Expressions of The Essential Jesus Christ
By David Metcalfe
August 15, 2018
Socializing the Cultural Jesus
I was recently discussing plans for the fall with a friend, and he talked about how he likes the secular culture for the drinking, parties, and critical thinking, but also likes the Christian culture for the friends, spirituality and fun social events, so he wants to go to a secular university but still attend church on Sundays; and that way he gets to experience both lifestyles.
I didn’t criticize his plans, because in his case, I actually thought that was a good idea. For a young, agnostic man trying to figure out life, why not spend time in a variety of cultures? If he becomes Christian later in life, he’ll avoid being one of those sheltered, narrow minded people who is scared and hateful towards non-Christians. If he becomes atheist later in life, he’ll have a much better understanding of what beliefs he rejects and why he rejects them. So, I thought his plan was good, but it made me think there is a different sort of problem existing somewhere in that.
Existing as a half-hearted secular person makes total sense. It’s not like you go to a party to drink and have sex and the host of the party says, “you have to live like this every day!”. You can just go to the party, live in whatever secular style you want, and then go home and not drink or have sex for the rest of the week. The secular lifestyle is very chill that way.
On the other side, I wonder how existing as a half-hearted “sort of Christian” is even an option. The host of the “Christian party” is not chill like the secular host. Jesus is really intense; he says that whoever wants to be his disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. When he asks Peter to be his disciple, Peter doesn’t say, “ok so I am busy Monday through Friday, but I think I can follow you on the weekends as long as I’m not busy with family stuff.” It says, “at once they left their nets and followed him.” Like, they were in the middle of a work day, and Peter just drops everything to follow Jesus. And if you follow Peter’s incredible (and very tumultuous) journey as a disciple, he is eventually thrown in jail and executed by crucifixion.
So, how is it possible that someone could have the option to be a casual Christian? Well, it’s because American churches make it an option. In fact, I think they encourage it. Churches are very geared towards socialization: “Come play board games! Come play ping pong! It’s volleyball night! Oh and Jesus is our savior, by the way. Here is a concert and motivational speech that mentions Jesus several times.” The fact that someone can easily be agnostic, live contrary to the Christian ethic, and never be convicted to follow Jesus in any real capacity, while attending church the whole time, seems like a problem to me.
But Americans love their cultural Jesus. You get to have “your best life now”. You get to have fun and enjoy life, and the fun keeps going after you die since you get to go to heaven. All the while, you have lots of nice friends, romantic prospects, and social activities throughout the week that you can access at any time. Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and other Christian groups all have some level of this going on.
I don’t have a problem with people living out a cultural Christianity if that is what they prefer to do. I do, however, feel intent on letting them know that, that is what they are following: cultural Christianity. I like letting people know that the real Jesus Christ is a little different than the one they hear about at their church.
And that is precisely what I want to talk about in this article: the real Jesus Christ. But getting into the advanced theology of “who Jesus is” and all the detailed doctrines that could come from his teaching is not something I care very much to do. I don’t think Jesus came so we would know a bunch of extremely rigid and specific doctrines, but rather so we could have a relationship with him. And that relationship is simply defined in one word: love. How that love is experienced and expressed requires some discussion, and that is, in addition to my personal experience, what I’d like to share with you.
WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!
My English literature professor told us to read this poem and share our thoughts with the class. It’s an iconic work by Percy Bysshe Shelley called “Ozymandias”.
“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said- ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
“Alright class, can anyone tell me what this poem means?”
A young lady raised her hand, “Ozymandias was an evil ruler so after he died everyone hated him.”
“No, actually Ozymandias was based on Ramses II, who was also known as ‘Ramses the Great’ and he is one of the most beloved Pharaohs of all time.”
“But that doesn’t make sense, because why would his statue be all destroyed in some crappy old desert?”
“There you go, that’s just it. The poem is saying that no matter how great you are or how much you accomplish, you will end up dead, and even if you make great statues of yourself, they will eventually wither away, and no one will care about or remember you.”
An uncomfortable silence fell over the room. As I walked out of the class, I couldn’t help but think about this decayed statue of Ozymandias, and the unsettling truth it revealed. After all, I was only in the English lit class as one of my pre-requisites for medical school. I didn’t care much about medicine, but I felt as though having high status, lots of money, and helping people would make my life meaningful. But I realized that in the end, I’m just going to die, and no one is going to remember or care about me. My status will be “deceased”. My money will be divided up between my kids. The lives I saved will all succumb to their inevitable death along with me. My gravestone will be one of a thousand in the lot, and within a few generations it will have no visitors.
Holy shit that’s depressing.
Alexander the Great had a similar sentiment towards worldly success. He once despaired that,
“A tomb now suffices for whom the whole world was not sufficient.”
The great philosopher David Hume, on reflecting on the reality that humans have no intrinsic value or purpose, said,
“The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, the quintessential atheist philosopher of the late 19th century, said that,
“Regarding life, the wisest men of all ages have judged alike: it is worthless.”
“In the consciousness of the truth he has perceived, man now sees everywhere only the awfulness or the absurdity of existence and loathing seizes him.”
Friedrich Nietzsche quotes are not typically displayed on cat posters in offices…
So, we live this meaningless existence…what do we do about it?
Many people come to this realization and decide that they should just live it up during their time on earth. I have three problems with this:
The first is that there is a very low chance that you’re going to have a really good life, because life is hard no matter what. The hardest things in life cannot be fixed by money, alcohol or having people like you. You will have loved ones who pass away. You will get sicknesses, break-ups, sadness, unfulfilled dreams, etc., so simply living a surface “fun life” isn’t an option that reality provides.
But let’s say you do get your “perfect” life, or something very close to it. In my opinion, living a really good life in the knowledge that it is not meaningful is like eating your last meal on death row. It’s an objectively good meal, sure, but every bite is leading you closer to your death, and that knowledge makes it hard to swallow.
And finally, what if your “perfect” life can only come at the cost of the lives of others? Like, what if, in order for you to be happy, you need to have servants do your every wish? If you are rich and powerful, you can find people to exploit to accomplish that for you. Although we don’t often do this on a large scale in our modern society, this occurs in large and small ways all the time. Billionaires use child labor to make more profits to fulfill their “perfect” life of being wealthy. Men purchase sex slaves to fulfill their “perfect” life of sexual fulfillment. The list goes on, and it’s not a good list.
Can Jesus Solve My Existential Crisis?
What I just described, of course, is the classic “existential crisis”. It’s the fear that life is meaningless and absurd. What I love about Nietzsche is that he is very honest about the atheistic worldview. If only material things exist, and all material things have no intrinsic purpose and eventually cease to exist, then life really is meaningless and absurd, and nothing we do matters in any larger sense. This is called “nihilism” and it is the acceptance of this existential crisis as an unsolvable reality that makes us need to distract ourselves through detachment and pleasure. Nietzsche liked Buddhism, because it teaches that we should not care about reality, but rather take our minds away from it.
The Bible is no stranger to existential crises. King David has them several times in the Psalms, Paul has several in the Epistles, and Ecclesiastes is literally one big existential crisis, bordering on nihilism. In chapter 8:14 and 15 it says,
“There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun that to eat and drink and be glad.”
It goes on to say, “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.”
Socrates came along a little while later, and supported this idea of our lack of ability to really know anything, saying,
“I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.”
Even the Bible and the great Greek philosophers cannot solve this crisis!
But the Bible has some parts that toss out a possible solution…
If our problem is that existence is worthless, random, purposeless, and leads to death, then the solution must be one that gives humans worth, gives order to the universe, has purpose, and saves us from death. The proposed solution is Jesus Christ, and it works like this:
An all-powerful being outside of space and time (what we call God) purposely chose to create a universe so that He could have a relationship with thoughtful beings (humans). It would not be a loving relationship if it was forced, so He gave humans the ability to choose (agency). This ability to choose allowed us to do good actions, but also allowed us to do bad actions. These bad actions are what create the disorder in the universe, and thus the “existential crisis” ensues.
Because of this disorder, humans do not have a perfect relationship with God, and the existential crisis is a result of the divergence from the greater purpose of our existence. Because if you were created to be in a relationship with God, and you don’t have that, you are not going to feel a genuine sense of purpose. And the question then becomes, if we have strayed from our intended purpose, how do we get back to it?
And that is where Jesus Christ comes in. He serves as the mediator between God and man. Since man’s bad actions (sin) is what separates us from our intended purpose, we need to be rid of it, and become aligned with our true purpose. Jesus Christ died on the cross as an expression of this return to our original purpose to be with God again.
This offers intrinsic worth to humans through two main concepts:
- God created humans in his own image, so we have an intrinsic connection to infinite value
- God paid the highest price possible for the betterment of humans (his Son), which affirms that humans must be valuable in order to justify such a transaction
This offers order through the concept of God creating everything in the universe just as He wants it, which also explains why we find the universe so ordered (if everything is random, as Nietzsche thinks, why are there so many mathematical and scientific laws that reflect order?).
This offers purpose through the idea that God created us to be with Him, and it is in living our lives in accordance with that, that we can fulfill that purpose. This explains our innate desire to be moral and connect with something greater than ourselves.
This offers freedom from death through the atonement of Jesus Christ, that upon accepting, one can live in heaven forever. This explains our innate desire to live beyond death.
Whether this explanation is true is an entirely different matter, but you do have to admit, it is incredible how well Christianity seems to match up solutions to the problems humans have been facing for centuries. And, in fact, it’s the only worldview that even attempts to solve these problems. Buddhism ignores them, Islam and Hinduism fail to affirm the intrinsic worth of humans, and Judaism has a broken relationship with no way to return to God.
If Christianity isn’t true, it is still absolutely some of the best philosophy I have ever seen. It provides a fantastic solution to the existential crisis, and provides a fantastic ethic, as we will now be discussing.
The Ethical Teachings of Jesus Christ
The reason that Christians who get drunk, have sex outside of marriage, spend excessive amounts of money on themselves, put on a show to make others think they are good people, etc. are not really following Jesus is because Jesus is totally against these types of practices. He is all about self-denial in hopes of something greater.
You may ask, why would Jesus tell us to deny ourselves? How is it more moral to not do the stuff that you want to do? Well, the problem is that, many times, humans do things that they want to do, but shouldn’t do. This occurs with every horrible act. People want to rape someone, or want to murder someone, or want to steal something, etc. and the only way for them to be moral in those cases is to deny themselves. But why deny themselves? Why not just rape, murder and steal whenever?
It is because they are trading away a lower sense of good for a higher sense of good. Atheists can still act moral because they trade away these lower senses of good for the higher good of the social ethic. Christians are supposed to trade away these lower senses of good for an even higher sense of good: the divine ethic. And beyond a mere exterior ethic, it is actually the development of virtue in one’s self, and this creates the moral aspect of a relationship with Jesus Christ. As I said previously, the relationship is all about love, and Jesus said that “whoever loves me will follow my commands” (John 14:15).
The conceptual ethic, in its largest sense, is best summed up by “The Great Commandment” which is to love God and love others. But how do we actually go about doing that? The entire ethic of Christianity is laid out in just a few passages, in what is known as Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” recorded in Matthew 5-7. I will just mention a few highlights:
5:14- we are supposed to be the “light of the world”, meaning we go out into the world to make it better in whatever ways we can.
5:21- do not have hatred toward anyone, but instead act with kindness and civility.
5:27- do not only avoid committing adultery, but also we should not even look upon a woman with lust. This is developing a greater sense of internal morality instead of merely outward actions, which the Jewish law focused on.
5:31- do not divorce unless you absolutely have to, because it is better to stay married.
5:38- Jesus teaches pacifism by explaining that if someone hits you, you should turn the other cheek (try telling that to the war/gun crazy Bible belters).
5:44- Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
The beginning of 6 instructs us not to be showy in our giving or praying, but instead be humble and sincere.
6:19- do not store up treasures on earth, but rather in heaven. He goes on to say that you “cannot serve both God and money.”
6:25- do not worry about selfish, earthly things like our clothes and food, because those things are easy to get, but rather that we should focus on Godly things.
7:1- do not judge others.
7:12- do unto others as you would have them do unto you (the golden rule).
7:16- You will know a false prophet by the fruit that comes from them.
7:21- Jesus says that only those who do his will can go to heaven.
He wraps it up by saying that all who follow these words will be like a man who builds his house on the rock, and is stable even when harsh storms come, meaning that you will be able to endure temptation and struggles through living out these teachings.
If I were to sum up the entire ethic of Christianity in one sentence, I would say: deny that which is bad, and embrace that which is good.
This has been one of the chief aims of theology since Jesus’ time, and there is a great deal of agreement on its most basic level. That which is bad is summed up in the “Cardinal Sins”: pride, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, wrath, and envy. That which is good is summed up in the “Cardinal Virtues”: prudence, courage, temperance, justice, faith, hope, and love.
Clearly, if people followed the teachings of Jesus, the world would be a much better place. Nietzsche himself, the ultimate atheist, even said that Christ is “the noblest human being” in his book Human, All Too Human. Mahatma Gandhi said that “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins have often said that Jesus was a good person, and Christians should act more like him. I have actually never found anyone with a valid criticism of Jesus’ ethic in all of my time studying philosophy.
So, it’s obvious that following the teachings of Jesus is a good thing to do, but how does this help the bigger issue of our existential crisis?
One of the big problems we are facing is that nothing we do matters. After all, if “Ramses the Great” can rule the world and end up a broken statue in the desert, there’s not much hope for any of our actions to matter very much. But what divine morality does is connects our actions with an infinitely important being. Since this being is the very thing that gives life meaning, any actions that relate to it have meaning. This makes morally wrong actions more than simply an alternative way to act, or socially unconventional, but intrinsically bad. This makes morally right actions more than just being a nice person or being socially acceptable, but intrinsically good. Whether we eat “Cheerios” or “Froot Loops” for breakfast is not connected to divine morality, and thus is solely a temporal consequence that will be forgotten and have very little value. Whether we steal food from the hungry or give food to the hungry is connected to divine morality, and thus the consequence is incredibly valuable. Our actions have meaning whether we act good or not, but in order to experience the positive aspect of this meaning, we need to do what we can to live our lives in accordance with that which is good.
Who Is Really Following Jesus?
The amount of different expressions of Jesus Christ in theological and practical matters is overwhelming. Some people have said there are as many as 40,000 different denominations! Some denominations baptize babies, others wait until they are older. Some denominations pray to the saints, others to Jesus, and others to God the Father. Some denominations have electric guitars and fancy sanctuaries, others have only acapella and wooden benches.
A very brief history of denominations goes something like this: after Jesus died, people went around preaching his message and started churches in various cities. The churches kind of sucked, so Paul wrote a bunch of letters to them to teach them what it means to be a Christian. These were later canonized into the New Testament of the Bible. About 300 years later, there were disagreements on doctrine, so a group of Christians got together and established the Catholic Church, based on their best interpretation of Jesus’ life and teaching, which is largely summed up in the Nicene Creed. This was the dominant form of Christianity for the entire middle ages. There were schisms here and there, but the biggest one came with Martin Luther in 1517. He disagreed with Catholic teachings and began the Protestant church. He kept the Nicene Creed but rejected many other things.
The Protestant church had no leader and very few set doctrines, so thousands of different Protestant churches appeared all over the world. The Protestants, although divided, became almost as numerous as the Catholics by the 18th century. In the early 19th century, upon being confused at which church was correct, a man named Joseph Smith claimed to be a prophet whom God had given additional scripture, known as the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. This would go on to become the Mormon church. In the late 19th century, a man named Charles Taze Russell disagreed with many of the common Christian ideas and began his own church that emphasized the imminent coming of Jesus’ kingdom on the earth, and a variety of new scriptural translations. This would go on to become the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And here we are, in 2018, wondering what the heck we are supposed to believe.
The “Baskin Robbins” ice cream store became very popular since their humble beginnings in 1945, thanks in part to their emphasis on variety, encapsulated in their slogan “31 flavors”, with the idea that a customer could have a different one for every day of the month. In fact, when you go to the store, you can sample as many flavors as you want until you find one you like.
Imagine if there was someone who went in and tried the vanilla flavor. They loved it, and decided that they would only get vanilla for the rest of their life. But they didn’t stop there. They would go around telling everyone that they also have to get vanilla, because it’s the best one. They went a step farther, and said that eating any flavor other than vanilla would kill you.
It seems absurd to do that, but many modern Christians are like this. They insist that their “flavor” of Christianity is the only real one, and everyone else, with slightly different theological interpretations, is totally wrong, and even going to hell. They never bother to sample any of the other flavors, and refuse to even entertain the idea of another flavor being acceptable. I believe that Jesus Christ is the ice cream, and theology is the flavor.
No matter what kind of ice cream you get at “Baskin Robbins”, it’s still pretty good. Some will taste better to you than others, and there might be the odd time that there is a bug or hair in one of the ice cream bins. In those cases, it might be valid to warn someone not to eat it, but most of the time, you can have your own favorite flavor, try others from time to time, and appreciate that others may enjoy a little different flavor than you.
As I have visited different types of Christianity, I have come to appreciate the gospel in its different forms. Any church will have people who have found joy and peace in a loving relationship with Jesus Christ, and whether they think he is literally the same being as God, or existed prior to the universe, does not determine whether they experience his grace in their lives. Whether they get baptized at 1 or 100, pray through Mary or directly to Jesus, get married in a church or in a temple, etc. has little to no bearing in the potential that Jesus Christ has to work in their lives.
Jesus At Work
There was a young man in his third year of university who was greatly struggling with the knowledge that nothing matters and no one really cares about him in a larger sense. He had read arguments for and against the existence of God from a philosophical and scientific perspective, and could not come up with a confident conclusion either way. He read Stephen Hawking’s book, “The Grand Design”, which suggested that the universe is the result of totally random, unguided events, and would ultimately be destroyed upon its continued expansion. It was very convincing, but it was hardly a satisfying answer.
He was asked, on a whim, to attend a conference in Vancouver, where members of an evangelical Christian group called “RZIM” would be speaking on complex philosophical topics. He decided to go, and was excited to hear and crush the arguments of the naïve Christians who foolishly thought they could prove their religion to be true. The first few speeches were interesting and thought provoking, but not very convincing. Half way through the conference was a talk by Tim Barnett on “Science and God” in which he argued in favor of God’s existence from a scientific perspective. The arguments, drawn from top philosophers and scientists, were incredible, and actually were far superior, at least in a philosophical sense, to the ones expressed by Stephen Hawking. The young man was so moved by the speech, he fought back tears. The possibility of life having meaning, humans having worth, and a loving God who created everything with purpose meant that his existential crisis might yet be answered.
This young man, of course, was me. I am forever indebted to the evangelicals for their incredible apologetics. Through RZIM, I was connected to the work of Mike Licona, who convinced me that the historical evidence favors the idea that Jesus Christ actually did rise from the dead. I was connected to the work of Abdu Murray, who convinced me that morality exists apart from mere social constructs, and can only be defined and justified by the existence of a perfect God. I have since given many talks at colleges, churches, high schools, and conferences on topics relating to philosophy, science, and God, and I have really enjoyed the opportunity to help others find meaning and purpose in their lives through believing in God and the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Something that greatly troubled me was the evangelical’s idea that those who don’t accept Jesus in this life go to hell to be tortured for eternity. This gave rise to a whole new existential crisis. The “good news” of the gospel sounded like horrible news! I would much rather we all die than to have majority of the world’s population suffer. I started to get a lot more critical of Christianity.
While in Ontario, I heard about a group of people who believe in God, Jesus Christ, and morality, but who believe that everyone has a chance to accept the gospel, and simply go to a lesser heaven if they don’t. These people were called Mormons. When I asked various Christian groups for a ride to church, the Mormons were the only ones who offered, so I went to their church. The missionaries and church members were passionate about their relationship with Jesus, and loved sharing it with me. I became friends with them, and eventually gained a testimony of the Book of Mormon and the temple. Upon returning to Alberta, the Mormon church gave me the opportunity to share my faith with people who did not know Jesus on a regular basis. I love teaching people about God, Jesus Christ, and why they are valuable.
I’ve never connected more with a theologian than St. Thomas Aquinas. When I read his work, it feels like it is just a smarter, more complete version of the things I am already thinking. The Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of healthcare and education in the world. The concepts of virtue are incredible, and force even the most experienced Christian to view Jesus in a new, more significant way.
I have a lot of criticisms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but dammit, even they have powerful testimonies of the joy and peace of Jesus in their lives. Former drug addicts, criminals, and alcoholics have given it up in exchange for a relationship with Jesus because of the kindness of Jehovah’s Witness missionaries who shared the gospel with them, and welcomed them into a church community.
Nietzsche and Hume are right to think that life is meaningless and humans worthless, on the condition that a loving God does not exist. But that condition is hardly solved, and in my own study and experience, I have found the concept of God to have more than enough reason and evidence to substantiate it as a viable belief. It is through the knowledge of a God who loves us and sent His Son to die for us that we can understand and experience the manifestation of this meaning and worth in our own lives.
But Jesus didn’t just show up and die right away. He lived a perfect life, and the gospels in the New Testament offer us an account of it. Jesus has been held up as an amazing philosopher and the ultimate example of ethics, even by those who do not believe in him in a spiritual sense. It is through following his teachings, and aspiring to be like him, that we can fulfill our purpose, and have actions that carry real meaning.
When someone finds a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ, it is an amazing thing that deserves to be celebrated. The fact that Christians would accuse, belittle, and insult people with different theology is an absurd and awful display of arrogant ignorance. I think many Christians could benefit from sampling, and learning to appreciate, other “flavors”.
As I visit various Christian churches and talk with the people there, I can’t say I have ever had a passion for rigid or specific theology about the end times or the proper way to pray. What I have truly connected with is a savior who loves me and cares for me. A savior who solves my existential crisis, and models how to live a meaningful and blessed life. I encourage the Mormon church to care less about Joseph Smith, an imperfect man with imperfect scripture, and focus more on Jesus. I encourage the evangelicals to care less about political agendas and overly detailed, inconsequential theology, and focus more on Jesus. I encourage the Catholic church to care less about their ritualistic culture and tradition, and focus more on Jesus.
I love the Mormon church, but the Mormon church is not perfect. I love the evangelical church, but the evangelical church is not perfect. I love the Catholic church, but the Catholic church is not perfect.
I love Jesus Christ, and he is perfect.