For Paul, sin was a disease of the soul...he was sure he knew the cure
Thanks to countless cartoons, we all know the iconic image of St. Peter perched at a desk, with his big ledger book, surrounded by fluffy clouds, just outside the Pearly Gates: You get to enter heaven if you’ve got enough good deeds to your credit. While most Christians—I suspect, I hope—know this scene is comic book stuff, they do go along with the theology behind it. In fact, they know this in their guts. That is, God lets you in if you’ve been a good person. If you’ve been bad or nasty, then your odds go down. Isn’t that just fair play, common sense? After all, heaven is called your Eternal Reward.
No Matter How Good You Are
But the New Testament requirements for making the grade are not really that simple, thanks, in large part, to the theology of Paul. He didn’t see eye-to-eye with Peter anyway, so giving Peter a desk at the Pearly Gates wouldn’t have been his idea. That’s a story for another time, however.
Paul recoiled at the idea that anyone could deserve to be granted eternal life. There was no way to merit it. His Letter to the Romans stands in the way of this intuitive approach,i.e., adding up your good deeds to get into heaven. So now let’s open our Bibles to Romans, chapter 3. Atheists who want to make the case that the good book is not all that good should know how bad the Book of Romans is.
I’m offering a guided tour of this 16-chapter book of the New Testament (one chapter every other week) for that reason, and because it had such major impact on Western thought. Christian theologians have given it far more credit and study than it deserves. I once encountered a young Christian who told me that she didn’t know about the Letter to the Romans. Yes, biblical illiteracy is rampant among the faithful, but lucky her.
Paul’s Stunning About-Face
Way back at its beginning, Christianity was one of many Jewish sects, and Paul was determined to suppress it. But in the wake of his dramatic Damascus Road conversion, he became the prototype Jesus Freak. From then on, faith in the resurrection of Jesus—Jesus was alive and in communication with him—was the primary religious truth. Paul made the Gentile world his focus, his missionary passion, but he could not dismiss the whole thrust of the Old Testament. Hence in the first eight verses of chapter 3 he strives to align the concept of Chosen People and their law with his new conviction, his certainty that Christ was the key to eternal life. “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
The law remained a diagram for good behavior, but, in the wake of Jesus, it was now disqualified as a route to salvation. The law makes us aware of how far we fall short. As he puts it in verse 20, “…for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” He defends the wrath of God as well—this, after all, Paul was sure, was God’s default emotion. “But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?” (vv. 5 & 6)
This Human Basket of Deplorables
Perhaps Paul agonized over the enormous weight of Old Testament law; maybe that had gnawed away at him for years; how could anyone measure up? We know for sure that he was a tortured soul (he might have been on his therapist’s couch when he dictated Romans 7:15-20). British scholar A. N. Wilson sized him up this way in his 1992 book, Jesus: “He was a man who was fighting himself and quarreling with himself all the time; and he managed to project the warfare in his own breast on to the Cosmos itself.” (p. 23) In verse 9 he mentions “the power of sin”—it’s not that people just commit sins, rather sin is an indwelling force. To make the point, he culls a few of the gloomiest texts from the Old Testament to show how bad people are, functioning under this power. Paul can have his Hallmark moments, but these verses (vv.10-18) will never end up on sentimental Christian greeting cards. There isn’t enough space to quote them all here, but v. 12 and v. 13 are representative:
“All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one ” and “Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of vipers is under their lips.” In verse 20 he states that nobody can get right with God by doing what the law requires.
When Theology Resorts to Magic
So what did God devise to overcome this problem, at least as Paul perceived it—that no one could possible measure up to God’s high standards? It’s not a wild guess that elements of ancient mystery cults had seeped into Paul’s thinking. In verses 24-25 we read the core theology that sparked his passion, i.e., God put forth Jesus Christ as a blood sacrifice of atonement for sins. But it’s effective only if a person has faith that this is how God has engineered salvation. Thus there are two elements of magical thinking here: (1) that a flow of blood from a sacrifice will do the trick (in the Old Testament it was animal sacrifice, here it is human), provided that (2) the initiate has faith that this magic works. Thus, being welcomed into God’s everlasting arms is his free gift—it happens because he “gave his only begotten son.”
For centuries the folks in the pews have heard this white noise from pulpits; how can they not notice that it’s hocus-pocus? And it got worse; the guy who wrote John 6:53-55 showed no restraint. He gulped Paul’s Kool-Aid and came up with this disturbing text: “So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”
To his credit, Paul felt that belief in Christ allowed access to God’s good grace to everyone. Being Jewish and following the law—well, this didn’t matter much any more, and this is the point he makes again in the closing verses (27-31) of Romans 3. But it’s small consolation in light of the bad theology that he embedded at the heart of Christianity. There is nothing sublime, noble or redeeming about his blood sacrifice theology; it is unworthy of one of the ‘great’ world religions.
Filius Flitwick was the Charms Master at Hogwarts and could have added Paul’s spell about having faith in blood to his syllabus; Severus Snape was the Potions Master, and the drinkable blood championed by John would fit well into his syllabus. What a sorry state of affairs that Christian theology sank to these lows. Harry Potter has more entertainment value—and we know better than to take it seriously.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and he has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.