One mark of maturity is the ability to say, “I don’t know” and “I may be wrong.” For years, Paul the apostle preached powerfully about Jesus. The Holy Spirit confirmed his message with signs and wonders. Such a background is more than enough to make a person think, I know I cannot be wrong. Nevertheless, after 17 years, Paul went to Jerusalem to have the other apostles correct him in case he had the message wrong (which he did not have wrong). How much more should the average person admit he or she may be wrong?

Below are major and minor issues that move me to say I do not know for sure and I may be wrong (but not entirely). The minor issues are, of course, dismissible. The major ones strike me as matters that can be misconstrued with bad consequences, including falling into intellectual dishonesty or edging toward disbelief.

The major issues arise when the common interpretations of the New Testament conflict with my conscience, a conscience educated by the New Testament itself. Do you see the dilemma? My trust is that no matter what Christian tradition has asserted, God, the father of Jesus, the creator, and the ground of all being, is truly kind and good. Some interpretations make him seem unkind, but that, I think, is an optical illusion…more like a Rorschach test than a reliable representation. By analogy, my trust is that God is like the wife, not the ugly woman:

Ambiguous picture: wife or ugly woman
Ambiguous picture: wife or ugly woman. From Anonymous Unknown author , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Major: The Blood of Christ

Listen to the post (8 minutes)

The Blood of Christ is inescapable as both a physical substance and a concept in the New Testament.

As a substance, we read that in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggled in agony, and that “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (is this metaphor or was the sweat imbued with blood from overwhelming stress)? Then with the crucifixion itself, the clearly literal drops were blood, from both the nails in his hands and feet and the sword that pierced his side after he died.

This shedding of blood occurred during the Passover, and this ties it inescapably to the atoning value of blood in the Old Testament where over and over again, blood must be shed to atone for the people’s sins. As Jacob Milgrom put it, blood functioned as the “ritual detergent” among the Jews. It is this atoning aspect of blood that is the concept, and it is the concept with which I wrestle.

We are told, first in Leviticus 17 and again in Hebrews 9 that “without the sheddding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.” In what way is there no forgiveness without the shedding of blood? If you see no difficulties with the implications, then don’t read this post—it’s for those who struggle.

For many Christians the blood of Christ, as a concept, assures them that they are forgiven completely, irrevocably, authoritatively. The concept is copacetic, working well psychologically (whew, no guilt) and theologically (wow, if only Christ’s blood brings forgiveness, then Christ is essential, no arguing about that now…he’s the ultimate, final sacrifice).

While I agree with the relief of being totally forgiven and with the recognition of the unsurpassed greatness of Christ, I wrestle with the relationship between forgiveness and bloodshed. During his years of public ministry, Jesus was full of forgiveness (think of being crucified and praying “forgive them…”). He never said, “When I shed my blood for you then you’ll really be forgiven.” No, he said, “Your sins are forgiven.”

On one occasion, that forgiveness was followed by scandal: “…some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?'” (Mark 2). Even the complaint by the teachers of the law (God alone can forgive sins) takes no recourse to the requirement for shed blood.

At this point, let me make clear I do not doubt the importance of Jesus’ death. By becoming a human and willingly dying, his death brought to a representative end the fallen race that we know as humanity. He brought the spiritually dead lineage from Adam to death so that he could start a new, spiritual race with his resurrection. With my whole heart I believe. My struggle is with the concept that God needs blood to be shed in order to forgive.

I want to honor anyone who suffers for me, perhaps especially anyone who sheds blood for me. So much more do I want to honor the Son of Man, Jesus, who was nailed to the cross for me. He actually was nailed to the cross because he defied religious authorities and chose to suffer rather than call on angels to rescue him. In some way, he went through this suffering to redeem humanity. I belong to humanity, so he died in part, howsoever small, for me. I don’t have to know how something works to appreciate it.

Where I struggle is with the assertion that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Leviticus 17:11, Hebrews 9:22). This is a celebrated statement among Christians, now and in the past. But it can be (and is) used to imply that the Father cannot forgive without first seeing something die. That something can be a sacrificed animal (Leviticus 4) or the sacrifice of his son (Hebrews 10). I’m troubled because Jesus, the logos, lives within me. Because I’ve been redeemed, I have to know something is moral in order to appreciate it.

I have cried out for guidance. It seems a terribly narrow path: on one side, the possibility of discounting the role of the blood of Jesus in redemption; on the other, the possibility of seeing God the Father as a being who cannot simply forgive but must have his son’s blood shed in order to forgive, reducing this Father to the level of dozens of pagan “deities” for whom humans have been sacrificed.

Most Christians say it is because God is so just, so holy, that he needs to have a death in order to forgive. I doubt they actually are thinking about what they are saying—not certainly thinking about what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. When he says for us to be perfect, he refers to his Father who blesses the just and the unjust. As James put it, “Mercy triumphs over justice” (James 2:13), so playing the justice/holiness card to justify the need for a victim simply doesn’t work.

Think about it: Jesus was holy and yet he had no difficulty coming close to and touching the unholy people he encountered. His love was sufficient apart from the shedding of blood. The blood was a result, not a cause for that love. A sinful person may have trouble getting close to a holy being (as Peter did), but a truly holy being has no problem getting close to a sinful person.

But I’m not satisfied by ignoring the attention the New Testament puts on the blood of Jesus. It certainly means more and does more than I realize…yet it cannot mean what many Christians say—not if the rest of the Gospel is to remain intact. Jesus said both, “If you see me, you’ve seen my father,” and “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

The blood of Christ, then, has a paradoxical place in my mind: it is more important than I realize and yet in no way suggests that our Father and his son lack the virtue that Jesus commanded all of us to practice.

Here, for now, I end with what C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity (Book 2, Chapter 4):

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. . . . Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. . . . [The various churches] will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality. . . . A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.


Publishing Info
First published 2023. Last revision: July 5, 2024.

Major: The Wrath of God

Listen to the post (3 minutes, 18 seconds)

The Wrath of God cannot be ignored in the Bible, especially in parts of the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament. The term bothers me because…who wants his father to be wrathful? But also because I suspect “wrath” has been weaponized by the religious mind to protect the guilty and condemn the vulnerable. When the woman caught in adultery was about to get stoned to death, all her righteous accusers no doubt considered themselves instruments of God’s wrath.

From the Old Testament, we find the book of Isaiah using the language of wrath: “For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law. So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart” (Isaiah 42). It would be tedious to quote all the Old Testament scriptures. The problem, if you are not aware, is that Jesus taught us to be like his father who is perfect, who is kind to the righteous and the unrighteous, who is the only truly good being.

Interestingly, even that chapter in Isiah provides a prophecy of Jesus, stressing his kindness, too:

"He will not shout or cry out,
    or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out."
 (Isaiah 42:2 and Matthew 12:20)


Once I heard that the prophets such as Isaiah did not have a way to say God “allowed” something. Consequently, he is described as “causing” evil/violence, instead of “allowing” it. This distinction is useful whenever I encounter wrath in the Old Testament. Destruction may feel like God’s punishment, but it behaves like the force of either our selfishness or that of someone else falling on us with grave consequences.

Interpreting “wrath” as the absence of God prevents us from seeing God as alternately healing and destructive. It also prevents us from seeing Jesus as the kinder person of the Trinity. What it means is that our species not only is violent at times but is capable of vanquishing God from human affairs—and that, my friends, is the wrath of God.

And, yet, I struggle. I have not talked about every instance of wrath, and there are still questions.


Publishing Info
First published 2023. Last revision: July 5, 2024.

Minor: Jesus Indignant?

Listen to the post (3 minutes). The introduction refers to “Wrestling Mat” which was the original name of “Deliberation.”

“Indignant” is the word ascribed to Jesus in Mark 1:41, but only in the New International Version. The rest of the translations that I looked at use “compassionate.” The two words cannot be considered semantically similar. Did the leper who said “You can heal me if you are willing” evoke from Jesus compassion (“I will help you”) or make him indignant (“How dare you say ‘If I am willing'”)?

To me it makes little difference in spite of the scholarly quarrels which are explained clearly by Bill Mounce (a Greek scholar, who writes, “The issue is a variation in the Greek texts. The NIV is following the reading of ὀργισθείς, and everyone else reads σπλαγχνισθείς. So let’s walk through this”).

This debate over Greek texts reminds me that Christians do not generally acknowledge that Jesus was frequently angry with his disciples’ disbelief. His anger helps me understand that we—who are of less faith than the disciples—should focus on increasing and using our faith and not on rationalizing why we do not see healings and miracles.

Unlike the occasions on which which Jesus was angered by disbelief, however, in this episode, the leper clearly had faith. That is not in question. The two things in question were (1) was Jesus willing (questioning his character and mission) and (2) was the man going to respect Jesus’ request for discretion (which the man clearly did not—Jesus told him not to publicize the miracle, but he ignored Jesus)?

We also know that Jesus was and is the most compassionate human (which adjective is supported by almost every Greek text)—so that translation keeps us on firm ground: something like, “you can heal me if you are willing” evoking, “oh, brother, you have no idea how willing I am….”

The popular text of “compassionate” fits with Jesus’ character and encourages us to believe for healing; the less likely “indignant” reminds us that being “nice” and “kind” did not always characterize Jesus’ response. He was, in the language of Narnia, not a tame lion. He was angry about all the disbelief, even among those who knew better, and he may have been indignant, either when his generosity, which was so clearly demonstrated, was doubted or when a recipient of his healing would ignore his request for discretion (as the episode reveals).


Publishing Info
First published 2024. Last revision: May 9, 2024.