What is Jesus?

Forgive me while I flesh out my thoughts here:

When someone says “Turn to Jesus,” what do they really mean? Or, “All you need is Jesus.” Or even, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

Responding with a blank look of incredulity, some Christians might say, “C’mon. You know what we mean by that.” Because such sayings are so ingrained in the collective Christian psyche that it’s assumed that everyone, including the rest of the world outside of Christendom, knows exactly what is meant by…well, Jesus.

The fact is, I’m not sure that people, including Christians and non-, know what Jesus really is. Sure, we know who he was, but what is he, in the present tense?

(By the way, when searching for a “Jesus” image for this post, there were nearly 32 million image results… Which one is right? I think I picked the right one. 😉

Of course, theologically speaking, this is answered with explanations of his divinity and such, and even treatises on his resurrection. And the question of the nature of Jesus, in relation to God, has left theologians bantering for millennia. But those are just theological statements. What I want to know is what exactly does one think of, or what ideas or images are conjured up, when someone is referencing “Jesus” in a way that attempts to relate to everyday life. What, for example, does Carrie Underwood really mean by the word “Jesus” when she says, “Jesus take the wheel…”?

My hunch is that for many (not all) Christians, “Jesus” is a concept, an idea, like God. Even for those who adamantly assert and believe that Jesus is a real, live person who interacts with humanity today, he is a concept. Now, before we get all huffy, let me explain:

People use the name “Jesus” usually when things are beyond them. Just like when non-Christians speak of “God,” perhaps when the bills aren’t getting paid or when grandma dies. But for me, in this sense, “God” is easy to imagine as a placeholder for my longings. When I think of “God,” that word/name serves as a bucket for all things beyond me. Because I do feel that I have some sort of connection with a higher being, “God” is that bucket into which I toss all my hopes, dreams, desires, etc. (some call those things “prayers.”)  But if I were to say, “All you need is a relationship with Jesus,” my mind gets a bit muddled with conflicting ideas:

Yes, my teaching tells me that Jesus is God, so I can just substitute all my thoughts about God with the word Jesus. Synonymous, right? But then I was also taught that Jesus was—or is—a real human. Of course, history teaches us, including sources outside the Bible, that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, live person who lived and died in the first century CE. So it’s easy for me to imagine with the name Jesus, a man, a rabbi, a prophet, even some mysterious, hard-to-explain person who had an uncommon link with the divine. But he was a person. Then he died.

If someone says they have a “personal relationship” with Jesus, what does that mean, and what does that relationship look like? It’s a relationship with someone who died 2,000 years ago. Many Christians would say, “Well, I talk to him and he talks to me.” How? “Well, I pray. And he speaks to me  through the Bible, and he speaks to my heart.” Okay…so you pray and read the Bible and listen to your heart. So in essence you are doing what you have been told being a Christian is…it’s the Christian way of life. Is that really what you mean when you say, “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship?” But how is that a personal relationship? “But Jesus is alive.”

Then come all the theories associated with whatever happened after his death. So millions of people believe that Jesus is alive today. And for many he really is “on this earth, now” alive and is acting in the world. But there is absolutely no evidence that this first-century person called Jesus of Nazareth is in fact alive, now, in flesh and blood, on this earth, anywhere. So what do Christians really mean when singing, “Alive, alive, Jesus is alive!” Is it just habitual re-chanting of an assertion of resurrection? Or a claim of something else?

So we must be brutally honest with ourselves when we say “Jesus is alive.” We must admit that Christians use the term “alive” very, very loosely. Symbolically. And it confuses things. And in that way it just makes Christians look stupid. So next time you try to convert an atheist with the argument that “Jesus is the only prophet who is not dead,” check yourself.

And in the same way that Christians use the term “alive” loosely when speaking of Jesus, Christians also use the specific name “Jesus” just as loosely. And I think that when those of us with a Christian mindset say “Jesus” we really mean “our conception of God.” Jesus is that bucket into which we cast all our hopes, dream, desires, prayers, etc. But let’s get it clear that Jesus is not literally a real, living human. …At least that’s the way I figure it. (Sorry.)

So I contend that when we say, “Turn to Jesus,” we really mean, “Convert to my particular conception of God.” And it’s in that sense that Jesus is a what, not a who.

By stripping the historical reality of the person of Jesus of Nazareth and replacing him with an imperialized concept of God, we really have stripped the message of Jesus of its real relevance. We have replaced the literal meaning of “Love your enemies” with the Pauline concept of “Love is deserved based on how someone treats my ideas of God, and when I say ‘God is Love’ what I really mean is that God, in his justice with respect to Hebraic covenant laws,  is tough love for those who don’t worship my God.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “Turn the other cheek” with a Constantinian-American concept of “We must not let non-Christians have more power than we have.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “If someone asks you for your shirt, also give him your coat,” with the truly American concept of “I might need this coat for the Christmas party at church, but you can have my spare granola bar, because you can’t spend that on alcohol.”

By replacing the historical words of the historical person of Jesus–the who–with our own handed-down concepts of the nature of God and the Trinity and such, we have made Jesus into a what that we really don’t know anything about other than that it somehow represents our notions of God, or the bucket of our longings–our “faith.” And so Jesus really represents our longings. For many, many people, Jesus is simply an abstract reflection of our hopes. And that reflection has taken the form of Hebrew and Greek words from middle-eastern scrolls, and from patriarchal, imperial texts, and from sermons, and from rants, and from political platforms.

For some, however, they themselves try to embody Jesus. For them, while they may see Jesus as a historical person, they believe that his teachings live through them. Some of these people are Christians and some are not. And regardless of what they believe about doctrines associated with Jesus, they try to live out what they understand as the literal meaning of his words. They take care of the “widows and orphans” among them. They “seek justice and walk humbly.”

Some visualize “Jesus” as everyone around them. He is the crack whore. He is the business man. The suicidal teen. The President, Obama and Bush. The unemployed mechanic and the unemployed graphic designer. The pedophile priest and the abused altar boy. He is Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins. Bill O-Reilly and Stephen Colbert. Marilyn Manson and DC Talk. Perez Hilton and Ted Haggard.  He is the starving Haitian child and the little blond darling in the Baby Bjorn. He is ‘The Situation’ and Mother Teresa. The illegal alien and the Arizona lawmakers. He’s the person behind the ‘Jesus’ Twitter handle. He is you and me.

For those, he is a person, and yes, maybe he is a set of teachings too, but teachings that have become more than a concept because they are lived out, made alive in those who see everyone around them as the one who said, “When you did it to them, you did it to me.”

It’s a concept embodied rather than imposed.  And so “Jesus” becomes synonymous not with a “longing” but with everyday living, when we live intentionally, regardless of what we believe.

I’m trying to rediscover, and stutteringly live out, the teachings of that person in spite of the concept, in spite of the beliefs swirling around him. And to see that person in everyone around me. And in that sense one can’t “Turn to Jesus,” because if we really believed his teachings, they are “Jesus.” Not his concept, but maybe his spirit or something, just as we all are part of each other. At least we share the same elements, if nothing else. We are all star dust. And so was/is Jesus.

But maybe that is in itself nothing more than an idealistic concept.  And so maybe this is all one big logical fallacy, a bunch of bullshit not worth writing about.


I know this was a long one, and even with all these words I still don’t think I’ve expressed exactly what I’m trying to get at. I ended up preaching more than posing the right questions. So it’s a source of frustration. But if nothing else, perhaps this will at least stir up others’ thoughts to help me. You got anything?

9 Responses

  1. the whole council of nicaea thing threw me off….the argument of “how are we going to present jesus?”…i mean, people actually fought over what to accept as the “creed”…so of course the nicene creed was established and has been taught and accepted by christians……but i get stuck on the fact that it had to be discussed and fought about and finally a group of men agreed on what “jesus” was..a man vs a god-man. this was not something i was taught as a kid so i accepted jesus as god and able to do mighty acts but as an adult having read history i cant accept those bible stories as absolute truth. who is jesus? will we ever know??

  2. I wonder when did the merge of Jesus and God occur.

    I went to a Presbyterian church as a child, and they taught there was god and his son Jesus, distinct from each other.

    Do you think the merge has occured because people don’t really know what each word really signifies?

    or is it that some varities of xtian churches also invoke the holy spirit and making them a one/trinity caused the merger and lack of distinction?

    • You’re hitting on the very points I was getting at, Nina. While I have my own tradition’s handed-down views on this, other Xian denominations have varying views as well. And indeed, the debates on the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God, and then the relationship of the Spirit to those as well was debated by the church fathers for centuries. And the various councils made various declarations about this, and theologians continued to discuss it.

      At least from the evangelical perspective the theology seems to have become more important than the teaching of the person, and that has, I believe, painted Christianity into a corner so to speak. So that’s one thing I’m trying to find the alternative to.

  3. I do think you’ve got some good things to say here. Maybe I’m in the wrong headspace, but I found it a bit long and jumbled.

    Finding this Jesus person is… a profound mission, one that I’m often daunted by these days.


    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

    • Thanks for your honest feedback! This whole topic is long and jumbled for me, so I guess my writing just reflected that (and I did warn about me just fleshing out my thoughts;). There are so many thoughts swirling around this and I’m definitely still working them out, so thanks for bearing with me!

  4. I loved what you had to say and you are both preaching AND asking the right questions, and so are a lot more of us these days. The main line churches are dying because they have turned in on themselves and stopped interacting with “outsiders.” The more they do this, the more twisted their “us” vs. “them” dogma becomes.

    I lost my job at a Christian school, many life long friends, as well as left my home church of 30 years over the issues you are now raising and it was all worth it. “If I gain the whole world and forfeit my soul…” Right?

    I would rather act like Jesus than believe in Jesus any day and at this point in my life I only affirm as followers of Christ those that ARE engaging with those people whom Jesus did. A lot of them use the name “Red-letter Christians”–those speaking out and fighting against the injustice of poverty, sickness, war, and prejudice. The rest are wolves and sheep’s clothing and need to find out who Jesus is as much as any crack whore.

    Thank you for sharing…

    And if you’re looking for specific names of who ARE LIVING the gospel check out: Bart and Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell, Brian Mc Claren and a whole lot of others. You can find out more at http://www.sojo.net.

    • Thanks Lisa. I’m definitely familiar with the ones you mentioned. Shane’s Irresistible Revolution affected me deeply, as did Brian’s Generous Orthodoxy, Rob’s Velvet Elvis, and several others.

      I think there’s a balancing point somewhere, though, in which we don’t villify those who don’t accept this viewpoint, and just carry on living out our views and try to appreciate the best that each perspective brings…although that is often difficult.

  5. I believe in Christ (the Anointed One) more than I believe in “Jesus” which is a commonly used name in Latin America. I often think of Christ as the Messiah (I think that translates into “the sent one” but I am not sure…please feel free to correct me, anyone). In the same way I meet a guy with the “Messiah Complex,” I know that I can rely on that guy to be there for me if I become a needy neurotic female…Is the same way I say Christ in my prayer to know (within my own spirit, not necessarily in my mind) that my prayers reach God’s ears and subsequently His heart after Christ’s intersession has validated my longings.

    You see, I have had enough answered prayers (and even some prayers answered that I forgot to ask) to know in my internals that God is the author of my desires so He grants them, willingly while yearning within His grandeur of a true connection with each one of us. Its not enough to give us stuff like the breath of life, God longs to spoil us into His flock or tribe of children He can claim by name (Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Agnostic or whatever you answer to).

    A man once said to a Chaplin, “I cried out to God in the middle of a field to send me a sign if He was real… then nothing happened…so God is a farce.” (My own addition there at the end) The Chaplin, after much thought and prayer during their plane ride came up with a response just as the man believed to have made a triumphant point. He replied, “God had already given you the sign you sought by putting in your heart to seek Him out.” Food for thought. For those with ears to hear, let them hear…for those with eyes to see, let them be led by the Spirit.

    • Thank you for sharing your insight, Peta.

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