Thoughts

The Lost God of Jesus III

THE JESUS PROBLEM

And so, into this world of strife and violence, socially and religiously, came the child who would be King. But this would be no ordinary King and no ordinary Kingdom. That he totally failed to meet the expectations of the people as their ‘Messiah’ is self-evident from the Gospels. He disappointed on almost all counts – he still does for so many, even those who take the name ‘Christian’.

As you read the New Testament you would be forgiven for thinking that this peace-loving and peace-preaching Jesus, who teaches us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek and not resist an evil person, is the exact opposite of the sometimes violent, vindictive and cruel god portrayed in the Old Testament. And you would be right. Indeed when his disciples attempted to follow the example of the Old Testament god – Jesus rebuked them (Luke 9:55-56)! I know that his further statement recorded here – ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of ..’ (KJV) is disputed and is not to be found in many other translations including the J.B. Phillips New Testament, the New International Version, the New Living Translation and the Tree of Life Version among others, but, never the less, all record that he rebuked them for wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume their opponents as had Elijah and indeed the god of Israel did when he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. This is not a contradiction we can easily gloss over – no matter how much we would wish to do so. Jesus is clearly not representative of a god who would destroy his enemies in such a way.

The fact that Jesus appears to be the polar opposite of the god, so often presented in the Old Testament as the one true God, has caused, as we have noted previously, the greatest of headaches for theologians, and preachers ever since – to say nothing of the common man and women on the street! If you doubt this simply explore the issue online or have a look at the plethora of books that attempt to deal with the subject today!

As an aside here, the example of the omission, in so many Bible translations, of the text we have quoted adds to the difficulty for the layperson in trying to decipher the authenticity of the Biblical record. This is especially challenging for the fundamentalist who holds to the inherency of scripture. And of course, this is not the only example one could point to.

But the whole issue of a violent god comes most sharply in to focus in the New Testament when we consider the death of Jesus – and the claim by many modern-day theologians and denominations that their god of violence wrath and retribution, for some theological reason, poured out the full force of his vengeance on his innocent son. Are we now seeing how wrong Jesus was all along – that the loving Father he has so clearly presented, is, in fact, still the violent god of retribution we find so often in the Old Testament?

Once again this issue was one where, despite our very common misconceptions and Christian culture (at least mine), was a matter of hot debate and disagreement in the early church. It is also one which has been resurrected in more recent times. ‘Atonement theories’ abound – and the belief and emphasis of my tradition in ‘Penal Substitution’ and ‘Substitutionary Atonement’ are coming under intense scrutiny today. To add to this dilemma we have the indisputable fact that Eastern Orthodoxy, to whose teachings I am increasingly drawn, holds to neither.

I have listened to and read enough material to fill a small volume in relation to how some preachers, theologians and teachers from my tradition try to reconcile the violent god of the Old Testament with the Father of Jesus. The contortions they go through are, at times, mind-boggling and some of their conclusions equally as ridiculous. Some start by honestly laying out the problem – but after listening or reading for hours I am left as much in the dark as before! So what to make of it all?

Let me say very clearly that if much greater minds, trained theologians, biblical experts and critics struggle to reconcile all this I am hardly in a position to do so. However – for myself, as one who seeks to understand in order to move forward in my faith, I must at least try. That trying has brought me, at times, to the very borders of faith – and I know some have crossed the line into the land of total unbelief. So this is a dangerous place to visit – I have no doubt, but it is, I would suggest, necessary – one reason being that if we do not deal with such issues from the place of faith in the goodness and love of the true God – one day, somewhere down the road, someone will certainly force us to address them – and perhaps in a more public arena than reading and coming to terms with them here. So these issues must be addressed.

I do believe questions and doubts like this are why, at this moment, so many people of faith, at least in the West, are jumping ship. I fully realize that for some, their faith or belief may only have been an inch deep in the first place – but that is certainly not the case for all. Many serious believers find themself floundering on the rocks of confusion and doubt today.

So let me start again where the war rages the most violently – the Old Testament. Most of my thoughts here were covered in our last post – but I left one question hanging – the issue of a progressive revelation of the true God even in the mists of the violence attributed to him there. The people who have been the most helpful to me on this issue are those who have gone through the same crucible of questioning and doubt and lived to tell the tale! One such is Adam Hamilton, a United Methodist Pastor and Author. He says this – 

Scripture records a progressive revelation of God culminating in Christ which ends up pitting an obscure earlier understanding, with its own tradition and cultic development, against the fullness and truth of Christ. My argument is that Christ bore this difference in his death and that this development of two competing concepts of God, coming to a final conflict in Christ, is what constitutes revelation and that to miss this point is to miss the word of the cross and the nature of inspiration.

I found this summary helpful as a springboard to delve in a little more detail into the revelation of God in the Old Testament that is more in harmony with the God and Father of Jesus. And He is there – if at times almost obscured by the clouds and driving rain!

Of course, it is very clear that the mercy and grace of God are recorded in multiple places and situations throughout the Old Testament – that is not in question. However, in the context of our conundrum one of the most interesting of these, to me anyway, is his attitude towards the people of the ancient city of Nineveh as recorded in the book of Jonah (c775 BC). Interestingly, I have not seen or heard this incident being addressed in all my research on these subjects.

Set in the days of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh, the largest city in the world for several decades – is described in that book as ‘An exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. The city and its people had apparently come to God’s attention because of its gross wickedness – so it was an ideal candidate for immediate and violent destruction. In addition, we must remember that the Assyrians, worshipers of multiple gods, were notorious for their inhumane cruelty. They demolished cities that resisted and executed people in the most horrific ways – and there is good historical and aerological evidence of this.

We further discover God’s compassionate attitude toward the inhabitants of Nineveh when the prophet Jonah sulked at God’s subsequent mercy towards its population (no doubt having a lust for its destruction). God says to the offended prophet – ‘And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left – and much livestock?’ And with that blunt question/statement, the book ends. God’s last word on the matter – mercy and compassion along with a rebuke to the sulking prophet! The people of Nineveh, having listened to the warning by the prophet, of impending judgement, turned from their their wickedness and were subsequently saved from destruction.

Jonah’s miffed reaction in the light of all this is most telling – ‘I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.’ In other words ‘I might have expected this – so why ask me to go in the first place!’

As an aside here, I still recall, from my youth, an old man preaching on the text from Jonah – ‘Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes ..’ going on to paint a very clear picture of his repentance and humility in rising from the throne of his own glory and self-interest, removing the robe of his own self-righteousness and humbling himself before the living God!  

But to come back to the point. We also discover in places throughout the Old Testament God’s attitude toward the weak and the stranger. The true mark of this God and his righteousness is that – ‘He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.’ (Deuteronomy 10:18) – and the mark of the proud and wicked that – ‘They slay the widow and the stranger, and murder the fatherless..’ (Psalm 94:6). And so we could go on with multiple similar examples. It is this God, ‘The Compassionate One’ who is the Father of Jesus and the incarnation of his life, ministry and sacrificial death!

The problem with Jesus, as we noted earlier in this short series, is that he appears to go further than any of the gods, prophets, priests or kings before him ever did – even reinterpreting Jewish teaching in doing so – 

Your ancestors have also been taught, ‘Take an eye in exchange for an eye and a tooth in exchange for a tooth.’ However, I say to you, don’t repay an evil act with another evil act. But whoever insults you by slapping you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well.

Your ancestors have also been taught ‘Love your neighbours and hate the one who hates you.’ However, I say to you, love your enemy, bless the one who curses you, do something wonderful for the one who hates you, and respond to the very ones who persecute you by praying for them. For that will reveal your identity as children of your heavenly Father. He is kind to all by bringing the sunrise to warm and rainfall to refresh whether a person does what is good or evil. 

(Matthew 5 TPT)

No god before, in the history of religion, ever taught us to love our enemies. But Jesus, who, according to his teaching, represents his Father God, does just this. That is why Fr. Stephen Freedman (see last post) is absolutely right IMO when he says – 

For me, it’s simply a matter of beginning with Christ … I do not think we can read the OT (or anything) apart from Him and through Him. As it says in John 1:18 ‘He [Jesus] has made Him [the Father] known’ the word there being, ‘exegesis.’ Christ is the exegesis of the Father.

This is then is a God I can trust, a God I can give my life to! A loving Father God who offers himself as a servant and who dies a violent death at the hands of a violent religious and civil empire. What I do with all of the contradictions and problems I have faced in this series of posts, in one sense, although always a source of tension, begins to recede somewhat. 

However, the big ongoing problem for me is that the God of Jesus appears to be as lost today, to vast the majority of Christians (at least in the West), as he was in the violence-drenched epochs of the Old Testament. But he is still to be found, as he always was, by those who will truly seek Him!

To be continued .. 

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