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[The following is an expanded version of a paper presented to the International Psychohistorical Society, May 20, 2023]

Where Christianity Went Wrong

C. S. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Christianity is prominent today not only in the religious but also in the political sphere. Therefore understanding its development should be of general interest. There is a huge disconnect between predominant forms of Christianity today and what Jesus actually taught. And it has profound implications for the current American situation.

When asked what is the way to eternal life, Jesus responded: Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27). How does one do this? Jesus said: feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick (Matthew 25:36).

How did this country, which some wish to call a “Christian nation,” do with these commandments under the presidency of Donald Trump, who attracted unprecedented evangelical support?

Feed the hungry: Donald Trump proposed cutting the food stamp program by 30%.

Welcome the stranger: Under Trump, immigrants were characterized as “rapists and murderers,” the Asian community targeted with ethnic slurs from the President’s mouth, and the asylum process virtually criminalized and nearly shut down. Children were yanked from their mothers’ arms, many of them never reunited.

Clothe the naked: Under Trump we saw a massive tax cut for the rich, a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, and a resulting exacerbation of the deficit as well as income inequality. Republicans press for spending cuts as long as it is the poor and not the rich who suffer.

Care for the sick: Donald Trump did his determined best to destroy health care for people who cannot afford it. He missed doing so by just one Senator’s vote.

The Trump presidency stood for just about everything contrary to what Jesus taught. And yet evangelical Christians, representing the dominant religion in America today, rallied to his support and made his presidency possible. Some called him a savior, a Christian warrior, even comparing him to Cyrus, God’s appointed agent helping to redeem the faithful. Trump was elected with over 80% of the white evangelical vote. And today, even after the whole country knows who he is, he appears to be coasting toward a second nomination, again with evangelical support. He even has a viable shot to win.

How do people calling themselves Christians justify such a position? How did we get from Jesus Christ to Christian support of a political Antichrist? With no contradiction perceived by Trump’s Christian supporters?

The mystery dissolves when we look at the history of Christian theology. The beginnings of this development go far back, reaching into the New Testament itself.

Our best extant sources for the actual life and ministry of Jesus are the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). They are also our three earliest sources. They are not, nor were they intended to be factual history in the sense we understand it today. They are spiritualized biographies, meant to capture Jesus’s significance in a way that would inspire his followers to continue the movement. Yet they do give us a picture of the most important thing, the message he wanted to convey.

In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus never claimed to be God. When crowds encroached too closely, he avoided them (Mark 6:45, Matthew 8:18, Matthew 14:22, Matthew 15:39). And nowhere, not even in the Gospel of John, does Jesus actually say he is God or put himself on a par with God.

Here is a telling vignette: “As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’” (Mark 10:17-18).

The term Jesus uses to identify himself in these Gospels is not “God” or “Son of God,” but “Son of man.” In English translation this term sounds like more than it really is. In Aramaic and in Hebrew (going back to the book of Ezekiel), it simply means human being, and it is so used in Daniel 7:13, often translated “I saw one like a Son of man” but actually meaning “I saw one in human form.”

Even in the Gospel of John with its higher Christology Jesus does not equate himself with God. In this Gospel Jesus says that he does not act on his own authority but only on God’s (John 5:19, 5:30, 8:28). Jesus states that God the Father is greater than he (John 14:28). There is no statement in this Gospel or in any other canonical Gospel explicitly equating Jesus with God. (Jesus does say “the Father and I are one,” John 10:30, but so have many mystics throughout history.)

We should also consider the works of Paul, since they are actually our earliest Christian writings. Paul is commonly thought to have preached that Jesus is God, but looking closely at his letters one can see that he never says that. There is no hint of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Pauline corpus. Paul actually makes a distinction between Jesus and God, calling Jesus not God but “Lord.” The term “Lord” does not necessarily imply divinity. The same word, in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, can simply mean master and is used, for example, to designate a slave owner.

The following from Paul, commonly taken to imply Jesus’s divinity, actually says something quite different: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). That is a significant distinction. Jesus has a special, exalted status but he is not God. Paul consistently calls Jesus “Lord” but never “God.” Paul did not see Jesus as an ordinary human being like you or me; Jesus may even have been the agent of God’s creation, but clearly, even for Paul, he was subordinate to God and not God’s equal.

So how did Jesus become God, the second, coequal partner in the Trinity?

This is a complex question I cannot even begin to trace in a short paper. I can only make a few very brief comments here.

As time progressed, legends around Jesus grew. This is not really surprising. We already find supernatural elements in the Gospels that are not present in Paul. The Jesus in Mark is fairly straightforward, but in Matthew and Luke we find a mythology surrounding his birth, and in John we go even before his birth to his preexistence. Preexistence is not unprecedented. The Hebrew Bible portrays Wisdom as preexistent and personified: “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (Proverbs 8:22-23). In Greek, Wisdom became Sophia, further personified and practically hypostasized. This concept merged with the logos of Greek philosophy, the unifying rational principle giving structure to the world, to become the “Word of God” taking form in the person of Jesus Christ. Only in the Gospel of John is Jesus preexistent; nevertheless, preexistence does not presume equality with God. Full equality with God came later, at the Council of Nicaea (325 CE), which declared Jesus of the same substance of God, in opposition to any view that would subordinate Jesus to God.

And now we approach what I call the “critical shift”: as views of Jesus became more exalted, the emphasis in Christianity shifted from Jesus’s teaching of non-self-interested love toward something else. Jesus’s message was all about being a servant to others, especially those in need, and loving even those who are unable to love you or pay you back. This is not what we find in the politics of evangelical Christianity today. Something changed.

Let us return to Paul. Paul represented a transitional stage in the critical shift: the shift in Christianity to making personal salvation rather than non-self-interested love its highest priority. To understand Paul we need to understand his theological framework. That theology goes by the name of apocalyptic eschatology.

Apocalypticism grew from the hopes of a people repeatedly oppressed by foreign powers. It looked toward the end of history, when an expected final battle between good and evil would take place, the forces of goodness finally triumphing with the help of God, and the evil empires overthrown. These events will mark the close of the present age, at which a general resurrection will take place, the dead rising to face the final judgment that will decide who among them will enter into God’s kingdom. All others will pass into oblivion, or perhaps into an even worse fate. Paul expected these events to take place within his own lifetime. In fact, he believed the general resurrection had already begun, specifically in the resurrection of Jesus, whom he called the “first fruits” of the universal resurrection soon to follow.

This explains the urgency in Paul’s mission. Since he believed the end was imminent and that time was running out, and that only the new faith could guarantee surviving the final judgment and passing into the kingdom, he needed to make as many converts as possible into this new faith before it was too late. And so Paul began to prioritize salvation over everything else. (Given his assumption about the impending end of the age, which was not born out in history, that may have made sense.) We need to keep in mind that salvation did not mean for Paul what it means for most of us today. Today we think of “salvation” as escape from an everlasting hell. Paul never speaks about hell. For Paul, salvation meant acquittal at the final judgment and admission into the kingdom. For Paul, salvation had no meaning outside of his apocalyptic framework.

Paul did not abandon Jesus’s teaching about love, far from it. We all know his beautiful hymn to love, recited at many weddings, in 1 Corinthians 13. And in his letters to the Corinthians and Romans, he outlines the requirements of a spiritual community founded on these principles of love. But this is critical: during his mission, in his speeches intended to bring people into the new faith, he made salvation, not love, his selling point. As Paul said, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). This, faith in Christ’s lordship and resurrection, rather than what Jesus actually taught, is what Paul used to convince people to become Christ’s followers.

This contrasts sharply with Jesus’s own instruction. For Jesus, the love of God and other human beings brings one into the kingdom (Matthew 25:40), while mere faith in him will not (Matthew 7:21). For Paul, it is the reverse: faith in the death and resurrection of Christ brings one into the kingdom, while “works of the law” have no such power. Paul believed that Jesus, the first to be resurrected, was the agent the rest of us need to accompany us successfully through the final judgment, so that we may join him in the kingdom. Jesus entered first, and we cannot do so without him; therefore for Paul faith in Jesus is everything.

And so Paul, because of his apocalyptic framework, departed significantly from Jesus’s understanding of salvation and what it meant to do God’s will. The understandings of each as to what God requires of us are entirely different. Paul, perhaps unwittingly, was instrumental in bringing about the critical shift from love to salvation though not yet personal salvation, as we will see.

It is important to keep Paul in context. He represented an intermediate, not a final step in forming Protestantism’s negative view of “the law.” For Paul, torah, the law as set forth in the Hebrew scriptures, was still important. It just did not have saving power. Nevertheless, it was to be respected and observed, especially in its moral aspects. But the Reformation and its aftermath turned Paul into a caricature, ignored his statements about the value of torah and the importance of right observance, and made the “law” an object of derision. This prepared the way for contemporary Christianity’s tolerance of amorality.

After Paul something happened (or rather, didn’t happen) to complicate his apocalyptic scenario. The expected end never arrived. As time passed and history continued progressing, Jesus’s resurrection came no longer to be seen as the harbinger of the general resurrection soon to follow, but rather as a singular event, happening only to Jesus and something only he could accomplish, since Christians now considered him divine. Similarly, salvation was wrenched from its apocalyptic context and understood as the fate of the individual, rather than the destiny of the spiritual community. In the Hebrew Bible, “salvation” was never an individual matter. It was always communal, and always to take place in this world. But as Christianity developed, salvation became an individual concern pushed forward into eternity.

Christianity became obsessed with the question of salvation. Nothing was more important than knowing how to achieve it and escape eternal damnation. One had to do as much as one possibly could to ensure a safe eternity. The Catholic Church used this fear to maintain control over people. It evolved a complex system of sin, guilt, penance, and absolution. Eventually this included the selling of indulgences, assurances that the saints would intervene to shorten an individual’s sentence in purgatory. The church claimed the authority and power to make this happen.

This last was too much for perhaps the most pivotal figure in Christian history after Paul, Martin Luther. His famed “Ninety-Five Theses” were largely an attack on the church’s practice of selling indulgences. Luther’s Reformation corrected numerous abuses in the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, it took one fateful and history-shattering step backward.

Luther rebelled against the Catholic system of merit, good works, and all the things one must do to ensure one will stay out of hell. He shared a similar psychology with Augustine: both were so afflicted by a sense of sin and unredeemable unworthiness that they needed a God who would accept them no matter who they were or what they did. So they found this God, largely by badly misreading the letters of Paul, and specifically his letter to the Romans. The Augustinian-Lutheran God will accept you no matter what you have done no good works required. The only thing necessary is to have the proper faith, that Christ is Lord, God, and Savior and was raised from the dead. Not only are good works irrelevant, they can be a snare tempting us to boast and taking us away from God. The Protestant view is that we are saved by grace through faith alone, a tremendous relief, since we no longer have to worry about how good we are.

This Protestant position represented a decisive break with Jesus’s life and teachings as we know them through the Gospels. As we have already seen, Jesus taught that faith in him without obedience to God’s will is worthless, while what we do especially in regard to others is everything. Protestantism reversed this completely: it made faith everything (sola fide), and even denigrated the value of good works (using the pejorative phrase “works righteousness”). Most Protestants today seem hardly aware of how far their theology has deviated from the legacy of Jesus.

This theological development has had enormous social consequences. It resulted in a religion that is cruel, intolerant, and ultimately amoral. If this assessment sounds extreme, the history of the Christian church, full of corruption and brutality, bears it out abundantly. There are no higher stakes than eternal salvation. If faith alone, meaning faith in Christ, is the only path to salvation, then every other path only leads to hell and cannot be tolerated. Therefore Christianity is obligated to oppose all other faiths. This applies most especially to Judaism. Based on the same scriptures but without Christ, Judaism is considered a tool of deception leading people to their doom. This is the root of Christian antisemitism. Church theology practically demands it.

And if only faith in Christ is needed for salvation, then no thought need be given to good works, including moral ones. At best, good works will occur naturally as the “fruits” of faith (at least in theory, often not born out in practice). At worst, they are a distraction, a Pelagian temptation paving the road to hell. And in any case, all sinners who come to Christ in faith are completely forgiven. After all, we are all sinners, all deserving damnation save for the grace of God. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10); we are all guilty, but on the side of Christ, we are all exonerated. The worst scoundrel can be on a par with the holiest saint, as long as he fights for the Christian faith. This is why evangelical support for Donald Trump in particular and MAGA politics in general poses no contradiction to evangelical Christianity.

Evangelical Christians, whose theology is based on this misreading of Paul implying that good works are not pleasing to God (if you think Paul discounted good works just read Romans 2), can support Donald Trump without a hint of hypocrisy. Even though Trump opposed practically everything that Jesus stood for, his actions were not inconsistent with evangelicalism. Is Trump a sinner? So are we. Are we forgiven? So is he. So pointing out Trump’s moral failings is useless. As long as he champions evangelical causes, evangelicals will support him. And those causes need not include service to the poor, the outcast, and the stranger those are only “good works.” It is not about service; it is about political power. The true Christian fight is against those who oppose the Christian faith.

I need to conclude by pointing out that the picture is not all dark. Throughout the history of Christianity there have been those who did try to live by Jesus’s legacy, who did devote themselves to a loving community and to caring for those who are marginalized. This endeavor to establish divine compassion on earth exists side by side with evangelical intolerance, and is what I call Christianity’s “dual legacy.” The light side of Christianity is indeed a light to all nations. But it is the dark side that has come to dominate American Christianity and contemporary religious politics, and which must be seen for what it is.

Jesus’s message was comprehensive but simple: If you want to please God, if you want to inherit eternal life, then love God and love your neighbor, and show it in what you do. Nothing needs to be added; nothing more need be said. And yet it has taken two thousand years of church councils and theologians to complicate this message beyond recognition. The history of Christian theology may be seen, perhaps with only slight exaggeration, as an effort to resist and obscure Jesus’s message, because it was just too radical both for its own time and for ours.

The antidote to the excesses of evangelical Christianity is not anti-Christianity. It is true Christianity. Christianity must return to what Jesus actually taught in its own scriptures. It must also acknowledge its debt to Judaism for those scriptures. Christians have appropriated Jewish history and culture, and are living that history as if it were their own. And so their proper response to Jews is not suspicion and hostility but gratitude. As I believe the foregoing exposition has shown, Christianity cannot be corrected without a complete theological overhaul. Today’s evangelical Christianity is a product of theological developments and scriptural interpretations current in Christian circles since Augustine and earlier. All of this must be questioned, and the tools of biblical scholarship brought to bear in elucidating Jesus’s real mission and its relevance for us today.

A promising task for a new wave of post-evangelical theology. May we see it come to pass.