Robert Conner, Christianity’s Critics: The Romans Meet Jesus, Part 2

Robert Conner studied Greek, Hebrew, some Aramaic and even Coptic back in the mid-70's at Western Kentucky University. He's written nine books, including Jesus the Sorcerer, The Secret Gospel of Mark and Magic in Christianity, as well as a number of articles and essays. If you want a primer on what the earliest critics of Christianity had to say about this new cult then I'm publishing an essay he wrote in several parts, with approval. This is Part 2. To get up to speed Part 1 can be found here.

Christianity’s Critics:
The Romans Meet Jesus

Extended and Revised, 04/2016

Robert Conner


Jesus and Paul were false prophets.

Radical apocalypticism was the foundation of the earliest form of Christian-ity. Jesus imagined the kingdom to be coming soonvery soon—in the very generation that heard his preaching.

   The High Priest was standing in their midst and he asked Jesus, “Have you nothing to say in response? What are these men testifying against you?”
   But he kept silent and made no reply.
   Again the High Priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?”
   Jesus said to him, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven!”[1]

The High Priest himself will witness the coming of the Son of Man and Jesus’ own generation—“Truly I tell you, by no means will this generation disappear until all these things happen”[2]—“this generation,” will not pass away until “all these things” happen. “These two predictions of Jesus [Mark 9:1 and 13:28-31] are related in that they do not simply announce the somewhat vague imminence of the kingdom of God, but they announce its arrival prior to the end of the generation to whom Jesus was speaking...the community which produced the Gospel of Mark [was] an apocalyptic millenarian community living in the imminent expectation of the end of the age.”[3]

The disciples will not even complete their circuit of the towns of Palestine before the coming of the Son of Man: “But when they run you out of one town, flee to another, for truly I tell you, by no means will you finish going through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man arrives!”[4] The end is fast approaching: “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will by no means taste death until they see the kingdom of God already arrived in power.”[5]

If Jesus really believed that the religious and political order was soon to end, we would expect to hear that belief reflected in his preaching and we do. The disciples are not to imagine that Jesus has come to bring peace—family mem-bers will turn on one another, becoming bitter enemies[6] and those who ex-pect to follow Jesus into the kingdom must not even stop to say farewell to those left behind.[7] A man must not linger to gather possessions, nor stop even to pick up his cloak.[8] The urgency of the situation abrogates even the most basic filial responsibilities:

   Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first allow me to go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me and let the dead bury their dead.”[9]

For those hoping to inherit the kingdom the costs will be steep. The disciple must hate his own father, mother, brothers and sisters, wife and children.[10] Moreover, he must sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor.[11] So complete is the renunciation of the present age that those who can must be-come eunuchsthere are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs (oitinej eunoucisqhsan) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”[12]

However, one set of familiar texts has repeatedly failed to draw the detailed attention of the Jesus questers: the beatitudes for childless and barren women (Lk 23:29; Gos[pel of] Thom[as] 79b) and the warnings to pregnant women and mothers (Mk 13:17-19; Lk 23:28, 30-31)...when the beatitudes and woes to women are understood in the context of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology, they function together as an injunction against procreation...[Jesus’] message of renouncing reproduction in light of imminent tribulation stands firmly in the tra-dition of an ancient prophetic predecessor (Jer. 16:1-9)...Jesus’ words of renunciation are congruent with his negative response to an un-named woman who blesses ‘the womb that bore’ him and ‘the breasts that nursed’ him (Lk 11:27-28; Gos. Thom. 79a)...His retort, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’ makes a good deal of sense if, as we have seen, part of his message was to warn wo-men against bearing children.[13]

Nothing must distract the disciple from the nearness of the End, neither self-regardunless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”[14]—nor standing in the community—“I swear to you that the tax men and the whores are going ahead of you into the king-dom of God!”[15] As Fredriksen points out, anger becomes equivalent to mur-der[16] in Jesus’ ethics, and lust to adultery,[17] and notes that such “intensifica-tion of ethical a phenomenon typical within communities commit-ted to the belief that time is rapidly drawing to a close.” Passivity in the face of evil[18] and a refusal to judge[19] “would simply lead to the exploitation of those abiding by such rules by those who did not. This impracticality in turn allows us to glimpse the intensity of expectation that motivated Jesus’ mission and the community that formed around him: the Kingdom was at hand.”[20]

“Thus the complexities of moral judgments that typify a complex society are resolved into a series of binary opposites: poor-rich, good-evil, pious-hypo-crite, elect-damned. And a final reckoning is proclaimed for the near fu-ture.”[21] Aune remarks on the “eschatological polarity” of Jesus’ ethical teach-ing and concludes, “The teachings of Jesus, therefore, show a strong tendency to use eschatological expectation as the basis for a hortatory or parenetic pur-pose.”[22]

Among the first generation, expectations of Jesus’ quick return ran so high that those with property sold off what they had and Jesus’ followers lived communally.[23] Writing to the newly converted, Paul advised slaves to remain slaves and the virgins and unmarried to remain single. Married men were to act as if they had no wife, for “the time allotted has become short.”[24] It is likely that contempt for Christianity among the common people arose in part from believers divorcing their mates or denying them conjugal relations. The asceticism provoked by the impending End resulted in “a household of brothers and sisters rather than husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.”[25] According to the historian Eusebius, Origen, the church father of the 2nd cen-tury went so far as to castrate himself as a teenager, the action of an “im-mature mind” (frenoj...atelouj), yet praised as an act “of faith and self-con-trol” (pistewj...kai swfrosunhj).[26] Justin Martyr applauded a young Alexan-drian convert who petitioned the Roman governor to give a surgeon permis-sion to castrate him.[27] Although permission was refused, “Justin’s apologetic use and evident approval of the effort itself are striking.”[28]

Like many apocalyptic movements since, early Christianity exemplified sex-ual psychopathology and extremism. Origen took Matthew 19:12 literally, as have other believers such as the Russian Skoptsy, a millenarian sect that prac-ticed self-mutilation and believed the Messiah would return once their mem-bership reached 144,000.[29] The 4th century heresy hunter Epiphanius describ-ed a Christian sect, the Valesians, and said of them, “all but a few are eu-nuchs.”[30] Origen’s theology of castration epitomizes self-loathing; he urged fellow Christians in his Exhortation to Martyrdom, “Therefore, hate your souls because of eternal life,[31] persuaded that the hatred Jesus teaches is noble and useful.”[32]

Little wonder that the Stoic Marcus Aurelius despised the Christians, calling their preaching “the claims of the miracle-mongers and sorcerers (twn terateuo-menwn kai gohtwn) about incantations and casting out devils (daimonwn apo-pomphj),” and characterized their fascination with martyrdom as originating not in personal acts of judgment but from “dissent unsupported by evidence” (kata yilhn parataxin),[33] “from mere obstinacy based on irrational ideas.”[34] If Marcus despised the Christians, the Christians despised him right back; his magnificent bronze equestrian statue “remained intact only because it was mistakenly believed to be of Constantine.”[35]

Of course Jesus did not return in the lifetime of the High Priest or in the life-time of those of “this generation.” As believers began to die awaiting the Coming of the Son of Man, anxiety reached a peak. Paul’s letter to the house church in Thessalonica, widely regarded as the oldest surviving Christian document, likely written as early as 52 C.E., offered the following false as-surance to the flock:

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We be-lieve that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.[36]

Paul obviously believed that some would survive until the return of the Lord—“we who are still alive and are left”—and that at least some of the believers who read his letter would be physically, corporeally, alive when Jesus returned—“may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blame-less until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again.”[37] “...the Second Coming of Jesus will occur in the immediate future...the hope that the vast majority of Christians would be living witnesses to Christ’s return from heaven points to the likelihood of composition in the first decade of the Chris-tian movement.”[38] But Paul’s ecstatic house churches contained the seeds of their own destruction: “Paul had opened a Pandora’s box among the Jews and God-fearers wherever he established Christian communities. His first letter to the Corinthians indicates that the proclamation of free-dom from the Law through the love of Christ and the approaching end led to wild revivalist prophesying in which men and women partici-pated, to claims of possession of ‘knowledge’ (that is, esoteric knowledge of the beyond)...”[39] As time would tell, defeated expectations of the End, as well as unrestrained individualism, would eventually be suppressed by the rise of the Church and so began the centuries-long drama of The Church versus the churches, the magisterium versus the mob.

Aune notes the rapidly diminishing sense of immediacy in later writings: “...the Christians of the Macedonian community lived in the fervent ex-pectation of Jesus’ return to save them and judge their enemies. In con-trast, Luke-Acts does not convey the notion that early Christians lived in imminent expectation of the end of the age. Luke’s more relaxed attitude toward the parousia of Jesus is due in part to the fact that he wrote his two-volume treatise more than a generation after 1 Thessalonians.”[40]

Looking back from our vantage point we can identify several Jewish apo-calyptic movements from the era, and based on the testimony of writers like Josephus and the Essene evidence, “conclude that early converts did not represent the established sectors of Jewish society;” we are thus able to “locate [earliest Christianity] within the tradition of apocalyptic Judaism, which in itself represents a paradigm case of great expectations followed by repeated disappointments.”[41] “The figure of the prophet was the object of widespread eschatological fantasy in first-century Palestine. This nostalgic emphasis on prophets of the past was partially motivated by the desire to replace the dismal realities of the present with the idealiz-ed glories of Israel’s past.”[42]

Josephus, a near contemporary of Jesus, describes the destabilizing role wonder-working apocalyptic prophets played in Roman-occupied Pales-tine. Among them were Theudas, who Josephus calls a gohj (goēs), sor-cerer or imposter, and a profhthj (prophētēs), prophet. At Theudas’ com-mand the Jordan River was supposed to part so the rabble that followed him could cross on dry land.[43] Notwithstanding Theudas’ sticky end, Josephus also tells of “those deceived by a certain man, a magician (tinoj anqrwpou gohtoj), who proclaimed salvation and an end to their trou-bles” if they chose to follow him “into the wilderness.”[44] Like Theudas, the Roman authorities promptly dispatched this man and his followers. Josephus also describes the “Egyptian false prophet”: “A man appeared in the countryside, a magician, who established a reputation as a prophet (an-qrwpoj gohj kai profhtou pistin epiqeij)...”[45] The Egyptian prophet led 30,000 into the desert and attacked Jerusalem but was repulsed and escaped. According to Acts, Paul was once mistaken for “the Egyptian.”[46]

The apologist Origen acknowledged several prophetic figures Celsus compared to Jesus: Theudas and “a certain Judas of Galilee” who the Ro-mans executed, as well as Dositheus, a Samaritan, supposedly “the one prophesied by Moses” (o profhteumenoj upo Mwusewj), and (naturally) “Simon the Samaritan magician” (Simwn o Samareuj magoj). Celsus per-ceptively noted these and many other deceivers “of Jesus type” (opoioj hn o Ihsouj)[47]it is clear that Celsus recognized Jesus as belonging to a category familiar to the Romans: the apocalyptic prophet who established his bona fides by magical wonder working. Stanton notes that the “most widely at-tested ancient criticism of Jesus” is that he “was a magician and false pro-phet...accusations of magic and false prophecy are very closely related to one another.”[48]

By the time Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians around 55-56 C.E., significant numbers of the first generation Christians had “fallen asleep.” Yet Paul’s letter assures the survivors, “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed” during “the last trumpet.”[49] “Paul clearly seems to indicate that not all shall die though the majority will. In 1 Corinthians, that is, survival represents the exception, whereas in 1 Thessalonians it is the rule...the fate of members of the community who have already died is becoming a divisive issue. The death of some members of the community obviously led to hopelessness and mourning in the community—probably because the notion of the resurrection of Christians was unknown in Thessalonica.[50]

But what exactly will happen on the Day of the Lord? And when will it occur? Here Paul’s teaching is uncharacteristically clear and consistent throughout his letters. Believers whether living or dead will receive a new, glorious body, like Christ’s at his resurrec-tionand this will happen very, very soon. Christ’s resurrection itself proves the nearness of the End of all things: it is a sign, for Paul, that the final days are not merely “at hand,” but have already arrived. It is upon us, he informs his Corinthian community, that the end of the ages has come[51]...Paul expects to live to see the Last Days. He speaks of his hope for the transformation of his present body before death (2 Cor 5:1-5)...So near is the End that both Paul and his communities are troubled by the death of believers before Christ’s Second Coming: they did not expect this and do not know what to make of it (1 Thes 4:13).[52]

For Mark, writing a generation after Paul, the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. was the latest sign of the times. “When is the End? Soon, Mark ar-gues; very, very soon. The Temple’s recent destruction clearly marks the beginning of that period that will terminate with the Second Coming of the Son of Man. In fact, the Lord has already shortened the days before the con-summation for the sake of his elect (13:14): the Parousia[53] could occur at any time, certainly within the lifetime of Mark’s community...By the time Matthew and Luke write, the destruction of the Temple as well in the past, and things had continued much as before. It could not, therefore, have been the signal for the beginning of the End. But Mark, writing shortly after 70, could not have known this and for him the destruction of the Temple an-nounced the nearness of the Parousia...Christian tradition in various ways continually adjusted itself to success—that is, to its own vigorous existence—as its central prophecy failed.[54] For early Christians, the destruction of Jeru-salem in 70 was a ‘sign’“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation has approached.”[55]—just as the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 was a ‘sign’ for present day Armageddonists. Unfortunately for the prophets, past and present, for something to count as a sign of the End, at some point the End has to actually occur.

While the believers sat up nights waiting for Jesus’ return, their “private ban-quets in Christian households, beyond the pale of synagogue surveillance, centered on the belief that the Lord was soon coming to finish what the Ro-man legions had started...For the expectant community, their attention riveted on the heavens for some sign of the reappearance of their savior, the eucharist was the interim realization of his presence...‘As often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you are proclaiming the death of the Lord before he comes’ (1 Cor. 11.26)...Later Christians seem to have advanced a variety of inconsistent rationales for the delay...We must see all these rationales, strictly speaking, as the defensive posture of a community challenged to provide evidence of its beliefs.”[56] As Paul’s words to the Corinthians imply, “With the collapse of the eschatological hope for the speedy return of Jesus the spiritual and sacramental presence of Jesus was all that remained.”[57]

By the time the pseudepigraphical letter attributed to Peter was composed in the early 2nd century, disbelief in the Second Coming had become open and probably common, not surprising given Jesus’ repeated failures to appear as foretold:

   They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”[58]

The disillusioned (former?) Christians who posed the question, “Where is this ‘Coming’ he promised?” had arrived at an inescapable conclusion: both the prophesy of Jesus and the assurances of Paul were belied by the passing of time. Jesus and Paul had proven to be false prophets, and not just around the edges. No sane person could take their words in context and honestly claim to believe them. That doubt about the Second Coming had become widespread is evident from the letter of First Clement to Christians in Corinth, written in the late 1st century, probably about the same time as Revelation: “Those who are uncertain are miserable, those who doubt in their soul, who say, ‘We have heard these things since our fathers’ time and look! We have grown old and none of these things has happened!’” The writer of the letter insists, “You have peered into the scriptures,” and assures his listeners, “that nothing mis-taken nor anything falsified has been written in them.”[59]

Those who were disabused among the Christians were hardly the only ones to notice the failure of Christian predictions. Porphyry declared, “And there is more to Paul’s lying: He very clearly says, ‘We who are alive.’[60] For it is now three hundred years since he said this and nobody—not Paul and not anyone else—has been caught up in the air.”[61] Porphyry knew—over sixteen centuries ago—that Jesus of Nazareth was no more than a thimbleful of dust and his Kingdom—with its hundredfold houses and fields[62]—an empty sack. Indeed, Julian makes clear that Romans regarded Christianity as nothing more than the veneration of a corpse: “those who follow after you aban-doned the immortal gods and changed over to the [worship of the] cadaver of the Jew (epi ton Ioudaiwn metabhnai nekron).”[63]

At the end of the 1st century at least some still clung for dear life to the illu-sion of the Parousia. The Didache (Teaching), a tract written around the end of the century, cautioned its listeners, “Don’t let your lamps go out, nor your loins be ungirded!...The Lord will come with all his saints. Then the world will see the Lord coming on the clouds of heaven!”[64] The faithful waited, loins girded and lamps ablaze, scanning the clouds in vain while the indiffer-ent world continued to turn.

More than any other scholar, Albert Schweitzer exposed this lie that is the bedrock of primitive Christianity—the radical apocalyptic belief of Jesus of Nazareth[65]and by so doing uncovered the scandal at the heart of apolo-getic scholarship. Commenting on the significance of Schweitzer’s landmark study, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Kümmel notes,

Only when Schweitzer, at the end of an account of the Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forchung [The Quest of the Historical Jesus], presented “consistent eschatology” as the right solution of the question concern-ing the historical Jesus did there emerge a really dangerous opponent of the picture of Jesus that had hitherto been accepted...The pro-clamation of Jesus as wholly dominated by the expectation of the im-minent supernatural kingdom of God, Schweitzer had presented as the answer to all debatable questions of previous life-of-Jesus research, and had accordingly characterized as entirely demolished the liberal picture of Jesus...First of all there is the question of the expectation of the End in early Christian thought and its permanent significance. Bultmann, Lohmeyer, and Dibelius had acknowledged without quali-fication the central importance of the expectation of the End for the thought of Jesus and early Christianity, but in their effort to interpret this early Christian faith for men of today they in various ways in-curred the danger of imposing concepts taken from a modern philo-sophical system on the primitive Christian belief in the End...the fundamental faith of early Christianity is to be found precisely in the strictly temporal expectation of an imminent end of the world, a view that obviously soon proved to be false and by so doing compelled the early church to put something else in its place.[66]

In a recent survey of the New Testament evidence regarding the end-of-the-world beliefs of Jesus and the primitive church and the modern theological response, Allison concluded, “I myself do not know what to make of the es-chatological Jesus. I am, for theological reasons, unedified by the thought that, in a matter so seemingly crucial, a lie has been walking around for two thousand years while the truth has only recently put on its shoes. But there it is.”[67]

“Behold, I come quickly!”[68] is, and always will be a lie—little wonder that for centuries in the orthodox churches the apocalypse has been an embarrass-ment and little preached. “Any cult that survives the failure of its initial prophecy must necessarily modify or scrap its beliefs about the definition no millenarian cult can long survive in its original form...The one undeniable fact is that the attention of the community, and thus of its worship, was entirely on the imminent End. ‘The time is near’ [Revelation 1:3] and ‘Amen, come Lord Jesus’ [22:20] frame the [Revelation] as a whole as much as they express the mood of its hearers.”[69]

Fredriksen’s trenchant observation about the apocalyptic worldview is worth quoting at some length:

Happy people do not write apocalypses. The apocalyptic description of the joyful future that awaits—that is in fact imminent—is the mirror image of the perception of present times, which are seen as ultimately, indeed terminally, terrible...But apocalyptic symbol-ism provided more than just protective camouflage for potentially dangerous political statements. It also enhanced the prestige and mystique of these writings and gave them almost unlimited inter-pretive elasticity. The more obscure the symbolism, the more privileged the reader who understood it and the more elevated the revelation.[70]

It has been remarked that Jesus expected the coming of the Kingdom of God but the Church arrived instead. Evangelical Christians, particularly Ameri-cans who ever alert to commercial possibilities, have dubbed the sky fantasy described by Paul as the “Rapture”—“we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with [the dead] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”—and have turned it into a highly successful business model, playing on both the evangelical dissatisfaction with the liberalizing present and the self-aggrandizing figment that fundamentalists are vouchsafed unique insight into world events through their parsing of biblical jabberwocky. Despite the fact that each and every one of the hundreds of predictions of Judgment Day by Armageddonists past and present has proven false, non-prophet preachers continue to foretell divine wrath on a nearly weekly basis with no apparent concern that their credulous followers will awaken to the obvious.

Significantly, the test of scientific theory is prediction and falsification. Ein-steinian physics has been repeatedly verified in its details by the accuracy of his predictions, a process that continued long after his death. If observation failed to confirm Einstein’s predictions, then some elements of his theory would be falsified and discarded. The predictions of Jesus and his followers, however, have been falsified hundreds of times over but never discarded, and that is the difference between Einstein and Jesus.

However, one of the signs of the End has been completely and indubitably fulfilled: “In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated sto-ries.”[71] Or as the King James Version renders it, “And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you (umaj emporeusontai).” The verb in question means to make a profit from, or exploit for gain. Chris-tian false prophets were quick to monetize the hopes of the gullible; the Didache, composed in the late 1st century, warned early believers, “But if [a man claiming to be a prophet] has no trade, according to your understand-ing, see to it that, as a Christian, he shall not live with you idle. But if he wills not to do it, he is a Christ-monger (cristemporoj). Watch that you keep away from such.”[72] The christemporos, or “Christ-monger,” was an early forebear of modern-day salesmen of the apocalypse.

Lucian describes the Christian career of the religious grifter Peregrinus:

It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in a trice he made them all look like children; for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of a synagogue (xunagwgeuj), and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many...Then at length Proteus was apprehended for this and thrown into prison, which itself gave him no little reputation as an asset for his future career and charlatanism and notoriety-seeking he was enamored of...Indeed, people came even from the cities in Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succor and defend and encourage the hero...So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing on simple folk.[73]

“Christians were an easy target for the racketeers of the Roman Empire.”[74] As they are for the hucksters of the modern era—“Lucian’s [Peregrinus] is a shyster—the first example in literature of an anything-for-profit evangelist who bilks his congregations.”[75] As Kannaday points out, it was not merely the widows and orphans who were easy marks for shysters like Peregrinus. “Even those members of the cult who were viewed as persons of means are portrayed [in The Passing of Peregrinus] as fools who will soon be parted from their money. The ‘bigwigs of the sect,’ as he calls them, come across as impul-sive, even whimsical, as they bribe guards for the privilege of sleeping inside the cell with Peregrinus. Lucian’s satire, therefore, leaves the impression that Christians are not so much generous as they are gullible, and not so much faithful as they are foolish.”[76]

Hundreds of modern examples might be cited to support Lucian’s obser-vation about Christian bred-in-the-bone credulity—from faith healer Ken-neth Copeland’s “$20 million Cessna Citation bought with donor funds” to Joel Osteen, known for his “cotton-candy, feel-good, self-help style of preaching,” who moved his 40,000 member church to a Houston sports arena “after performing a $75 million renovation to the facility.” As Posner noted, despite revelations of “their flamboyance, secrecy about money, and apocalyptic world view...lavish spending, or bizarre policy prescriptions,”[77] not to mention continuous exposés of questionable finances, sexual scandal and outlandish pronouncements, the carny world of Christian Armaged-donism continues to be a billion dollar enterprise.

In 1970, The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold something on the order of 30 million copies, predicted that Armageddon would occur one generation after the establishment of the nation of Israel. The Left Behind business, which to date has spawned sixteen novels and several low-budget movies—“as well as a graphic video game in which teenagers can blow away nonbe-lievers and the army of the Antichrist on the streets of New York”[78]—has garnered an estimated 75 million customers for its books alone. The dis-pensationalist dreck dispensed by the evangelical Left Behind fantasies appro-priately includes “a Catholic cardinal among the Antichrist’s inner circle.”[79] The co-author of the Left Behind nonsense, Timothy LaHaye, is a Southern Baptist preacher man, who “before becoming the champion of Christian America and the apocalypse...made his living as a fortune teller.”[80]

Among Christians in the mainstream sects, the ‘solution’ to the failure of Je-sus’ prophesy has been to simply ignore it and all that it implies, essentially the imposition of a species of institutional senile dementia that has, most conveniently, erased the memory of Christian origins from millions of Chris-tian minds. Among evangelicals the specter of a planetary holocaust, from which they alone will be saved, is a source of selfish satisfaction—to say noth-ing of the endless mercenary possibilities for the End Times business empire. After the Eurcharist, the Parousia is Christianity’s most lucrative product—being an illusion it costs nothing to manufacture and because it will never arrive costs nothing to ship—and its vast earning potential has been extended indefinitely through the application of the economic theory called dispensa-tionalism.

The creature of John Darby (d. 1882), who, like the apostle Paul, received his revelation after falling off a horse, dispensationalism depends on an illit-erate reading of scripture that encourages amateur Bible bricoleurs to select suggestive bits of text and cobble them together into oracular utterances only they can interpret. Darby, who believed the invention of the telegraph was a sign of impending Armageddon, invented a prophecy-generating device that any Bible-toting fool with a grade school education could easily operate. Biblical literalists from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Southern Baptists assiduously applied themselves to the task, cranking out an endless series of failed pre-dictions. Starting in 1966, the Jehovah’s Witnesses foretold that Armageddon would occur in 1975 and “when 1975 came and went with nothing specta-cular having happened” membership in the cult dipped. “Strangely, many Witnesses, particularly those in responsible positions, seemed to suffer from some sort of collective amnesia which caused them to act as though the year 1975 had never held any particular importance to them at all.”[81] Starting in 1918, the non-prophet Watchtower Society predicted that Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Isaac, Moses, David and Daniel would be raised from the dead. In 1929 the Society had a 10-bedroom mansion, named Beth Sarim or “House of Princes,” built in the Kensington Heights area of San Diego from where the resurrected princes would rule the world. The Wit-nesses also bought a 16-cylinder Cadillac for the conveyance of the princes, or, pending their return, the use of the Watchtower Society president, J.F. Rutherford. The house passed to private ownership in 1948.

It has been estimated that as many as 40 million people in the United States alone subscribe to some version of dispensationalism. To its Roman critics, who regarded Christianity as inherently irrational, an epidemic of religious psychosis, a folie à plusieurs, none of this would have come as any surprise: “One ought first to follow reason as a guide before accepting any belief, since anyone who believes without first testing a doctrine is certain to be deceived ...Just as the charlatans of the cults take advantage of a simpleton’s lack of education and lead him around by the nose, so too with the Christian teach-ers: they do not want to give or receive reasons for what they believe.”[82]

Despite failures beyond counting of End Times predictions, there is little hope that endless disconfirmation will stop the prophecy scam in modern times any more than it did so in the first Christian centuries. Hoffman notes that the Jewish apocalyptic tradition to which Jesus belonged “had been mys-tically vague, studiously mysterious” regarding the timing of apocalyptic events, and concludes, “Christianity did not so much invent its imprecision as use it to advantage, having mimicked the style of its Jewish prototype...the belief that unfulfilled prophecies had been misread prophecies, provided some consolation to the beleaguered community.”[83]

However, I suspect that the evangelical fascination with End Times whacka-doodle springs from a darker need—Darby’s End Times head-trip “was a nihilistic vision expressive of the modern death wish. Christians imagined the final extinction of modern society in obsessive detail, yearning morbidly to-ward it...Premillennialism was a fantasy of revenge: the elect imagined them-selves gazing down upon the sufferings of those who had jeered at their be-liefs, ignored, ridiculed, and marginalized their faith, and now, too late, realized their error...the reality it purports to present is cruel, divisive, and tragic.”[84] As one of the most effective modern critics of fundamentalist Chris-tianity noted, “Religion looks forward to the destruction of the world. By this I do not mean ‘looks forward’ in the purely eschatological sense of anticipat-ing the end. I mean, rather, that it openly or covertly wishes that end to occur.”[85]

Like the Christians who gloated over the destruction of Jerusalem and inter-preted it as retribution for the Jewish rejection of Jesus, evangelicals itch to see the secular world that dismisses their literalist belief go down in a sea of flame. The Seventh-Day Adventists, who gathered on the hilltops on Octo-ber 22, 1844, to watch the world end, called the date “The Great Disap-pointment” after the world continued to turn. What, one wonders, could be more purely evil, or more completely demented, than to consider the contin-ued existence of a planet and its life a “great disappointment”? What hope could one hold out for a planet populated by such moral degenerates?

The imminent Kingdom turned out to be a mirage. As believers imagined themselves to be rapidly approaching it, the Kingdom steadily receded, leav-ing them to die, one by one, generation after generation, forever. Events proved Jesus to be a false prophet and Paul a peddler of delusion—“Behold, I tell you a mystery!”[86] is the mere cant of a carny barker. Apocalypticism, the bedrock of Christianity’s original theology, is a laughable piece of Levantine folklore and its adherents, now as in the days of Lucian, eminently suitable objects of derision.

[1] Mark 14:60-62.
[2] Mark 13:30.
[3] Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity, 172, 194.
[4] Matthew 10:23.
[5] Mark 9:1.
[6] Matthew 10:34-37; Luke 12:49-53.
[7] Luke 9: 61-62.
[8] Matthew 24:17-18.
[9] Matthew 8: 21-22.
[10] Luke 14:26.
[11] Luke 18:22.
[12] Matthew 19:12.
       Another problem text that translators have frequently falsified, producing a gloss rather than an honest rendition: “those who choose to live like eunuchs” (New International Ver-sion), “some choose not to marry” (New Living Translation), “others live like eunuchs” (Be-rean Study Bible), “others are celibate” (International Standard Version), for example.
[13] Pitre, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 81 (2001): 60, 78.
[14] Matthew 18:3, NIV.
[15] Matthew 21:31.
[16] Matthew 5:22.
[17] Matthew 5:28.
[18] Matthew 5:38-48.
[19] Matthew 7:1-2.
[20] Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, 100.
[21] Gager, Kingdom and Community, 25.
[22] Aune, 166.
[23] Acts 4:34-35.
[24] 1 Corinthians 7:21-31.
[25] Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, 108.
[26] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI, 8.
[27] Justin Martyr, Apology 29:1-2.
[28] Caner, Vigiliae Christianae 51 (1997), 396.
[29] From Revelation 14:3-5, the “bride of the Lamb.”
[30] Williams, The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, 100.
[31] John 12:25.
[32] Greer, Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, 3, 69.
[33] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations I, 6; XI, 3.
[34] Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 82.
[35] Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind, 267.
[36] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, NIV.
[37] 1 Thessalonians 5:23.
[38] Lüdemann, Paul, 14, 49.
[39] Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 105.
[40] Aune, 192.
[41] Gager, 26-27.
[42] Aune, 154.
[43] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XX, 97.
    Theudas’ fate is noted in Acts 5:36.
[44] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XX, 188.
[45] Josephus, Jewish War, II, 259.
[46] Acts 21:38.
[47] Origen, Contra Celsum, I, 57; II, 8.
[48] Stanton, Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, 166-167.
[49] 1 Corinthians 15:51.
[50] Lüdemann, 51, 206.
[51] “...on whom the culmination of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11)
[52] Fredriksen, 58.
[53] The term parousia, parousia, means arrival or presence as at 1 Thessalonians 2:19
(NIV): “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the    presence (parousia) of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?”
[54] Fredricksen, 50-51, 135.
[55] Luke 21:20.
[56] Hoffman, Celsus On the True Doctrine, 9-11.
[57] Hoffman, Porphyry’s Against the Christians, 138.
[58] 2 Peter 3:4, NIV.
[59] 1 Clement 23:3; 45:2-3.
[60] 1 Thessalonians 4:17.
[61] Hoffman, Porphyry’s Against the Christians, 69-70.
[62] Mark 10:30.
[63] Julian, Against the Galileans, 194D.
[64] Didache 16:1, 7-8.
[65] “Schweitzer regarded Matt. 10:23 as an authentic apocalyptic prediction of Jesus,
who expected the present age to close and the future age to dawn before the mis-sion of the Twelve was completed. According to Schweitzer, when this expectation failed to materialize, Jesus experienced his first crisis, which led him to attempt to force the coming of the kingdom by going to Jerusalem.” (Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity, 183).
[66] Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, 238,
241, 283-284.
[67] Allison, Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (1994): 668.
[68] Revelation 22:12.
[69] Gager, 21, 56.
[70] Fredriksen, 82-83.
[71] 2 Peter 2:3, NIV.
[72] Didache, 12:5.
[73] Harmon, Lucian, V, 13-15.
   “...there is significant evidence to suggest that we have here a fairly accurate pic-ture of historical events. In particular the mention of widows visiting Peregrinus is striking...The visibility of widows in the story of Peregrinus will come as no sur-prise to anyone who has even the most basic knowledge of the involvement of wo-men in early Christianity.” (MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opin-ion, 74-75).
[74] Wilken, 98.
[75] Hoffman, Porphyry’s Against the Christians, 146.
[76] Kannaday, Apologetic Discourse and the Scribal Tradition, 144-145.
[77] Posner, God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters,
 21, 113, 172-173.
[78] Hedges, American Fascists, 186.
[79] Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, 70.
[80] Hedges, 187-188.
[81] Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 99-100.
[82] Hoffman, Celsus on the True Doctrine, 54.
[83] Hoffman, Porphyry’s Against the Christians, 136-137.
[84] Armstrong, The Battle for God, 138-139.
[85] Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 56.
[86] 1 Corinthians 15:51.