My Very Quick Journey to the Abyss – A Review of John Shelby Spong’s Book Jesus for the Non Religious

I recently picked up Spong’s book from the library. I also returned it after reading it so this review will be taken completely from memory. I feel like it’s important to dive into what I both loved about the book and struggled with the book because it hits on some of the ways I think many areas of modern Christianity both gets right and wrong with how they reconcile faith within modernity, secularism, scientific evidence and scholarship. Spong wrote this book with the non-religious in mind, making the case that Jesus is still powerfully relevant even to those people who cannot accept him as the Messiah or believe in his resurrection. Therefore, I’m not sure the conclusions of the book completely reflect Spong’s positions, so this blog is my response to those conclusions, perhaps unfairly because I am religious and have had a lifetime relationship with Jesus so perhaps not the target audience. Nonetheless, onward.

The Good Parts

Spong spends the majority of his book deconstructing literalist and fundamentalist interpretations of the Jesus narrative. I’m not in the scholarly world of New Testament study, but I believe his core arguments to be widely accepted within academia if not broadly known by believing Christians. I’ll list a few from memory.

The four gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death and, with the possible exception of Luke, were not written by the people ascribed to them. As a result, none of the writers of the gospels were witnesses to the life of Jesus. It’s likely none of his followers were witnesses to Jesus trial and death because they all abandoned him for fear of their own lives. The earliest records we have written about Jesus are the writings of Paul who barely talks about Jesus’ life and vaguely describes his death and resurrection. Mark is the first authored gospel written around 70 AD shortly after the Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem and likely written in response to the siege. Mark is the shortest gospel, leaves out Jesus’s birth story, begins instead with Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist. Additionally, the gospel of Mark can be mapped onto the Jewish holidays “from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) through Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) to Passover, about half of the year”. Matthew and Luke were written ten years later and expands Mark’s writings m adding further insights from the oral traditions that did not make it into Mark. They extend the Jesus narrative to include the rest of the Jewish holidays in the year, adding the Jesus’ birth narrative, the Sermon on the Mount and a more expansive resurrection.

Additionally, reading the gospels account from the last supper to the burial, you can see a very clean pattern of 8 events each taking three hours expanding through the 24 hours before his death. Beginning with the last supper, the journey to the garden where his disciples fall asleep, the betrayal, the Jewish trial, Peter’s thrice denial, the Roman trial, the crucifixion and burial. These events are exquisitely timed to make theological points, for example timing the betrayal right midnight, the darkest moment of the day.

Spong makes the clear case that these gospels were never meant to be taking literally historical. They were meant to be read liturgically, to instill faith in Jesus as a central figure in a new faith. Before the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem and the Jewish state, many of the followers of Jesus still lived and operated within the Jewish culture and tradition, remembering Jesus through their temple worship and Jewish holiday celebrations. The gospels became a way to solidify the story of Jesus theologically and carry his message to the world without the stability of a nation.

While I already knew some of these points, many of the details described by Spong were new to me. Most of this I found exciting. Religion does not have to be in tension with scholarship or science. Liturgy does not compete with science, nor should it. The miraculous healings, Jesus walking on water, raising people from the dead, cursing trees, casting out devils – all of the events described in the gospels that defy scientific explanations do not have to be taken literally because doing so paints someone into real theological corners. How can we believe in a God that has the power to heal sickness but yet fails to do so time and time again? Why don’t these things continue to happen today?

But this sort of repurposing the gospels away from literalism ultimately pushes the reader to a confrontation with the resurrection, death and the ultimate state of the soul and with it, our existential self. These questions lead me to the Bad Parts.

The Bad Parts

Once Spong finished with his deconstruction of literal interpretations of Jesus, he transitions to making the case for Jesus to a non-believer. But first of all, what does it mean to be a non-believer? Spong describes the scientific consensus summary of the deep history of time, from the big bang, the creation of the universe, the beginning of life, to the creation of consciousness. The beginnings of religion comes out of the deep insecurity humanity experiences when they develop the capacity to come to a deep understanding of our mortality. What happens after we die? The animal kingdom shows no capacity to even understand the point of asking this question. Humanity does. We develop relationships, we care deeply about our individual capacities, our abilities to develop and grow, to experience love, pain, sadness, and joy. We want deeply to be connected to the infinite realities of a universe that seemingly never ends. We want to be as infinite as the universe. And I say that in a literal sense. I want my existence to persist.

Spong gives me nothing to hold onto in this regard. For him the phrase “three days” from Jesus’s death to his resurrection was only ever meant to connote a period of time and could reflect the time taken for his early followers to come to grips with his death. The resurrection, in this sense, could be a metaphor for a Christ return into the lives of his early disciples who found a renewed vigor and ability to embody his teachings within themselves. In Acts, Peter and others show the same type of miracles Jesus performed.

What Spong is doing here is that he comes right up to the limits of science and stays with science. There is simply no conclusive scientific explanation for human consciousness, no clear answers for what happens to it after death, and no way to know if there’s anything beyond this life. Science looks at the vast story of deep time and offers no universalizing meaning or purpose behind it. It’s just a random accident all the way down. Our lives on this planet at this time was completely dumb luck. I understand that, science can’t go further. But religion can. And religion should.

I believe in the resurrection. I believe in miracles. I accept mystery. I absolutely accept that my life has a purpose that is meaningful and that will continue long after my death. I cannot accept any other possibility. After reading Spong I peered over the pit of disbelief and it filled with me with deep sorrow. I backed away. I can’t accept it. I can’t explain my rejection other than my commitment to walk by faith.