This blog is having an
existential crisis

While I tinker with a new design, I’m also pondering how, what, and why I write here. I don’t know how long that will take, but you’re welcome to email me and see how things are progressing.

Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
Was Jesus a guru? (Part 2)

Is there not some hubris in thinking that, when reading a translation of a text, you have picked up on something which two millennia’s worth of its most adept students failed to notice in the original languages?

← continued from part 1 on the overall thrust of Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament

To start with, let me briefly quote again from the article on TM.org, so we’re clear on the view I’m examining:

Jesus was once asked when the kingdom of God would come. The kingdom of God, Jesus replied, is not something people will be able to see and point to. Then came these striking words: “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)

…As Jesus made unambiguously clear, we can experience this inner treasure — and no experience could be more valuable. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” he declared, “and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). From this interior plane of life, he is saying, we will gain all that is needful. source

As that article assumes, the phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are interchangeable in the gospels. Luke uses the latter and Matthew uses the former. Eg:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matt 5:3

Blessed are the poor, because yours is the kingdom of God. Luke 6:20

But are passages like Matthew 6:33 and Luke 17:21 saying what proponents of the “guru theory” suggest? The only way to know is to look at the evidence. What does “kingdom of God/heaven” actually mean? That is the crux of the matter.

What counts as evidence when assessing the meaning of a text?

Something I’ve never seen any proponent of the guru theory do is exegete the text they’re quoting. They simply quote it as if its meaning were obvious.

Exegesis is the critical analysis of a text to determine its meaning.

You might wonder why this is an issue. After all, you don’t need to exegete, say, this blog post to understand what it means—so why should you need to exegete the Bible?

Well, here’s why: imagine you’re living 2,000 years from now in a culture very unlike ours, with a language very unlike English. And you discover this blog in some old archive. Now, you know almost nothing about the rules of communication that Westerners in the year 2014 take for granted—the sorts of background knowledge they assume, the mannerisms they use, how much idiom or poetry they typically load their conversations with, how they differ in speaking to relatives, friends, those in authority, etc, the standards of truth and accuracy they expect…along with a great many more social and linguistic factors that are invisible to us because we grew up with them.

In this unusual situation, do you think you’d be well-positioned to read a translation of my blog, and assume you understood everything without further study?

Of course not. You wouldn’t even have the first clue what a lot of the theological language I use means! Yet this is exactly the same as coming to a passage like Luke 17:21 and assuming that you know what the theological term “kingdom of God” means. It is simply illegitimate to point to a few sentences Jesus said, assume they mean something mystical, and then claim you’ve shown how Jesus was a guru. You need to exegete the text to prove that your understanding is at least more plausible than the alternatives. In doing so, you will have to assess questions like:

I’m not going to canvas all these questions (and others). I think it will be more productive to just focus on authorial usage. How is the term “kingdom of God/heaven” used by Jesus in general? As we answer this question we’ll naturally touch on some of the other exegetical questions above, and we’ll also see how strikingly implausible the guru theory actually is.

Authorial usage

As a rule, we should treat witnesses (like the gospel authors, and Jesus himself) as intelligent people who don’t contradict themselves. We should also treat them as reliable. If we don’t think they are consistent or reliable in this case, we can’t trust them enough to know whether Jesus was a guru anyway.

This being so, if Jesus says something ambiguous in one place, and we’re not sure which meaning he intended, we should look for other places where he said the same thing in a way that is clear. So let’s have a look at the clear places where Luke and Matthew record Jesus using the term “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven”.

“Kingdom of God” in Luke

I think there are three places where Luke uses the term in a way that clarifies what it must mean, and reveals how bankrupt the mystical interpretation is. Here’s the first:

He was casting out a demon, and it was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke; and the multitudes marveled. But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of the demons.” Others, testing him, sought from him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation. A house divided against itself falls. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. But if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your children cast them out? Therefore will they be your judges. But if I by God’s finger cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Luke 11:14-20

This is some pretty problematic stuff for a mystical interpretation…

Jesus is casting out demons

Say whaaaaat? Guru theorists typically take a condescending view of the notion of demons. Now, maybe you could argue that Jesus was healing afflictions falsely attributed to demons. But aside from whether this is something we should expect a guru to be capable of anyway, the argument proves too much. Notice: Jesus himself endorses the view that Satan (aka Beelzebul) and his demons exist. He is not speaking metaphorically. The whole point of the passage is that he doesn’t correct his accusers about the existence of demonic powers; he agrees with them—and uses the fact of Satan’s existence to prove that he cannot be acting on Satan’s behalf!

Jesus demarcates how we should understand the term “kingdom”

This is particularly important, and fatal to the guru theory. Notice how Jesus begins: every kingdom divided against itself will fall. He is using the term in its broad, ordinary sense, referring to territorial or socio-political realms ruled by sovereigns. And that is exactly what Christians believe Satan’s kingdom is also—albeit not a purely physical territory. But if this is the kind of kingdom Jesus has in mind, the comparison to God’s kingdom only makes sense if it, too, is the same sort of thing. That is the Christian interpretation: the kingdom of God is wherever God’s rule is represented and maintained. It can be on earth, through his people, or in heaven itself. But by the same token, this blows the mystical interpretation completely out of the water, since there is neither a sovereign nor a territory under that view.

So this passage alone is enough to show how outstandingly implausible the guru theory is—but it is by no means the only one:

And into whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat whatever is set before you, and heal the sick in it, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But into whatever town you enter and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you! Nevertheless know this: that the kingdom of God has come near!” I tell you that it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town! Luke 10:8-12

Again, problems abound for guru theorists:

The disciples represent God’s kingdom

In some sense the kingdom of God “comes near” to people whom the disciples visit. So they either represent or just are this kingdom. This fits snugly with the Christian understanding, as per Luke 11:14-20 above. But it scuttles the guru theory, because if the kingdom of God is within us all, it would always be “near” to everyone.

You could try to salvage it by saying that Luke meant, “enlightenment has come near to you”—but where’s the proof of that? Not only does it stretch the meaning of the term “kingdom of God” very far indeed, but it raises the obvious question of why Luke didn’t just say “enlightenment” (photizo) instead!

Jesus pronounces severe judgment on those who reject the kingdom

Notice the final instructions he gives about towns which will not receive the disciples. He says that it will be less bearable for them than for Sodom. As I’m sure you know, Sodom was a town destroyed by Yahweh due to its inhabitants’ vicious sexual immorality. Now, even if you don’t believe this literally happened, that is the judgment Jesus is referring to.

So the simple question is: would a guru claim that Yahweh’s judgment will be greater on towns which will not receive his disciples than on a town razed with fire for vicious sexual immorality? The answer seems obviously no. Indeed, I would wager that no one who holds to a mystical sort of worldview would be on board with someone who said something like this. If you gave them this quote and they didn’t know where it came from, they would deny that its speaker could be a genuine guru for at least two reasons:

  1. Mystical worldviews emphasize the need for people to work toward enlightenment at their own pace—so the idea of punishing them for not accepting ideas beyond their current level of enlightenment is somewhat outrageous;
  2. Even if God does exist, he does not exercise vindictive judgment—rather, balance is restored through karma (see “Thorny problems with karma” for some of the problems with that view).

Again, the guru theory sinks very quickly when compared to more than a single sentence Jesus uttered about the kingdom of God. One more example:

Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He replied, “Work hard to enter the narrow door to God’s Kingdom, for many will try to enter but will fail. When the master of the house has locked the door, it will be too late. You will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Lord, open the door for us!’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

“Then you will say, ‘But we ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ And he will reply, ‘I tell you, I don’t know you or where you come from. Get away from me, all you who do evil.’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, for you will see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, but you will be thrown out. And people will come from all over the world—from east and west, north and south—to take their places in the Kingdom of God.” Luke 13:23-29

I’m quoting here from the NLT since it is true to the Greek, but easier to follow than more formal translations. Again, the problems here for mystical interpretations are obvious. At the risk of belaboring the point, I count at least three:

Jesus is the only “master” who controls entry to the kingdom of God

This is clear from how he uses the phrase, “you taught in our streets”—he is referring to himself. But mystical worldviews maintain that there are many gurus and enlightened teachers, and that the only person who controls entry to your “kingdom”…is you.

The kingdom of God is a place where people live together and retain their personal identities

This is corroborated by Matthew as well; compare the parallel passage in Matthew 8:11-12, and also Matthew 5:19. But this splits mystical worldviews on the horns of a dilemma:

  1. If the “kingdom of God” refers to an inner reality, it would be unique to each individual, and therefore could not be a place where multiple people live together.
  2. If the “kingdom of God” refers to some kind of ultimate enlightenment, why are there any individuals there, given that identity is dissolved in the ultimate reality? Nirvana and its corollaries are not places filled with many people, but rather a non-personal cosmic consciousness of some kind, in which the self is extinguished.

Some people will be permanently disbarred from the kingdom.

Notice that the door will be locked, and “you will be thrown out”. While many people take their places in the kingdom, others will be unable to enter, and instead find themselves outside, weeping and gnashing their teeth. We know from the gospel of Matthew that Jesus consistently uses these terms over and over again to describe hell—a place of permanent judgment (Matt 8:12; 13:42; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; cf Matt 18:8; 25:46; Jude 1:13). Again, this is obviously antithetical to mystical worldviews, where enlightenment is possible for everyone, and there is no judgment at all—let alone a permanent and anguished exclusion from the “kingdom”.

“Kingdom of heaven” in Matthew

Since I’ve already mentioned passages in Matthew which corroborate Luke’s usage, let me close up with just one more example:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Matt 7:21

At first blush, I’d wager proponents of the guru theory would say this meshes well with their view: one must work toward enlightenment rather than simply paying lip-service to the idea.

But notice how this skips over a couple of rather crucial points:

So the mystical interpretation of “kingdom of God” is exceedingly implausible in these passages. But if here, then also in Luke 17:21 and Matthew 6:33—because Jesus is referring to the same thing in all these places.

So what does “the kingdom of God is within you” mean?

A fair question, and one easily answered when we consider the range of translations possible from the Greek. If you flip open a few different Bible translations, you’ll notice that a large number—especially more recent ones—actually say, “the kingdom of God is in your midst” or “among you”, rather than “within you”.

This is because the Greek could mean either. Given the way in which Jesus uses the term “kingdom of God” elsewhere, “among you” seems far more likely. Even if the kingdom of God can refer to an inner reality in the heart—which is plausible on a Christian view—it would nonetheless only be “within” Christians. But Jesus is speaking to pharisees who oppose him; they certainly don’t have the kingdom of God within them.

So what he is saying is simple: they are looking for the wrong things. By seeking apocalyptic signs, they have missed the fact that the kingdom of God, in the person of Jesus himself, is standing right in front of them.

Continued in part 3, on whether Jesus’ message might have gotten lost in transmission →

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