The New Testament Peddles an Ancient Gimmick

An old tradition of selling a product you don’t have

I grew up on the northern Indiana prairie in the 1950s, in a small town where there might as well have been a wall between the Catholics and Protestants; people got along, of course, but we were so aware of the deep divisions in belief. One woman refused to attend her nephew’s wedding in the Catholic Church because she had no intention of “setting foot in that heathen temple.” I thrived in the Methodist subdivision on the Protestant side.

One of the practices in the heathen temple that drew Protestant ridicule was “going to confession.” We knew that Catholics whispered their sins in the ear of the priest, and their slates were wiped clean—provided the required penance was done, perhaps saying 10, 20 or more Hail Marys, depending on the gravity of the offense. We also ridiculed the rosary, the tool for keeping count of all those Hail Marys.

The big plus for the Catholic faithful, of course, was that if you committed more sins (bound to happen), you could get the slate wiped clean again. It all seemed so easy, too easy; didn’t that minimize sin? The apostle Paul may have been one of the first to sense that “easy forgiveness” might have a downside. He preached the abundance of God’s grace for those who accepted Christ: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

So we find Paul, in Chapter 6 of his Letter to the Romans, cautioning his readers not to presume on God’s grace: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” (v. 1) He is driven to give this advice by the logic of his theology, but the case can be made that Romans is a big helping of bad theology and that Paul was a mediocre thinker. His Letter to the Romans is one of many candidates for Exhibit A in demonstrating that the Bible falls far short of being the ‘word’ of a god. Bible scholar Hector Avalos argues that 99 percent of the Bible would not be missed—and I’m pretty sure 99 percent of the laity would never miss Romans if it somehow dropped out of the canon.

I’m giving a tour of Romans to drive home this point, and in this post we check out Chapter 6. I’ll cover all the chapters, in posts every other week or so. If you read Romans, you’ll find how tedious it is to wander around in Paul’s mind-numbing fantasy world, but let’s soldier on.

In verse 15 we find that Paul makes the point again that being “under grace” grants no license to sin. Remember that Paul had advised converts to Christianity that, although they could use Old Testament law as a guide for behavior, they are free of it as a means to salvation: “Should we sin because we are no longer under the law? By no means!”

But the primary thrust of this chapter is Paul’s pursuit of the gimmick (“you won’t have to die”) that has always prompted priests to market a product they don’t have. His approach in this instance is convoluted; he garbles baptism with death, vv. 3-5: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” How many readers over the centuries have been baffled by this theobabble?

Paul had it all worked out, of course, and he wanted it to make sense to others, vv. 8-11: “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

The gimmick is stated full strength in vv. 22-23: “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

According to one anonymous wit, “Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.” Is this too cynical, too simple? Even H. L. Mencken assumed that not everyone swallowed what the earliest con men were selling: “There must have been skeptics at the ringside when the first priest performed his hocus-pocus, and no doubt some of them, revolting against its transparent fraudulence, set themselves to find a better way to deal with flood, fire and famine.” (Treatise on the Gods, 1930) Even so, there were plenty of customers.

Among the first con men were those who realized that promising eternal life was a winning formula, and priests have been selling the product ever since. I really don’t think that Paul was a con man—there’s no hint that he didn’t believe what he peddled so relentlessly—but he certainly mastered the role.

To understand Paul we really have to grasp how much the Christ concept had taken over his life; that bang on the head on the way to Damascus brought on some freakish hallucinations—as well as blindness, according to Acts. And, as is so common with religious fanatics, he expected others to be similarly obsessed. Christ should take over your life too, vv.12-14: “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

This is a variation on his theme in Galatians 5:24: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Don’t forget that Paul expected the coming of Jesus in the clouds any day: it was urgent that people shape up and focus on preparing only for that: “…from now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not…” (I Corinthians 7:29-30). How can you follow a guy who wants you to turn off happiness? He begrudgingly gave assent to couples having sex, but not quite: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” (I Corinthians 7:1)

There are gazillions of Christians today who work hard at their jobs, are devoted to family and friends, enjoy passion and sex, pursue sports and hobbies and can’t wait for vacation. Turn off happiness? No thanks. And in this context they believe in Jesus and try to be good people. Which is to say that they are not Paul’s brand of Christian; they have no desire to be spooked by his holy rants into extreme piety.

Why have Christian theologians fawned endlessly over Paul and his strident theology? Isn’t his zealous confidence that Jesus would soon descend through the clouds a big tipoff that he was a crank? Remove that expectation, by the way, and his theology unravels. No, I guess Paul wasn’t the con man. He was the fool.

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.