Jesus the Cult Fanatic, At It Again

Christians pretend not to notice…

In a recent article Richard Carrier didn’t mince words about Jesus: “…he is actually quite loathsome and rarely gives anything but really bad advice…” This probably has greater shock value than Christopher Hitchens’ famous subtitle, “religion poisons everything.” Believers can shake their heads in alarm and accuse Carrier of having gone over the edge with atheist snark; they’re accustomed to hearing white noise about Jesus from the pulpit—only good stuff. He’s the guy they worship, after all. How could Jesus possibly give bad advice?

Well, it’s not hard at all to figure out. For starters, how about actually reading the gospels? I recently fell into impromptu conversation with a devout Catholic, and I dropped Luke 14:26 on her: How can you be a follower of Jesus? He expects you to hate your family to be his disciple. She had never read that verse, had not even heard of it. That was not part of the white noise. She’s one of those in-the-dark-Christians so highly valued by priests and preachers.

My advice to Christians is to read the gospels carefully, meticulously, critically, and make a couple of lists as you go: good Jesus sayings (are they as rare as Carrier suggests?), and bad Jesus sayings. Maybe a third list as well, sayings that don’t make much sense.

We find several items for the ‘bad’ list when we turn to Mark, Chapter 9. This in another in my series of articles on each chapter of Mark’s gospel. The Introductory article is here. The one on chapter 8 is here.

But we do get a glimpse, supposedly, of the good Jesus in Mark 9. In vv. 36-37 we read, “Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” When Matthew copied this (18:3-4), he added script: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” And in Matthew 19:4 we find the famous text, so cherished in the King James Version, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

How could this not be the good Jesus? Artists have portrayed him surrounded by kids, with toddlers on his lap; it’s a compelling image indeed, which prompted Charles Wesley’s hymn “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child.”

But, alas, Mark 9:36-37 cannot rescue this chapter, which actually is part of Mark’s strident cult playbook.

As we have seen in our tour of Mark so far, superstition about demons was a major part of his understanding of the world; Jesus had authorized his disciples to wander about casting out demons. In the next three verses (38-40), we find Jesus the strategist: “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.’”

Don’t forget that Mark’s Jesus is engineering the Kingdom of God that is just around the corner, and he doesn’t want people speaking against him. Nor will he tolerate those who might lead his loyal followers astray. The Jesus who embraced the children becomes the enforcer; he wants followers who are as na├»ve and pliable as children. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, suddenly disappears, verse 42: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Wow. Anyone who obstructs belief in the cult leader deserves a grim fate. This is script for the fanatic who was Mark’s hero.

But it gets worse. Priests and preachers wave off the next few grim verses (43-48) as metaphor or hyperbole, but couldn’t a compassionate Jesus have chosen his words more carefully? Unless you chop sin out of your life—literally—you aren’t a good bet for making it into the Kingdom.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

It’s my guess that if many Christians ran into a street preacher shouting these words, they would cross the street to get away. But why is it okay when Jesus says these things, solemnly recited as part of the white noise on Sunday mornings?

The self-mutilation metaphor cannot be considered appropriate for sane religion; moreover, Jesus declines to specify exactly what he has in mind, i.e., the sins that hands, feet, and eyes can commit to deserve severe punishment. This has given license for preachers for centuries to fill in the details, according to their own personal biases about sin.

Please don’t tout Jesus as greatest ethicist who ever lived if he taught that, for their mistakes, fallible human beings could end up in a place where the punishing fire never ceases. Our role models for morality cannot be mean and vindictive.

As I mentioned earlier, Jesus had given his disciples the ‘authority’ to cast out demons (one aspect of magical thinking found in the gospel). But it turns out that they weren’t always up to the task. In the heart of chapter 9 we learn about a demon that resisted their magic. A father had brought his mute, deaf son to be healed; Jesus was furious that they had failed. Instead of calming asking what might have gone wrong, he lashed out: “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” (v. 19) The father reported that his son had been like this since childhood: “It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him…”

Now comes one of the most poignant texts in the gospel. The desperate father pleads, “…but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus had snarled at the disciples, now he belittled the father. Jesus said to him, “‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” The poor guy might have wondered if his own lack to belief could have been a factor in his son’s disability. He wants to make amends, “Help my unbelief!”

As is common in the gospel—given Mark’s superstition—he reports that Jesus spoke to the demon, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” Happy ending, sort of: “After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.” Nothing is said about the boy being able to speak again.

The disciples wanted to know why their magic hadn’t worked, and they get a smug, smart-ass answer. This kind of demon, Jesus claims, “can come out only through prayer.” Gee, the disciples hadn’t tried that?

There are two pieces of bad advice—actually bad theology—in this story which have no doubt caused much Christian anguish for centuries.

• Belief is a key to overcoming illness—it just has to be strong enough: “All things can be done for the one who believes.” Jesus condemned “this faithless generation.”

• Add some prayer to that, and the magic will work: the demon could be vanquished “only through prayer.”

The devout who actually do read the gospels for guidance on how to live and survive, and assume that Jesus is telling the honest truth, sense that these are unreasonable expectations. They know that, far too often, belief and prayer don’t work in the face of chronic suffering, and they beat themselves up for failing. This is not healthy religion. Shame on Jesus for this bad advice.

Mark was tailoring this story for his target audience; he was raising the bar for the level of devotion, loyalty, and piety expected of those in the cult. And the most famous story in this chapter was designed to increase the wow-factor for their cult hero. At the opening of the gospel, Mark had reported that, on the occasion of his baptism, Jesus heard a voice from heaven, “You are my beloved son…” But now in chapter 9:2-8, Mark kicks it up a notch; Jesus goes to a ‘high mountain’ to get closer to God. The special effects are spectacular: Jesus glowed—he was ‘transfigured’—his clothes became “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

Then two epic figures from Hebrew folklore show up: Moses, who was famous for his own mountaintop experience, and Elijah, who had, once upon a time, been escorted to heaven on a fiery chariot. Jesus has a chat with these two—what more could you want in verifying his credentials? Actually, there is more; here again, Mark gives a mighty boost to the cult hero. God speaks from a cloud: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” Jesus had taken Peter, James, and John with him, and they were terrified. But as soon as the Voice From The Cloud stopped, Moses and Elijah vanished.

In my discussion of Mark 4, we saw that the gospel writer used the ruse of the ‘messianic secret’ to help explain why Jesus wasn’t widely acknowledged as the messiah. And here, Mark pursues that theme (vv. 9-10): “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”

We find this theme again later in the chapter, vv. 30-32:

“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” This is the second time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection (the first was in Mark 8, and we’ll find it again in Mark 10). The ‘dense disciples’ motif is repeated here as well: “they did not understand what he was saying.”

Please notice this: “they were afraid to ask him.” In chapter 9 we’ve not found much to contradict Carrier’s verdict that Jesus is quite loathsome. At the very end of chapter 8 we hear the vindictive cult fanatic: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Chapter 9:1 is a continuation of this thought: “And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’”

Yes, it is loathsome to push an agenda that is wrong-headed, with so much swagger, to the point, indeed, that the disciples were ‘afraid to ask him.’ He exploded at them for not casting out a demon; he railed at them for being part of the ‘faithless generation.’ If you really do get it into your head that you’re the Son of God—or the Son of Man—such behaviors are no surprise.

How are Christians okay with this? Okay, that’s the cue for apologists to rush in with piles of excuses to “make it all better.”

But—if this is any consolation—we have no way of knowing how much Mark’s gospel reflects the real Jesus of Nazareth, if there was one. That figure is lost to history, buried under layers of folklore (as Robert Conner has said, “it’s folklore all the way down”).

Mark’s gospel is saturated with miracle, magic, superstition, and fantasy: Jesus glowed on a mountaintop while having a chat with long-dead heroes. Such stories emerge from imaginations fired by religious zeal. If only Christians could read the gospels carefully, meticulously, critically—and wise up that they’ve been conned.

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, has recently been reissued by Tellectual Press, with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library can be found here.