When the subject of Christian theology comes up, nearly everyone, nearly all the time, goes directly to theologies about Jesus. What is flatly bypassed is the theology that Jesus held personally, before anyone formulated a theology about him.
The point I’ll make today, because it needs to be made over and over, is that the theology of Jesus bears very little resemblance to the theology about Jesus.
First Glance Differences
The big problem with Christian theology is that most people never see anything but the “about Jesus” version. And so, anything else seems foreign, to the point of revulsion.
On top of that, a huge number of Christians think their eternal pleasure or torment rests upon holding the right theology. That being the case, a foreign theology becomes the most frightening thing imaginable.
Nonetheless, viewed independently and from a distance, it’s clear that Jesus never taught the fundamentals of Christian theology. For example, Jesus never mentioned a virgin birth and he mentioned neither the word or the concept of a trinity. To clarify the scale of this, please consider…
Believing only what Jesus taught, you would be rejected as a member of the Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational and Assembly of God churches, as well as many smaller ones.
Holding to Jesus alone, almost every Christian church would reject you. That ought to give us pause. But again, the fear associated with considering such a concept is off the charts.
Please understand that I’m not trying to trash anyone’s faith; but this is a gigantic issue, standing in the most central place. If this troubles you, I’m sorry, but it needs to be said, somewhere, somehow.
What Did Jesus Believe?
Whole books have been written about this, of course (including by me), but a nice first description can be found in Ernest Renan’s, The Life of Jesus:
God, conceived simply as Father, was all the theology of Jesus… He did not preach his opinions, he preached himself.
That describes a very different and far more organic attitude than those of Christian theologies, which are legalistic to the point of becoming mechanical.
Another essential point is that Jesus was concerned with people believing him, not believing in him. This distinction is crucial, even though it blows right past most of us. Look carefully, and in nearly every case (and in all the best cases) you’ll find Jesus saying, “Believe me,” rather than “Believe in me.” That’s worthy of some thought.
Salvation, According To Jesus
Nearly all of Christianity conceives of salvation as God reaching down and taking you up to a perfect place called “heaven.” God chooses to do this because you’ve properly completed certain rituals or because you’ve confessed and believed certain things. There are endless variants, but it’s a nearly universal model.
The problem, of course, is that Jesus never taught this. Here, to confirm, are just a few points:
- Jesus taught the opposite of the “go to heaven” model. He taught that the kingdom of heaven (alternately the kingdom of God) is sown into the world; that it either enters the world through us, or not at all. He did not teach a magic fix, he taught progressive and organic growth. Read through his parables (the stories he taught from village to village) and this is what you’ll see.
- “Heaven,” in both testaments of the Bible, very clearly meant “the sky.” Sometimes, by extension, it meant “the realm of the stars.” And that’s simply it.
- The doctrine of heaven, in any form we would recognize, was a very late addition to Christianity. Jesus’ friends and companions believed in a resurrection of the just, not the magical fix of heaven.
More than this, perhaps, is the fact that Jesus conceived of us simply as fruit-bearing or not. He was very direct about this, almost brutally so: What bore fruit would be retained, everything else would be discarded. Consider these passages:
Strait is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life.
Many are called but few are chosen.
Note, please, that both of these passages are directly illustrated in the Parable of The Sower. Consider also that he placed internal enlightenment as the essential differentiator:
Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.
No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.
All that the Father gives me will come to me.
Even though this is radically different from modern beliefs, Jesus’ direct followers, and thousands of others with them, believed precisely this. In fact, we have a direct restatement of this model from 130 AD, from a Judean believer (rather than a “Pauline” or Greek believer).
In about 130 AD, a young Roman student of philosophy named Justin (later known as Justin Martyr) was walking along the Mediterranean in the region of Syria and ran into an old believer, departing Judea. This was the fundamental pivot of Justin’s life, and so he wrote it down. Please pay close attention to this passage:
But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His messiah have imparted wisdom.
This is the same thing Jesus said in the three passages directly above. Strange and frightening or not, Jesus taught this and a great number of people believed it for a full century.
This is hard material, I know. And as I noted before, I’m not trying to lay siege against anyone. Nor do I have a group for anyone to join. What I am interested in is the upgrading of mankind, and I’m convinced that taking Jesus seriously would be a major driver of that upgrade.
If you want a careful and detailed explanation of these subjects, please see my books, Discourses on Judaism, Jesus And Christianity, and Recovering Jesus.