My life can be summed up as an exodus from religion to Jesus Christ. I did not start out looking for God, or Jesus. I never wanted to walk into a place of worship, because it was of no value to me. The holy scriptures of different religions appealed to me only as anthologies of fantastic, mythical tales. Then, when I was twenty-three, a zealous atheist strung out on alcohol and drugs, and suicidal, my life was turned upside down. I came to believe there is a God, and worse yet (at that time, it was definitely a “worse yet”) that this God had taken a personal interest in my path towards self-destruction. To get some perspective on what was happening, I read holy book after holy book. I talked with people who were religious. I had to know more about what people believed.
When it was clear God was not going to leave me alone, I decided to find a religion with the hope that it would relieve some or all of my anxiety and fear. I followed the teachings of the Qur’an. I studied the Tao Te Ching. I engaged in folk-religious rituals, new age spiritual practices, and Tantric Buddhism. But none of these pursuits comforted my troubled conscience. It had the opposite effect. It seemed that the more I did to get God off my back by finding a religion or spiritual practice God could sign-off on, the more frustrated I became. The more I did, the more I felt God forcing his way into my life and choices, and not in a way that offered relief.
I pushed friends away. I drank more and used harder drugs in the hope that I would overdose. I stopped going out except to work so I could afford even more alcohol and drugs. Then, in desperation, I purchased a Bible. It was not an easy decision since I had a particular prejudice towards Christians. I thought they were juvenile and ignorant of reality. Yet, as I read the Bible, the more I learned about Jesus. He was no intangible, untouchable God. He was a God who became a man, loved sinners, and came to serve. This was very different from all that I had read and been taught about God and religion in the past. The Bible claimed I did not have to (because I couldn’t) save myself. I didn’t have to do anything to get God off my back. Instead, God came for me, gave himself as a gift to me, and asked for nothing in return. That was when I took my first tentative steps toward becoming a Christian, but instead of finding and joining a religion I found something entirely different.
What I found is that Jesus is the end of religion. All of them (save those of that faithful remnant that looked forward to his arrival) were redundant to begin with, but he makes plain the futility of them all. He did not show up to tweak Judaism or create a new self-salvation project or religion. When the nails were driven into his hands and feet, the spear pierced his side, and he said, “It is finished,” all the religions and all the ways we imagine we can save ourselves by our sacrifices and offerings were crucified. In the silence of the tomb and resurrection thereafter, the question, “What must I do to be saved,” received its answer. All the religions and their required sacrifices were rendered null and void by Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice.
Jesus’ death and resurrection saves us from our religiosity, too. There are two passages from scripture that help illustrate what I mean. First, in John’s gospel, when Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman,
The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:19–23).
She asked Jesus about religion and Israel’s worship (which, by the way, did not include her since she was both a Samaritan and a woman of questionable moral character). But instead of pointing her to Jerusalem, to the temple, the priests, and her sacrifices, he said something unexpected. Jesus told her something she had never heard before. Instead of telling her what she must do to be saved, Jesus took everything she thought she knew about God, worship, and living in a way that pleases God and turned it on its head. He clarified the true worship of God for her. He pointed her to worship in Spirit and truth. He pointed her to himself. He pointed her to the living water that only he could provide. In effect, Jesus told her that he was her oasis in the midst of a religious wasteland.
Nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus’ work for the Samaritan woman, and for all of us, presented as just another spin on old-time religion. Why? Religion is what we invent to bridge the unbridgeable expanse between ourselves and God. The “wall of separation” between God and us, as the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesian churches (Eph. 2:14), has been broken down by the bloody suffering and death of Jesus.
There is nothing that divides us from God because of Jesus. He breaks down and obliterates anybody and anything that tries to get in his way. He—and not religion—is the way, truth, and life. So why do we insist on constructing a new religion around his teachings, his works, or his sacrificial death? The reason is because Jesus is offensive. He refuses to be domesticated by us. In the gospels, he undercuts every attempt by the religious leaders, the crowds, and his own disciples to turn his teachings into a religion. He refused to play by their spiritual and moral rules.