One of the most tired ideas that persists in popular Christian circles (and, unfortunately, in more than a few scholarly works) is that Paul and Jesus were at odds. Paul corrupted the simple, uniting message of Jesus’ love by enforcing rigid dogma that divides.
According to this line of thinking, Paul distorted Jesus’ inclusive and tolerant message of acceptance by taking the hard line against sin and mixing in warnings against wrath, judgment, and hell. Within a generation, the gentle parables of Jesus gave way to the hellfire sermonizing of Paul. Now, this is most certainly a caricature of the Bible’s witness, which is why I’m especially surprised when it comes from ”red letter Christians.” Frankly, I expect them to know better, especially if they’re truly familiar with the red letters.
If you were to pick someone in the New Testament who most resembles a ”hellfire and brimstone” preacher, it would probably be John the Baptist, the prophet who baptized Jesus, and about whom Jesus said no one greater had been born. We like to caricature offensive evangelists as if they are weirdos holding up signs saying, “Turn or burn!” But the testimony we receive about John isn’t far from that. His words are pointed; his call to repentance is clear; his clothing is strange. The way John prepared the way for the Lord was by denouncing all kinds of sin: personal, social, and sexual. He called out the immorality of the king and lost his head for it.
Aside from John, Jesus best fits the description of a “hellfire and brimstone” preacher, even more than Paul. Just read the New Testament and you’ll often find the red letters to be more fiery than the letters of Paul.
It’s Jesus who promised to send out His angels to exclude from His kingdom everything that causes sin, throwing them into “the blazing furnace” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:41-42). It’s Paul who assured his congregation that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers… nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8:38-39).
It’s Jesus who said the prerequisite for being His disciple is to “hate” one’s own “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” before adding “even his own life” (Luke 14:26). It’s Paul who gave us the marvelous description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 (patient, kind, does not envy or boast, etc.), a passage often read at weddings all over the world.
It’s Jesus who so opposed sexual lust that he called for radical measures: cutting off one’s hand or gouging out one’s eye is better than going to the “unquenchable fire of hell.” It’s Paul who spoke of our duty to “owe no one anything, except to love each other.”
Jesus ramped up the demands of the law in His Sermon on the Mount: on vengeance, on vows, on sexuality, on marriage. Paul said “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Sometimes I hear people talking about Jesus’ compassion for the weak and His outreach to the marginalized in order to justify a watered-down inclusiveness that has little to do with repentance and faith. But this vision of ministry doesn’t make sense of the red letters either. Yes, we see Jesus reaching out to the prostitutes and tax collectors. But we also see Jesus publicly denouncing and excluding entire towns and villages where His message was not received with repentance and faith. Meanwhile, Paul — much more than Jesus — emphasizes the unity of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free in Jesus Christ.
Now, it would be foolish of me to criticize people for pitting the loving Jesus against the rigid Paul by doing the same thing, only the other way around. My point is: we shouldn’t pit Jesus against Paul, period. Instead, the closer we study the Scriptures the more we see a unity between Jesus and Paul, in that both are all about Jesus and His messiahship. This is why we find amazing expressions of God’s love and mercy in both the Gospels and Paul’s letters. It’s why we also find scary warnings of judgment and wrath poured out on all who will not repent of sin and trust in the good news of God’s kingdom, a kingdom so beautifully displayed as Christ became our substitute on the cross.
The love of God is fiercer than what the “I’m with Jesus, not Paul” people describe. It’s a holy love, as beautiful and consuming as a raging fire.