The Jesus Puzzle (“Who do people say I am?”)

The question asked by Jesus to his disciples two thousand years ago is no different now. His true identity has continued to capture the interest of many for two millennia. Ironically, the majority of those who think they have the answer to this question, do not. Christians are the most deluded of all in understanding who Jesus really was — and was not.

As I reflect over these many years of painstaking research and intensive analysis which have consumed my life, I struggle to find a way that best describes both my journey and my task. Often I come back to a puzzle analogy. This seems most fitting to capture the essence of my work.

Imagine if during your entire life you had a picture puzzle of Jesus and his disciples. The scene depicts them gathered around their master as he preaches perched atop a rock. You have become very familiar with all the details of this picture, Jesus’ face, color of his eyes, length of his beard and wave of his hair, what he was wearing, the looks on the disciples faces and their garments, the sea in the background and a few scattered clouds and a bird in flight. You like your picture and are comforted by Jesus’ soft eyes and outstretched hands beckoning all to come to his gentle care. Now suppose someone, like me, comes along and tells you that is not what Jesus looks like. I hand you a ten thousand piece puzzle which contains an accurate picture of Jesus and his followers. All you have to do is take the time to put it together. Would you?

The catch is the puzzle we are talking about is a hypothetical puzzle composed of theological pieces. You have to construct it in your mind.

The puzzle of Jesus Christians have created is a few hundred pieces. It is a simple puzzle composed of a literal, unquestioned reading of the New Testament writings. Each verse is considered factual and part of the big picture including his miraculous virgin birth, baptism, divinity, miracles, transformation, resurrection, Second Coming and so on. All the pieces fit neatly together with no irregular or “extra” pieces. Paul’s Jesus is perfectly compatible with the Jesus of his disciples before and after his death and resurrection. This is a lovely picture of Jesus but it is mostly fabricated.

The biggest challenge I face is persuading the world to stop thinking the picture of Jesus to which they have grown accustomed is representative of the Jesus who walked the earth two thousand years ago. It does not, not even close. This Jesus has been painted over with two thousand years of Christian tradition making the original portrait almost unrecognizable.

I would add, anyone is entitled to believe this mischaracterization of Jesus provided they concede it is based on an unquestioned acceptance of Christian tradition and not an honest, critical and rational appraisal of New Testament teachings. 

Before you stop reading, ask yourself these questions:“Do you really believe this is who Jesus is and upon what do you base your conclusion? If you answered yes, are you living your life consistent with this belief? In other words, if you truly believe the picture of Jesus as the eternal Son of God, Savior and Judge of mankind, it should drastically effect how you live. You are bound by this truth to unquestioned obedience and a life of service. Anything less would be inconsistent with the initial conviction. Still think you have an accurate picture of Jesus?

My picture of Jesus is different, very different. Here are some of the main “pieces” of my puzzle of Jesus.

1. He was a staunch follower of the law who stressed personal piety over mere external formalism. He advocated allegiance to the ancient traditions but one must also practice inner righteousness. It was a form of hyper-Judaism.

2. Jesus did not care about Gentiles. His ministry was exclusively to, “The lost sheep of Israel.” He looked forward to the day when the nations (‘goyim’) would be severely judged under the wrath of God for their mistreatment of Israel. This theme is repeated throughout the prophets. The uncircumcised were lawless and wicked and did not have the Mosaic Law to guide them because they were not, The Chosen race. Peter’s conflict with Paul over the latter’s efforts to incorporate Gentiles reflects this antipathy which he and the disciples learned from their master.

3. Jesus was born in Nazareth to Mary and Joseph not to a virgin in a manger in Bethlehem. No Christian text does more theological heavy lifting than Isaiah 7:14. It is foundational to Jesus’ dual natures (human and divine) upon which rests the critical doctrine of his substitutionary death for all mankind as its perfect representative. However, a closer inspection of this text in its original literary and historical context reveals its blatant misuse. In fact, there does not exist a single prophecy found in the New Testament which has not been either misinterpreted or commandeered to build a story around to bolster and validate his messianic credentials. Therefore the prophetic link employed by Christians to legitimize Christianity’s origins cannot be established.

4. Jesus ministered for just over a year spending most of it in Galilee. During this time he saw himself as a special prophet of the Last Days. He was convinced the kingdom had already begun to arrive as evidenced by signs and wonders. His role as prophet was endowed with God’s anointing which gave him the power to exorcise demons. Like John the Baptist, this was to prepare the way for the Lord, an unmistakable reference to Yahweh.

5. Jesus’ accepted the title, “King of the Jews (Judeans)” during the final week of his life at the behest of some Passover pilgrims, perhaps Zealots. It was the first time he was regarded as Messiah, a political title. Jesus was in a state of messianic limbo being a king without a throne and a potentate without power. A reign that never came.

6. Jesus was the victim of his own popularity which led to his death. As the newly nominated king of the Jews, his ministry took a dramatic turn toward potential revolt. The peaceful prophet had been replaced by a political insurrectionist. Neither Rome nor the Jewish leadership could risk a rebellion and tried to force Jesus to rescind his position. He refused and sealed his own fate. The answer to the question: “Who killed Jesus?” He did.

7. The resurrection myth is factual fiction. It is based on the very real experiences of Jesus’ followers. It is unquestionable Mary and his disciples had profound mystical encounters with whom they thought was the risen Jesus. That this was actually Jesus is highly contestable based on a complete analysis of the gospel literature. Mary’s questionable mental stability and a missing body was the genesis for the first resurrection encounter and served to prompt Jesus’ disciples to seek similar experiences.

8. Despite this initial fervor over Jesus’ resurrection, “Christianity” should have soon withered and died when Jesus failed to perform his Messianic responsibilities. A messiah who did not return soon was not going to return at all. Expectation of an imminent appearance was the focus of this Judaistic sect and would be its demise.

9. The synoptic gospels were Jewish Christianity’s final desperate effort to save their floundering faith. Written not long after the fall of Jerusalem, when Jesus having again failed to return, these writers urged their readers to be alert and ready promising his coming within their generation. It was now or never.

10. The introduction of Paul and his ministry to the Gentile nations secured Christianity’s salvation. After the catastrophic event of 66-70AD, the death knell had sounded for the Jewish branch of this movement. However, it revived and reinforced Gentile Christianity who saw the destruction of Jerusalem as divinely ordained for the nations rejection of their messiah. 

11. Free from its Judaistic parentage, Christianity could now assert its independence and find its place in Roman society. It would encounter many trials and tribulations from within and without which threatened to extinguish it. However, the fortuitous experience of Emperors Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century would guarantee its survival. Christianity would consolidate and chart its official theological course through a series of Ecumenical councils which defined it.

12. Time and space prevents disclosing the many more pieces of data which contributor to the overall picture of who Jesus really was. A detailed examination of the many “messianic” texts demand vigorous scrutiny. A comparison of the gospel narratives on key topics such as the nativity, Jesus’ baptism, arrest, death and resurrection require careful analysis. The birth of Gentile Christianity and Paul’s role in redefining the gospel are also important in our understanding of why Christianity survives to this day. 

Evangelicalism: The most puzzling of all Christian sects

American evangelicalism is a vague representation and theological perversion of traditional Christianity’s central tenets. If Jesus were alive today, there is perhaps no subset of Christianity which he would find more reprehensible than the one which boasts being the most authentic to his teachings. Paul too would be appalled given how evangelicals have butchered his theology.

At the root of the problem is a belief system lacking incentive for holy living beginning with the Rapture theory.  According to this view, not a single evangelical Rapturist believes Jesus Second Coming is for them but solely for Tribulation converts. In this regard all the warnings for preparedness and alertness for his return is empty rhetoric yet to find an audience. Remarkably, they believe the overwhelming number of Christians throughout history have mistakenly interpreted these exhortations as intended for them when they are not.

So pervasive is this theory, and for good reason, many consider it a core doctrine and test of authentic Christian belief regarding those who don’t hold to it as less biblical. This provides indisputable proof evangelicals are imprisoned by their own belief system. They are too dogmatic to be theologically responsible and abandon a doctrine that hangs on a single misinterpreted verse and goes against the tenor of New Testament teaching. The promise of exemption from future pain, suffering and judgment renders them theologically blind as they wallow obliviously in complacency. 

Full confession, I was a product of American evangelicalism. I graduated from Moody Bible College (Chicago, Illinois) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Dallas, Texas), among the most authentic representations of American evangelicalism. After fifteen years of immersion within the evangelical culture, I had grown increasingly disillusioned with evangelicalism, both theologically and practically. I found its teachings inconsistent with an honest literal, grammatical interpretation of the biblical text and the history of Christian doctrines. Pre-tribulation, premillennial dispensationalism was an affront to honest hermeneutics. Also, the salvation experience, aka, “Accepting Jesus into you heart,” devoid of baptism contradicted the New Testament, Church Fathers and all of Christian history where water baptism was indispensable to salvation. 

Evangelicals have promoted a fast food style gospel. Salvation is quick, easy, cheap and convenient. One simply asks to be saved by a simple formulaic prayer and, “presto!” instant salvation guaranteed forever no strings attached. Conversion is stripped of repentance and one need not demonstrate righteous “fruit” as evidence redemption has occurred. Such teaching would be anathema to first century Christians and most of Christendom. 

My original goal was to deconstruct and reconstruct my faith from Jesus, my foundation, up. I was immensely satisfied in my relationship with God, but I knew I could not remain an evangelical in good conscience because of its many flaws. The rampant hypocrisy I saw around me was easily attributable to evangelicals following an imperfect faith. Why else would they exhibit such lethargy? They were unwitting dupes trapped in an ideological prison which robbed them of spiritual vitality. I would not allow my faith to be similarly smothered. I knew if I used the tools, skills and knowledge I had acquired, I could rebuild my faith stronger and more vibrant than before.

Back to the Jesus puzzle. At the risk of torturing this analogy, let me say I slowly began to remove pieces of the puzzle until only the picture of Jesus remained. However, by this time I was beginning to have serious doubts about more critical “pieces” like the doctrine of the Trinity and the person of Jesus himself. I would challenge the cornerstone of Christianity.

Almost from the day I became a born-again Christian and started reading the gospels, I began to have questions. As a “baby” Christian, I was told doubts were normal and would be resolved in time as I matured in the faith. After extensive theological training and Christian ministry these doubts only grew. The most persistent had always been why the Jesus of the gospels seemed incompatible with evangelical theology. 

If you believe what evangelicalism teaches, Jesus was being somewhat disingenuous. Because he had not yet died on the cross to forgive sins nor been resurrected to provide eternal life, he had to talk in the context of Judaism even though he knew in a short time God’s entire redemptive plan would change. You almost would expect him to say one thing and then whisper, “But it’s all going to change when I am crucified so don’t take it too seriously.” Evangelicals meekly demure to their dispensationalism period of law mixed with grace defense.

It begs the question, “Why didn’t Jesus just tell everyone of his impending death and resurrection?” Why bother teaching and preaching about obedience to the law as necessary for eternal life when the crucifixion will render the law obsolete? Why keep your messiahship a “secret” considering how vital it is? Obviously not a single follower of Jesus expected his resurrection since none awaited it, not even his own mother, Mary, who was privy to everything according to Matthew and Luke.

At this point, the two Jesus traditions clash, the earthly Jesus and the heavenly Christ. The first is historical, the second is theoretical based on speculative theology engendered by mystical experientialism. The resurrection and ascension were assumed absolutely true resulting in trying to reconcile the actual words of Jesus, contained in oral tradition, with what later believers presumed he must have said. For instance, even though there was no record of Jesus speaking of his death and resurrection publicly, he must have told his disciples (who were now dead or banished) privately of his fate.

Christianity would take another sharp turn when Paul wrangled it away from Judaism. Unknowingly, Paul would save it from extinction by emancipating it from the ancient promises which were considered carnal and incompatible with the invisible heavenly realm. The expectation of a literal messianic kingdom and king had been replaced with a spiritualized version of the kingdom and a heavenly king who ruled in the hearts of his followers. 

When we step back a vastly different picture of Jesus emerges. One which is fiercely tribalistic and legalistic and one who was certain he was living in the shadow of the soon to arrive kingdom of God. His final words on the cross borrowed from a Psalm depicting David’s plea for God’s deliverance went unanswered. God had indeed forsaken his prophet/messiah as he hung hopelessly on the cross. 

In conclusion, as a former evangelical let me say I fully understand the evangelical mindset. Evangelicals are emotionally locked into a theological track which prevents them from straying too far from their beliefs. It gives the illusion of intellectual freedom when in fact it is ideological imprisonment. After years of being evangelically institutionalized, I had been conditioned to see the world through a very narrow ideological grid I had spent fifteen years constructing. It gave me perspective, direction and confidence. My world seemed understandable and navigable as God’s obedient servant.

Trying to dismantle an evangelical worldview from the outside is impossible. They will kick, scream and resist at every turn. It provides too many benefits such as eternal hope to be easily taken. I left the faith because I tricked myself into letting down my faith guard thinking I was reinforcing it. A believer must begin the process from within starting with honest doubt not guarded faith.

Evangelicalism is an irrational faith fueled by fear and false hope.

Most adherents to evangelicalism would bristle at this statement, but it is true. They are on a merry-go-round of faith with no rational beginning. Most enter the faith as children when most vulnerable before being capable of informed reasonable decision. Those who continue after adulthood have been intellectually crippled and emotionally dependent on Christianity’s promises. I would contend this is a form of psychological or spiritual abuse. I mention it only to awake some evangelicals to this fact.

Evangelicalism like most religions is repopulated from within by its children. Parents often instill their values and beliefs this way out of genuine love and concern, after all a child’s eternal destiny may be at stake. However, the end only justifies the means if the end is provable. Not only is the afterlife beyond scientific verification, it is also beyond the Bible’s reach unless the Bible can be demonstrated to be a reliable source of fact.

Evangelicalism is irrational because it can offer no substantive evidence to support any of its claims. It rests on a deductive approach which begins with belief in the supernatural and then uses false reasoning to support it. The danger is when one defaults to supernatural thinking there are no logical boundaries, anything is possible, probable and plausible when God is the orchestrator.

Debating with an evangelical is like playing chess with someone who thinks cheating is permissible even advisable. Evangelicals will engage in a reasonable discussion until they are placed in rational checkmate at which time they pick up their magic king and move him to a safe place on the board. When accused of violating the rules, they merely default to their God who invented the law of the miraculous. 

Many people think when it comes to the Bible and who Jesus is, it is a rational stalemate. I disagree. The biblical text is well within our rational reach for intense scrutiny. For half a millennium it has mostly escaped the kind of criticism to which we subject everything else. For too long, groups like evangelical Christians have controlled the narrative when it comes to the Bible and a largely biblically illiterate public has allowed it. Evangelicals traffic in misinformation and obfuscation when it comes to the Bible and Jesus whether they are aware of it or not. Very little accurate and unbiased information makes its way to the public square because Christians staunchly resist it. Appeals to religious liberty and personal rights are often cited in defense.

Religion in America is no longer just private and personal, it is public and political and therefore deserving of the full weight of critical scrutiny. Sacralism is now the norm of American politics and it has deleterious consequences which must be met with a robust counter-offensive. We can no longer sit back and indulge the religious sensibilities of those whose moral, political and environmental agenda endanger our rights, freedoms and future.

Among evangelicals favorite targets are the LGBTQ community, women’s advocacy groups, the scientific community, secular educators, minorities, other religious groups and immigrants. Evangelicals also unabashedly embrace and promote apocalypticism which carries specific consequences inconsistent with political peace and environmental stewardship. Last, as previously mentioned, is the next generation of children who are subjected to indoctrination and socialization within the evangelical community ensuring its continued survival. Until we as a society arrest this unfair behavior, evangelicalism will continue unabated and exert its influence on a world unsympathetic to its stringent yet insidious worldview. 

Published by ronarends

I was born in London, Ontario, Canada. I attended Capernwray Bible School (England and Austria), Moody Bible Institute (Chicago, Il.), the University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario), London Baptist Seminary (London, Ontario) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Dallas, Tx.). I have had several temporary jobs over the years but my focus has alway been on an investigative study of the Bible, Jesus and Christianity particularly evangelicalism. Currently editing a massive literary undertaking deconstructing Christianity and Jesus.

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