Shepherd of Souls

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This summer, I will be going on sabbatical for three months, and during that time I will be spending a few weeks in Rome. I’m going there so I can see the earliest Christian art. I am fascinated by what Christianity was like before the Roman empire got its hands on the faith and introduced a legalistic view of spirituality. The first Christian images were created before that happened, so I find them beautiful and evocative of a way of seeing the faith that was obscured, and I think is worth considering.

One of the very first images of Jesus appears in the early 200s, and it is of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.[1]  

Here’s an example from around the year 200. Jesus is seen as a shepherd carrying a lost sheep on his shoulders, surrounded by some other sheep. This is by far the most popular way of depicting Jesus in the 200s. Here’s another example:

This isn’t what they think Jesus looked like. This is Jesus as a symbol, as a good shepherd. Scholars have puzzled over why the first time Jesus gets depicted in art, Christians chose to do it symbolically. 

Why not show Him working a miracle, or surrounded by disciples? Why present him as a shepherd, when in real life he was a rabbi? Why present him symbolically, rather than as he really was, a man who lived and died in the first century?

Part of the answer comes from politics. It was dangerous to be a Christian in the third century. The Jewish establishment saw Christians as heretics, and the Romans liked to blame them for natural disasters, as though the gods were angry that they even existed. So, Christians were taking risks paintings Jesus at all. So, they chose to present him as a shepherd, which was a popular motif in Roman religion, too [2]. A Roman official passing by a painting like this wouldn’t automatically assume that it was a depiction of Christ. So, this was a kind of code.

But there was another reason Jesus was depicted as a shepherd, and it has to do with where these images first appeared. These first Christian paintings appeared in tombs where Christians were buried. They were painted on the walls of underground tombs in Rome, beneath the main roads that led out of town. These are called catacombs. The bodies were placed in holes in the walls, and families would come to visit [3], and worship underground. 

It matters that these paintings of the Good Shepherd appeared in tombs. This shows us how the Christians interpreted Christ’s stories about being a good shepherd. Jesus is saying that he is the shepherd who will keep their souls safe. Not just in this life, but in the next.[4] To the early Christians, living among the Romans, there were multiple possibilities for what happened to a person when they died. Many Jews believed people simply ceased to exist, or at best, their soul went down to the underworld, Sheol, were they slept forever. Among the Romans, they believed that important people, like emperors and military heroes died and went to a kind of heaven to be with the gods. Common people simply went down to their version of the underworld, Hades, where they led a shadowy existence, not doing much of anything.[5]

But for the Christians, a new idea of the afterlife had taken hold. Christ had told his followers that after death, people who followed him and lived ethically could ascend to heaven, where there were many mansions. For those who were determined to ignore God’s way, and live immorally, by choice, there was a place of eternal punishment called hell. 

At the same time as these paintings were being made, theologians were debating the meaning of this new idea of the afterlife. They tried to imagine what heaven was like. Many supposed it would be like a garden, as though people were returning to Eden. [6] Others also tried to imagine what hell was like. Before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, Christian theologians didn’t put much emphasis on hell. They believed the devil and his fallen angels lived there, in a terrible lake of fire. But they said this was created for demons, not human beings.[7] When they spoke of fire, they imagined it as a correcting fire, like how to purify a metal, rather than as a punishment.[8]

You can see them struggling with the idea of hell as a place of eternal torment. Why would God create human beings to live a few decades, and then spend eons in pain and suffering? How was that kind of trade off fair? If that is the way the universe works, then wouldn’t we be better off being born as squirrels, who live for a while, then die forever, without suffering?

One of the theologians who wrote and taught at this time was a man named Origen. He lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and for a while was a very respected teacher. He is considered the first major theologian. He, too, considered the question of the afterlife, and hell. He argued that since God is Love, then God must have a problem with the existence of hell. Scripture is very clear that the devil and his fallen angels were thrown into hell and will be spending eternity there. But is anyone else there with them? Origen argued that hell should not be seen a torture chamber where God takes pleasure in the pain of souls. Rather, hell is a place that is far from God, and that in itself in a source of pain.[9] Not a form of punishment, but a natural consequence of being distant from God, the source of all light and goodness. Like being a mile away from the nearest warm fire on a cold night. 

Origen argued that people in their lives can live far from God, sinning in all sorts of ways, and rejecting God’s love. When they die, they end up in hell, but simply as continuation of their refusal to follow God.[10] In the gospels, Jesus often speaks of hell this way in his parables, as a place of darkness where is much weeping and  gnashing of teeth( Matthew 8:12).

Life gets harder the more you ignore God’s way of love and compassion. People turn on each other, and expect little compassion, and give little in return. 

Origen suggested that God doesn’t want anyone to be in hell. God hopes that the people who have chosen to be distant from God will come to their senses in hell and abandon their sinning ways so they can draw closer and closer to God in heaven. Then Origen said something that shocked everyone. He said that God even wanted to save the devil.[11] Origen said that God hoped that Satan would leave hell and join everyone else in heaven. And even if the devil was the last one to voluntarily leave hell, God would wait. For God is love and doesn’t want anyone to suffer. 

Origen’s view on hell got him into big trouble. 200 hundred years later, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, he was condemned as a heretic.[12] The Romans were all about law and order before they became Christians, and they kept that perspective when they came to Christianity. The mindset that helped them run the empire was applied to our faith.  The emerging Roman Catholic Church needed a threat of punishment to keep Christians in line, and hell was very good for that. About a thousand years later, Dante would write an entire poem about what hell was like called The Inferno.

He imagined 9 circles of hell, with special punishments for every kind of sin, from gluttony to treachery. Most of what we know about hell comes from these sorts of fantasies of punishment, not the Bible. 

Hell, as we know it is mostly an invention of the church. In a society with few laws or people to enforce them, the threat of hell may have prevented many crimes. But relying on the threat of hell to keep people in line also makes religion into an ethical system based on fear. It is hard to be spiritual if you are afraid. True spirituality requires a sense of security and openness. A sense that God is on our side, rooting for us, and our spiritual journey is one of finding our way in life, among many choices. The best spiritual advice often comes as a whisper, as a slow unbidden message, “say, have you considered acting this way?” This is why we encourage prayer and meditation, so we can hear messages in the silence, or come to slow realizations that don’t feel like our ideas. 

And that brings us back to the choice of the good shepherd as an image for Jesus. Shepherds aren’t scary. They are leaders, people who show the sheep the way to green pastures and good water. 

Shepherds provide safety during the day. At night, they lead the flock to fenced in areas where they will be safe from wolves and thieves. Sheep generally like following shepherds because they have learned that the shepherd’s way keeps them safe.

But not all shepherds are the same. Jesus speaks of himself as a good shepherd, in contrast to the hired hands, who will abandon the flock at the first sign of trouble. Hired hands are just there to make a buck, they feel no loyalty to the flock or its owner. A good shepherd, Jesus implies cares about the flock, and is loyal to the one who owns it. Human souls, Jesus implies, belong to their creator, God. Jesus’ goal as the good shepherd is guide all humans to a good place, to being with God in this life and the next. He warns us against following false shepherds, people who claim to know God, but are really in it for themselves. Leaders who will abandon their flocks when trouble comes. In our time, many dictators and would-be autocrats claim to be followers of God. Yet, they declare there are enemies everywhere who need to be locked out of the country or locked up. Their whip up fear to stay in power. These are not good shepherds, but hired hands who are only interested in self preservation. Good shepherds encourage love and care; bad shepherds encourage fear.

Christ’s role as a good shepherd is underlined in his final statements in today’s scripture reading. He says that he has many flocks, not just this one. He wants to lead them to safety, too. As God, Jesus is saying that he wants to save everyone, not just his first followers in Israel. Christ’s saving grace is for everyone, a way of life that relies on love and compassion. And that generosity of spirit leads Jesus to promise to take care of us not just in this life, but in the next, to lead us to God, the source of life and light. So, seen in this way, perhaps it is no surprise that of all the images of Jesus the first Christians could have chosen, they painted Jesus as a good shepherd. For we still need guidance, a way based not on fear and intimidation, but on care and love. For us, and for everyone.



[2] Robin Jensen, Living Water: Images, Symbols and Settings of Early Christian Baptism (Boston, 2011), 9.

[3] Norbert Zimmerman, “Catacomb painting and the rise of Christian iconography in funerary art,” The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Des, Robin M. Jensen, and Mark D. Ellison, (NY 2018), 29.

[4] Mike Aquilina, Signs and Mysteries: revealing ancient Christian symbols, (Our Sunday visitor, Huntington, 2008), 47.


[6] The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas 

[7] Ireneaus, Against Heresies, Book 3, 25:41, second century.

[8] Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor” (dies around 220) Book 1, Ch10


[9] Origen, On First Principles Book 2, ch 10, 5.

[10] Origen, On First Principles Book 2, ch 10, 4.

[11] Origen, On First Principles Book3, ch VI, 5, and see footnote 12 in Origen, On First Principles, (Notre Dame, 2013). This was such a heretical thought that Origen’s later translators like Rufinus suppressed that Origen was speaking about even the devil being reunited with God, hence the need to look at the footnotes. 

[12] See for example the letter from Epiphanus, Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, written to the Bishop in Jerusalem, which Jerome translated in his 51st letter. See also letter 92 of Jerome, which is a letter from Pope Theophilus condemning Origen’s influence on current Christians.