By Rick Herrick, Ph.D.Published On: November 22, 2023Comments Off on Sadly, The Bible is the Problem
This is a difficult essay for me to write. Fifty-five years ago an introduction to the New Testament class in college changed my life. I became fascinated intellectually with the Bible. It’s a fascination which led me to give up a professorship in political science. Sadly, I have recently come to a somewhat different conclusion regarding the Bible. I now see it as a major problem for the Christian religion, a stumbling block for most people when it comes to knowing God in a deep experiential sense.
This essay is written in response to a recent essay by Brandan Robertson in Progressing Spirit entitled “Reclaiming the Bible,” and I’m a little nervous about what follows because Brandan is far better trained on these matters than I am. In part, he is right. The Bible does contain the voices of oppressed and marginalized people. The problem is that you have to dig deep to hear those voices which have been largely drowned out by the message of the early church.
Carl Krieg, over the last several months, has written essays for this website documenting how the early church hijacked the message of Jesus to conform to their own interests. A brief summary of some of the major themes in the New Testament will demonstrate how the early church distorted the message of Jesus and the consequences that followed from their redefining what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.
The message of Jesus in the New Testament is clear and without ambiguity. Jesus was sent to proclaim the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom. (Luke 4: 43-44) That was his primary mission on earth. This kingdom would result from God’s activity, a Messiah was never mentioned. The kingdom would exist on earth where Jesus would drink wine with his disciples, (Luke 22: 18) and each disciple would rule one of the tribes of Israel. (Luke 22: 28-32) As a result, the kingdom would be located in the land of Israel. (Matthew 10: 5-8)
As the Lord’s Prayer tells us, (Matthew 6: 9-10) God would rule on earth as he did in heaven. The politics of power would be replaced by the politics of love. The parables provide many helpful details on how this would work. It would be a kingdom that was inclusive with a deep commitment to economic and social justice as well as the practice of nonviolence. Jews would earn a place in the kingdom by obeying God’s Law. Jesus delivered this message as a prophet and a human being.
The first change in the message came from Paul who began his missionary work about seven years after the crucifixion. On the road to Damascus (see Acts 9: 1-7) Paul had a transforming revelatory experience. The voice of Jesus came to him, a real mystery for the man who had been persecuting Jesus’ followers, and encased him in deep love. In that vision encounter, Jesus appointed Paul to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. (Acts 9: 15-16)
Paul came to believe he had been saved as a person, united with a God of love he had never known before, and this great gift was something he could not have done on his own. Instead, he was saved by God’s grace, an undeserved gift. As a Jew he learned from the experience that the Law had no power to do this, and thus he no longer believed obedience to the Law was relevant to reconciling one with God.
The religion of Jesus in which you performed good works to bring in God’s kingdom was replaced with faith in the person of Jesus to do for you what he had done for Paul. An important change in focus resulted. The God centered religion of Jesus was replaced with a religion where Christ became the center. The importance of ethical living was downgraded. What was important was belief in Jesus as the Christ.
Another important theme for Paul was the cross. Christ died for our sins. Jesus in his death bore the sins for all of humanity. By his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus enabled humans to become reconciled to God. (1 Corinthians 15: 3) The death of the man crucified because he challenged the Jewish Temple elite was given universal significance.
Finally, for Paul, salvation was for individuals in heaven. On the Damascus road, Paul saw Jesus in heaven and concluded Jesus was the first fruits of a general resurrection. This general resurrection was seen as imminent. Jesus would soon return, meet the faithful in the clouds, and take them to heaven. (1 Thessalonians 4: 16-18) Salvation no longer belonged to a nation, but was rather for individuals who believed in Jesus as the Christ.
The Synoptic gospels gave Jesus a promotion. Matthew and Luke followed Mark’s lead, and the resurrected Jesus became the Son of Man. Who is this Son of Man? This figure was first described in Daniel 7: 13 as a transcendent, pre-existent, heavenly being. He was further developed in 1 Enoch 45-71 and 4 Ezra 13: 1-53. The pre-existent part means that he was with God from the beginning of time. However, while seen as a divine being, the Son of Man was not understood as God’s equal, as the Son of God in traditional trinitarian Christian belief. Rather the Son of Man was God’s divine agent who will come from the clouds of heaven at the end of times to judge the world and bring the righteous to heaven.
There are many titles that appear in the gospels describing the identity of Jesus—Son of God, Son of David, Lord, prophet, rabbi, teacher, Son of Man. The Son of Man title is by far the most frequently used. It appears 81 times in the four gospels. In all but two cases, (Mark 8: 38 and Luke 12: 8) Jesus speaks as the Son of Man in the first person. It is the only title Jesus claims for himself.
The church in the first century saw the resurrected Jesus as the Son of Man. While Son of Man statements are often on the lips of Jesus, most New Testament scholars are convinced these statements represent the voice of the church and are not the authentic voice of the historical Jesus. The reason for this assertion is that the voice of the prophet of God’s kingdom is so different from the voice of the Son of Man. The two voices could not come from the same person. Jesus talks about the coming of God’s kingdom. The Son of Man talks about the Second Coming when Jesus will return to earth from heaven. Salvation for Jesus is on earth for the nation of Israel. Salvation for the Son of Man is for individuals in heaven. The message of Jesus is delivered by a human being from the tiny village of Nazareth. The message of the Son of Man is delivered by a divine being who resides in heaven. The human Jesus has now become a divine being.
The gospel of John lays the ground work for Jesus becoming God’s equal as part of the trinity. A major focus of the gospel is revelation as it relates to the identity of Jesus. The Prologue to the gospel introduces John’s incarnational theology. “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Jesus is the preexistent Son of God, the divine logos, the Word. He was with God from the beginning of time.
The key statement in the Prologue comes in 1: 17. “The Word was made flesh. He lived among us.” Jesus comes from heaven and will return there after his mission on earth is completed. John says here and throughout his gospel that Jesus and God are one. The purpose of revelation in John is to create belief. The results from the miracle stories are to be broadcast for all to hear. This is the gospel about belief in Jesus as the Christ. Such belief leads to salvation. (John 14: 1-4)
The voice of the church in the New Testament that posits Jesus as the bringer of salvation in heaven is so loud that it drowns out the marginal voices of disenfranchised people. This voice of salvation in heaven is the one the vast majority of Christians hear and organize their lives around. Who can blame them? Eternal life in heaven is a deal most Christians can’t pass up. All that is required is correct belief.
The first problem with this approach to religion is the Jesus the savior belief is an invention of the first century church. It has no ties to the Jesus of history. For 2,000 years the vast majority of Christians have based their faith on a belief that has no historical validity, a topic unfortunately for a later date.
An even bigger problem is a religion of belief is an ideology with no connection to the heart. Salvation in heaven is about me, me, me. It feeds the ego rather than helping to transform it in a way that is more open to the needs of others. Jesus is worshipped as a God, but not followed. His ethical teachings are not what’s important. The point of religion is to believe in Jesus as your personal savior.
This ethical lapse shows. For 2,000 years the Christian church has been more of the problem rather than the solution to the world’s problems. Why do most Russian Orthodox Christians support the war in Ukraine? Why does the Southern Baptist Convention prohibit women from becoming pastors? Why are evangelical Christians so hateful in their approach to the LGBTQ community? Why is gun violence in America out of control?
Let’s go back briefly to history. Why does the Christian church have a 2,000 year history of antisemitism? Explain the Hutu/Tutsi genocide in the early 1960s—the tale of two Christian groups bent on slaughtering each other. Then there is the church’s support for slavery in the South and apartheid in South Africa. I could go on for pages listing these lapses, but I think the point is made. I also think the answer to the questions posed above is clear. These lapses resulted because the vast majority of Christians practice a religion of ideological belief with no interest in transforming themselves so that they could become more open to meeting the needs of others.
In conclusion, there is no question that the voices of marginalized people are found in the Bible if you look carefully. The New Testament also presents a picture of a beautiful man who talked about a God of love and forgiveness and who urged his followers to create communities that practiced nonviolence, inclusion, and the pursuit of social and economic justice. But the big picture in the New Testament is all about correct belief which has created a religion that is more often part of the problem rather than the solution to creating a society that is peaceful and just.