Have Christians misunderstood God?

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A strange question you may think, but Jesus’s god seems to be rather at odds with the concepts of God forged by the church. The key to this conundrum is in the book of Matthew.

As a young fundamentalist evangelical Christian I always understood the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapter five, to be a set of lessons on how to behave as a Christian. As I matured physically, emotionally and spiritually, I came to understand that there is another meaning in Matthew five that I, and most of the church it seems, completely missed. At the end of his sermon Jesus says, “Therefore be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” It dawned on me that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t only about how we should behave as Christians, but about the nature of the perfection of God. It describes the perfection of the father and the point Jesus is making is that God’s children are expected to behave as God does.

If Matthew five is to be taken literally, as all good Bible believing Christians should take it, then the bits of the Bible to do with judgement and casting unbelievers into hell cannot be taken literally. Such teaching about a violent and vengeful God directly contradicts Matthew five. In the Sermon on the Mount we find that it is in the nature of God not to “resist an evil person” (verse 39). This is also the import of verse 24 “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”. The non-violence of God is clearly understood by the instructions to go a second mile when unjustly commanded to travel one. And when sued for one’s cloak, God doesn’t hire expensive lawyers to get himself out of the mess, but gives his tunic as well! When smacked in the face, God doesn’t rain down fire and brimstone on the unbeliever, but turns the other cheek. If God wasn’t like that, what right would he have to demand such behaviour from us?

That the innocent suffer and that evil people often prosper is a great mystery to those who believe in a loving god who intervenes in human affairs. Whenever there’s a great injustice a cry goes up: why does he not help the innocent and punish evil people? But answer comes there none and we are left to rationalise that the mind of God is unfathomable so we have to accept in faith that such matters may not be resolved until the Judgement Day. Yet what Matthew five is saying, again and again, is that it is the fundamental nature of God to be non-violent. Not to use force to achieve his ends, which, incidentally is also the implication of the word translated ‘meek’ in verse 5. The word implies one who has the power to overcome by violence but does not use it. We have free will because God does not enforce ‘His’ will, not because God gives us free will, like an app or a plug-in. That’s not the implication of the Old Testament God I know, or the understanding of the Church, but it is emphatically the implication of Jesus’s teaching in Matthew five and the inference of his death on the cross.

Ever since the Roman church threw its lot in with the State in the fourth century, Christianity has been unable to follow the teaching of Jesus in Matthew chapter five. You can’t support a violent regime without turning a blind eye on violence. This happens today and we have the sad spectacle of priests blessing the machinery of war. The church has had to rely on the Old Testament, rather than the New, for its understanding of the nature of God and this may have been inherited from Paul and was the reason that his epistles found their way into the canon of Christian scripture.

Paul, a former Pharisee, was steeped in Old Testament theology. If it was not he who proposed that the reason for Jesus’s death was as a sacrifice for sin, then he was almost certainly its foremost protagonist. It’s a neat piece of theology. After the crucifixion the disciples were someone dazed and, more importantly, leaderless. They probably did what we all do when we can’t understand how God can be so mean, we rationalise things. Thus, they rationalised that if the death of Jesus was an atonement, then it could be understood as fulfilling ancient metaphors of the sacrificial lamb. Paul and others took numerous Old Testament texts out of context and made them into a pretext for this new theological position. Without the modern textual tools for analysis, it all seemed to make sense. It explained the death of Jesus and brought unity to the young movement when it almost certainly otherwise would have fallen apart through contention between factions. Jesus was then elevated, from son of man, to son of God, to the only begotten of the father, to God himself, a member of the Trinity. This was par for the course in those days. It had happened to several Roman Caesars, usually by self promotion, but sometimes by adulation. It had been a regular feature in Greek mythology, as was virgin birth. One of the big problems of the early followers of Jesus was that he had died before he could fulfil their expectation of freeing them from the bondage of Rome. It’s clear from what Jesus said, as opposed to what was added later when the Gospels were written down, that he never thought of himself in that role. Paul’s master-stroke was to weave Old Testament apocalyptic teaching into the context of the death of Jesus and so the understanding of an immanent second coming arose. That Jesus didn’t come, must have been a great disappointment to Paul and his followers and the church has been regularly rationalising and revising their understanding of this teaching for the last 2000 years.

It is much more feasible that Jesus went unresistingly to the cross because he was fulfilling his teaching in Matthew chapter five. The metaphor of a lamb led to slaughter is appropriate, but not as a sacrificial lamb. Would a God totally committed to non-violence demand that? In any case, didn’t the prophet say that God did not want sacrifices of animals, but the sacrifice of a pure heart?

The concept of a totally non-violent deity has major implications for the way we think about whatever it is we think we’re referring to when we use the word God. John says that ‘God is love’. Paul’s insight into the nature of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is sublime. This passage encapsulates beautifully the non-violence that lies at the heart of love. If ‘God’ is totally non-violent love, what about creation? It couldn’t possibly have resulted by the imposition of ‘His’ will in a seven day orgy of creativity. That would have demanded enormous and violent force. According to the nature of the God of Jesus it would more likely have arisen over a very long period of time, not as a result of the imposition of will, but out of a gentle enabling. Such an enabling, I suggest, arose from a longing in the ‘heart’ of ‘Enabling Love’ that all things should become the best they can be. When I look at the way the earth and all that’s in it has evolved, over millions of years, it seems totally consistent with the idea that the intelligence behind evolution has been non-violent from the beginning. We can clearly observe that creatures have become ‘the best they could be’. That hasn’t always been a very successful strategy and more creatures have become extinct than exist today. But perfection isn’t achievable in the short term without force and so the longing continues; evolution goes on. In us, the longing has (arguably) enabled the best yet. Certainly the human being is the most efficient survivor so far, and the most conscious. And perhaps in Jesus, the “Enabling Love” found its best expression of his, her or its self.

As the limitations of the paradigms of the past are overcome and our consciousness expands, we can begin to understand things in a fuller, more realistic way. For me, God as an Enabler, rather than a Creator answers many of my questions about the evolution of the universe. Understanding that the central principle at the heart of ‘The Enabler’ is non-violence, helps me come to terms with all the suffering and injustice of the world – most of which is inflicted as a result of ill conceived motives arising in the human mind.

But what about all that scripture? Does that mean its corrupt and useless? Of course not, provided you don’t read it literally. To do so, says Joseph Campbell, is like seeing ‘steak’ on the menu and eating the menu. When you understand the meaning of a word, where is the meaning? It certainly isn’t in the word itself, that’s merely a symbol and if you don’t understand a word it’s said to be meaningless. But the meaninglessness is not in the word, it’s in you and so, therefore is meaning. Therefore when I read scriptures it’s not so that the meaning of the scriptures can come into me, but so that the scriptures can draw the meaning in me into consciousness. I can read the Bible and find wonderful insights. I can also find that in the writers are total misunderstandings. That doesn’t matter. I know their hearts were in the right place and as for its scientific accuracy, it was written between the Bronze Age and Iron Age, dammit! They didn’t know what anything really was. Scarcely anyone understood that the world was round and no one knew the sun didn’t go around it. But that didn’t stop them from experiencing whatever we refer to as God, any more than I was prevented from having profound spiritual experiences while taking the Bible literally. As much understanding as was possible had been enabled in them and in me. Now much more understanding has been enabled in all of us and to deny that is to deny God.

The longer we have a relationship the deeper our understanding and appreciation of the other person should become. But some people are locked into their paradigms. Their security depends on a view of the other that is, frankly, infantile. So it is with whatever within us it is we refer to as ‘God’. It takes courage to let our doctrinal paradigms go and allow ourselves to be taken ever more deeply into a relationship with the love which enables all things.


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4 Responses to Have Christians misunderstood God?

  1. dalppl says:

    I really enjoyed your exploration of the dynamics of a truly loving God. I also found the idea of evolution as a way that God can work (which you look at elsewhere as stochastic) useful.
    I agree with your last sentence, especially re doctrinal paradigms. I’ve been fortunate in having been exposed to a version of Christianity which puts great emphasis on the deepest part of God’s nature being love (and also talks about a non-literal approach to Scripture) but, even so, allowing myself to be carried fully into the relationship you describe is still a challenge…

  2. BrianH says:

    Thank you, David. You are indeed, most fortunate to have had such a positive experience. The challenge of the deeper relationship is usually that we have so much to let go. In your case, this may be simpler, though perhaps not easier. It seems to me to be a ‘sinking into’ rather than ‘climbing up’ – if you see what I mean. You may be interested in the extract from Sweet and Bitter Waters which you can find in the Library. Best wishes. Brian.

  3. dalppl says:

    Thanks for the response, Brian. It’s taken me a while to get back to this. I re-read your piece above before the response you’d sent (there’s a lot to ponder in it). I was thinking about an interpretation of the Jacob’s Ladder story of a “climbing up” approach to religion (angels ascending – Genesis 28.12) and how different this is from the “angels descending” aspect – lo and behold that was then in your response!
    What you’ve described of your spiritual journey does seem to encapsulate something of this type of difference. Is that also one way of considering the difference between the refrain used in the “Sermon on the Mount” of “you have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”?
    “Perfection” seems to me to be impossible in the “climbing up” model – it’s only through a “letting go”, as you point out, that it becomes possible.
    It’s interesting seeing something of what has helped you get to this point, to say nothing of what this gives you…
    Thanks for the inspiration.

    • BrianH says:

      Interesting comment David. Thank you. I’d not made a connection with Jacob’s ladder but I like the idea of either a climbing up or a descending approach, though I’m not sure it would be wise to retro-
      fit it to the original metaphor. As I see it, religion tends to ask us to aspire to better and better (or more, more) whereas the spiritual approach (from the Tao Te Ching especially) is about less, less. I find it more helpful to thinking about surrender – a yielding back into what has always existed – than a scramble up the ladder to something new. (There, you see, I’m making the metaphor fit already).