Here Beginneth a Classic Modernist Misreading of the Gospels
…compared with actual passages from the primary source documents from which we derive everything we actually know of what the eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus actually report he said and did.
It is important to note from the start that the claims I will be arguing against in this series are a reaction to a far more gravely evil distortion of the gospel–namely, the MAGA antichrist Jesus who exists to affirm white supremacists in their Christian nationalism, to affirm greedheads in their selfishness, and to affirm violence fetishists in their violence and oppression.
Some may ask why I am writing this series when MAGA Jesus is so much greater a threat. My reply: Have you even read my blog? I’ve been warning about the MAGA antichrist cult since forever. This little series is a departure from that clanging gong, because I think it important to not err on the right hand or the left.
Chesterton remarks that the revolutionary typically has a pretty clear idea of what is wrong. If you want to know what is the matter with capitalism, ask a Marxist. If you want to know what is wrong with royalism, ask a French or Russian Revolutionary. If you want to know what’s wrong with the British Navy, ask the crew of the Bounty. The trouble tends to come, not with the critique, but with the proposed solutions, where the revolutionary seems blind to his own imbalances. He proclaims “all men are created equal” as he stand on the neck of his slave and exterminates natives. He proclaims the triumph of the proletariat will starving millions of them to make his Five Year Plan or Cultural Revolution work. He throws Bligh in a lifeboat but his island paradise dissolves into fratricide.
This is the dynamic I want to avoid as this well-meaning, but deeply erroneous reaction to MAGA Jesus tries to assert a Latest Real Jesus who comes, not from the gospel texts, but from the imagination of a pious liberal. He does well to object to the MAGA antichrist Jesus. But he errs by replacing him, not with the Jesus of the gospels, but with the Jesus of his imagination. He begins:
10 things about Christianity that Jesus would not be happy about if he returned:
1. That his vision for a transformed society, which he called the “kingdom of God”, got twisted into an afterlife fantasy about heaven.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” (Jn 11:21–27).
“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (Jn 14:1–3).
The Kingdom of God and Heaven are not opposites. Jesus taught us to pray God’s will be done “on earth as it is in Heaven.” He does indeed call for a transformed society made of transformed people and demand very hard things of his disciples, such as “love your enemies” and “take up your cross and follow me” and forgiveness of every sin committed against us (for starters). He demands a people who put first the least of these and who serve God, not money or power. But it is absurd to say that Jesus did not preach about an afterlife and teach his disciples to hope for it. It suffuses his preaching and forms the backdrop to his entire view of the universe. Nor is it an afterlife of mere spirits flitting about in the void. He preaches, as NT Wright points out, not “life after death” but “life after life after death”: the resurrection of the body. He tells his disciples on three different occasions that he will experience it. He argues with the Sadducees from Tanakh to prove it.
The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies, having no children, his brother must marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, to which of the seven will she be wife? For they all had her.”
But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. (Mt 22:23–33).
It is as dumb to cancel heavenly hope in favor of earthly obedience as it is to cancel earthly obedience in favor of heavenly hope. The real fantasy is that Jesus thought Heaven a fantasy. He taught it as the proper reward of those disciples who obeyed him “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Mark, though, the nature of the reward. It is not a gold star, extrinsic to relationship with and obedience to God, but intrinsic to it. Just as we are punished by, not for, our sins and hell is simply sin in fruition, so Heaven is simply relationship with God in fruition. It is the reward of discipleship as marriage, not money, is the reward of Lover. It begins here and now with the transformative life of the Spirit making us more and more obedient to his will. It reaches consummation in the Beatific Vision:
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (Jn 17:2–3).