In my article Deconstruction Part One: Church and Scripture, I discussed my personal deconstruction process through the Church and Scripture. This article will focus on Jesus – the God/man at the center of Christianity. Perhaps no act of deconstruction has influenced my theology more than that of deconstructing Jesus. Christology is the most significant theological locus because the mere existence of Jesus requires that we confront the reality of what it means when we perform any Christian act. Through all of the doubt I have encountered in my life, the existence of Jesus has brought me back to belief in God. I can doubt God and his existence, but I cannot doubt the reality of Jesus. Therefore, if I can’t doubt the reality that Jesus presents us with, then how can I doubt God’s existence in the world and my life?
The Traditional Jesus
Traditional evangelical Christianity (which is my context), understands Jesus as the fully God, fully human who is the only unbegotten son of the Father and in whom bore the weight of responsibility for the sins of humanity upon his ethically perfect being. Of course, there is much more that could be said, but this is a good summary for the foundation of evangelical Christology.
This Christological narrative for evangelicals begins in the Old Testament with the sacrificial system. The narrative that evangelicals tell makes Christ an extension of this system by making him the ultimate sacrifice for sin. This means that when evangelicals tell the story of Jesus, they tell a story that has to do with his ability to atone for the sin of humanity through his death, burial, and resurrection. The story can be summarized as follows:
- Man had perfect fellowship with God.
- Man sinned and introduced total depravity to humanity.
- Humanity attempted to be reconciled with God through the law which required various sacrifices for sin.
- Since they were unable to accomplish this on their own, God needed to intervene.
- God sent his only begotten son as a once and for all sacrifice for the sins of humanity.
- He accomplished this through being the perfect (ethical: sinless) lamb of God.
In the evangelical worldview, this narrative is required to believe in order to be a Christian. In fact, almost everything in Christian theology uses the atonement of Christ as its foundation. But, if the atonement theory is incorrect, or perhaps more accurately, is not primary, then that trickles down into the rest of their Christology – and other loci as well.
The main problem with atonement theory is that God never told Israel that they needed to participate in any sacrificial system.
“For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’” ~Jeremiah 7:22-23 (ESV)
What’s more, in John 6:38 Jesus says:
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
The same thing can be read in John 5:30 as well. This is important because Jesus never said that he came to be a sacrifice for sin but to do the will of the Father.
“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
Therefore, if this was never the explicit purpose of Jesus – to atone for sin – then what was his purpose? The only way to answer this question is to understand what happened in the Garden of Eden because Jesus came to fix whatever occurred in the Garden.
Traditionally evangelical theology focuses on the sin of Adam and Eve and then they import that into the New Testament. However, if we read the text non-anachronistically, we see something different emerge. Genesis 3’s emphasis is not on the sin that was committed but on the fact that Adam and Eve did not listen to God. Sure, disobedience to God was a sin, but the emphasis is on disobedience to the will of God, not on the resulting “sin”.
This now makes sense when Jesus says he came to do the “will of the Father”; it was the very thing Adam and Eve did not do. Jesus had to accomplish what they could not. Jesus came to listen so that he could accomplish God’s will. This is echoed in the aforementioned Jeremiah passage when he says “…obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people…”.
We see this same theme throughout the OT. For example, what was the purpose of the ten commandments? The purpose was that God’s word would guide Israel. All Israel needed to do was obey them. But what did Israel do? The religious leaders parsed the commandments out into hundreds of laws for Israel to follow. If the Israelites didn’t follow the additional requirements, then they created a sacrificial system to atone for their disobedience. However, as Hosea reminds us, none of this was what God asked them to do.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. ~Hosea 6:6 (ESV)
We also see the theme of obedience/disobedience in the prophets. For example, why did God send the prophets? To speak on his behalf! All Israel had to do was listen to them, some did, but most did not. Again, we see the theme of listening and obeying God’s Will.
Instead of listening to God via the prophets, what did Israel do? In many cases they persecuted them. What was the prophetic message? It was either a proclamation that Israel needed to be obedient to what God was requesting of them or a warning because they refused to act as God had proclaimed. Either way, Israel was refusing to listen to God.
So, what is the new narrative that emerges when we view Jesus correctly?
- Adam and Even once communed with God. They were truly human.
- Man departed from God’s Will by refusing to listen to him.
- Man became lost and could not find God or themselves.
- Man attempted to reconcile through animal sacrifice – as reflected in the various religious cultures around them.
- God commissioned the prophets to speak to Israel about what they needed to do to reconnect to God, but they ignored the messages.
- Jesus came to demonstrate how a human has a right relationship with others and with God.
Some Concluding Thoughts
If God did not require sacrifice in the OT, then he didn’t require it in the NT. If it is true that Jesus came to listen, reveal, and obey the will of God, then everything we read about Jesus changes. I don’t think most people realize this, but many of us read the Gospel through the lens of Paul. This is why atonement theology is primary in most Christologies.
As an aside, part of the reason that we interpret Jesus this way is because of the belief in the Bible’s inerrancy. That is, when you approach the Bible with a view like inerrancy (as most evangelicals do), then you have to force everything to fit into a logically consistent package. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
As I have discussed elsewhere, truth in scripture is not dependent upon it also being inerrant. In fact, the opposite is true. An inerrantist must render false conclusions sometimes because the doctrine forces them to capitulate for the doctrine to remain true. Interpreting each book within scripture within its own context will render truer conclusions because you are allowing the document to speak on its own terms. This is something most evangelicals have NOT done. Instead, they have read atonement into the gospel because they have read them anachronistically.
For me, Jesus is the face of God. He is the revelation of God. He forces humanity to confront the idea of God by transforming him into a reality. Jesus is the reason that I don’t let go of my faith in God. He is the reason that I love. To love God and to love others is the gospel message. We still need to be saved, but not from sin; we need to be saved from ourselves.