Jesus’ theological breakthrough- the discovery of a God that treats everyone with absolutely no conditions love. The new Jesus theology points us toward “the single most profound shift in human consciousness ever- from viewing some grand retribution or payback behind reality, to understanding that there is only an absolutely no conditions Love behind all”.
The other side of this abuse claim is that, aside from denying people the proper presentation of history’s most liberating insight, Christianity has promoted contrary ideas that have proven harmful in all other contexts. See Top Ten Bad Religious Ideas below in Section 2. It is no longer responsible to protect these bad ideas in religious contexts like Christianity, no matter how sacred we feel them to be.
The proper presentation and full understanding of the stunning unconditional insight of Jesus could have produced the greatest liberation movement ever- freeing human consciousness from all kinds of unnecessary threat, guilt/shame, fear, anxiety, depression and despair that arise from atonement theology. The clear presentation of the unconditional insight could have also removed a central historical validation for violence- i.e. the ideal of violent, punitive deity that has long been used to validate similar violent treatment of others. We have been denied so much, to our detriment, over the past two millennia.
This Christian denial is about an original teaching and a religion that claims to represent the original teacher but has contradicted entirely his core theme. Yes, much of the content of Jesus’ original teaching has been included in the New Testament but it has been tampered with by gospel writers like Matthew. Most of the rest of the New Testament then ignores Jesus’ teaching outright and instead promotes the Christ mythology of Paul (i.e. Paul’s Christology- his personal visions of Christ). The Christ of Paul embodies an atonement myth- a supreme condition- that contradicts entirely the Jesus breakthrough on unconditional.
Once again- Paul made his new Christian gospel all about the messenger and ignored his message entirely.
The basic outline of the scandal:
The closest that we can get to the original teaching of Jesus is a collection of wisdom sayings, called the Q Sayings Gospel. See, for instance, the research of James Robinson and John Kloppenborg, among others. That teaching encompasses basically Matthew chapters 5 to 7, the Sermon on the Mount, and a few other passages/stories. Luke 6 covers similar material. Q research, short for Quelle, the German word for Source, is part of the larger multi-century search to discover the Historical Jesus- what he actually said and did. Historical Jesus research recognizes that the later gospel and epistle writers put a lot of additional things in the mouth of Jesus, things that contradict his original teaching. Hence, the understanding that there are notable “dissimilarities” or contradictions in the New Testament. The latest phase of this search involves the Jesus Seminar, which began around 1985. These scholars have done excellent work trying to decipher what the original Jesus actually said and did. Unfortunately, they have never made fully clear the shocking nature of the Christian denial of Jesus’ core theme, and what this means for Christianity and other belief systems.
Again, Matthew 5-7 comprises Jesus’ core teaching or message, his gospel, though Matthew has altered that teaching in various places. But within this core teaching there is a core theme that is stated in Matthew 5:38-48, which Robert Perry called the “core of the core”. There, Jesus introduced something entirely new- a stunning theology of a non-retaliatory God. He said that there should be no more ‘eye for eye’ vengeance but instead we should love our enemies and we would then be the children of God, we would be like God. Because God gives the good things of life- sun and rain- to all, both good and bad. God does not exclude or discriminate but treats all the same, with unconditional generosity and love. God does not exercise payback or ‘eye for eye’ justice- i.e. reward the good and punish the bad. God treats all the same. This was something uniquely new and unprecedented in history. A God that did not retaliate, punish, or destroy but instead exhibited absolutely no conditions love toward everyone.
Here again is a summarized/paraphrased statement of the Matthew 5 insight combined with parts of the same Luke 6 teaching: “You have heard that it was said, Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, Do not take vengeance on an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you: Love your enemies…do good to those that hate you, that you may be the sons of your Father in heaven (i.e. if you do that you will be like God). He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous, he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked…Be merciful therefore just as your heavenly Father is merciful”.
(Side note: As with all comment on unconditional, one feels obligated to repeatedly qualify to doubters that common sense understands that love is responsible to restrain evil in order to protect the innocent. Unconditional is very much about how we view others and the spirit in which we treat all others, despite what we might have to do to protect people and to restrain bad behavior. At a minimum we should always try to act as human and out of love, no matter what we are pushed to do in order to defend against violence. And the central non-retaliation insight of Jesus certainly challenges our justice systems to be thoroughly restorative and not punitive in any way. That is a minimal take-home from his central theme. Also note that Jesus blasphemously rejected the Jewish “Word of God”- the Old Testament scriptures- when he countered with his entirely new and contrary view of God as not engaging eye-for-eye justice.)
The ethic of non-retaliation was not original to Jesus. No more eye for eye- no getting even with those who harm us- had been voiced repeatedly over previous millennia in such writing as the Akkadian Father’s advice to his son, roughly around 2000 BCE. Other ancient traditions- e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism- had similar statements. But never before had anyone presented the related theology of a non-retaliating God. Jesus took theology somewhere entirely new.
James Robinson calls Jesus’ new theology “his most important contribution to the history of ideas” (Jesus According to the Earliest Witnesses, p.17). It was a vision of God that was more humane than anything ever stated before, a God that exhibited impartial love for both good and bad people. All previous deities, despite embracing new features like mercy and compassion, had also maintained the traditional harsher features of gods, such as anger, vengeance, punishment, tribal favoritism and exclusion, and destruction of enemies. Jesus’ new Q theology had none of that.
Note: Robinson gets the closest to grasping the unconditional theme of Jesus’ theology but does not seem to get the full nature of this discovery and its profound implications for Christianity. He does not actually focus on the larger theme of unconditional as the core theme of Jesus but tends to emphasize more the sub-feature of non-retaliation. And he continues to roam around in the confusing Christian context. For example, in several places he says that doing Jesus’ words is “what counts in the day of judgment”. The unconditional treatment of all and judgment? Huh? But Robinson gets further with his grasp of Jesus’ core theme than most Jesus Seminar scholars.
Robinson also notes that later revisions of the Q Sayings Gospel- Q2 and Q3- became more harsh. Apparently, subsequent editors introduced a “stunning shift” and added apocalyptic statements (i.e. divine retaliation) to Jesus’ original teaching. They were already tampering with the original. When Matthew got a hold of Q it may have already been messed up or he may have made his own revisions to it, to make it more retaliatory and conditional in tone.
My point in this discussion…
Non-retaliation is one element in the larger theme of unconditional love- the unconditional treatment of all people. This unconditional theme, though Jesus never used exactly that term, is visible all through the teaching and behavior of Jesus. We find unconditional in his advocating for unlimited forgiveness (i.e. seventy seven times, Matthew 18: 21-22); in his advocating for non-discrimination toward all people, or the unconditional inclusion of all (i.e. he did this at meals and elsewhere- inviting “sinners” to table fellowship, without condition); and in his advocating unconditional generosity toward all (“give to whoever asks, especially enemies, and expect nothing in return”, Luke 6:35). Jesus rejected limited, conditional tit-for-tat generosity. The absolutely no conditions treatment of all people was the new kingdom of God, the new humane existence that he spoke about.
Unconditional is also evident in the short stories that Jesus told. Note, for instance, that in the Prodigal story the father- representing God- does not demand an atonement sacrifice to pay for the sins of the wayward son. He calls, instead, for a celebratory feast. He does not demand repentance or payback of any kind. He exhibits an unconditional welcome and celebration toward the bad son. The scandalous generosity of the father offends the older son, the good son. It offends his sense of proper morality or justice. The unconditional treatment of all is offensive to traditional religious/payback understanding of justice.
Note also the offended sense of justice in the vineyard workers as they react to the unconditional generosity of the vineyard owner (Matthew 20). The unconditional treatment of others is offensive to good, moral, and religious people that are oriented to eye for eye or “fair justice”. Payback justice has been so thoroughly beaten into human consciousness over history that many people just cannot see around it to the scandal of no conditions love.
Nevertheless, the no conditions treatment of all is the “cohering theme” throughout the teaching and life of Jesus. There are more detailed outlines of this below- see, for instance, “Unconditional as the cohering theme of Historical Jesus”, formerly Unconditional in the Jesus Tradition, section 7.
Again, there were two parts to the statement of Jesus’ core theme in Matthew 5:38-48. First, there was the ethic that was then based on the exact same theological belief. That has been a critical relationship all through human history- to base behavior on beliefs. We act according to how we think. And for the first time ever Jesus got both the behavior and the belief right in that he stated them in terms of the highest understanding of authentic love- unconditional. He took our understanding of being authentically human, of the great ideal of love, to new heights with the absolutely no conditions ideal.
To enhance appreciation for what he discovered, I have stated repeatedly here that Jesus’ statement of the unconditional insight competes as humanity’s greatest discovery ever. It is the finest statement of authentically humane ethics and the ultimate definition of a supremely humane God. There is no more comparably humane insight anywhere in human thought or literature.
Consider its two parts- an ethic that Jefferson called “sublime”. And then a theological foundation that takes perception of ultimate reality to absolute new heights of the humane. And I do not know if Jesus had any clue about what he was doing with these two elements, but when he combined them, he responded in the best possible manner to the fundamental human need to base behavior on validating beliefs, ideals, or higher authorities. He responded sublimely to the human need to think about and validate what we do. And he attained the highest possible reach of the authentically humane on both features.
Some anthropologists have treated this important behavior/belief linkage. See, for instance, Clifford Geertz in other sections below.
But again, it matters not whether Jesus actually taught unconditional as I have stated it, or not. We know it today as the highest expression of authentic humanity. It is right and true in itself and needs no religious authority to validate it. And again, I would advocate pulling this insight out of the confusing Christian context (i.e. highly conditional atonement theology) in order to see it more clearly. Create a new ‘no conditions’ context for it.
The distortion and consequent deception: Burying unconditional in a highly conditional theology and Christology (i.e. the teaching about the Christ).
When Paul composed the theology of Christianity a few decades after Jesus died, he outright rejected the central unconditional theme of Jesus. He created a Christ myth as a message that was entirely opposite to what Jesus had taught. His Christ myth became the heart of the new Christian religion. It was about a Savior that had to come to meet the ultimate condition ever conceived- to become a sacrifice to pay for sin in order to save us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9), to save us from a God that would retaliate with horrific punishment and destruction of unbelievers. The myth of the Christ was about the supreme condition of a Savior sent to make a supreme payment for sin, a human blood sacrifice in order to save people from the rage of Paul’s retaliating/punishing God. I am stating these beliefs as plainly and coarsely as possible in order to make their essential nature clear. For Paul’s statements of these ideas see the early chapters of Romans, and the wrath/retaliation theme all through Paul’s letters.
When Paul presented the Christ myth in his letters, he included almost nothing from the actual teaching of Jesus, except in one place where he apparently engaged Jesus’ teaching, but only in order to contradict its main discovery and theme.
Jesus, in his original wisdom sayings, had said nothing about traditional religious conditions or salvation conditions. And he said nothing about his coming as a Savior to become a sacrifice to pay for sin. He also said nothing about bringing the world to an end in a great apocalyptic punishment and destruction. To the contrary, he had repeatedly emphasized the themes of unconditional forgiveness, inclusion, and generosity toward all. Because that is what God does. His teaching was mainly a body of ethical statements on how to live as authentically human. How to love unconditionally.
Paul outright rejected that absolutely no conditions message, especially the new Jesus theology of a non-retaliating God. Paul then reversed back to primitive eye for eye justice, and to the entire opposite theology- that of a punishing, retaliating, and destroying God. Paul retreated into highly conditional salvation religion.
Robinson says that Jesus’ basic insight was then lost and early Christianity returned to a retaliatory God. Christianity, he says, returned to Matthew’s vengefulness. Jesus’ view of God was replaced by the reverse view of God. See Jesus According to the First Witnesses, p.134, 137. Robinson concludes that Jesus’ shocking new view of God has since been largely ignored. Buried, forgotten.
Does this give you some sense of the profound deception that has actually occurred in Christianity?
Paul states his outright rejection of Jesus’ new teaching in several places in his letters. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 1-3, he more generally opposes and dismisses the wisdom tradition of sages like Jesus . See Stephen Patterson’s The Lost Way for detail. But then in Romans 12 he appears to more directly engage and oppose the main ethical/belief breakthrough of Jesus- i.e. the Matthew 5:38-48 statement. He especially reverses its stunning new theological insight. Taking an entirely contrary position to Jesus, Paul advocates for a vengeful, retaliating God. He quotes Deuteronomy 32:35, “Vengeance is mine… I will repay”, to affirm his definition of God. At first glance, this appears to be quite nonsensical for a supposedly bright man, to base a non-retaliatory ethic on a retaliatory belief – i.e. you should not retaliate because God will retaliate, Romans 12:17-20.
Here is the Romans 12 statement combining the non-retaliation ethic with the contrary retaliation theology: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil… Do not take revenge but leave room for God’s wrath for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge. I will repay’. Instead, treat your enemy well and in doing this you will heap burning coals on his head”.
A side note: Imagine- Paul asks us to act in a more humane manner than God does. We are not to engage the “evil” of retaliation (“Do not return evil for evil”) because God will do that evil, and to much worse degree. We are to be more humane than God. That is a nonsensical argument.
While Paul appears to at least embrace the non-retaliation ethic of Jesus, closer examination shows that he also misunderstands the very spirit of Jesus’ ethic on non-retaliation. So Paul is actually being consistent by making his ethic similar to the belief that it is based upon. Both are retaliatory in essence.
Paul urges his non-retaliation ethic as a temporary this-world stance that will ensure ultimate divine retaliation. Do not retaliate, he urges, but he then relates this to the outcome that it will “pour coals of fire” on your enemy’s head. “Burning coals” on someone’s head is not a statement of goodwill toward your offender. Some scholars claim that this comment shows that we should engage non-retaliation in order to then ensure that God will retaliate. Hence, the ethic is also retaliatory in intent and outcome. It will ensure a much worse future retaliation against your enemies. Hence, Paul appears to be consistent in rejecting the spirit of Jesus’ ethic, as well as rejecting outright the core theology of Jesus.
Paul creates Christianity on this foundational myth of divine retaliation (eye for eye justice).
The theme of divine retaliation runs all through Paul’s writing. Note just for example the following statements from Paul’s first two letters written to the Thessalonians around 50 CE. “Coming wrath…the wrath of God…the Lord will punish… (they will) suffer wrath… destruction will come…he will pay back trouble… Lord Jesus revealed in blazing fire…he will punish…they will be punished with everlasting destruction…doomed to destruction…Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth…they will perish…”. And that is just from two short early epistles. The man was grounded in retaliation theology. So it goes throughout his letters. Urging believers to trust in a retaliatory God who will destroy their enemies when the great apocalypse and end-time judgment comes.
Paul was significantly influential in shaping the rest of early Christian thought and writing. His views dominated the Christian movement and the rest of the Christian scriptures. He set the retaliatory tone for the rest of the Christian religion.
The outcome was that his retaliatory Christianity has distorted and buried Jesus’ original gospel teaching on non-retaliation.
Later, the other New Testament writers, under Paul’s dominating influence, also promoted Paul’s retaliation-oriented Christ myth, known as the Christian “Jesus Christ”.
Insert: Just a thought exercise here- place historical Jesus beside Paul’s Christ. Non-retaliation beside ultimate retaliation. It is pure contradiction. Entirely opposite. The title Jesus Christ is therefore an oxymoron. You cannot merge the two and make any sense. The non-violent Jesus of Matthew 5:38-48 has nothing to do with, for example, the violent Christ of Revelation. Look carefully at John’s graphic portrayal of Paul’s Christ with his blazing eyes of fiery wrath, his destroying sword protruding out of his mouth, and his robe dripping with the blood of destroyed enemies, and with Hell-fire burning in the background. Christianity has merged these two- historical Jesus and Paul’s Christ- calling it Jesus Christ and thereby creating one of history’s greatest contradictions. Merging non-violence with supreme violence in the Christian apocalypse. And merging unconditional with the ultimate condition of a god sent to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Writers like Matthew, or whoever actually wrote that book, felt obligated to include the unconditional teaching of Jesus as it was too well known by the early Christian movement to ignore. But Matthew then immediately set about contradicting Jesus’ non-retaliatory teaching, burying it in retaliatory and conditional comment. He starts in the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), putting all sorts of retaliatory/conditional statements in the mouth of Jesus. For instance, Matthew has Jesus stating that anyone who breaks the least of the commandments would be punished with diminished status (Matt.5:19). He then threatens that unless a person’s righteousness exceeded that of the Pharisees they would not enter the kingdom of heaven (5:20). He continues, stating that expressing anger would subject people to judgment (5:22), that calling another person a fool would get people into Hell (5:22), that lustful thoughts would get people into Hell (5:30- that means all men), that people would only be forgiven on condition that they first forgave others (e.g. “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your Father will also forgive you”, Matthew 6:14), and that judging others would result in eye for eye retributive judgment (Matt.7:1). And so on throughout the sermon. Matthew’s tampered version of Jesus’ original gospel is full of retaliatory ‘eye for eye’ comment, in startling contradiction to the core theme of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-48.
Matthew in later chapters then goes nuclear with threats of divine retaliation and Hell, repeatedly warning people that they will be cast into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, among other threats. See for example Matthew 10:15, 10:20, 11:21-22, 13:42, 18:9, 18:35, 22:13, 23:33, 25:30, and other verses. He even claims that some sins will never be forgiven (12:31). Matthew is just following Paul’s lead on a retaliating God with threats of divine anger and punishment. He contradicts entirely the clear statement of Jesus that God did not retaliate against anyone, not even the bad. So it goes with much of the New Testament, ending in that orgy of grotesque Christ-fueled retaliation of Revelation.
Consequent to this harsh teaching, billions of people have never been clearly told the full wonder and the liberating implications of the absolutely no conditions news that Jesus taught. They have been denied the profoundly liberating news that there is only an absolutely no conditions love behind all. They have never been clearly told that there never was an angry God threatening punishment and damnation in Hell. There never was a Fall into sin and separation from God- i.e. ruptured relationship and demand for reconciliation. There never was an exclusion from paradise. There is no need for some sacrifice to pay for sin, for some plan of salvation. There are absolutely no conditions to meet. There is no need for faith in some Savior. There is no need to be saved from anything. There is no division of humanity into the special saved children of God (true believers) and damned outsiders (unbelievers). There will be no apocalypse or judgment or hell. There is no need for mediating religion and priesthoods. We are free indeed and we are all safe in unconditional love. We always have been. Unconditional means absolutely no conditions. None at all. A God of absolutely no conditions love has never posed any conditions for acceptance, forgiveness, approval, or inclusion.
But instead of liberating humanity into an authentically unconditional understanding and existence, Christianity has re-enforced the old threatening, retaliation view of reality and existence. This religion has subsequently shaped our justice systems, our ethics, and our overall societies. Again, see comments by Tabor, Boyce, the Mennonites, and others below. As writers like Zenon Lotufo state- Cruel God, Kind God- this harshly inhumane teaching has retarded many people in subhuman states of development. It has darkened and enslaved human consciousness and the human spirit for two millennia.
Despite these nasty influences and outcomes, many Christians have learned to focus on the more humane themes in the Bible and ignore the larger context of retaliation. They are to be applauded for this. But the larger background context continues to undermine, weaken, distort, and bury the better Christian ideals like love. Unconditional love has no relationship at all to atonement conditions. Jefferson was right that the diamonds are buried. The only reasonable conclusion then? Pull the diamonds out and clean them off properly. Or to use another statement from Jesus- the new wine needs new wineskins.
This distortion/scandal has been ignored and downplayed for two millennia now. It needs to be exposed widely. It is one of history’s greatest frauds and scams. Yet it lies there plainly visible in the New Testament. Why have so many missed it? I would suggest because of the cognitive dissonance that Christianity has promoted, the great contradictions that people are obligated to hold in their minds. Christian believers are told that all of the ideas in the Bible are sacred ideas- ideas given by God in a divinely inspired holy book- i.e. the fallacy of Biblicism. So all the themes of the Bible- i.e. both love and Hell- must be merged and harmonized somehow. They are not to be questioned or challenged. They are all from God. So submit, believe, and obey.
That unquestioning subservience has to end. But I understand the fear that a fundamental challenge and reform project will evoke in Christian believers and leadership. If you embrace the original teaching of Jesus, if you take it seriously, it then represents the greatest threat to the Christian religion, ever. If people start to take his unconditional theme seriously then that will spell the end of all conditional religion. It spells the end of Christian conditional atonement, the foundational belief of Christianity. My suggestion to alleviate concern- rather than fear the unconditional core theme of Jesus, and its implications, get a good grip on unconditional itself and appreciate the liberation that it brings. Look at the positive outcomes. It also fully humanizes Jesus. Something the Christ myth could never do.
And at least recognize, without bias, what any superficial understanding of unconditional really means. Conditional religions like Christianity cannot properly present the unconditional discovery of Historical Jesus. To try and merge unconditional with conditional atonement, as Christianity does, only confuses things. It weakens unconditional. Jesus and Christ cannot be merged as they are entire opposites. They represent unconditional reality versus highly conditional reality. Absolutely contradictory. And while it is true that there are the ideals of love, mercy, forgiveness and more in the Christian teaching, it is what you maintain in the larger context- i.e. divine wrath, vengeance, punishment- that defines and distorts these other ideals. The result of trying to merge opposites in the same system of belief, as Lotufo notes, is cognitive dissonance- contradiction- and the obstruction of healthy personality development. Note his discussion of the cognitive dissonance in the lives of John Stott and J.I. Packer, two Evangelical theologians.
Once again- A brief summary of the development of early Christian thinking and the “stunning shift” away from Jesus’ core theme.
Again, Jesus taught his new theology somewhere between CE 27-36. Paul wrote his first letters to the Thessalonians around the 50s CE. Mark wrote around the 70s CE. Matthew wrote around 80s CE. Luke wrote in the 90s, and John early in the Second Century. Robinson notes the 70 CE event- the Second Temple destruction- that may have turned early Christians away from Jesus’ non-retaliatory theology and back to a retaliating God. The Old Testament Jews had long believed that the destruction of the first Temple had been a punishment from retaliatory God for their sins. So Jewish Christians in early Christianity may have once again revived the view that the Second Temple destruction was an act of an angry God punishing their sin. But Paul had already been teaching a retaliatory deity before this Second Temple destruction of 70 CE. Again, note his retaliatory theology in Thessalonians, written around 50 CE. Paul’s retaliatory theology is more likely to have shifted early Christian thought away from Jesus’ new non-retaliation theology and back to a punishing God.
Further comment on the claim of ‘spiritual abuse’ by Christian teaching: Psychotherapist Zenon Lotufo (Cruel God, Kind God) details the harmful consequences from “Cruel God” religion (i.e. angry deity threatening punishment for human imperfection, and demanding blood sacrifice). Aside from producing fanaticism and violence, violent deity religion also produces psychological outcomes like “fear that infantilizes, guilt and anxiety, shame, feeling of rejection and condemnation, depression, and impoverished personalities… the inhibition of the full development of personality” (p.1-5). He argues that the God of atonement and hell-fire threat does “not surpass the least evolved moral levels” (p.101). Such a God hinders the full development of personality and spiritual life. This ‘violent God’ religion leads to “paralysis of moral development in stages typical of young children… the greatest damage done by doctrines that include the ‘plan of salvation’ lies in producing …atrophy of the personality… similar to what happens to those who undergo surgical lobotomies” (p.138). And more. Lotufo rightly notes that the atonement belief is the heart of the problem- an angry God demanding violent punishment and payment. That belief is the foundation of Paul’s Christian religion.
He adds that these Christian ideas permeate Western culture (p.5).
Follow-up note: Isn’t it somewhat callous to challenge a religion that has provided hope for billions of people over two millennia? To “attack” beliefs that provide people the comfort of salvation, beliefs that many consider to be the supreme expression of divine love and compassion? Christians embrace their salvation religion as an expression of love and grace from God. So again, how can anyone be so callous to challenge such love and hope? Well no. That is not the point of what is being done here. My argument is that Christian hope has too long been based on an entirely fraudulent foundation. It is therefore a seriously deformed hope and it leads to “retardation of people in subhuman stages of development”- the psychological description. Again, see Lotufo’s comments on spiritual abuse.
The “comfort” that Christians derive from their tradition stems from that fact that they have first been traumatized by such things as the belief that there is some threat of divine wrath that must be appeased with blood sacrifice, in order for people to be “saved”. Add the horrific myth that they need to be saved from Hell. Of course, a salvation plan that promises to rescue from such threat will provide hope and comfort. But the foundational beliefs are all wrong in the first place. And you must confront this issue- What do such perverse ideas do to human consciousness, emotion, and life?
The question is legitimate: What kind of hope is based on a foundation of traumatizing ideas, fraudulent ideas such as angry deity and Hell? Such ideas do not promote healthy human development but are actually damaging to human personality.
Christian hope is wrongly grounded in a fraudulent and harmful mythology. There has never been an angry God threatening to exclude, punish and destroy people, and demanding payment for human imperfection. There has never been any need to be saved from anything. And the related conditions, such as the requirement to believe and follow the Christian religion correctly, those conditions have left many uncertain if they really are among the saved. Have they met all the conditions properly and fully? Paul was clear- You must have faith in his Christ myth, or else.
The infinitely better news comes from the unconditional insight of Jesus. That is a much better foundation on which to base authentic hope- that God has always and only been absolutely no conditions love. That provides real security and safety. Unconditional states unequivocally that all are safe. There is no discrimination or exclusion of anyone. That alone generates authentic hope and comfort. Keep this in mind as you read the challenge here to the Christian God and religion.
(Side note: Most people set some sort of limit to their forgiveness and generosity, some conditions. Usually, people retain the tribal limits of family, friends, and nation. Really “bad” people out at some extreme are not included. Such limits undermine the potency of unconditional and then we are all subject to insecurity again. Who is really safe? Who has been perfect? No. It is much safer, in terms of ultimate ideals of forgiveness and inclusion (i.e. God), to hold unconditional for all. Absolutely no limits. Then we are all ultimately safe.)
To the Christian argument that I should look at the love and hope in their Salvationism, I respond that it begs the question of what kind of love would kill and torture people in Hell? What kind of hope wishes for the destruction of its enemies in Hell (i.e. the Christian hope as expressed in books like Revelation).
I would urge Christian believers: Do not miss the best thing in your tradition- the core unconditional theme of historical Jesus. Recognize how that theme has been distorted by Paul’s Christ myth. And start taking your Jesus seriously- i.e. his original gospel of wisdom sayings. You cannot understand and communicate the wonder of his unconditional theme through conditional ideas and myths such as atonement theology. You only distort and bury unconditional through such concepts. The result is beyond oxymoronic. And you then deny people true liberation, real hope and love, and authentic “salvation”.
This explains my advocating that you take the supremely humane insight of Jesus- Matthew 5:38-48, and related material- out of the New Testament and leave much of the rest. It cannot be salvaged. I have read too many books that get lost in arguing what is valid or not in the Jesus tradition. What might have been added to some original teaching. And the endless debates over which interpretation is right, or not. Endless haggling over words and phrases, jots and tittles. At times it all seems such a waste of time and effort. And it so often misses the main point- is the content humane or not? Is the content promoting the best of human ideals like unconditional?
Remember the old maxim- Do not miss the forest for the trees. Don’t miss the supreme insight and get lost in endless detail that does nothing to enhance human understanding of the most important human insight ever. Like Thomas Jefferson, it seems better to get your scissors and cut out what is best and then throw the rest away. Quit wasting time parsing, defending, and promoting material that is recognizably subhuman or outright inhuman in many cases, according to basic standards of common human rights today.
Take the Matthew 5:38-48 section and spend your life meditating on that. There is no better guide to thinking and acting in the most humane manner possible. That statement of Jesus provides the best possible content for cognitive therapy. It takes human understanding of ultimate reality (God) and human existence to the absolute heights of the authentically humane.
Another: I get the defensive Christian response to the Jesus’ ideal of the unconditional treatment of enemies. Christians argue, to the contrary, that God is holy and therefore “must punish all sin”. But no, love does not have to punish wrong. It does not have to set conditions. It can just forgive. Exactly as Jesus advocated- the claimed founder of Christianity. And remember 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. That hymn states that love keeps no record of wrongs. It just forgives and forgets all wrongs. Most spouses and parents get this unconditional love and exercise it toward their imperfect spouses and children. Do you think that a God that is Love cannot get such unconditional love? See “Countering the Holiness Distortion in Christianity” further below.
Finally: While initially offensive for the religious mind to even consider, the Jesus/Paul contradiction illustrates the struggle of humanity to leave animal existence- our origin with its dominant features of small band or tribal relating, domination and exclusion of enemies, retaliation and the destruction of outsiders. It illustrates our struggle to become fully human. Unfortunately, our history has too often also exhibited intense opposition to becoming fully human. Religious traditions like Christianity have used the myths of the sacred to validate the animal and to keep it alive, to protect and preserve the animal under the canopy of the sacred. For detail on how people have embedded animal-like features in sacred ideals see, for example, Alex Garcia’s “Alpha God”. This may be upsetting for religious minds to contemplate, but evidence supports the existence of this animal/sacred relationship in religions like Christianity. That relationship has deformed human consciousness and hindered the proper development of human society. Yes, I know… Ouch. But Lotufo, Ellens, and others affirm this conclusion.
Note: My paraphrase of a well-known statement by Jesus- “You will know the truth about unconditional and this truth will set you free”.
At the back of Stephen Mitchell’s great little book, The Gospel According To Jesus, there is an amazing collection of statements from Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi and others re the greatness of man. This from Emerson:
“We think so meanly of man that ‘tis thought a profanity to call Jesus one.”
“Christ preaches the greatness of Man, but we hear only the greatness of Christ.”
“The fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him as a man indicates with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology.”
And as I read Tolstoy, his experience is the mirror image of my own journey:
“When at the age of fifty, I first began to study the Gospels seriously, I found in them the spirit that animates all who are truly alive…I found that, along with the lofty teaching of Jesus, there are teachings bound up which are repugnant and contrary to it (he likens his experience to finding some infinitely precious pearls in a great bag of garbage).” Now here is the interesting point that Tolstoy makes that I personally found to be true:
“The true Christian teaching is very simple, clear, and obvious to all, as Jesus said. But it is simple and accessible only when man is freed from that falsehood in which we were all educated, and which is passed off upon us as God’s truth. Nothing needful can be poured into a vessel that is full of what is useless. We must first empty out what is useless. So it is with the acquirement of true Christian teaching. We must first understand that all the stories telling how God made the world six thousand years ago; how Adam sinned and the human race fell; and how the Son of God, a God born of a virgin, came to earth and redeemed mankind; all the fables of the OT and in the Gospels, and all the lives of the saints with their stories of miracles and relics – are nothing but a gross hash of superstitions and priestly frauds. Only to someone quite free from this deception can the clear and simple teaching of Jesus, which needs no explanation, be accessible and comprehensible.” (End of quote from Tolstoy).
This is how it was with me. I knew almost the entire NT by heart – I could recite every text in Paul, in John, in the Revelation. It was all there in my brain for instant recall. I knew the words of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, but for my 40 years of wandering in this religious wilderness, I could not appreciate the force of the true words of Jesus. I was led astray by all this Christology – the person and work of Christ- his heavenly ministry in the sanctuary and the Last Things. I was totally immersed in the theology of Paul. With these kinds of glasses on, the glasses of Christology, of course I could not understand the simple words of Jesus. Those words were qualified and emptied of their real force by all this Christian theology. It was like Gandhi quipped at one time when he said that it seemed to him that the only ones who could not understand what Jesus was saying were the Christians. Of course! Christian teaching is fundamentally at odds with the teaching of Jesus. It is diametrically opposite from start to finish. Christian means Christ-ian. A Christian is one who believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ. Simple as that.
Christology is the red herring, it is like a cuckoo in the nest of the early Jesus movement – and you know what a cuckoo does when it hatches in the nest. It was this Christ-ian pre-occupation, nay, more than that, this Christ-ian fever, hysteria, and mythology that hijacked the Jesus movement. The whole purpose of the Gospels was to convince people that Jesus was the Christ. That is the problem. It is this Christology that draws a veil over the simple teaching of Jesus so that his sayings are impossible to understand as long as we hold on to what has been beaten in our brains by Christian teaching, the antithesis of the Jesus teaching. The problem is compounded by practically all the work of all the Christian scholars, theologians, experts, books, and all the raking over of Biblical texts. Most of all these books and scholars are worse than useless, they just get in the way and keep erecting barriers that prevent anyone understanding the simple words of Jesus. So I have come to the point in my journey that like Tolstoy, I am not impressed by all this running around the NT, running around citing this scholar and another scholar that re-interprets the “gross hash of superstitions and priestly frauds”, and running around to find other sayings, including ones supposedly by Jesus, to qualify, rather nullify, the revolutionary newness in the core teaching of Jesus.
Another from Brinsmead: To state again the gist of what I said in my last email: Unless we are willing to discard the theological/religious education of a lifetime, we can’t understand the simple and clear teaching of Jesus. That is what Tolstoy found. That is what I found. If we don’t do this, we will continue like the Christian movement has done for 2,000 years, that is, to qualify, obscure, cover up, contradict and nullify the teaching of Jesus.
And this is done under the umbrella of demanding what is imagined as “real justice”, meaning, real punitive, retaliatory justice, the kind seen throughout the violent acts of God featured at least 600 times in the Old Testament, and then all that put in the shade by the violence act of God in the atonement. Unless people can get this Shylock kind of justice, they will sit under the juniper tree and sulk like Jonah. Where is the God of Elijah, they demand? Well, it is not in the teaching of Jesus because he clearly rejected Elijah’s fire from heaven solution, and he rejected the OT prophet’s “day of vengeance of our God” solution.
The victims of the Holocaust waited and waited for this kind of justice, but God was silent. Those who suffered the destruction of their Palestinian homeland and Temple waited for this kind of justice that never came. Oh, even the prophets who had to witness the destruction of the homeland of the Jews in fire and rape and sword and the carrying away of their children, made the obscene assumption that this indiscriminate human suffering was God at work punishing Israel just as the Christians assumed that the slaughter of 800,000 Jews and the destruction of Temple and homeland was God’s punishment for rejecting Jesus who prayed, “Father forgive them….”. Evidently they concluded that God ignored the prayer of his son. None of the forgoing assumptions were any better in principle than the claims of Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts that God was punishing America in the 9/11 disaster.
The evidence can’t be denied that God has been consistently silent and absent in reply to all these pleas for this kind of justice, for this kind of divine justice does not take place, not now, not ever. As Harold Ellens says, there is never going to be such a day of judgment. Let the “righteous” gnash their teeth in outrage at the suggestion, but God is not in the business of administering this kind of punitive justice, not now, not ever, for all these expectations are, to use the words of Tolstoy, “nothing but a gross hash of superstitions and frauds.”
God’s justice is a loving justice, the justice that gives us the awesome freedom to find solutions to living in what remains an imperfect and sometimes threatening environment and the freedom to suffer the consequences (punishment) of our own choices.
Another by Brinsmead: I don’t include a lot of the sayings attributed to Jesus, and count them as rubbish and for the same reason that Jefferson and Tolstoy rejected them. See my previous comments by Ellens re judgment: “God is not in the business of judging anyone,” (Honest Faith for our Time, page 43)
Why do I think Ellens interprets Jesus correctly re the above? Follow the sense and logic of this core teaching of Jesus. We are not to retaliate because God does not retaliate. We are to love our enemies because God loves his enemies. Our love must be without discrimination because God loves without discriminating between the good and the bad. In the same vein, the teaching goes on to say that we are not to judge/condemn – and if the entire passage remains consistent, I take that is because God does not judge/condemn.
Note the logic here: it does not say as Paul suggests, do not retaliate, but leave the vengeance to God. No, no! We are not to retaliate because God does not retaliate. It is about an ethic that imitates God, it is the ethic of the children of God, it is all about behaving as God behaves. It is all summed up in the words, “Be you therefore merciful/compassionate as your Father is compassionate/merciful.” (Luke 6)
So Tolstoy: “When, at the age of fifty, I first began to study the Gospels seriously, I found in them the spirit that animates all who are truly alive. But along with the flow of that pure, life-giving water, I perceived much mire and slime mingled with it; and this had prevented me from seeing the true, pure water. I found that, along with the lofty teaching of Jesus, are teachings bound up which are repugnant and contrary to it. I thus felt myself in the position of a man to whom a sack of garbage is given, who, after a long struggle and wearisome labour, discovers among the garbage a number of infinitely precious pearls.” So like Jefferson, Tolstoy found it not too difficult to reject numerous statements put into the mouth of Jesus. One may run around the NT and collect any number of these phoney Jesus statements, but as Jefferson and Tolstoy suggest, it is easy to pick out the diamonds from the dunghill.
Another by Brinsmead: Let me make one point about unconditional love/forgiveness on the one hand and repentance/reformation on the other. In the example of Zacchaeus, it was Jesus’ announcement of forgiveness and acceptance (signified by inviting himself to eat with the scoundrel) that brought Zacchaeus to repentance and the determination to reform. In victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, it was the prior forgiveness of the old priest that effected the great change in the life of the thief. When the time came for the reformed thief to kill the man who was still tracking him down, he passed on the forgiveness that he had received from the old priest. He realized that through the gift of unconditional forgiveness “he gave me back my life.”
This is the thing that makes Les Miserables so powerful. This is the thing that made the influence of Mandela powerful. When I was in South Africa in the 1960’s, I was convinced its racial tensions could only end in unprecedented bloodshed. Mandela saved South Africa from that. His motto became, “Let us surprise them [our opponents] by our generosity”. Against the protest of his closest advisers, he put his former prison guards and tormentors in positions to guard the President. He did not wait for those who had wronged the black community to come to them in repentance. It was Mandela’s extending the hand of forgiveness to his enemies that made the Truth and Reconciliation Commission possible and such an overwhelming success. He showed that he had forgiven his enemies for all the ill treatment. He said that he realized that if he carried thoughts of retaliation, then he would still be in his mental prison. He broke the cycle of retaliation when he decided that retaliation was not an option for the future of South Africa.
Sometimes there are Zacchaeus types who come quickly to change their ways when they see that forgiveness has given back their lives. For some it may take longer. For some it may never be realized in this life. But I dare to hope as J. Harold Ellens does, and some of the NDE people have come to see, that eventually everyone “will get it in the end. Their eyes shall see, knees bow, tongues confess…Thanks be to God, the God of utter grace. Anyone who is relieved, and joyfully optimistic, about anticipating that universal salvation by God’s grace, has a healthy biblical spirituality, informed by trust in God’s unconditional grace.” (Honest Faith for our Time, p. 43)