Jesus is perhaps the most influential philosopher who ever lived. His words are familiar even to non-Christians. Scholars tell us about his times and about the values of his contemporaries. Sometimes, researchers conclude that he didn't ever say some of the words attributed to him. Others have suggested that he never lived.
Whether or not the Gospels cited Jesus correctly, the Jesus of the Bible is the only Jesus that matters. His thoughts are internally consistent; they reflect a single philosophy. Oddly, there is one thing that scholars and academics have never done: they have never evaluated this philosophy. In other words, Western thinkers, for two millennia, have never taken Jesus seriously. They may have worshipped him, rejected him, or dispassionately studied his life and times. Yet they have never confronted his philosophy as philosophy. There has never been a critical reading of what he said. Surely Jesus is important enough to merit such an evaluation. I propose to do so now.
A central element in Christian thinking, based on the words of Jesus, is the doctrine of justification through faith. For Catholics, salvation can be achieved through faith and works; for Protestants, through faith alone. There is no Christian doctrine of salvation exclusively through works. Jesus spoke of faith in unambiguous terms:
Eternal life is the reward for faith. But what about those who have no faith? If we read carefully, we see that there is no hope for them:
Faith, by definition, is different from knowledge. If we have knowledge, we do not need faith. Faith involves believing what we do not know and perhaps cannot know. It cannot be proved to a person who has experienced neither heaven nor hell that these places exist, nor can it be conclusively demonstrated to one still alive that a particular route is the only path to salvation. Jesus's miracles could show those who witnessed them that he multiplied loaves and fishes; the miracles could not prove that he could grant life everlasting, although they could create faith. George Bernard Shaw, in fact, defined a miracle as an event that creates faith. This definition shows that Shaw considered faith something of a miracle in its own right.
What happens to those who have no faith? Let us consider what Jesus said about a certain rich man:
An ugly story. It tells us about the horror of eternal damnation. If the average contemporary reader does not experience this horror, it is no doubt because we do not really believe in hell. In other words, we have no faith. The rich man seems to be punished for selfishness and not for lack of faith, but if we look at the words of the story, we see that it is indeed lack of faith that led him to his fate: he is punished for not heeding Moses and the prophets, for lack of obedience to something he could not know about directly.
His brothers too will be asked to have faith; they will not be given the chance to talk to someone who has been to hell and can tell them what it is like. The argument offered by Abraham that they would not be persuaded by an eye-witness account is unconvincing. If people had a chance to question someone who had been there, or if they could see it themselves, they would not need faith; they would make a totally rational and informed decision. The rich man says by his plea to save his brothers that his life would have been different had he simply had more direct knowledge. His wish to help them is entirely disinterested. Neither Abraham, a character within the account, nor Jesus, the narrator, recognizes this evidence of goodness. There is no forgiveness and no mercy for those in hell.
Good works are described by Jesus not as worthy in their own right but as deeds done to Jesus himself:
It is beautiful to say that by serving others we serve God, but in a certain sense this minimizes the service. God needs us less than our fellow creatures do. Moreover, a deed done for its own sake is truly a good act; one done to gain reward or avoid punishment is merely a transaction. Faith in the reality of damnation may persuade us to be good because it pays to be, but somehow that is not really being good.
What about the poor goats? Like the rich man, they did not know what they were in for. They lacked the greatness of soul to want to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. They also lacked the faith that would have taught them they had better shape up or else. Only faith could have shown this to them. The knowledge that would have made goodness an act of enlightened self-interest was not available to them, as it is not available to anyone. They are still burning in hell. Then how can we say that "God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved"? The goats and the rich man were not given a a fair chance.
The goats and the rich man - however disproportionate their punishment - were objectively lacking in mercy. There is a rough justice to their fates. Many of the parables, however, are stories where the point seems to be that there is no justice:
Is this parable meant to teach anything? Is it simply recognition of the fact that life is unfair? But it is not about life; it begins with the words, "For the kingdom of heaven is like. . . ." Whatever its meaning, it reminds us of a different instance of injustice:
The answer of a male chauvinist, who takes it for granted that women serve him. Martha too would have preferred to sit at Jesus" feet. Yet the openness of Jesus with women has been cited as an example of his respect for women's rights in a pariarchal age. So has his disapproval of divorce, which at the time and place he lived was a unilateral act by the man. But if we look at Jesus' words, his condemnation of divorce seems to have nothing to do with women's rights:
There is no hint or tone suggesting a concern for women's position in this passage. What we see instead is the view that marrying a divorced woman (there is no mention of a divorced man) is adultery. The gravity of this sin in shown in the verses that immediately precede this citation:
Wow! It is better to be blind than to look at a woman with lust. And what if a woman looks at a man with lust? The possibility is not mentioned. It is reasonable to conclude, however, that these passages are not concerned with anything so mundane as women's rights. They are a rejection of sexual desire - not adultery, just simple looking with lust, something that everybody does every day.
The assertion that thinking, or at least lusting, is as bad as doing leads us back to the question of faith. Desire can be controlled, but short of plucking out one's eye, it cannot be eliminated. It is simply there, like faith or lack of faith. And like lack of faith, it is a reason to burn in hell. This makes no sense. Why should honest doubt, or honest desire for that matter, be a punishable offense? It only makes sense if the purpose of life is to have faith. We are told this directly. Salvation comes through faith in Jesus:
The New Testament offers a consistent view throughout. The purpose of life is to achieve salvation, which is done partly (for Catholics) or entirely (for Protestants) by accepting Jesus' sacrifice through our faith in him. Obligations to the living and the dead do not count unless, as in the cases of the rich man and the goats, these duties are redefined as obligations to Jesus:
It was Jesus' insistence that service to him was more important than concern about sentiment and society that enraged Judas and led him to betray Jesus:
The account by Matthew does not make any connection between Jesus' words and Judas' motivation for his act of betrayal. Money is not the issue, because Judas agrees to deliver Jesus before he knows what the reward will be. John, who does make the connection, maintains that Judas simply wanted to steal the money destined for the poor:
Matthew, who does not question the reasons for the disciples' indignation, does not mention Judas. As long as Judas is not referred to directly, the indignation seems logical. John cannot allow Judas to appear more concerned for the poor than Jesus is, so he must invent another motive for Judas' objection. When we read the Matthew and John accounts together, we see that the disciple who was offended by Jesus' words was Judas, who then went out to betray Jesus before he knew what his monetary reward would be.
Jesus knew that the reason for his sojourn on earth was to be crucified so that he himself could bear the punishment for the sins of humanity:
It follows that his submission to suffering on the cross was a voluntary act - indeed a necessary one. Jesus unambiguously contradicts Pilate's claim to have the power of life and death over Jesus:
This is hard to understand. "He that delivered me unto thee" is no doubt Judas, who was also given his power to do so from above. Why is this a reason for Judas' sin to be greater than Pilate's? We have already been told that Judas was selected to be a disciple precisely because he was needed to perform the duty of the betrayal that would lead to Jesus' suffering and the consequent redemption of the world:
The cross is a symbol revered by Christians because Jesus' agony was the means to salvation - the central miracle of Christianity. Then why should not Judas be equally honored? Had there been no betrayal, there would have been no road to salvation.
Despite the internal coherence of the New Testament, many questions remain unanswered. If God wished to save humanity from the horrible consequences of sin, why did this have to be done through suffering? Apparently the punishment has to go someplace. God cannot simply forgive the sin; a scapegoat is needed. Jesus' sacrifice then is a noble and beautiful act; God himself is the scapegoat. But why must there be punishment? For negative reinforcement? Then the rules and penalties should be made well known. For justice? Then the idea of a scapegoat is abhorrent.
Forgiveness needs no excuse and no explanation. Diversion of the punishment to Jesus is not the same as forgiveness, since by its nature it negates the ideas of both mercy and justice. Besides, God cannot be punished. If Jesus is entirely man, he is nevertheless entirely God. Jesus the man can suffer, but since he is simultaneously divine, his suffering, however real, cannot hurt him. Jesus the man can die and be resurrected, but God is eternal, so his death is inconsequential and his resurrection entirely natural.
For those Christians who have faith in the justice and mercy of God, these questions do not exist. Yet even during the Age of Faith there were those who did not believe. Not only were they damned if we accept Jesus' teaching; their ideas could lead others to damnation. The beliefs of the faithful had to be protected. Those who sentenced freethinkers and heretics to burn at the stake were not necessarily cruel people; they were simply following the logic of the doctrine of justification through faith.
Nowadays, Christian clergy and Christian laity, with few exceptions, believe in freedom of religion. Without directly confronting the issue, they have abandoned the doctrine of justification through faith.