Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Significance of Jesus' Death

Those of you who read my blog a lot may notice that this is the second essay I've written on this subject in the last month or so. I'm writing another one simply because I felt that I hadn't really "gotten it out" the first time. I suppose you could call this a reworking of the ideas presented in the first essay. Anyway, here it is:


Anyone who has studied the life of Jesus must ultimately decide on one of four scenarios regarding his death:

1. That his execution was a senseless, unjustified act by a group of people who saw him as a threat to religious stability;
2. That his execution was a reasonable and justified act that put to rest someone who was stirring up rebellion;
3. That his execution was part of God’s ultimate plan to atone for human sinfulness; or
4. That his execution was and is an opportunity for humans to ask forgiveness from God for sinfulness.

The first two scenarios presuppose that Jesus’ death had no divine significance, while the last two are attempts at understanding Jesus’ death against the backdrop of some grand divine plan. In the days, weeks, and months after Jesus’ execution, those who knew of Jesus had to choose between options one and two. Most chose option two, but those who followed Jesus and believed in the lifestyle he taught clearly chose option one. For the option two crowd, that was where it ended. However, those who believed Jesus’ death was a senseless tragedy began, in the years and decades after his death, to see his death in light of options three and four. They accepted his death as seemingly senseless, and, because of this, sought ways to define his death as something that perhaps wasn’t so senseless and final after all. In this essay, I want to primarily focus on these last two options, as those are the two that have most impacted Christian theology.

It’s important to define the difference between atonement and forgiveness. Because Christian theology has for so long confused these terms, we tend to use them interchangeably, or at least as two parts of one whole. Atonement is a method of “making up” for a wrongdoing. If I cut down a tree in my neighbor’s front yard that had been planted by her grandfather and was sentimental for her and irreplaceable, I may atone for this act by paying her a thousand dollars or washing her car every day for a year. In that scenario, forgiveness is not an issue, because I am paying the debt for my mistake by doing something else in return. I don’t need forgiveness. Another example might be a bank robber doing 15 years in prison – he pays his debt for the crime he committed. He atones for the crime – that is, he makes up for the crime – by doing the time.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, involves one person absolving another from a mistake or shortcoming. In the scenarios above, the woman whose tree I cut down could simply forgive me and I wouldn’t have to do anything to make it up to her – pay her money or wash her car. For the bank robber, if his crime was forgiven, he would not have to do time in jail. The crime would be absolved through forgiveness. Forgiveness, by its very definition, does not require atonement. On the flip side, if something is atoned for, forgiveness is not necessary or relevant.

Yet, Christian theology, as I said above, has confused these two terms in a convoluted effort to understand Jesus’ death as something other than a senseless tragedy. Most Christians understand that the blood of Jesus functioned as an atoning sacrifice for human sinfulness (option three above). But most Christians also understand that they must ask God for forgiveness for their sins, and if they do so, God will be “faithful and just” to forgive them their sins (option four above). Yet, as I already illustrated, it can’t be both ways. If Jesus’ death atoned for human sinfulness, then no forgiveness is necessary. If, by Jesus’ death, my sins are atoned for, then why do I, if I am a Protestant, feel the need to daily or weekly ask God to forgive my sins? If I am a Catholic, why do I feel the need to go to confession? And, on the flip side, if forgiveness is required, then what significance did Jesus’ death really have? If I still have to ask forgiveness for my sins, then why did Jesus have to die?

This, of course, was the central question that plagued early Christians.

Our earliest Christian documents are the letters of Paul. In these letters, Paul consistently portrays Jesus’ death in light of atonement – option three. For Paul, human beings are hopelessly and irreversibly sinful. Because of this, God chose Jesus – an especially upright and moral teacher – to die for the sins of the world. Since average men and women are incapable, because of sin, of ever being right with God, God used Jesus’ death as an atonement; that is, the blood Jesus shed functioned as the ultimate sacrifice to put humanity right with God. No longer would God require the blood of animals – Jesus’ sacrifice was the end. And this was proven, for Paul, by the fact that God raised Jesus spiritually into heaven with him. In all of Paul’s authentic writings, there is never a discussion about forgiveness of sins being part of the equation. For Paul, sins are already washed away, because Jesus paid the ultimate price.

In the decades after Paul, as Christian theology continued to develop, an obvious problem was encountered with Paul’s atonement theology. If Jesus’ death, instead of being a senseless tragedy, was actually part of God’s master plan for atonement, then this must mean that all sin, past, present, and future, was automatically washed away at the moment of Jesus’ death. My sins, your sins, George Washington’s sins, and King Tut’s sins were all absolved and atoned for when Jesus’ blood was shed. Clearly this posed a problem because it meant that no religion was really necessary. Everyone is already saved! Thus, you have later New Testament writers changing this theology from one of atonement to one of forgiveness. Jesus’ execution became an opportunity for forgiveness – sinful humanity put Jesus on the cross, but if we ask God to forgive our sins, he will do it. The requirement for getting right with God is repentance.

An example of this changing theology is the book of Acts, where Paul is depicted preaching on his missionary journeys about the forgiveness of sin, and never once uttering a word about atonement – even though in Paul’s own letters, it is exactly the opposite. Which is more likely to be representative of the real Paul’s theology – Paul’s own writings, or Paul’s biographer, writing several generations later? Forgiveness theology permeates most of the remainder of the New Testament books and letters.

The Church, of course, once it had created the New Testament and once it had begun to centralize its power, had to face the problem I mentioned above – if we have to ask forgiveness for sins, then how was Jesus’ death really an atonement? And if it wasn’t really an atonement, then what purpose did it actually serve? Couldn’t God have forgiven our sins, at our request, without having Jesus put to death first? He’s making the rules, after all. So Church doctrine, and especially Church liturgy, began to be formulated in such a way as to mix Paul’s atonement theology with later New Testament forgiveness theology. Jesus was the ultimate sacrificial lamb, his blood served as the ultimate atonement between humanity and God, but one still must ask God for forgiveness in order to make the atonement “kick in” (for lack of a better phrase). In other words, the atonement doesn’t count for you if you don’t ask forgiveness.

Well, you can see the problem here. I’ve already explained how atonement doesn’t require forgiveness, and forgiveness doesn’t require atonement. But the Church, in an effort to make divine sense out of a senseless tragedy, and in an effort to mesh early Christian theologies (some of which were already quite convoluted to start with) into one, pretty package and thereby centralize its power, came up with this complicated mixture of forgiveness and atonement to explain Jesus’ death. They couldn’t throw the atonement idea out the window, because then Jesus’ death would have been pointless – God could forgive us with or without Jesus’ death. But they couldn’t throw forgiveness out the window either, because then they couldn’t lord our sinfulness over us as a means of wielding power, and they would also have to admit that everyone was automatically forgiven upon Jesus’ death, thereby rendering their own institution irrelevant. I suppose they could have come up with an entirely new theological reason for Jesus’ death, but it was too late for that.

So modern Christians are left with a confusing, contradictory, and complex theology in order to understand why Jesus had to die. This elaborate and intellectually irreconcilable theology is one of the reasons so many Christians leave the Church and leave the faith. I saw a comic strip just today that had God sitting in heaven on a throne with a newly arrived human being standing before him, pleading his case for entry into heaven. “But I’m forgiven!” the man says. “You died on the cross for the world’s sins! Jesus saves!” God’s response is: “That’s absurd. Why would I sacrifice Myself to Myself to allow me to change a rule I made Myself?”

For me, when understood without divine overtones, and when understood against the backdrop of his life, Jesus’ death has a lot more significance. His message was so powerful and revolutionary that the religious power base he threatened killed him over it. He, apparently, was willing to go to his death for his message. And his message lived on even beyond the bounds of death, because of its transcendence and relevance to life. For me, Christianity is not about atonement and blood sacrifice or forgiveness of sins, and it’s certainly not about a convoluted and irreconcilable mixture of the two; instead, it is about abundant life in the here and now, a life lived to the fullest, and a life over which the boundaries of death can hold no sway.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Why I Reinterpret the Bible

Atheists and skeptics frequently accuse me of simply reinventing Jesus, and reinterpreting his life and message, in an effort to maintain a belief system that I need emotionally. Recently, for instance, an atheist friend of mine on the Rush message board stated the following:

…it just seems that Scott has had to reinvent [Christianity] for it to maintain relevance in his life. Don’t like what the Bible says? That’s OK, it’s all about the interpretation, not the actual written words in the book that describes him…

On the flip side of the coin, traditionally-believing theists frequently accuse me of twisting the Word of God, engaging in heretical activities, and basing my ideas on shaky and absurd interpretations. A theist friend of mine on the Rush message board recently said, in response to some assertions I made:

All scholars can do is hypothesize and then start throwing out the stuff they don’t like (like [the Gospel of] John), and change the interpretations that have been accepted for centuries upon centuries.

This constant barrage from both sides has caused me to frequently joke that I am derided by theists and atheists alike. I even had that phrase as a caption for my profile for a while.

While the theists and atheists have (obviously) stringently opposing views of God, Jesus, and Christianity, both groups seem to approach the issue of interpretation from a standpoint of black and white. Both atheists and theists seem to agree that Christianity is what it is, and the Church’s interpretation of the life of Jesus is correct. All we are left with, then, is to either accept that interpretation – and the dogmas and doctrines that go with it – as valid and legitimate, or reject it all as nonsense. Traditionalists do the former, atheists the latter.

Neither seems to recognize or acknowledge that perhaps the interpretations and understandings that have served institutional Christianity for centuries are fundamentally wrong. Even the atheist, while rejecting the doctrines and dogmas of faith, will still basically agree that the Church’s interpretation is the most appropriate interpretation of the available texts.

And yet, a very simple, brief study of the biblical texts, keeping the texts in chronological, historical, and cultural context, will reveal very quickly just how bankrupt much of the Church’s interpretation is. Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan states: “Christianity must repeatedly, generation after generation, make its best historical judgment about who Jesus was then and, on that basis, decide what that reconstruction means as Christ now.”

Despite insistence by many theists and atheists that there is only one way to interpret the Bible, even the Church itself has frequently and consistently altered and amended its interpretations over the centuries. What were the various ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries, if not efforts at reinterpreting and unification? The Great Schism of the Catholic Church, which split the Orthodox Catholic Church from the Roman Catholic Church, was over an issue of theological interpretation of the nature of the Holy Spirit. A little later, the Protestant Reformation functioned as one of the biggest reinventions and reinterpretations in religious history, and yet today I have Protestants tell me that I’m a heretic for reinterpreting!

“But even the Protestant Reformation didn’t change the basic tenets of Christian faith – that is, the belief in Jesus’ death and bodily resurrection.”

Well, that’s true. But they were still called heretics and blasphemers by the Catholic Church.

But here, in a nutshell, is why I believe reinterpretation of the Bible is not only okay, but vitally necessary and important:

For the first 300 years after Jesus’ death, Christianity was basically an underground movement, with widely diverging interpretations and beliefs, and little to no unity. Most Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death were Gnostics, with philosophies and theologies that would seem alien and cultish to most modern Christians (see my blog post on this topic from a few weeks ago here).

But all that changed on October 28, 312 C.E.

It was on that day that Emperor Constantine, convinced that the Christian God, through Jesus, had helped him win a decisive battle against a potential usurper to his throne, decided to convert to Christianity. Considering the influence Constantine would come to have on Christianity, the very event that led to his conversion speaks volumes – what reasonable Christian today would assert that Jesus helps countries win wars? Of course, there are plenty of people like that, but I think most mainstream, modern Christians recognize that Jesus doesn’t intervene on the battlefield to make “the good guys” win.

After becoming convinced that General Jesus had helped him defeat Maxentius, and recognizing the inherent disunity among the many competing versions of Christianity, Constantine ordered the Christian leaders – that is, the bishops – to meet and come up with a cohesive form of Christianity that could become the official religion of the empire. He wanted them to get past their disagreements and come up with a unified theology, and to decide on just who Jesus was and how he related to God. Constantine agreed to fund this meeting of the minds, and arranged to have this meeting take place in the plush resort-like area of Nicea, which was to ancient Constantinople what Cape Cod is to modern Boston. In his book “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography,” John Dominic Crossan states that Constantine “…ordered the Christians bishops to meet…in lakeside Nicea…and there erase any major theological disagreements between them.” Over 300 Christian bishops attended, and their travel and lodging was paid for by the emperor.

In case you’re keeping track, here’s what we have so far:

1. Constantine’s impetus for converting to Christianity was based on a belief that Jesus had intervened to help him win a military victory, not because the message of Jesus had changed his life.
2. The bishops met at the imperial decree of Constantine (as opposed to meeting because of any overwhelming religious or spiritual calling), all expenses paid, in a luxurious resort area, with Constantine and his imperial retinue present, to come up with a unified interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, to dress it up and make it more tenable as a state religion.

If those two things aren’t enough to make anyone cringe or question the validity of the theological interpretations that meeting produced, read this description of the meeting from the Church historian Eusebius (who was personally present at the Council of Nicea):

Detachments of the bodyguard and troops surrounded the entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of them the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the Imperial apartments, in which some were the Emperor’s companions at table, while others reclined on couches arranged on either side. One might have thought that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth…

So, we have:

1. General Jesus.
2. A meeting at a Cape Cod-like resort, all expenses paid, to come up with a unified theology that would make Christianity an easy sell for a state religion.
3. A bunch of powerful old men (not a woman among them, to be sure), reclining in luxury with the emperor himself, being served food and drink by others, while armed soldiers stand guard at the doors.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of dinner party Jesus would have been attending, or even invited to. A picture of Christ’s kingdom? More like a picture of man’s kingdom.

As Crossan says, this scene is “…an example of…[the] peasant Jesus grasped now by imperial faith.”

I’ll end my argument on why it is not only okay, but vitally important, to reinterpret the bible, by quoting, one last time, from Crossan:

…is it unfair to regret a process [the formation of unified Christian doctrine] that happened so fast and moved so swiftly, that was accepted so readily and criticized so lightly? Is it time now, or is it already too late, to conduct, religiously and theologically, ethically and morally, some basic cost accounting with Constantine?

I think so. And it may mean I’ll continue to be derided by theists and atheists alike, but I don’t have a problem taking the road less traveled. That is, after all, exactly what Jesus did.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Open Commensality in Practice

John Dominic Crossan is one of the world’s premier Jesus scholars. He has devoted the majority of his academic career to the study of Jesus, in order to develop a more historically sound image of just who Jesus was.

In the prologue to his book “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography”, Crossan states the following:

This book gives my own reconstruction of the historical Jesus derived from twenty-five years of scholarly research on what actually happened in Galilee and Jerusalem during the early first century of the common era.
He goes on to say:

…my endeavor was to reconstruct the historical Jesus as accurately and honestly as possible. It was not my purpose to find a Jesus whom I liked or disliked, a Jesus with whom I agreed or disagreed.
Crossan defines Jesus as a peasant Jewish Cynic – meaning he followed in the footsteps of the Greek Cynics, but with his own unique Jewish twist, and his message was for the poor, the oppressed, and those who lived on the fringes of society. Crossan states that Jesus’ Cynicism:

…involved practice and not just theory, life-style and not just mind-set…a way of looking and dressing, of eating, living, and relating that announced its contempt for honor and shame, patronage and clientage…[Jesus and his followers] were hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies.
He describes Jesus’ strategy as one of “free healing and common eating.” He suggests that one of Jesus’ primary methods for teaching his vision of the Kingdom of God was through what Crossan calls “open commensality” – that is, through sharing egalitarian meals with his listeners. In the first century, the banquet table was an apt symbol of society in miniature. First century Jewish society was structured with an unassailable hierarchy, and this hierarchy could be seen during meals when women served men at the table and never vice versa, lower classes and slaves never shared a meal with the powerful, and sinners never ate with the pious. The banquet table, then, contained all the same oppressive barriers as society at large. Crossan suggests that Jesus symbolized his message of radical egalitarianism through eating with slave and free, male and female, sinner and pious, sick and healthy. He brought every class of person to his table. Crossan states: “…healing and eating were calculated to force individuals into unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and…one another.”

Although I think Crossan sometimes makes tenuous assertions based on, at best, historical speculation, I think his overall argument is sound, and I believe he is right on the mark with his suggestion that eating meals was a tool Jesus used in living out the substance of his message. I think a scholarly and historical look at the available evidence points strongly in this direction.

As such, I believe that anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus would recognize the value of sharing meals with one another as a means to tear down barriers, engender openness, symbolize equality, and even to display unconditional love and acceptance for one another. More on that in a bit.

But, like any idea, it is bankrupt unless it is put into practice. In the prologue to his book, Crossan relates a fictionalized discussion that he has with Jesus, looking back on his life’s work:

“I’ve read your book, Dominic, and it’s quite good…”
“…I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the method was especially good, wasn’t it?”
“Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity. That at least is something.”
“Is it enough, Jesus?”
“No, Dominic, it is not.”
Although he puts this exchange in the introduction, it really hits home more forcefully after reading the book. It’s fine and good to discuss and debate, but unless you put your words into practice – put your money where your mouth is – it is not enough.

Over the past couple of years or so, as I have begun to study the historical Jesus more and more, and to mix Buddhist philosophy with my Christian faith, I have felt my focus growing increasingly more on others, and increasingly less on myself. Yet, because of my very busy schedule – school, work, children, money, and a slew of other excuses – I have managed to do very little other than simply talk about how I believe people should live. I’ve done a lot of philosophizing, but I’ve otherwise done very little to actually put my philosophy into practice.

No, Scott, it’s not enough.

Well, tonight I took a step toward changing that. I volunteered with an organization that helps homeless men get back on their feet, provides them clothes, food, a place to sleep, and other basic amenities, and aims to get them back into mainstream society. Various churches around town work with this organization, and my church plays host on Sunday nights.

We arrived around 4:30 to begin setting up, and by 6:30 we had cleared out the fellowship hall and set up air mattresses, complete with sheets, blankets, pillows, and towels, and we also had a table where they could get things like soap, shampoo, deodorant, and the like. I was tired and wanted to go on home at that point, like several other people had done, but I knew the most important part of the work was after the men showed up, and it would have seemed like bailing out to leave before they even got there.

Nine men showed up for the evening – white, black, and Latino, old and young – and we sat down around 7:00 to eat dinner with them.

Being an introvert by nature, I was anxious about getting my food and actually going over to one of the tables and sitting down with the people there. The thought certainly ran through my mind that it would be a lot more comfortable to just sit down at a table with a bunch of the people I know from church, and feel content knowing I had at least taken part in setting up the place and contributing to the food that was served.

But I pushed my anxieties aside and sat down at a table with three of the homeless men.

It’s frequently difficult to tell the age of a homeless person, because people who live those sorts of lives, even for a short period of time, age much more quickly than those of us with comfortable beds to sleep in every night. But as a rough estimate, I’d say that two of the men were probably in their forties, and the other was probably around fifty. The older man, Herman, was a large black man who, in nicer clothes, could probably have passed for your average middle-aged suburbanite. The second black man, Cedric, was bearded and looked much more like the typical image of a homeless person, with very bad teeth, some curious scars on his arms (one looked like a healed bullet wound), tattoos, and clothes that were clearly second or third hand. The white man, Alan, also looked pretty bad, with work-roughened hands, missing teeth, and uncombed hair.

As I started eating, I wracked my brain trying to think of how to break the ice. What do you say to a homeless person to strike up a conversation and overcome that awkward silence? “So tell me about yourself.” Well, I’m a homeless recovering alcoholic. How about you? “So, what do you do for a living?” Well, I was in construction, until I got laid off and the bank foreclosed on my house and I lost everything. Thanks for bringing up that very painful memory. “Did you catch that game the other day?” Yeah, on the big screen TV in the den. Right. “Some weather we’re having, eh?” Yeah, it’s awful – you should try sleeping in it.

I couldn’t seem to think of anything to say. Fortunately, there was another guy from the church sitting there, and he made a few remarks, and that helped to get the conversation rolling. There were no trumpets from heaven, no astounding insights given or learned, but we just had a nice meal and discussed everything from barbecue to city planning to college sports. Alan, it turns out, is a painter by trade who has presumably fallen on hard times. He told us about the buildings around town he has worked on in the past, and about how tough the job market is for construction painters. He mentioned a wife and children, although he talked about them as if they were no longer in his life.

I didn’t get much background on Cedric or Herman – other than Herman’s love of barbecue – but all three of them seemed really appreciative to just have someone to talk to who would actually listen, be interested, and interact with them. It seemed to me that they really enjoyed being able to simply sit down, eat a nice meal, shoot the bull, and experience that satisfied comfort that most of us take for granted – that is, a stomach full on good food, a warm place to sit and relax, and someone to talk to.

And as I sat there with them (I ended up staying a lot longer than I had planned), John Dominic Crossan’s ideas of Jesus’ open commensality kept running through my mind. This is what Crossan was talking about. This was the key strategy to Jesus’ entire philosophy – camaraderie, openness, absence of judgment and societal barriers, unconditional acceptance, genuine togetherness, companionable discourse. And what better way to achieve these things than to sit down and eat a good meal together? It’s so simple it’s silly, and yet it’s highly profound. The only time we even discussed anything remotely religious was when we laughed about a mega-church in town that I referred to as Six Flags Over Jesus, and yet I felt, as I sat there eating and talking and listening and interacting, that I was finally putting all my years of discussing, debating, and philosophizing into practice. I was finally putting my money where my mouth was. I was finally doing the work of Jesus, and not just proclaiming pretty ideas.

A lot of people warm a seat in the pew every week inside expensive, ornamental buildings, listening to grandiloquent words, and singing hymns of faith and devotion, but it’s all blithering and meaningless without genuine outreach. For a church, success should not measured by how many rear-ends are warming the pews on Sunday morning, how much cash is dropped piously into the plate, or how many souls have been won to Christ. Instead, success should be measured by how many mouths have been fed, how many souls have been nurtured with love and genuine attentiveness, and how many lives have been enriched with the abundance of compassion, self-worth, empathy, and unconditional acceptance. And the way to start, the way to put this philosophy into practice, is the same way that Jesus himself did it – through open commensality. Sharing a meal, sharing your time, sharing your attention. This is salvation. This is the Kingdom of God.

Instead of a church that posts its Sunday School attendance in the bulletin every week, I want a church that posts how many people volunteered to house the homeless, tend the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. I want to know who strived to spread love, tolerance, and compassion; I want to know who worked for peace and equality; I want to know who fought injustice, judgmental attitudes, and oppression; I want to know who shared the gift of abundant life through living life to the fullest, being all that they could be, and loving wastefully.

Those are the only numbers that matter to me. Anything else is a smokescreen.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Christian Images of Heaven

Recently on the Rush message board, there was a thread posted by a very traditionally-leaning, evangelical Christian discussing his image of what heaven will be like. It basically consisted of a winter mansion scene with pristine snow, ski slopes, and the like.

I responded to his initial post by pointing out that this sort of common image of heaven -- that is, one of pure bliss and material comforts -- developed in part as a result of the fact that most early Christians came from the poor and outcasts of society. Jesus, the one who said blessed are the poor and the meek, brought them hope of better things to come.

The poster responded to this comment with the following:

i do not think Jesus would lie and i am not implying that that is what you are talking about Schmoo but " if it were not so, i would not have told you" "In my house are many mansions". not "everything" is a contradiction.

and Paul, paraphrasing "if we only have hope in "this" life, we are of all men most miserable"

Before getting to the first part of his response, I want to address his second comment -- the one about Paul.

Paul was an apocalypticist, living in a time when his homeland was under imperial rule by foreigners (the Romans). He believed Jesus's resurrection was the start of the end of the world. He believed that not only was the general resurrection of the dead coming soon, he believed it had already started with Jesus -- thus his description in 1 Corinthians of Jesus's resurrection being the "first fruits" of the general resurrection to come.

Considering the time period that he lived, when the Jews were under deep oppression, it's little wonder he looked to the end of the world as a hope, rather than to place hope in "this life," which was otherwise so utterly hopeless. And, of course, he was right on one count -- it was hopeless for the Jews. Just 5 or so years after Paul's death, Rome took control of all of the Jewish homeland and the Temple was destroyed. And, of course, the Jews didn't get their homeland back until the 20th century. Where Paul was wrong, obviously, was in believing that the end of the world had started with Jesus.

Now, for the poster's comments about his image of heaven and mansions. A bit of background first, before I make my point:

Psalm 49:13-15a -- This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave, far from their princely mansions. But God will redeem my life from the grave...

Isaiah 5:8-9 -- Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: "Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants."

Amos 3:15 -- I will tear down the winter house along with the summer house; the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed and the mansions will be demolished, declares the Lord.

As is evidenced by these three passages, it would seem that Old Testament writers -- those who documented the history of the Jewish people and their relationship with God -- viewed the mansions of the rich as being symbolic of abused power, oppression, and sin.

With that in mind, is it likely that Jesus -- a practicing Jew who was well-versed and highly familiar with Jewish theology -- would have suggested that heaven contained mansions, those very symbols of treachery, sin, and oppression in the Jewish mindset?

This is an example of the familiar verses of the King James Version coming back to haunt concepts of what Jesus actually said.

The passage the poster quoted is John 14:2, which the KJV translates as "In my father's house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you."

In my research, there is only one version that translates the original Greek word used in this passage as "mansions." That version is the King James. Every single other translation uses either "dwelling places" or "rooms." "Mansions," it would appear, is a misleading word, because it implies that Jesus was talking about enormous, palatial houses in which the faithful will live in heaven. In fact, he was just saying that there are a lot of places to live in his father's house. What this means is that God has a place for all people; there's a spot for everyone. That's what John's Jesus meant in this passage. He wasn't suggesting that heaven is lined with 5,000-square foot suburban homes.

Furthermore, what was Jesus actually referring to when he said, "In my Father's house"? Was he talking about heaven? In fact, a reference to God's house was a reference to the Temple, not heaven. He was using the Jewish Temple as a symbol of what the Kingdom of God would be like. And just as there were a lot of rooms, and a lot of space, inside the Temple -- enough to hold all the Jews who came to the Temple to worship -- so the Kingdom of God will have plenty of space to contain all those who wish to come.

This is what John's Jesus meant when he said those words. He was not promising that every Christian will live in the heavenly equivalent of the Biltmore House or Buckingham Palace.

According to John's Gospel, Jesus said these words right after he revealed to his disciples that he was leaving them, and that he would be betrayed, and that Peter would deny him. These were dark, difficult things to discuss. So after discussing these things, John's Gospel has Jesus attempt to comfort his disciples by assuring them that, despite all the bad that was to come, there was still a place for everyone, because, after all, the Kingdom of God has plenty of room.

It's funny, because I actually grew up with the same concept of heaven that this person implied -- that is, that heaven would be full of mansions where we would all live in pure bliss and comfort. And my concept of a heaven like this came directly from this very passage that he quoted in response to my first remarks. I can remember meditating on this as a kid, and trying to imagine what heaven would look like, with all the golden streets lined with enormous mansions, and everyone living in a kind of Utopian bliss.

But I believe that is a surface-level interpretation, based on misleading translations, and does not get anywhere near the heart of what Jesus is actually saying in that passage.

The Kingdom of God is not about mansions and earthly creature comforts. It's about love, peace, kindness, and abundant life. And there is room for everyone. That was the message of Jesus.