What if the message of Jesus that is widely understood by Christians is a distorted version of his original message?
What if our understanding of Jesus’ message is actually a concoction of selected quotes from Jesus and Paul, Greek philosophy, and a post-enlightenment desire to reduce everything down into a neat, scientific formula?
What if in reading the Bible as a scientific text book or instruction manual we have ended up paying more attention to the writings of Paul than to the life and teachings of Jesus?
What if Jesus never intended to start a new religion with requirements of “belief”?
What if many who call themselves Christians have acted less like Jesus, and more like the religious leaders Jesus fiercely opposed?
Could it be that there are ‘non-Christians’ who follow Jesus more closely than some Christians?
Is it possible that the Good News is better than we thought?
In ‘Heaven-and-Hell’ Christianity*, the version of Christianity I grew up with, the message of Jesus was clear: I am sinful and bound for Hell, but God in His love chose to punish His own Son instead of me, so that I can go to Heaven when I die. All I have to do is believe this Good News, and accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour.
In my gratitude to God for saving me from my sins and eternal punishment, it was my duty and my joy to show others the same love that God had shown me. Now I was ‘saved’ I was called to follow Jesus and to try and be like him. But this was always of secondary importance to holding the right beliefs – that is how I was assured of my eternal destiny in Heaven, which was the real hope that Christianity gave me.
As a Christian it was my duty to share the Good News with those around me who weren’t Christians, and were therefore bound for Hell. I was called to show them the love of Jesus, in the hope that they would come to accept him as their personal Lord and Saviour and be saved from eternal punishment for their sins.
The sad reality was that there were many ‘good’ people in the world who were going to Hell because they weren’t Christians.
After many years of questioning, deconstructing and rethinking, my understanding of Jesus’ message is now very different. It is not a neat formula, and I don’t have all the answers. But reality isn’t black and white, and I am not God, so I think that’s OK.
I think the message of Jesus was something more like this:
“The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Good News”.
In ‘Heaven-and-Hell’ Christianity, this is interpreted as something like: “You can go to Heaven after you die! Stop living your life of sin and believe in me so that I can save you from Hell!”
But if we take Jesus’ words and actions in the religious, historical, social and political context in which he said and did them, a very different story emerges.
The Kingdom of God was the ultimate hope for God’s people (the Jews) – a time and a place where God was in charge, and everything was made right. They already had that hope. But Jesus insisted that it was here, the time had come now, God’s Kingdom was breaking through to Earth.
Jesus claimed that he was fulfilling this prophecy from Isaiah:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
I don’t think he was talking in metaphors. I think he meant exactly what he said.
He wasn’t talking about getting people off this Earth into a better place far away in the sky.
He was talking about God’s rule coming to this Earth. The Heavenly realms breaking through into our world, our lives, here and now.
He definitely spoke of an afterlife, a hope of eternal life with God, but this eternal life starts now.
He didn’t want people to believe facts about him or join a religion to earn their ticket to Heaven. He wanted people to love him, to love God, to live in the new Way he was demonstrating, to follow a new path of freedom, love and life in all its fullness.
Jesus demonstrated through his life, death and resurrection that light and life will ultimately defeat darkness and death.
The Jews were expecting their Messiah to announce victory for Israel and defeat their Roman rulers by using violence to overthrow them. This would in turn have led to more inhumanity, injustice and oppression. Instead, Jesus disappointed many of them by claiming that the only way to truly defeat the powers of darkness was through the new Way he showed them – the way of love, non-violence and humility. It was an upside-down, counter-cultural, radical new way of living and being. And it wasn’t just about the Jews anymore, it was about everything and everyone.
Jesus’ death was the ultimate symbol of this non-violent rebellion, and was the means by which God defeated death and darkness. When Jesus was executed many Jews must have written him off as yet another false messiah. But the resurrection showed that Jesus really was the Messiah they had been waiting for, that God’s Kingdom had won, and that darkness would not have the final word.
As a Christian, I am no longer in the business of Hell-avoidance. I don’t think that was ever the point. While my faith in the old belief system has crumbled, my faith in Jesus is stronger than ever. This is what it now means to me:
– Every bit of light, goodness, hope and love I see in the world is real, not a cruel illusion, and is in some mysterious way a foresight of what is to come.
– Darkness, death, violence, oppression, injustice, pain, suffering, hatred and inhumanity, however powerful and all-consuming, will not have the last word.
– God created us in his image, and we all have infinite value and worth. Our lives matter to God, more than we can imagine.
– I believe that Jesus lived and died to reconcile us to God.
– With the wind of God’s Spirit in my sails I am called to participate in the transforming, liberating, healing, creative, restoring, life-giving work of God on this Earth.
– With the breath of God’s Spirit in my lungs I am compelled to stand against evil, injustice, oppression, inhumanity and destruction in all its many forms.
I fear that far too often, we who call ourselves Christians have missed the point entirely, and have even worked against Jesus’ restorative mission on Earth.
In preaching an individualistic, formulaic Gospel that focuses primarily on correct doctrinal beliefs and the afterlife, I fear that we have often ignored (and even contributed to) the powers of sin, darkness and destruction we should be fiercely opposing.
I feel an increasing sense of urgency that the world desperately needs more of us to look again at the message of Jesus, and that the future of our planet may quite literally depend upon it.
*Phrase borrowed from Marcus Borg
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