Every religion emerges from two distinct and conflicting motivations: love and power. Love (and enlightenment, from which spiritual love arises) is, in my view, the legitimate element in religion. It’s the genuinely spiritual element. In service to it, a person approaches union and communion with God/the Cosmos, and through Its influence and the revelations that this union and communion bring, love grows ever stronger and spreads to embrace ever more of creation.
But because people understand these things only dimly at best — because people want guidance from a parent figure in these matters that are so inherently confusing — because that powerful motivation combined with that poor understanding creates an opportunity for those who wish to rule — religion is also about power, and has been since the first organized religion arose at the dawn of civilization. And so the two exist side by side, intertwined like corrupted lovers, in every body of religious doctrine and teaching. In no other religion is this more dramatically displayed than it is in Christianity.
Sometimes the two motivations are commingled in the religion’s founder, as is the case in Islam for example. Muhammad began as the Prophet of God and his message was all about love. But as events unfolded, he also became a political leader, a general, a diplomat, and in effect a king, and so out of necessity had to pay attention to power as well. But that isn’t the case in Christianity, whose ostensible founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was a homeless preacher until he was condemned to death and executed. Jesus’ teachings, or at least the presentation of them in the Gospels (which are not reliable historically but at this point that matters only to historians), were all about love, and in fact highly impractical. Sell all you own and give the money to the poor? Take no thought for the future, trusting God to provide the necessities of life? Yeah, right.
Despite this, the element of power in Christian doctrine is very strong. The claim that Christianity alone possesses the truth, and that Christians will be rewarded with eternal bliss while followers of other religions or of none will spend eternity in torment, is a claim of power, not of love. It offers a reward for obedience and threatens a punishment for disobedience, and that is the essence of power. (That neither the reward nor the punishment is real matters no more than the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Rewards and punishments are effective to the extent that they are believed to be real, not to the extent they actually are.)
In fact, the essential structure of Christian doctrine and the Christian model of salvation have no support in the teachings of Jesus at all, and in some particulars are directly contradicted by those teachings. We may, therefore, speak of a conflict between Jesus and Christianity.
Let’s take a look at that structure of Christian doctrine.
The Narrative of Christian Doctrine
The essential points of Christian doctrine, greatly simplified, are as follows.
1. All human beings are condemned by God to Hell, either for Adam’s original sin, or for sins inevitably committed by the individual in life (the standard being set so high that no one can possibly meet it), or both.
2. God became human in the person of Jesus, who was God in a human body.
3. By allowing himself to be tortured and put to death, Jesus/God took the punishment on himself that he had decreed for mankind. By rising again from the grave, he proclaimed that God would no longer condemn mankind to death and Hell, but would forgive sins.
4. Each person may avail himself or herself of this benefit, this stay of execution, by devotion to the religion founded in Jesus’ name, and by sincere repentance of any sins that (inevitably) still are committed. Those who do not do this, however, are still condemned to Hell.
Other interpretations of the significance of the Crucifixion and Resurrection may be found (mostly presented by Christians who are understandably appalled by the cruelty and crudity of the traditional model of salvation), but this is the standard version, accepted as revealed truth by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and most Protestant denominations. Nuances and minor additions may be found in various churches (for example, the Roman Catholic Church insists on the importance of performing the sacraments, while Protestants usually deny the necessity of intercession by human agents and see the whole process as between the believer and god), but these four points are common to almost all versions of Christian doctrine.
The first thing to observe is that all of this flows from the motivation of power, not of love. Defenders of Christian orthodoxy say it’s about love, and to do this focus on the third point, quoting the author of the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.” (John 3:16.) But this ostensible great act of divine love and sacrifice was necessary or even possible only because of the first point: that the same God condemned everyone to perish and suffer forever in the first place. Simply put, the sacrifice of Jesus for mankind would be an act of love, if and only if the condemnation of man to death and Hell had been decreed by someone other than God. But that, according to Christian doctrine, is not so. For that reason, the entire business becomes an assertion of power: “I condemn you to suffer forever, but I’ll make you a deal. Worship me, do what I say, and I’ll let you off the hook and throw in an eternity in paradise. What do you say?” A plea-bargaining deal offered by a prosecutor to an accused criminal is not an act of love, and neither is this.
Now let’s take a look at the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and their relation to these four points of doctrine.
Jesus’ Teachings and Christian Doctrine
On the first point, the condemnation of man to Hell for sin, we find no support or even mention in any word of Jesus quoted in the Gospels. He does mention Hell a few times, or at least that’s a possible interpretation of several parable elements, and it comes out in “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” (Mark 9:47.) But this translated term can be misleading. Jesus was Jewish, and was dealing with Jewish conceptions of Hell or Gehenna, not Christian ones. Certainly there is nothing in any of the Gospels that suggests Hell as a universal fate for all mankind. It isn’t even clear that Jesus was referring to either Hell or the Kingdom of Heaven as post-mortem states; in many cases what he said about the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God implied that one entered this place or state while still alive, and so the same must be true of Hell, in the context of this quote anyway.
On the second point, the divinity of Christ, the Gospels are even more clearly in the negative. Jesus is described in several passages as being neither omniscient nor omnipotent. A good example is the time he took two tries to heal a blind man, as described in Mark 8:22-26. Another example is presented by the woman with vaginal bleeding, who healed herself by touching Jesus’ robe as he walked in a crowded street, without Jesus’ knowing who had touched him (Mark 5:24-34). What’s more, Jesus implicitly denied being God in Mark 16:18 and in Luke 18:19, when he answered the person who called him “good master” with, “Why do you call me good? There is no one good, save God alone.” Clearly, the authors of the Gospels did not believe that Jesus was God incarnate and so did not try to present him as such, however great a prophet and holy man they did present in their narratives. The Gospels were probably written some time in the late first or early second century, and so obviously the doctrine of the Incarnation arose later than that. God’s son, yes — they called him that, but that was common currency for great men in the Roman world of the time (Augustus Caesar also claimed to be the son of a god), and God’s son is not necessarily or intuitively the same as God himself.
On the third point, the Gospels contain many passages in which Jesus foretold his death and resurrection, but none in which he gave them the significance that they hold in Christian doctrine. Not once is he presented as claiming that his death was a sacrifice appeasing God’s condemnation of man to Hell. In fact, he never clearly stated why he was condemned to die, and regarding the Resurrection presented it only as proof of the impermanence of death and the power of God to triumph over death. He called for repentance repeatedly and often, but in a decidedly different context than is implied in Christian doctrine.
And as the fourth point rests logically on the first three, there is no support for that in Jesus’ teachings, either. (Also, there is no indication that he ever intended his teachings to be the basis for a new religion. He was a Jew, and however unorthodox and unconventional his teachings were in the view of the defenders of Jewish orthodoxy of the time, he presented them in a Jewish context as what he considered a true interpretation of Judaism.)
In short, there is no support for, and on some key points clear denial of, Christian doctrine in the teachings of Jesus. The two are in clear conflict.
Where Did Christian Doctrine Come From?
If Christian doctrine regarding sin, Hell, and redemption didn’t come from Jesus’ teachings, where did they come from?
Christian doctrine emerged over the centuries between the time of Jesus and that of Constantine, so that by the early fourth century the essential points were in place, and the Council of Nicaea in 325 had only to iron out a few disagreements and issue official proclamations regarding them. During the same period, a structure of Church authority also emerged in the form of “bishops” who exerted theoretical authority over Christians in particular cities, with the bishops of the really important cities of the Empire (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage, and later Constantinople) eventually being proclaimed patriarchs or archbishops. However, not all Christians recognized the bishops’ authority, and they had no way to enforce that authority as long as Christianity remained an illegal religion.
The doctrine of the Trinity, of which the concept of the divinity of Christ is a part, emerged in the second century, but was quite controversial. One may find the arguments in the writings of many of the Church fathers before 325, such as Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Origen. All of these men, however, were of the orthodox and authoritarian division within the church, and their positions reflected this; in fact, Irenaeus is most famous for his polemic against what he regarded as heretical views, especially those of the Gnostics. Thus, they represent only one view of Christianity among the many that contended during the post-Apostolic period.
Although they held no real temporal power and were particularly endangered whenever an Emperor or a local official decided to institute an anti-Christian persecution (this happened a lot less often in the pagan Roman Empire than many Christians believe, but it did happen), the “bishops” were, naturally enough, those men who were particularly motivated by power within the Christian community. Those who were not, did not seek to become bishops. The scholars whose writings they supported were, therefore, those whose views supported them and their desire for power, which rested on an authoritarian version of Christian doctrine. This version is the one that scholars today call “proto-orthodox,” and with a few tweaks is essentially the same as the “orthodox” version which emerged from the Council of Nicaea, and which I have outlined above.
During the period when Christianity was illegal, the only way the bishops had to enforce their rule was through words and influence over people’s beliefs. They could (and sometimes did) “excommunicate” heretics from the church, but this held no more temporal significance than it does today, in contrast to the dire consequences that prevailed under the Christian Roman Empire or during the Middle Ages. Once it became allied with the state, the church could impose temporal penalties for disobedience, up to and including the torture and slaughter of “heretics” in the thousands, but in the post-Apostolic period that was impossible, and so a structure of belief that imposed non-falsifiable penalties for disobedience developed. The most important elements of Christian doctrine, from the perspective of power, are the promise of Heaven for orthodoxy and obedience, and the threat of Hell for the contrary. It is from this source — the power structure of “bishops” within the church, and their desire to rule — that Christian doctrine comes — not from the teachings of Christ.
Christian doctrine is in service to power.
The teachings of Jesus are in service to love.
The two are in sharp disagreement and conflict.
Anyone who wishes to follow the latter must, therefore, reject the former.