THE NEW MATH -
There is a debate at Seminaries about the nature of Jesus. This belief structure about the nature of Jesus is called a Christology or Christ-ology. One way to characterize them is a, “High Christology” and a, “Low Christology.” Another, less helpful way is, “True” and a “False,” though people who characterize them in this way all have a funny way of seeing theirs as the “True and those who oppose them as “False.” A high Christology means that you see the actions and teachings of Jesus through a lens of Divinity. That means that you basically believe that Jesus was really a divine being put into a human shell. His nature was not human but divine. If you have a low Christology, you would be more likely to believe that Jesus was really human, like you and me and yet had some divine or God given abilities. A third way I was taught in seminary, is that Jesus is 100% divine, and 100% human. I was never good at math, yet I am pretty sure that is the new math I heard about growing up.
We use the phrase, “God’s own son.” in our creed because we don’t want to exclude anyone’s convictions. “God’s own Son.” seems to work for both though it means something different to each. What you believe about Jesus probably came from how you were brought up, from the kind of language that you heard about Jesus. Lets look at what each means.
WALK ON WATER
A “High Christology” means that you believe Jesus to have been a supernatural person with miraculous abilities. He was reported to heal disease, multiply loves and fishes and walk on water. You don’t have to look hard to find this understanding of Jesus in the Gospels. Along with this you might believe that Jesus was conceived by a divine human interaction where the Holy Spirit hovered over Mary, and she became pregnant giving birth to a sinless, perfect in every way, God/man. The purpose for Jesus’s coming to earth in this view, is to save humanity from their sins. He did this by being sacrificed to pay the debt of mankind. The payoff in believing this, is that if you believe these things, and confess them, when you die, you will spend eternity with God in Heaven. You may also believe that those who do not believe them spend eternity in conscious torment for their wicked disbelief.
A low Christology, which by the way has only existed outside of the early Christians, for the last 150 or so years. You might believe that Jesus was a fully human person, yet with extraordinary God given gifts. You would see his purpose tied to teaching humanity about God through stories and parables. He was here to start a revolution by how he showed compassion to all people. You would probably see many types of truth in the Bible including; mythical truth, metaphorical truth, allegory, poetry as well as, literal historical truth to name but a few. You would see the “Kingdom of Heaven,” talked about by Jesus, as a new way to live here and now and not only a place you go to after you die. Likewise you would see, “Hell” as an earthly reality experienced especially by those who are unlucky to be born into difficult situations here on earth. It would be unlikely that you would see, “Hell” as a punishment for unrepentant sinners. A low Christology is not at odds with science but embraces it. It characterizes faith as wrestling with questions, rather than blind acceptance of the church’s historical answers.
TOWARD THE MIDDLE
I would suppose that most people outside of fundamentalist settings are some combination of both. I am not looking to argue which is better or to oversimplify or overstate either view. I do want to give language to something that for most Christians has yet gone examined and unnamed. Few people, begin life in childhood with a low Christology. A childlike faith is a gift and if you have never had a faith crisis or a life crisis, you may never need to rethink High Christology. For those who have experienced life’s complexities, they often either just stop believing in Jesus or find their way toward the middle.
I used to be an apologist for a High Christology. I worked hard to defend God and the Bible while feeling a smug sense of being right in my thinking. Then life happened. A tragic death of a best friend, a divorce, getting fired from a job I loved and a curiosity for science have since made me search and wrestle to find a new kind of faith. Mostly it has been aided by reading viewpoints that differ from my own, accompanied by gut feeling that my childlike faith wasn’t enough. It started as a small crack or chink in my armor. They were little inconsistencies that nagged at me. Then I studied Greek and Hebrew and realized that some of what I thought the Bible was saying was inaccurate to its original meaning. I began to use my ability to think critically, to find new ways to understand the meaning of scripture. This led me to understand God and Jesus in new ways. My biggest hindrance to this work has been my fear that somehow I would loose my faith. Thankfully the opposite has happened.
An example of this is when I found out that the Greek word that get’s translated into english as “Hell,” is actually a proper name for a piece of land outside of Jerusalem where the city’s garbage was dumped and burned. The word is Gehenna. You could go there today to this place and what you would find is a soccer field. The imagery of hot coals and the smell of sulfur was a consequence of its earlier land use. There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth as wild dogs would fight over scraps of food. It was also the place where the dead bodies of those who could not afford a proper burial were dumped. You can see why this image would be used to show where those who didn’t belong to caring communities would end up. This word is used only 9 times in the Gospels. The English word, “Hell” is also translated once in the book of 2nd Peter from a different word “Tartoroo” which is a place according to the verse, where Angels who sin go, until the Judgement. I am not even sure what to infer from that verse.
The church has used the concept of eternal damnation to scare people into believing in God and to enforce morality and generosity. Unfortunately I have found that fear is a poor teacher when it comes to spirituality. People didn’t end up with a robust, spirituality but rather a fear God’s wrath. I don’t think the church or the synagogue invented it as a part of some evil scheme. I believe that that it is the consequence of adopting the beliefs of other cultures who had less benevolent gods. One might argue, if one had studied ancient cultures, that the concept of Hell was borrowed from a much older culture called the Zoro Astrians. It came about during the Babylonian captivity of the Israelites about 600 years before Jesus when Jews came into contact with this religious world view. Even at the time of Jesus there was much dissent between the Pharisees and the Sadducees over weather there was an existence of a conscious afterlife.
142 - 0
Likewise, if you were to read all 142 verses where the word heaven appears in the Gospels, you would find a grand total of Zero references to a place you will go when you die. About half of them refer to the “Kingdom of Heaven.” which Jesus taught was a new way to live here on earth, (before you die.) Most of the others refer to a synonym for God or the place where God lived. Not good news if you are a literal reader of the Bible who wants to go to Heaven. I am not however saying that Heaven and Hell can’t exist as places you go after you die. I am just stating the fact that the Bible is a really unreliable source for Heaven and Hell doctrine.
THE POINT… FINALLY
In the absence of Biblical teaching on the subject we are left to trust church history or to ponder what we think God might do. If you believe God to be an Angry Judge, as church history did, you probably would also believe that God would need to punish sin or it wouldn’t be taken seriously. This fits well into a “High Christology.” Or if you believe that God is a loving parent and might use the natural consequences of our sin to discipline us, I would recommend a “Low Christology.” The point is, that I don’t know for fact which it will be, no one does. I do have an opinion which makes more sense to me, and which will invite our world to look more like the “Kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus spent much time teaching about. Either way, you can, as we do in our creed, affirm Jesus as, “God’s Own Son.”