Was Jesus Christlike?

Was Jesus Christlike? September 29, 2017

One problem with “What Would Jesus Do?” is that it doesn’t normally lead to ditching one’s parents while on pilgrimage, or flipping over tables. It usually simply means “What do I think the right thing to do is?” and Jesus is made to conform to that, rather than vice versa.

The Babylon Bee (HT Ian Paul) offered this bit of satire that makes the point:

Progressive Criticizes Jesus For Not Being Very Christlike

SEATTLE, WA—After reading several chapters from the gospels over the weekend, local progressive believer Wendy Butler reportedly published a Patheos blog post in which she criticized Jesus of Nazareth for “not being very Christlike.”

The blog post took Jesus to task for His “unloving and problematic” teachings.

“He devotes entire sections of His sermons to ranting about archaic religious concepts like hell and the last judgment instead of just coming alongside the marginalized and affirming their sins,” Butler said. “Very little of what He did on earth I would describe as life-giving. Frankly, I do a better job of being Christlike than Christ Himself.”

The woman was also agitated to find that Jesus didn’t devote any of His time recorded in the Scriptures to advocating for government-subsidized healthcare or women’s abortion rights.

“He had a few good things to say about loving our neighbors, but the bad outweighs the good in Jesus’ teachings, if we’re looking at things honestly here,” her essay continued. “He really needed to ask Himself, ‘What would Jesus do?’ more often, and then He’d have devoted a lot more of His time to social justice, like me.”

At publishing time, a horrified Butler had discovered the description of the Redeemer coming in His wrath in Revelation 19.

Grab a whipAs a progressive Christian who blogs at Patheos, I think this is funny and also makes a valid point. If Jesus doesn’t behave in a manner that seems “Christlike” to us, then we should be honest about it, and should honestly weigh the possibility that Jesus, being human, was not infallible and that we should not simply blindly try to do what he did, but should rather ask about core principles, recognizing that Jesus, like every other human being, may not have always consistently lived out the things that he taught; that he may have applied those principles in ways that it would not make sense for us to do so; and (most controversially), it is entirely possible that even the things that Jesus believed and taught may need to be evaluated from the perspective of hindsight as problematic and set aside. If we do the latter, however, it should not be with the attitude of the progressive in the Babylon Bee’s satire. If we think that future generations will not look back at today’s progressives with the same dismay that we look back at ancient one’s, we are deceiving ourselves.

Ian Paul, in his post, asks whether “God is love” and points out that, since “love” means different things to different people, the answer may differ depending on how one defines the word.

And so we are left with the possibility that God may not be love as we understand it, and Jesus may not be Christlike as we understand it.

This should lead us to reflect on and wrestle with the question of whether “WWJD?” is in fact a helpful way of approaching ethics. Not that the question of what Jesus would do is not worth asking. But just as the answer to the question may not be self-evident, so too it may be that there are things which Jesus did which we simply shouldn’t do, for a number of reasons.

On the other hand, if we ask what Jesus would do upon finding that ancient ethical authorities seem to fall short, we actually have some clear guidance, and I would suggest that his example provides a solution to this conundrum. We can do what Jesus did, and dare to plow our own course, diverging from the words and actions of great voices from the past, like Moses and Elisha, even as we affirm their espoused principles as our very reason for doing so.

Perhaps WWJD turns out to be the key after all…



"The Renaissance is a tradition. Semicircular dome ceilings, white stones, Roman shapes, Roman sculptures, strong ..."

Textual Criticism and What Jesus Learned ..."
"I personally think the study of religion is crucial to a Liberal Arts education, and ..."

All Things Bright and Biblical: Biblical ..."
"Everything comes back to you. How ! Your thinking proves it. When you think about ..."

Textual Criticism and What Jesus Learned ..."
"In ancient times, custom was only court, and royal. That of the mother, the sister, ..."

Textual Criticism and What Jesus Learned ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ian Paul

    Thanks for the link to my blog. I think the most intriguing thing that you say here is the suggestion that Jesus is not infallible. That might spur me to another blog post!

    • He could not be human, yet be infallible.

      It is an important part of theology, the Jesus was human. Therefore Jesus was not infallible.

      Too many Christians get this wrong. And I got that wrong back whenever. But then I’m human, so not infallible.

      • Ian Paul

        That’s true, unless the rest of the NT and all the historic Christian creeds are wrong.

        • I’m OK with that possibility, because they too are the work of fallible humans. Nonetheless, I think you are equating sinfulness and fallibility. And that might be correct, but it needs to be fleshed out and not simply assumed.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I try reading the Babylon Bee, but about every tenth article, it skews really smugly traditionally Reformed, and man, I’ve had enough of that to last me a few decades. They do make some funny articles, though.

    This one tends smug, but it’s also a good point. It’s very easy to marshal our idea of Jesus to support political aims that, at the best of times, would be extrapolations of what we think he might support as opposed to a certain set of views/policies being “Christlike.”

    On the other hand, the author of this piece seems to think that what constitutes a problem for the “progressive” idea of what it means to be Christlike is all this talk Jesus does about going to Hell, and I’d contest whether or not Jesus talked about going to Hell, at least the way the West has understood Hell for the past several centuries. The BB article seems to be making the point that Jesus said and cared about things that progressives would deem not Christlike, but I think the larger point is that it’s difficult to settle on what “Christlike” even means -at all- without a lot of work, reconstruction, and tentativity.

  • Jeff

    If Jesus doesn’t behave in a manner that seems “Christlike” to us, then we should be honest about it, and should honestly weigh the possibility that Jesus, being human, was not infallible and that we should not simply blindly try to do what he did, but should rather ask about core principles, recognizing that Jesus, like every other human being, may not have always consistently lived out the things that he taught; that he may have applied those principles in ways that it would not make sense for us to do so; and (most controversially), it is entirely possible that even the things that Jesus believed and taught may need to be evaluated from the perspective of hindsight as problematic and set aside.

    This reads to me as the sort of thing the ‘fat ghost’ from The Great Divorce might have said. (https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-great-divorce/chapter-5 ) Correspondingly, and siding, I think, with Lewis, it strikes me as a suggestion that is probably not likely to be perceived as especially controversial at all, in certain circles anyway…

    • That’s an example of one of the most annoying aspects of Lewis’s apologetics: his tendency to caricature the positions of others, rather than actually engage with them.

      In this case, the fat ghost is Lewis’s gross caricature of liberal theologians like Paul Tillich. Lewis’s failure to engage liberal theology is evident in one of his collected letters:

      “Dear Mrs. Van Deusen

      I have never read Tillich,, but everything I have heard of him seemed to place him clearly side by side with Pittenger (tho’ of course far superior in talent) as one of those sincere semi-Christians who are now a greater danger to the Faith than the open unbeliever … What puzzles me is why thousands of believers, like yourself, continue to expose yourselves to the temptations against faith which such men will present to you, and swell their fame by attending their lectures!”

      Pittenger promoted process theology and wrote some of the earliest Christian defenses of (gasp) homosexual relations.

      Presumably, swelling his own fame with public lectures was fine by Lewis.

      • Jeff

        I suppose that my point was, given how similar Prof. McGrath’s post here sounds to the pronouncements of the ‘fat ghost’, perhaps the character is not so much a caricature as you claim.

        Lewis without a doubt believed that Christianity had boundaries, and felt that it was profoundly disrespectful and confusing to continue to call oneself a Christian after rejection of its central doctrines. He was definitely a Words Mean Things kind of guy. This sensibility is obviously what the passage in question in TGD is talking about.

        But however unsavory you find it, you must acknowledge that it has a certain clarifying wisdom to it. Progressives disclaim any ‘authority of scripture’, but will at least claim to follow the life of Christ as their example. But in this post, we have a notable Progressive Christian saying, “yeah, you know, maybe we should consider the possibility that Jesus wasn’t such a great Progressive after all”. Lewis would surely ask: if you move beyond Christ’s teachings as the foundation of one’s faith, at what point does it become more confusing rather than less to continue to refer to yourself as a Christian?

        • Can you think of an instance other than conservative Christianity in which being an adherent, student, or follower of an individual must mean always, in every instance, without exception adhering to every teaching and lived example of that individual? In other words, is the issue with the claim of progressive and liberal Christians to be followers of the human Jesus, or with conservative Christians defining both Jesus and following in ways that depart from normal usage?

          • Jeff

            It’s certainly not my place to tell you what you must adhere to, but I nevertheless think it’s at least a bit surprising that in your list of possible responses to a Jesus who turns out to be insufficiently progressive for modern progressive Christian tastes, “perhaps we should consider the possibility that we’re wrong” is not on the list.

            I don’t think Lewis advocated a ‘conservative’ Christianity, so much as, I suppose, a ‘historical’ Christianity. Jesus was the founder but the early church were the ones who figured out what it meant to live those teachings out in practice. You know more about their beliefs and practices than I do. Are there examples specifically of the early church throwing any of Jesus’s teachings overboard — where they determined that their own moral compass compelled them to overrule Jesus on [whatever] issue?

            Also, what was the view in ancient philosophical schools of the degree to which deviation from the founder’s ethical teachings was tolerated or encouraged? I’ll have to ask a philosopher friend about that one…

          • One can certainly find examples where radical aspects of Jesus’ teaching – whether the prohibition of divorce, strict nonviolence, or any number of other things – have been toned down, ignored, or otherwise neutralized – sometimes with acknowledgement of the departure from the teaching of Jesus, sometimes by reinterpreting him so as to maintain the pretense of strict fidelity to him.

            I thought I had stated enough times that being human has inherent in it the possibility of being wrong, so that the possibility that I and others are wrong goes without saying. Indeed, that constant emphasis of mine is reflected in the very post we are discussing.

          • Richard Worden Wilson

            Jesus didn’t prohibit divorce, he merely restricted it to cases in which there was infidelity. That is a different concept. It seems he believed that infidelity broke or invalidated the monogamous marital covenant, and hence divorce was acceptable to him in that case at least.

            Strict adherence to non-violence has unquestionably been “toned down, ignored, or otherwise neutralized,” but that doesn’t invalidate his teaching, just ignores and neutralizes it in mainstream churchianity.

            I appreciate your post and the potential it represents for rethinking how Jesus desires to see our beliefs and behaviors progress in the world today

          • What you are referring to is one way of understanding the exception clause (“except in cases of sexual immorality”) which the Gospel of Matthew introduces into a passage in which there was no exception in its source material in the Gospel of Mark. Might one not say that that too does not so much “invalidate” Jesus’ original teaching as “neutralize” it?

          • DonaldByronJohnson


            The above is the masterwork of a 2nd temple scholar. He explains the cultural context of the passages on divorce that many do not know. In Mat 19 on divorce, for example, Jesus is correcting seven (7!) misinterpretations of Torah by Pharisees. I strongly recommend this book.

          • Neko

            Hoo boy, that is not how the Catholic Church interprets Jesus’s prohibition on divorce. Though the Catholic Church devised its own ways of “neutralizing” this problematic teaching: tribunals!

        • Let’s see. Lewis takes a bland, contextless version of some ideas he perceives as liberal theology … and puts it in the mouth of a fat, gaitered ghost who doesn’t “realize” he is already in hell.

          Yeah, I call that a caricature … a banal caricature.

  • John MacDonald

    You don’t jettison Plato just because there are some aspects of Platonism you disagree with. Find the good stuff in Jesus, forget the rest, just like you would any other thinker. Jesus should be treated the same as any other ethical thinker. The message is what matters, not who said it. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” would still be of the same value if someone other than Nietzsche had wrote it. As Heidegger wrote as his comprehensive biography of Aristotle expected in his doctoral dissertation, “Aristotle was born, he worked, and he died.”

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      If Jesus were merely a philosopher this would perhaps be good advice. For those who have eyes to see he is in an entirely different category from those other “spiritual” or philosophical luminaries.

      • John MacDonald

        It’s because people have chosen to see him as more than just a philosopher that much joy and tragedy have occurred in our history.

      • John MacDonald

        Personally, I think it would be a socially healthy thing for fundamentalists to change their minds and start viewing Jesus as just another philosopher. lol

  • Neko

    This reminds me of a lament periodically rolled out by a certain online traditionalist Catholic: You liberals want to be more just that God!

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    Jesus was a practicing Jew and the NT claims he was sinless. This has a meaning to a Jew in that he never broke Torah. Was Jesus a product of his times, of course, he spoke in terms people around him could understand, not as some kind of 21st scientist. So I do not expect Jesus’s statements to reflect modern science, but I do expect Jesus’s statements to reflect God’s morality.