This-Worldly Christianity

“Isn’t it odd? Christians created a theological scenario that placed the soul of every person at risk of eternal damnation. To counter that threat, we interpreted the life and death of Jesus in a particular way, then spent billions of dollars battling the threat we created. Wouldn’t it just be easier to stop perpetuating the scenario?
    Perhaps the day might come when Christianity will reconsider its priorities, when preparing souls for an afterlife we have no proof exists fades in importance, and we can use the church’s energies to improve this life.”
– Philip Gulley, If the Church Were Christian (HarperOne, 2010) pp.183-184.
I shared the quote previously (albeit not in image form) some years ago

  • David_Evans

    I’m honestly puzzled here. If you ignore references to the afterlife such as Jesus saying to the thief on the cross “This day you will be with me in paradise”, if you ignore references to his resurrection, aren’t you left with just another man who preached a particular morality? Why would you then choose to centre your religion on him, rather than any of the other great moral teachers?

    But if you don’t ignore those things, your religion is centred on a man who clearly thought the afterlife was important.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      The promise to an executed criminal who did little more than to ask Jesus to remember him does not seem to me to point clearly to the notion that most people are headed for hell. On the one hand, it would be very hard to suggest that Jesus had no interest in anything that could be called an “afterlife,” but on the other hand, a case can be made that Jesus was focused on an immanent judgment that was to appear in history, or perhaps bring history to a close.

      • David_Evans

        I agree, that particular promise does not imply anything about hell. But the parables of the sheep and the goats, and of the rich man and Lazarus, don’t make sense unless some afterlives are greatly preferable to others.

        If Jesus was focused on that (and presuming you meant “imminent”!), he was wrong, wasn’t he? So my question remains, if you discard so much about him and his teachings that is supernatural, why continue to make him the centre of your religion? What’s special about him?

        • http://feministchristian.blogspot.com/ Luna

          His radical inclusivity. His teaching that we can live better lives by being better people. That love, above all, is the law.

          Yeah, our souls might be at risk if we don’t do these things, and might be saved if we do. But our lives on this earth WILL be better if we do. Not might. Will. So if we focus on loving our friends, neighbours, enemies, and God, then the afterlife is an afterthought and a big bonus if it really does exist. :)

          • David_Evans

            I was planning to write that those ideas can be found in Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Epicurus, as well as many modern humanists. But then I realised that the Greeks lacked his radical inclusivity – they regarded women and barbarians as necessarily inferior, for instance. So you have a point there.

          • Dan

            What if however the point of Jesus teachings was that you cannot do those things correctly? Namely, that you fail at loving your friends, neighbors, enemies, and God?

            If that was the message of Jesus teachings, what then?

            • David_Evans

              Full disclosure: I am an atheist. Sometimes, if pushed hard, an agnostic. So loving God is not a duty I recognize.

              If that were the point of his teachings I would have firstly to ask, how did he know? Secondly to point out that it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. I have often been less loving than I could have been.On the other hand I have often acted in a loving way when I could have got away with doing less. If only perfection is acceptable, then of course we all fail.

              This is not going to make me many friends, but I feel I have to say it. One important moral duty is: not to sexually abuse young children. I have succeeded all my life in this duty. A lot of very God-fearing people appear to have failed at it. Where does that leave us?

              • Dan

                David, I will address this only from a Christian point of view and from that perspective I would state that the fact that there are Christians who have sexual desires for children shows is that we are both at the same time saint and sinner, meaning that even though we are saints (children of God), we will continue to sin. And that we will suffer from different kinds of sin and are in need of forgiveness.

                One of the points of the law is to show us our sins, meaning that when Jesus shows us what we are supposed to do, we realize that we have failed in doing it perfectly and are in need of forgiveness and therefore Christ Jesus.

            • AtalantaBethulia

              In word and deed, Jesus taught us how to love our friends, enemies, neighbors and God and then told us to do it.

              • Dan

                Yes, we are told to do so perfectly without err. And because of that we will either begin to believe that we can do that or honestly come to the realization that we cannot.

                • AtalantaBethulia

                  Where does Jesus teach perfectionism?

                  See: Luke 10: 25-37

                  • Dan

                    That perfection is required is taught in James 2:10 “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” And in Galatians 3:10, “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’”

                    • AtalantaBethulia

                      The Greatest Commandment isn’t the law those verses are referencing. They are referring to Jewish Law.

                      See the whole Chapter of James 2 to get the full context.

                      Also: Galations and James aren’t Jesus.

                    • Dan

                      Jewish law includes the Ten Commandments. They are basically an elaboration of the commandments.

                    • AtalantaBethulia

                      The Holiness code is what Jesus suggests are heavy burdens heaped upon people in his seven woes to the Pharisees. His teachings show how people missed the point of the laws of Moses and added to them in ways that neglected and burdened their intent. The Greatest Commandment nicely subsumes the Ten in the way they were intended.

                      See Mark 7:8

                      “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

                    • Dan

                      Yes, to love your God with all your heart mind and soul (which implies perfection) and to love your neighbor as yourself (which also implies that perfection). This is the case because one can never love God with all of your being and you can never love your neighbor as yourself.

                    • AtalantaBethulia

                      Then why does Jesus teach us to do this?

                    • Dan

                      To show us our need for Him. We can work and work at doing as we should and we will either realize that we cannot, or believe that we have done as we should. One of those ways points to Jesus as the perfection of our faith and Savior, and the other points to ourselves as that perfection.

                    • AtalantaBethulia

                      Re: “To show us our need for Him.”

                      I disagree in the way that I believe you intend it. Jesus taught us how to live so that we might have life and have it to the full. He showed us what unconditional love (which he incarnated) and true selfless compassion is. Being transformed by Divine love changes us. It’s not work. It’s a metanoia (translated repentance): a change in direction, a new path.

                      It has never been about Christlike perfection as sinlessness (upon which Conservative Christianity so often focusses.) It has always been about being Christlike as inner transformation that turns us and the world upside down… for good.

                    • Dan

                      The Gospel is about what Christ Jesus has done for us, it is the law that condemns. The inner transformation is a result of the Gospel. However, when we do good, it is Christ doing the good.

                    • AtalantaBethulia

                      Re: “However, when we do good, it is Christ doing the good.”

                      It’s quite a revelation to understand that many atheists and people of other faiths are filled with Christ.

                      Do you by chance happen ascribe to Calvinism or Reformed theology or total depravity?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I apologize for the delay in replying. My view of Jesus is shaped by the fact that I had a positive, life-changing religious experience in a Christian context, and I find the notion of a crucified Messiah – overcoming evil through refusing to adopt the methods of evil even at great cost to ourselves, rather than by fighting with evil’s tools – to be powerful and challenging for me personally.

      • Michael Wilson

        James, have you given thought to the idea that in loving others as yourself one defeats the anxiety of their own death? What ever may occure after death, I think if you put your identity in something beyond your self, death becomes comprehensible because you can get satisfaction knowing that that something can go on and experience good after your gone. I thought of this while reading about sociopaths. A researcher of the subject noted that they always grew more depressed as they got older because being only able to get joy from what happens to them, old age meant a continual degrading of the self and dependence on others whos continued vitality mocked their own condition. Normal people grow old knowing that those they care about carry one.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          That’s a really interesting observation! Thanks for sharing it. The things I miss because I don’t read about sociopaths regularly…

    • opsarion

      Petpeeve misquote: Jesus said, “Truly I say this to you today, you will be with me in paradise.” Stop leaving off the first part, and mind the arbitrary comma.

      • David_Evans

        I was quoting from distant memory – always a mistake. But all the translations I can find have the comma before “today” (or “this day” as in the Douay-Rheims bible), so the phrase I quoted is a natural unit of speech.

        • Sean Garrigan

          Yeah, there’s disagreement over where the comma should go. Most orthodox folks, in a move that I find odd, insist on placing the comma before “today”, resulting in an strange statement, both contextually, and in light of Jewish thought about paradise.

          Interestingly, on one of the best manuscripts we have from the fourth century, Codex B (or Vatican 1209) we find a punctuation mark after semeron (= today). Also, according to F.C. Burkitt, the Curetonian version of the Syriac translation of Luke, which is dated to the fifth Century CE, reads this way: Amen, I say to thee to-day that with me thou shalt be in the Garden of Eden.”

          Regarding the punctuation found in most Bibles (i.e. the comma before “today”), Bullinger asks and answers:

          “Is it correct? We have already seen enough to show us that we are dependent only and entirely on the context and on the analogy of truth…The word ‘verily’ points us to the solemnity of the occasion, and to the importance of what is about to be said. The solemn circumstances under which the words were uttered marked the wonderful faith of the dying malefactor; and the Lord referred to this by connecting the word ‘to-day’ with ‘I say’. ‘Verily, I say unto thee this day.’ This day, when all seems lost, and there is no hope; this day, when instead of reigning I am about to die. This day, I say to thee, ‘Thou shalt be with me in paradise.’ ‘I say unto thee this day’ was the common Hebrew idiom for emphasizing the occasion of making a solemn statement…” (How to Enjoy the Bible), p. 48

          • David_Evans

            Thank you for that. I didn’t know there was any disagreement.

  • Phil

    this quote must have been taken from some context which clarifies it, since as it stands, it implies serious misunderstanding of scripture. without the death and supernatural resurrection of jesus, the Christian faith is pointless and there is no need for the church (1 Corinthians 15). these events necessarily require belief in life beyond earth and the need to prepare for it. thus the church’s mission is to share the story of redemption, make disciples, and demonstrate his love in this world until his return. yes we ought to attempt to make the world a better place, but as a result of the gospel, not in place of it.

    • Ian

      Aren’t you assuming that Paul writing that isn’t one of those Christians who helped invent this problem that Jesus was a solution to?

      The fact is, this wasn’t seen as a problem beforehand. But the theological articulation of the problem arose alongside the theologization of the solution.

      Jesus is a savior, and saviors need something to save people from. A danger was invented, and poof, Jesus is the answer (and all the scoffers who refuse to agree with you are going to fall foul of this danger, haha, which is a bonus – they’ll see who was right all along!).

      You get a similar process when a buddhist tries to convince you that only through enlightenment can you escape the samsara of endless rebirth. And that they, fortunately, have figured out the tools you need to reach enlightenment. That’s fascinating, you think, and I agree your solution sounds wonderful, but why should I believe that this problem is an actual problem?

      Or when a scientologist tells you that you are enslaved by your reactive mind, caused by the wills and lies of the supernatural spirits clinging to you, and that they have the only scientific process proven to rid you of these other thetans. Techniques painstakingly developed and refined over a lifetime of research by a great man. Cool, you think, but these thetans… you just invented them alongside their ‘removal’ techniques didn’t you?

      See how it works?

  • Michael Wilson

    I’m not sure thus is so much an attack on the belief in an afterlife or punishment for the damned, than the notion that unless one confesses Jesus is lord, they will be so condemned and little more than that is needed. Is that right James? To me it seems that being a better person was Jesus method to escape hell, not maintaining a creed. Of course incidentally, being a better person make the world a better place. It seems for Jesus only those that craved to be a saint would escape the comming judgement.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      That was the way I understood it. It is certainly possible to believe in any number of forms of afterlife, without subscribing to the view that all people are doomed to eternal suffering unless they place their faith in (a particular understanding of the death of) a particular individual.

  • Johannes Richter

    I have sympathy for the church, because as we know, following Jesus doesn’t necessarily make you a good systematic theologian. Paul did his best, but he didn’t have firsthand access to Jesus – and while he could make perfect sense of what Jesus meant for Judaism, for gentiles Jesus was pretty much a solution in search of a problem.

  • Anonymous Coward

    I forget which writer it was–a medical anthropologist who does work relevant to NT history IIRC–that used thoughts like this to argue that religion is on the whole a bad thing, exactly because it creates fictional resources (like salvation from a wrathful god) and treats them as scarce. Scarce resources are the main source of conflict. Hence, religion is inherently a source of conflict, and is for that reason overall a bad thing. I haven’t actually read the book, I’m just summarizing summaries I’ve seen here and there. Don’t know what he says in response to observations of good effects that may potentially overwhelm the badness of these bad effects.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      That’s an insightful perspective – thank you for sharing it, and if you can recall the original source, please do pass it along.

      It is possible to respond that liberal religion encourages the sharing of scarce real resources as well as claiming that less tangible resources, like divine love and forgiveness, are not scarce at all. And so hopefully such religion has a positive effect.


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