By L. Alfred James
Before I was married, I rarely went on a date. But in my dating experiences I discovered something important about relationships: In order for a woman to be attractive to me, I need her to occasionally disagree with me, to contradict me, or even to confront me.
More than once I dated women who laughed at every joke that I made—and I’m not that funny—and they laughed harder than my humor deserved. Worse, they agreed with everything that I said. Within an hour I was very bored and very disinclined to have another date with them. After this had happened a couple of times, I realized that for any relationship to be fulfilling it must be clear that the other person is really their own person. It must be clear that they have their own opinions, beliefs, and convictions.
When someone agrees with you all the time you lose a real sense of their having a personality of their own, a sense of their being someone who thinks for themselves. A relationship with someone who agrees with everything you say feels like a relationship with a non-person, a shadow, or a puppet, which is extraordinarily unfulfilling and boring. The fact is: in our relationships with our spouses, or potential spouses, or even with friends and family members, if these relationships are to be meaningful and fulfilling, we need these people to, on occasion, say things that contradict us, confront us, or disturb us. This is a fundamental principle in all relationships.
This is an important point: the exact same principle is at work in our relationship with Jesus Christ. One of the things that makes him interesting to know is that he is not a puppet or a shadow. He is a real person and he flatly contradicts many of the values that we hold dear. And, counterintuitive though it might seem, we should be glad about that.
Indeed, one of the overarching themes of Jesus’ life is how often we see him telling people that they are wrong, and how they respond with hatred. You see this during his ministry over and over again. For instance, in his own hometown his hearers were offended at his preaching in the synagogue:
“Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:3)
Luke gives us more details about this incident:
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. (Luke 4:28-29)
It isn’t that they just disagreed with him. They didn’t say, “Jesus, you have your view and I have my view.” No. They were filled with anger. Jesus evokes rage. This outrage was triggered by the claims that he made about his hearers and about himself.
Some of the things that he said offended the irreligious, and some of them offended the religious. And some of the things that he said offend many of us modern Americans. For instance:
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
He claims to be the only way to God the Father. For many modern Americans that is an offensive claim. There are few things that Jesus said that bother us as much as that. And if that bothers you, then you should know that the way you react to that is the way that thousands of people reacted to Jesus throughout his ministry.
Because of his offensiveness many scholars have tried valiantly to sweeten Jesus up, to reconstruct him: To filter out what we don’t like, to say, “He never said that,” or “He never did that.” Several biblical scholars have tried to make him out to be someone who agrees with modern Americans on all things relating to religion and spirituality. In other words, they have tried to make him out to be a puppet, a shadow, or a mirror image of ourselves: a non-person.
This is a major problem in light of the principle that I shared at the beginning. The reconstructed Jesus says nothing to oppose us, disturb us, or contradict us. Consequently, a relationship with him is dull and does not transform anyone.
Tim Keller once pointed out a problem with this scholarly tactic. He asked this question: Do you know what kind of Jesus you are left with when you take all of the offensiveness out? When you have only the sweet things that we like?
You are left with a Mr. Rogers-type-of-Jesus. Most importantly, you are left with two things:
- A Jesus that everyone loves. No one would hate him. Have you ever, in your entire life, heard anyone say, “I just despise Mr. Rogers! I think he is evil!” No. Never.
- A Jesus who would never say anything that would bother anyone. When’s the last time you were really bothered by something that Mr. Rogers said?
A Mr. Rogers Jesus would be a kindly, grandpa-like figure who never bothered anyone.
But that leads to a gigantic historical problem: We know for an absolute historical fact that Jesus was killed. He was crucified. In fact, even an anti-Christian historian like John Dominic Crossan has said it is historically certain that Jesus was crucified. Crossan once stated, “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”1 (By the way, John Dominic Crossan is not a Christian; he is an atheist.)
But who in the world would kill Mr. Rogers?
But Jesus got himself killed. So what does that tell us about the Jesus who is pure sugar and sunshine? It tells us that he is entirely fictional. The real Jesus has backbone.
Therefore if you try to reconstruct Jesus, you will have an unoffensive Jesus, but it will not be an historically credible one. Indeed, the theme of Jesus’ offensiveness is part of the very fabric of Christianity. However, that is a good thing because it means that a relationship with Jesus is a genuine and meaningful relationship. In fact, it is the most fulfilling relationship you will ever have.
1. See Will the Real Jesus Stand Up? By William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan, p. 51