Have you ever felt misunderstood? I guess you have. I’m sure you know what it’s like to feel deeply embarrassed too. These are experiences that I know well. You see my friends and I lived in a world of fantasies and dreams. Belief in such a fantasy world led my friends to misunderstand me, indeed to misrepresent me. I’ve found it all highly embarrassing.
Don’t misinterpret me when I speak about living life in a fantasy world. My friends and I lived in the real world too. I suppose you could say that the two worlds overlapped. I’ll take you step by step through our different fantasies; they were all connected to each other.
In order to explain the first fantasy, I’ll need to give you some background. My friends and I were born a long time ago. It was the era of empires. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the films of that period in history. The Roman Empire ruled over us. Before that it had been the Greeks who dominated the region. We belonged to a small nation, and our history contained the stories of one conquest after another. We cherished a memory of freedom and independence from a period long before my friends and I were born. That memory fuelled our dreams for the future.
From time immemorial, every small nation and, in many cases, each tribe believed that it lived under the protection of its own God. People imagined then that the world was full of supernatural powers. They argued with each other about which tribe or nation had the most powerful God as their protector. They tended to think that winning a battle was an indication of the strength of their God, because he was believed to have fought alongside them. I now see that it was just a flight of the imagination to think of a world of Gods and of each one having his or her favorite tribe. That’s what I call the first fantasy. Strictly speaking, as you’ll see in a moment, I didn’t fall for this first fantasy. Number two is where I come in. There’ll be five fantasies in all. So hold your breath. It’s astonishing.
We must have had people who were good at military strategies and that kind of thing, even though we didn’t win many wars. We also had our great thinkers. Over the centuries, they reasoned that it didn’t really make sense to think that the world was populated with as many Gods as there were tribes or nations. They concluded that it was more credible to believe that there was only one Superpower who was the Creator of all life.
Our thinkers made the catastrophic mistake of believing that this Superpower had the same attitude and feelings towards our nation as our old tribal God, who they believed had loved us faithfully. They couldn’t give up the old idea of being a chosen people, even though it didn’t make sense any longer, for a creator God wouldn’t have had favorites. Our old tribal God and the creator God became identified together in their minds. They just ceased, if you like, to believe in the existence of everyone else’s tribal Gods. That we were the favored people of this one creator God is what I refer to as the second fantasy that we believed in. It had some serious consequences.
Understandably, our thinkers couldn’t accept that this great Superpower would be content to see us continuing to be a down-trodden people, generation after generation. For after all, didn’t he care about us more than about anyone else, weren’t we his treasured possession? You’ve guessed it. We created another fantasy, the third one! What was it? Let me tell you. People began to think that one day he would do something miraculous to restore our fortunes and to give us peace and independence. He personally would intervene in the affairs of the world. He would defeat whatever ruling power controlled and exploited us. It was a wonderful fantasy to believe in.
As well as our thinkers, we had our visionaries. I can tell you that they had some amazing dreams. One of them lived about two centuries before I was born. He imagined a scene in heaven in which plans were being made for a supernatural intervention to take place here in this world. The ruling empires would be annihilated. He believed that we, as God’s chosen people, would soon live in a new kingdom. Our capital city would be the centre of the world. In his imagination, this visionary pictured the dead being woken up, and coming out of their graves, for that’s where he presumed they were. Only those judged worthy of life in the new kingdom would have a place in it. The rest would be condemned to a life of endless suffering and torment.
Significantly, he described a figure that, in his dream, appeared in heaven standing in front of a great, majestic and rather aged-looking God. Was this figure human or was he in some sense divine? Maybe he was something like an angel, but maybe not? What was his role to be? In my lifetime, some of us thought his role would be to oversee the transfer from human government to Divine rule. We accepted that his role would also include being the judge of the dead and of those alive at the time. We called this figure the Son of Man.
Some of our other visionaries also entertained similar fantasies. They thought of another figure who would also be part of a deliverance strategy and called him a Messiah. That word just means the Lord’s anointed one. Others speculated that a Messiah would have to be a descendent of King David, probably because there was independence in his day. The Davidic reign had come to symbolize peace and freedom. If the Messiah was a descendent of David perhaps he would be born in Bethlehem – David’s home town.
Before I go any further with my story, let me summarise the three fantasies I’ve been describing. I want you to be clear about them. Firstly, there was the deluded belief that each tribe or nation had its own God, who had specially chosen them and who had pledged to faithfully protect and sustain them. Secondly, when we moved on from these ideas and began to believe in one creator God, we made the mistake of thinking that this creator God had the same feelings and attitudes towards us as our old tribal God. In fact, the creator God was just our old tribal God made bigger! We were still his chosen people, favored above all others. Thirdly, we believed that this God would someday restore our fortunes in a new kingdom, in which we would enjoy peace, prosperity and independence. That really was a fantasy. At least it had the effect of giving us hope that someday life might start to get better rather than worse.
I feel embarrassed, as I said at the beginning of my story, having to admit to you, once again, that I lived in this fantasy world. I believed in it, like the rest of my community did. It was stupid of me; I realize that now. I suppose you could say I was just a man of my time. Isn’t it hard to be anything else? Every age has its myths that people live by.
What’s more upsetting is that I belonged to a section of our society made up of individuals like a man called John who influenced me, but which also included groups such as a community of people who withdrew from normal society and went to live in caves down near the Dead Sea. What we all had in common was the conviction that the great dream of a new prosperous future for our nation was about to be realized at any moment by this invisible Superpower. He just had to deal with the Romans. From being a dream on the horizon, we believed that it was now on the doorstep. Yes, you’re right. I had now succumbed to another fantasy. I was deluded once again. Incredible, isn’t it?
Before I explain to you about the fifth fantasy, let me tell you more about my own life. Josh is obviously short for Joshua which is a direct translation of my name from Hebrew into English. My more common name comes via a translation from Hebrew to Greek, and then from Greek to English. I was born and grew up not far from a large lake which provided a living for a considerable number of fishermen. We were a big family, but that was quite normal then. My parents, Joe and Miriam (another direct translation from Hebrew into English), probably regarded me as a bit different from their other children, though they certainly did not think of me as an infant king when I was a baby nor was I born in Bethlehem for that matter. All those stories about my birth were only created long after I had died. After some years I gave up my trade and, among other things, took to talking to people about my beliefs.
Some people found what I had to say convincing. They likewise came to expect a supernatural intervention, sometime soon, to restore our nation’s fortunes. So, like me, they bought into that fourth castle in the air. For other people, what I was sharing with them about a miracle that might happen today or tomorrow was just the crazy belief of a deluded individual. For them life would go on as before. The Romans weren’t going to go away. Some no doubt credited me with having the sense not to try to engage in political violence. Such acts of defiance were quickly quelled. I wasn’t interested in trying to bring change in that way. I had put my trust in supernatural power.
I wasn’t such a hell-fire preacher as John, and I was deeply concerned to present my own vision of what life in this new kingdom, as we thought of it, would be like. I’d always felt concerned for people who were on the fringes of society, and by nature I was a compassionate person. I believed that the new kingdom would have a special place for such people. I tried to be encouraging to people who felt they were failures. Was I a good person? Well, yes, I tried to be. Being loving and being compassionate were important to me. That’s not to say I always was good. I have my worrying memories of moral failure and my own awareness of remorse.
I accept that sometimes I might have done something or said something that gave a person a glimmer of what the mystery of God may be like, that is if there is a God, for who can tell? I believe there is good in everyone, so for me all lives raise the question of the nature of this mystery we rightly or wrongly called "God".
Don’t mistake me for a modern day evangelist who travels from country to country, doubtless in his or her own plane. With global travel, a person can reach millions with his or her message. Indeed they can do it from a TV studio or from home via the Internet or by writing a book.
Maybe several thousand people in my lifetime actually heard me speak. More knew of me, but don’t forget there were no newspapers. As I’ve said, I didn’t travel from country to country. I based myself in the northern region where I had been born. I visited the capital in the south a few times, walking there with my friends. It was a kind of a pilgrimage.
On one of these journeys, I arrived with my friends in the capital for the celebration of one of our national festivals. The city was crowded. It was a week of deep emotions as we recalled the story of how centuries ago, and long before King David, our God had liberated us from a time of slavery. That’s, at least, what we believed then. I don’t believe anymore that you can detect the actions of a hidden invisible God in the way our storytellers claimed.
As usual, some people discussed their ideas about how we now could become liberated from rule by the Roman authorities. I caused a bit of trouble in the Temple. I wasn’t happy with the way it was regulated. I’d say it was that action, together with rumors that I might be a potential resistance leader and that I had a following, which led to a decision to have me removed from the scene. Well, whatever hopes I’d had of seeing the new kingdom come in my lifetime were dashed. Though, of course, as I now realize that kingdom was just a fantasy. The method they used to get rid of me wasn’t pleasant. My friends were naturally extremely upset. They were frightened that they too might be rounded up. They were bewildered and confused. Some of them were to have some strange experiences. You see after my death something unexpected happened. And it’s that which I’ve found so awkward and difficult to accept.
My friends somehow came to believe that the fourth fantasy we had all shared in had begun to be realized. They believed we were all justified in having thought of its fulfillment as imminent. Something miraculous they believed had just taken place; they became convinced that I was no longer dead. I was alive in a new and unique way they claimed. The stories written many years later say that they claimed that they had seen me with their own eyes. That’s a strange claim if you think about it. Only God could have raised me to life again. A claim to have definitely seen me would suggest that they then had proof that God exists. I’d always thought it was impossible to prove there is a God. It’s a matter of faith, not of knowledge or certainty, if one believes in God’s existence. I regret to have to tell you that their belief that they had seen me alive again was another fantasy – the fifth one. However to them it was a clear sign that the Superpower’s intervention to restore our national fortunes was now underway.
They found it all overwhelming. At times, they were happy and indeed over-excited, and, at other times, apprehensive. They identified me with that figure in heaven that I mentioned to you. Incidentally, that visionary’s story is towards the end of the book of Daniel in our Hebrew scriptures. They told people that they could expect further cosmic supernatural interventions at any time. They claimed that I would be coming back to the world to make those crucial decisions as to who would have a place in the new kingdom and who wouldn’t. It was an awesome time to be living through they felt. In the meantime, as they explained to people, I was living in heaven. I think they thought I had become some sort of heavenly being. I would have great power, they said, when I returned to them.
They were, in effect, creating a new identity for me. That’s a significant part of what I mean by this fifth fantasy. This eventually led people to think that, in some mysterious way, I was both a divine being and a human one. They also found ideas in our Scriptures which they used to put a variety of mistaken meanings onto my death which in one way or another depended on having punitive concepts of God in the first place. It was a case of gross misinterpretation. I ended up in their minds as the Savior of the world. I have to admit that I shared those inadequate outmoded ideas of God myself. I believed in a God of judgment who would reward some and punish others. If you’ve never done so, read the astonishing stories which later converts created about my birth and about what happened just before and just after I died. Don’t take them as historical reports. They’re a special kind of story expressing the beliefs they formulated about me, and about how my life, as they erroneously thought, was part of the Superpower’s plan. What reason would God have had to raise me from the dead as my friends claimed had happened, that’s assuming there is a God?
Nobody has ever been so misrepresented and so misunderstood as I have been! It all began with that old fantasy about Gods having their favored people. What nonsense! There are no special people. Now, if you know the story of what happened subsequently, you will realize that my friends and the new converts to their cause created considerable tensions. Animosities started to fester – Jew against Jew. For after all, most of our fellow Jews thought what my friends and other followers were saying about me was rubbish. It led eventually to a breakaway movement being set up, which over time developed into a separate religion. They made me the key figure in it.
Time and time again, I’ve regretted that our thinkers didn’t see that it made no sense to believe that we were a chosen and specially favored people. I’ve often wished that visionaries like Daniel hadn’t used their imaginations in the way they did. Then there would have been no fantasy about that new divinely established kingdom, no vision of that figure in heaven appearing before God with whom they identified me and no thought of the dead emerging from their burial places for judgment.
I’ve had to put up with a whole cult developing around me, as indeed to some extent my mother has had to do as well. Millions of prayers have been addressed to me. Hundreds of artists have painted their representations of me. I appear in stained glass windows with nearly as many different faces as there are windows. Sculptors have cut me in stone and in marble, and cast me in bronze. Thousands of scholars have written about me. Novelists, dramatists, and film directors have featured me. I’m so tired of being misunderstood and misrepresented. Worse than that are the tragedies that have occurred as a result of it all. I know you’ll understand what I mean by that. It’s almost impossible to find words to describe my sadness.
Look, I never did come back to meet with my friends after I died. People who believe that I did and who expect I’ll return again to the world are seriously misled. That’s all part of fantasy number five. To be honest with you they’ve been hoodwinked! How can I break it gently to people who see me as their Savior? I know it will be a massive shock for many of them. Most of them just believe what they’ve been taught. How can I help them see that fantasies one to five bear no relation to reality? As you can no doubt guess, I know a few so-called founders of other faiths who also feel pretty misunderstood.
My friend Muhammad once thought he had been divinely chosen and most of his followers still believe he was. God does not deliver his will miraculously to his human representatives. We have to find the right way to live ourselves.
It is liberating to have an understanding of the scriptures of the major world faith traditions which allows a person to say: "that is what people claimed thousands of years ago to be right or to be the will of their god, but what they believed then does not constrain how I think today ". It is part of the dignity and responsibility of being human that we have to work out our moral conclusions and theological convictions, however provisional, for ourselves.
Our plea is for education. It’s the path to liberation.