How Did the Great Christian Swindle Begin?

It followed an old script…and added its own spin

In his classic analysis of religion, Treatise on the Gods, H. L. Mencken speculated on how it all began: “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.” But there were far more non-skeptics, those who were duped by the hocus-pocus. It was not Mark Twain who said: “Religion was born when the first con man met the first fool” (I don’t know who did, although Twain often gets the credit))—but it shows his flair for nailing the truth.

Which is to say, long before Christianity came along, there were ancient priests who came up with the idea of peddling formulas for escaping death; how could that fail—with so many fools about? Short of that, they might be able to get away with claiming they knew ways to get the gods to calm down. Given the horrors that humans face on this planet, surely being on the good side of the gods couldn’t hurt; they wanted friendly gods.

This probably explains religion’s hold, according to John Wathey, in his 2016 book, The Illusion of God’s Presence:

“…few believers are interested in worshipping a god who merely set the universe in motion and then sat back to watch it like a TV show, never getting actively involved in subsequent events. Instead, the god that most of them worship is a personal god, one who follows and cares about the events of their individual lives, who knows and loves them, who has the power to perform miracles, and who hears and answers their prayers.”

That’s what you get with Christianity, right? But, alas, it’s not that simple according to the apostle Paul’s version of the faith. In fact, in chapter 9 of his Letter to the Romans, we find suggestions about God that would trouble many Christians—if they took the time to borrow through the maze of Paul’s thinking. With today’s post I resume my tour of Romans; I have covered eight chapters so far. It’s good to know how bad theology can be.

Paul’s addiction to warped views of God is clear in this chapter—as it is in the previous chapters. For centuries people have taken him at his word; a little more skepticism should have been applied: “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit…” (Romans 9:1) Why have people assumed that this is good enough? “The Holy Spirit tells me so.” Oh, really?

In the first half of this chapter Paul shares his torment (“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish”) that the people of Israel are holding firm under the old covenant, from which they have derived so many benefits. But Paul knows that being a literal descendant of Abraham is not really what matters anymore. God’s love can no longer be regarded as an entitlement by the chosen people, and Paul brings in an eloquent sentiment from Exodus 33:19, God’s words to Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

So far, so good, right? But then Paul hits some familiar sour notes. Nothing can be allowed to minimize God—especially not anything a person could do; God calls all the shots, vv. 16-18:

“So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.” So God has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.

Say what? God gets the credit for making people hard-hearted? Kinda puts at least one hole in the free will argument. This reminds us of Paul’s bludgeon theology found in Romans 1; three times there he says that God “gave people up” to their lusts, degraded passions and debased minds (vv. 24, 26 & 28). Also check out his chilling list of people “who deserve to die” in vv. 29-31.

Paul anticipates that people might object to this view of God, but he offers a typical putdown, v. 20: “But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” Moreover, he is convinced that God has made some people for destruction as a way to show off his wrath, v. 22: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction.”

But wait, it gets worse, v. 23: “…and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—“ God shows wrath is order to make a nice contrast with his mercy! Then Paul boasts that he and his followers are “the objects of mercy,” part of the in-crowd, v. 24: “ …including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” And he quotes Hosea to drive home the point that his crowd “shall be called the children of the living God.”

It’s good to be the in-crowd (“the remnant”), because wrath is God’s default mood, v. 28, “…for the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth quickly and decisively.” And Paul returns to one of his key themes, that the only way to get right with God is through faith, not works; Israel did not succeed in following the law, no matter how hard they tried, for centuries, v. 32: “Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works…”

Paul was guided by his pathological fear of death—and it was that, not the Holy Spirit—which lead him to fantasize about an escape route. But there is no exit from death. Period. It’s disgraceful that religions have specialized in marketing ways to get out of it. They don’t have the product, but they hawk it shamelessly anyway.

So how did the great Christian swindle begin? I think that Paul stood on the shoulders of others—and not just the ancient priests who invented the hocus-pocus. There was a brand of swindle at the time of John the Baptist; his message was fear-based: “You’ll be saved (i.e., qualified for the approaching Kingdom of God) if you repent.” Luke 3: 7-9:

“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. …Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’”

Jesus expected the coming of the Son of Man “before this generation passes away.” If Jesus did indeed exist, and if a major theme of his preaching in the gospels is authentic, then he was an apocalyptic prophet (Bart Ehrman has presented the case for this), i.e. one of those oddballs who look to the skies for redemption; most of humanity will be wiped out, with a holy remnant surviving. If this scenario is correct, John Loftus is on target calling Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet (see essay 12 in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails).

Then the author of John’s gospel invented an egregiously exaggerated Jesus, and gave us what turned out to be the most cherished gimmick, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

But John’s theology became truly dreadful:

“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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (John 6:53-57)

This is the Christian swindle at its worst.

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.