Jesus for Atheists

Several years ago, I ran across a fascinating Richard Dawkins essay entitled “Atheists for Jesus.” At the beginning of his essay, Dawkins outlines the relationship between selfish genes and selfish behavior. JesusForAtheistsGiven that our genes are mindlessly bent on propagating their own genetic material regardless of the cost to the host organism or to others, Dawkins concludes that altruism is an accident. A happy accident, perhaps, but an accident nonetheless. However, Dawkins’ essay is not primarily about genetics, but about ethics. What is it, he goes on to ask, that leads some individuals to be loving and altruistic to the degree that there is no possible benefit to themselves and rather the certainty of permanent loss? What can we learn from individuals whose behavior is simply not explicable in terms of maximization of their own fitness? And this brings him to Jesus. Not, Dawkins would hasten to add, because he considers Jesus in any way unique, but because Jesus seems to embody precisely this standard of selflessness, compassion, and universal love.

In this essay, I’d like to consider what relevance the message of Jesus has to atheists. To do so, I’d like to first consider some of the central components of Jesus’ message and second, how that message challenges us.

Jesus and the Kingdom

Any modern Western reader of the gospels, the biographies of Jesus found in the New Testament, ought to be immediately struck by the centrality of the ‘kingdom of God’ in Jesus’ teaching. This is a concept that is often utterly absent from popular American conceptions of Jesus. To us, Jesus speaks primarily to the individual, calling for personal transformation, personal piety, personal faith, and some emotional religious experience. But perhaps this is more of a reflection of our radically individualistic worldview than a reflection of Jesus’ actual teaching. In contrast to our expectations, we see Jesus inaugurating his preaching ministry with a declaration that “the kingdom of God is near.” In his parables, his focus is always on the kingdom: The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, like a treasure hidden in the field, like a merchant seeking fine pearls, like a wedding feast. He speaks of seeing the kingdom, entering the kingdom, receiving the kingdom like a little child. Indeed, both his followers and his detractors seemed to have clear ideas that Jesus’ message was somehow tied up with the concept of the “kingdom of God.” But what was the kingdom?

We can get a sense of Jesus’ message by looking at his teaching itself. On the one hand, Jesus saw the kingdom as something that would come in the future. He told his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come, he looked forward to eating and drinking with his disciples in the Kingdom of God, and he spoke of eventually welcoming the righteous into God’s kingdom. These ideas would have been very familiar to contemporary Jewish people of Jesus’ time who expected that one day, God would send a Savior to free them from their oppressors and reestablish the Jewish nation. Yet far more frequently, Jesus spoke of the immediate presence of the kingdom. He sent his disciples out to heal the sick and to announce the arrival of the kingdom. He claimed that the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the kingdom while the religious leaders were not. He spoke of the kingdom as something that could be entered here and now, not only in some distant future. Jesus saw his work in the healing of the sick, the comforting of the poor, and the binding up of the broken-hearted as signs that the kingdom had arrived. And he called his disciples to imitate him in his ministries of compassion and mercy as further signs that the kingdom was here.

Although Jesus’ message certainly sounded jarring to his first-century hearers, it can also sound jarring to our modern, Western ears. Does Jesus’ message really extend beyond personal piety to community transformation and social compassion? Yes. Jesus saw His ministry as the inbreaking of God’s kingdom into earth, the restoration of all that was ruined, and the healing of all harms. God’s kingdom was not some perfect political entity, but the sphere in which God’s kingly rule was recognized and embraced. God’s kingdom extended over people, over communities, and over nations to bring healing and peace. This is why Christians, for millennia, have seen compassion, mercy and justice as non-negotiable aspects of following Jesus. Jesus affirms what is at the root of all the utopian visions of the last several centuries or the current calls for a compassionate global community: a longing that the world would be put right and restored. So the first thing an atheist needs to do to hear Jesus’ message rightly is to try and remove the cultural preconceptions we might have regarding his teaching and to listen to the radical message of the kingdom that he proclaimed.

Jesus and Mercy

One of the central features of Jesus’ life affirmed even by skeptical scholars is that he undoubtedly attracted a large following of social outcasts. The gospels are very forthright about Jesus’ association with prostitutes and tax collectors. Although we are accustomed to view this association as highly positive, it is important to keep in mind Jesus’ cultural context. The Jews and non-Jews whom the early Christians were trying to convert would have viewed Jesus’ friendship and love towards those of low status and blatant immorality as a serious blemish on his character, rather than as a badge of honor. Before we condemn the callousness of ancient society towards outcasts, it is worth seeing the issue from their perspective. The two classes who are most mentioned as associating with Jesus were prostitutes and tax collectors. Not only did Jesus’ teaching attract such people, but he admitted them into the most intimate kind of fellowship with him. For instance, we are told in Luke 16 of an incident in which a prostitute let down her hair and washed Jesus’ feet with it. To see the gravity of this action, consider how we would feel if a dinner party with our close friends were interrupted by a prostitute who stumbled into the dining room weeping, threw herself at the feet of one of our male friends, stripped off her expensive jewelry and thrust it into his pockets. The most gracious of us would be made extremely uncomfortable. The majority of us would probably call the police. Yet Jesus not only permitted this kind of response, but praised it.

And if we think that our attitude towards prostitutes would be welcoming, then we ought to consider what it meant for Jesus to associate with tax collectors. Tax collectors were Jews who collaborated with the governing Roman authorities to extort taxes from their fellow citizens. They were known for their greed, their corruption and their dishonesty. If there were a modern day equivalent, it would be a local drug dealer, someone who had grown rich by bringing misery to those around him. Yet these were the people whom Jesus welcomed and with whom he ate. The dregs of society, not merely the poor or disenfranchised, but the immoral, the wicked, the greedy were those whom Jesus forgave and rejoiced over. When we consider the radical compassion and love shown by Jesus to people who had never known love or genuine concern, it ought to astonish us. Jesus consistently modeled selfless, passionate love for those whom society rejected and spurned. And Jesus commanded his followers to do the same.

Jesus and Suffering

Finally, no discussion of Jesus’ life is complete without a mention of his death. Again, critical scholars are almost unanimously agreed that Jesus’ short life ended not in triumph but in humiliation. Unlike the founders of other major religions, Jesus did not live out his days in health and prosperity. Rather, he was nailed to a cross, abandoned by his followers, and mocked by the crowds. The reason that this fact is accepted by even the most critical scholars is that there could be almost no reason for the disciples to have invented this story. The cross, though it is now primarily a piece of jewelry, was then a symbol of the most horrific and shameful death imaginable. The cross was the electric chair or the gallows of the first century. Victims were stripped naked, paraded through the streets, and sometimes hung for days as they slowly suffocated. Yet Jesus’ suffering did not begin at the cross, but only culminated there.

Jesus was neither formally educated nor famous. His family was materially poor. He was probably a manual laborer who worked for his living like anyone else. When he began his preaching ministry, he was supported by the generosity of others. He lived a transient, itinerant life and was essentially homeless. In the book of Isaiah, we are told that he was “a man of sorrow and one familiar with suffering.” His family thought he was insane. He was betrayed by one of his trusted followers. He went through the depths of exclusion and poverty. Far from promising his followers a life of material blessing and prosperity, he told them to expect the same kind of hardship, suffering, and rejection that he endured. If we believe that the Christian religion glorifies wealth, success, and power (as it has sometimes done in the past and sadly still often does today), we must recognize that this is contrary to the expectations and explicit commands of Jesus. Jesus exalted service over power and commanded his followers to do the same.

Jesus and God

The first half of this essay discussed areas in which Jesus affirms much that is found in secular humanism: a desire for community, compassion, and service. It is necessary to do so because the Jesus people reject is a often caricature which is drawn from popular culture, tradition, or the composite failings of modern Christians. I believe it is vital for atheists to engage with the Jesus of Scripture, not with the Jesus of popular imagination, if for no other reason than that the New Testament is the best source of information we possess about the real, historical Jesus. However, while Jesus may affirm many of our beliefs, he radically challenges others. In the second half of this essay, I’d like to examine ways in which Jesus confronts our beliefs about God, about himself, and about salvation.

First of all, Jesus’ teaching is radically opposed to atheism. When I first became a Christian, I was amazed to discover how much Jesus’ teaching drew upon the Old Testament, or the Jewish Scriptures. Jesus was absolutely saturated with the Scriptures. He quoted them in his teaching, in his preaching, in his agony in Gethsemane, and even from the depths of his suffering on the cross. And Jesus -like the Old Testament- takes the existence of biblical God absolutely for granted. It is the fundamental presupposition that underlies His entire worldview.

For this reason, modern attempts to secularize Jesus have always seemed ludicrous to me. It is one thing to claim that God does not exist and then to ask which of Jesus’ teachings are still useful or helpful to atheists. But it is quite another thing to claim that Jesus himself was an atheist. The “secular Jesus” simply never existed. Any portrayal of Jesus as a secular teacher with only a vague and indistinct connection to biblical monotheism is historical revisionism of the kind that would attempt to paint Joseph Stalin as a dogmatic capitalist. The very uncomfortable position that Jesus puts us in is to say that he was wrong. Not wrong on some minor issue of very little concern to him, but wrong on the central issue that dominated his life, wrong on the basis for all of his teaching, and wrong in his views on the foundation of reality itself. The reason we are so eager to create secular portraits of Jesus is that no one really wants to say that Jesus was wrong. But that is his challenge to us.

Jesus and Himself

Unfortunately, the challenge that Jesus presents to atheism does not stop with our beliefs about God. More fundamentally, it proceeds to our beliefs about Jesus himself. For centuries, Christians have recognized that Jesus presents us with a dilemma (a Trilemma, actually) because Jesus did not just claim to be a prophet who could show us the way to God, but claimed to be God himself. But if so, then He is a Lunatic, a Liar, or Lord. No good, sane human being would claim to be God.

At this point, we need to address the common objection that Jesus never claimed to be God, but that this idea was written back into the Bible by later Christians. Although this subject has been treated in great deal elsewhere, let me give several very succinct arguments as to why this objection is false.

First, the consensus of critical scholars is that the gospels were all composed between 30-90 years after Jesus’ death, which places their composition within the lifetime of his closest followers. Consequently, we would have to claim that Jesus’ closest disciples, not a handful of scribes centuries later, radically misunderstood his claims and distorted his words. Second, all of Jesus’ earliest followers were Jews and were therefore the least likely people in the whole ancient world to ascribe divinity to anyone or anything. Of all the world religions at the time, only the Jews believed in a God too transcendent to even name. The possibility that Jews would casually decide to deify a human being is inconceivable. Third, the earliest Christian documents we possess are not the gospels, but Paul’s letters, which scholars unanimously date to between 20-30 years after Jesus’ death. In many of these documents, the divinity of Jesus is clearly affirmed by the apostle Paul who was himself a devout Jew and follower of Jesus. Finally, the claims to Jesus divinity are not relegated to one particular gospel or to some small portion of his teaching, but run throughout his life and ministry. It is not a matter of rejecting one or two sayings or actions as unhistorical, but of rejecting everything in the gospels as unhistorical simply because it is tainted by claims to divinity. Isn’t it far more likely that Jesus actually did make the claims that the gospels record him making?

But once we recognize that Jesus actually claimed to be God, we are now in an uncomfortable position. The option that we would very much like to entertain -that Jesus was a good, moral, human teacher- is not open to us. Jesus is either Lord, Liar, or Lunatic. To quote C.S. Lewis, who put forward this argument in its most familiar form:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

If we do not want to entertain the option that Jesus was actually who He claimed to be, then do the other two options of Lunatic or Liar strike you as unnecessarily harsh? If so, then I would suggest that you may not have really considered the magnitude of Jesus’ claims. For instance, if a man were merely to claim that he had received personal messages from God, it would be possible that he was mildly and harmlessly mistaken without necessarily being classifiable as an evil madman. But what if that man also claimed to be able to forgive sin (Mk. 2:1-12, Mt. 9:2-8, Lk. 5:18-26, John 8:1-11), claimed that a personal relationship with him was the only way to know God (Matt. 11:27, Lk. 10:22, Jn. 14:6), claimed to have preexisted from all eternity (Lk. 10:18, Jn. 8:57-58), claimed that our love for him must be greater than our love for our mother or father or children (Lk. 14:26), claimed that our eternal destiny depended entirely on our response to him (Lk. 12:8, Jn. 5:24), and claimed that he would return at the end of time to judge all of humanity (Mt. 19:28, Matt. 25:31-46, Jn. 5:28-30)? Let us be honest with ourselves. If any contemporary human being made the claims made by Jesus, we would dismiss him as a dangerous lunatic. Yet people as staunchly atheistic as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris are still loathe to do so with Jesus. Is not our very desire to find some acceptable alternative to the stark choice before us evidence of the extremely uncomfortable position that Jesus puts us in? So Jesus’ second challenge to atheists is to come to terms with himself. Either we must accept him or reject him. But there is no middle ground.

Jesus and salvation

As modern Americans, we tend to ask the question: “How do I get to heaven?” And as I said in the first section, the message of Jesus concerns far more than our personal beliefs as individuals. Yet Jesus’ teaching raises -and I believe was intended to raise- several very important questions that I’d now like to address. And it is our answers to these questions that do ultimately lead to a personal response.

To begin with, we noted that Jesus’ preaching constantly made reference to the kingdom of God. The Jews of Jesus’ day would have immediately identified the kingdom of God with the nation of Israel. But Jesus claimed that even Israelites were outsiders and that God’s kingdom was about more than national heritage. This claim would have been startling to the Jews and immediately raises several questions: why are we outside God’s kingdom? And if we are outside, then how do we enter? How do we come under God’s lordship and become his people?

Second, we noted Jesus’ radical concern for the poor, the outcasts, and the immoral. Again, these associations were shocking in that day and perhaps would be equally shocking today. We might not balk at the idea of Jesus befriending prostitutes, but what would we do if he entered the mansion of Bernard Madoff or shared a meal with the neighborhood drug dealer? Wouldn’t this behavior be inexplicable and shameful? How can a good man associate so freely with morally repugnant people? Moreover, how can Jesus claim to have come not for the good people but the bad people, not for the righteous but sinners?

Finally, we observed that Jesus’ life was one of intense suffering and hardship. If Jesus was as good and kind and compassionate as he appears, then surely he deserved a better life? Of all the indignities he suffered, the cross was the worst of all. How could a man who died a criminal’s death claim to be even a prophet, much less God himself? Why would God allow a man like Jesus to suffer as he did?

The answer to all of these questions is found in the gospel, the central message of Christianity. Jesus came as our substitute. This is the euangelion, the ‘good news’ or ‘glad tidings’ that was proclaimed to the people of Judea two thousand years ago: that Jesus came to save us. Let’s consider how the gospel answers the three questions we just raised.

First, why are we outside God’s kingdom? Because we have rejected Him. We have rejected God’s rule in our lives and have spit in his face. This is true of Jews and non-Jews, of religious people and irreligious people, of the deeply devout and the flagrantly impious. All of us are sinners who are outside of God’s kingdom and we can only be brought in through Jesus’ intervention. Jesus was the only man in history who belonged to God’s kingdom. Indeed, he is the King of God’s kingdom. It is through recognizing and embracing Jesus’ lordship that we enter God’s kingdom and come under his rule.

Second, why did Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners? At times, I have found this question almost humorous. Who else was there to eat with? Jesus associated with the broken and sinful because we are all broken and sinful. He healed the lepers because we are all lepers. Jesus showed love to the broken and the wicked because that is the only kind of love that we can receive: unconditional love. Love not because of who we are but in spite of who we are.

Finally, why was Jesus forsaken on the cross? In our place. As rebels against God, we deserve judgment and wrath and rejection. But God, in his love, chose to bear that judgment Himself. Jesus received the punishment that we deserve so that we could receive the blessing that He deserved. Jesus was broken so that we could be healed.

As I said, the message of Jesus is far more than the message of his substitutionary death, but it is not less. When we become a Christian, we are reconciled to God and we enter his kingdom. We move out into the world to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in word and deed by telling people of what Jesus has done, by caring for the sick, by giving to the needy, by working for justice. We are called by God to reach out to the lonely, the despised, the poor and the outcast. And we do so with joy because we recognize that we ourselves were once outcast, but were befriended and rescued. But the core of Christianity, the core of the gospel, the central message of Jesus rests on this truth: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.

Can we conclude that Jesus is “for atheists”? I think so. Jesus was crucified for the religious and the irreligious, for the pious and the impious, for agnostics, for skeptics, and for atheists that they might become his followers.