Christians around the world have recently begun one of the most important seasons in the liturgical calendar: Lent. As we prepare for the Passion and Resurrection of our Savior, it’s a good time to consider Him in His fullness. He is indeed the comforting, welcoming Prince of Peace. But Jesus also demonstrated a less gentle side, one that too many of us are not terribly comfortable with. It is important that we know and appreciate the not-just-meek-and-mild Jesus as we sojourn through Lent this year.
If you hear someone say, “Well, what about Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers?,” you likely know the topic under discussion. It’s the stock response one gives to the assertion that Jesus was always about peace, love, and understanding. Yes, there was that one incident of violence in the Temple. And we know that Jesus was exceedingly harsh with the hypocritical religious leaders of the day. But the dominant script has it that in all other instances, He was super chill.
I was thinking about this as I began my Lenten preparation, and I wondered whether it was only the money-changers and Pharisees Jesus went “Old Testament” on. So I read the four Gospels straight through in two sittings, to see what kind of Christ emerged from the plain text. It was an interesting exercise.
There are two truths about Jesus that seem to be at odds with the modern Christian understanding. First, the God-Man, unbound by time, held a decidedly ancient and “unenlightened” view of the world. Second, He regularly hurt folks’ feelings and didn’t apologize for it. The tender Lamb of God is also a fierce lion.
Let’s start with the first point. In this scientific age, we think it’s silly to believe that an actual devil, demons, and hell exist. But Jesus is old-school. He spoke of a literal Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Jonah in the belly of the great fish, and the destruction of Sodom—all as actual fact. He talks quite often in the Gospels about Satan and demonic possession. Doing exorcisms was all in a day’s work. He once dropped a bomb on a group of everyday folks, declaring that they were not the children of Abraham, but “of your father the devil.” That’s rough stuff, telling folks they’re sons of the devil. He spoke this way because He believed it.
Second, Jesus believed in the reality of sin, the need for repentance, and a real hell where people weep and gnash their teeth. He spoke of these things regularly, and not conceptually or metaphorically. He personalized this bad news for actual people in vibrant ways. He likened some folks to weeds and said He would “send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace,” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
He explains how the final judgment will work. One group, those who do His will, will be welcomed into His Kingdom. To the other, He will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” If we were Jesus’s tour manager, we might be inclined to remind Him that honey attracts more flies. He would remind us that He’s got this, only doing what His Father does.
Jesus is not shy about telling us that He can be a harsh judge. He came into the world to judge and is eager (eager!) to cast fire upon the earth. It wasn’t only the hypocritical religious leaders of the day who received this message. He warned some everyday folks that if they didn’t repent, they would all perish in unspeakable ways.
The Scriptures conclude in St. John’s Revelation with an extremely distressing Jesus. He’s downright frightening. John, who once rested upon the Savior’s breast and was given care over Our Lord’s mother, encounters Jesus again some years later. It isn’t a happy reunion. John falls as if dead before the Jesus whose eyes are fire. From the Prince of Peace’s mouth comes a massive and mighty sword with razor edges, with which He will strike down the nations. Revelation Jesus, the very same tender baby Jesus of the manger, is fierce beyond description.
But Jesus tells us numerous times that we will be hated by all nations, just as He is hated because of His judgment. Jesus indeed has distinct sides to Him, but they all make up a divine harmony. Hellfire Jesus and Amazing-Grace Jesus are never in conflict with one another, but each illuminates the other. His Good News is really good, because it overcomes the really, really bad news.
A Half-Jesus is what the great H. Richard Niebuhr famously denounced in the liberal theology of his day: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Half-Jesus brings what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, “the deadly enemy of our Church.”
Christ’s grace is costly because our collective sin was so great that it cost God what was most dear to Him, His only Son. He offers His costly grace freely to all who seek His forgiveness for their transgressions, turn from their sin, and live to follow and love Him with all their hearts. This is the Lenten message, and it’s the unmistakable and glorious gospel of the one and only Jesus Christ. Half-Jesus is not the one the world is looking for. The Church must preach the fullness of the One given to us throughout the sacred Gospels. To do less is to preach a manufactured Christ.
Glenn Stanton is the director of family formation studies at the Focus on the Family.