What if Jesus didn’t die for our sins?
What if he didn’t rise from the dead? Performed no miracles, preached no beatitudes? No loaves and fishes, no water to wine, no last supper, no crucifixion, no virgin birth?
What if it was all just made up?
Would that block God from loving you? Would it block you from loving your neighbor? Do you have to believe in Jesus, in the literal truth of all four gospels (and studiously ignore how they contradict each other) to love?
Let’s flip the question over to the other side. What if it was all literally true — virgin birth, wine to water, loaves and fishes, betrayal, crucifixion, resurrection, all of it. Suppose Jesus rises from the dead, goes to God and says “forgive them, for they know not what they do” — but God says “fuck that noise, they killed my boy, they’re gonna pay.”
And there’s no mercy for any of us.
God doesn’t love us because Jesus died for us. Jesus died for us because God loves us. And even if you don’t believe Jesus died for you, God still loves you anyway. And it still matters whether you love or not.
Too many people think that they need to believe certain doctrines, certain stories, and that’s all they need to do. Take the loyalty oath, put on the Team Jesus jersey, and you’re good to go. Then you get to hate the Muslims, the queers, the immigrants, the bankers, anyone who’s different from — less than — “us.” And they call that Christianity.
But that’s not what Jesus taught. He said that the most important commandment was to love God, and the one like it (isomorphic) was to love your neighbor as yourself. And when (trying to weasel out of this) one of the crowd said, “who is my neighbor?”, Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan.
Now, over the years and centuries we’ve mostly lost the meaning ofthe word “Samaritan,” thinking it just means some goody-goody nice guy, but that wasn’t what Jesus’s contemporaries thought. The Samaritan was the unbeliever, the heathen, the immigrant with different religious practices and customs from the “godly” who followed the “in” religion. It was the “in” people — the priest and the judge — who left that poor schmuck bleeding in the gutter, and the despised outsider who helped him. He didn’t ask for a religious litmus test, he just saw someone suffering and was moved.
That’s what Jesus was talking about.
Jesus wasn’t talking about religion, he was talking about love. About deep personal transformation. About walking the talk. “By their fruits shall you know them.” (Also see Luke 13:22-29, where Jesus clearly says that people from all religions will get to heaven.)
It doesn’t matter whether you believe the story of who Jesus was, what he did and what he meant. Do you love? Or don’t you?
Now, there are many people who believe the story, and out of that belief, love. And that’s great. But believing, itself, isn’t faith.
Faith is knowing, deep in your marrow, that other people matter just as much as I do. That it matters how I treat people. That, whether or not anyone sees me, doing the right thing is worthwhile. That, when my life is at its darkest and no one seems to care, that there’s something, somewhere that keeps me from falling into despair.
Faith is being rooted in a deep source that makes life matter. Some people draw their faith from transient sources that will dry up — money, looks, sex, fame, politics, patriotism, religious affiliation, ethnic pride, jobs, hobbies, kids. And that’s okay. We all go from faith to faith, hopefully finding deeper, more substantial sources to stand on, to draw nourishment from. It’s hard and painful to love, and we need something to draw on to have the courage to do what’s needed. We need a taproot into meaning. All those things can nourish us — but only because, at their root, they connect us to other people and to the world around us. And, ultimately, to God. God is the aquifer of meaning that feeds all the brooks and wells. And as we grow in wisdom, humility and love, we grow to recognize that.
“Whenever two or three gather in my name,” Jesus said, “I’ll be there.” And he didn’t mean the Team Jesus jersey.
He meant love.