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The Wrong Jesus

by Tim O'Hearn

It is already election campaign season in American presidential politics. And already we have heard people worshiping at the feet of Political Jesus. This is a Jesus whose whole aim in life, at least according to the politicians, is to agree with one political party or another. This Jesus is good for raising campaign funds, and for building up or tearing down opponents. Never mind that half the sayings attributed to Political Jesus are things he didn’t say; after all, that is true of those who worship at his feet, as well. Never mind that the real Jesus would cringe at a lot of what is done in his name. Political Jesus is always good for a photo op. Work the soup kitchen line for the photographers (and vote to withdraw funding from “faith-based” shelters). Speak in support of biblical marriage (and go home to your mistress or sugar-daddy). Political Jesus is there when you need him, and conveniently disappears when the election is over.

We may not like the sound of Political Jesus, but there are a number of other Jesuses that we may like better. And some of them are not much more like God’s Son than Political Jesus.

Philosopher Jesus is a good man. More than that, he taught people some very good things about how to live with others. “Do unto others as you would have them doThe words of Jesus are important; his death and resurrection are more important. unto you.” (Matt 7:12 paraphrased) “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) And so many more sayings. This is the idea that Jesus was a great teacher, but nothing more. He may or may not have been the Son of God. He was probably just another man. Of course, one wonders how he can be such a great teacher when he also said he was the Son of God. If he lied about that, how can you trust his other words.

The other problem with Philosopher Jesus is that one can take him or leave him. If he is to be judged merely by what he said, then he is no different than Kung-fu-tzu (Confucius) or Friederich Nietzsche. The Muslims could be right, then, in saying he was just another prophet of God. But that goes against everything that the scriptures say about Jesus’ mission on earth. “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” (Jn 3:17) Jesus himself taught what his real purpose was. “And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mk 8:31) His words are important; but his death and resurrection are more important.

Hippie Jesus is all about love and independence. Back in the 1960s sandals were sometimes known as “Jesus boots.” When people objected to the hairstyles of the day, the response was often, “Well, Jesus had long hair.” The message was love, peace, and a form of religious universalism (not to mention “sex, drugs, and rock and roll). Actually, the message of love and peace is a good one. The problem comes with the conclusion some drew from that message. That conclusion was often phrased, “If God is a loving God, how could he condemn anybody to an eternity in hell?” This was not a new doctrine, because a form of it has long existed in the doctrine of purgatory. The result of following this Jesus was predictably that sin is unimportant. If eternity is eternal, and if God will eventually forgive everyone of all their sins, then it doesn’t matter how much you sin since you will still spend most of eternity with God.

On the other side of the coin you have those that believe to save everyone would not be love at all. How can a God establish boundaries and then tell those who try to stay within them that their effort was meaningless? Those who ask this question (like those who believe in purgatory) tend toward a salvation by one’s own merit or works. The proper question is probably closer to, “If God sent his Son as the only possible sacrifice for sin, how can his love forgive those who intentionally flaunt that sacrifice?” The author of the book to the Hebrews gives this answer:

Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? (Heb 10:29)

Entertainment Jesus is very popular today. One air conditioning specialist commented that the design for one church was the first time he had to worry about venting for indoor pyrotechnics. While most churches don’t go that far, many worship at the altar of Entertainment Jesus. Worship has everything about what the worshiper will get out of it, and nothing, or almost nothing, to do with others or with God. This is the Jesus of flash and dash. Go in, watch a concert, hear a short sermon, and head home. Even if that is an exaggeration, many churches pride themselves on their “worship teams,” light shows, and how many jokes the preacher can get into a sermon. Even among the churches of Christ, who have prided themselves on congregational singing, some churches have gone over into the band or worship team mode. (Those that still object to instrumental music in the assembly have gone to semi-professional choruses or quartets.) Even in those churches where a quartet on stage is intended to help the congregants sing, fewer people are actually participating; many simply listen to the praise team. Some churches used to pride themselves that their young people went into school bands or choruses already knowing how to read music. Now they are lucky if their kids even sing.

Fortunately, many young people now realize that worship is not about being entertained. “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is.” (Heb 10:24-25) Paul did not command Christians to listen to the band; we are the band. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col 3:16)

Banker Jesus is gaining in popularity. This is the Jesus that promises that his followers will get rich, or at least live well. This Jesus is more concerned with the physical things of this life than with the spiritual life. The emphasis in Matthew 6:33 is less on “seek ye first the kingdom of God,” and more on “and all these things will be added unto you.” They ignore that “these things” are the treasures in heaven, and make them the wealth of this earth. The danger with worshiping Banker Jesus is that bad times will come. “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” (2 Tim 3:12) Banker Jesus will foreclose on you quickly. He must have done so to Paul. He must not have been around for those Christians who suffered in the arenas and on the streets of Rome. Their souls prospered (3 Jn 2), even when they suffered physical and financial setbacks, and death.

Philanthropy Jesus is a close cousin of Banker Jesus. He says that the greatest good is for a Christian to try to cure the social ills of this world—poverty, homelessness, abuse. That is a good goal, but Philanthropy Jesus doesn’t worry about the eternal fate of those he saves. Feed them, shelter them, but only teach the gospel if you happen to think about it.

Nobody argues that the social gospel is not important. We are commanded to help others in need. Throughout the Bible, this is one of the enduring themes. Several of the prophets even claimed the failure to assist the helpless was one of the major factors in the fall of the kingdom of Israel. The tendency today, however, is to make Philanthropy Jesus the central figure of Christianity. If following God is about personal salvation, it seems that this salvation comes through Good Deeds and not through the blood of Jesus.

The Great Santini Jesus is all about rules. He runs his household according to a strict code, and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt along the way. Like the father in the Pat Conroy novel (the Robert Duval character in the movie), this Jesus is a type that many people find distasteful. But like the son in that story, his children want to earn his approval, although it seems that approval is always just beyond their reach. Although it sounds like this Jesus would not be very popular, he has a lot of followers. Even more people think he exists, and so do not want to become Christians.

This is the Jesus that requires strict adherence to all the rules. As soon as you sin, you have to pray for forgiveness, just in case you die before the next time the church doors open. At the next altar call or confessional you have to have the congregation or the priest grant you absolution. It is all about earning your way into God’s acceptance. But that is not God’s Jesus.

[God] hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began. (2 Tim 1:9)

American Idol Jesus may be the most insidious of all the wrong Jesuses. This is not a Jesus for the aspiring singer. This is the Jesus that Americans put onBanker Jesus promises that his followers will be rich, or at least live well. a pedestal and worship, thinking that worship is all he wants. American Idol Jesus just wants attendance numbers. It doesn’t matter what you do the rest of the week, as long as you are present on Sunday morning. It would be preferable that you not sleep through the sermon, but if you do it is OK. His followers used to be called “Sunday Christians.” As long as he is up on that pedestal, there is no personal interaction. As long as I attend at least one assembly a week, I have done my duty.

There is something good in all of these Jesuses; but each is incomplete. To worship any one or more than one is like the six blind men of Indian legend who were asked to describe an elephant. Based on where they were around the animal, each described it differently, and got into an argument because none could agree. John Godfrey Saxe, in his poem based on the legend, concludes, “each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!” The Son of God is concerned with meeting the needs of the poor and downtrodden. He is to be worshipped, but by all rather than a select few. He did teach much of value, and especially about peace and love. But he also taught about eternal punishment and eternal life, heaven and hell. What the blind men miss, though, is that Jesus died so that sinners could be forgiven. All the rest is response to that truth.