In thinking about these things, I have come to realize - and even marvel at - how different Jesus's theology was compared to modern Christian theology. For those who read my blog a lot, it may come as a surprise to discover that I have only just recently come to grips with a firm and clear understanding of what Jesus's basic theology entailed. More on that in a minute.
First, it might be important to define what I mean by "theology." Simply put, theology refers to what you believe about God or supernatural things. Ancient Egyptians, for instance, believed that when you died, you were judged by a divine tribunal, headed by the god Osiris. Your heart was weighed against the feather of the goddess Ma'at. If you had lived by Ma'at's precepts during your life (in other words, if you were a "good" person), you would pass that test and be presented to Osiris, who would ultimately grant you eternal life. If your heart did not pass the test against the feather of Ma'at, you would be fed to the goddess Amemet, who was part hippo and part lion, with the head of a crocodile, and who had the job of devouring the hearts (and thus the life force) of the wicked.
This, then, is theology. It's what you believe about divine things.
When we look at the theology of modern Christianity, we find, of course, that it is all over the map. This is why both Mother Theresa and a member of the KKK can claim to be Christians. But it is certainly possible to describe the most common aspects of modern Christianity - those theological beliefs that are most widely adhered to by everyday, practicing Christians.
In a nutshell, modern, mainstream Christian theology states that Jesus was the divine son of God who became a great prophet and healer, doing the work of God and spreading God's message to his followers. He was crucified and buried, and then was physically resurrected through the power of God. Because of his resurrection, human beings can be reconciled to God by accepting Jesus as their savior and asking forgiveness for their sins. If they do this, they will go to heaven when they die, to live eternally. If they do not accept Jesus, they will spend eternity in separation from God, which, for most Christians, means going to hell.
But when we turn to the pages of the New Testament itself, to see what Jesus, himself, actually did and said during his life, we find something completely different - virtually nothing like the theology of mainstream Christianity.
Before I even begin here, I want to point out that what follows is not my own pet theory about Jesus. It's not some harebrained idea that I've put together. It is basically Jesus Theology 101, similar to what any student would be taught at any mainstream seminary across the country. I stick to the basics and discuss only those things that are widely-accepted and established among scholars, historians, and theologians.
To begin with, Jesus said explicitly that his message was only for Jews - for the children of Abraham. This wasn't an effort on Jesus's part to be ethnocentric, or to exclude someone who was not ethnically Jewish. Anyone could follow him, but following his teachings included following the teachings of the Jewish scriptures - including all the purity laws of Moses. Doing so, however, would by definition make you a Jew. A Jew is not just someone of a specific ethnic background, but also of a specific religious background. In the same way that a person today can be ethnically non-Jewish, but Jewish by religion, this was true in the 1st century as well. Jesus welcomed everyone, but he also taught that Jewish laws and customs had to be followed, because they came from God. Ethical teachings from the Jewish scriptures were essentially the basis of Jesus's own ethical teachings.
Secondly, Jesus was a firm and outspoken apocalyptist. What I mean by that is that Jesus believed the end of the world was right around the corner. He says this explicitly in the gospels, even affirming that the end would happen within his own generation, and within the lifespans of many of his followers. No matter how uncomfortable this might make people, it is a fact that simply cannot be ignored. It's right there in the texts of the New Testament. For instance, in Mark, chapter 13, he tells his disciples all the things they are going to see at the end of the world, and then goes on to say: "When you see these things happening, you will know that [the end] is near, right at the door." He follows this up even more explicitly by saying: "This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."
So Jesus was a dyed-in-the-wool apocalyptist, believing that the world was coming to an end. But what, exactly, did this end-of-the-world scenario look like? What was going to take place?
In short, the world would descend farther and farther into chaos. Wars would occur between nations. Many people would die. Eventually, Israel itself would be consumed and overrun. But then God would intervene and establish what one scholar has called "the Great Divine Clean-Up" of the world. His agent for this clean up would be a figure called the Son of Humanity (or "Son of Man" in earlier Christian parlance). Many debates exist about who Jesus thought this person was, with the most common conclusion being that it was Jesus himself; but many other scholars argue that Jesus was talking about a different person all together, or maybe even using an expression meant to refer to the Jewish people as a whole.
In any case, how can a person ensure that they are on the right side of God when the Son of Humanity comes to institute the Great Divine Clean-Up? Easy; by following the path of righteousness taught by Jesus, which essentially meant being a good person and following God's commandments as outlined in the Jewish scriptures, especially the commandments about loving others, helping others, and performing acts of loving-kindness. If you do that, Jesus said, you will be among God's chosen people; you will be on the right side of the fence when the end of time occurs.
So what, then, will happen during the Great Divine Clean-Up? Put simply, God will sweep away all the powers and nations of the earth, which have grown out of the corruption of sin, going all the way back to Adam. Essentially, God will push the "reset" button. The kingdom of God, sometimes called the kingdom of heaven, will be enthroned here on earth, and will rule a new earth, transformed from the old, corrupted earth on which we now live. It will be an earth like God originally envisioned for humanity, where human beings will live in harmony together, loving God and one another, and living for eternity in this blissful paradise that is essentially a remaking of the Garden of Eden. No one will "go to heaven." Instead, heaven, essentially, will come here, to this planet, to earth.
Jesus says that the coming Son of Humanity will institute all of this, and will "gather his chosen ones from the four corners of the earth." In other words, all of those who followed Jesus's path of righteousness will be gathered together, where they will become the inheritors of God's renewed earthly kingdom. When Jesus said that "the meek" and "the poor" and "the persecuted" will inherit the earth, he wasn't talking metaphorically. He meant that statement quite literally. The ones who follow God will literally become the future rulers of God's renewed earth.
So what about evil people? And what about those who are already dead when all this takes place?
As for those wicked people who are still alive at the end, they will effectively be cast out of God's renewed earth. Their bodies (presumably still living), will be thrown into hell. Hell, for Jesus, was not the supernatural dimension of Medieval Catholicism and modern day fundamentalism, but was instead a quite literal place, right here on earth - just as God's kingdom is a literal kingdom right here on the literal earth. The word Jesus uses, which is translated into English as "hell", is the Greek word "Gehenna." This Greek word, in turn, was a reference to the Valley of Hinnom, which was a literal valley on the southwest side of ancient Jerusalem that you can still walk through to this day. At its most southern point, it met up with the Kidron Valley, which is also mentioned in New Testament writings (in the Gospel of John, Jesus crosses the Kidron Valley to get to the Garden of Gethsemane).
In ancient times, the Valley of Hinnom was essentially where Jerusalem's garbage dump was located. As such, it was an immensely "unclean" place, where no self-respecting 1st century Jew would ever venture. In addition to dumping refuse there, corpses would be placed there as well, if the deceased had no one to pay for a burial (such as a homeless person or criminal). Ancient writers indicate that this enormous pile of garbage burned year-round.
The Valley of Hinnom had long been associated with punishment and judgment in Jewish thought. Jewish scripture (specifically, 2 Chronicles and Jeremiah) indicates that the Valley of Hinnom was the place where Canaanites performed religious rituals, including the sacrificing of children in fire, and another account - this time in Isaiah - indicates that the fires of the Hinnom Valley would consume the enemies of Israel (specifically, the Assyrians).
So by the time of Jesus, the Valley of Hinnom was viewed as the unclean place where pagans, in the "olden days," had burned their children in sacrifices to their evil gods, and where now an enormous pile of garbage, topped with the corpses of criminals and other evil-doers, burned in perpetuity.
It is not hard to understand, then, why Jesus, and other Jews of his day, began imagining the Hinnom Valley as a place of divine retribution - Isaiah had indicated that very thing more than 700 years earlier.
So whenever Jesus mentions "hell" in the New Testament, he is explicitly referring to the literal Valley of Hinnom, ancient Jerusalem's burning garbage dump. His teachings indicate that the wicked who are still alive at the end of time will be cast into the Valley of Hinnom, where their bodies will be consumed and ultimately destroyed by the fires that never go out.
And this is a key, and quite eye-opening, aspect of Jesus's theology. He never says, not even one time, that wicked people will go to hell and suffer there forever (as many modern Christians, particularly evangelicals, believe). I remember growing up and wondering how someone could live forever in hell, without ever dying. It made me shudder to imagine experiencing the scorching pain of fire, for all eternity, without the ability to "die" and make it go away. In fact, Jesus never, ever, ever, not even once, says such a thing about hell. Instead, he says that the bodies of the wicked will be destroyed there. It is the fire that is eternal, not the body inside the fire.
For many modern Christians, the punishment of not following Jesus is having to burn eternally in hell. Jesus wasn't nearly that vindictive. For Jesus, simply dying, having your body permanently annihilated, and not getting to take part in the renewed earth, was punishment enough.
As for the wicked who have already died, Jesus never really mentions this group of people explicitly, but one can assume that they will simply remain dead. Their bodies have already been destroyed by natural processes. They have already gotten their just desserts.
So what, then, about the good people who have already died? Those who followed Jesus's path, but who died before the End? Unlike the wicked who have died, the righteous will be resurrected - their bodies will literally come back to life and rise up out of their graves and tombs. The Son of Humanity, through God, will restore them back to life, to join up with the others who were are still alive.
All these things, then, make up the gist of Jesus's theology. The world is coming to an end, very, very soon. Jesus, himself, brings the good news of the coming kingdom of God, and tells people what they need to do to prepare - essentially, they need to follow the teachings of Jewish scripture. When the End comes, God will send the mysterious Son of Humanity, who will gather the living from around the earth, and separate the good from the wicked. The good will inherit God's renewed earthly kingdom, and becomes its rulers from Jerusalem. The wicked will be cast into the Hinnom Valley where their bodies will be destroyed. Of those who are already dead, the righteous will be resurrected to join in the festivities of the new earth. The wicked who are already dead will, presumably, just remain that way. All of this is going to happen within a few years, or maybe a few decades at most.
This is Jesus's theology in a nutshell.
And, of course, it doesn't take a theologian or Biblical scholar to point out that it is practically nothing like what modern Christians believe. To modern Christian sensibilities, in fact, it would no doubt seem absolutely preposterous. Heaven isn't on earth, it's up in the sky, or it's in some kind of otherworldly dimension. You don't have to wait until the end of time to be resurrected - your soul is resurrected to heaven immediately upon your death. People aren't sent to hell to be killed, they go there after they die, and they live there forever in torment and agony. Jesus's message wasn't just to the Jews of his own day, it was to all people in all time periods. Jesus didn't expect the world to end in the 1st century - that would mean Jesus was wrong about something!
Unfortunately, these things simply are not consistent with what the New Testament gospels explicitly tell us about Jesus and his life and beliefs and theological dispositions. For Jesus, heaven was the place God lived, not the place where humans go after death. Human beings don't go to heaven. They die and await resurrection at the end of time, where they will be raised up to live again on a renewed earth. The end of time is not thousands of years in the future; it's literally going to happen in the next few years. Jesus's message is for anyone who wants to hear it, but it involves essentially becoming Jewish by following Jewish laws and religious customs. Wicked people don't burn in hell for all eternity. If they are still alive at the End, they are thrown into the burning garbage dump of the Hinnom Valley, where their bodies are destroyed.
It is my firm and passionate belief that if Christians want to step more fully into the lifestyle that Jesus taught and gave his own life for, it is vitally important to understand who he was, and what he taught, and why he taught it, even if those things are uncomfortable. As many great theologians and Christian scholars have come to realize over the centuries, the fact that Jesus was, effectively, a failed apocalyptist, does not mean that Jesus, himself, was a failure, or that Christianity is a fraud. It simply means that Christians have to come to a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and to be a practicing Christian in the 21st century. And this frequently means jettisoning old ideas and old ways of thinking that simply do not hold up to scrutiny of the texts of the Bible. It means joining Jesus on his path of righteousness, following him in his lifestyle of love, kindness, and living for others. For Christians in the 21st century, this is what it means to attain salvation and commune with God.