The Gospel of John on Incarnation

Let us do a two-level interpretation in the Gospel of John (literal vs figurative) and relate it to McGrath’s non penal substitution interpretation of the cross in John.  This will undermine the mythicist sin debt payment interpretation of the faith. 

There is perhaps no saying in scripture that is more “seemingly” horrific than John 14:6, which has birthed no end to exclusionist approaches to God.  There is that literal level, but it needs to be passed through to a more allegorical understanding of the human condition.  The passage reads: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the father except through me / but by me (John 14:6).”  We can also detect a hint of “for the sake of me” which is the way John uses δι’ in 11:15 and 12:30.  But doesn’t John 14:6 contradict Luke 3:6 which says all flesh will encounter the lord’s salvation.[1]  Who is this logos/word Jesus, this “me” that John 14:6 refers to? 

Of the various authors of the gospel of John, if we treat John as a final redaction cohesive unit for the sake of this analysis, John calls Jesus the word/logos who was with God and was God and became flesh – the incarnation (John 1).  What does this mean?  We are familiar with this Jewish notion of “logos/word” as God speaking into existence a creation he saw was “good” in Genesis.[2] 

But what is often underemphasized here is the connection of The Word to goodness.  Repeatedly for emphasis in Genesis God is portrayed as seeing what he spoke into existence is “good,” which is to say the Word is not only creative/powerful, but good (Genesis 1:4; 10; 12; 18; 21; 25; 31):  The word or logos whose essence is creation, transformation, and goodness.  It is crucial to understanding Jesus as the logos when interpreting Jesus’ claim in John that no one comes to the father but through him.  Otherwise, we get a traditional literal reading of Johannine Christianity as being the only true path which excludes other religions and secularism alike. 

So, as God’s word, of all good things spoken into existence, Jesus was paradigmatically good as self-sacrifice being the essence of what and who he was.  The logos or “word” is not different from God, in the same way when I say “hello” the word does not have being aside from me and so is me.  However, the word “hello” is not identical/reducible to me, and in Jesus’ case John is arguing of all the beings God spoke into existence Jesus was the most like God.  This is often misunderstood to be saying that Jesus is God, which would make no sense of Jesus’ prayer life in the Gospel of John.  If Jesus was identical with God, who was he praying to?  Clearly, if God spoke the earth into existence, we would not try to argue God is the earth (pantheists might).  The trinity is an unbiblical concept.[3]   

For Jesus to say in John no one comes to the father but though him, a more natural reading is: no one comes to the father but by emulating Jesus as the specially chosen one of God who created the perfect exemplar for sacrifice inspiring repentance.  Or better, it means such love as God sending Jesus to willingly die for us.  It is in the Word speaking into existence pure Goodness/Love through the crucifixion that the sinner is inspired to repent.  So, when Jesus says no one comes to the father but through me, he doesn’t mean that you need to believe in some guy who created and participated in history’s greatest blood magic ritual, but that an act of pure love is needed to truly inspire repentance. Hence, the Roman soldier at the cross saying he was truly the son of God (Mark), an innocent man (Luke). 

Perhaps the main failing of Carrier’s mythicism framework is that it doesn’t even address the central problem of repentance.  Jesus as the specially chosen one of God who proved who he was through signs and wonders was given the most humiliating and brutal execution possible as the death of a lowly criminal.  If this wasn’t enough to remove the blinders from people’s eyes to see the hidden vileness of this world, nothing would.  And in fact, this is a literary mimesis and reversal of Aristotle’s analysis of katharsisin the Poetics.  Carrier’s celestial Christ executed in outer space by sky demons is simply unrelated to the central theme of being a catalyst for guilt and repentance.

In other words, the portrait we get of Jesus is he was an interpreter of the Law who argued its essence was love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-34).  Jesus then redefines love of neighbor (from Leviticus 19:18) to include love of enemy (Matthew 5:43-48).  What does love of enemy look like?  It means if someone does you wrong like by striking you, turn the other cheek so they can hit that as well (Matthew 5:38–42; Luke 6:27–31).  Why?  Wrongdoers may not recognize the evil they do because they want to harm you (striking your cheek satisfies their rage), but if there is an excess of evil (offering the other cheek even though their rage has been quenched by the first cheek), they have a catalyst to see the wrongness and violence in what they’re doing and repent.  This is the excess of evil in the cross of Jesus where the paradigmatic holy man of God was brutally tortured and given the most horrendous and humiliating execution known to humans.  The essence of the entire religion aimed at repentance is lost if you try to argue Jesus was never on earth but crucified by sky demons in outer space.

Dennis MacDonald and McGrath are right that mythicism fails Occam’s razor on the micro level by offering forced interpretations such as Carrier’s cosmic sperm bank hypothesis to explain Paul’s point that Jesus was from the line of David.  But it also fails on a thematic macro level because it simply ignores the entire religion is trying to model a catalyst for repentance.  Not only does Carrier fail to emphasize this centrality of repentance, to my knowledge he doesn’t even mention it in his scholarly book “On The Historicity Of Jesus” or his trade book “Jesus From Outer Space.”  How does a celestial Jesus who was never on earth and was killed in outer space by sky demons serve as a catalyst for a contrite heart, circumcising the fleshly from the heart (Rom 2:29; Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4) to reveal the law written on it (Rom 2:15)?  This arises out of Ezekiel’s idea that “26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26).”  To circumcise the heart is to cut the fleshly part away “18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (Matthew 15:18-20) … to reveal the law written on it.  With faith in Jesus God prunes us (John 15) so the fruits of the spirit will multiply (Galatians 5)

John doesn’t use the word repent, but repentance underlies his gospel.[4]  In fact, it is the whole point of John’s gospel.[5]  So, the synoptics and the gospel of John all point to the main issue of repentance, implicitly and explicitly, and so to the specially chosen one of God who proved who he was through signs and wonders, and yet was brutally tortured and executed as a criminal.  In a nutshell, we properly read Mark when we come to see ourselves in the indifferent to justice Pilate, the self-serving religious elite, and the quickly incited/bloodthirsty crowd.  The whole repentance framework makes no sense if Jesus was never on earth as Carrier maintains.

Let’s get more concrete.  John means no one can truly come to the father unless they have been transformed by perfect love – which is not about paying a sin debt but truly coming to see yourself and repent.  This needs to be thought in an ancient Greek way.  If Jesus “re-defines” sacrificial love incarnate as a willing crucified sacrifice for humanity, then each individual love act a person encounters or conducts is a manifestation of Jesus, in the same way we say of an Eagle circling it is Nature incarnate, “Now that is Nature!” or of a mansion that is Houseness incarnate “Now that’s a house!” or of a Picasso painting “Now this is Art!”- the Greek idea of the universal feeling like it’s appearing through the particular (to various degrees), which we are all familiar with from our own experience.  The Greek writer Homer calls this something appearing in its fullness (enargeis in Homer); also, this is Heidegger’s interpretation of Aristotle’s Physics 193a32-193b6 where Aristotle says: “For the word ‘nature’ is applied to what is according to nature and the natural in the same way as ‘art’ is applied to what is artistic or a work of art.”   In this way, the exclusivity of John 14:6 really means: No one comes to the father except for the sake of/through/ but by self-sacrificial love (eg love of traditionally undesirables like widow, orphan, stranger, and enemy).  Christ’s death as paradigmatically self-sacrificial redefined what it meant to be a good human, and made good conduct in life an expression/manifestation of Christ.  Analogously, while Larry Bird mastered the game of basketball, Michael Jordan re-defined it.  In this way, we might say we are channeling our inner Michael Jordan when we are “in the moment” in a basketball game and doing really well.  This is the same sense we find in Ephesians 3 which says of God: “14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father [Other ancient authorities add of our Lord Jesus Christ], 15 from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name (Eph 3:14-16).”

Paul says we are a living sacrifice and crucified with Christ.  Jesus in the gospels says we must pick up our crosses and follow him.  Another image Paul uses is one died so that all may die to the fleshly influences.  As McGrath says, this is the opposite of penal substitution.

In John Dominic Crossan’s language, Jesus incarnates a certain vision. Crossan says in Jesus as with Caesar, Son of God means heir of God, one who is the manifestation of God’s will.  The coins of the time said theos sebastos kaiser, Caesar is god.  So, we can see a pious Jew saying, no, not Caesar but Jesus is the revelation manifestation/image/son of God.  For a Roman who wanted to lynch Caesar he wouldn’t kill him and say god is dead, but rather no he is not the heir of god.  Israel in the Exodus was called my Son, David was called my Son, it meant the heir apparent.  If someone were to bring peace to the world in the first century we would say he has revealed god.  Today we would give him a Nobel prize. 

We can then understand the meaning of the cross in the Gospel of John.  A key here is understanding when the Baptizer in the Gospel of John calls Jesus the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, an important point is John is identifying Jesus with the paschal lamb of Passover, not the scapegoat of atonement from Hebrews/Leviticus, so the issue doesn’t seem to be an individual’s sins being paid for as penal substitution proponents would have, but something collective.  Pulliam tries to maintain the penal substitution theory of atonement against McGrath by assuming the various writers of the NT are mutually contradictory on the issue.[6]  Contrary to both, Carrier wants to argue that the entire edifice of mythicism rests on a sin debt payment interpretation of the cross across the board, and so Carrier holds fast the conservative penal substitution interpretation.[7]  On the other hand, McGrath paints a picture of the cross in John that is not about my personal sin debt, but a collective issue of how sin was present  in the world.[8]  And this issue of communal purification can lead us back to the image of the scapegoat.[9]

Regarding the Passover lamb, in the bible, Moses approaches the reigning pharaoh several times, explaining that the Hebrew God has requested a three-day leave for his people so that they may celebrate a feast in the wilderness.  Pharaoh refuses, and as punishment God sends 10 plagues against the Egyptians culminating with an avenging angel killing the firstborn of all the Egyptian male children.  God orders the Jews to kill a lamb and put its blood on the door so the angel will know not to kill the Jewish male children.  So, the blood of the sacrifice was to indicate innocent Jews who were not to be included in God’s judgment and protect them.  Terrified of further punishment, the Egyptians convince their ruler to release the Israelites, and Moses quickly leads them out of Egypt.  Jesus on the cross offered by God is like the blood of the paschal lamb on the door that protects against God’s judgment.  Jesus’ self sacrifice awakens in the believer a self-sacrificial approach to life that prevents God’s avenging angel to negatively judge them.  Moreover, the Exodus is not just aimed at individuals, but a people (the Jews) and the evil structure of the Egyptian society that enslaved them.  Hence, in Mark we also see an indifferent to justice Pilate who breaks Roman law because he executes Jesus without cause to please the crowd and the Jewish elite.  The cross makes conspicuous the hidden vileness of society, indicates its guilt like the Egyptian society in Exodus.  The gospel of John tries to downplay the culpability of Pilate executing Jesus without cause, and instead places the blame on the Jewish elite, who relentlessly call for Jesus’ execution though God forbids such a punishment (John 19:31 – hence the Jewish elite and crowd willfully trying to find a loophole in God’s command not to kill thereby tricking and outsmarting God). 

In other words, the blood/resurrection of Jesus helps us to see Jesus was not a criminal in God’s eyes and to pass over the supposed criminality of Jesus and his followers in the eyes of society to see the true hidden vileness: the society that condemned him, as it did with Socrates before him.  John probably has as a background Jesus’ naked young follower in Mark who society sees as a guilty as the naked Adam, but who is clothed and holy in the tomb in God’s eyes, as the resurrection by God vindicates Jesus, nullifying the judgment passed by the world.

[1] Ehrman comments regarding Luke:

  • It is easy to see Luke’s own distinctive view by considering what he has to say in the book of Acts, where the apostles give a number of speeches in order to convert others to the faith.  What is striking is that in none of these instances (look, e.g., in chapters 3, 4, 13), do the apostles indicate that Jesus’ death brings atonement for sins.  It is not that Jesus’ death is unimportant.  It’s extremely important for Luke.  But not as an atonement.  Instead, Jesus death is what makes people realize their guilt before God (since he died even though he was innocent).  Once people recognize their guilt, they turn to God in repentance, and then he forgives their sins. /bad-link/?goto= (my emphasis)

[2] Boyarin comments:

  • The first five verses of John’s Prologue match this midrashic form nearly perfectly. The verses being preached are the opening verses of Genesis, and the extra-Torah text serving as the interpretive framework is Prov 8.22– 31. Because Genesis is interpreted, however, John uses Logos and not the term Proverbs uses, “Wisdom/ Sophia.” The preacher of the Prologue had to speak of Logos, because his homiletical effort is directed at the opening verses of Genesis, with their majestic: “Then God said, let there be light; and there was light.” It is God’s “saying,” God’s Logos, that produces the light, and indeed through this Word, everything was made that was made … In light of this evidence, the Fourth Gospel’s Logos theology is not a new creation in the history of Judaism; its innovation is only, if even this, in its incarnational Christology, namely the taking on of flesh by the Logos in v 14. John 1.1– 5 is not a hymn or a poem, but a midrash, that is, a homily, on Gen 1.1– 5. The very phrase that opens the Gospel, “In the beginning,” shows that creation is the focus of the text. The rest of the Prologue applies the midrash of the Logos to the appearance of Jesus. Only from Jn 1.14, which announces that the “Word became flesh,” does the narrative begins to diverge from synagogue teaching. Until v 14, John’s Prologue is a piece of perfectly unexceptional Jewish thought that has been seamlessly woven into the christological narrative of the Gospel. (Logos, A Jewish Word John’s Prologue as Midrash Daniel Boyarin  in Amy-Jill Levine; Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 691). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition, my emphasis).

[3] Contrary to my reading, current Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) president Adele Reinhartz sums up the mainstream traditional exclusionary reading of John 14:6, which she herself adheres to:

  • The passage emphasizes a point made throughout the Gospel: the only way to be in covenantal relationship with God is through faith in Jesus as God’s son and Israel’s Messiah. The passage therefore functions in both an inclusive and an exclusionary way: it includes all Christ-confessors but also emphasizes that those who are not Christ-confessors are excluded from a relationship with God. Other passages that emphasize this point include the “love commandments” (13.34; 14.15,21; 15.12– 17). Such statements strongly affirm the Gospel’s belief in Jesus’ central and essential role in God’s plan of salvation; no other way to salvation exists for this Gospel. These statements also emphasize the solidarity of the group united in this belief, over against all those who do not share this belief. (Adele Reinhartz “I Am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 14.6)  in Amy-Jill Levine; Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 207). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.) (my emphasis)

[4] H A Ironside points out

  • The arrangement of the four Gospels is in perfect harmony. In the Synoptics [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] the call is to repent. In John the emphasis is laid upon believing. Some have thought that there is inconsistency or contradiction here. But we need to remember that John wrote years after the older Evangelists, and with the definite object in view of showing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, believing, we might have life through His Name. He does not simply travel over ground already well trodden. Rather, he adds to and thus supplements the earlier records, inciting to confidence in the testimony God as given concerning His Son. [John] does not ignore the ministry of repentance because he stresses the importance of faith. On the contrary, he shows to repentant souls the simplicity of salvation, of receiving eternal life, through a trusting in Him who, as the true light, casts light on every man, thus making manifest humanity’s fallen condition and the need of an entire change of attitude toward self and toward God (Except Ye Repent, 37-38.  Quoted in MacArthur,  my emphasis).

[5] MacArthur shows regarding John and repentance that:

  • Repentance is woven into the very fabric of the Gospel of John, though the word itself is never employed. In the account of Nicodemus, for example, repentance was clearly suggested in Jesus’ command to be “born again” (John 3:3-7). Repentance was the point of the Old Testament illustration our Lord gave Nicodemus (John 3:14-15). In John 4 , the woman at the well did repent, as we see from her actions in verses 28-29.
  • Isn’t repentance included by implication in the … Johannine descriptions of saving faith [John 3:19-21; 10:26-8; 12:24-26]? … To say that John called for a faith that excluded repentance is to grossly misconstrue the apostle’s concept of what it means to be a believer. Although John never uses repent as a verb, the verbs he does employ are even stronger. He teaches that all true believers love the light (John 3:19), come to the light (John 3:20-21), obey the Son (John 3:36), practice the truth (John 3:21), worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24), honor God (John 5:22-24), do good deeds (John 5:29), eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood (John 6:48-66), love God (John 8:42 , cf. 1 John 2:15), follow Jesus (John 10:26-28), and keep Jesus’ commandments (John 14:15). Those ideas hardly concur with no-lordship salvation! All of them presuppose repentance, commitment, and a desire to obey.  As those terms suggest, the apostle was careful to describe conversion as a complete turnabout. To John, becoming a believer meant resurrection from death to life, a coming out of darkness and into light, abandoning lies for the truth, exchanging hatred for love, and forsaking the world for God. What are those but images of radical conversion?  Loving God is the expression John uses most frequently to describe the believer’s demeanor. How can sinners begin to love God apart from genuine repentance? What does love imply, anyway? Finally, remember that it is the Gospel of John that outlines the Holy Spirit’s ministry of conviction toward the unbelieving world (John 16:8-11). Of what does the Holy Spirit convict unbelievers? Of “sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). Wouldn’t it seem that the Holy Spirit’s ministry of convicting people of sin and its consequences has the specific purpose of laying the groundwork for repentance? Repentance underlies all John’s writings. It is understood, not necessarily explicit. His readers were so familiar with the apostolic message that he didn’t need to dwell on the issue of repentance. John was emphasizing different facets of the gospel message than those highlighted by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But he most assuredly was not writing to contradict them! His aim certainly was not to devise a no-lordship doctrine of salvation… In fact, John’s purpose was exactly the opposite. He was showing that Jesus is God (e.g., John 1:1-18 ; 5:18 ; 12:37-41). John’s readers clearly understood the implication of that: If Jesus is God and we must receive Him as God (John 1:12), our first duty in coming to Him is to repent (cf. Luke 5:8). See MacArthur, (my emphasis)

[6] Hence, Pulliam writes:

  • I agree that there are portions of the Bible where God’s forgiveness seems to come without any prior punishment or sacrifice. In addition to the OT passages to which McGrath refers, there is also the teaching of Jesus himself in which he forgives based on repentance and faith and without any mention of a sacrifice or an atonement. For example, see Luke 5:20 and 7:44-48. However, there are also portions, large portions in the epistles, which base forgiveness squarely on the fact that Jesus died for sins and his blood was a propitiation to God thus allowing him to forgive (for example, see Rom. 3:21-26; Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 John 2:2). One could try to harmonize these two teachings by saying that the forgiveness that appears to be unconditional actually presupposes the atonement that Christ would make. Or, one could hold as I do that there are contradictory and conflicting teachings in the Bible (my emphasis)

[7] Carrier comments:

  • And here likewise being “revealed” to Peter would have been the risen Christ Lord, now explaining to him that God’s first created archangel (the very “image of God” himself) had just secretly undergone a cosmic incarnation, death, and resurrection at the hands of Satan and his minions above (the “archons of this eon”) to atone for all sins once and for all, and thereby usher in the end of days. (Carrier, Richard. Jesus from Outer Space (p. 168). Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

[8] McGrath:

  • But what, I asked, is the connection between Jesus and Passover? I brought us back to the imagery offered towards the beginning of the Gospel of John: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world… Does that have anything to do with Passover?  At first glance, it wouldn’t seem to. Passover was not about sacrifice of the ordinary sort, nor was it like Yom Kippur, the use of animals in a manner that explicitly has to do with forgiveness. The placement of blood on lintels in the Exodus story doesn’t seem to have anything to do with forgiving the sins of firstborn sons. And the ongoing celebration of Passover was likewise not focused on rituals of forgiveness or atonement…In a sense the most natural place to look for an animal taking away sin is the “scapegoat” from the Day of Atonement ritual. Precisely because sins were symbolically transferred to the animal, it was not slaughtered as a sacrifice… But John doesn’t say Jesus is the “Goat of God” who takes away the sin of the world…(As an aside, Exodus says that the Passover lamb can be taken from among the sheep or the goats, which means that the “Goat of God” still could have had a Passover connection. But could anyone have heard “Lamb of God” and thought of the scapegoat?)… And so I suggested that perhaps the appropriate thing to do is to revisit and reconsider the language in John 1 in light of the way John draws to a close with a focus on Jesus as Passover lamb. Does Passover have anything to do with “taking away the sin of the world”? The answer will only seem to be “no” if one understands sin in narrowly individualistic terms. But if one recognizes in the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt a portrait of what sin in the world can look like, then there clearly is a relationship. To take away the sin of the world cannot be a purely individualistic thing, if we think about it. Some might believe that dealing with individual sin sorts out communal and societal problems. But there is significant evidence to the contrary. And if one thinks of “dealing with sin” as a matter of forgiveness rather than transformation – whether individual, communal, or ideally both – then the problem is compounded. (The Lamb (not Goat) of God APRIL 19, 2019 BY JAMES F. MCGRATH   My emphasis)

[9] Hans Moscicke  in “Jesus as Goat of the Day of Atonement” in Recent Synoptic Gospels Research

First Published October 10, 2018 comments

  • In her article, ‘Finding Meaning in the Death of Jesus’ (1998), Collins argues that the author of Mark drew upon motifs from ancient Mediterranean ‘scapegoat’ rituals to interpret Jesus’ humiliating death. According to Collins, a striking parallel to the abuse scene of Mk 15.16-20 is the Greek pharmakos, an ancient ritual wherein two individuals at the margins of society functioned as a means to purify their community through the ritual action of being treated like kings, led in procession while being physically abused, and then exiled from their city (see Bremmer 1983, repr. 2000; Hughes 2010).