My final post on Smith’s book will clear up some issues regarding the teachings of Jesus.
For example, Smith claims that “Jesus believed that the establishment of God’s kingdom would occur within the lifetime of his followers… the teachings of Jesus must be understood as an ‘interim’ ethic” before that event. But it should be obvious that Jesus’ kingdom (1) was not of this world (Jn 18:36), and (2) came to be immediately upon His resurrection.
Hence it made perfect sense for Jesus to say, “Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.” (Mk 9:1) This was not a prediction of His second coming. Therefore, it is false, as Smith claims, that “Jesus was mistaken concerning the immediacy of God’s kingdom.” (316)
Smith notes that for Jesus, “those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Mk 2:17) His simple reward/punishment ethic is precisely what most people even today, let alone 2,000 years ago, need, because it’s the only thing they understand. Jesus did not address himself to philosophers, but to murderers and thieves, such as indeed tax collectors. He wanted to bring heart to the heartless, but the first step to doing so is to lay down the penal code for violent crimes.
Smith interprets Mt 18:3, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven,” to mean that “children, after all, will believe almost anything.” (322) But this is implausible in light of Mt 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.”
Smith accuses Jesus of “narrow sectarianism; Jesus came not to save the world, but to save only a small part of it — namely, the Jews, the ‘elect,’ God’s ‘chosen people.'” (316) This is contradicted by the parable of the great feast (Lk 14:15-24): “The master then ordered the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled.'” (NABRE comments: it “is a further illustration of the rejection by Israel, God’s chosen people, of Jesus’ invitation to share in the banquet in the kingdom and the extension of the invitation to other Jews whose identification as the poor, crippled, blind, and lame’ classifies them among those who recognize their need for salvation, and to Gentiles.”) And further by “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19-20)
It’s true that in the past Christianity often flirted with asceticism, or pain and suffering for their own sakes, but this was inevitable before the development of economic science and industrial revolution, when the human active life correctly seemed pointless and miserable. “Jesus does not prescribe standards of behavior on the basis that they will contribute to man’s happiness and well-being on earth” (317), Smith charges. Of course not. 2,000 years ago there was no such thing as happiness on earth.
Finally, Smith reviles Christianity for aiming to “break man’s spirit”: “if it robs him of emotional strength and intellectual independence, he will indeed become meek and humble.” (324) First, some people, like violent criminals, ought to have their evil spirits broken. Second, for everyone else, a great God can only be worshipped by a great creature. God’s glory is directly increased by human glory; it’s not the case that man must abase himself to make God look better by comparison. Third, Smith proposes that grace destroys nature rather than builds upon it sweetly, and that is false.
It is time to bring this critique to a close. Smith’s book is interesting but fatally flawed. The case against God is weak, indeed.