Making Deals with God…

So how’s that working out for you?

On the Facebook page that I maintain for my book—and for the promotion of atheism in general—Christians sometimes drop by, commonly to make angry comments. My own policy on Facebook, by the way, is that I never go onto Christian pages or sites to advocate atheism—ever. To me that smacks of bad manners…akin to me walking into a church on Sunday morning to argue with the preacher.

One comment that falls into the God’ll-getcha-for-that category was offered by a Stuart C. “So, let's see what the author does when he needs YHWH's intervention when he gets an aggressive cancer.” I suspect that even the most dim-witted believers can sense that Stuart is on thin ice here. We’ve all known devout Christians who have succumbed to cancers, despite prayer marathons to get YHWH to pay attention.

I can report, incidentally, that I have survived cancer twice, and give full credit for my recovery to my surgeons—thank you very much.

Stuart is on this ice too because, if Yahweh can arrest aggressive cancers—why is there any cancer left in the world? Only the pious have a chance of getting cured? [Okay, now the theodicy games begin: apologists pile on with tiresome excuses for God.] Stuart’s comment doesn’t reflect well on God, and it doesn’t reflect well on Stuart either; he is a victim of magical thinking, i.e., we can make deals with God—and God will point his magic wand at whomever he chooses. Christians who believe that this works—at least some of the time—don’t have a firm grasp of confirmation bias.

Magical thinking seems to be an essential component of the Christian worldview, starting at the very beginning, so to speak: “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ Just like that? Cosmologists are looking for a little more (actually a lot more) substance in trying to figure out how the universe ignited.

But if we want to appreciate the true champion of magical thinking in the scriptures, we can turn to the writing of the apostle Paul—especially his Letter to the Romans. Paul excelled at hallucinating, and after having visions of the Risen Christ, he wandered off into his own private la-la land, which he was determined to share with the world.

During the course of my posts here this year, I have been offering a tour of Paul’s Letter to the Romans—because it is really bad theology that Christian theologians have been trying for centuries to pass off as really good theology. We are now up to Chapter 10, and we encounter Paul’s magical thinking in undiluted form.

At the outset of this chapter Paul expresses his hope that the people of Israel can be saved—but he doesn’t think it will happen, vv. 10:2-4:

“I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

And, clever fellow, Paul pulls a fast one to make a point. He quotes Moses—he had no clue, of course, that Moses did not write Deuteronomy—to back up his advocacy of faith in Christ. We find this in verse 8:

“But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)…” This is based on Deuteronomy 30:14: “…the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” We might give first prize for quoting scripture out of context to the writer of Matthew’s gospel, but Paul is no slouch either. (Can we cut them some slack because they believed the Old Testament was a coded text—and they knew the code—to be mined for information about Christ? NO.)

The whole thrust of Deuteronomy 29-30 is Yahweh’s deal (covenant) with Israel: he will be their god if they will be his people—and the key to that deal is their observance of the law. Here are representative texts:

30:9-10: “…and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

30:11: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God[a] that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”

But all of this had become irrelevant to Paul: righteousness could never be achieved by following the law. Paul tells his readers that the “word” mentioned in Deuteronomy is “the word of faith that WE proclaim”—“we” meaning himself—i.e., Christ provided the magic formula for getting around the law as a measure of righteousness: Paul distorts the text in Deuteronomy. The author of Deuteronomy did not feel that following the law was impossible: “ Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.” It’s no surprise that Paul neglects to quote this verse.

Lucky Paul: he’s the guy that Yahweh chose to update the world on his salvation scheme (God changed his mind?), and we find the pinnacle of Paul’s magical thinking in Romans 10:9-10. This is his cheap deal, a gimmick on a par with John 3:16:

“…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. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”

In Deuteronomy the deal was pretty straightforward: God will treat Israel as his chosen people if they follow his laws and commandments. There is no focus here, by the way, on “being saved”—earning eternal life. That concept did not creep into Judaism until well after the time of the Deuteronomist. What was the reward for keeping God’s commandments? Well, Yahweh would refrain from reigning terror on them (graphically depicted), and would be nice instead, Deut. 30:19-20:

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors…”

Paul quotes Psalm 19:4 to make the point that news about Christ is being spread far and wide: “But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’” Hardly. The Christian cult remained a tiny sliver of the population for at least a couple of centuries—and these centuries were not even supposed to happen...if Paul had been right about Jesus bringing his glorious kingdom to Earth soon. He was wrong, dead wrong.

And even today most of the people on the planet don’t “confess with their lips and believe in their hearts” that Jesus rose from the dead. Thus they are ineligible for salvation according to Paul’s playbook. Is this the best scheme that an omnipotent, loving God could come up with? Did he really send messages through Paul’s bad brain?

There is rich irony in the opening of Chapter 10; Paul says of Israel: “ I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened” (v.2) Paul was pretty far down the rabbit hole of delusional theology, based on his hallucinations of the risen Christ. Like so many other wacky cult preachers before and after, he assumed that he was the custodian of enlightenment. But he was just another crank.

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.