Bible Fables Are Not the Problem

Core Christianity is the big nuisance
There are countless memes going around that ridicule talking snakes and donkeys, the ark full of animals, and a woman created from a rib. Who really cares about any of these? Any more than we care about fables describing floating axes, the sun standing still, or bears mauling boys who ridiculed a prophet. Aside from those who insist that the Bible is inerrant, ordinary devout folks don’t get too bent out of shape by the folklore.

But the ordinary devout folks also somehow manage to evade the grimmer, weirder ‘important’ teachings of the New Testament. If churchgoers spent as much time reading the Bible—really digging in—as they do watching movies, there would be more discomfort than they bargained for—and maybe quite a few would take their pastor aside to whisper, “Hey, Rev, this Bible chapter is really freaking me out.” Or do they just shrug their shoulders? They want to love their Jesus. It’s up to the minister to understand ‘all that Bible stuff.’

I’m in the planning stages for a series of 25 Flash Podcasts, “Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said,” to highlight some of the grimmer, weirder sayings attributed to Jesus. These all come from the four gospels fashioned by writers well after his time, perhaps a half-century or more; hence safe attribution to Jesus of any of these sayings cannot be assumed. Figuring out what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught is largely guesswork, hence different scholars depict him in such different ways.

But the oldest document in the New Testament is contemporaneous with a Bible character—because he wrote it himself. So we have his authentic words, to the extent that scribes got the text right during the centuries of copying by hand. The consensus of NT scholars is that the apostle Paul is the author of what we call the First Letter to the Thessalonians. Second Thessalonians is considered a forgery, but never mind: The first letter is enough to demonstrate Paul’s weak grasp of reality.

So, pay attention, Christians: this letter is a glimpse of the faith as it was early on. Is it really what you want?

This is another of my articles in a series on each of the five chapters of First Thessalonians, this one on Chapter Four. Here are the others so far: Chapters one, two, and three.

Where do strange preachers get their strange ideas? Paul brags in his letter to the Galatians that his certainties about Christ came from visions, directly from Jesus himself. How would you regard your next-door neighbor who made such a claim? People of faith who say, “Oh, Yes, visions are real,” must tell us where they draw the line. Catholic visions are okay? And, oh so many of them! Protestants generally say No. Mormon visions? Everybody laughs them off. There’s high suspicion about visions claimed by other religions. What does that tell you?

Today we acknowledge that Paul hallucinated that a dead man talked to him. And who knows what mix of imagery and fantasies seeped into his mind from the religious milieu at the time. I Thessalonians 4 demonstrates how wild his imagination could be.

In the third chapter he had expressed his relief and joy that the people in this congregation had, in his absence, remained true to faith he’d taught them. At the opening of chapter four he hopes they’ll keep it up: “…we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more.”

One of the major gauges for remaining true—this is the first item Paul mentions—is keeping lust under control. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication.” One of the costs of intrusive personal theism is always being under surveillance: the certainty that God pays attention to the sex lives, to the sexual feelings of every person. ‘Fornication’ is a translation of the Greek word, porneias, which also is commonly rendered as ‘sexual immorality.’

In the next two verses he elaborates: “…that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.” How about that! Christians were not supposed to yield to lustful passions; achieving this would be clue they were better than Gentiles who don’t know God.

And there were consequences: “…the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.” For Paul, lustful passion = impurity. Hmmm…the last time I checked, ‘lustful passion’ is a normal, healthy part of being human, and I’m sure many Christians would agree. But Paul assumes that the avenging Lord won’t stand for it. After all, Paul once advised that it is better “not to touch a woman.” Can we infer that Paul was a pretty sour person to be around?

This is a glimpse of the faith as it was early on. Is it really what you want?

Now, here’s a surprise: in “know how to control your own body” the Greek word for body is skeous, whose basic meaning is vessel, which indeed is the rendering in the King James Version. But some translators have wondered if this might be a metaphor for wife, hence in a footnote the New RSV offers an alternate translation: “how to take a wife for himself.” For those who want to dampen the misogyny of the Bible, it would be best to ignore the metaphor (vessel = wife) and go with vessel/body literally.

We hear so often about the ‘God of love’ in the New Testament—as opposed to the OT—but this is a fallacy. Paul was convinced that wrath was God’s default emotion, hence it’s no surprise that he would warn his readers that ‘the Lord is an avenger.’ And ‘being in Christ’ was the only the way to escape the wrath.

But hold on: don’t we find one of the most eloquent affirmations ever of God’s love, stated by Paul himself, in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 8? Pastors have forever read these verses in church to evoke warm and fuzzy feelings:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God…”

But notice the catch: “…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” You have to be in Paul’s cult to get in on the deal, to be guaranteed that nothing will separate you from God’s love. Paul makes this especially clear 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.” That’s the key for escaping God’s wrath; his love is not a general ‘thing’ bestowed on all humanity.

As we might suspect, Paul’s urgent message that people should be ready to meet Jesus—being free of lust was one requirement—did in fact cause anxieties. Those who eagerly awaited the joyful event were distraught that dead friends and relatives, who had converted to the faith, had died too soon. But Paul’s visions—his talks with Jesus—had cleared up that problem. So do we trust Paul’s visions, or marvel at his wild imagination? And marvel as well that people believed what he told them? How are these not among the craziest verses in the New Testament?:

“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.” (vv. 15-17)

This is a glimpse of the faith as it was early on. Is it really what you want?

Paul was dead wrong, of course; he expected this event soon: “We who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds...” Paul even had the stage directions worked out. Jesus would utter a cry of command from high up in the sky; an archangel would call out as well, with musical accompaniment, “the sound of God’s trumpet.” And how dramatic: the dead in Christ would rise first, then everyone else too would “meet Jesus in the air.” And be with him forever.

Paul missed his calling by about thousand years: he could have written stories for supermarket tabloids. As could the author of Matthew’s gospel, who reported that dead people came out of their tombs and wandered around Jerusalem on Resurrection Morning.

I Thessalonians 4 is one of those chapters that Christians might pull their pastors aside to whisper, “Hey, Rev, this Bible chapter is really freaking me out.” If they are grounded in reality and have a pretty good grasp of how the world works. Only the evangelical types who yearn for The Rapture—predicted by this text—still think that Paul, a prototype of the delusional cult fanatic, is cool.

Just as Paul had it all worked out—that the living and the dead would meet Jesus in the clouds—he also had it worked out that grotesque, decayed bodies popping out of the ground weren’t part of the scenario. He was a master theologian, in the sense that he made things up, so he assured folks that they would get spiritual bodies. I guess people bought that too; hey, it ended up as scripture:

“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 Corinthians 15:42-44)

Sure, we can shrug off talking snakes and donkeys, and dozens of other Bible fables. Good clean fun, I suppose. But I Thessalonians is core Christianity, as it was in the beginning. This is one of the charter documents of the faith, from the pen of one of the giant founding heroes. As an atheist, I can laugh it off as a superb example of religious aberration—as it surely is.

How can it not be a colossal nuisance for Christians who want to pretend that their faith has not been falsified?

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.