Jesus is asked a few times in the gospels about how a person can find eternal life – like that’s the most obvious things to ask a travelling snake-oil salesman. Maybe it is, I don’t know. It was in the first century anyway, if the gospels are to be believed.
Jesus gives a variety of answers in the three earliest gospels: in Matthew 19.17 it’s ‘keep the commandments’ – those terrible, brutal laws I talked about last time. In Mark 12.30-31 he says the way to eternal life is to love God with all your heart and soul, and your neighbour as yourself. In other places he tells his audience that if you want to be forgiven by God then first you must forgive others (Matthew 6.14); if you want God’s compassion then first you must be compassionate (Matthew 25:31-46); if you don’t want to be judged, then you shouldn’t judge others (Luke 6.37).
Jesus is particularly fond of this kind of measure-for-measure salvation; it’s the lynch-pin of his good news – do unto others as you would have God do unto you. And almost every time he mentions it, he connects it with the Law and commandments.
Never does he say, anywhere in the gospels, that if you want to gain eternal life, or find favour with God, or be saved, then what you have to do is believe in the redemptive power of his own imminent death. Even when he could have done so, when he could have worked a little bit of Christian dogma into his teaching, he doesn’t. And that’s strange really, when you consider that Paul’s brand of Christianity – the one that’s come down to us today – is built entirely on the idea that the death and resurrection of Christ is the only thing can save us from God’s wrath.
Paul’s alternative gospel, which is expounded in Romans and summarised in Galatians 3.10-13, goes something like this:
Paul looks at the old Jewish Law and says, ‘actually it’s impossible. None of us can keep it. We’re all under a death sentence for some tiny infringement of it, because any and all infringements lead to the death penalty. But,’ he goes on, ‘Christ has taken that penalty for us by dying in our place. So although the law demands we should die and then suffer for eternity, we won’t, because he died for us. Then he rose again, just as those who believe in him will.’ That last bit – about believers rising from the dead – really doesn’t follow from his premise that the Law is impossible, but this is Paul talking, a man with only a passing acquaintance with logic. He doesn’t, either, have any evidence that Jesus took the penalty for the rest of humankind – he made that bit up too.
And that, in a nutshell – I do mean nut shell – is Paul’s ‘good news’. It bears no relation to the good news that Jesus preaches in the synoptic gospels. Admittedly, the Jesus who wanders his way through the first three gospels is for the most part a pre-death Jesus. You could argue, as a result, that he wouldn’t talk about redemption through his death before it had happened… but then again, why not? He talks about all sorts of other things he thinks are going to happen after he dies and rises again; he’s going to return pretty damn soon in a blaze of glory, through the clouds with an army of angels; heaven and earth are going to pass away; God is going to unleash his kingdom on the new earth.
But in spite of these mad speculations, he doesn’t mention even once in the synoptic gospels that people can be saved merely by accepting that he has paid – or will pay – the penalty for their infringements of the law, their sins if you will. Never. All the more odd when you consider that Mark, Matthew and Luke were putting their gospels together long after Paul preached his particular brand of salvation. Yet they don’t put this message into Jesus’ mouth, nor do they add it to the narrative.
It’s just not there.
So… were the gospel writers not aware of it? If they did know of it, was it that they didn’t like it? Did they know, in fact, that Paul’s formula didn’t square with what Jesus himself had said, or what they at least believed he’d said?
Whatever it was, the result is there are two conflicting versions of the ‘good news’ in the New Testament: Paul’s and Jesus’. One is easier than the other; in Paul’s plan all you have to do is believe. The other is difficult (and if we’re honest, really only designed for Jesus’ fellow Jews); it entails things like forgiving repeatedly, showing compassion, putting others first, turning the other cheek and, especially, following the six hundred and odd commandments that make up the Law.
So guess which one Christians today prefer.
Here’s a clue: it’s not Jesus’ gospel – the one without the magical incantation but with the barbaric Jewish law. But if, as Christians believe, Jesus was the Son of God – maybe even God himself – then why do they always accept Paul’s reinterpretation over and above everything their Lord said? Why do they disregard all that Jesus demands of those who would follow him, and take instead Paul’s easy path?
In the end, though, what Jesus and Paul (as well as the gospel writers and different factions of the early church) are in dispute about is the highly improbable and the absolutely impossible. It doesn’t matter whether they thought you could gain ‘eternal life’ by obeying the commandments or by letting someone else take your punishment for them; humans do not live forever. Just because a zealous first-century preacher thought they could does not make it so. Just because a different fanatic from roughly the same time believed it doesn’t make it happen either. There’s no evidence any human has ever, after this brief earthly existence, gone on to live forever. Equally, there’s no evidence that a deity exists, so those rules that are so important, in different ways, to Jesus and Paul can’t have originated with him. They’re man-made too.
So, with no God and no eternal life, Jesus and Paul might as well have been discussing whether the tooth fairy wears a pink dress or a green dress. What does it matter when she doesn’t exist?
How much more were they wrong about?
How long you got?