Isn’t This the Biggest Embarrassment in the New Testament?

…and it’s a dangerous one too

How would many Christians today handle these two scenarios?

• Walking down the street, they approach a busy corner, where a man is yelling his message, “Please, people, pay attention, I promise you Jesus is going to arrive any day now. We’ll see him coming through the clouds! He’ll welcome you if you have repented.” Do they stop to listen, shake his hand, and thank him for spreading the word?

• The preacher on Sunday morning, surveying his/her well-dressed, suburban congregation, has a message that no one is expecting: “Please, everyone here, stop having sex. That goes without saying for you single folks, of course, but I mean married couples. Give up sex, right away, right now, because Jesus is coming soon, and you should focus only on that!” Do they shake the preacher’s hand eagerly as they exit the church, and thank him/her for the warning?

Neither the street preacher nor the pulpit preacher pulled crazy ideas out of thin air. Their “lessons for the day” are straight outta the New Testament. These awkward prominent features of the early Christian message are in full view. How do Christians shrug it off? Why do they fail to take heed?

Well, we know from surveys that many Christians don’t read the Bible at all, let alone carefully; nor do they give much pushback when preachers—who, of course, wouldn’t dare preach no-sex sermons—come up with contorted excuses to suppress the clear meaning of the texts. Yes, Jesus promised he would come on the clouds, and yes, the apostle Paul wanted folks to give up sex to get ready for this splendid event.

Both Jesus and Paul were wrong. We can be pretty sure about Paul, because of what he wrote in his letters, e.g., “I mean, brothers, the appointed time has grown short. From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none…” (1 Cor. 7:29). We can’t be so sure about Jesus—that’s a much tougher question—because he didn’t write letters, and all of the Jesus script in the gospels was created by their authors—and Mark especially seems to have been influenced by Paul’s teachings. But if you want to argue that Jesus script is authentic, well, here it is: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15) and “…ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62).

These embarrassments have been thoroughly studied by New Testament scholars, but many preachers surely must take the don’t-go-there approach: it’s best not to dwell on these texts that falsify Christianity. But no, this pious evasion won’t do—and a handy survey/analysis of the relevant texts can be found in Robert Conner’s essay, “The Prophetic Failure of Christ’s Return,” in the new John Loftus anthology, The Case Against Miracles. In fact, I would say this essay is essential reading for those assembling arguments to discredit the ancient cult.

Among the faithful, knowledge of Christian origins probably hovers just above zero, so when they want to get to the “source” of their faith, the gospel of John—the last to be written, and the most contrived—is probably favored above all. But that’s a bass-ackward way to go about it, as Conner points out:

“It bears repeating that the first mention of Jesus that has survived till the present comes not from the gospels but from the occasional letters of Paul of Tarsus—the letters of Paul predate the gospel accounts by at least a generation. Paul’s epistles have almost nothing in common with the gospels…For all practical purposes Paul’s interest in Jesus appears to begin and end with his crucifixion…” (p. 282)—and, indeed, Paul is emphatic about that: “For I am determined not to know anything while I am among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

Christians naturally applaud this sentiment, since crucifixion/resurrection is at the heart of their faith, but the downside, of course, is the craziness that Paul brought to the concept. From his personal experiences of Jesus—his hallucinations—he knew for sure that the final triumph of Jesus meant his arrival on earth, through the clouds, soon. This affirmation comes from the earliest written Christian testimony we have.

Conner calls it correctly: “(Paul’s) letter to the house church in Thessalonica, widely regarded as the oldest surviving Christian document, offers the following false assurance to the flock…” (p. 279) —I bold false, because Paul was in full-delusional mode; maybe Christians would snap out of it if this text were read aloud every Sunday. Here Paul assures folks that their dead relatives will rise to meet Jesus:

“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.” (1 Thess. 4:15-17)

Who knew God had a trumpet?

Of course the dead could do nothing to prepare, but the living must strive for purity to be ready for Jesus, hence abstinence was the best policy; Conner skewers the idea perfectly: “Paul desired to present the Church as a chaste virgin to the coming Lord, but the Lord left the anxious Church standing at the altar.” (pp. 278-279)

That is, of course, Jesus didn’t show up. And those Christians today who claim to still be waiting for Jesus to arrive ignore Paul’s plain meaning that it would happen before he died. As Conner says, “Paul’s promises were made to those expectantly awaiting Jesus’ Return in the first century house church ‘of the Thessalonians,’ and not to evangelical mega-church pew sitters living nearly two millennia later.” (p. 280) We can assume that evangelicals are better at reading the Bible than many other Christians, but even so, does this sink in?

In July 2017, Conner made this observation on the Debunking Christianity Blog: “…the overwhelming majority of Christians know bupkis about what’s in the New Testament,” and we can suspect that Paul’s letters get much less traffic than the gospels do. So devout readers who appreciate Paul’s sweet sentiment that “love is patient and kind,” fail to pick up on the loony-tunes aspect of his thought, especially his confidence that the lowly Christians would soon be calling the shots in the new Jesus kingdom. Paul chided Christians for taking each other to court: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters?” (1 Cor. 6:2-3). Yes, that’s the first person plural of the verb: WE will be judging angels.

Conner cites scholars who affirm an honest reading of Paul’s various statements, reflecting his superior knowledge of Jesus based on visions, as well as his urgent expectations about Jesus. Paul’s letters are solid testimony as to his state of mind. But, as indicated earlier, there are problems determining what Jesus himself taught. We are at the mercy of the gospel writers who wrote the script; they made Jesus say what they wanted him to say.

Bible-believing Christians are saddled with this embarrassment, as Conner states it:

“That apocalyptic expectation was the bedrock of primitive Christian belief has been cogently argued by Ehrman, who notes that apocalyptic preaching is the major point of continuity between John the Baptist, ‘an apocalyptic prophet’ and the ‘apocalyptic Christian church.’ John warns, ‘The ax is already laid at the root of the tree! …The winnowing fork is in his hand, ready to clean out the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his barn, but the husks he will burn with fire that cannot be put out.” (Luke 3:3-9, 13) (p. 285)

“In a seamless continuum, Jesus proclaims, ‘The time allotted has run out and the kingdom has almost arrived! Repent and believe in the good news! (Mark 1:15)…

“The present order will end violently and end soon: family members will turn on one another (Matthew 10:34-37), the disciples must hate their families, their wives, children and parents (Luke 14:26), and must not pause to say farewell to those left behind (Luke 9:61-62). There is no time to gather possessions or pick up one’s cloak (Matthew 24:17-18). The nearness of the end abrogates even the most basic filial responsibilities: ‘Follow me and let the dead bury their dead.’” (Matthew 8:22) (p. 286)

See also:

• Bart Ehrman’s, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

• John Loftus’ essay, “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet,” in The Christian Delusion: Why Fail Fails

• Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 514-518, “The Peculiar Indifference of Paul and his Christians,” for another issue to consider: did Paul know that there had been a Galilean preacher named Jesus? Paul was unaware of the stories of Jesus described in the gospels—written well after his time—nor did he know the story of Jesus’ ascension to heaven in Acts 1. Paul doesn’t speak of Jesus’ “return” or “second” coming. Based on what he wrote in Romans 13, he didn’t seem to know that the Romans crucified Jesus. Was Paul so obsessed with his visions of Jesus—whence came all of his information—that he believed the story of Jesus unfolded only in heavenly realms?

Devout believers who want a likable, loving Jesus (“take it to the Lord in prayer”) find a way navigate around these texts, but Conner cites the work of Barry S. Crawford, who has surveyed scholarly opinion:

“…the assumption that Jesus anticipated the arrival of the Kingdom in the very near future has lost little momentum. With but few exceptions, studies of Jesus’ teachings continue to include a near expectation of the Kingdom as one of the primary ingredients of the message…there can be no question as to the meaning of these texts. Each is a straightforward announcement of the imminently impending eschatological consummation.” (p. 286)

Where Does Apocalypticism Come From?

So, Christians are stuck with this in the New Testament. But those of us outside the cult can see the origins and consequences of this thinking, which arose out of desperation. Centuries of confidence about a just, good god wear thin in the face of ongoing suffering and oppression. Why isn’t the god doing something? Cognitive dissonance results in desperate, contorted thinking, prompting theologians—especially those with wild imaginations—to come up with the solution: God will intervene to stop all this cruel, sordid history. And how could he wait much longer? The End of the Age is surely just around the corner.

The last ten pages of the Conner essay, in which he describes the ongoing impact of apocalyptic thought, are especially valuable. You would think that, with the failure of Jesus to show up, that would be the end of it—right? Well, no, as Conner explains:

“In 2000, psychiatrists at the Kfar Shaul Hospital in Jerusalem issued a groundbreaking report on a constellation of delusional beliefs they called the ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’ after encountering over a thousand ‘tourists with severe, Jerusalem-generated mental problems.’ Based on the data accumulated while treating these patients, the doctors noted certain striking commonalities, patterns of deranged thinking and behavior that to a skeptical reader of the New Testament sound like the thinking and behavior ascribed to Jesus.

“Evidence of the syndrome, ‘behavioral phenomena observed in eccentric and psychotic tourists with religious delusions,’ has been located in travel accounts dating back to the 19th century, but these days it ‘most often hits Americans,’ particularly ‘American Protestants.’ (pp. 289-290)

Conner quotes Simon S. Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography: “All three Abrahamic religions believe in the Apocalypse, but the details vary by faith and sect…In this age of Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalism, the Apocalypse is a dynamic force in the world’s febrile politics…Jerusalem defies sense, practical politics and strategy, existing in a realm of ravenous passions and invincible emotions, impermeable to reason.” (p. 290)

And there we have it, the evil that the New Testament fuels to this day; as Conner puts it: “Palestine, then as now, was a steaming platter of murderous nationalistic lunacy with a heaping side order of religious crazy.” (p. 291)

“The Jesus the gospels describes is yet another in a series of kingdom preachers, a man who riled the masses, a type as familiar to the Roman authorities as delusional Bible thumpers are to the Israeli psychiatrists of today.” (p. 292)

“Were Jesus to appear next Easter, accompanied by a gibbering mob of evangelical End Timers, his predictions and his predictable confrontation with the authorities would barely merit a paragraph in the psychiatric literature.” (p. 299)

But there are people of wealth, people in power—and many more who have influence on the people in power—who refuse to believe that Jesus and Paul got it wrong. They would disdain Conner’s title, “The Prophetic Failure of Christ’s Return,” and want to see the arrival of End Times. They’re counting on it, and want to help engineer it. For details on these efforts, as a supplement to Robert Conner’s essay, check out Lawrence Wright’s article, “Forcing the End,” which appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1998.

Biblical apocalypticism, even now, is endangering the world. Not because a god is about to do something, but religious fanatics are.

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 published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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