A Letter to Jesus: A Confession1
But you didnt return, because your resurrection did not take place; it was only a pious wish. In fact, your body either rotted in the tomb if indeed it was consigned to a tomb or quickly disintegrated in a common pit. At least, given the dicey nature of the Passover context, it may have been spared the usual indignity of being devoured by vultures and jackals. But while belief in your resurrection and imminent return enabled your followers to overcome the shock of Good Friday, of what avail are such myths to thinking people today?
By Gerd Lüdemann
Emeritus Professor of the History and Literature of Early Christianity
Georg-August-University of Göttingen
Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt University
Dear Lord Jesus,
Permit me, please, to address you as I have since my childhood and as I have for years as a grace before meals (Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest). For many years I also repeated every evening another prayer (Lord Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me) as a sort of verbal talisman, although I wasnt entirely sure why I was doing so. But it is precisely for those reasons that the invocation Lord Jesus has left such a deep impression on me.
Largely out of habit I have continued to pray to you as Lord Jesus in times of confusion and anxiety, although I long ago knew that you were quite different from what my teachers and my pastor gave me to understand.
And of course it now seems strange to me to think of you as a person whom I can address, for I now recognize that you didnt say or do most of the things the Bible attributes to you. More important yet, you arent at all like the person depicted by the Bible and the church tradition. You werent Gods son or free from sin, and had no notion that you had been sent to die for the sins of the world. And what was for me a particularly painful discovery, you didnt institute the Eucharist that for years I celebrated every Sunday in your memory. And the bread I ate wasnt your body, nor was the wine I drank your blood. My hope and longing, along with the reassurances of the servants of your church, stifled my doubts as to whether I really ought to play the cannibal and eat your flesh and drink your blood. After all, as a Jew you yourself were strictly forbidden to consume blood. But your pastors referred me to Luthers declaration that the holy Eucharist is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, appointed for us Christians by Christ himself to eat and drink as the bread and wine.
But they laid false claim to you, for thats not who you were. Like a magician you drove out peoples demons and saw in this the advent of the kingdom of God. You had, as it were, personal knowledge of the devil, and as your powers as a healer grew, you finally saw him fall like lightning from heaven. You seem to have expected that the existing world would soon collapse and give way to a new order of thingsthe kingdom of God. For a while you and your followers led an insecure itinerant life in the service of that kingdom, and you taught a remarkable code of behavior that interpreted the Law of Moses in the light of love, and daring parables that portray the kingdom through the actions of flawed protagonists in the course of everyday events.
But none of this had the desired result, for you too died, and in the prime of life. You were forced to drink the cup of death in a way that you may not have foreseen. Despite profound experiences of God, whom you called a father to be trusted, and from whom you expected almost everything, your hopes for the future died with you because they clashed with the brutal realities of human nature and Roman imperialism. On the cross you had to learn what it means to become a godforsaken victim. And if your understandably inspired followers had not had visionary experiences of your resurrection and proclaimed them as proof of an historical event, all your words and deeds would soon enough have blown away like leaves by the wind. Moreover, had they not promised your imminent return for judgment and the bestowal of eternal salvation, the whole structure of Christian thought would soon have collapsed.
But you didnt return, because your resurrection did not take place; it was only a pious wish. In fact, your body either rotted in the tomb if indeed it was consigned to a tomb or quickly disintegrated in a common pit. At least, given the dicey nature of the Passover context, it may have been spared the usual indignity of being devoured by vultures and jackals. But while belief in your resurrection and imminent return enabled your followers to overcome the shock of Good Friday, of what avail are such myths to thinking people today? To be sure, many Christians still cling to belief in the resurrection, though many have long since abandoned its original meaning: conceding that your body was not revived, they prefer to talk of your being with God. And many bishops, educated church functionaries, and such Christian intellectuals as professors of theology insist on the confession of the resurrection, regardless of what may be understood by it. But such intellectual obfuscation is bound to come to grief, and therefore needs to be decisively exposed for what it is. No authentic religion can be built on projections, wishes, and visions, not even when such phenomena take on the power and authority of the Christian church, which proclaims you to be the Lord of the universe and future judge of all humankind. Of course, you are not the Lord of the universe, nor did you make any such pretense; rather, you proclaimed the future kingdom of God. What we got instead, as one witty cleric observed, was the church. Your hopes seem to have led you to offer exaggerated promises, for the messianic kingdom did not materialize; but far worse is the evident fact that those who elected themselves as your spokesmen have falsified your message and contradicted historical truth to further their personal aims and the power of the church.
Surely you are aware of the myriad crimes that have been committed in your name. The catalogue begins in the New Testament, where anti-Judaism is featured in every gospel, and one evangelist reports that you called your fellow Jews children of the devil because they did not believe in your divinity. It is especially infamous that this so-called purveyor of the good news placed these words of condemnation on your lips. And this hostility toward the Jews that continues throughout church history is certainly not a deviation from the original teachings of the church; rather it arose because you had been exalted to the role of ruler of the universe. From then on, effecting your will from heaven and on behalf of your omnipotent Father, you punished the unbelieving Jews for their lack of belief, their disobedience, and their supposed enmity toward you and your churches. This was not simply a mistake based on a misunderstanding of your preaching! No, for now that the Christian church can look back on its two-thousand-year history it is clear that things could not have been otherwise that except for scriptural and doctrinal falsehoods the churchs very existence would have been both impossible and superfluous. And that is why today we cannot get down to the crucial business of proclaiming your true message: we cannot get rid of the accumulated sins and lies of the last 2000 years.
I feel great sympathy for your fellow Jews, who in our time have been able through historical research to rediscover you as their spiritual brother without adopting the churchs supernatural teachings about you. Nevertheless, I see no reason why I should become a Jew, for I am repelled by the jealous and intolerant God of the Hebrew Bible, who arbitrarily chose one small group of tribes as his elect people, and whom Christians then employed to dispossess the Jews of Gods vineyard. Such a God neither accepts the equality nor recognizes the universal rights of all people. Therefore I am firmly convinced that our Constitution, with articles protecting human dignity, personal liberty, equal rights, and freedom of belief, conscience, and opinion, affords a nobler protection to the life of all human beings than the combined scriptures of the Jewish and Christian religions. To be sure, many Christian leaders and theologians today are eager to emphasize that the aforementioned articles of our Constitution are of biblical origin; but I ask myself why it is that until the seventeenth century neither the church nor its theologians had developed any basic statement of rights applying to all individuals and why these principles, together with the notion of tolerance, had to be established by philosophers of the Enlightenment often in the course of bitter conflict with the church.
You certainly have my deep sympathy, Lord Jesus, but because the time in which you lived is so different from that of today, I dont imagine you can understand my situation. Perhaps you would have become pensive or even conflicted had you learned that heaven is not a place high above you, that the earth is a rather small rocky sphere circling the sun, and not the center of the whole universe. And probably you would have been very surprised to learn that we humans and the apes have common ancestors, that indeed all living beings are part of a development that began with primitive unicellular organisms. And surely you would be amazed to see that 2000 years after your death, your God had still not brought an end to the current age.
And it gets worse: your God did not create the world, as you and all pious Jews of your day assumed. Rather, the universe came into being through an evolutionary process that is now understood to have begun with a cosmic explosion we call the Big Bang. The image of the creator God developed by your predecessors betrayed a far too human perspective. Of course, the same can be said of the servants of your church today, even though they should know better; yet still every Sunday they confess your God as Creator of heaven and earth. I for one would prefer to say that the governance of the cosmos is a great mystery that cannot be solved but is worth investigating. Obviously, such a view of things is incompatible with the assumption of a creator God, and if you were to ask how I deal with the reality that you and your followers called and continue to call your God, I would tell you of an oft-repeated dream that has freed me from the superstition of this super-father.
Like Jacob, I struggled with God. He was strong and sought to drag me down into an abyss of paralysis, guilt, and anxiety. I recognized the chasm, for I recalled in a flash how much of my life had once been governed by these three emotions. I said to myself, Never again, and became strong as an ox. With one last, desperate effort I thrust my antagonist into the pit and at last became free.
Even after repeated experiences of this dream I made further attempts to separate the essence of your message from the time-conditioned features of your preaching. And I clung to your code of behavior and the principles underlying it, for I recognized that elements of your preaching of non-violence, love of enemy, and support of the indigent and the outcast remained valid. But I also knew that these ethical maxims had been developed by others before you, and for the most part were not unique. Moreover, they are tied to the expectation of the coming rule of your God, and that has proved an error. But above all, I now know that in attempting to attach myself to you and understand you as the central dynamic of my life, I was still unconsciously impelled by your Easter image and the Easter message that reflects the churchs dogma. And since any credence in that has long since collapsed, so has the sense of your authority over me.
Theologians will pay almost any price to avoid these conclusions, which follow from the collapse of the idea of a divine creator, from the hoax of your resurrection, and from the impossibility of basing a universal system of ethics on your preaching. They even think that they are honoring you and your memory by doing so. Thats how I behaved and believed for many years, but I now recognize that I was doing so for my personal benefit: to hang on to my faith, to conquer my anxiety, and to retain a degree of power and authority in the church sphere. But of course my attempts to define your resurrection as experiences of forgiveness, of eternity, and of life were doomed to failure, if only because these experiences can also be had apart from your person and your resurrection, and do not depend on the God you invoked. So I prefer from now on to develop a purely human view of religion without having to legitimate myself by the higher authority that theologians call God. Through many discussions with colleagues about the resurrection and its correct interpretation, I became painfully aware that these colleagues strove to remain orthodox theologians whatever the inward cost to their integrity, and repeatedly had recourse to another reality without explicitly acknowledging it in the discussion of specific texts. I can no longer accede to such tacit presuppositions and the self-delusions they promote.
So thats where I stand, Lord Jesus; I can no longer bear the totally confused situation of theology, the church and the Bible. If only you could return to and remain in first century Galilee, you could once again become a charismatic exorcist and distinguished teacher, and we could again enter into a normal relationship with you, much as we have done with other normative figures of antiquity, like the Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates. Your exaltation above the level of humanity was too much to endure, for it derives from the hubristic fantasy of immortality and unreasonable longings that must at last be brought down to earth.
But if contrary to all my beliefs you really should return on the clouds of heaven, I look forward to getting to know you at last. And even though I no longer pray to you and no longer believe in your divine nature, I devoutly believe that I will have your sympathy and that despite the Bible and creed you will not annihilate me for my unbelief. But until then, when it comes to matters of religion, things between us have come to an end.
1 For the first edition of the Letter to Jesus see Gerd Lüdemann. The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did, (London: SCM Press, 1998 and Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999), 19. The present version of the letter represents a thorough revision of that text.