Another Bible Chapter that Wouldn’t Be Missed

Somebody please get the scissors

My challenge to Christians—my plea, actually: Read the gospels and epistles carefully, meticulously, critically. Bring to these texts the same due diligence that you would apply when reviewing a mortgage or employment contract; you don’t want to be cheated or fooled. Let’s face it: pastors and priests are paid propagandists; yes, I keep saying this, because their urgent concern is to make all the stories come out right and banish doubts. Christians, you can do better than that: do the tough homework. The pews might empty fast—except for the folks who want to be conned, and don’t even notice that it’s happening.

Your nice priest or pastor is a paid propagandist? How can that be?

Will a Catholic priest explain passionately how Methodism is the right religion? No. Will a Methodist pastor urge his congregation to believe the Mormon or Muslim scriptures? No. Each church pays the pastor/priest to protect and defend its own version of truth. That’s what it means to be a paid propagandist.

Here’s another suggestion for those who are about to tackle the New Testament: Create an Excel spreadsheet to list verses that trigger suspicions or alarms. You are entitled to be alarmed…

• If the writer/speaker claims to communicate directly with God. That’s a trademark of cult leaders, and if you heard this in any other context than the Bible, you’d be suspicious. For example:

o Galatians 1:1, “Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father…”
o 1 Corinthians 11:23, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…”
o John 10:29-30, Jesus: “What my Father has given me is greater than all else…the Father and I are one.”

• If the writer/speaker makes extreme demands on followers.

o Jesus, Luke 14:26: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
o Jesus, Luke 10:27: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind…”

• If the writer/speaker makes vapid promises or extreme threats to pump up the cult.

o Paul, 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.”
o Jesus, Matthew 18:19: “…if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”
o Paul, I Thessalonians 2:12: “…lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
o Jesus, Matthew 25:46: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
o Jesus, Mark 3:29: “…whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin…”

I can guarantee that your spreadsheet will be pretty full by the time you finish reading the gospels and epistles carefully, meticulously, critically. And it won’t seem so outrageous that I refer to Christianity as a cult. The evidence is right in front of you. The New Testament is Exhibit A.

The earliest document in the NT, First Thessalonians, introduces us to the thinking of that champion cult fanatic, the apostle Paul. Since Second Thessalonians is commonly considered a forgery—created by someone writing in Paul’s name—it is his first letter that sheds light on his view of Christianity, i.e., as his hallucinations shaped the early faith.

This article continues my series on the chapters of First Thessalonians. My article on the first chapter is here.

In this second chapter Paul looks back on his success with this congregation, how he had brought the message of Christ to them (see vv. 1-8):

“…our coming to you was not in vain…we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition…we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts… so deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us…”

Paul’s hallucinations had fired his enthusiasm (“…we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel…”), to convince as many people as would hear him in the Gentile world, that he knew the formula for salvation: Getting into the Jesus Kingdom when it arrived. Paul preached in a cult-eat-cult world; there were so many religious options to choose from. We can assume that the capacity for critical thinking was virtually nil among those who listened to cult preachers. There was no prevailing skepticism to slow down any of the competing religious advocates. As is the case today, people gravitated toward ‘what sounded right’—something they felt good about.

As far off the edge Paul was in magical thinking, he wasn’t a freeloader as he sought to win converts. He earned his own way as much as he could (vv. 9-10):

“You remember our labor and toil, brothers. We worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers.”

But then he drives home again that he is the custodian of truth bestowed by the one true God. Religious charlatans have a sense of what they can get away with, but Paul wasn’t a member of that crowd. There was no guile in this man; he really believed what he peddled, v. 13:

“We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”

He believed in his product. Which doesn’t mean at all that he was right; there can just be no doubt whatever that his visions—hearing from the dead Jesus whom he had never met—convinced him that he had glimpsed the divine realm: His direct line to God could be trusted. To those Christians who say, “Well, that’s good enough for us!” we can ask why they disbelieve thousands of other religious fanatics whose visions indicate divine realms that don’t include Jesus at all.

Was the Text Tampered With?

Now we come to three verses that require the rigorous discipline I recommended at the outset, i.e., read carefully, meticulously, critically. Scholars who do that are suspicious of vv. 14-16. Was it Paul who wrote these? Or were they added later—maybe a generation or so later—when someone thought it was a good idea to put in some digs about the Jews?

“For you, brothers became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.”

Richard Carrier discusses why many scholars doubt that these words were written by Paul.

This text and the controversy surrounding it should give ordinary readers pause about the Bible as ‘word of God’—that’s what happens when curiosity prompts careful study. Consider:

• During the many centuries when the manuscripts were copied by hand, many interpolations were added to the original texts. The word of God has been tampered with so many times. Was all the tampering inspired too?

• Why would God allow such destructive comments in his holy word? Anti-Semitism has been fueled by these words: “…they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.”

• “God’s wrath” was one of Paul’s favorite themes; he considered it God’s default emotion. So if a scribe later did add these words, he faithfully imitated this aspect of Paul’s thought.

Paul was driven to spread the message of Christ as widely as he could; he even hoped to go as far as Spain. This meant that he was separated from the congregations he had founded. Hence his practice of writing letters, and at the end of chapter two of this epistle he speaks of the pain of leaving people behind, v. 17:

“As for us, brothers, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face.”

How Can We Take Christianity Seriously?

But the final three verses of the chapter (18-20) are a blunt reminder of Paul’s superstition and delusion:

“For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!”

Satan prevented him from visiting? When Jesus comes, Paul will be able to brag to him about these Thessalonian converts he’d won?

Christians, you’ve got to own the silliness. Theologians have rushed to the defense, e.g., these are metaphors, symbols of deeper meaning or lofty spiritual truths. “You can’t take this literally.” So much straining and tomfoolery to wash way the superstition and delusion.

Satan blocked our way: This was Christian thinking at the time Paul was engaged in his obsessive preaching of the Christ, and it was the same when Mark wrote his gospel, which could well be retitled, Jesus and the Demons. Folks were convinced that Satan and demons prowled the earth to inflict suffering. This was a theological maneuver to explain evil in God’s good creation. Satan even meddled in Paul’s travel plans.

Our Lord Jesus at his coming: For Paul, the Jesus Kingdom was not an abstract truth about inner spirituality (as theologians would eventually spin it). Paul expected Jesus to descend through the clouds to welcome the converts to the new cult, and it was not a far-off event. He was sure he would live to see the day, as we will see especially in chapter four of First Thessalonians. Mark has Jesus predicting it “before this generation passes away.” Paul and Jesus (or at least Mark’s version of him), were delusional, dead wrong.

New Testament Christianity has been largely abandoned, especially as believers attuned to how the world works (no demons, no Jesus about to appear in the clouds) have resorted to endless reinterpretation. We know that Christianity has been reinvented countless time, and thus has splintered endlessly because no one can agree on what True Christianity is or might be. But pew-sitters the world over settle into their niche Christianities—not too bothered by how much they differ from other versions of the faith, and other versions of theism.

Hey, as long as their niche versions include the eternal life gimmick, why would they care? Critical thinking is not required or welcome.

Anyone who has done an honest job with the Excel spreadsheet knows how much of the NT is an embarrassment. I keep coming back to my favorite Hector Avalos quote because those who have slogged through their holy book—well, Christians who don’t lie to themselves—know that he’s right: “If we were to go verse by verse, I suspect that 99 percent of the Bible would not be missed.”

It’s an aspect of magical thinking that so much crap in our thousand pages of Bible is treated as ‘holy word of God.’ How long did it take for Paul to toss off his letter to the Thessalonians, only patches of which could be considered worthy of preservation?

But for this very reason, atheists are glad to have the Bible, all of it, as evidence against the faith. So don’t reach for the scissors. Why not hold Christian feet to the fire? Maybe more and more of them will get tired making excuses and snap out of it. Critical thinking can give way to healthy skepticism. Christianity has been falsified—many times over—so isn’t it about time for this news to catch on?

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 reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library is here.