The Jesus Nobody Wants

Or do they?
Am I allowed to indulge my fantasy that there are normal Christians? By which I mean folks who love their families, go to work every day, plan their careers, save for retirement, look forward to vacations, mom and dad enjoy consenting-adult time alone together, and they show up at church. All of these pursuits—except for showing up for church—take a hit in the New Testament.

Love their families: 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.”

Go to work every day and plan their careers: Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.”

Save for retirement: Matthew 6:19: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…”

Look forward to vacations: I Corinthians 7:29-30: …“from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice…”

Mom and dad enjoy consenting-adult time: ditto, I Corinthians 7:29: “…from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none…”

Maybe the normal Christians are those who don’t pay all that much attention to Bible details. At least they shrug off these texts that sound okay when recited piously from the pulpit (well, except for Luke 14:26…when did you ever hear that from the pulpit?). But they should be cautioned about giving them close inspection: Funny how that can backfire. As David Fitzgerald has said, “It’s no coincidence that the Christians who study the Bible the hardest are also the most likely to become ex-Christians.” (Jesus: Mything in Action, Vol.1)

And there is one theme especially in the New Testament that may be a brick wall for normal Christians. If they read the texts carefully, pumped with curiosity, the honest response to this theme might be, “What is this shit?” But they know they can’t say that about something Jesus said.

The church has done a good job positioning Jesus to ensure adoration, with the help of great artists especially. Handel, for example, put Isaiah 9:6 to good use: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Hence most of the folks in the pews don’t think right away of Jesus as their beloved apocalyptic prophet. Close inspection of the synoptic gospels, however, brings them face-to-face with this Jesus, and adoration is brought down a few notches. Just what is this Jesus all about? Suddenly we’re plunged into a strange thought world that doesn’t square well with normal Christians who work hard to get on with their lives.

There’s actually a lot of homework required to understand apocalyptic prophet, especially when a crucial adjective is added: “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet,” which is the title of one of John Loftus’ four essays in his 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.

Christians have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that Jesus could have failed at anything, but close inspection of the gospel texts leaves little room for doubt; placing Jesus in his cultural context also leaves little room for doubt. Loftus describes the situation:

“The best interpretive framework to understand Jesus is within the context of the Jewish apocalypticism of his day, if we’re to understand him at all. We see Jewish apocalypticism everywhere, stemming from such texts as Isaiah 24-27, Daniel, Zechariah 9-14, parts of Enoch 1, Sibylline Oracles, the Testament of Moses, 4th Ezra, 2nd Baruch and the Apocalypse of Abraham. The Dead Sea Scrolls show apocalyptic elements in them, especially in the War Scroll, where there is a war between the ‘children of the light’ and the ‘children of darkness,’ during which God intervenes in the seventh battle and the Sons of Light are given their victory.” (pp. 318-319)

See what I mean by homework…if Christian folks want to see Jesus’ apocalyptic message in context.

Loftus quotes scholar Paula Fredriksen (From Jesus to Christ): The Essenes “saw themselves as living on the edge of time, in the very last days, and they dedicated every moment and aspect of life to preparing, after their fashion, for the coming Kingdom of God.” He adds, “in this contextual milieu, it’s not difficult at all to think Jesus believed and taught what others did in his day. In fact, this is what we would expect to find.” (p. 319)

How well church propaganda has worked—in building up a Jesus to adore, not an apocalyptic preacher, not a crackpot—is reflected pretty well by a remark that a normal Christian woman once made to me, “I really hadn’t thought much about Jesus coming back.” Which means that his apocalyptic preaching simply hadn’t registered.

But apocalypticism is hard to miss; just three chapters into the New Testament, John the Baptist blazed the trail for Jesus., speaking of wrath and fire as he scolded the Pharisees and Sadducees:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt. 3:7 & 10)

When Mark’s gospel was written, a literal Kingdom of God—to be violently installed on earth—was presented as something just around the corner. Apparently the apostle Paul’s enthusiasm, his certainty, that Jesus would arrive soon, hadn’t faded all that much. It should be hard for careful readers to miss this, as Loftus points out:

“…the very generation of people living in his day will witness this apocalyptic event, which clearly echoes what we read in Mark 9:1 when Jesus says to his disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power.’” (p. 321)

In Matthew’s gospel we read that Jesus sent his disciples on a preaching mission, and expectation reached an even higher pitch: “I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Matt. 10:23)

Loftus again quotes Fredriksen’s insight on the mindset present in these early Christian texts; they all shared “the belief that the End was fast approaching and the final restoration of Israel was at hand…The forces of good will utterly vanquish the hostile powers, demonic and human, and the Kingdom of God will finally, truly be established.”

But it didn’t happen. This embarrassing mistake is preserved in the New Testament to this day, as well as the glaring truth about Christianity, as Loftus states bluntly:

“…given the many doomsday prophets throughout history, it should not surprise us if the Jesus cult movement was just another of them. These predictions and movements are a dime a dozen, so to speak, and to this date they have all been wrong. At best, the Jesus cult fits this same profile. And its predictions failed, too.” (p. 317)

Naturally, the Jesus cult had to adjust to reality. It never managed to actually do that, of course, but its propagandists had to spin the failed apocalypticism; again, Loftus quotes Paula Fredriksen:

“Successive disappointments gave rise to new interpretations as the tradition reworked what was too central to relinquish.” [After all, these were supposed to be the words of Jesus himself.] “Reconceiving Jesus and the Kingdom, Christian tradition in various ways continually adjusted itself…as its central prophecy failed. And as part of its adjustment to this unexpected future, the tradition grew away from its own past.” (pp. 327-328)

This unexpected future. How awkward: neither Jesus nor Paul anticipated the great expanse of Western and global history. As some early Christians grasped that they were stuck with the world as it is—no Kingdom of God in sight—they switched tactics; hence we find texts like Matthew 28:19: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Loftus devotes several pages of his essay to a description of such adjustments, as the later gospel writers had to account for the missing kingdom: “Such talk of an imminent eschaton is completely removed from John’s Gospel.” (p. 331)

Where did all the nonsense come from? Namely, that there would be a Kingdom of God installed on earth. Or a heavenly Kingdom would replace what was on earth? As ancient Israel was subjugated by one army and empire after another, all culminating in the massive power of Rome, how would God’s Old Testament promise of triumph for Israel be redeemed? Naturally God would intervene to set things right.

How bad did these speculations get? Take a close look at Mark 13; why don’t Christians shake their heads…and run for the exit? Or why aren’t their suspicions aroused by Jesus’ statement in Mark 14:63? “…you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Amazingly, today in the 21st century, it’s still part of the Christian apologetic endeavor to put the best possible spin on this foolish theology embedded in so many bizarre verses in the gospels and epistles. In the final part of his essay, Loftus addresses this phenomenon:

“There are so many questions and disputes between Christians over this issue that the evidence seems clear: attempts to harmonize the statements in the NT are a failure. Christians misunderstand what is going on in the NT writings themselves. The authors were reinterpreting these prophecies just like every other failed doomsday cult has done in order to survive as a community.” (pp. 333-334)

The Blue Ribbon Gullibility Prize, however, goes to evangelical Kenton L. Sparks, whom Loftus quotes:

“…it is quite clear that the author of Daniel, like the authors of countless other Jewish apocalypses, expected the Kingdom of God to appear in his lifetime…these expectations clearly turned out to be incorrect…in fact we are still waiting for it.” (pp. 326-317)

We are still waiting for it. He’s kidding, right? There are still Christians who want the apocalyptic Jesus? How does that possibly make sense? Why should ancient theological fantasies—and there are hundreds to choose from—command even the tiniest bit of respect today? Jesus pushed one of these fantasies, urging his disciples to pray to Yahweh, “Thy Kingdom come…” No thank you.

It has been easy to toss off the End of the Age nonsense in the New Testament, because the normal Christians whom I mentioned at the outset cannot identify with that level of crazy. And they probably have a good laugh too when We-Are-Still-Waiting-for-It receives the ridicule it deserves.

But was the prayer, “Thy Kingdom come” taught by Jesus? Here Christians may draw some comfort, although very little. Their Lord and Savior is virtually unknowable; he remains a stained-glass phantom and caricature. The gospels are all about the theologies of their authors, culminating in John’s egregiously egotistical Jesus. They never—least of all John—report verifiable sayings of Jesus, because there is no way to verify them. There is no way to reconstruct the real Galilean peasant preacher—if there was one—who was co-opted by the cult propagandists who authored the gospels.

The normal Christians owe it to themselves to see what they’re missing if they “haven’t thought very much about Jesus coming back”—and the implications of this theology for their faith.

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.

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