I just now – fifteen minutes ago – came to realize with the most crystal clarity I have ever had why I am not a Christian. Of course, as most of you know, I have not called myself a Christian publicly for a very long time, twenty years or so I suppose. But a number of people tell me that they think at heart I’m a Christian, and I sometimes think of myself as a Christian agnostic/atheist. Their thinking, and mine, has been that if I do my best to follow the teachings of Jesus, in some respect I’m a Christian, even if I don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was raised from the dead, or that… or even that God exists. In fact, I don’t believe all these things. But can’t I be a Christian in a different sense, one who follows Jesus’ teachings?
Fifteen minutes ago I realized with startling clarity why I don’t think so.
Why I Am Not a Christian
This afternoon in my undergraduate course on the New Testament I was lecturing on the mission and message of Jesus. We have spent the semester so far (we’re about halfway through) talking about the Jewish and Greco-Roman background of the New Testament and then, mainly about the Gospels. I’ve given lectures on each of the four canonical Gospels – two on John – and students have written short papers on them and had discussions on them, including two papers/discussions on other, non-canonical Gospels (the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas).
Now that we have seen how the Gospels have portrayed Jesus (each of them in a different way) we have moved to the historical question: what can we say about what the historical man himself, Jesus of Nazareth, actually said, preached, and stood for? We will also have sessions on what we think we can say about what Jesus really did and what events actually led up to his death.
Jesus, a Jewish Apocalypticist
In today’s lecture, I wanted to introduce, explain, and argue for the view that has been dominant among critical scholars studying Jesus for the past century, that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalypticist. I warned the students that this is not a view they will have encountered in church or in Sunday school. But there are solid reasons for thinking it is right. I tried to explain at some length what those reasons were.
But first I gave an extended account of what Jewish apocalypticists believed. The entire cosmos was divided into forces of good and evil, and everything and everyone sided with one or the other. This cosmic dualism worked itself out in a historical dualism, between the current age of this world, controlled by forces of evil, and the coming age, controlled by the forces of good. This age would not advance to be a better world, on the contrary, apocalypticists thought this world was going to get worse and worse, until literally, in the end, all hell breaks out.
Godly Intervention & Judgment
But then God would intervene in an act of cosmic judgment in which he destroyed the forces of evil and set up a good kingdom here on earth, an actual physical kingdom ruled by his representative. This cataclysmic judgment would affect all people. Those who had sided with evil (and prospered as a result) would be destroyed, and those who had sided with God (and been persecuted and harmed as a result) would be rewarded.
Moreover, this future judgment applied not only to the living but also to the dead. At the end of this age, God would raise everyone from the dead to face either eternal reward or eternal punishment. And so, no one should think they could side with the forces of evil, prosper, as a result, become rich, powerful, and influential, and then die and get away with it. No one could get away with it. God would raise everyone from the dead for judgment, and there was not a sweet thing anyone could do to stop him.
And when would this happen? When would the judgment come? When would this new rule, the Kingdom of God, begin? “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste before you see the kingdom of God come in power.” The words of Jesus (Mark 9:1). Jesus was not talking about a kingdom you would enter when you died and went to heaven: he was referring to a kingdom here on earth, to be ruled by God. Or as he says later, when asked when the end of the age would come, “Truly I tell you, This generation will not pass away before all these things take place.”