Overview:

What’s impossible about following Jesus’s rules? Sure, they’re strict, but we only have to follow them for a year or two ... right?

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The rich young ruler asked Jesus what he needed to do to earn eternal life. Jesus said that he must keep the commandments. He had done so his entire life, the man told Jesus. The final requirement, Jesus said, was to “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21–2).

The man left in despair because he had to choose his wealth and power over Jesus.

Anyone can stay on a diet if it only lasts a couple of weeks.

What did Jesus demand?

Jesus saw Peter and Andrew fishing and told them to abandon their lives and follow him to become fishers of men. Jesus said to love your enemies and turn the other cheek. He said to not worry about impermanent treasure on earth “but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). He illustrated the importance of helping the needy by saying, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).

Walking the narrow path would be difficult to sustain for a lifetime. Paul showed a similar short-term focus when he said, “Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Don’t let it trouble you…. Each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (1 Corinthians 7:21–4).

We also find indifference to slavery elsewhere in the epistles.

Slaves, be obedient in everything to your earthly masters (Colossians 3:22)

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate but also to those who are harsh (1 Peter 2:18)

What explains this attitude?

The end is nigh!

Anyone can stay on a diet if it only lasts a couple of weeks, and remaining a slave or always putting others’ needs ahead of yours might be bearable if you only need to sustain it for a couple of years. Turning the other cheek isn’t too hard if the End is around the corner.

Jesus saw the End coming soon, and that is apparent when he speaks in apocalyptic terms. Note that “apocalyptic” can mean “having to do with the end times,” or it can refer to the specific movement called Apocalypticism. This was a movement popular in Judaism during the intertestamental period (that is, the period after the Old Testament and before the New). We see this in the New Testament when Jesus was asked, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). Apocalypticism taught that we live in a bad Age, controlled by a bad supernatural being but that a new Age with a good ruler would begin shortly.

Apocalyptic books told their readers that the end was near. Daniel was one such book, and it said that the final seven-year period before the apocalypse (171–164 BCE) was already half over. (For more see “Daniel’s End Times Prediction: a Skeptical Approach.”)

Jesus also spoke about an imminent end. He said, “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matt. 24:34). A few verses earlier, Jesus identified “these things”: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, [and] the stars will fall from the sky.” Since that obviously didn’t happen, some apologists reinterpret Jesus’s statement about the imminent end by saying that it referred to the destruction of the Temple or some other first-century calamity. No, we’re talking about a cosmic catastrophe that no one living anywhere on earth would miss.

In the same chapter, Jesus used a harvest parallel to explain the urgency. “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door” (Matt. 24:32–3).

The New Testament also emphasizes the imminence of the end when Jesus is called the firstfruits by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:20–23) and Matthew (27:51–3). The firstfruits of the harvest were the grain and fruit that ripened first. A farmer would have gone for a long time since eating the produce of his farm and would be hungry for the result of his hard work, but this first portion was to be offered to God. The relevance of the reference to firstfruits is that the full harvest would be soon.

What to do with Jesus’s life philosophy?

So how noble was Jesus? He apparently didn’t intend for his policies to be a lifelong philosophy if the end was just months or few years away. And while Jesus said that those following him would suffer persecution in this life, he said in his analysis of the rich young ruler’s actions that those who left family and occupations for him would receive a hundred times as much in return in this life and they would receive eternal life (Mark 10:29–30).

I’d like to see in society more of the self-sacrifice and generosity that Jesus preached, of course, but that ignores the imminence of the end, which is central to his message.

Taking no thought for the morrow is no way to live. Nor is excessive generosity—Jesus said, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (Matthew 5:40). Maybe that explains why he does a few healings but doesn’t bother to eliminate any disease. And why Paul tells slaves to just deal with it.

Jesus was speaking only to his peers. Let’s not pretend that Jesus addressed his message at us today. With the End around the corner, Jesus didn’t think Christians two thousand years in his future would exist.

I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form.
It would disturb me if there was a wedding between
the religious fundamentalists and the political right.
The hard right has no interest in religion
except to manipulate it.
— Billy Graham, Parade Magazine, 1981

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...