The famous novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, once said:
“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
In the mid-90s, I published a book titled The Zen Teachings of Jesus. In the book, I remarked that there are usually wide discrepancies between Jesus’s teachings and church teachings. My earlier book was about the many elements of Jesus’s teachings which are either ignored or not emphasized in popular Christianity— elements such as joy, humor, playfulness, presence, and ordinariness. Particularly joy and playfulness. After the publication of my book, I did more research. This time, I focus more on Jesus’s social teachings. I am sorely aware of how many evangelical Christian churches have hijacked Jesus and turned a set of allegedly Christian doctrines into a religion of hate. It is high time that we expose the reality of many evangelical Christian beliefs and reveal that the emperor has no clothes.
Just as Kurt Vonnegut has hinted, Jesus’s teachings have been twisted to serve some political end. Sometimes, this is done through the selective reading of the Bible. Other times, it is through the following of Christian doctrines that have no basis in the Bible. There is therefore imperative that we scrutinize and study Jesus’s words so that we can separate the wheat from the chaff. In what follows, I will summarize some of the major discrepancies between what the Church has been teaching and what Jesus actually taught (as recorded in the Bible):
The first major discrepancy has to do with Jesus’s divine status. Many Christians believe that Jesus is God. Jesus simply never said that. You can’t find it in the Bible either. Jesus was a practicing Jew. For Jesus to claim that he is God would indeed be blasphemy. In Luke 22, we see that Jesus was questioned by the council of elders after he was arrested. The Jewish authorities asked him, “Are you then the Son of God?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am.” Clearly, the statement of “You say that I am” is not the same as “I am.” In her book, A History of God, religious scholar, Karen Armstrong, made this observation:
After (Jesus’s) death, his followers decided that Jesus had been divine. This did not happen immediately; … the doctrine that Jesus had been God in human form was not finalized until the fourth century. The development of Christian belief in the Incarnation was a gradual, complex process. Jesus himself certainly never claimed to be God. (p. 81, A History of God)
The second crucial discrepancy has to do with the requirement for salvation. Many evangelical Christians claim that a person will be saved only by accepting Jesus Christ as his “personal savior.” Again, this is not biblical. What did Jesus actually say about entering God’s kingdom? The truth is that Jesus required neither church membership nor baptism. He certainly never said anything about the importance of accepting him as a “personal savior.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”(Matthew 18: 3) In fact, Jesus made it clear that salvation is a matter of doing God’s work and not a matter of self-identification. For he cautioned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”(Matthew 7: 21). So, redemption has to do with works, not beliefs, not words, not lip service.
The third discrepancy between church teachings and Jesus’s teachings has to do with the notion of Original Sin. This is the Christian doctrine that humans inherit a tainted nature and a proclivity to sin through the fact of birth, due to Adam and Eve disobeying God and eating the fruits from the Tree of Knowledge. This idea of Original Sin can perhaps be traced back to Apostle Paul. But it did not come from Jesus’s teachings. Paul said that “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people because all sinned.”(Romans 5: 12) But many Bible scholars have openly disputed the notion that Adam and Eve’s first act of disobedience is a sin that merits perpetual punishment. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, for example, said that the garden of Eden scene is a setup. The notion that God deliberately set up a trap for Adam and Eve would contradict the theologians’ notion that God is all-good and all-knowing. Rabbi Kushner said that the biblical story of the Fall is actually a part of God’s plan. He drew this conclusion:
I suspect … out of desperation, that God resorted to a “setup” that has come to be known as the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Eating the first fruit was not a sin but a necessary, prearranged passage towards human maturity. We have read it all wrong: God was not angry; God rejoiced at our disobedience and then wept with joy that we could feel our estrangement and want to return home. (p. 932, God was in this place & I, I did not know)
The fourth discrepancy has to do with human sexuality. There is a commonly held belief that sexual desire is sinful. Again, this is not biblical. The notion that lust is sinful is developed by the early church fathers, primarily St. Augustine. Augustine coined the term “concupiscence.” Note that Augustine was converted to Christianity from Manichaeism, a Persian religion. His understanding of lust as sinful is probably shaped by his earlier experience with Manichaeism. For over two millennia, Christians have been struggling with the reality of lust. But who created lust in the first place? It would be difficult for theologians to argue that the omnibenevolent God would deliberately create lust, giving humans an irresistible temptation to contend with. It would also be difficult to argue that we don’t need lust in order to procreate. The truth is that Jesus himself never condemned sexual desire. What Jesus condemned were adulterous thoughts. But the church fathers’ demonization of human sexuality has haunted Christians for at least 2000 years. Humans are sexual beings. The desire for sex is a basic human need. To be anti-sex and anti-pleasure is essentially to be anti-human.
The fifth discrepancy has to do with Trinitarianism — the notion that God is in three persons. In her book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong pointed out that for at least three centuries, Christians had no settled view on the relationship between Jesus and God the Father. Armstrong brought up the Arian controversy, which is the view that the Son was neither coeternal nor uncreated, since he received life and being from the Father. In fact, it was the Arian controversy that prompted Emperor Constantine to summon a synod to Nicaea to settle the dispute.
As you can see, many of the fundamental Christian doctrines turn out to be later-day additions that cannot be traced back to Jesus. The evangelical Christians often call themselves “biblical Christians.” Yet, the evidence is that they have not been careful readers of scripture. In the last four decades, evangelical Christians have appointed themselves to be the speakers of “biblical values.” They position themselves as being anti-gay, anti-transgender, anti-abortion, and anti-premarital sex warriors. Given their strong political position and their strong will to make our country into “one nation under God,” we should challenge their biblical literacy. Has Jesus been anti-gay? Has he been anti-abortion? Has he been anti-sex? As educated people who are critical thinkers, we should always ask for evidence.