Religion For Atheists: What Is Progressive Christianity?

The New Testament says Christ died for our sins.  Does this mean Christ died to vicariously atone for our sins?  To make our hidden sin nature conspicuous so we can repent and be forgiven?  Mark says Jesus was a ransom for us.  Who was holding us hostage?  God?  The influence of Satan?  Who is God?  The rigid God of Justice who can’t forgive so Jesus must die in our place?  The forgiving God of the Hebrew scriptures who is embodied in the New Testament by such mandates as “father forgive them” and “love your enemy and bless those who persecute you?”  There are many questions here.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Conservative Christians and Progressive Christians is the goal of letting the text speak for itself rather than trying to shoehorn it into preconceived models and categories.  In this way, we see liberals accepting the discoveries of critical scholarship more thoroughly than conservatives.  Prof Ehrman, who is not Christian, points out we can’t simply take the New Testament as a single document, but must preserve the differences, say, between Mark and Luke who are making 2 very different arguments.  Ehrman writes:

  • At this stage of the semester we are learning about the various Gospels, and one of the BIG points I’m trying to make in the class — one that is extremely hard for anyone raised with a traditional view of the Bible to get their mind around — is that each of the Gospels has its *own* story to tell about Jesus:  the portrayal of Matthew is not the same as that in John; that Mark’s is not Luke’s; that none of them is like the Gospel of Peter; or of Thomas; or of Mary; etc….  Each is different – sometimes in contradictory ways and more often in emphasis (which is just as important).  And you can’t just assume they all are saying the same thing, or you misunderstand each one.  I will be illustrating the point by examining something that is not a contradiction, but a completely different view of things.  The question: How does Jesus approach his own coming death?  Is he troubled, disturbed, and seemingly confused?  That is indeed what you find in Mark’s account (if you simply read what he has to say and don’t import the views of other Gospels into it).  Or is he calm and in control, not at all ruffled or upset?  That’s what you find in Luke.  Consider, for example, the crucifixion itself.  In Mark, Jesus is silent the entire way carrying his cross to the place of execution.  One has the impression that Jesus is in shock.  He says nothing while being crucified.  Both of the other criminals (both of them!) mock Jesus, as do the Jewish leaders, as do people who are passing by.  And Jesus is silent the entire time.  Betrayed, denied, abandoned, forsaken, he says not a word, until the very end, when he cries out, seemingly in despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  I take this to be a genuine question (it is, of course, a quotation of Ps. 22:1; some readers have wanted to say that Jesus quotes the beginning of the Psalm to make readers think of the end of the Psalm, where the forsaken one is vindicated; I think that is precisely wrong.  Mark is thinking of the beginning of the Psalm, not the end.  It is a real question of the dying Jesus.  Everyone has forsaken him, and now God has too – and he wants to know why): Jesus is in despair at the end.  I think Mark had clear reasons for wanting the reader to know that Jesus felt he was forsaken at the end.  I’ll discuss them in my next post.  At this point I’m interested instead in Luke’s version, which is very different indeed from Mark’s.  People don’t realize this because they refuse to see that each of the Gospels is different, with different perspectives, different emphases, different themes – and instead people read all the Gospels as if they were saying the same thing.  And so they smash them together into one mega-narrative, where, for example, you get “the last seven words of the dying Jesus” – which are seven sayings that you find in NONE of the Gospels, but only in the amalgamation you have created when you’ve spliced them all together.  That’s precisely the wrong way to read the Gospels in my opinion.  In the crucifixion, Luke goes out of his way to portray Jesus very differently from Mark.  Here he is not silent on the way to the place of crucifixion.  He sees some women weeping by the side of the road and he stops and tells them not to weep for him but for themselves for the fate that is to befall them.  He is more concerned with these women then with his own fate.  He is not silent while being nailed to the cross.  Instead he prays: “father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Then, while hanging on the cross, he actually has an intelligent conversation with one of the two criminals being crucified with him.  ONE of them mocks him (not both, as in Mark), but the other tells him to be silent, since Jesus has done nothing to deserve this fate.  He then turns his head to Jesus and asks him to remember him when he comes into the kingdom, and Jesus tells him, “Truly, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Jesus is heading for paradise, he knows it, and he knows this guy is going to be with him when he gets there.  This is not a Jesus who is in shock, not understanding what is happening to him.  This is a Jesus who knows exactly what’s happening to him, and why it’s happening to him, and what will happen to him once it does happen to him.  He will wake up in Paradise.  Most telling of all, INSTEAD of crying out, MY God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark’s version) at the end, Jesus calmly prays, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  And he dies.  Here Jesus does not feel forsaken of God.  In fact, just the opposite, he feels God is on his side, here at the end, and he commends his spirit to him.  These are two drastically different accounts of Jesus at his end.  The question is, why the difference?  What was Mark trying to emphasize?  And why did Luke change Mark to create a different emphasis?   (Ehrman, The Calm and Collected Jesus )

So what is an example of a central difference between Mark and Luke?  Ehrman points out regarding the crucifixion:

  • 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. (Ehrman, Did Luke Have A Doctrine Of Atonement )

Now, you’re saying to yourself “wait?”  Luke doesn’t have a vicarious substitutionary sin debt payment view of the cross?  Nope, and this reading fits well with Lukan themes of “father forgive them” and “love your enemy and bless those who persecute you,” what is called a Moral Influence interpretation of salvation.  Moreover, originally the cross was probably not salvific, since it is not mentioned in the Q source (the material common to Matthew and Luke that is not present in Mark), and Mark has the disciples get violent at the arrest, which is unlikely invented and wouldn’t have happened if Jesus was supposed to die.

But what then was Mark teaching? 

I think a Progressive Christian reading is going to go beyond establishing the differences between Mark and Luke like Ehrman does but take the next step and try to discover the common personal and social justice themes underlying them.  How?

Let’s try a progressive reading rather than a conservative one:

Luke is going to have an agape self-sacrificial love model that emphasizes the forgiveness of God and love of enemy.  Mark has a similar love model, but it is expressed differently.  Now we know Mark was familiar with Paul and used his letters.  In Paul we read:

  • Romans 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
  • Romans 12:20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Paul is thinking of these sentiments in Proverbs and how the enemy-ness of the enemy is to be overcome and transformed, made of no effect, through love and kindness.  (Proverbs 25:21-22; Proverbs 24:17; Proverbs 16:7; Proverbs 10:12)

If this is an important theme for Paul, as it is the Q1 source Luke is making use of in writing his gospel, why is it absent from Mark (especially since Mark is making use of Paul)?  Mark also has this love/agape emphasis, but he is going to express it a little differently.  To begin with, Mark is going deny the value of traditional atoning and scapegoat sacrifices and focus on a twofold love mandate of God and Neighbor.  He goes out of his way to point out regardless of how Judaism may seem with its animal sacrifice theme, God is not really interested in sacrifices:

The First Commandment

  • 28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. Mark 12:28-34

A clarification for what this means can be found in Paul.  Paul writes:

Romans 13:8-10

Love for One Another

  • 8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

But, we are still left wondering where the love of enemy mandate is in Mark.  To be sure, Mark has his own way of expressing this.  The trick is seeing it.

Mark identifies Jesus as love, calling him the “beloved” of God whose mission is one of love of God and neighbor.  Goicoechea comments that

  • Right in the middle of Mark’s Gospel at the story of the Transfiguration once again a voice from above says: This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him. In Greek, the term is agapetos and in Latin charissimus which is the superlative degree of the adjective meaning my most beloved Son. At the end of the Gospel the centurion has a similar saying when he sees how Jesus died: In truth this man was Son of God. So this is the structure of the Mark’s Gospel which at beginning, middle and end stresses that this Jesus is the agapete, the most beloved, who dies in such a noble loving fashion that he is the Son of God. Paul’s universal agape because of which there are no longer Jews nor Greeks, male nor female, masters nor slaves but all are persons who are equally lovable shows itself through Mark’s Gospel. At Mark 15:40–41 we see that many women followed him just as did men: These used to follow him and look after him when he was in Galilee. And many other women were there who had come up to Jerusalem with him. Mark takes note of this agape that gives women a new place and role. (Goicoechea, David. Agape and the Four Loves with Nietzsche, Father, and Q: A Physiology of Reconciliation from the Greeks to Today (p. 315). Pickwick Publishers – An Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

So, if we are to take Goicoechea’s insight here and go with it, the question is how Jesus’s death is going to be the highest form of love, which is to say the love of enemy of Paul and the Q1 source.  This is the essence of what we see in Luke.  Jesus used the Parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of loving those who may not be our friends. Jesus was asked to confirm what he meant by the word ‘neighbor’. This is when he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), to explain that people should love everyone, including their enemies.

Let us consider Mark by seeing how Ehrman characterizes Mark’s crucifixion scene:

  • The second occurrence is equally significant.  No one throughout this Gospel has fully understood that Jesus is the Son of God who has to suffer.  Until now.  And strikingly, it is not one of Jesus’ family or followers who understands.  It is the Roman centurion who has presided over his crucifixion.  This pagan soldier, seeing Jesus die, proclaims, “Surely this man was God’s Son” (15:39).  This brings the recognition of Jesus’ true identity around full circle.  It was proclaimed at his baptism at the beginning of the Gospel (from heaven); it is now proclaimed at his crucifixion at the end (on earth).  Moreover, it is significant who makes the proclamation: a pagan soldier, one who had not been Jesus’ follower.  This in itself may intimate what will happen to the proclamation of Jesus as the suffering Son of God down to the time when Mark pens his account: the proclamation in fact will not find fertile soil among Jews, either those who had known Jesus or those who had not.  It will be embraced principally by those outside of Judaism, by Gentiles as represented by this Roman centurion.  Jesus is the Son of God, rejected by his own people, but acknowledged by the Gentiles.  And it is this confession in the suffering and death of the Son of God, Mark reveals, that has brought salvation to the world . (Ehrman, Jesus’s Death And Resurrection in Mark )

So, here we have a general helpful framework, and an unexpected connection with Luke.  For, as the Roman soldier in Luke declares Jesus an innocent man, so too does the soldier in Mark get transfigured and declares Jesus the son of God.  A few commentators have tried to argue Mark’s soldier is being sarcastic, but there is no evidence for such a reading and goes against Mark’s argument.  We see a similar theme in Plutarch:

  • Plutarch wrote a book of biographies called Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, commonly called Parallel Lives at the beginning of the second century. It is considered a work of considerable importance, not only as a source of information and traditions about the individuals described, but also about the times in which they lived.   One of them, Cleomenes III, was a Spartan King and radical political reformer.  Cleomenes was stabbed in his side and his body was crucified around 220 BCE.  As he hung on the cross a snake coiled around his head and prevented the birds from mutilating him.  A group of women were watching this.  When the King of Alexandria saw this he was suddenly seized with fear.  Maybe this was a righteous man, beloved to the Gods.  So, he gave the women the rights to perform purification.  Plutarch then says the Alexandrians started to worship Cleomenes, and would come to the cross and address Cleomenes as a hero and son of the Gods.  See Plutarch, “The Parallel Lives,” The Life of Cleomenes, section 39. (Ataie)

We have similarly seen the sign of the tearing of the veil coupled with the transformation of the soldier.  In this way, the tearing of the veil doesn’t signal substitutionary atonement rendering the temple cult null and void following something like the dying for another of 4 Maccabees, but rather God was saying the way the world had turned on his specially chosen prophet could not be made right by any animal sacrifice.  Mark is nor signaling reconciliation between man and God, but foreshadowing the destruction of Jerusalem.  Price comments “Whence did Mark derive the tearing asunder of the Temple veil, from top to bottom (Mark 15:38)? Perhaps from the death of Hector in the Iliad (MacDonald, pp. 144-145). Hector dies forsaken by Zeus. The women of Troy watched from afar off (as the Galilean women do in Mark 15:40), and the whole of Troy mourned as if their city had already been destroyed “from top to bottom,” just as the ripping of the veil seems to be a portent of Jerusalem’s eventual doom.” Here we see imagery of Jesus being abandoned by God as Ehrman points out does not refer to Jesus taking on the sin of the world and God having to look away, but God deserting Jesus to his fate.

A key image for penal substitution theorists is that the death of Jesus pays the sin debt, reconciling God and man, and so the temple curtain tore saying that the temple cult is no longer needed.  But, if this is what the image means, why does the curtain tear before Jesus dies in Luke?

To understand this and how it suggests love of enemy in Mark, let’s backtrack to what preceded the crucifixion and made it possible: the desperate Gethsemane prayer.  There is an interesting prophecy about Elijah which is helpful here.  Malachi says:

Malachi 4:5-6 offers an intriguing prophecy: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” To this day, Jewish Seders include an empty chair at the table in anticipation that Elijah will return to herald the Messiah in fulfillment of Malachi’s word.

What seems to have happened is that Mark is implying God told Jesus in Gethsemane that God will send Elijah to miraculously save him at the last minute.  And, this is what we do see in Mark: Jesus calls for Elijah to save him from the cross and the crowd looks on to see if it will happen.  Once the image of his horrific suffering is in place God will ultimately send Elijah to rescue him, as it is written Elijah will come in the last days.  The issue here is not penal substitution, but the horrific suffering of God’s specially chosen one awakening the law written on our hearts and inspiring repentance.  But how does this lead us back to our question of love of enemy?

One of the keys to Mark is the desperate prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane begging God to change his mind about the mission, which suggests Jesus didn’t think he needed to actually die for God’s plan to be fulfilled (your will, not mine).  But, the question then becomes more difficult because Hebrews seems to say the Gethsemane prayer is answered.  We read “7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. (Hebrews 5:7)”

This can be read in at least 2 ways.  It could mean this was the point God decided to resurrect Jesus as reward for his reverent submission, but I think there is a better reading because the resurrected “Christ in you” had to be part of the original plan.  So, in response to his desperate petition, God lied (as God was known to do at times, 1 Kings 22:21-22) to Jesus that Elijah would miraculously rescue him, in order to ease Jesus’s burden (like Elisha lied and told King Benhadad that he would recover, even though God told Elisha that the king would die.) and see that Jesus went through with it.  It is well known that John the Baptist in Mark is colored in the mythology of Elijah, and Jesus John’s successor and superior Elisha.

In Mark, the agape/love we see as love of enemy in Q1 and Paul is shown in the desperate Gethsemane prayer where every fiber of his being is calling for Jesus to fall back on his own understanding that he doesn’t need to die for God’s will to be accomplished, but says he will do God’s will, not his own, however horrific that may be.  The enemy being loved, the one who really wanted him dead (since that’s what an enemy is) is not the Jewish supreme council, but God, showing the horror the first commandment as love of God might entail.

So, let’s look again at the death in Mark 15:33-36

The Death of Jesus

  • 33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”

The failure of Elijah to show up seems to reflect the historical Jesus was wrong about the imminent end of days shining through Paul’s apocalyptic “first fruits” portrayal, with Mark written decades later with the destruction of the temple and the point that the end had not come.  Christ thought the apocalypse was imminent and so thought Elijah would be there to be able come and rescue him: Mark 9:11-12: “11 Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 12 He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things.”  In Gethsemane Christ became convinced that this would include saving him from the cross, a comforting lie that would ensure Jesus would fulfill the mission.  Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus transfigured in a revelation of His glory. With Him are Elijah and Moses. The trio try to figure out the timetable of Elijah’s return (Malachi 4:5–6)

To understand what was really going on here, we need to consider the context.  While Mark was a great appropriator of Paul, one of the problematic issues in Paul was Jesus was portrayed as apocalyptic.  This wouldn’t do for Mark, because if Jesus’s apocalypse never came (and it hadn’t 40 years later in Mark’s time), why listen to any of Jesus’s theological speculation.  So, Mark glorified God arguing Jesus was inadvertently lifting himself to the knowledge level of God in predicting the imminent end, even though he knew he couldn’t do this.  We read:

Mark 13:29-37

  • 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[a] is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

It is this unintended arrogance by Jesus that had been disconfirmed by history in the time of Mark’s writing.  Jesus was a fallible human after all, not God, and so we are pointed back earlier in Mark where Jesus could do no great works in his home town because of the unbelief of people who knew him just as the carpenter’s son. Let’s consider this.

Mark’s Jesus is the Agapetos (beloved of God) who teaches about the kingdom of Agape (primary love of God shown through love of neighbor).  Love of enemy here means in an exemplary sense don’t hate someone because they want you dead, which in the case of Mark the primary one who wants Jesus dead, who Jesus pleads his case to in desperation in Gethsemane, is God – where ultimately Jesus says not my will but yours – and in that way Jesus blessed his persecutor.

The point is that Elijah isn’t coming to rescue Jesus because Jesus is wrong and the end isn’t imminent and so it is not the prophesied time when Elijah will come.  The historical Jesus was the great hero for Mark, but also an existential threat for Christianity because if Jesus was wrong about something as basic and fundamental as an imminent apocalypse, why trust him on any theological matters? In terms of Christology, then, Mark corrects the great angel Jesus in Paul to be the fallible human prophet in Mark.

God sent Jesus as God’s specially favored chosen one to restore the Davidic throne, and the result was Jesus was denied by Peter, abandoned by the disciples at the arrest who betrayed his message by getting violent.  The crowd turned on him, the Jewish high council conducted and extremely illegal trial of him, and Pilate denied him justice to placate the crowd.  This circle was closed with God abandoning Jesus to his fate: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? 

Mark said Jesus died as a ransom for many, but there is a passage in psalm 49:7 that says it is not possible to pay a ransom to God for someone and redeem them or win back their life, and so the one holding man hostage seems to be Satan, not God.  This is the traditional ransom paid to Satan theory of the cross which was popular in the early church, particularly with Origen.  The idea seems to be man was held hostage by Satanic influence, and the death of Christ was the price that had to be paid to break the spell.

There is a surface level of penal substitution, but a deeper level of moral influence of the cross, and we see this two tiered interpretation as the nature of parables (Mark 4:11), which makes sense of the gospel as an extended parable, as Crossan argues in The Power of Parable.

McGrath points out it is the Jewish/Christian theme of Forgive Us Our Debts, Not Repay Our Debts:

  • And so, beginning with Moses, they went back and made sense of what had happened with the help of Scripture. Probably even more helpful than “Moses” was 4 Maccabees 6, which presents a martyr praying “Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc. 6:28-29). Clearly there were ideas that existed in the Judaism of the time that helped make sense of the death of the righteous in terms of atonement.  Yet the New Testament does not use the language of punishment and exchange in the way 4 Maccabees (which was written after the early Christians had already interpreted the death of Jesus in atoning, sacrificial terms) does. Paul can talk about sacrifice (and discussing what sacrifice meant in the Judaism of this time would be a subject of its own), but he prefers to use the language of participation. One died for all, so that all died (2 Corinthians 5:14). This is not only different from substitution, it is the opposite of it. Jesus is here understood not to prevent our death but to bring it about! This fits neatly within his understanding of there being two ages, with Christ having died to one and entered the resurrection age, and with Christians through their connection to him having already died to the present age and thus made able to live free from its dominion.

As I said above with Ehrman with Mark’s “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we have a penal substitution or, by contrast, moral influence interpretation of the cross depending on what portion of the psalm Mark is referring to.

The argument of Mark’s Jesus in Gethsemane is that Jesus could have accomplished God’s plan without having to completely die, which is what happen in Luke as the veil is torn before the death.  Theologically, God’s plan is that it’s important for Jesus to die and go away, not for penal substitution reasons but so Jesus can become what Paul calls Christ in you, which John 16:7 calls Jesus sending the Advocate/Helper/Comforter to assist you in resisting Satan, Jesus being the resistor of Satan pare excellence.  The cross doesn’t work as super blood magic erasing sin, but breaks Satan’s stranglehold/spell on humanity so the spirit of Christ in you can begin to assist you in becoming righteous.  This is why Paul says “17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins (1 Cor 15:17).  Notice how the cross here didn’t defeat sin!

That’s my attempt at a progressive reconciliation of Mark and Luke. If you are interested in more religious studies analysis by me, the portal is HERE