Comic Book Fantasy in the New Testament

Its oldest document delivers….

It’s no wonder there are thousands of different Christian brands. The New Testament itself has fueled so much heated debate, diluting the One True Faith and provoking endless irreconcilable interpretations. So pity the poor laypeople. Largely isolated from theological wrangling, they have to figure out the essence of the faith from what they’ve learned in Sunday school. One theme, of course, represents Jesus as the embodiment (literally) of I John 4:8, “God is love.” That has had staying power, and John 3:16 is probably the best PR jingle ever.

This was brought home to me recently when I had a conversation with a Christian on Facebook. Here’s what I heard from him: “Love is the main theme throughout the New Testament.” “Love is the primary message of Jesus.” Christianity’s “primary tenet is love for all humanity.” See, John 3:16 works! I suggested some of the texts that show this is not the case at all, far from it, but these made no dent in his uber-confidence about love. I might as well have been shooting arrows at a tank.

To keep their eyes on this prize, Christians are compelled to distance themselves from so much in the New Testament. In a careful reading of the gospels they can (should!) be taken aback by chilling teaching attributed to Jesus, but they evade and rationalize these texts to shield the faith. And the apostle Paul’s own words—something we don’t have from Jesus—should cause just as much anguish. One of his letters is probably the oldest Christian document in the New Testament, and it shatters any confidence about his grasp of reality.

This is the final article in my series on the five chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians, known as First Thessalonians. Here are the links to the previous articles: Chapter One, Two, Three, and Four.

And, by the way, I have launched my series of Flash Podcasts on Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said. Here is Episode 1.

In chapter four we encounter Paul’s comic book fantasy about the arrival of Jesus in the clouds to bring his kingdom to earth. Even dead Christians will rise from their graves to meet their superhero “in the air,” along with everyone else who had so eagerly awaited the moment.

As would be expected, the folks in the early Jesus cult were curious about the timing. How long would they have to wait? Mark 13 was addressed to Christians a generation later—they were still waiting!—and indicates it’s pointless to make guesses (v. 32): “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Paul probably had been asked as well by those who believed his fantasy: “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (5:1-2)

And how will all those outside the cult “feel the love for all humanity” that my Christian friend was so sure of? “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!” (v. 3) Destruction, pain, no escape for those outside the cult.

Cult members were given assurance that it mattered that they belonged. They alone had the inside track to God; Paul used the imagery of light and day to describe their status: “But you, brothers, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness.” (vv. 4-5)

A sure thing about God that they had to escape was his wrath, which required special breastplate and helmet to withstand!

“But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (vv. 8-9)

Paul is regarded as one of the top Christian heroes because of his stunning Damascus Road conversion, and because of the feel-good texts that can be found in his letters—even Christopher Hitchens quoted one at his father’s funeral! We find one of Paul’s kinder-gentler admonitions as he brings this letter to a close:

“…encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…” (vv.14-18)

Christians commonly fail to see this in its context; Paul was urging good conduct within the community of believers. But when he looked at the world around him, he vented his rage and gloated at the prospect of God himself repaying evil for evil. Thus Christians who delight at the prospect of God getting even with sinners aren’t bothered by Paul’s ranting in Romans 1: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness…” (v. 18). His list of those “who deserve to die” at the end of Romans 1 includes gossips and rebellious children.

Always mistrust those who claim they’ve figured out God! Paul’s visions provided a jumble of ideas, and he sure his wrathful God could turn on a dime:

“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (vv. 23-24)

God himself will keep them in a keen state of readiness for the moment Paul has promised: “…the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul had world history figured out: it would shortly be wrapped up, with his merry band of followers enjoying seats of honor in the new Kingdom. All because they believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead. (Romans 10:9)

What more do we need to define the church under Paul’s tutelage as a cult? As it remains to this day. Although there are thousands of Christian brands, most of them seem to be aligned on the importance of Christ dying for their sins (how is a human sacrifice not a clear marker of cult strangeness?), the importance of believing this—and, of course, the ultimate cult strangeness: pretending to eat the body of their God. We are assured of its sublime holiness, but the ghastliness of it all somehow escapes notice by those who are taught from the cradle that it’s all okay.

Sometimes the ghastly turns ghoulish; even now we find degenerate piety practiced among us. This item recently caught my attention: “French priest’s 150-year-old heart being venerated in NYC.”

"The 150-year-old heart of a French priest is on a U.S. tour—a Roman Catholic relic with New York City as its latest stop. It was on display Saturday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, where both the faithful and the curious lined up to see the human organ behind glass.”

Wouldn’t you think cooler heads would prevail? Are there no wise leaders—those in charge of adult supervision—who can make an effort to put the brakes on superstition? It seems not:

“Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, is to lead a Sunday procession venerating the heart of Saint John Vianney, who was a priest in the southern French town of Ars, outside Lyon. He lived during the French Revolution, helping to hide priests on the run.”

Even the apostle Paul might have been disappointed. He had no use whatever for venerating dead bodies, presumably even body parts. All those dead who would rise to meet Jesus in the air would have spiritual bodies. (1 Corinthians 15:44) But above all, he would have been disappointed that history hadn’t come to a dead stop as he promised; that an era known as the 18th century—with a French Revolution—would come to pass; that the church would go on to build countless grand cathedrals to honor their dead Lord who never showed up.

Somehow Paul failed to pick up on all these details in his visions of the Risen Christ.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. This 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.


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