Popular Christian orthodoxy states that Jesus Christ was crucified as a sacrifice to God, his heavenly and earthly father, to redeem humanity from sin for all time. Despite his death on the cross he arose from the dead in three days, appeared to his followers, then ascended into heaven until he is to return to conquer evil on earth forever. Those who believe this about Jesus will live with him forever in heaven and those who do not believe this will be condemned to hell for all eternity.
I have known this narrative most of my life, but never for a moment, have I considered it to be truth, nor based on factual history. It has always struck me as strangely sadistic and barbaric. Frankly, I don’t think most Christians believe these ideas literally, either, but there is no public perspective other than this supernatural narrative from which to discuss Christianity. This needs to change because natural Christianity is far more meaningful in every aspect.
Supernatural elements written in stories of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return, always meant more to me than anything requiring physical explanations. I understood full well the spiritual significance of Jesus’ followers feeling he was still alive even after he was crucified and buried. I understood that heaven represents living with love in your heart and hell occurs when you separate yourself from love. Heaven and hell didn’t have to be places and interpreting miracle stories as literal historical events reminded me more of the adventures of comic book characters such as Superman, or the exploits of Greek and Roman gods, than they did of Jesus, a fellow human being. Let’s keep things real so we don’t need senseless thinking.
The real New Testament messages of Easter, for example, come from understanding why the Gospel writers wrote their resurrection liturgies the way they did. They never pretended to be writing history. What they were doing was interpreting the significance of Jesus’ life on earth and his teachings by creating literary parallels in Jesus’ life story that showed him to be superior to the heroes and events found in ancient Hebrew scripture. Their audiences, followers of The Way, were Jews who believed Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish expectations for the next messiah. They listened to these new gospel messages while worshipping in synagogues on the Jewish Sabbath after hearing readings from the Torah. They would have clearly understood the parallels and grasped the metaphysical implications.
However, their beliefs about Jesus being the expected messiah conflicted with the more conservative Jews. The breaking point occurred around the year 80 CE when the followers of The Way were ejected from synagogue membership. They left and became the Christian movement. But, by the year 150 CE most of the members of the developing Christian religions (yes, there were many) were not Jews, but were pagan converts, who had little knowledge of Jewish scripture or history. They tended to look at the Christian Gospel stories just as they had the stories of the Greek and Roman pantheon, or myths of other gods they had worshiped. But, with Christianity, there was a real, verifiable human involved within what they interpreted as a documented history of supernatural events. Viewing scriptures as less interpretive and more literal significantly alters the gospel messages.
Dogma about supernatural events or proofs is a real problem because the word “dogma” itself means you are honor bound not to change your mind no matter what. This is contrary to the human mind’s natural skills at learning by thinking, experimenting, and separating fact from fiction. To prevent this natural searching into religious matters, dogmatic beliefs or statements of faith are frequently required of members in Christian churches. These requirements are meant to restrict the understanding of Jesus, his teachings and mission, to specific ideas, which are granted the title of being “orthodox.” However, there is a great difference between faith developed through personal searching for spiritual understanding and faith based on disciplined obedience to religious doctrine. Jesus taught and demonstrated the former and specifically condemned the latter.
Jesus’ teachings also show that strict religious tenets tend to become irrelevant when you strive to live each moment of your life open to the love and wisdom of God in your heart along with a commitment to love your neighbor as yourself. When communities of people live practical, everyday lives with this loving approach it spreads God’s influence on earth, as it is in heaven.
Jesus taught and demonstrated love and he was crucified for it. However, his crucifixion could not stop what he had started because his message had such power it remained in the hearts and minds of those touched by his presence and teachings. Jesus’ spiritual teachings continue to speak to us from the New Testament despite being surrounded by apocalyptic ideas that were popular in the first century. Even today, a parable such as The Good Samaritan provides incredible and timely spiritual insights, which have nothing to do with substitutionary atonement, heaven, hell, or an impending apocalypse. They involve human realities and circumstances all of us understand.
We need to work past our desire for quick, supernatural answers to what we don’t know and dig into the real, practical, and spiritual lessons of the Bible. When you study it carefully, the Bible tells you a lot about what is in the Bible and why it is there. Very little of it has to do with factual history. Most of it has to do with showing how Judeo-Christian communities and religious traditions have evolved from polytheistic superstitions, to national monotheism, to universal monotheism, and finally to a personal relationship with God that conquers fear including the human dread of death. It’s good stuff and I want to learn even more. However, to grow in our understanding of ultimate truth as a community and to help facilitate public discussions of Christian teachings, we need to respectfully set aside supernatural Christian dogma and give natural Christianity the full consideration it deserves.
When we learn we grow, and when we grow we change, so let’s make it all right to change our minds as we learn.