“Rescuing Jesus from the Christians”

While working on the posts for my summary of The Case for Christ I checked the book out at the library to get quotes. While doing so, I happened to notice a nearby book called Rescuing Jesus from the Christians. I thought I’d check it out too to get an obviously non-orthodox (i.e. theologically liberal) view point as well.

The author, Clayton Sullivan, is described as a “biblical scholar and Southern Baptist minister” according to the back of the book. As is customary for me for posts like this, I’ll start with merely summarizing his point of view without comment for the sake of discussion. My own thoughts on his point of view I’ll discuss in a future post.

The Hard Sayings of Jesus?

Sullivan spends the first half of the book pointing out that the Bible in general and Jesus in particular taught many mistaken and even evil things that God would not agree with. His first example is that Jesus did not (in his view) teach that the kingdom of God to come was the Church, but was a soon to be final wrapping up of the world and destruction of the wicked. It was not, says Sullivan, at all intended to be an inner peace of mind. He quotes Mark 9:1, as well as many others, as the basis for interpretation of the kingdom of God being eschatological in nature as well as something that should come within a few years, not within a few thousand years. Therefore, says Sullivan, Jesus was mistaken about his central message.

Jesus was not born of a virgin either, as the insistence of both genealogies in the Gospels makes clear. Jesus was the son of Joseph. ( See Matt 1-2 and Luke 1-2). The idea of the virgin birth was actually a non-Jewish pagan idea that got inserted into Christian thought. Possibly even Jesus was illegitimate as evidenced by Matt including four ‘flawed women’ in the genealogy (See Matt 1:5-7).

Jesus did not teach he was God. Sullivan feels this is implied in Mark 10:17-18 plus all the various situations where Jesus prays to God. Plus there is Mark 15:34 to consider where Jesus gives up on God. Jesus believed God was anthropomorphic in nature because God can sit on thrones (Matt 5:34), has a face that can contemplate angels (Matt 18:10), has a finger (Luke 11:20) and hands (Luke 23:46), etc.

Jesus was mixed on ethical teachings, sometimes getting it right, and sometimes dead wrong. Jesus failed to speak out against the worse evil the world has ever known, slavery. In fact, based on Jesus’ parables, he apparently approved of slavery. He also failed to identify with the great causes of humanity, like pacifism and social justice. (p. 45-46) He also seemed indifferent to government brutality as evidenced in Luke 13:2-3 and his failure to condemn the Roman empire in Mark 12:17. While he did teach to give to the poor, he was a bit too casual about it in Matt 26:11, placing Himself above the poor’s needs. In addition, Jesus was sometimes racist and churlish towards non-Jews. This, Sullivan bases on Matt 15:21-28.

Jesus taught that one inherited eternal life through proper moral behavior (Matt 19:16-19) but was sometimes rather “draconian” (p. 48). Consider, for example, Matt 5:29-30. His teachings on marriage were rather questionable seeing as he was unmarried and fathered no children. So how could he, never having experienced a loveless or frayed marriage, soundly condemn all divorce?

Jesus also placed himself above familial relationships, as evidenced in Luke 14:26 and Matt 10:37. This clearly veered towards “megalomania.” (p. 49). At times he even seems to repudiate traditional family relationships as seen in Matt 12:48-50. And thank goodness no one, not even committed Christians, believes in following Jesus’ teachings about begging and borrowing in Matt 5:42, because it would quickly lead to bankruptcy for all. This seems consistent with Jesus’ general disdain for wealthy people as in Mark 10:25 and Luke 16:19-31.

In the end, Jesus’ beliefs that he was some sort of king that could fulfill royal prophecy (Zech 9:9) finally got him killed. There is no hint, says Sullivan, that Jesus believed his death was somehow atoning for sin.

Sullivan then gives his strategies for “rescuing Jesus.”

How To Rescue Jesus From the Christians

Sullivan accepts that the resurrection did take place. In fact, he points out that this is really the only good explanation for the data we have (probably the only point in common between Strobel’s view in The Case for Christ and Sullivan’s view.)

Why did the Christian movement begin as and when it did? What was the stimulus that overnight transformed Jesus’ disciples into a rejoicing community and propelled the Christian faith into existence? The plausible answer: the resurrection Any skeptic who denies the resurrection is under obligation to posit a reason other than the resurrection for the disciples’ post-crucifixion behavior and the Christian religion’s emergence and dynamic growth. I know of no alternative explanation that is plausible. (p. 77)

Strategy 1: Emphasize the Resurrected Jesus, not the Mortal One

So Sullivan’s first strategy for rescuing Jesus is that we can separate Jesus into two figures: the mortal, sinful, and imperfect Jesus and the resurrected and glorified Jesus. He suggests that “Thinking,” “Reflective,” and “Inquisitive” Christians should separate these two in their minds. (p. 82) [1]

…the reality and potency of the post-resurrection Jesus implies that Christians have nothing to fear from conclusions reached by Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment investigation into the thoughts and deeds of the historical Jesus. Such is the case because the resurrected Jesus exists independently of scholarly investigation of the historical Jesus. (p. 83-84)

Strategy 2: Place a Statute of Limitations on Religious Beliefs

The next strategy that Sullivan suggests for rescuing Jesus from the orthodox Christians is what he calls the ‘statute of limitations’ on religious beliefs. (p. 85.) That is to say, we are under no obligation to believe everything early Christians believed because they held some beliefs that are untenable today. He quotes Eph 6:5-8 as an example of slavery being viewed as “doing the will of God.” See also 1 Peter 2:18-19). The same could be said of anti-feminist ideas in the Bible, such as 1 Cor 14:34-35.) He then goes on to say that we can, by the same token, reject the idea that Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins as taught in (for example) Heb 9.

Strategy 3: Do not Aggrandize Jesus

Given that Sullivan does not believe Jesus was God, nor that he died for our sins, it is not surprising that his next strategy for rescuing Jesus is to not sentimentalize nor aggrandize Jesus. He takes exception to the fact that Christians sing such sentimentally intimate song about Jesus while the other religions of the world do not do the same to their founders, such as Abraham, Moses, or Buddha. (p. 97-99) Besides, as previously mentioned, Jesus was not such a ‘sweet person’ at all.

Strategy 4: Rejoice in Religious Pluralism

His fourth strategy for rescuing Jesus is to rejoice in religious pluralism. In this chapter of the book Sullivan gives examples of why he believes in reincarnation and expresses concern that orthodox Christians can’t see the truth in it.

A case can be made for the view that Christianity has arrived as a ‘hinge moment’ or a ‘turning point’ in its history. Instead of viewing other religions as either false or inferior, Christianity should view them as worthy colleagues in the religious quest. (p. 116)


I have done my best to try to capture the essence of Sullivan’s point of view and his arguments. I’ll have more thoughts on this later. For now, discuss.


[1] I noted that Sullivan calls himself a “thinking Christian” just as John Dehlin and others call themselves “thinking Mormons.” I was not aware that this practice originated from liberal Christian circles. I should have guessed it.

19 thoughts on ““Rescuing Jesus from the Christians”

  1. Amazing that Sullivan could hold such beliefs and still be a Southern Baptist. Of all the evangelical sects, they are perhaps the strictest and most conservative. You may want to read John Shelby Spong’s liberal theology stuff. He’s a retired Episcopalian bishop, who suggested these 12 Points of Reform for Christianity:
    1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
    2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
    3. The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
    4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
    5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
    6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
    7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
    8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
    9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
    10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
    11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
    12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

  2. Sullivan’s views here are unorthodox, but semi-respectable. I don’t know how to characterize Spong, however, as anything other than an atheist. A superficially Christian atheist perhaps, but an atheist nonetheless. Is liberal Christianity really this far gone?

  3. Mark D. – “Is liberal Christianity really this far gone?”

    Yes, for as much as the liberals like to think they bring forth the “right kind of change” in the conservative church institution, they need the conservatives just as fiercely to keep from going off the deep end with stuff like this. But I’d say in reality you don’t need this marketplace of ideas of conservatives and liberals tugging until you find equilibrium. You just need to listen to take the scriptures and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  4. So, wait, he mythologizes/deconstructs most of the New Testament but accepts the Resurrection? Talk about straining at gnats while swallowing camels.

  5. One further thought: the title sounds like a misnomer. It doesn’t sound like he’s rescuing Jesus from the Christians. It sounds like he’s rescuing Jesus from, well, Jesus.

  6. Adam,

    Yes. I agree. He seems to believe that the Christians are guilty of actually believing in Jesus as Jesus is actually presented.

  7. Ram,

    Looking at Spong’s list, it seems like it would have been easier just to list what he has left the Christian religion. Here is that list:

    Points of the Christian religion that do not need to be changed or removed:

    *crickets chirp*

  8. Mark D says: “Sullivan’s views here are unorthodox, but semi-respectable”

    Can you explain what you mean further, Mark? What makes it ‘respectable’ or ‘semi-respectable’ vs., say, Spong’s?

  9. Ram said: “Amazing that Sullivan could hold such beliefs and still be a Southern Baptist”

    In all honesty, I suspect this is a misrepresentation. He probably was previously Southern Baptist before his views changed and is still somehow involved, but not as an active minister any more. Or something like that.

    Of course, I could be wrong. They are a somewhat loose confederation. If one Southern Baptist minister started preaching things like this, I would assume that as long as no one complained to the convention, no one would even know. I have been told (by a Southern Baptist) that generally Southern Baptist Churches are more or less independent.

    But I have seen people that hold to liberal theology misrepresent their actual relationship with conservative religions for the shock value of what they are about to say. The idea is to get beyond the ‘defenses’ of others by initially implying belief in things that they don’t actually believe. (i.e. they lie.)

  10. Mark D says: “Is liberal Christianity really this far gone?”

    Actually, I think “liberal Christianity” is a label that vaguely covers several sometimes overlapping, sometimes mutually exclusive view points. Spong seems to me (based only on the 12 points, so I may have him wrong, of course) to represent the ‘vague-theist’ wing of liberal Christianity: Accept God, but be vague if it’s an actual being or if it’s just human spirituality under a label that usually means something else to everyone else.

    But there are also liberal Christians that are outright believers.

  11. Bruce, I don’t know how one rejects “theism” without being an atheist, and within the broader world of Christianity Christian atheism is not really a respectable view. Considered on its own terms it might be, but I fail to see the point.

    As far as Sullivan is concerned, as described he is far from orthodox. His perspective on Jesus seems to be roughly the same that many in Judaism might hold – that he was a great prophet. Within the context of theism, that is at least a respectable position.

    It seems kind of a pointless exercise to organize a whole religion around someone who you can’t distinguish from anyone else, though. What is his case for Jesus anyway? Most of what you have summarized here is his case against Jesus. And what difference would it make for a person such as he describes to be resurrected?

    I think views like Sullivan’s are salvageable into some sort of meaningful religion, but I would have to hear what he thinks about faith, repentance, and baptism to have an opinion on whether his are.

  12. Mark thanks for the clarification. I understand what you mean now. And I agree. Especially this: “It seems kind of a pointless exercise to organize a whole religion around someone who you can’t distinguish from anyone else, though.”

  13. One of the ways to rescue Sullivan’s point of view, by the way, is to make Christ into an imperfect exemplar, who set the path and marked the way for all those who take upon themselves his name, or rather the name that God has placed upon all those who enter into the same covenant.

    If Sullivan doesn’t do this, I don’t see how he can have a coherent view of the atonement at all, to say nothing of vast swaths of the New Testament. One way or another Christ has to have a unique role, and reducing him to just another moral teacher won’t do at all.

  14. Mark, you are expressing my point of view well. Sullivan fails to come up with a fully coherent view point. He end up with simple rejectionism. (i.e. criticizing someone else’s view point because he doesn’t have a fully developed one of his own.)

    You give interesting suggestions on how he might go about it, but at least within this book, he doesn’t get there.

  15. I’m willing to entertain the position that Christ did not have perfect knowledge during his mortal ministry, which means that he could have erred.

    However, I believe that he was the Son of God and atoned for our sins.

    If you reject both his teachings and example, and his sonship and atonement, what you have left is your residual affection for the man from when you used to believe those things.

  16. “If you reject both his teachings and example, and his sonship and atonement, what you have left is your residual affection for the man from when you used to believe those things.”

    I believe you just defined theological liberalism for those that no longer believe in God but do believe in human spirituality instead.

  17. I see such people as dishonest and hypocritical. They claim a form of atheism, yet remain pastors in the Christian church. If they choose to disbelieve and teach their disbelief, they should first leave the profession and preach their new religion from the outside.

    I think Bart Ehrmann is a good example of what should be done in such a case. He went to Moody Bible college to be a pastor. But his advanced degrees caused him to question everything. Now he is no longer a Christian, but teaches and writes regarding his research and ideas. This would be the honest approach.

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