“I am not looking out today on an audience of fallen sinners. I am
looking out today on an audience of human beings who have not yet
achieved the fullness of their humanity,” said retired Episcopal Bishop
John Shelby Spong during Friday’s Interfaith Lecture.
In the final lecture of his weeklong series, Spong challenged the
notion of original sin and recast the meaning and role of Jesus Christ
for Christians living in the 21st century.
In the 2 p.m. lecture in the Hall of Philosophy, Spong traced the
ancient and biblical history that called for the development of a divine
Christ-like figure, the life and way of Jesus Christ, and ultimately
defined what he believes it means to be a Christian today.
The traditional idea of God as a supernatural being that resides in
the firmament and descends to Earth to perform miracles and save the
world from sin no longer fits with our modern laws of science and logic,
The Christian understanding of Jesus as a savior stems from the idea
that human beings are born with original sin. That concept entered
Christian theology in the third and fourth centuries, Spong said.
“It is the result they claim from a fall from the perfection which
God intended for us all. The perfection for which human life was
originally created,” he said.
Christian theologians, such as St. Augustine, who read the Bible
literally, developed the theology based on exactly what was written in
the Book of Genesis. Early thinkers used the stories of the Bible to
explain aspects of the world and humanity, which they could not
understand, Spong said.
“They did not know the second and third chapters of Genesis were not
written by the same author,” he said. “They didn’t know it was 500 years
older, they just thought it was the continued story of the word of
“If the first chapter of Genesis said that the world was created
perfect and that human beings were created in the image of God, then
they asked, ‘Where in the world did evil come from?’” Spong said.
The answers to those questions were all given in the Book of Genesis.
The first three chapters taught that God had created a perfect Earth
and that humans corrupted the perfection God had created by eating from
the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Spong said.
“In that corruption, they corrupted all of God’s creations,” he said.
The fall from God’s grace resulted in suffering and death on Earth,
Spong said. Early theologians said that the sin of destroying God’s
perfect world was so terrible the only hope for salvation would be if
God came to Earth to rescue humankind. The story of Jesus Christ was
created to tell the story of how God descended to Earth to sacrifice
himself on the cross to give mankind eternal life, Spong said.
“Now what’s wrong with all of this? Everything, everything is wrong with this,” Spong said.
One of the first problems with that understanding of God, and the
role of Jesus Christ as the savior, is how the story portrays God, Spong
“God becomes a monster, God’s an ogre, God is one that does not know
how to forgive, God is one who has to have a human sacrifice, a blood
offering,” he said.
That conception of the Jesus story turns Jesus into a masochistic victim, Spong said.
“It turns our religion into a religion of guilt and manipulation,” he
said. “You and I become guilt-filled people; the primary coin of the
realm of Christianity has been guilt. Guilt — the gift that keeps on
“The message of the Christian church cannot be just guilt; guilt doesn’t produce life,” Spong said.
The last problem with the early Christian conception of Jesus Christ
is that, based on the logical and scientific data embraced by modern-day
society, the stories of the foundations of human life found in Genesis
and taken literally by early theologians are impossible, he said.
“Life is not static, life has developed over the last 3.8 billion
years, from single cells to self-conscious complexity,” Spong said.
When advances in science destroyed the theory of creation, the entire
creation story — and belief systems surrounding it — were blown apart,
he said. Without the creation story, the story of original sin in the
Garden of Eden is lost, and if there was no fall from grace in Eden, the
need for a savior disappears.
The idea of Jesus as a supernatural deity who sacrificed his life by
dying on the cross so humans could have eternal life is scientifically,
and logically, improbable, but that does not mean Jesus did not have a
powerful and profound influence on our human conscience, Spong said.
“When I look at the portrait of Jesus as it is refracted to me
through the gospels and through the Christian tradition, I see Jesus
primarily as a boundary-breaker,” he said.
“I see Jesus as a life that is able somehow to affirm his and our
humanity so deeply that you and I begin to be free to lay down the
security barriers that each of us builds around ourselves to enhance our
survival,” Spong said.
Human beings are biologically drawn to selfishness as a route to
survival. Jesus’ experience of life and way of life introduced humanity
to a new consciousness of what it means to be alive, to be loving
In Paul’s second epistle, he wrote that barriers disappear when people live in the Christ experience, Spong said.
“In Christ, there’s neither gay nor straight, there’s neither Jew nor
Muslim, there’s neither Catholic nor Protestant, there’s neither
orthodox or reform, there’s neither Sunni nor Shiite,” he said. “But
what there is, is a new creation, that it is in Christ we are called to
be so deeply and fully human that we no longer have to spend our energy
building ourselves up by tearing someone else down.”
That understanding of Jesus is supported in different moments
throughout the gospels, Spong said. Following Jesus’ crucifixion, a
Roman soldier is quoted as saying, “That’s what God is like.”
“He’s saying, I see in the human ability to escape its boundaries and
give its life away — that’s where I see the presence of God,” Spong
In Matthew’s metaphor-heavy gospel, a star appeared above Jesus’
birthplace. The star attracted followers from all cultures and
religions, across all boundaries.
In chapter two of the Book of Acts, written by Luke, the story of the
Pentecost is told. In the story, the Holy Spirit appeared to the early
Christians and they were lifted out of their tribal constraints.
“They laid down their security system, and when they did they found
they could communicate with anyone in whatever language they spoke,
because the language of human love is universal,” Spong said. “It’s not a
miracle story. Peter didn’t suddenly begin to speak Chinese or German.
Don’t be so literal or dumb about the Bible.”
In the Gospel of John, it is argued that the most important moment of
Jesus’ life was when he died on the cross. The moment of Jesus’
crucifixion was the moment in which he was able to give himself away in
love, wholly and completely.
“What we need to understand is that divinity is not the opposite of humanity, divinity is the depth of humanity,” he said.
In the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John, the disciples asked Jesus
why he had come to Earth. Jesus responded, “I have come that you might
have life and that you might have it abundantly,” Spong said.
“That’s what our faith is about — it’s not about making you religious
or moral or right. Our faith is about calling you to live, calling you
to the fullness of humanity. We do not need to be saved, we need to
become fully and deeply human. We do not need to be born again, we need
to grow up.”
Bishop John Shelby Spong
John Shelby Spong, whose books have sold more than a million copies, was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark for 24 years before his retirement in 2001. Acclaimed as a teaching bishop who makes contemporary theology accessible to the ordinary layperson, he is considered the champion of an inclusive faith, both inside and outside the Christian church. In one of his recent books, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Discover the God of Love (2005), Bishop Spong sought to introduce readers to a new way to engage the holy book of the Judeo-Christian tradition. A committed Christian who has spent a lifetime studying the Bible and whose life has been deeply shaped by it, Bishop Spong says that he is a believer who knows and loves the Bible deeply, but who recognizes that parts of it have been used to undergird prejudices and to mask violence.
A visiting lecturer at Harvard and at universities and churches worldwide, Bishop Spong delivers more than 200 public lectures each year to standing-room-only crowds. He was previously a 2:00 pm Lecturer of the Week at Chautauqua in 2000. His bestselling books include Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, A New Christianity for a New World, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and Here I Stand. His extensive media appearances include a profile segment on "60 Minutes" as well as appearances on "Good Morning America," "Fox News Live," "Politically Incorrect," "Larry King Live," "The O'Reilly Factor," "William F. Buckley's Firing Line," and "Extra." His newest book is Eternal Life: A New Vision - Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.