Where the Bible Gets it Really Wrong

The batshit crazy theology of the apostle Paul: four texts

John Loftus has displayed his skill at backhanded compliments with his comment that “…it takes a great deal of intelligence to defend Christian theism, because Christianity cannot be defended without a great deal of mental contortionism” (The End of Christianity, p. 92).

Apologists do indeed rise to the occasion. They have a broad menu of absurdities to choose from, but their ultimate challenge must be the writing of the apostle Paul.

Of course, Paul has a lot going for him: the high drama of his Damascus Road conversion (we find three versions of this episode in the Book of Acts—but Paul never mentions it in his letters); nothing could hold him back from preaching the gospel: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits…” (II Corinthians 11:24-26)

And of course, he got to be a “saint”—which tarnishes that coin considerably.

What a pity that he was a nut-job. Anybody can figure that out: reading his letters carefully is a revelation, so to speak. Poring over these texts should make folks suspicious of the category ‘holy scripture’: How in the world did Paul’s insane ramblings make it into the Bible? He has plenty of company there, of course, but that’s another story for another time.

In this article I’ll focus on four of his teachings that should make Christians—at least those who have a grasp of reality—shake their heads in disbelief. And admit, however begrudgingly, that he was a nut-job. I’m not even including in this short list his Hogwartian magic formula found 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.”

Batshit Crazy Text # 1: I Thessalonians 4:15-17: Jesus re-inters the atmosphere

Paul’s gullible converts took him at his word that Jesus was due to come floating down through the clouds “any day now”—and some were distressed that a few of their fellow converts had already died. They would miss out on all the fun. But the crackpot mind that came up with the floating Jesus, well, he had a handy answer to their worries:

“For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

How cool is that! Dead believers will beat everyone else to meet Jesus up in the air, and there will be musical accompaniment. This was not a far-off event—certainly not millennia: “…we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together.” Weird cults have thrived on this text for hundreds of years.

Are there many Christian apologists who fess up that Paul was just dead wrong—and that his credibility is irreparably damaged by this loony-tunes prediction? And please, let’s have no sophistry about the text’s “deeper meaning.” And No, it’s not that Paul was just off with the timing. His Christology depended on Jesus showing up soon and rewarding the simple-minded folks whom he’d coaxed into the fold. Paul wasn’t counting on Jesus knocking out Satan “any century now” (cf. Romans 16:20, “…the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet”).

Of course, when you tell a really big lie, some folks may raise their eyebrows: How can that be true? So then you have to tell another big lie…

Batshit Crazy Text # 2. I Corinthians 15:42-52: Would you believe ‘spiritual’ bodies?

Of course, it’s a really disgusting thought: rotting bodies popping out of their graves for their come-to-Jesus meeting in the sky. So, naturally, Paul had to work that out:

“So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” (I Cor. 15:42-44)

“Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (I Cor. 15: 51-52)

Again with the music. “Spiritual body.” What does that even mean? (Of course, theologians don’t have to make sense—as long as the folks in their target markets are impressed.) In all fairness, Paul—along with John the Baptist and Jesus—bought into the apocalyptic nonsense that had seeped into Judaism. Nonetheless, Paul set a high standard for thousands of Christian theologians to follow…for making things up.

“If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” How could he possibly know that? One thing that does come to mind for me: Nearly Headless Nick and Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films—hey, those are pretty convincing spiritual bodies. If anyone believed Paul—well, it’s a measure of their debilitating gullibility.

Batshit Crazy Text # 3: I Corinthians 6:1-4: Angels will soon be under your jurisdiction

If you have any doubt that Paul knew that Jesus’ kingdom was just around the corner, this text is big clue about his full-blown delusional thinking:

“When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters?” (I Cor. 6:1-3)

Ask the next ten Christians you meet if they know they’ll soon be judging angels.

Batshit Crazy Text # 4: I Corinthians 7: Marriage happiness blasted by bad theology

Christians are fond of using the apostle Paul as one of their hired guns in condemning gay sex (e.g., Romans 1:26-27)—without noticing that he wasn’t keen at all on straight sex either. Welcome to I Corinthians 7: surely most Christians would agree that here, above all, the Bible gets it really wrong.

Paul’s certainty that Jesus will bring his kingdom to earth any day now—with swift retribution to sinners—left him with little patience for marriage. His advice: get over such earthly preoccupations. At the end of Romans 13 he states his case bluntly: “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers…put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” That’s not the way life works. A lot of Christians, we can be sure, have sensed that Paul might have had “intimacy issues.”

Try to wrap you mind around these verses from Chapter 7—notice especially the words in bold:

• Verse 1: Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”

• Verses 7-9: I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

• Verses 25-29: Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.

• Verses 30-31 I mean, brothers, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

“From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none.” Who would urge Christian couples to take Paul’s marriage advice? Yes, Paul’s advice was “context specific”—namely his urgent appeal for people to drop everything to be ready when Jesus arrived. But Paul was wrong about that; the context was his bad theology.

We can put I Corinthians 7 in the trash. But once we’ve taken this first step, we’re not that far from realizing that Paul himself was batshit crazy. It turns out to be rather fun to read Paul’s letters (well, okay, not really) when that change of perspective has been adopted.

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.