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Bible 101 (The Sheep and the Goats)

I am not a Christian in any conventional sense, but I love the simple melodies of many traditional gospel songs. This is a recent version of an old song that asks an even older question.

This blog post was inspired by a Facebook discussion of the Biblical passage in which Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46)Here is the key excerpt:

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

So does God separate the saved and unsaved on the basis of behavior, as this passage seems to indicate? Or, as many other Biblical passages indicate, is faith in the basic tenets of Christianity the key to salvation?

As people who have read religion-related posts on this blog already know, I do not view the Bible in a conventionally Christian manner. Instead of viewing it as a single book with consistent, coherent themes, I see it as a collection of individual writings. The New Testament, for instance, was not formalized as a single volume until about 300 years after Jesus' death. So I am not surprised when passages from certain Biblical books conflict with verses found in others. The original writers, after all, would not strive to be consistent with other author’s works that they either knew nothing about, disagreed with, or saw as irrelevant to their concerns.

I have always found it interesting that the apostle Paul hardly ever talks about anything that Jesus directly said or did. The only major exception that I remember was when he discussed the Last Supper directly. So was he generally unaware of Jesus’ words and actions? It seems probable that during Paul’s time, the various oral traditions about Jesus’ life had not been formalized, written down, and/or widely circulated. Of course, it’s also possible that he was just not interested in the specific details of Jesus’ life. Instead, he focuses on the general meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, explaining how Jesus’ sacrificial death makes eternal salvation possible. He emphasizes theological concepts, with faith being the central one, not Jesus’ moral teachings or his behavior.

The same can be said with the book of John, a book in which Jesus spends almost all of his time talking very directly about his identity and the importance of believing in him: "I am the bread of life," "I am the way, the truth, and the life," “I am the resurrection,” etc. Meanwhile, Mark's gospel, generally regarded as the oldest one, says repeatedly that Jesus kept his identity secret from the general public, speaking in parables that he only explained to the disciples. Mark also puts more emphasis on Jesus' actions, not his words. In Mark, Jesus spends almost all of his time in Galilee (the boonies) healing people and casting out demons; in John, he is always hanging out in Jerusalem, giving long, clear descriptions of himself to the religious authorities and the general public. In my view, these books that present two different "Jesuses" can only be reconciled if someone really wants them to be. But if you view these as completely separate works, with each having consistent themes regarding the Jesus that they were trying to present, the contradictions are understandable.

It's funny how often people are forced to argue that the Bible is not saying what it is saying. When Jesus said to turn the other cheek, he could not have really meant it. When he said that you should give a robber your second cloak after that person stole the first one, he obviously did not mean that either. Every American knows – except for those pacifist liberals – that we are supposed to defend ourselves and our property using our God-given right to own a gun. Those seemingly pacifist teachings of Jesus are just so impractical, so they are explained away as being nothing but metaphors. Of course, the scriptures of all major religions have teachings that either seem impractical or just plain nonsensical. This is why many people either water them down or argue that they are not saying what they are saying.

So will God take people into heaven who believe in the right stuff but do little to help others, and will he turn away charitable people who have incorrect theology? The parable of the sheep and goats seems to say no to both questions. Of course, I don't claim to know what God (if He exists) will do, but personally, I judge people’s beliefs and values by their behavior, not by what they claim to believe. As James once said, “faith without works is dead.”

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