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John Shelby Spong – making God in man’s image

By Terry - Posted on 24 April 2011


John Shelby Spong, 80 this year, has written many books since his consecration as bishop in the 1970’s. The only thing you learn from them is how liberal theology twists everything in Scripture to suit its own ends. Spong does mental gymnastics in order to come up with his belief system and he is condescending of anyone who prefers to believe the Bible as written.

In 1998 Spong released another in a long line of his books, all of which make a full frontal attack on the orthodox Christianity: Why Christianity Must Change or Die.1

I am not even going to pretend to be objective when it comes to Spong. This man is a heretic and has done more to give Christianity a black eye than anyone I can think of over the past 50 years. I can hardly think of one thing from the doctrines of orthodox Christianity which Spong accepts as true.

Presumably, any of his supporters have at this point left us, which is a pity, because I at least listened to what Spong had to say. I will admit I read his material critically, as I would hope all Christian readers do, but not because I am searching for anything from his esoteric mish mash of doctrine. I simply want to know what makes this man tick.

I’m still not sure I know, but there is a basic pattern in his teaching: Spong has zero belief in God’s Word (ie the Bible) and has substituted it as the source of knowledge for the collective body of wisdom which has come to us through the last 500 years from the great minds of secular history.

In a nutshell, Spong believes the Bible is entirely the work of humanity, not God, and is the record of religious history; showing how man's understanding of reality has developed over the centuries.

Spong believes the only reason the Bible says what it says is because its human authors were too uneducated to know any better. If they knew what we know now, it would never have come about and the only reason Christians believe the Bible today is because they are stuck in a traditional, superstitious cycle.

There is very little to distinguish Spong from the world's great atheists, like Richard Dawkins. The only thing I can spot is that, unlike Dawkins, Spong wants Christianity (as he defines it) to continue. What that Christianity would look like is what we discover in his books.

No resurrection
Paul, when writing to the troubled Corinthian church, described the central importance of the resurrection to the Christian faith. It is difficult to imagine a more extreme view.

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (1 Cor 15:14)

And the foundation for this claim that the faith is in peril where the resurrection of Jesus is undermined is Paul’s assertion that this is the centerpiece of the gospel message itself. That is how Paul began this argument.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. (1 Cor 15:1-2)

Not only your faith, but the gospel message itself is at stake where the resurrection of Jesus is denied. Whatever it is you believe, you have believed ‘in vain’ if it turns out there if the resurrection of Jesus is not an historical reality.

Spong has taken the incredible position of firstly denying the resurrection actually happened, then describing a new brand of Christianity and then telling us why, despite what Paul says, this new faith is in fact worthy of living for.

Dodgy doctrine
In Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Spong sets out to systematically dismantle Christianity by attacking its central tenets. Spong has become a serial offender in this respect, but I gather from the Preface that this attempt is special for him.

This book has been in progress for more than twenty years. It is a work of faith and conviction.2

And over those twenty years, Spong has given us some jaw dropping teachings:

  • The Apostle Paul was ‘a deeply repressed, self-rejecting gay man.’3
  • Spong was an early proponent of the theory that Jesus married Mary Magdalene.4
  • The gospel writers were not eyewitnesses of the events they describe and so their words must not be taken literally, but understood as works born out of the Jewish liturgical calendar.5
  • The virgin birth narrative was concocted to cover up the fact that Jesus was illegitimate. “I know of no biblical scholar who treats the birth narratives as history.”6

In the preface to his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Spong declares his hand in the opening line of the preface where he refers to a TV interview he gave in 1989.

I had made a public speech earlier that month in which I had raised questions about how we Christians could continue to call the Bible the Word of God when many of its passages reflected facts that twentieth-century Christians simply do not acknowledge as true and attitudes that twentieth-century Christians do not share.7

This tells you all you need to know about where Spong is coming from. The Bible seemed reasonable to a former generation because they didn’t know any better. Now, however, we are so much smarter, we may confidently dismiss anything in the Bible which does not fit into our belief system.

In other words, you go to the brightest minds on the planet (the more recent the better) and work out what is true and what is not. Then you go to the Bible and take whatever fits into your new system. If the Bible teaches something which cannot stand up to modern scrutiny, then it probably isn’t true and so we should discard it.

It probably does not occur to Spong that this has been going on from the time of Jesus. It is basically scientific rationalism where only empirical data can be used as evidence. Anything which we cannot test with our five senses is dismissed as fantasy.8

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” (John 3:3-4)

Even in the context of admitting he has seen the ‘signs’ of Jesus (which is more than can be said for Spong), Nicodemus still can’t come to terms with something which sounds impossible according what we would call the laws of physics.

In John 9, the Pharisees are at it after the man blind from birth receives his sight from Jesus. They are so sure there has been no miracle, they call the man’s parents in the hope they will testify that he was not born blind. What is interesting is what Jesus says to the man after he has been thrown out.

For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind. (John 9:39)

Two paths
John Shelby Spong has been privileged to study the word of God and has held very influential positions in the Church, but simply does not believe Jesus is Lord. All he can say to us is that we are stuck in tradition and refuse to see reality.

My response is simply that the truth has been there from the beginning and so very few stay on the narrow path. Spong has wandered through the wide gate and loves it there but he is one who is not content with simply walking on the broad path. He must call everyone else through that narrow gate as well and his target audience is those who are on the narrow path.

If Spong read this review, he would learn nothing from it. I do not have any exciting new theory to give him, no profound insight which he could not have gained elsewhere or a new word from above to condemn him with. I simply call him back to the narrow path.

The Bible teaches that it is not Christianity which is dying, but everything else, including the created order.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:10)

No Christian should be too attached to any physical thing in this world. They are on the way out. The question Peter goes on to ask is, ‘what sort of people ought you to be’ as we wait for these things to happen.

Peter hits close to home with his answer, but it must be read in full to be appreciated:

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:14-18)

Yes, there are things in the Bible which are difficult to understand, as Peter himself acknowledged and as Nicodemus found out, but the answer is not to dismiss them as though they cannot possibly be true.

We do not create the truth by exploring and postulating theories. The truth has been given to us & it is to be believed by faith because we will not be able to prove it. We don’t have to. The proof of Christianity lies foremost in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which Spong has already ruled out.

Spong has become one of the ‘lawless people’ Peter spoke about and has used his time in the ministry to destabilise the Church, not to build it up. What has brought him to this point (apart from basic unbelief)?

In chapter two of Why Christianity must change or die, the answer is revealed. Spong cannot belong to any group which is inferior to the world’s cutting edge intellect. He has accepted every step along the way in the past 500 years which has purported to show that the Bible does not represent the truth.

In the dark ages, spiritual people believed what the Bible said about God, but over time, the world’s best minds chipped away at it until it was all gone.

Starting with Copernicus, then Galileo, Newton & Darwin, the world gradually realized the truth was contained in science and saw that the Bible could not possibly be true. It is science which discovers and delivers the truth to us. What it says, we believe.

Then came Freud & Jung who were able to show that man’s innate desire to please a transcendent God came from mental illness, not any created spiritual reality.

When Einstein proved time and space were not external properties but subservient to mathematics and physics, the final mystery of it all disappeared. Who needs God now that we finally know everything?

The 20th century moved into new realms of knowledge so rapidly, that Christianity was left on the scrapheap like Zeus, Baal or Jupiter.

Spong has basically laid Christianity at the feet of human knowledge and humanity has thrown it away. All of the things we thought God was doing, we now realize are being controlled by natural forces.

Who or what is God?
Now, you might think, given the mountain of evidence Spong has accepted, that he would sign up as an atheist, but here is one man who is not prepared to give up.

Chapter three of the book is titled In Search of God: Is Atheism the only alternative to Theism? And chapter four is called Beyond Theism to new God images. There is no need to go over them in detail. You can see where he is heading.

A summary of Spong’s position would be; “Ok, I’ll admit that nothing in the Bible is true, we have proven that, but I still want to believe in God so I will define him in a way which allows him to exist alongside reality.”

Avoiding the ancient wisdom that declares ‘if horses had gods they would look like horses’,9 Spong assumes that the God of the Bible is something man made in his own image rather than the other way round and posits a new being in his place, although personal pronouns such as ‘his’ and ‘he’ will not be a used because Spong has come to the conclusion there is no such thing as a personal supreme being.

But to reach this conclusion means that I must be prepared to dismiss most of the God content of the ages.10

By this, of course, Spong is referring to the Bible’s testimony of who God is.

As theism begins to crack and die, we can see ever more clearly the process of “God creation” that we human beings have always pursued. The attributes we have claimed for God are nothing but human qualities expanded beyond human limits.11

This, then, is the reason Christianity is dying according to Spong. The God of the Bible was a human creation in our own image and as knowledge increased over the centuries we began to realize how presumptuous this was. As our eyes were opened through the great minds of history, God slowly faded from sight.

The God of theism came into being as a human creation. As such, this God, was mortal and is now dying.12

The evolution of faith
On what basis can Spong assert this? Enter Darwin and Freud. It was Freud13 who was finally able to explain how our mental condition came about. Using the Darwinian model, Freud theorized that our caveman ancestors did not have the mental capacity to interpret their world around them adequately and so came up with a fantastic explanation that there was probably a supreme being who created & sustained everything.

That satisfied the homosapien until his brain evolved to the point where he could no longer hold to such a theory with any sort of intellectual honesty. A few men throughout the ages have evolved ahead of the pack and challenged the traditional position. Men like Copernicus, Galileo et al.

Until then, our ancestors were too dull to understand that they were going to suffer and die, so they carried on their existence in a state of ‘ignorance is bliss’. But as humans developed, the awful shock of our finite existence emerged and this created emotional trauma.

Religion, Freud contended, was the coping mechanism, the human response to the trauma of self-consciousness, and it was designed above all else the keep hysteria under control and to manage for these self-conscious creatures the shock of existence.14

This, Freud concluded (and Spong now declares), is the reason for the anger in the fire & brimstone preachers, the stifling of any serious debate and the persecution of intelligent, questioning minds. Naturally, Spong is now one of those suffering persecution for currently standing in the tradition of the great minds of antiquity.

Spong’s God
The “God” which emerges over the ensuing pages of the book comes into focus soon enough. He is an impersonal force common to all faiths.

Despite Spong’s grandiose explanations, there is really nothing new in what he describes. It is merely a new take on the “all religions lead to God” theory. When you finally get to God, it is a consciousness rather than a person.

Spong believes Christianity has selfishly taken God for itself, when all of the world’s faiths have a part of him. He even sees hints of this in the Old Testament.

For example, he says that when the Hebrew scriptures used the world ruach or described the supreme being as a "rock", they were showing that he came from the earth in an organic sense. Using their example, Spong says, we should boldly reject any modern notions of a personal God as well.

Spong already knows this has a name; pantheism, but won’t be put off.

Many theologians, revealing their own limitations, seem to believe that if they can name an idea, they can dismiss it. To the mystic, however, God is not to be identified with what is; rather all that is becomes the source through which the ultimately real God can be seen.15

Then, Spong only needs to take a small step to finally depersonalize God altogether.

It is a God concept better approached, I believe, if we move first from a “who” question to a “what” question and then from what we perceive God to be to what our experience of God is.16

And from there, Spong is able to reveal who God really is: ourselves.

Does this reality not reflect a new way to view and to understand that biblical dictum that “in the image of God, created God him. Male and female created God them?” Is it possible that we bear God’s image because we are part of who God is?17

Like each of us who become a parent and faced the stark reality that we must now become the responsible one, so humanity has matured (ie evolved) and become aware ‘that there is no heavenly parent in the sky who will take care of us.’18

There just is no God for Spong, at least not in the orthodox sense. Whatever the Bible says about him is dismissed because it comes from the minds of sub-intelligent men. Sure, they were doing the best they could at the time, but we know so much more today that we can completely toss out their theories 100%.

So I start here. There is no God external to life. God, rather, is the inescapable depth and center of all that is. God is not a being superior to other beings. God is the Ground of Being itself. And much flows from this starting place.19

I agree, but not much of the flow is helpful. Spong has been taken captive by the hollow and deceptive philosophies of this world and I’m afraid he is taking many sincere believers with him.

What to do with Mr Spong
I do not hate John Shelby Spong. He seems like a decent man who would be good company, if not provocative. He is obviously well read & thoughtful, but intellect is no substitute for faith. In fact, from what the Bible tells me, it can be a hindrance!

I basically feel very sorry for him. At 80 years of age, Spong is nearing the end of his time on earth. After reading his work, I can honestly say I would not want a fraction of the things he has said on my account when the books are opened upstairs.

I mean, would you dare write a chapter called Jesus as Rescuer: And Image That Has to Go? 20 Regardless of how robust Spong thinks his enlightened position is, the Bible tells us he will go the way of all men and face his creator.

I must admit, though, Spong does make me a little angry. One thing I detest is false doctrine being spoon fed to immature believers. It’s like poisoning a baby’s milk. There is no excuse for it and it must be dealt with. We cannot simply allow false teaching to go unchallenged, especially when it is forced on the most vulnerable. Perhaps this is one of the few areas where, ironically, Spong would agree; at least in theory.

Spong is not a Christian. He would not want to be if, by “Christian”, we are referring to any orthodox understanding of the term. He does not believe in God, he does not believe the Bible, he has no faith in a personal Christ, he is lost in his sin and will soon face the judgement. He is to be prayed for and so too those he is infecting with his malicious doctrine.

As much as orthodox Christians are accused of trying to whip up another persecution of Crusade proportions, you have to remember that it is Spong who has been systematically destroying the Church over the past four decades. This has come about because he has relentlessly white-anted Christianity from within. None of us set out to attack him or what he believes, but this man just does not stop.

The curious thing about Spong is that he agrees with orthodox believers that man constantly makes God in his own image. But instead of calling people back to the one true God, Spong goes round in a full circle and then posits a god which is basically more of the same.

I’m not sure what I would say to Spong if I were given an hour to convince him of his error. He seems to have thought of an answer for every Biblical position against his view. I guess we must admit that truth is not ultimately discerned by the best debater.

I would simply call Spong back to the words of Jesus; so profound as to change a life, yet so simple they have become a Sunday school favourite.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:24-29)



1.    Spong, J. 1998, Why Christianity must change or die, Harper Collins, San Francisco.
2.    Ibid. p.ix
3.    Ibid. p.xiv
4.    Ibid. p.xv. So even liberal theologians have to contend with each other’s theories. Many try to tell us today that Jesus was gay. They seem happy for us to believe either that he married Mary Magdalene or that he was gay; as long as we don’t believe what is taught in the Bible.
5.    Ibid.
6.    Spong, J. 1988, This Hebrew Lord, Harper Collins, New York, p.190
7.    Spong, J. 1991, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Collins, New York, p.ix
8.    The writing of Ravi Zacharias has been particularly helpful to me on this point. He points to philosopher Michael Polanyi’s book Meaning as one of the better polemics against scientific rationalism as the sole custodian of truth. I found this book to be heavy going, but well worth the effort. Polanyi’s basic stance is that science (and by the way, Polanyi was a scientist!) does not give truth to society but information which society gives meaning to. For example, science can tell you what the Mona Lisa painting is from an empirical standpoint, but it can’t explain why it is more important than other blobs of paint on a canvas.
9.    Spong, J. 1998, Why Christianity must change or die, Harper Collins, San Francisco, p.47
10.    Ibid. p 48.
11.    Ibid. p.49
12.    Ibid.
13.    Spong refers mainly to Sigmund Freud’s 1927 publication The Future of an Illusion which gives his view on the origin of religion. The full text is available online at
14.    Spong, J. 1998, Why Christianity must change or die, Harper Collins, San Francisco, p.51
15.    Ibid. p.62
16.    Ibid. p.62-63
17.    Ibid. p.69
18.    Ibid.
19.    Ibid. p.70
20.    Ibid. p. 83


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