The Force Field that Protects REAL Christians

Forget the Merit Badge. Go for the Spirit Shield 

Could we put please all Christians on a Bible-reading regimen? We can ask them to read each chapter of the Bible, then sign off on each one. That is, we’d like them to read each chapter carefully, very carefully, then check a few boxes: (1) Yes, I believe that this is the word of God; (2) Yes, I will let this chapter be a guide for my life; (3) Yes, I really believe this is the way the world works. They could be assured that their answers would remain confidential—to boost chances for honesty. At the end of this experiment, I predict that most of the chapters wouldn’t have checkmarks. There’s a reason that Mark Twain said, “The best cure for Christianity is reading the Bible,” and Hector Avalos is probably right that 99 percent of the Bible would not be missed. (“Why Biblical Studies Must End,” The End of Christianity, John Loftus, ed., p. 109)

It would not be hard to come up with a list of the Top Ten Worst books or chapters of the Bible, and I suggest that one of the chapters that would get mixed reviews at best is Romans 8. Many Christians would give it thumbs-up because one of the apostle Paul’s famous “Hallmark moments” is found at the end of Romans 8 (vv. 37-39):

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

But the 30-some verses that lead up to this eloquent assurance don’t get as much traffic, and, I suspect, would get substantial push-back from most of the folks who fill the pews on Sunday morning. These people live in the real 21st century world—which wasn’t even supposed to happen, according to Paul—and would not be able to identify with his despondent outlook.

With my comments here on Romans 8, by the way, I resume my tour of this famous patch of scripture (all 16 chapters). In my book (see below), the last chapter is titled: “Bad News Paul, A Delusional Cult Fanatic,” because Paul is not good news. And the Book of Romans is chock full of bad theology.

I’m pretty sure that most Christian sensibilities about living a good life would collide head on with Paul’s view of the world, 8:5-8:

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Where does this hostility to the flesh come from? At the end of chapter 7 (vv.18-24), Paul demonstrates what an anguished soul he was, grievously wounded by low self-esteem:

“For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

“…the law of sin that dwells in my members”? “…this body of death”? Poor Paul was obsessed about death—and finding a way to get out of it. According to Paul, all of creation was under a death sentence—not because the universe is expanding and will dissipate into nothingness—but because sin, a power that pervades everything, corrupts everything. As his tortured mind hammered out his dismal theology, Paul was sure that God’s optimism in Genesis 1:31 had been cancelled: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Maybe once upon a time, but no longer. In Romans 5:12 he explains that sin and death came into the world through Adam, and creation has been ‘groaning’ ever since.

So we’re not surprised by this gem of gloominess, 8:19-23; note the bolded words,

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t think most Christians are in tune with such gloom. This is not the heartwarming faith they bargained for. They show up at church to worship and enjoy community, to affirm that Jesus is their Lord and Savior, and that believing in his resurrection is key to their salvation: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” But they are also interested in enjoying life as much as possible; they are fully engaged in jobs, hobbies, sports, vacations, charities—achieving as much contentment and as many happy outcomes as possible. Paul’s advice to his contemporaries was, “Put all such things aside. Focus instead on dwelling in the spirit, to be ready for the coming of Jesus, any day now.”

Unless I’m much mistake, Christians rejoice in marriage and enjoyment of the flesh. They would balk at Paul’s dark thoughts: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God”… “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” It would be a mistake to think that Paul is just making a slam against sex here, although he viewed sex with distaste. In I Corinthians 7 he says it is best for a man not to touch a woman, and only begrudgingly does he say it’s okay for couples to have sex:

“Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am.” So, away with sex! ...if he had his way.

Please note, by the way, that Paul’s focus with the word “flesh” probably wasn’t even sex. By this he means the whole range of corporeal/material reality—as opposed to the spiritual. It’s no surprise that Paul shows no interest whatever in art, literature, theatre and amusements. His only obsession—and it’s a massive one—is to make sure that he has achieved the status of being “in Christ,” because that’s the only way he can get out of dying. Romans 8:11: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

In this letter to the Romans, he is addressing people who supposedly already dwell in the spirit of Christ. Thus he is talking to the elect, that tiny fraction of humanity that will be ready when Jesus descends through the clouds (8:22-23): “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

This is really strange stuff, which is why it would be a super idea for Christians to read the Bible carefully. The redemption of our bodies? Paul assured the Thessalonian church that their dead Christian relatives would pop out of their graves to meet Jesus coming in the clouds (I Thessalonians 4:16-17). He had it all worked out, by the way: the “redemption of bodies” meant that they would be transformed from corruptible to incorruptible substance.

Now let’s take a look again at Paul’s famous Hallmark Moment at the end of Romans 8, i.e., “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, etc. etc. will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” These words of assurance are NOT addressed to the world at large; he says this to the select few in the congregation at Rome who have achieved the status of dwelling in Christ. When you’ve reached this level of spiritual excellence, you can also expect to be judging the angels in heaven (I Corinthians 6:3), and you will be adopted by God/Jesus at his coming.

So anyone who doesn’t dwell in the spirit of Christ is out of luck: this assurance is not meant for those outside the cult. This text is so commonly read at funerals as if Paul had issued a come-one, come-all Jesus-loves-you statement to the world at large. Not at all. Don’t forget that, in Paul’s theology, God’s default emotion is wrath, which only a chosen few can expect to escape. Paul is an advocate of “get even” theology for those who don’t make the grade; the chilling ending of Romans 1, where he lists all the kinds of sinners who deserve to die, shows his bad temper.

It is worth noting, by the way, that some Christians seem to read too much into Paul’s words. Elisha Hoffman’s 1887 hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” includes this refrain, “Leaning, leaning, Safe and secure from all alarms.” But Paul didn’t promise that at all, quite the contrary: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? “ And he quotes Psalm 44:22 to make the point: “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’” So those who dwell in the spirit of Christ can expect suffering, but whatever they endure can’t separate them from Christ’s love and the promise that they are among the elect. That’s the key for Paul: escaping death, being among the elect, the adopted who will join Jesus in the clouds.

So…let’s survey what you gotta believe in order to take Romans 8 seriously:

• That the world was created by a god whose handiwork was “very good,” but then whose supreme creature, made in his image, was a botched job, deeply flawed right from the start. Yes, I guess we can give this god a break, since he gave the creature free will. But…couldn’t the omniscient god have foreseen that outcome?

• That Paul is right that, with Adam, sin entered the world as a force that corrupts and defiles the world: everything is “in bondage to decay,” “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…”

• We would have to believe that the god took his own sweet time to correct his massive mistake, and then…wait for it…selected a Galilean peasant as a human sacrifice—this part makes no sense whatever—whom he raised from the dead…and somehow, this means other folks can go to heaven. Huh? Paul puts the cherry on top of this dreadful cake in Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

I think I’ll take a pass on this huge helping of magical thinking. A few years ago, when I mentioned the Book of Romans to a church-going Christian friend, she said, “I don’t know it”—which I thought was pretty cool. Par for the course in terms of Christian ignorance of the Bible, but she was lucky to have escaped Paul’s creepy ramblings. “Delusional cult fanatic” is no exaggeration: Paul gives theism a bad name.

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.