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) 
…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.
 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.