In an interview with Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times just in time for Good Friday and Easter, Serene Jones, president of hard-left Union Theological Seminary in New York City, thought it would be an opportune moment to deliver a sweeping denial of the tenets of the Christian faith. In the course of her rant, Jones unintentionally gives a good indication of why “liberal Christianity” is a heretical cancer on Christian faith.
Her heresies should occasion no great surprise given Union’s long-standing opposition to orthodox Christianity and Jones’s Yale pedigree (M.Div., Ph.D., professor of theology and chair of “Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies”). Still, I am inclined to think that the general lay person in church would be shocked by the depth of her degradation of church teaching.
Apparently, Jones thinks that by broadcasting her heresies in the Times, she will increase donor giving and student enrollment to extricate Union from its cash-strapped situation. Let’s just say that I’m trying to do my part to test that delusion.
Major Heresy 1: Christ’s Atoning Death
The creed that Christ died to atone for (i.e., make amends or restitution for) humanity’s sins is one of the two or three central confessions of the church. Arguably the earliest Christian creedal formulation is the tradition cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 that he says he received from others and for which he could count on the agreement of the rest of the apostles.
It contained two main formulas, each tagged with the buttressing phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures”: namely, that “Christ died (to atone) for our sins” and that “he has been raised on the third day.” Paul called this formulation “the gospel . . . by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to [it]…unless you believed in vain” (15:1-2).
Jones denies both planks: Christ’s atoning death and his resurrection. Of his atoning death she says: “Crucifixion is not something that God is orchestrating from upstairs. The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts.”
The entire New Testament witness confirms this was God’s plan from eternity. What Jones deems to be “child abuse” and “nuts” is put forward by none other than Jesus himself at his Last Supper as the one creed that is to be remembered and celebrated regularly by the church in the Eucharist (“Thanksgiving”).
In connection with a Passover meal, Jesus redefined the bread served at the meal as “my body” and the wine as “my ‘blood of the covenant’ which [blood] is being poured out for many” (Mark 14:24; Matthew 26:28 adds: “… for [Gk. forgiveness of sins].” “Blood of the covenant” would have called to mind the same phrase Moses used at the covenant-ratifying ceremony at Mount Sinai, where death of bulls dashed both on the altar (symbolizing God) and the people (who had just heard the stipulations of the law) inaugurated a kinship agreement between God and Israel.
Jesus was signaling that by his atoning death, his life for ours, he was ratifying and inaugurating a new covenant in which God would write the law on our hearts and remember our sins no more (Jer 31:31-34). This explains Paul’s (and Luke’s) rephrasing of Jesus’ Eucharistic words for a Gentile audience: “This cup is the new covenant (ratified or inaugurated) by blood” (1 Cor. 11:25; Luke 22:20). Later the author of the letter “to the Hebrews” would write: “Not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood” (9:18) and “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22).
Jesus’ added words about his blood “being poured out for many” would have called to mind the words about a “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah 53: “He poured out his life to death … and bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12). Jesus’s poured-out life and blood was the means by which he bore the sins of transgressors against God’s law.
Nor is this the only time that Jesus made such a claim. In another important saying of Jesus in Mark 10:45 (parallel in Matt 20:28), Jesus stated that he came “to give his life (or soul) as a ransom (Gk. lútron, ‘price of release,’ ‘sum paid for manumission’ of slaves) for many.”
So what Jones calls “child abuse” and “nuts” is in fact a denial of what Jesus himself viewed as central to the mission given him by God, even as she claims to be not only a “Christian,” a disciple or learner of Jesus, but a “minister” of Christ’s.
The idea is not “nuts” but makes sense in the context of sacrificial rites and martyrdom theology. Jesus as God’s Son willingly lays down his life for the lives of sinners in a lost world. This is the crux of Christianity itself. What’s new in Jesus’ thinking is that his act of righteousness is not changing God’s wrath to love but rather is cooperating with God’s love for a lost world, where the greatest cost is incurred by God, who offers his Son only because it is necessary to save the world.
Jones does not accept this need for amends and restitution for sin accomplished in the Godhead. Yet Jesus required his followers to celebrate this as an act of love from God. To Jones, the crucifixion was just “a first-century lynching,” “an enactment of our human hatred.” Nothing could “be more pertinent to our world today,” she proclaims. Yet in her thinking the cross effects nothing in God’s plan of redemption, except to show where hatred leads.
Major Heresy 2: Christ’s Resurrection
We noted above that the earliest church viewed Christ’s resurrection from the dead as the second great plank of the core gospel. By this the church meant not resurrection as a metaphor or even as merely a release of the soul from entombment in a body, but a genuine physical, bodily resurrection.
The Apostle Paul takes great pains to make this point in 1 Corinthians 15 against the church at Corinth (Greece) that appeared to ascribe little or no value to embodied existence. To be sure, Paul is not talking about a “flesh-and-blood” body (15:50), as though Christ’s resurrection was merely a resuscitated corpse. Yet he is talking about a new body for the Kingdom of God that clothes an otherwise “naked” spirit (2 Corinthians 5:2-4).
It is the resurrection appearances of Jesus that convinced his disciples that Jesus was alive again in a real (albeit higher) sense; further, that God had thereby confirmed the truth of Jesus’ message and mission. They also came to the conclusion that Christ’s resurrection was not an isolated event but the start of a new humanity, a “first fruits” of a much larger, future harvest of resurrected bodies culminating in a renewed heaven and earth where sin and death are vanquished forever (“O Death, where is your sting?”). This is the hope of Easter.
As important as this belief has been for Christianity from its inception, it plays little or no role in Jones’s belief system. She says, “Those who claim to know whether or not [Jesus’ resurrection] happened are kidding themselves. . . . For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith.”
To the early Christians, however, Christ’s resurrection was an assurance given by God that those who risked their life for the faith would receive their life (with body) in an afterlife. In addition, they were convinced that God would not abandon his creation to sin and death forever.
Once again, Jones denies not only what the early followers of Jesus believed to be essential to the gospel, along with the evidence of the empty tomb and of the eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection (the apostles, Jesus’ brother James, and more than 500 people at one time, most of whom were still alive at the time Paul wrote his “first” epistle to the Corinthians; 15:5-7). She must also deny Jesus’ own teaching, for all the gospels record Jesus’ repeated predictions that after his suffering and death God would raise him bodily from the dead.
Right off the bat, then, Jones either denies (Christ’s atoning death) or fails to affirm (Christ’s bodily resurrection) what the early church treated as the two central planks of the faith, necessary to be believed to be saved. She is officially a pagan or heretic by the standards of historic Christian faith. Yet there’s more.
Major Heresy 3: Heaven, Hell, and Afterlife
One sees only traces of a developed view of reward or recompenses in the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament (the relatively late text in Daniel 12:1-2 provides the clearest case). The great persecution of the nation of Israel by a Greek ruler of Syria in the 160s B.C., with its stories of intense martyrdom of faithful Jews, served as a catalyst for deeper reflection: There must be some post-mortem reward for those who suffer for the faith and recompense for those who make the faithful suffer.
By the time of Jesus, this concept was commonplace among Jews (although there were still holdouts like the aristocratic Sadducees). The resurrection appearances of Christ ensured that Christianity from its inception would have a robust view of an afterlife associated with either heaven or hell.
“Robust” would not be the appropriate adjective to describe Jones’s view of an afterlife. She is agnostic on the question of a positive post-mortem existence. In response to Kristoff’s question, “What happens when we die?” she states: “I don’t know! There may be something, there may be nothing. My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife.”
This uncertainty for Jones, however, does not extend to all facets of the Christian view of an afterlife: “I’m absolutely certain that when we die, there is not a group of designated bad people sent to burn in hell. That does not exist.” So she categorically rejects the idea that any bad people will suffer after death (which is certainly good news for Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot).
This is extraordinary in view of her claim to be a “minister” of Jesus the Christ. Life after death in the Kingdom of God is something Jesus repeatedly affirms. This includes a place of destruction for those who do not repent and believe, which Jesus described as “outer darkness where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.”
Indeed, more than 40 percent of all Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptic Gospels contain a warning regarding God’s judgment of those who do not receive Jesus and his message, including most of Jesus’ parables. The Lord’s Prayer is first and foremost a prayer that God would supernaturally break into the world to end all human rebellion against his will.
Of course, all these elements of Jesus’ teaching are repeatedly affirmed in the apostolic witness to Christ throughout the New Testament scriptures. There is no New Testament writer who thinks otherwise. If there is no afterlife, then not even Jesus in any non-metaphorical sense is alive. His memory lives on, but that is all.
Jones claims that belief in an afterlife is “faith driven by…selfish[ness]” from Christians. Jesus and the apostles who witnessed to him viewed it as incentive for doing what is right and a warning to those tempted to do wrong. Yet the apostle Paul wrote that if Christ has not been raised and there is no future resurrection from the dead for those who belong to him, then his proclamation is “empty” because he and his co-ministers have been “false testifiers about God.”
Moreover, in that case his converts’ faith would be “empty” because “you are still in your sins,” with sin through death having the last word. Clearly Christianity teaches in an afterlife.
Major Heresy 4: God’s Omnipotence and Omniscience
Jesus and his apostles believed in an awesome God who created all there is with a mere thought and word, and who in the blink of an eye can destroy it all. They believed in a God who had a plan for his creation and who, though allowing for a significant degree of human choice, could work for good in all things.
Yes, God is sometimes viewed as bargaining and “changing his mind” in particular cases for particular people. Yet that God is, overall, both omnipotent and omniscient is not seriously doubted. So Jesus could exclaim, “With God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). In the end God will triumph utterly and completely over sin and death, restore his creation, and save the maximum number of people possible to his greater honor and glory.
Jones takes a very different approach: “I don’t worship an all-powerful, all-controlling omnipotent, omniscient being. That is a fabrication of Roman juridical theory and Greek mythology.” She’s right there. She doesn’t worship an omnipotent and omniscient God. She worships a false god of her own making, a mere projection of her ideological prejudices. One wonders whether Jones has read the Book of Job recently when God reminds Job that he had no need for Job’s advice when he measured the cosmos.
Major Heresy 5: The Virgin Birth
One could quibble whether this constitutes a “major” heresy. Arguably, it is not on the same level as denying Christ’s atoning death and resurrection or essential traits of God. Only two of the four gospels record it (nowhere else in the New Testament), and the author of one of these, Luke, doesn’t mention it among the conversion speeches in his second volume, Acts.
It is strange that the NYT article should lead with a reference to this heresy (“Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?”). Even so, Matthew and Luke do narrate that Jesus was born of a virgin. It is a part of Scripture.
Jones opines: “I find the virgin birth a bizarre claim. . . . The virgin birth only becomes important if you have a theology in which sexuality is considered sinful. It also promotes this notion that the pure, untouched female body is the best body, and that idea has led to centuries of oppressing women.”
The doctrine of the virgin birth does not arise out of some belief in the sinfulness of sex, nor from some felt need to oppress women. Mary sees it as a sign of God elevating the lowly and oppressed, as well as giving her great favor (so the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55). The doctrine presents Jesus as having divine origin and as sinless, able thus to atone for the sins of others. It also demonstrates that Jesus is not merely human, as he could have otherwise not existed without his mother having had sex.
These heresies are just the heresies contained in the Kristoff interview. For example, she appears elsewhere (h/t Al Mohler) to dismiss the doctrine of the incarnation and to treat Jesus as God’s Son only in the sense that “in Jesus, divine love was fully present in a way that ordinary human beings rarely, if ever, experience and embody.”
Does Jones Believe Anything?
Of course she does, you silly person. Can you guess what that is? You guessed it: Love. She says that the “empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed,” even though she has no confidence that Jesus was actually raised from the dead. It’s all a metaphor. “What happens on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering. Isn’t that reason for hope?”
Well, no, not if Jesus deceived his disciples about his resurrection and the disciples remained deluded. “For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death,” Jones says. “For me, living a life of love is driven by the simple fact that love is true.”
That and a couple of dollars will get you a good Hallmark card. Here’s another platitude: “After all, tomorrow is another day,” as one movie epic from generations past disappointingly concluded. Without dismissing the critical importance of love (and, more importantly, that God is love rather than that love is God), Christianity is based on something a bit more substantial.
Christianity is based on a belief that God intervenes in the act of creation, then in redemption of fallen creation, and finally in recreation of heaven and earth. God does so by concrete, world-encompassing acts in history and beyond, through his Son. That is what Jesus and the entire apostolic witness to him believed. Yet Jones knows better.
In the course of the interview Kristoff asks Jones, “Am I a Christian?” Jones’s response is ironic: “Well, you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.” Now how in God’s holy name can you claim to be a Christian, let alone a Christian minister, while denying one essential element after another of Jesus’ own life and teaching? Either Jesus is a liar or she is.
I cast my lot with Jesus.