When God Is on a Par with Donald Duck. Seriously.

Christianity: sabotaged by the Old Testament

“Where did my religious beliefs come from?” If only pious people bothered to ask this question—and were genuinely curious—they might not be so compliant. I once asked a devout Christian woman this question and was told, “From my mother”—whom she confessed, she is eager to see again in heaven. And the mother, of course, had learned the faith at her mother’s knee. That seemed to satisfy this woman in terms of authenticating the faith.

Did she suppose that the faith had been handed down, uncorrupted, from mother to daughter, for the 50 or so generations since it had been proclaimed by the original Peter, Paul and Mary? Just skip all the councils, wars, heresy trials, and schisms that have made Christianity what it is today, all 30,000 versions of it.

On this messy story, see, for example, John Philip Jenkins, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (2011)

Curiosity mandates that we ask of each doctrine or article of faith: “Where did this come from?” There had to have been that very first human who proposed cutting off penis tips to get right with a god. There was also someone who, for the first time, suggested the more noble sentiment that “god is love.” If we could indeed zero in on those firsts, our curiosity could kick up a notch: were those ideas ‘divinely inspired’ or did they just dribble out of the human imagination?

If we peer far enough back into Christianity’s past, however, we find ourselves wading in murky, dirty water. We’d like to say to believers, “Don’t go there”—but on the other hand, they should be encouraged to do so, to discover the grim antecedents of what they profess today.

The Embarrassments Pile On

Do believers appreciate that their god once had a name? …as in, “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Who knows why a god would require that humans remind him that his name is holy, forever and forever. But this supposedly comes from Jesus himself; his god’s holy name was Yahweh, whose adventures are described at length in the Old Testament.

Welcome to those murky, dirty waters—and the colossal problems that they present. Those Christians who think that mama’s religion is good enough would do well to study Dr. Jaco Gericke’s essay, “Can God Exist If Yahweh Doesn’t?” in John W. Loftus’ 2011 anthology, The End of Christianity. In a sense, Christian theologians have been engaged in a massive whitewash to put the Old Testament behind them; Gericke shows in abundant detail why this is required.

How embarrassing: a tribal god from the ancient past, whom no one should take seriously, got his boost into Western history through the Jesus cult. But the brutal, arbitrary Yahweh eventually had to be toned down and cleaned up. Gericke makes the point that philosophical rehabilitations of god disguise what actually happened:

• What the Western world means when it refers fuzzily to “God” is not some untouched, ineffable ultimate reality beyond the grasp of human rational faculties that will one day catch up with unbelievers, making them recognize their cognitive blindness. Rather, the entity most readers refer to when they speak of “God” is actually an upgraded, mysteriously anonymous version of what actually used to be a relatively young, quite particular, and oddly hybrid Middle Eastern tribal deity called Yahweh.” (p. 132)

Yes, this is where Christian monotheism has its roots, and Gericke suggests that weighty philosophical arguments against the existence of God are overkill.

• “…in trying to prove that “God” does not exist, so long as “God” is in any way related to the entity worshipped in modern (or postmodern) biblically derived forms of theism (no matter how sophisticated), the only thing needed is to show that representations of Yahweh in ancient Israelite religion do not refer to any ultimate reality outside the text. (p. 134)

• “It’s not unlike trying to prove there is no Zeus. Not even Christians can do it, but you can demonstrate belief in Zeus to be absurd by pointing out the ridiculously superstitious nature of the representations of the entity in question (i.e., his human appearance, his less than scientifically informed mind, and his nonexistent divine world), thus exposing his artificial origins. Well, the same can be done with ‘God,’ aka Yahweh.” (p. 134)

Gericke brilliantly skewers Yahweh as a cartoon character, although the god is not nearly as benign and pleasant as the character he mentions!

• “…there are those of us who realize that what we have in the text is the character Yahweh who, as depicted, can for various reasons not possibly exist outside the stories in which he acts. Yahweh is like Donald Duck, who is real is some fictionalist sense. He does not exist outside the cartoons about his character (except people in consumes, I suppose).” (p. 135)

Many Christian theologians are honest enough to admit that God/aka Yahweh in the Old Testament, as candidly depicted in the texts, is not to be believed. Hence it is urged that the texts can be understood as symbols and metaphors: just look for the ‘spiritual truths’ hidden beneath or behind them. But it’s overwhelmingly probable that the ancient authors meant exactly what they wrote. So read them that way.

And it’s a startling experience.

• “If you read the scriptures and are not shocked out of all your religious beliefs, you have not understood them.” (p. 137)

• “Believers in God need to repress the fact that their deity used to be Yahweh, whose entire reality is so obviously absurd that it needs continual revising…” (p. 145)

Early in the essay Gericke states his purpose:

• “The focus will be on the Old Testament, and if the discussion to follow does not open your eyes to the Bible as fantasy literature, the God of the Bible as nothing more than a memorable old monster, nothing will.” (p. 137)

Gericke devotes 13 pages to a discussion of Yahweh’s body and mind, and his world, with a wealth of citations to illustrate what the ancient authors thought about their god. They seem to have taken for granted that Yahweh had a body, and that being “made in his image” was understood literally; but theologians have balked:

• “They have insisted that the obvious meaning of the words—that God was believed to look like a male human because it was thought that God created humans to look like himself (see Gen. 5:1-3; 9:6)—cannot possible be what was intended. Sophisticated apologetics notwithstanding, this is what Genesis 1 seems to be saying, and I wish to take it seriously.

• “Most references to Yahweh are not symbolic. It cannot be denied that there are a number of textual references to the body (and body parts) of Yahweh that, in the context of the biblical narratives, seemed to have functioned as nonmetaphorical descriptions of what the deity supposedly actually looks like.” (pp. 137-138)

The thoughts of Yahweh, as reflected in the texts, cannot be reconciled at all with any modern ‘refined’ theology that serious thinkers are comfortable debating.

• “…the mind of the god in the Bible exhibits a library of provable errant knowledge…the deity is often depicted as making statements that include references to historical, cosmological, geographical, biological, and other types of phenomena that today we know are not factual. (p. 140)

• “What betrays the all-too-human origins of the divine mind is the simple fact that the ideas Yahweh entertains about reality are hardly better than the superstitions and misconceptions in the indigenous knowledge systems of the people who worshipped him.

• “Yahweh needs to limit his direct and personal contact with the general population and, for the most part, prefers to act through intermediaries, agents, messengers, and armies. He enjoys and demands being feared. More than anything, Yahweh yearns to be worshipped and to have constant reminders of how powerful, and great he is...Many people take this need of God for granted but never bother to ask why God wants—no demands—to be worshipped.” (pp. 141-142)

The very limited cosmos or world of this small-time god is also no surprise:

• "The oldest evidence of Yahwism dates faith in this god back no more than 3,000-3,500 years. This explains why “God,” aka Yahweh, acts, speaks, and behaves like a typical late Bronze and early Iron Age god and cannot but play the role of that type of character in the stories about him. He is a slave to the divine nature as conceived of in the theatrical roles available for godhood at that time.” (p. 145)

• “The reason Yahweh rides the fast clouds (Isa. 19), why thunder is literally the divine voice (Job 37), is because he and his worshippers believed he was literally up there. That is why Jesus allegedly went up with a cloud and will return on one—because heaven was literally up there.” (p. 146)

• “Believers today simply have not taken seriously the absurdity in the Old Testament’s understanding of the cosmos as a kind of city-state ruled by a monarch in the sky whose every whim has to be catered to on the penalty of death. Christians are so brainwashed that the idea that humans are servants of a cosmic dictator still appears comforting to many.” (pp. 147-148)

• “Not only was Yahwism (now upgraded to Godism) a latecomer in the history of religions, it was also a very local affair. Yahweh and his worshippers were limited to a sacred space east of the Mediterranean.” (p. 148)

“Nonsense on Stilts”

But, of course, Christian theologians had to forge ahead to make the sow’s ear into a silk purse. They have been tireless; the results have been tiresome. Gericke brings his essay—one of the gems in this Loftus anthology—to a close with a section titled, “Christian Philosophy of Religion as ‘Nonsense on Stilts’”.

• “…Christian philosophers of religion, be they fundamentalist and analytic or postmodern and continental, all love dogmatic rationalization more than biblical epistemology. Again this shows that not even Christian philosophers of religion actually believe in Yahweh. They, too, are atheists in relation to the biblical divinity.” (p.152)

• “… theology and philosophy of religion and arguments for God have become necessary—to hide the absurdity and make it all seem convincing.” (p. 152)

• “…believers today do not spend their time in serious Bible study. Most popular books on the Old Testament are spiritual junk food, brain candy, if you will.” (p. 153)

The Put-Up or Shut-Up Challenge Still Stands

It’s a simple request. Please tell me where I can find reliable, verifiable data about God, and all devout theists must agree: “Yes, this is where the reliable, verifiable data can be found.” Can it be that hard? God is supposedly the most powerful, pervasive force in the Cosmos, but just where does the evidence for that show up?

Scripture doesn’t qualify, because devout theists are divided on which books are really God’s Word, e.g., the Old Testament, New Testament, the Qur’an, or the Book of Mormon. They can’t agree, so why should we trust them that scripture is a source of data about God?

Dr. Gericke’s essay is a splendid reminder that Christians can’t get away with including the Old Testament in the canon. Theologians have done their best to clean up Yahweh, but only by fashioning an entirely new deity. It may have more class and philosophical polish than Yahweh, but the biggest problem remains: They make things up, arguing over and around the lack of reliable, verifiable data about God. Gericke demonstrates that the authors of the Old Testament came up with predictable, mediocre results by doing exactly the same thing. No deity has left any traces there.

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 in 2016 by Tellectual Press.