ChristologyPhilosophyPolitics and Current Events

Do Liberals and Conservatives Follow the Same Christ?

Who would Jesus vote for? Which refugees would he exclude? How many guns would he own and gay marriages would he perform?

Liberals and conservatives tend to live radically different answers to these questions, and yet both sides claim to be “followers” of Jesus. How is this possible?

The simple answer is that there are multiple Christs. Two people can’t be following the same leader if they’re walking in opposite directions, after all.

If asked where Jesus was born, however, both sides would point to the same place. If required to show where they learned about Jesus, both would hand us the same book. So, the liberals’ Jesus must be the same as the conservatives’ Jesus.

Or must he? How could it be possible for both liberals and conservatives to be imitating Christ (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; Eph. 5:1), when they vote, comment, read, and tweet so differently?

The philosopher’s motto is, “Where there is confusion, let me sow distinctions.”1 If you will indulge me, therefore, I would like to explore the differences we’ve just been hinting at more carefully.

The Three Christs

In my many years of church attendance, I have learned three different Christs (cf. Ephesians 4:20). In Mennonite churches, I learned the Jesus-Who-Lived. In Charismatic and Baptist churches, however, I learned the Jesus-Who-Died and the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again.2

The Jesus-Who-Lived

The Jesus-Who-Lived can be found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7; cf. Luke 6). This Jesus is a teacher who celebrates peacemakers, the meek, and the poor. He lives in the gap between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

Mennonite churches taught me that this Jesus is the culmination of the Old Testament prophetic tradition—a tradition which says that God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hos. 6:6; cf. Matt. 9:13, 12:7), argues that Sodom’s problem was economic injustice (Ezek. 16:49; cf. Matt. 10:14–15, 11:23–24), and thinks that the first fruit of the Spirit is “bring[ing] good news to the oppressed” (Is. 61:1, NRSV; cf. Luke 4:18).

Since you’ll find this Jesus in the center of scripture (the Prophets and Gospels)—and between the stories of his birth and death—I like to think of him as a “Christ of the Middle.”

The Jesus-Who-Died

A bit closer to the edges both of Scripture and the Christ Story you will find the Jesus-Who-Died. I learned this Jesus from my Charismatic and Baptist pastors, but you’ll hear about him in Lutheran and Reformed congregations as well. Tim Keller, for example, is talking about this Jesus when he writes, “People think a Christian is one who follows Christ’s teaching and example”—focusing on the Jesus-Who-Lived—“but Jesus is not primarily a teacher. He’s a rescuer.”3

For anyone who has not encountered this rescuing Christ before, a few questions are in order.

Q: From what did Jesus rescue us?
A: The “wages of sin” (Rom. 6:23), as decreed by the Old Testament Law.

Q: How did he rescue us?
A: By dying sacrificially in our place (Rom. 5), fulfilling the Old Testament Law (Matt. 5:17).

Q: What made him an appropriate sacrifice?
A: Being pure—from conception through the cross—as required by the Old Testament Law (1 Pet. 1:17–20; cf. Lev. 22:20).

While attending Charismatic and Baptist churches, I never noticed the gap between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” I didn’t need to know the Prophets—or what Christ did and taught between his birth and death—in order to understand the Jesus-Who-Died. I could jump from the Law to the Epistles, or Matthew 1 to John 19. Therefore, I think of the Jesus-Who-Died as a “Christ of the Edges.”

The Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again

But the Jesus-Who-Died belongs to the inside edges. A bit further out you will find the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again. This is the Jesus of Revelation 19, who “judges” “in righteousness” and “makes war” (Rev. 19:11, NRSV). He is the one who saves the world from Satan and the Antichrist (Rev. 19:20–21, 20:10), finally crushing the head of the serpent as predicted in Genesis 3:15. This Jesus is the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8, 21:6, 22:13), who is “before all things” (Col. 1:17).

The Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again, of course, is also “the lamb who was slain” (Rev. 5:6, 5:12, 13:8), and thus is the other side of the Jesus-Who-Died. If the Jesus-Who-Died belongs to the inside edges, therefore, the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again belongs to the outside edges. You’ll find him in Genesis and Revelation, rather than Deuteronomy and Romans—after the Jesus-Who-Died and before the Nativity,

The Consequences of Having Three Christs

The Differing Roles of the Three

Each of these three Christs has done something different for me, at one point or another. Both in how he conducted himself and what he taught, the Jesus-Who-Lived sets an example for me of how to live now. I want to be his apprentice or disciple in this life.

The Jesus-Who-Died, in contrast, saves me from the future hell I deserve for not obeying the Old Testament Law. By implication, this tells me to follow the Law while I’m waiting for the next life (Rom. 3:31). I just have to remember that when I fall short, the Jesus-Who-Died takes my punishment.

The Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again has a similarly future-oriented role, with present implications. Since I know that he will have the last word in the cosmic battle with evil, he provides me with a sense of security and comfort now. In my Baptist and Charismatic churches, furthermore, the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again implied that we should do certain things (supporting world missions and the modern state of Israel, specifically) that would purportedly help to hasten the day.

Can You Follow All Three at Once?

The Jesus-Who-Died led no army because he wasn’t trying to establish an earthly kingdom (John 18:36), while the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again does both (Rev. 12:10, 19:11–16). This tension never bothered me, however, so long as I was attending Charismatic and Baptist churches. This was for two reasons.

First, I found it easy to follow both the Jesus-Who-Died and the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again simultaneously, since the latter makes so few demands. Second, I had been taught to see the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again as the real Jesus. Jesus had to play the part of a meek lamb while he was “emptying himself” (Phil. 2:6–11). In his truest, most authentic self, however, he is the conquering, judging, ruling God of the universe—and he will get to be himself the next time around.

I have found it more difficult, in contrast, to follow the Jesus-Who-Lived and the Jesus-Who-Died simultaneously. Take the Sabbath, for example. Churches that preach the Jesus-Who-Died have often advocated strict Sabbatarian rules. That is what the Old Testament Law requires, after all, and fulfilling the Law is the entire point of the Jesus-Who-Died. The Jesus-Who-Lived, however, undercut Sabbatarian laws both in what he taught and how he lived (Matt. 12).

Can You Believe All Three at Once?

I have also found that the Jesus-Who-Lived and the Jesus-Who-Died engender different attitudes. One offers me an example to follow, a master to whom I have been apprenticed. As such, the Jesus-Who-Lived provides a standard that I may fail to meet at first, but can grow closer to with practice. The consequence for failure is simply that I miss out on living a more abundant life now (John 10:10).

The Jesus-Who-Died, in contrast, points me to rules I either obey or disobey. I can get better and better at following them, of course, but I am disobeying them so long as I fail to follow them perfectly. I have to be careful about trying to be perfect, however, because I might end up confusing justification with sanctification, faith with works. And the consequences for failure are much more serious with the Jesus-Who-Died than with the Jesus-Who-Lived. If I miss the mark with the Jesus-Who-Died, I spend eternity in hell—unless the Jesus-Who-Died saves me.

In addition to encouraging different lifestyles, therefore, my experience has been that the Jesus-Who-Lived fosters an attitude of growth,4 while the Jesus-Who-Died fosters an attitude of guilt. The Jesus-Who-Died can also foster an attitude of gratitude for some people, but people with my personality type never get past feeling like a damnable failure if they focus on the Jesus-Who-Died.

The Politics of the Three

All of that is personal, however, while our focus in this essay is broader. Fortunately, I think we are now in a place where we can understand the relevant social and political issues more clearly.

The submissive Jesus-Who-Died and the conquering Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again are different in description, but compatible in practice. My Charismatic and Baptist pastors preached both, for example, and their flocks proudly voted for Republicans. The Jesus-Who-Lived, however, seems to differ in both description and practice from the other two. He is the Jesus my Mennonite pastors preached, and their flocks proudly voted for Democrats.

Why this correlation? I think the basic answer is simple. The Jesus-Who-Died is a Jesus made necessary by laws; he focuses us on crime and punishment. The Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again, furthermore, is the ruler who will conquer evil, and we can be like him to the extent that we also conquer evil. If you are attracted to these two Christs, you will naturally also be attracted to the Republican Party: the party of law, order, and military security.

The Jesus-Who-Lived, in contrast, is the champion of the oppressed. He is the wrongfully accused, the unjustly punished, and the liberator of captives. If you are attracted to this Jesus, you will naturally also be attracted to the Democratic Party: the party of social justice, conflict mediation, and the marginalized.

I think the relationship between how you vote and who your pastor preaches is more than mere correlation, however. If you are told, “Jesus is like x,” then you have a strong motivation to support political platforms that claim to help you to be like x. American churches may not be allowed to explicitly endorse candidates,5 but in practice they can’t help doing so implicitly.

Transition to a Resolution?

The causal connection between  the Jesus you learn and the party you vote for means that Americans will remain politically divided so long as their churches continue to preach either the Christ of the Middle (to the exclusion of the Christs of the Edges) or the Christs of the Edges (to the exclusion of the Christ of the Middle). It also means that if we want unity, we will have to find our way to a single, unified Christ.

At the moment, I can see four ways this might be accomplished. We would have to convince each other either that:

  1. one or more of the Christs we follow are frauds,
  2. the three Christs are truly one, even without reinterpretation,
  3. one Christ is key to understanding and reinterpreting the other two, or
  4. all three need to be reinterpreted in light of some new perspective.

We’ll explore these four options next time.

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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

  • Having been educated in a rather liberal theological environment (Emory), I made my own personal observations about liberal and conservative Christs. One of my take-aways was that my school tended to differentiate between the Historical Jesus and the Cosmic Christ (who was very different than your Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again). For example, the Historical Jesus is rooted in a certain amount of historical fact– he was male, lived in 1st century Palestine, and was ethnically and religiously Jewish. However, the Cosmic Christ was a much more flexible and malleable figure. For example, the Cosmic Christ could be female or connected to eastern religious figures such as the Buddha. In my experience, liberals liked the Historical Jesus (your Jesus-Who-Lived) for many of the reasons you mentioned. But I also noticed that liberals really latched onto the flexibility of the Cosmic Christ–a Christ than can be remade into a variety of images while retaining some Christ-like characteristics such as humility, compassion, and forgiveness.

    I don’t know if that gives you any other angles for your thoughts, but I thought I would toss out that dichotomy. I always felt that the church must be deeply rooted in the Historical Jesus, or else we run the risk of going adrift with a fluid and esoteric Cosmic Christ.

    • Thanks J! That is an excellent point. Richard Rohr came immediately to mind for me upon reading your comment. I’m going to have to think about this!

  • Peter Schellhase

    N.T. Wright does a good job of unifying these perspectives.

    • Wright is one of my favs, but I hadn’t thought about how he fits into this. *ponders* I know he helps with reinterpreting Paul, which might get the Jesus-Who-Died into better line with the Jesus-Who-Lived.

      • Peter Schellhase

        Sorry for my gnomic reply, I didn’t have time this morning to explain myself. I assume that what you are planning to do with this series of articles is to seek a harmony of the Jesus who Lived, the Jesus who Died, and the Jesus who is Coming Again. In what I have read of Wright, he is able to talk about all of those dimensions of Jesus in a non-exclusionary way. I think he is aware of and responding to some of the same political and social distortions that you are concerned with.

        Another writer who is helpful in reconciling the Divine Teacher with the Suffering Servant with the Risen King is political theologian Oliver O’Donovan. He is concerned more with the political implications of all three.

        • Thanks for the recommendations! O’Donovan is completely new to me, so should be educational.