Post 1 – The Jesus/Christianity Contradiction
By: Wendell Krossa
Christian teachers make a hugely consequential mistake when they try to resolve the conflict between Jesus’ teaching on non-retaliation (unconditional love) and the larger Biblical context that promotes divine retaliation. Their argument is that Jesus clearly taught that we are not to retaliate and so retaliation should be left to God. God will repay or take vengeance. A more blunt way of stating this would be to say that we are held to the humane standard of unconditional treatment of all people but God is not.
This Christian explanation makes a stunning theological mistake because it does not include the final point of Jesus’ teaching on non-retaliation in Matt. 5:38-48 and that is his concluding statement that God does not retaliate. When Jesus said this, he fundamentally redefined the theological basis of authentic human behavior.
(Note: People have always tried to replicate their views of deity in their own lives and societies. As James Robinson says, the doctrine of God has long been the basis of ethical conduct).
At the conclusion of his teaching on non-retaliation Jesus made the most fundamental change to human understanding of deity that has ever been made (similar changes had previously been attempted by the Old Testament prophets- see note at end). He stated that we should not retaliate but, rather, express unconditional love toward everyone- friend and enemy- because God does not retaliate but shows unconditional love to everyone alike. Jesus extended his historically unique explanation on non-retaliation, or unconditional response and relating, to also define God in the same radical new manner, as non-retaliating or unconditional love. This is the single most important insight in all his teaching. Paul, and Christianity in general, missed this insight entirely.
Jesus (Matthew 5, along with Luke 6 and other places) presented the most thorough treatment of non-retaliation up till that time in history. He explicitly rejected retaliation as an appropriate human response and argued for non-retaliation or unconditional love as the highest human ideal. He stated that there should be no eye for eye response, we should turn the other cheek, and if someone sues us then we should give him more than what he sued for, we should go the extra mile, give to whoever asks and do not turn away (unconditional generosity), don’t just love our neighbor and hate our enemy (i.e. don’t engage eye for eye response, typical of pagans or pagan-like response) but instead love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us, forgive offenders seventy times seven (unlimited or unconditional forgiveness), and so on.
When Jesus rejected retaliatory responses for these new unconditional responses, he rejected past understanding of what was appropriate human action and he rejected previous understanding of justice as retaliation or payback. Whatever we feel about these “hard sayings”, Jesus made the point clearly that authentic human response or authentic love was non-retaliatory or unconditional.
But even more important in this material (and this gets us to the heart of the Christian error) Jesus also rejected the long-held belief that God promoted retaliation or punishment. He presented a radical new theology or new view of God, entirely different from all past understanding of deity. Note carefully what he actually said at the end of his series of statements on non-retaliation: If you do not retaliate, if you reject eye for eye justice, and instead love your enemy and treat everyone the same, both neighbor and enemy, and offer unlimited or unconditional forgiveness, well… and here it is… you will be just like the Father in heaven who gives the good things of life to all alike, both good and bad. This is exactly what God is like- non-retaliating, not meting out eye for eye justice (reward the good, punish the bad) but treating everyone with unconditional love, unlimited forgiveness, and inclusive generosity.
This is the stunning summary point in his teaching on non-retaliation or unconditional treatment of all people. He took his new insight on unconditional response and stated that this was exactly how God treated everyone. We should not retaliate but treat every person with unconditional love because God does exactly this. This point on God as non-retaliating is a vital part of the complete structure of his argument in this section on non-retaliation. You cannot ignore or dismiss the final conclusion to his argument because it presents the most radical challenge to theological perception ever made by any person.
So when Jesus applies non-retaliation to God, that is the summation point of this brief message of his, the high point, if you will, of his teaching on unconditional response and relating. Be non-retaliatory, he states, because this is exactly how God responds to everyone. By treating all people in a non-retaliating manner you will be just like God. We properly call this unconditional love. It is the correct way to understand God, said Jesus. All previous understanding of deity that was oriented to retaliatory justice and punishment (eye for eye) was wrong. How much more clearly could he have stated this? He offered a radical new view of God as authentic unconditional love.
But when Christians try to explain this unique new teaching of Jesus on unconditional love, they inexplicably truncate his full statement on this topic, as presented in Matt.5. They then try to balance his teaching on unconditional with the broader biblical teaching on retaliation and the requirement to meet atonement or payback conditions. They revert to the inhumane view of God as retaliatory and punishing just as Paul had done long before. And they then end up trying to hold two absolutely contradicting things in tension and to do so they must ignore the all important conclusion of Jesus that God is unconditional love. This gets to the very heart of what has become known as the great Jesus/Christianity contradiction, or the Jesus/Paul contradiction.
Despite insistent Christian claims that there are no significant difference between Paul and Jesus, the actual difference is fundamental and monumental. It involves profoundly opposing views of God- non-retaliating versus retaliating. The result is two entirely different gospels.
What appears to be happening in this contradiction is as follows: Christians cannot deny the clear teaching of Jesus on non-retaliation or unconditional response, such as at the beginning of his statements in Matt.5:38-48. And it is commendable that many do admit this element of unconditional as an authentically human insight- what some call “the diamonds in the dunghill”. But most Christian explanation then short-circuits Jesus’ complete line of reasoning by ignoring the final point in his teaching on non-retaliation or the unconditional treatment of people. As noted above, his final point in this non-retaliation section is about theology or God, and it is a radical new theology. This new unconditional insight- not engaging payback retaliation (eye for eye)- this, says Jesus, is how God actually treats all people.
But Christian explanation ignores this striking conclusion that God is also unconditional in his treatment of all people and, instead, skips over to Paul who offers an entirely contrary view of God. Paul retreated from Jesus’ teaching and back to the primitive view of God as retaliator-in-chief. He made this original mistake and it became central to Christian theology. Subsequent generations of Christians have continued to build their views of God on his error while ignoring the clear teaching of Jesus on God as non-retaliating. See Romans and other places, such as the letter to the Thessalonians, where Paul clearly states that God will retaliate (“I will repay”) and mete out punishment or payback vengeance (eye for eye). Paul’s God will not treat people unconditionally but instead demands that a great blood sacrifice be made first before he will forgive anyone. This is a theology of supreme condition, according to Payback Paul. It is a return to the same old retaliatory justice that dominated human thinking all through past history. It denies entirely the new insight of Jesus.
But you simply cannot affirm theological or divine non-retaliation in Jesus and then jump over to Paul to claim that God will retaliate. No. If you do that then you have outright denied the key statement in Jesus’ gospel where he said very clearly that God is not like that at all. God does not engage eye for eye or retaliation justice. God does not repay or execute vengeance. Paul got God all wrong, just as he got Jesus all wrong. He denied what Jesus clearly taught and thereby rejected the gospel of Jesus and created his own payback gospel (i.e. a great blood sacrifice had to be offered to pay for sin and appease an angry retaliating God). Paul thus created a major contradiction between his gospel and the gospel of Jesus and in doing that he created the fundamental error of the Christian religion.
Now who are you going to believe? Jesus or Paul?
So in trying to maintain two very different teachings in tension (non-retaliation and retaliation), Christians create a contradiction that not only distorts but completely cancels out any correct understanding of non-retaliation as taught by Jesus. The payback of Paul’s theology then undermined the fresh advance that was made by Jesus when he introduced his new core message of a non-retaliating God.
In the Christian endeavor to hold these two contradicting things in tension I understand the fact that many people, and especially good, moral and religious people, cannot let go of the impulse to make some sort of payment as it satisfies a personal felt need to make some form of atonement for sin (the felt need that retaliatory justice must be properly satisfied). After all, you cannot just forgive and forget without proper satisfaction of justice, Christians argue. But offering forgiveness without first demanding that offenders make proper amends is exactly what Jesus advocated so clearly in repeated sayings and parables (e.g. the prodigal son, give without expecting return, forgiving seventy times seven, love your enemies, etc.). Just forgiving and forgetting, without expecting payment or that conditions be met first, is exactly what Jesus taught.
But a religiously-trained mind that is strongly oriented to retaliatory justice has a hard time grasping the liberating and humanizing wonder of this unconditional message of Jesus. Such a mind will fall back on such things as the belief that holiness in God must take precedence over love (see my essay From Retaliation to Unconditional Love for more detail on religious claim that holiness- separation, cleanliness, exclusion, offended purity- must be honored before love).
Further, there is the Christian belief that the entire Bible is the “word of God” and so all of its varied teachings must be respected and included somehow. And payback punishment is clearly advocated everywhere in Paul’s theology and elsewhere. Christians therefore feel obligated to come up with explanations that hold these two radically different things, profoundly contradicting things, in tension. And, after all, people claim that Paul does appear to provide a sense of complete satisfaction in regard to personal guilt over sinfulness and how to resolve that problem. But his retaliation theology is no real resolution. It does not ultimately alleviate deeply embedded human feelings of guilt and fear over looming punishment. Only unconditional love in divinity can do that properly and Jesus got this critical point right.
Here are several quotes that are typical of the Christian endeavor to explain Jesus’ message on non-retaliation or unconditional love, while still maintaining Paul’s theology of divine retaliation or conditional payback. The outcome of this Christian endeavor is one of history’s grandest contradictions. First, the authors of the Bible.org site say, “Let me be clear that God wants us to take actions of personal revenge out of our hands. We can turn them over to the governmental authorities if appropriate, and even if that doesn’t work, we need to turn them over to God Himself. As Paul states in Romans: Repay no one evil for evil… Beloved do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (Romans 12:17, 19). https://bible.org/seriespage/jesus-and-law-retaliation-lex-talionis-matthew-538-42
Another example of this contradictory tension is found at http://www.biblicaltheology.com/rom/rom_12_13.html where the authors state, “because love without hypocrisy loves as God loves: unconditionally…by so doing we leave the judgment and vengeance entirely up to the Lord”.
In these examples there is first the acknowledgement that there should be no retaliation, no repayment for wrong. We should practice unconditional treatment of people exactly as Jesus taught because that is authentic love. But then, on the other hand, there must also be some form of ultimate repayment for wrong, some conditional retaliation, according to Paul’s entirely contrary theology.
James Robinson has also noted this Jesus/Christianity contradiction in his book The Gospel of Jesus. He points out from his study of the Sayings Gospel Q that what is called the Sermon on the Mount in places such as Matthew is really an enlarged version of a similar Sermon from the Q gospel. The Sermon is basically a collection of sayings that make up the core message of Jesus. Robinson says regarding the content of the Sermon, “(This) Sermon… is an early collection of Jesus’ sayings into what was no doubt considered to be the core of his message” (p.20).
But more importantly (from his other book “Jesus: according to the earliest witness”), Robinson affirms the significance of Jesus’ striking breakthrough insight that God was not involved with retaliation or payback punishment of anyone. According to Robinson, the particular statement that God does not engage retaliatory justice is Jesus’ greatest contribution to the history of human ideas. This means that the cluster of statements in Matt.5:38-48 on unconditional love is the core theme of Jesus’ overall message. It is the very heart of Jesus’ teaching that is contained in the larger Sermon. So his statements on non-retaliation or unconditional love of all people are the most important set of sayings in all his teaching, and especially important in these sayings was Jesus’ new insight that God was not a God of retaliatory justice but a God of unconditional love.
As Robinson tries to emphasize, we are talking about a breakthrough insight that is without equal in all history.
Robinson then notes that the followers of Jesus soon lost sight of his profound new teaching that God was indeed unconditional love.
“Jesus’ vision of a caring Father who is infinitely forgiving and hence shockingly even-handed in dealing with the bad as well as the good… (This was) the most important theological contribution by Jesus to the history of ideas… the proclamation of Jesus… eliminated the concept of retaliation as the basis for and ingredient in an ethical order…. (but) Jesus’ basic insight into the ever-loving and forgiving nature of God would seem to have been lost from sight as the age-old view of God undergirding retaliatory justice again reasserted itself…(Jesus’ new insight) may have been lost from sight a generation later…” (“Jesus: according to the earliest witness”, p.17-18).
He adds from The Gospel of Jesus, “Jesus’ sunny experience of God showering love even on the bad and unjust gave way to the grim experience of a God of vengeance… God no longer shines his sun and rains his showers also on the bad and unjust but throws them out into outer darkness where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth…Jesus’ own commitment to loving even one’s enemies, as does the Father in heaven, was replaced by a God who has the temple destroyed as punishment…There is surely a certain irony in the fact that Jesus discovered God in the sunshine and flowers, but, as his disciples over the years became more learned in the scriptures, they lost sight of his revelation of God” (p.119, 120).
Robinson also refers to Paul’s retreat away from the gospel of Jesus and back into a retaliatory view of God. He says, “Jesus’ God apparently did not need blood sacrifice to make up for all the bad things the prodigal son had done, much to the dismay of the prodigal son’s self-righteous older brother” (p.87). However, Paul reverted back to the ancient and primitive belief that blood sacrifice (payment, punishment, retaliation) was necessary to effect forgiveness (p.87).
Paul rejected outright the core theme of the gospel of Jesus. He rejected Jesus’ new view of God as unconditional love and opted for the old view of God as retaliating and demanding blood payment for sin. This is one of history’s greatest blunders and Christians continue to maintain this horrific error even today by trying to hold in tension the clear unconditional teaching of Jesus, along with Paul’s teaching on condition and retaliation. The result is a horrific distortion of what Jesus had clearly taught- that God was unconditional love and did not advocate retaliatory or payback justice.
In conclusion, the unique breakthrough insight that Jesus made (his greatest contribution to the history of ideas) was about unconditional relating and existence, and he clearly stated that this was what God was actually like- God was indeed unconditional love. God treats every person- good and bad- with the same unconditional forgiveness, inclusion, and generosity, without demand for any prerequisite payment. This makes the Christian endeavor to hold Jesus’ teaching on unconditional, along with Paul’s theology of payback, irredeemably offensive and distorting. The Christian admixture of two entirely opposing theologies- retaliation and non-retaliation- results in a horrific distortion of history’s finest insight into authentic humanity and the true nature of God. It is a grand contradiction that is entirely irreconcilable. It is history’s most egregious rejection of the gospel of Jesus and it results in the greatest contradiction ever, the Jesus/Christianity or Jesus/Paul contradiction.
For any interested, I have made similar arguments in a fuller account of this contradiction in my essay From Retaliation to Unconditional Love available at www.wendellkrossa.com
Note: The OT prophets had attempted centuries before Jesus (800-600 BCE) to introduce a new view of God as non-retaliating, non-punishing. They had also advocated an entirely new view of justice, not as punishment but as mercy and liberation from payback conditions. They claimed that God did not want sacrifice but mercy (see Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:7-8, Amos 5:21-24). Jeremiah stated that God gave no commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices (&:21-22). Isaiah claimed that God took no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats (1:11). Bob Brinsmead concludes, “Paul’s message about the propitiation of God’s wrath by the blood sacrifice of Jesus as a payment for human sin is not the fulfillment of the message of the Old Testament prophets but completely contrary to it” (personal email, Feb.18/2013). The Israelite priesthood, with a vested interest in the sacrificial system, eventually silenced the voices of the prophets.