First, two caveats. One, evangelicals are not a monolithic block. It’s possible (but rare) that some will want you to know some of these things. Second, most devoted evangelicals and their leaders sincerely believe that the historical, biblical, and linguistic facts listed below are… well, false. Not “truth.” Not “biblical.” False teaching.
I know. When I was an evangelical, I felt the same way. The few that I did believe or suspect might be true (or conversely, those traditional evangelical views I thought might be false), I kept secret, for fear of being “unevangelical.” But the truth is, aside from a few shady types who know them to be true but want to hide them from their flock, most people are clueless at best, and sadly, brainwashed at worst about these facts.
A fair, objective examination of the Greek of the New Testament and the history of Christianity, especially the first few decades and centuries of the faith, reveal these historical facts:
1 – Jesus did not found a new religion called Christianity. He was a Jew who started a movement that promoted a radical love ethic that broke down barriers of class and religion and embraced all people as equals who are loved by God: Jews, Gentiles, pagans, poor, rich, slave, free, women, and men. Jesus was not a “Christian.”
2 – Early “Christians” did not have a Bible that they considered the infallible Word of God. In the first century the concept of “scripture” was not well defined. The Apocrypha books were accepted by most Jews and the early church as “scripture.” The earliest church relied on Oral Tradition. The Jews never closed their “Bible” until the second century and the Christians not until the fourth century! Up until then, the early church accepted a variety of scriptures on a local level, not universally, and did not impose them on everyone else (before heresy hunting began, there was healthy debate). A closed set of books that are the infallible, authoritative Word of God—self-evident and universally applicable—is a modern concept.
3 – The Word of God is not the Bible, but rather the rationale of God. Evangelicals practice an erroneous flat reading of the Bible, viewing every book, passage, and verse equally as “God’s Word.” This is why they come up with wild ways of harmonizing conflicting or contradictory passages. Jesus and first century Jews didn’t read the Jewish scriptures this way. They discerned the “Word” (the Greek is ‘Logos” or rationale) of God through a combination of hearing oral tradition, the scriptures, discerning the “fruit” of teachings, and using God-given logic.
4 – You don’t have to go to church to be a follower of Jesus. Our modern concept of “church” does not match the original practice of Jesus followers having gatherings in homes and courtyards to encourage one another. The concept of professional clergy and church leaders having authority over members has no historical or biblical basis from the beginning. Some verses that seem to teach this are either mistranslated or misinterpreted. The structure of “church” we have come to know has its roots in pagan and Greco-Roman customs.
5 – The Gospel is not a formula for salvation from sin, judgment, and hell. The Gospel or “Good News” (which is the correct Greek translation), is merely good news. It’s an announcement Jesus made that the reign of the Loving God is on the side of the marginalized, is against religion, and has a working love ethic that will bring social justice and peace on earth. It isn’t bad news first (you deserve hell), and then good news second (Jesus saves you from hell if you accept, believe, do…. nada, nada, nada).
6 – Early Jesus followers did not believe mankind deserved to be eternally damned. Jesus didn’t teach this nor the early “church.” Eastern Christianity is one of the few traditions that teach the original concept: humankind’s “inherent” (original) sin is about being spiritually immature, not totally depraved and deserving of hell.
7 – The notion that Jesus was a sacrificial substitute who took the punishment we deserved for our sins was unheard of until 1000 CE. Anselm, a Catholic theologian in the Middle Ages, popularized that Jesus paid a debt we owed and later reformers developed the belief that he took the punishment we deserved. The early church believed Jesus death on a tortuous Roman cross was a sacrifice that transforms us by showing God’s willingness to confront evil through weakness, love, and forgiveness. In other words, they did not believe Jesus’ death appeases God’s wrath over our sin.
8 – The doctrine of eternal hell is pagan, not Christian. The three Greek words translated “Hell” and phrases translated “eternal punishment” in English translations are mistranslated. The original meaning for those terms are either metaphors for restorative and corrective judgment or denote the destination of all souls whether righteous or unrighteous.
9 – Atheists, agnostics, and nonbelievers are not hell bound. God has one essential attribute: Love. Not wrath AND love. When the scriptures or historical texts talk of God’s judgment, it is always restorative and never retributive. Its purpose is to bring those who have lost their way back into a love relationship, not damn them to eternal conscious torment. This view of full restoration, called universal reconciliation, was the overwhelming majority position in the first few centuries of the faith. The notion that some people choose eternal hell or separation from God is illogical and contradictory to the loving character of God.
10 – Jesus’ way is dead-set against outward religion—the kind of religion that imposes practices and beliefs on people…. or else. His message was a “religion of the heart” where what God desires is having a loving heart that translates into not harming others. This is why some atheists and pagans can be more faithful than some Christians because they have discovered a kind of spiritual “practice of the heart.” This is why we should only judge a person’s heart (character), not their sexual orientation, class, religion, doctrines, or lack of faith.
11 – Jesus is not coming back to initiate an end-of-world tribulation, judge unbelievers, and welcome or “rapture” believers. Reading the Bible historically, objectively examining the original language and context of passages about “Jesus’ return,” and knowing other first century historical documents (e.g. Josephus’ “Jewish Wars”), makes it crystal clear that ALL the modern variations of a Second Coming of Christ belief are wild and speculative. None are “biblical.”
To learn more about these and other historical and spiritual facts, engage the book, Craft Brewed Jesus: How History We Never Knew Taps a Spirituality We Really Need.