Theology Written Under the Influence of OCD

When you don’t bother to have your work checked…

If you’re looking for Bible texts that are red-flag worthy (a good project, I might suggest, for Christian who are wondering, Why am I taking this stuff seriously?) here’s one to put on your list: Galatians 1:11-12, in which the apostle Paul positions himself for maximum credibility:
“For I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

So picture this. Paul experienced his dramatic Damascus Road conversion to Christ—he never gives the exact details in his letters—those we find in three fictionalized versions in the Book of Acts. Wouldn’t you think that, after bouncing back from the trauma of hearing Jesus from the sky (which included being struck blind), he would have rushed back to Galilee or Jerusalem to find the disciples? Surely there were apologies to be made for his persecution campaigns, and surely he would be desperate to learn as much as he could about Jesus, whom he had never met.

But no, Paul bragged to the Galatian Christians about not getting his information from disciples and eyewitnesses. All he knows came from “revelations.”

What? Let that sink in. Why aren’t Christians massively suspicious about this? Why would you pay any attention whatever to a man who hallucinated his way into this new Jewish cult?

I pose these questions as an introduction to my discussion of Chapter 5 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In previous posts I have covered the first four chapters, and there will be posts about the remaining chapters as well (every other week or so)—to help show just how bad the Bible can be.

Paul is celebrated as the first great missionary hero, but somehow the faith had already spread to Damascus (Paul was headed there to try to put a stop to it). Even more remarkably, early on there was a congregation in Rome—without Paul’s help. As the faith spread, we have to wonder just what, exactly, the earliest unlettered Christians believed and taught about Jesus. Actually, we have no idea.

It would seem there was no uniform message about Jesus. Paul himself complains about this, e.g., in 2 Corinthians 11:4, “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.”

When we read Paul’s self-designation as a rogue apostle, we can suspect that Paul himself was a culprit in spreading fake news about Jesus. His ‘truth’ about Jesus came out of his own head. No one seems to have asked, “Can you verify that?” or “Can you do some fact-checking with the original disciples to make sure you’ve got it right?” Paul didn’t have anyone check his work. Nor did anyone really care: if he claimed a revelation, that was awesome enough.

His tortured theology, his personal terrors and OCD, shaped his hallucinated chats with the risen Jesus—and we see this full strength in Romans 5. It is not hard to read between the lines that Paul was terrified of death, and he was distraught about his own unworthiness before God. The wretchedness of humanity was part of the very fabric of reality as Paul perceived it: introduced by Adam, sin was a disease that cursed every human. This was so dangerous because God’s default emotion is wrath; God regards us as his enemies (v. 10). But Paul was sure he knew how to get right with God.

He had it all worked out that wrath flipped to love through the gimmick of Jesus dying (“we have been justified by his blood,” Romans 5:9): “…we will be saved through him from the wrath of God.” The essence of Paul’s theology is found in one of the most famous verses in the letter (v. 8): “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” This is so embedded in Christian piety that it’s hard to grasp that this is magical thinking; Romans 5:19 helps bring this to our attention: “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous."

Of course we cannot fault Paul for believing the Adam story in Genesis, but he made the same mistake that later Christian theologians did, i.e., “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all,” i.e., “…by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners…” Why does that follow at all? And I suspect that a lot of modern Christians give a shrug to the concept of Original Sin. But it’s just as farfetched to embrace the full blown magical thinking in the last part of v. 19: “…so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous,” by the obedience of Jesus in going to the cross. Abracadabra. Anyone who believes in Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection has the ticket to eternal life. Paul bluntly states the gimmick in v. 21: “…just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This scheme should provoke a stunning this-does-not-make-sense moment. Guy P. Harrison has made one of those yes-of-course statements for which he is so well known: “No one seems to know why a god who makes all the rules and answers to no one couldn’t just pardon us and skip the barbaric crucifixion event entirely.” (Christianity in the Light of Science, Loftus, editor, 2016)

Earlier I mentioned that we have no idea what the earliest Christians believed, and our first insights come from the epistles, written well before the gospels. How many of those authors hallucinated as much as Paul did? How much did they give free rein to their imaginations? How much did theology smother history?

One of Richard Carrier’s more acerbic descriptions of Jesus pulls us back to the reality of how much we don’t know about the guy: “…an uneducated rural construction worker from some inglorious town in the middle of nowhere…” (The End of Christianity, Loftus editor, 2011) This was God's instrument for diverting his wrath from the multitudes of his human enemies? Paul’s Letter to the Romans represents an apogee in the theology of exaggeration. Well, Paul never met Jesus of Nazareth and thought he had conversations with him after he was dead. Why are we not surprised?

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and 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.