Christians, Your Faith Needs a Make-over

A good start: Just say NO to the apostle Paul. Please.
It’s part of the sacred script Christians have heard forever, and resonates especially when heard from the pulpit:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)

That’s advice from Jesus, or so Mark would have us believe. But is it true that the ordinary folks who claim to be Christians—those who have jobs, pursue careers, cherish their families and hobbies, enjoy sports and who look forward to vacations—are into extreme God-love?

Do they strive to love God will all their strength? There are those who retreat to the cloister to internalize Mark 12:30, but for most Christians—please forgive my skepticism—No, this is not a goal. It’s the kind of thing you expect to hear in church on Sunday morning, but super piety is put out of mind the rest of the week.

Moreover, this ideal has gone downhill—tainted too much by ego—as stated in Matthew 10:37-38—again, words attributed to Jesus: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

These texts actually provide clues as to how we should read the New Testament. We glimpse here the cult fanaticism of Mark and Matthew.

Both of the texts I’ve just mentioned should give Christians pause: “Gee, on the practical level, that’s not what I practice at all.” Loving God more than my parents or kids? Nor would they rank as one of their favorite Bible texts the story in Acts 5, which reports that the apostle Peter literally scared a man and his wife to death because they failed to hand over to the church all of the money from the sale of property: “And great fear seized the whole church…” (Acts 5:11) The church had to rein in its draconian impulses and settle for a lot less.

Obviously the Jesus cult has been domesticated. People can show up for worship every Sunday, say their prayers and go about their business without taking these texts too seriously. They really aren’t following New Testament Christianity. So much of ancient faith—as it was in the beginning—escapes notice because of confirmation bias: the feel-good texts are pushed at them, those that support their ‘ideal Jesus.’ But the severe texts fail to register. Robert Conner has told the truth: “The typical pew sitter knows as much about Christianity—the religion that will supposedly save his immortal soul—as the average golden retriever.” (DC Blog, 28 December 2018) The pew sitters see what the religious bureaucrats want them to see.

I watched Christmas Eve midnight Mass from St. Peter’s in Rome, and had to marvel: these guys know how to put on a show: The awesome Bernini canopy over the high alter, the music, costumes (just how many hats did the pope wear?), gold utensils, precisely executed ritual, clouds of incense, choreographed processions, topped off with the pope carrying a plaster baby Jesus (which he kissed) the length of the basilica to place him in the manger. Despite the Year from Hell for the Catholic Church, this was deemed worthy of worldwide TV coverage.

Putting on the show is a distraction: The cult is on full display, but the fine print in the User’s Manual isn’t. How many of those pew sitters in the pope’s audience on Christmas Eve have moved beyond—have probed more deeply—than the banalities of their catechism classes? Robert Conner has offered yet another insight into how the church gets away with it: “Christians expect to spend eternity—billions of years—rejoicing with Jesus but haven't read the instructions that came with the package.” (DC Blog, 28 Dec 2018)

There is so much cult extremism in the New Testament—the “instructions”—beginning with a document that provides insight into earliest Christianity. Let’s take a tour of one of the apostle Paul’s letters, which scholars believe is the oldest document that got swept into the NT—written well before the gospels—his first epistle to the Thessalonians (actually, probably his only letter to them that we have, since II Thessalonians is considered a forgery by many scholars).

The abundant Christian fawning over Paul obscures his status as a mediocre thinker; his grasp of reality was seriously damaged by delusions of the dead Jesus talking to him. Sometimes there are glimpses of candor from even conservative theologians. One of Paul’s devotees, Ben Witherington, confesses that there is

“…little doubt that most moderns, even most modern Western Christians, would have been taken aback by Paul. We would have seen him, both before and probably also after his conversion, as a fanatic. We would also likely have seen him as too driven and too single-minded—a person without a life apart from his missionary work.” (What Have They Done with Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible, pp. 235-36)

“Fanatic…too driven…too single minded…without a life apart from his missionary work.” Thank you, Mr. Witherington, for putting us on the right track, but there’s more. Your hero Paul is the very prototype of a cult fanatic. We’ve all seen the slick faux cult fanatics of our time, who’ve figured out that there’s money to be made in the religion game; Joel Osteen, for example, has mastered it.

But the genuine cult fanatics are scarier. They are certain of their lock on God; their access to him is unrestrained and unmodified. Lack of confidence and certainty is not one of their faults. Paul was proud that he stood alone relating to God. He states this explicitly in his letter to the Galatians:

• “Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” (1:1)
• “For I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1:11-12)

In I Corinthians 11, he reports the familiar words of Jesus at the Last Supper about the bread and wine, “ 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

How did Paul know this? He wasn’t at the last supper; he didn’t even know Jesus, and he boasted that he didn’t get his information from a human source, nor was it taught to him.  “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” In other words, what he knew about the Last Supper came from Jesus in a vision. In II Corinthians 12 he claims to have been transported to ‘the third heaven,’ and refers to “the exceptional character of the revelations.”

Before we could take any of this seriously, Christians would have to explain exactly how we can tell what is based on revelation, rather than on imagination or hallucination. What are the reliable, verifiable data to back up the claim that Jesus really did speak to him? “Oh, we just take it on faith,” won’t do, of course. That’s a standard religious dodge when there is no evidence.

Driven by his hallucinations—unless you’ve succumbed to the cult, you have to go with this option—Paul descended into obsessive compulsive patterns. All that mattered was convincing others that he had discovered the formula for escaping death. This is reflected in the opening ten verses (chapter 1) of I Thessalonians, a stream of cult babble:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

• The church of the Thessalonians is “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”
• We always give thanks to God for you
• We mention you in our prayers
• We constantly remember your work before God
• And the steadfastness of your hope in our Lord Jesus Christ
• God has chosen you beloved brethren
• The message was delivered not by word, but by power and the Holy Spirit
• You received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit
• You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God
• To wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead
• Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Who talks like this? Who
behaves like this? It would seem that Paul’s every waking moment was about God and Jesus. Be honest: if the folks who show up at church on Sunday heard this text shouted by a street preacher—but with a few key word changed, e.g., “to serve the living and true God Odin, and his Son Thor”—their reaction would be, “What a crank.” Same intensity, same riveted certainty, different cult. Why privilege Paul’s effusive piety?

Paul was the prototype of the street preacher (see Acts 17:16-34); he was the prototype as well of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons who ring our doorbells. We send them away—primarily because they’re a nuisance—but also because we have no patience for crackpots. We’re suspicious of people who want to tell us
how right they are about God.

And please note that, right away, in the oldest text of the New Testament, Paul’s bad theology shows up full strength, verse 1:10: “…and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.”

Paul was so sure, so confident that Jesus would soon descend from heaven—which was thought to be somewhere overhead, from just above the clouds to perhaps the realm of the moon—to bring in a new kingdom to end history. Moreover, Paul knew that God’s default emotion was
wrath. The nasty god of the Old Testament had not evolved into a god of love. Paul knew that the only way to escape the wrath was to believe in Jesus, “who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.”

Our rescuer. This is a fine plot line for comic books: superheroes are on the way! But it’s lame theology—if theology aims for real world credibility.

This idea is also reflected in Paul’s street sermon in Athens, in Acts 17:31: “... he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

History has rolled along for another two millennia. The fixed day seems to have slipped off the calendar; Jesus never showed up. There is so much suffering in the world—such horrors of evil—maybe Paul was right about a wrathful God getting even with us. We could just as easily argue, however, that God just doesn’t care, or is incompetent. Or, as serious thinkers have come to grasp the truth about the Cosmos, gods just aren’t there.

Of course, believers balk at this suggestion. But maybe they could clean up their act? Maybe they could study their faith
enough to know that it needs cleaning up? It’s pathetic enough that an octogenarian pope, to give a piety rush to the pew sitters, carries and kisses a plaster baby Jesus, but that’s just part of worship showmanship. However: Can’t the theologians reinvent Christianity, at least to the extent of putting Paul’s letters on the back shelf of a dusty archive?

No, God is not perpetually mad at the Cosmos; No, Paul didn’t hit upon the magic formula for winning membership in the Remnant; and No, Jesus isn’t scheduled for a comeback. Paul was dead wrong, which we find out right from the get-go in his letter to the Thessalonians.

Note: I will discuss the other four chapters of I Thessalonians in upcoming articles

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 recently reissued by Tellectual Press with new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library is here.