A third reason Christ continues to play a central role in our culture is that he makes claims on our lives that we can reject but not ignore. Christ is the most divisive figure who has ever lived. This is strange because he was a man who never hurt anyone, who lived a blameless life, and whose teachings about love and peace are universally praised. Yet whenever I write about Christ, I receive hate mail. Some of it is directed to me, but most of it seems to be provoked by antagonism toward my subject. If you doubt this, start talking at your next picnic or dinner party in a serious way about Christ. The reaction you get will either be gushingly enthusiastic or coldly hostile. Christ’s teachings are so challenging that if we accept them they change our lives. If we reject them, they provoke in us either seething animosity or a willful desire to exclude Christ from our lives, or at least to amend him so that he doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable.

Throughout history, people have tried to twist and trim Christ’s words to suit their predispositions. This strategy of evasion and sly revisionism is quite common today. We hear from the Jesus Seminar and other sources that Christ didn’t concern himself with the afterlife, when in reality he concerned himself with that as much as with anything else. We hear from milque-toast Christians and many others that Christ spoke only about divine love, when in reality he also frequently spoke about divine condemnation. (Hell is mentioned at least three times in the Sermon on the Mount.) We hear from those who wish to avoid conflict at all costs that Christ was a peacemaker, but he said in Matthew 10:34, “I come not to bring peace but the sword.”

This strategy of “cutting Christ down to size” is best illustrated by the example of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson agreed with many of Christ’s moral precepts but was offended by Christ’s claim to be divine, to perform miracles, and to secure for men a path to heaven. So Jefferson compiled his own private bible in which he, quite literally, took scissors and cut out all Christ’s teachings that he didn’t like. The virgin birth? Gone. Miracles? Snip, snip. The resurrection? Out. Hell? Ancient history. The “gospel according to Jefferson” was not published until long after his death, but it illustrates the lengths to which people will go to avoid confronting Christ as he really was.