Why did Jesus have to die?
What is the meaning of “resurrection”?
And how could his death possibly save us?
In a globalized world, a fresh look at the “Christ” and his followers
– restoring Christianity’s original appeal and enhancing its compatibility with other spiritual paths
Why these questions?
Many of the replies Christians today give to the question of why Jesus had to die, suggest a severe degeneration of our understanding of the whole issue of salvation. Almost invariably Jesus is presented as a poor victim, and a somewhat dull-witted victim at that: one who unfortunately did not have things under control…
Now, how could anyone feel saved by a Messiah who didn’t have things under control? The usual formula, that he was the son of God who was sacrificed by his Father so that He wouldn’t need to hold us accountable for our sins is hardly understood these days. For those who didn’t undergo a full church conditioning, that sounds like some magical deal from an age before civilization!
My purpose now is to reopen the case and to look for an answer that will make you, the reader, sit up and say in the end: Now I understand why this had to happen! And: Jesus can fairly be called the greatest man who ever trod this Earth! A true son of God! – But of course, if you were to take the perspective of one of the other religions, you could describe their founders in the same terms.
Thus, I hope to be able to present Christianity in such a way that even the followers of other religions can understand it – and simultaneously to bridge the gap exegetes have found between the original sayings of Jesus [as in “Q”, which comes from the German “Quelle”, source, and means a certain 20th century reconstruction of original sayings of Jesus] and the theology of the Apostle Paul.
In every age the same reality is depicted differently
In the first place, it is important to bear in mind that if Jesus and the authors of the Bible had had the words we have today, they would have expressed many things very differently; but they could only use the terminology of their time. This was, of course, already true 2000 years ago in regard to the different potentialities of expression between Abraham and Jesus, which is one reason why Jesus said Abraham would have been happy to see his times – because then, for example, Abraham could certainly not have conceived of sacrificing his son. Such an idea is conceivable only in a culture that practices human sacrifice. – Another example: Paul’s belief that women must be silent in church presupposes a patriarchal society. And even the notion of demonic possession found so frequently in the Gospels is thinkable only in connection with an animistic view of the world.
Although even in the age of Enlightenment thinking is not quite free of such views, most Western Laymen today will not understand them. And so, in interpreting the scriptures it is not enough to be historically correct – it is necessary to go beyond the literal meaning of the historic message: to capture its spirit and express it using present-day concepts understandable to people living today.
Thus – in our age of globalization – a fresh understanding can be found not only of Christianity but of the other religions, whose basic texts were also formulated in long past social frameworks. Thus each religion can find a way to see itself which is compatible with how the others see themselves – something clearly much needed in our time of deadly inter-cultural and inter-religious tensions.
Secondly, a major key to our view is provided by the Evangelist St. Mark. While the conventional Christian image of the resurrection is based on the idea of a quasi-physical reappearance of Jesus, St. Mark – in spite of rich source material suggesting otherwise – plainly declined to present even a single account of a sighting of the risen Christ. Historic research shows that the narrations of the other Evangelists are heavily influenced by the Hellenistic idea of rapture. Possibly, they may have translated the experience of the Apostles into a language that Hellenistic listeners were used to. This, St. Mark for some reason wanted to avoid. Thus our inquiry will have to question the usual view of Easter. And, in that context, even the meaning of the dogmatic formulae to which their interpretation gave rise will have to be reconsidered.
What did Jesus want?
I shall now endeavor to link up the images Jesus used to illustrate his ideals with the images of the language of our time.
Jesus had a dream: the “Kingdom of God”, with all of humanity united under the heavenly “Father” – an image, in which everybody is filled with empathy and trust, and with no room for sorrow or depression.
But in his dream he also saw the forces opposed to that Kingdom, human arrogance and people’s fears.
He knew that realizing the “Kingdom of God” calls for the commitment of courageous, whole-heartedly trusting people. – I use the word “trust” instead of “belief” or “faith”, because these latter terms have been overused and no longer meet Jesus’ intention sufficiently.
Jesus also knew that this dream corresponds to the deepest longing of mankind, to its innermost truth. And he knew that every human being had the potential to realize his longing, because, according to Genesis 1,26, the “Father”, who brought forth the whole universe, created every man in “His” image – not as a fraction but as a microcosm, a minute Whole of His Being, the vast creative energy. Therefore, being essentially of the same nature as the whole of the creative power, what is possible for human beings is far, far greater than most people believe. In Jesus’ terms, someone who truly has confidence can literally move mountains [Mt 17,20].
Yet despite such fantastic capacities there is no cause for megalomania – one of the dangers along the way in the quest for inner truth – because salvation in the “Kingdom of God” does not consist of some self-aggrandizing realization, but in abandoning the arrogance of separating oneself from the Whole [Mt 20,26].
Self-aggrandizement is rooted in the fear of coming off badly. Interestingly one definition of “sin” and in this respect even the etymological root of the word [in the old German “sondern”] is sundering oneself from the Whole. By separating themselves and by looking down on others, people hope to gain advantages. In a certain respect there may actually be some gain – but such attitudes have an unintended negative side-effect: they result in one’s being cut off from compassion, and consequent alienation. And from that condition people yearn to be saved. Logically, salvation comes, on the contrary, from once more subordinating oneself to the “Will of the Father” for the sake of the whole.
In Biblical language attunement to the Will of God has been lost, because human beings wanted to be like God: meaning that, instead of being satisfied with being a complete image of the whole, the parts have separated themselves from the whole and resisted it. Thus they have lost all perception of the good of the whole, seeing in its place the supposed interests of the part.
A separate ego presents the kind of self-image which the ancient Greeks termed “persona”, or “mask” – a notion that today reappears in humanist psychology, not to be confused with the theological notion of the “person”. We too can observe this phenomenon, when people immediately perceive any mistake made by others, but not their own mistakes since the latter have no place in their self-image. Usually, what people call “I” is this “persona”. Identification with it is so powerful that it usually needs an “end of the world”, i.e. the crumbling of the mask, before those who are estranged from their true nature are ready to see themselves as belonging to the whole, before they can be “reborn” into the whole – or as members of the “Kingdom of God”. Then in a sense they have died and the image of God within them has come alive. Jesus spoke of this and illustrated the point in many different ways.
He saw himself and his successors as helpers on the way to that transformation. He called on his disciples to be “fishers of men”, to haul from the abyss of chaos those ripe for rebirth.
We can recover Paradise only through the opening of the Heart
The helpers themselves needed to undergo the process of transformation before they would be able to help. But before they could “harvest” anyone they must first plant a seed. Or, in another metaphor Jesus used, the “Kingdom of God” would – through their presence – become like leaven in the dough, penetrating people's hearts and minds and loosening up their rigidity. Or again, to employ terms of our time, the hard mask (the “persona”) must be dissolved so that human nature (the image of God) may shine through. Outward religion was not able to achieve this, because it too is subject to the rigid mechanisms governing the mask, outward appearances, custom, social rules, and the fashion of “zeitgeist”. The spirit is all too often missing. According to Jesus, social rules alone do not lead to the Kingdom of God.
In spite of his repeatedly speaking of the commandment of love, for Jesus, true neighbourly love results not so much from following a commandment as from paying attention to the pre-existing opening of our human nature to the Whole, which he calls “the Kingdom of God”. Nothing could make that clearer than the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which, of all people, precisely the experts on rules were incapable of meeting their neighbour’s need.
In the same line as his view of human nature, Jesus did not preach the Kingdom of God in order to remove social inequalities, as quite a few of our theologians believe – even though greater social justice must surely be one of its consequences. He “only” intended a complete reintegration of the parts into the whole, not in the sense of amalgamating the individual into the collective as in communism or in the “Borg” of the science fiction series “Star Trek”. He wanted to make [as in Mt 19,8] “the hardened heart” of the individual – the “persona” – permeable again, because then human beings would again be able to perceive and to love one another. Introduced by people who have already experienced the process of being reborn themselves, “seed” and “leaven” will start the process of transformation in which – finally – the old world will come to an end and give way to a new life as a true “child of God” [Jo 1,12].
Social evolution too is affected by the Kingdom of God
Society is never perfect. Certain individuals will therefore at any time recognize within themselves a longing for change, and from this a dream arises of enhancing social life in an evolutionary sense. That dream takes the form of a personal vocation; through some sort of “divine interface” the creative energy is urging on the individual to realize its great dream. While in the beginning the dream is usually interlarded with egotistical interests, those who take their vocation seriously will refine it and model from it a realistic image of the solution to actual social problems.
Most individuals who are suffering from alienation see in this vision a solution to their problems. These people will therefore support its realization – while, of course, the forces that profit from their fellow men’s alienation will oppose it, but will in so doing unintentionally intensify contradictions to such an extent that they will in the end help the forces striving for unity to succeed – as the seer John foretold in his Apocalypse.
The restoration of Paradise
Re-integration into the Whole has a manifold positive effect on the integrating parts. Being microcosms themselves it will make them whole too, cure their estrangement, and enable them to attain an unprecedented flourishing. They will feel truly restored to Paradise.
However, as the accounts of Jesus and of his successors show – and similar things are told of enlightened beings in all cultures – the personal calling of those already building the “Kingdom of God” may require them to bear loads that others could not carry. Their example shows that Heaven can be experienced even in the midst of what appears to be hell.
The Kingdom of God is within us, said Jesus. Paradise is not an outward affair, but a matter of inner attitude – to be more specific, it originates not in a human, but in a divine view of the world.
The one obstacle to our flourishing and how it can be overcome
The only possible obstacle to our thriving is our refusal to accept reality as it is – or in the language of Jesus: our denial of the will of God. Sometimes we believe we could not accept the circumstances meted out to us because we lack confidence, we are in anger, fear, doubt, sin, or guilt – all in all: in a condition of alienation, which again is caused by our separation from the Whole. Jesus therefore showed a practical way to escape from that vicious circle and, in his terms, to renew our trust in the limitless mercy and power of “the Father”.
In order to find confidence and trust again –without having to undergo the despair caused by one’s world coming to an end – people have to turn around voluntarily and change their ways – the original meaning of the concept of conversion; first, they have to fully accept “the Will of God”, meaning they have to accept their fate – as it is. Thus they are coming to understand what it means to be human. At that point their illusions are dying. What is dying is the agent that separates them, the ego. Thus they become able to open their hearts to one another. And at the turning point they realize: if they lived in denial of part of God’s Creation, they denied their own nature; they denied life itself within them.
How Jesus is restoring Paradise
By turning around, people would learn to pay full attention to God’s will and thus to rejoin the Whole, to come into “the Kingdom of God’”. That makes the decisive difference.
By living for the Kingdom of God, people will find Heaven on earth. That was Jesus’ Good News.
In other words: Paradise is lost because people create an image of themselves, in which they – their ego, their “persona”, their mask – are separated from the Whole. They then experience themselves as separate and alienated. Salvation from that alienation is possible only if the “persona” is dissolved. That is a painful process – for although the “persona” is not real but only imaginary, people identify with it. To break away from it is for them a kind of death. In order to make it easier for them to accept that virtual death, Jesus gave his physical life. Thus he became a peerless savior of mankind.
With his death, the transformation process, which he called “rebirth”, was brought to completion. His death radically transformed the Apostles – and two thousand years later it still transforms people by demonstrating to them – and to us – how far a person can go without losing himself, once he has returned to the Kingdom of God, once he has found himself. By accepting his death, Jesus removed all fears from whoever allows himself to be touched by him, and enabled us all to awake to the realization of our divine nature, and to accept becoming his successors in every respect.
Complications on the way: spiritual materialism – and the missing link between Jesus and Paul
Understanding this sheds a healing light on the confusion that has arisen because some of the first Christians expected an early and quite literal second coming of the Christ, since they were not able to conceive of this second coming as an existential process of transformation. Yet it is precisely that existential process of transformation which is the “missing link” between the work of Jesus and the teachings of the Apostle Paul, for in some theologians’ view, Paul’s teachings may practically be reduced to the message that “Jesus is the savior”, while he hardly cares about the teachings of Jesus himself. From this view they construe a contradiction – even though Paul makes it clear that everyone who truly understands what Jesus has done will surely live his life in the way Jesus intended – because a person who compassionately understands Jesus will have become a mystic.
Theologians who have not become mystics, who have not experienced the radical change of the death of the old self followed by rebirth are not able to understand Paul’s direct link, and thus they are reduced to speaking of a “missing link”. In other words: their confusion has its source in a materialistic misunderstanding of religion, one that has been commonplace among adherents of all religions throughout all ages. One that still persists down to this day, causing even theologians to misunderstand the essence of Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching, which is mystical unity.
In Jesus’ days, this materialistic misinterpretation of the meaning of the “Kingdom of God” took the form of expecting a political Messiah, and of absolute attachment to the letter of the law. Usually both features were intertwined. The effect of both tendencies is still similar in the forms encountered today: people want an outward demonstration of the (divine) power, because then – or so they secretly think – they'll be able to hold onto their “persona”. A life of constant watchfulness would then no longer be needed, and they would be repaid for their struggles, while all those who sneered at their devoutness would be punished. Of course, there is nothing left of a re-integration into the Whole, on the contrary, one side is pitted against the other.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection the materialistic misunderstanding changed into expecting his outward return. I call this expectation “materialistic” because it is directed towards an outward event – and not towards one’s own spiritual, personal transformation, which Jesus intended – and in which alone he directly touches us and we him.
As in Jesus’ day, in our time too this confusion takes the form of expecting outward change. The phenomenon manifests in two seemingly opposed ways: on the one hand, the demand for a political revolution, on the other, religious fundamentalism.
The first variant is based on the secularized view of religion, which originated in the era of the Enlightenment, and has since come to influence religion itself. According to this secularized view, the sole purpose of religion is to remind man of his social obligations. The Enlightenment philosopher Kant expressed this in his “categorical imperative”. Communism was one of the most prominent consequences of the secular view. The idea of the “Kingdom of God” is replaced by the doctrine of communal property enforced by the power of the State. One recent theological repercussion of that ideology is expressed in “liberation theology”. The roots of “liberation theology” are connected with Jesus’ intention to stimulate compassion and compassionate action. However, some of its branches have, far beyond the call of compassion, adopted socialist features – and precisely these features today contribute much of the atmosphere in “Christian” discussions of social policy, at least in Europe, where something almost like brainwashing pervades everyday Christian preaching. For many of today’s Christian activists, Paul’s advice to slaves not to strive for liberation is clearly quite inconceivable.
The other strand of spiritual materialism is no less a form of brainwashing. It consists of a defensive reaction against the secular interpretation of religion and is usually called “fundamentalism”. Its adherents, both the members of Protestant evangelical sects and Catholic charismatics, often speak of themselves as being “reborn”, believing themselves to have undergone the transformation process of which Jesus spoke – and indeed, through the changes they have made in their lives they can consider themselves as belonging to “the just” in the sense of the Law. And yet, they would hardly understand the Apostle Paul when he tells them that by returning to the Law they squander salvation [Gal 5,5]. Many of them have moreover not really understood Jesus’ request to “turn around”. They have only changed their direction and kept their “persona” – just as, in Jesus’ time, many members of the party of the pious, the Pharisees, did. Be that as it may, Jesus counted the Pharisees among the just, but criticized them for their attachment to the letter of the law and neglect of the spirit. Transformation is not the difference between left and right, it is the difference between caterpillar and butterfly. That is why “fundamentalism” is one of the forms of spiritual materialism. No wonder that fundamentalists cannot understand the symbolism of the image and still expect an outward physical “Second Coming” of the Christ as their predecessors mistakenly did two thousand years ago.
Neither tendency is interested in the process of personal transformation which Jesus intended. One group seeks an outward reinforcement of fraternity; the others see their salvation in blind belief and obedience to their reading of the letter of Holy Scripture – almost invariably based on ignorance of the original context and connotations. Both insist on the enforcement of the law, on something outward.
But in the life of Jesus, all outward material goals are missing: He was not known to be charitable in the modern sense and his call to love one’s neighbor was, at least in the first place, not meant to be understood in the sense of organized charity, let alone in socialist terms, but as immediate sensitivity to the present situation resulting from being integrated into the greater Whole.
In this spirit Jesus’ calling attention to the need to help the weak was offset by his request to them to “get up” and stop being victims, to “move mountains” instead of expecting others to do it for them.
In contrast to that, in our days a dependency culture has developed under the influence of a secularized interpretation of “loving one’s neighbor” and – especially after the breakdown of the Communist system – seems to have spread all over the world. This tends to transform natural sensitivity into easily exploited guilt feelings.
Even Jesus’ radical advice to a rich man to sell all his property and give it to the poor was not aimed at helping the poor, but rather at freeing the rich man so that he could attain transformation. Jesus could just as well have told him to “dump it all as garbage”, but that would have been stupid, why not make that garbage useful – and “make bread out of stones” in the right way?
This example shows another essential feature of Jesus’ teachings: The rich man already observed the Halachic rules, he was already one of “the just”, and he was already “saved” in the sense of the Old Covenant. But he was not yet perfect, because he had not undergone the process of transformation. He was not yet, what the Hindus would call “enlightened”. He was not yet in the state of mystical union. So, for Jesus there are clearly two classes of the just – as well as a third class of those who had not been fortunate enough to understand that it is better to be good than evil. These unlucky ones, the “sinners”, were Jesus’ special friends. They would profit most from being transformed.
And another essential differentiation needs to be mentioned here: the impression that Jesus healed anyone is not the view of Jesus himself, it is a magical, spiritual-materialistic perspective, for it was clear to him: he healed no-one; rather, he simply enabled healing to take place. The sick were healed through their encounter with someone in a state of mystical unity; through that experience their inner attitude changed and consequently their whole outlook to life changed with it, even transforming their health. “Thy faith hath made thee whole”: The sick people’s trust worked “the miracle”. Jesus was simply the mediator of that trust, by being trustworthy and helping them to trust.
Such spiritual materialism is always needed by those who have not yet become one again with the whole. They are not yet able to get in touch with their inner truth, because they don’t trust their own heart. They are dependent on an outward law, a certain social system, and can accept truth only if it can be found in a book. Given the brutal pecking order that exists among human beings, and which compels us to adopt outward identifications, this is all too understandable. It was precisely in order to dissolve such compulsions and conditioning that Jesus took upon himself to die his cruel death. He wanted to encourage the intimidated to listen to their heart and be free – knowing that some religious leaders and their followers would want to prevent just that, because every single orthodox “persona” goes to build up their group identity and power.
The Mysticism of Jesus, and of the Apostle Paul
Jesus intended an existential transformation culminating in a mystical union with “the Father”, and so did Paul. As Albert Schweitzer remarks, Paul did not propagate a God-mystique, but a “Christ”-mystique, yet still there is no contradiction here, because “Christ” is Paul’s “wild card” for “the Whole”: Christ is “God’s exemplary image” (2Cor 4,4), the “new Adam” (1Cor 15,45), and therefore also what Buddhists call “the Buddha-nature”, “the deepest essence of man” – addressed by Jesus when he refers to himself as “the son of man” (i.a. Mt 9,6).
In the language I am using here, the mysticism of St. Paul, culminating in 1 Cor 15,28 (“that God may be all in all”), could be expressed as follows:
Human nature (“the image of God”) is in constant communication with the Whole of the creative energy (“the Father”). The outcome of that communication we can perceive as our inner truth, which is trying to guide us in exactly the way Jesus showed in his Sermon on the Mount. Thus our true nature, the “image of God” (Gen 1,26), is the actual savior (Messiah, Christ) – to the extent that the concrete human being, as in the hymn of creation, realizes his being dependent on the original Whole, and his being borne by it at any moment; because as soon as an individual realizes that he is a part of this greater Whole it will be quite natural to sense the needs of the other parts and to react to every one of them in the spirit of the Whole.
By his actions Jesus was an archetypical embodiment of this savior. And every person who is really mindful of his complete surrender to the whole thus follows the path that Jesus took. He realizes his separation and detaches himself from the medium of that separation, the “ego”. He is “dying unto sin”, as Paul says [Rom 6,11]). Thus, he is reconnected to the eternal source of life. And through the spirit (“pneuma”), which now is enabled to act, he experiences his creaturely nature, and, within that, a “resurrection”, a new life on a new basis. And the new basis is its inner truth, the “voice” of its divine nature, which will subject all future actions to its realization. And then the still individually localized divine human nature too will surrender to the Whole, leaving only the One creative energy.
The effect Jesus had
Since Jesus truly trusted his dream, his inner truth, his perception of the “will of the Father”, he was able to accomplish incredible things. People were fascinated. His confidence was contagious. Meeting him, those who had already given up all hope could discover a different principle of life at work within themselves (to such an opening, Alcoholics Anonymous owe their rescue and their clean new life). Thus, new hope could arise and their hope turned into trust, and that trust transformed their condition. If they felt guilty they could believe they were forgiven; if they were sick they could believe they would be whole.
Fully aware of the constant presence of the creative energy (“his Father”), which he knew to be the true nature of all mankind (the “children of God”), Jesus was able to draw his energy from this divine source and to radiate limitless confidence, and so in his presence people began to trust that the worst could change into the best.
Wherever Jesus appeared, people who had lost their confidence and become sick were brought to him, and they were healed. “Your faith has made you whole”, he told them. People who felt guilty came to him and found forgiveness in life-shaking experiences – not bestowed by him but arising from the source of life which they had rediscovered in the encounter with him – and which liberated them from their estrangement and reintegrated them into the Whole, so that they could experience a homecoming: happiness, strength and the renewal of confidence.
But with his disciples everything was different. Over and over he scolded them for their lack of trust: “O ye of little faith!” What would they need to be reborn . . .?
Jesus’ limitations and how he overcame them
Jesus did not dream of an outward religious-political, social revolution, as other revolutionaries do. He envisioned an existential process of transformation, which he described as “the coming of the Kingdom of God”. Unlike the state resulting from a revolution the Kingdom of God is no outward phenomenon but the outcome of an inner transformation, involving a certain perception of the world and of what it means to be a human being. This way of perceiving results in a community of likeminded people. It cannot be accomplished once and for all, because every human being of each generation after Jesus has to work anew on the project. It was therefore crucial for Jesus that his disciples should be able to grasp the leverage of this transformation, learn to handle it, and pass it on to their disciples. The transformation Jesus needed to bring about, and in which his own confidence, his dream, and his ability to inspire trust originated, could not be achieved in a continuous linear process of learning. It is an abrupt occurrence, in which the old has radically to come to an end before the new can spring up – just as he taught, using the image of the seed which must die before new life can arise from it.
The “crux” of the transformation is one’s own death.
The sick and the desperate who experienced transformation in their contact with Jesus had already arrived at the point where their lives were forfeited. In a certain sense they were already dead. They had nothing left to hold onto. They had no choice. They needed to seize the chance Jesus offered them. It was easy for them to turn away from their old lives and start anew. Therefore the small stimulus Jesus offered could bring about a radical transformation and start a whole new life for them.
How different was the reality of his disciples! They had their lives in good order – yet the basis of their lives was completely different from Jesus’ life! How could they take on the task he foresaw for them in his dream? He had told them that they could do the same things as he was doing (John 14,12), but they were not able to believe that. Beside him and compared to him they felt small and powerless. Why?
They had not been transformed as yet. Their lives were still based on their old human ego. The divine which governed Jesus had not yet taken the lead in them. But how could the divine take the lead if this transformation required their death? How could Jesus evoke the mystical “die before you die”? He had to catapult them to the edge of their existence – without endangering their physical survival. But how could he do that?
He had to take away from them what had become the center of their lives: himself. Since the realization of his dream depended on his disciples, he had to remove himself from their lives. He had to die!
– Some exegetes believe that Jesus could not have seen or even planned that with such clarity, being the simple itinerant preacher they take him for. – But what if these exegetes just cherished that image because such clarity would blow their minds (their “persona”)? –
Like the prophets before him, the realization of his dream was more important to him than his physical survival. – Later, sacrifice-theology came to be developed from that: God sacrificing his son as a substitute for the sacrifices which would have been needed to atone for the sins of humanity. Such a view is far from Jesus’ thinking. It originates in antiquity’s world of absolutistic and mercantile tyrants but today it is utterly unintelligible, since in the world-view of our culture God is not some book-keeping tyrant but the power within, which drives everything towards its full development – and that also was the view of Jesus. He did not intend a sacrifice but to obtain an effect.
In order to realize his dream, it was necessary for Jesus to give his life.
Isaiah’s song of the suffering servant of God (Is 53) provided the model. There was no lack of enemies who wanted to be rid of him. All he needed to do was follow the path of Isaiah’s “man of sorrows” and let his enemies have their way.
He told his disciples he would have to suffer and even be killed, and that this was necessary for them – and then he would rise again.
Modern exegetes are not sure if Jesus could have been as clearly aware of that as it has become in later theology; but they admit that he may have considered the possibility of his execution – so why should he not have, as I assume, anticipated a development beyond his physical death and an effect of his death on his disciples? And why should he thus not have utilized his death as an element of his didactics? The way I see Jesus, he clearly did just that.
He talked about it with his disciples. They did not understand. He repeatedly told them of his suffering, in order to prepare them. Up to the last moment, they did not understand. Minutes before his arrest they fell asleep; because they still did not understand. And when he was executed they feared above all for themselves. That’s how people are as long as they live for themselves.
But he had prepared them perfectly for the time after his death: He gave them a ritual of bread and wine.
– If modern exegetes say that what was later to become a sacrament was not deployed by him, they have at least to admit that he laid out a clear trail, because already before his last supper he made the apostles realize that eating together created communion and in communion the greater whole could be found. Thus his presence automatically would come to mind in the Apostles’ next meals. But once more: Why should he not have realized the full potential of the symbol – just because some theologians are not able to imagine that he could have done so? –
My experience shows me that people who are not entrapped in their “persona” are able to grasp reality at a depth of which others can only dream. Therefore I see no reason to doubt that Jesus deliberately created this ritual of bread and wine as a sacrament. Thus, in my view, he enabled his disciples, and their disciples down to our days, to meet with him “personally” as Hindu Masters do in “Darshan”. In so doing he enabled them to become aware of their own divine nature, which comes from “the Father”, and thus see themselves as congenial parts of the creative Whole, as he had done. And that, I see as the key to understanding his whole life.
By means of this ritual all those who wanted to become his successors would again and again be able to encounter the dedication with which he lived and laid down his life. In that surrender Jesus was governed not by human but by divine motives – in other words, in that respect he was not a human but a divine being – and by being “crucified with Christ”, the divine will also govern his disciples [as Paul says in Gal 2,20]. Thus, Jesus was able to fulfill his calling. By bringing out the divine basis within them, which is always ready to surrender to the needs of the whole, he prepared them to follow his way.
And thus he was able to carry the potentiality for this transformation across the threshold of his death into an endless number of lives all the way down to our times, over and over again awakening the divine in all these people, and enabling countless individuals to live in accordance with his intentions, and to institute his succession in ever new generations.
Such is the great mountain which Jesus “the fisher of men” moved and still continues to move over 2000 years later.
The power plant within: inner truth
Perhaps I could put it this way: There was nothing artificial about Jesus; he was human nature pure and simple. He was no moralist, he was no “liberal”, he did not follow any ideology; he simply followed his inner truth. In contemporary language: he knew that he was entirely composed of creative energy. That is what he meant, when he said that he and the Father were one. He certainly did not want to say that nobody else could be one with the Father. He surely believed that whoever followed his inner truth would be one with the Father, and that in essence everyone was entirely composed of creative energy – even though that truth hardly can be recognized by those who do not constantly strive to maintain contact with their inner being.
Abraham radically trusted his inner truth to govern his life – and thus turned away from the tradition of his forefathers, Moses rediscovered within his inner truth the God of his fathers, all the prophets experienced God’s voice as their inner truth, and Jesus’ disciples could also find it in their inner truth. There was only one condition: they at first had to die to their ego, in order to be able to live a new life based on their divine nature. Thus, they would find the right guidance throughout their lives – in an image of the language of Jesus: “The Holy Ghost” would lead them. And thus, they would be able to do the things he had done and would become his true successors.
But he also knew that following one’s inner truth can lead one into danger, because some features of society do not favor the free individual, they demand conformity. Therefore Jesus foresaw that his disciples would get into trouble as he himself had gotten into trouble and he prepared them for that in many ways – lastly by his example of adhering to his inner truth even if it led him to suffering and death. They need not be afraid of such a fate; he had gone the way before them. He would be at their side, always.
Death and resurrection
But first Jesus had to meet his death on Golgotha…
After his disciples had placed his body into the sepulcher, the painful process of their transformation began –in exactly the manner he had foreseen:
Whoever has visited the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem may have felt the endless pain the loss of Jesus meant to his disciples – and that very pain effected the resurrection (Jesus’ coming to life in his disciples), because that immeasurable loss catapulted them to the edge of their existence, and made them experience what the diseased had experienced from their disease, and the sinners from being forsaken. Jesus had to die to bring about his disciples’ complete surrender, to make them die before dying physically, to lead them to the point of no return, of mystical transformation. By his death he brought about the death of their ego – and with that a new, divinely based, life. And in that new life they knew Jesus, who had brought forth the new life in them, as living and present.
Expressed in everyday language: after what seemed to be endless desperation, they at last understood that Jesus’ death was irreversible. Touching the depths of that realization, they remembered his words that they could do the same things as he had done, if not greater ones. And in addition they realized that they did not even have a choice: either they must follow in his footsteps or their whole lives would be meaningless and futile.
They were thrown into cold water and now they had to swim, if they were to survive. In their struggle for existence they became aware – two days after his death – of the fullness of the power that had lain dormant within them up to that very moment.
That experience made them understand, why Jesus had taken that terrible fate upon himself. Together they became aware of the divine dedication that had motivated Jesus, and why he had given his life for them. And at that instant they began to discover this dedication within themselves: the energy which had healed the sick.
And in a life-shaking experience they felt that the whole essence of Jesus was present in them now. All that he had told them about this moment had come true. In an overwhelming existential (mystical) realization they knew that Jesus lives.
That later came to be known as his “resurrection”. What they experienced was their own death and resurrection to new life, no longer fed by human desire but by divine Providence.
His resurrection was not a physical reappearance, it was a spiritual encounter – and that, in my eyes, is why the Gospel of Mark does not mention even a single appearance of the risen “Christ”.
How to become as powerful as Jesus was
Now that they knew, the disciples had to continue the work Jesus had begun. And so they prepared themselves. Jesus had prepared himself with a fast of forty days; they prepared themselves – again for forty days – by recapitulating meticulously everything they had experienced with him. Then, after a break of another ten days, to complete the fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot, which symbolize the time between slavery in Egypt and the transmission of the Law on Mount Sinai, they were at last ready.
As the Jewish tradition speaks of the time between Pesach and Pentecost as that in which the several layers of the husk around the grain of wheat become detached, and the wheat thus becomes ready for harvesting, so we could see the layers in the husk detaching from the divine core of the disciples. At Pentecost the old human ego had died; it was no longer any more they who were living, but Christ who lived in them. They were full of the Holy Spirit. And so they were all trust and confidence.
It may have been like this: On the 50th day after Easter they were so happy that in the house they had rented since Pesach they shrieked with delight and danced. They made so much noise, that on the street people asked themselves what was going on and others came from afar to find out. After some of them had found a way to look inside the house and had seen the Apostles jumping around rejoicing and singing they told the crowd outside that the people in the house were just drunk.
That comment came to the ears of the Apostles and they came to the window. Surprised to see such a huge crowd gathered in front of the building, Peter took the opportunity to address them all. He explained what had been happening. He told them what they just had realized with every fiber of their being: that Jesus really was the Messiah – not the jubilant Messiah most people had expected, but the true Messiah, who had come to bring about God’s Kingdom, one completely independent of any political condition. It depended only on those human beings who devoted themselves to bringing it about.
The spark of their enthusiasm kindled the flames of inspiration in the crowd. And, according to the Acts of the Apostles, three thousand of those who had gathered, five hundred according to Paul, decided to become followers, if not successors of their newly found Messiah. That was the first day of what later became known as the Christian “Church”, from the Greek “kyriake”, the House of the Lord Jesus.
When they looked on the dedication Jesus had manifested, and saw how impeccably he had realized his dream, they began to regard him and his mission as divine. Jesus himself became the center of their message, since a better exemplification of his message or a better fulfillment of his dream was not even thinkable. They began to regard him as the archetypal “image of God”, as the potency described in the hymn of creation. They saw in him such a true image that all could see God in it.
The creation of the myth: the fading of trust
But – to become a successor of Jesus, as he had wanted it, is a very lofty goal. Many were drawn to the idea, but few had the resolve truly to walk that path; and yet still they wanted to be associated with it. – Now, you can see, here again, the “persona” is saved, not the being. – So later “successors” transformed the experience of the disciples into a myth, the myth of the only begotten Son of God, who was so high above any human being that no one could hope to imitate him. And so, by exalting him, his request that his disciples become what he had been, that they become his true successors, faded, and the followers of the “Christ” left off trying to imitate him. Instead they began to be content with calling themselves “Christians”, and to adhering to the “Church”, which now became a community of people who confessed Jesus as their Savior. – All that also in connection with the necessity to give structure to a growing following.
These factors led people to regard true surrender to the will of God as no longer necessary, to replace confidence by mere belief in the truth of certain statements, to regard group identity as more important than one’s inner truth – with all the consequences that has had down to the present day, when clashes over group identity risk turning into global conflicts.
– At that point a problem arose that had not existed in the beginning: People who had become members of the church after their initial key experience of conversion suffered a backlash, and – after the first absolution of baptism – they again needed forgiveness of their sins. The “died for sin” (Rom 6,11) was no longer understood in its radical sense: mystical unity with Christ, Paul’s ideal, was not attained. It was replaced by group identity. And for that baptism was not enough, a separate sacrament of penitence was needed. This could officially repair defects in group identity. –
While Jesus clearly had intended to include all outcasts, those who called themselves Christians yet again excluded all those who did not share the exact formula of their confession.
Christianity became a mass phenomenon. From that point on, only a minute percentage realized that Jesus had wanted them to become true successors, to lead a life of complete trust in their inner truth and in the possibility of realizing their dream, which resulted from their connection to the Whole.
While Jesus stood with arms wide open welcoming the whole world, the myth has become a threshold that turns people away. While many skeptics throughout the ages might have been willing and able to become true successors, they could not accept the myth, which they saw as a fairy tale. So Jesus’ assertion about certain religious leaders of his time has remained true even in our time: “Woe unto you, lawyers! For ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.” [Lk 11,52].
It is not spirituality that is missing, for human beings will always be what they are: microcosms, minute wholes, constantly informed by the complete Whole. Human nature in its entirety has evolved from the original creative energy, and in its essence it never can be anything else but creative energy. At all times it harbors in its innermost being the call to evolve. At all times it nurtures its dream of a Heaven where all that is bad will be transformed into something good. Therefore the archetypal “Son of God” still can reach out to his brothers and sisters, even today, but only if his original voice is allowed to speak freely, and not from the mausoleum of dogma in which he has been enshrined.
While Jesus saw that danger, and even though its power took his very life, he was far from dividing the world into black and white. He knew of the necessity of an institutionalized corrective to counteract the dangers of individuals backsliding into egotistical or utopian realms. Therefore he urged his disciples to build such a corrective. He neither disapproved of the institution of the priests nor of the party of the pious, even though conflicts with its representatives finally led to his death – on the contrary, he even recommended following their guidance; nor would he ever have disapproved of the new institutionalized community of his successors, even though only very few of them were ready truly to take up his succession. As he did with the Pharisees, he would only have pointed out to them that the newly defined distinguishing marks of their group identity would have to serve the people and must not become traps for them.
One with the creative energy and overcoming death
As he had seen it in his “dream”, the real Jesus has overcome death and still lives among us and may be experienced by all those who have the desire to do so. By recapitulating his life, as the Apostles did after Easter, we too can come to understand how we can overcome death: by committing ourselves to our inner truth and throwing our entire existence in the balance.
The examples of Abraham and the other Patriarchs show that following the divine command does not mean that the decision will cost us our physical lives, but rather that we can thrive and enable others to flourish, as the creative energy has intended us to since the beginning of time; and thus we may at last die old and satisfied with life, closing our eyes forever, yet ever present as a shining light for those we leave behind.
And personally, we shall in the end be able consciously to return to the source of creative energy that brought us forth, the Whole, realizing: this is me!
Could there be anything greater than that?
Concepts and words to describe inner realities change with time – therefore, Biblical images are not to be taken literally; it is their spirit that must be grasped.
Jesus had a dream – the “Kingdom of God” – all of humanity united under the heavenly “Father” – Paradise. It is Everyman’s deepest dream. And it can be realized, because every human being is of divine origin – the fruit of the creative process. As a true “child of God”, he is pure creative energy. He needs only to trust, and all will be possible – even to find Heaven in the midst of hell.
Jesus trusted his dream completely. Sick people were infected with his confidence and were healed. Only his disciples did not find sufficient self-confidence. Next to him they felt powerless. They still lived in their human egos. Since the realization of his dream depended on them, he had to guide them onto the path of rebirth with its basic condition: the death of the ego. Jesus had no choice; he had to take that away from them that with which they identified: himself.
After his death, his disciples’ world collapsed. Now they had no one to depend upon but themselves. They were thrown back upon themselves – but there was nothing! As he had expected, in the midst of their desperation something else from within them started to take the lead, their divine nature. And now they could view the world as Jesus had done. Now they started to realize the truth of his “dream”. Their fear dissolved. It was replaced by trust in the divine power within themselves; thus they became his successors. Now it was their turn to guide other people onto the path of death and rebirth.
Soon a whole congregation of people who had been transformed took over Jesus’ dream of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, with each one of them becoming a true successor of Jesus.
After a while, however, many found it too strenuous to follow that path. Instead they built a myth, in which Jesus was depicted as the only Son of God. From then on all they had to do was to confess his name. His message thus became widely known but it also became more superficial; and it lost its attraction for people who had evolved beyond the stage of myths.
Focusing today on what Jesus himself intended – we still have the chance to be transformed, to become true successors and really to make a difference in this world, realizing humanity’s old dream of Paradise here and now.
To do that we do not even need to dissolve the myth; we need only to realize that myths belong to the language of dreams, and must not be mistaken for material reality, or else our belief will degenerate into spiritual materialism.
That way we can realize that the mystical language of the apostles was first translated into the mystical language of Hellenism, and must now again be translated into the mystical language of our time.
The necessary evolution of the dogma of the Trinity
After his disciples had experienced Jesus’ task as divine, the person of Jesus was, towards the end of Antiquity, under the influence of Hellenistic mythological thinking and the fact that Christianity now had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, dogmatically defined as God’s only begotten Son – simultaneously true human being and true God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, preexistent before Creation.
Dogmata formulated under these social conditions cannot but have negative connotations at a time when people are happy to have overcome such conditions (mythicizing and absolute rule) – which, in my view, goes a long way to explaining the hatred of many “enlightened” people for the Church and for Christianity itself.
Today this outdated view needs therefore to be modified and expanded, starting from basics:
Jesus without question has a very special role in the “divine plan of salvation” not only for his immediate disciples but for all successive generations. Through his impact the limitations of the Jewish religion were overcome, thus giving rise to an overwhelming international religious movement based on the Biblical revelation: Christianity. In that light, it will be correct, even from the viewpoint of other religions, to say that Jesus has a very special role in the “divine plan of salvation”. From that starting point, the old formulations of the Christological dogmata may be reviewed, rethought, and reformulated in the light of today’s changed conditions:
Since the immediate disciples of Jesus did not think of him in such a way, as preexistent, we can take up the thread he provided for us in his term “Father”. He used this term indiscriminately to point to the relationship between God and man and between God and himself.
Logically there can be no difference in nature between father and child. Therefore what is meant by “the second person of the divine Trinity” does not refer to Jesus alone – and since we can hardly exclude any part of Creation, it must include not only mankind, but the whole of Creation.
Yet, the second person of the Holy Trinity has been realized in Jesus in an exemplary way, while in most human beings it still remains to be realized. To make people aware of that unfulfilled ideal was the intention behind Jesus’ dream of the Kingdom of God.
In today’s language: by nature we descend from the creative force of the universe. In Biblical language: from the beginning we are “images of God” [Gen 1,26] or “children of God” [Mt 5,9]. While the Holy Scriptures view that as a fact, subjectively it is experienced only as a potential, “the power to become the sons of God” [Jo 1,12], because we can profit from that power only if we follow the advice of the German prince of poets, Goethe: “What you have inherited from your forefathers [i.e.: from the creative force], realize it in order to come into your own!”
This accords to every human being the view of the “Son of God” defined by the first Church Councils, and does so without in any way detracting from Jesus' special attributes.
We need only to bear in mind that these formulations describe the state of “unio mystica”. If someone, who at the moment of his statement is not in the state of unio mystica, should say “I and the Father are one” or “before Abraham was, I am” that “I” would be the “persona” and not the innermost being. It would be pure megalomania, the psychiatric condition of mania. But if this person were to speak these words in the state of unio mystica, it would be an expression of an essential truth. Yet – who can tell the difference? Only one who himself is in that state. All others would understand such a statement only as madness or blasphemy, as did those who convicted Jesus, or they would themselves have to be mad, as the fundamentalists are, or to be as naive as children are.
According to their essence, which reveals itself in the state of unio mystica, all human beings are – exactly as the first ecumenical councils defined it – “of the same essence as the Father”, “complete in being God and in being human”, “in two essences … which are fused … in one person”, but manifesting in “two different wills”. Again the German prince of poets formulates this common human experience thus: “two hearts are beating, oh, in my breast!”
In the state of unio mystica, of course, one of the two wills has to surrender – it is the will of the “persona”. The will of the “persona” can surrender only with the help of “the Holy Ghost” (which is released by the unadulterated human nature). Its shining illuminates “God’s” trace in our lives and its inspiration leads us to the state of unio mystica.
In Jesus the essential reality of being human is made most clearly manifest. Therefore he also has a very special role in the divine “plan” of salvation. Born in a moment of supreme potentiality for change in world history he embodied “the truth” of “God becoming man”. He showed people how they could find their mansion in the “Kingdom of God”, i.e. find their place in the divine plan of salvation – and thereby carry forward God’s creative task towards a radical renewal of the world.
Thus a whole new culture could emerge:
Today’s language of mystics
What I just spoke of “the divine plan of salvation”, that may sound as though someone outside the world had a plan according to which world history is formed. And, in times of absolutistic rule this was in fact the generally accepted view. Mystics in the old days expressed their experiences in the language of this world view, and this world view was also condensed in the Holy Scriptures.
But in our day, in which the context of history is explained by earthly factors, the divine too is not located “somewhere else”; today therefore, the eyes, and ears, and hands of God are clearly the eyes and ears and hands of the creatures themselves.
But still, even today, a spirit of the Whole is discernible, as an “agency” which has a synoptic view, which receives data from all “parts”, and of which everything that the old Holy Scriptures said of God can be said. But this “agency” is not located outside, it has its existence in the sensitivity of every single entity to the Whole.
On this account, single individuals, who, by the coincidence of history, are located at an interface of different historical/cultural currents, receive, as I said before, some kind of “calling” for the task of a more or less comprehensive social and cultural change. That restructuring of culture can shape a whole aeon and perhaps billions of human beings.
Such was the historic role of the prophets, such was, in a genuinely singular way, the role of Jesus, because it was he, who, by his sober, undogmatic, individual, and purely functional way of thinking, prepared the ground for our scientific-technical world-view and culture. I just want to recall his “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” [Mk 2,27]. With that, all fundamentalism, any taboos are rendered obsolete. From that moment on nobody has the authority to restrict people’s thinking. Even though that way of thinking did not until far later take the form of science – because it could not win through during the powerful social upheavals of the late Antiquity and the Middle Ages – it was already this that invested man with the authority to analyze everything without exception, and to use the findings to his advantage.
The second basic principle of the age of Enlightenment also originates in Jesus, the separation of powers: With his refusal to make a political revolution, culminating in his wise ruling: “Render therefore unto Caesar the thing which is Caesar’s; and unto God which is God’s” [Mt 22,21] he anticipated the political principle we today see as the main pillar of our Western culture: secularism.
The linguistic bridge between the old and the new aeon needs one more reference: the creative force which is the basis of everything, also creates an awareness of when a problem is solved, when it is “good”. It is this awareness which, from the beginning of time, guides all beings/entities through all conflicts, which inescapably arise from the splitting up of the whole. This awareness too is nothing supernatural, it is present everywhere. This awareness of a better world – in the Holy Scriptures called “Heaven”– may even be called the “Father” of all being and, logically, also the origin of what has been called “the divine plan of salvation”.
What has been called “the Spirit” is the energy behind that, that which drives everything towards goodness, and without which there would be nothing; it is the “divine” “agency” of healing.
And “unio mystica” means that someone is not just vaguely aware of this principle, but has become an expression of it. In an ideal-typical manner that took place in Jesus who, by surrendering his life for that goal, triggered an unprecedented historical conversion – no matter how many of our contemporaries indignantly refuse to recognize any causal relation between their good life and his input.
But the objective of all this talk is not Jesus, it is solely ourselves and the question, how we can attain supreme happiness? Jesus is only an example, suitable mainly for those who are interested in him, whereby we can witness the principle of happiness in operation: it is absolute obedience to the way that reveals itself in the state of “unio mystica”. That is what the famous 20th century theologian Karl Rahner meant, when he said, a future successor of Christ would either be a mystic or he would not be a successor of Christ.
For precisely that goal, Jesus put his life at stake. And for that reason he still is – despite all relativization – the savior of all those who can see what he has done. Saint Paul experienced his “conversion” at the moment when he could see that deed – and I hope the readers of these lines can see it now too – and personally realize “I am the way, the truth and the life” [Jo 14,6] – no matter whether Jesus in person ever spoke those words or they are just the summary of the realization of the evangelist John.
A fresh view such as this will, it is to be hoped, not only deepen Christians’ understanding but enable the Christian message to become compatible with all the other religions of the planet – meeting the concerns of Muslims who feel offended by the Christian claim that Jesus is God’s only son, or Jews who cannot accept Jesus as their Messiah, but who might be able to recognize him as one of their greatest sons. Thus, Christianity could encourage the other religions to join with it in striving for compatibility and so become, as never before, a force radiating peace as Jesus intended.