Rethinking Christianity: The Message of Jesus

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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.’
(Luke 4:18-19)

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.

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*Phrase borrowed from Marcus Borg

Image via Pixabay

16 thoughts on “Rethinking Christianity: The Message of Jesus

    • ronaldlreed says:

      As an Episcopal priest, your understanding of the Gospel is essentially what I have tried to witness, preach, celebrate and share as a gospel of abundance: the power of love as opposed to the love of power. It also comes from the deep Celtic essence of what is found in the essence of English incarnational theology that profoundly moves me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Robert kearbey says:

      This is not a reply to ster but emme. I was so taken by your blog. I grew up a legalist most of my life but Jesus is the most opportunity thing in my. My goal is to better understand each day how much Jesus really loves me and wants me to be saved. How can a sinless man come to earth to dye for my sins if he didn’t love us beyond anything imaginable. Blessing. I,agape love you
      Bob Kearbey

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Susan K. Pinder says:

    I think intellectually, as humans, we’ve “evolved” to the point where we can’t comprehend a God who would punish us for any sins. This is a dangerous slippery slope theology which can lead us and those around to a false doctrine that anything goes if it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Tolerate anything and everything so that you dare not offend someone! I have seen this happen in my dear homeland, Canada, for decades now and it breaks my heart! The entire purpose of Jesus’ life was to die for our sins and to be resurrected so that, by faith, we may be saved from eternal damnation. It is a free gift to all but it was bought by a great price! It’s sad to see how people today think that they can brush all sins away by saying that person is good. We are not saved by our good works but only through the precious blood shed through the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emma Higgs says:

      Thanks so much for your comment! I agree with you on many things. There is a growing culture which encourages us to do, say or think whatever we like, as long as we don’t offend anyone else. I am not advocating that at all; as a Christian I believe there is far more to life than just trying to tolerate everything and not upset anyone. I agree that Jesus lived, died and was raised to free us from the power of sin. What I am challenging is the idea that “sin” refers only to our individual transgressions, and that correspondingly salvation refers purely to individual salvation from eternal damnation. I think it’s much bigger and better than that. I think God gets very angry at sin, and the church is living very dangerously by getting caught up in specific disagreements over interpretations of a few specific Bible verses taken out of context, without realising that in doing so it is contributing to the sin, injustice and evil that Jesus came to destroy. It becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution. More of my thoughts on this to come in the next few posts…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. rogerwolsey says:

    Excellent piece. Needed. Thank you! re: “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.” — On point.

    See also, “I don’t follow Jesus in order to go to heaven when I die — or conversely, to avoid going to hell. That’s a cheap form of faith that is really nothing more than fire insurance. I follow Jesus here and now for the sake of experiencing salvation (which means “wholeness” and “healing”) here and now – and to help others do the same.” From “To Hell with Hell” –

    Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kelly Thomas-Sanders says:

    I appreciated your insight. I always ask my Christian friends this hypothetical question, “if tomorrow they proved beyond a doubt that the historical Jesus was just as human as you an I, would that diminish his message for you? Isn’t it the wisdom that is divine?”

    I go on to point out that Jesus told us that we could work his miracles, and by relegating him to the realm of the gods, are we absolving ourselves from the work that must be done. His message only works if we are all living it, not arguing about it. If you take care of the here and now…the hereafter takes care of itself.

    This is only one of many mythologies I have studied intensively in my life. It was the last I came back to once I had a grasp of humanist intellect. I was able to read it rationally as a form of philosophy rather than as faith. I always ask, “what do you know of other faiths?” Usually they have no accurate interpretation of any thing, up to and including the differences between not just the Protestant sects, but also the separation of Protestantism and Catholocism. “Then How do you know you are a Christian? Because your mama and your grandmama and your great gramma was? That is not faith…that is tradition. Very different.”

    In my humble opinion, Jesus is the simplest of teachers. If you take out the mythology and look at what he probably really said…”He who is w/out sin…”, “Blessed are the…”, “It is easier for a camel…”, there is a wonderful wit and passion of his humanity. You cannot twist the opposite out of his lessons and be believed. The saying, “talk the talk, you better walk the walk,” is never so true. #ACTIONSMATTER

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Bruce Dobyns says:

    Emma, I love what you wrote in the blog and agree with you. However, what are your thoughts on life after death? You can point me to one of your other posts if it answers my question. Are you a universalist or eventualist or does it mak any difference to you?


  5. dilloncruz72 says:

    I’m going to seminary to investigate and live into this type of understanding of the message of Jesus. It’s vastly more compelling than the heaven or he’ll message that I grew up with.

    Peace be with you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jonathan Waite says:

    Noam Chomsky, as I was reminded recently, formulated the sentence “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously,” to demonstrate that all language contains the possibility of nonsense. Because we can put words together in any combination we choose, we can use that power to create sense, or to create nonsense. Similarly, because we have free will and the capacity to make moral judgments, we can use that power to act rightly, or to act what is called “sinfully.” This I take to be the meaning of “original sin”; it’s not a bug, it’s a side effect of a feature, and the responsibility of not falling prey to it is and always has been ours. Christ’s life, death and resurrection was, whatever its other purpose may have been, a demonstration of that danger; a large number of people, exercising their free will in ways that seemed to them to be right and good, killed an innocent man. That, it seems to me, is the lesson that we have failed to take away from this story; that free will comes with responsibility, and that we can easily fool ourselves into thinking that the way we see a thing is the only way to see it, and thus be led to act wrongly through not taking other points of view into account.

    I’m not a Christian, but I don’t disbelieve either, and I have spent a great part of my life thinking about the stories of Christianity and what they actually mean. I don’t know if this rambling helps at all, but for what it’s worth, here it is.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Rt. Rev. Dr. Stephen F. Duncan says:

    Beautifully spoken, and I think right on the mark.

    I tell people often, that we should look at the three truly important commands given to us by Christ:

    Love God with your whole heart and mind and soul.
    Love your neighbor as yourself.
    Love one another as I have loved you.

    When we ground ourselves in these difficult tasks, we don’t have time for hate. We don’t have time for bickering. As the Orthodox say, our job is theosis, to become like God.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Daniel D. Maurer says:

    Totally spot on, Emma. I believe the theological bent Jesus took was simply on love of neighbor and enemy. With that said, “belief” in the sense of a grace-centered theology is still important. However, I think that is the general trajectory of this post.

    I believe this quote sums up nicely how reality “really matters”: “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.” Or, as stated in the wonderful hymn “Gather Us In”: ” . . . not in some Heaven, light years away . . . ”

    Nicely done. You write well and think clearly. – DDM

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Susan W. Morrison says:

    After many years of study and listening through prayer, I’ve come to these conclusions:
    Jesus was human. God was/is in Jesus. God is in all of us. God occupies the universe but is not part of it. So we are God’s hands and witnesses.

    The Kingdom of God would better be translated as the reality of God. Repent means to turn away from the reality of our physical existence and focus on God’s reality, which is not physical in the scientific sense. When you do that, there really is no life or death. Those concepts become somewhat irrelevant. The torment of hell doesn’t begin at death as a judgment. Hell is here and now for those who are turned to evil. And likewise, eternal grace (heaven) comes from focusing on God’s reality and loving God in all the souls of the living and the dead. And maybe you can even pull someone back from hell.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. LeAnn says:

    You have congealed all the thoughts that have been floating around in my head since I was 12 years old into a narrative that makes sense.
    You have helped me find peace with my understanding of Christianity.

    Liked by 1 person

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