Christianity: Ten Knockout Punches, Number 9

What Jesus would do isn’t good enough

Here’s a surprising headline from 2014: “Evangelicals Have Higher-than-average Divorce Rates.” This is the opening paragraph of the article: “Despite their strong pro-family values, evangelical Christians have higher than average divorce rates—in fact, being more likely to be divorced than Americans who claim no religion, according to findings as cited by researchers from Baylor University.”

Wait a minute. Isn’t this the crowd that always wants to know What Would Jesus Do? These are the words of Jesus in Mark 10:

“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate…whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

When Matthew copied this story, he modified the Jesus script to include a loophole:

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

Is there more divorce among evangelicals because they’re more inclined to unchastity? Even more flaunting what Jesus would do! That may be another topic for another time; the main point to he made here is that this teaching of Jesus is defective, which Christians themselves demonstrate. It’s a pretty standard aspect of theism that there is a creator who set up the male-female arrangement for procreation: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” But then comes the disastrous verse nine: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Yes, we can understand the claim that God meant for men and women to hook up, but does that mean that every marriage has been arranged by God? “Therefore what God has joined together…” This is yet another feature of totalitarian theism: God’s role is to oversee every aspect of our lives. This might be one of the high points of bad theology in the teachings of Jesus, which the church exacerbates by calling marriage a sacrament. Just think of the levels of misery that have ensued, throughout history, from marriages that have been blundered into, for so many different reasons. These were all riveted into place by God?

Sound ethical principles allow for people to undo their mistakes.

It’s not hard to find many more examples of bad advice—bad ideas in general—in the teachings of Jesus, so this is the Cure-for-Christianity Knockout Punch Number 9: there are far too many negatives about Jesus on full view in the gospels.

Here are the links to my previous articles on Knockout Punches, One through Eight:

Number 1 Number 2 Number 3 Number 4 Number 5 Number 6

Number 7 Number 8

My brief video comment on Punch Number 9 is here.

Why don’t people notice this? Surely one of the mysteries of the Christian faith is that the faithful aren’t bothered by Jesus-sayings that they should find alarming, even appalling. They’ve been sold on the hype about their Savior, and follow the coaching of priests and preachers who find ways to finesse the bad advice and bad ideas.

The Landscape of the Gospels Is Misunderstood

It would seem that Christians are trained to overlook the positioning of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, right from the get-go, in Mark’s gospel. Some Christians—I’m guessing, I’m hoping, a minority—still embrace this concept and can’t wait for the arrival of Jesus from heaven to wreak havoc on the world. Except, of course, for the remnant of born-again Christians.

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet teaches that the Kingdom of God is near, that it will arrive “before this generation passes away,” indeed, at his trial he promised that the people who were there would see the Son of Man (code for himself) coming on the clouds of heaven. John the Baptist is described as the forerunner of Jesus, and he set the tone for what Jesus would say about the coming kingdom. John displayed contempt for the religious leaders who showed up to hear his message (Matthew 3:7 & 10): “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.”

Wrath and fire. When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach to the towns and villages, he assured them, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (Matthew 10:14-15). Jesus warns that, when the Son of Man arrives, there will be more suffering than at the time of Noah—when God drowned everyone on the planet except one family (Matthew 24:37-39).

All this sounds very much like ordinary cult fanaticism. What would you say to a religious huckster who knocks on your door—and threats destruction if you refuse to listen? Why do Christians fail to pick up on the clues—so obvious in the gospels—that Jesus qualifies as a cult fanatic? The gospel writers depict a charismatic figure, with a mission, who expected instant allegiance:

“…as he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther from there, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after him.”

Jesus had a kingdom to usher in and needed helpers. How many people did he try to recruit by the Sea of Galilee before he found four fishermen who were willing to follow him immediately? They just dropped their nets, and two of them abandoned their father. There’s more of the same—well, this is even more extreme (Luke 9:59-62):

“To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home. Jesus said to him, 'No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’”

Family is likewise demoted in Mark 3:31-15:

“Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

This level of focus on “the will of God” is typical of cult leaders who claim to know such things. And Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet was certain that the Kingdom would happen any day now. This aspect of the Kingdom has been modified by theologians who are eager to disguise this obvious error: they claim that the Kingdom of God is an internal spiritual reality. But the severe apocalyptic side is preserved in the gospels—and we’re back to contempt for family, Matthew 10: 34-36:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

What Were the Gospel Writers Thinking?

These verses are followed by the ultimate demand of a cult leader, Matthew 10:37-39:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Well, not quite the ultimate demand.

When Luke found this text, he felt it wasn’t strong enough, and reworked it, 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.”

Christians committed to the ideal Jesus conjured by the church may protest, “Jesus couldn’t possibly have said that!” But for sure we know that the author of the gospel wrote it—and attributed it to Jesus; and the Greek work for hate, miseo, is right there.

If these two texts from Matthew and Luke were projected above the altar at every Christian church, would the pews empty? Would the crowds disappear? Maybe, maybe not. Focused on the promise of heaven, people seem willing to overlook teachings they would ordinarily reject, on the basis of common sense and decency.

See especially:

John W. Loftus, “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet,” in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails

Hector Avalos, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics, Chapter 3, “The Hateful Jesus,” a thorough analysis of Luke 14:26.

And the bad texts keep coming. Can we top this one, in Mark 10, for cult goofiness? Peter had set the example, by the way, of what cults expect:

“Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’” (Mark 10:28-31)

Say what? You’ll get back houses and fields, mothers and children, a hundredfold. How does that possibly make sense? Topped off, of course, with the promise of eternal life. People are commonly urged to swallow such ideas for the sake of the cult leader and his mission.

One of the Jesus texts that preachers gladly recite from the pulpit—it has a pious ring to it—doesn’t sound so cool if a cult leader is setting a strident standard:

“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29-30) Who does that? Such obsessive focus on God might be found among those who gather in monastic communities—and, of course, these fully qualify as cults: costumes that set them apart, repetitive rituals, prayer disciplines throughout the day. Ordinary Christians who are preoccupied with families, jobs, hobbies, sports, saving for the next vacation, cannot be put on the list of those who love God with all their heart, soul, and mind.

But What About the Good Jesus?

Why be so negative, when Jesus said so many good things?—to which there are a few responses:

• If Jesus is the perfect Son of God, who supposedly sets the highest standard of moral teaching, there shouldn’t be any negatives.
• There is little in the teaching of Jesus—that is, the good stuff—that can’t be found in other ethical systems.
• It’s hard to be positive when the texts are problematic. Learn to live with the agony that New Testament scholars know very well: They have yet to find a methodology for discerning the actual words of Jesus, as opposed to Jesus-script invented by the gospel writers (hint: it can’t be done).
• In Mark’s gospel, which launched the process of creating gospels, there is very little ethical teaching. It has long been noted that Mark claims that people were amazed by Jesus’ teaching—but neglects to mention substantial content, other than proclamation of the Kingdom. And one of the best texts in Mark, 11:25, is one that Christians—so many of whom loathe each other—can’t be bothered with: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

Matthew, noticing Mark’s deficiency, added the Sermon on the Mount, which Luke modified substantially and relocated to a plain; John left it out altogether. I suspect that if Christians were to go through the Sermon on the Mount line by line, they would declare much of it daft…if they dared disagree with Jesus:

• always give to those who beg
• never turn down someone who wants to borrow
• if sued, always give more than you’re sued for
• turn the other cheek, don’t resist evil
• don’t lay up treasures for yourself on earth
• don’t give a thought to what you’re going to wear
• don’t worry about getting enough food: doesn’t God feed the birds?

This is not the way most Christians live. They wouldn’t want to know—they ignore—what Jesus would do.

Richard Carrier has established his credentials as a Jesus specialist (On the Historicity of Jesus), and has offered this blunt assessment: “No, the character of Jesus in the Gospels was not the wisest and kindest of beings—he is actually quite loathsome and rarely gives anything but really bad advice.” (What’s the Harm: Why Religious Belief Is Always Bad)

This sounds so extreme, so counterintuitive. Why not test it? I recommend going through the gospels, especially the words attributed to Jesus, line by line, and assign each saying to a category—going on your gut, your sense of right and wrong. The categories might be:

• Good things Jesus said
• Jesus advice I would always try to follow
• Jesus advice I would never follow
• Awful, cruel, insensitive things he said
• I don’t know. It does make sense

Of course this endeavor requires relentless honesty, which is hard to achieve when there is a heavy emotional investment in Jesus.

In Paul Beaumont’s novel about life in heaven and hell after the Rapture (A Brief Eternity) he refers to one of his characters as “trapped in her failed religion.” By almost any standard commonly used, Christianity could not be classified as a failed religion; its success has been astounding: it is the world’s largest religion, fueled and enabled by an enormous bureaucracy, including millions of clergy; the marketing of Jesus is a multibillion dollar business.

By almost any standard. What about honesty? Christians are trapped in a failed religion in the sense they’re stuck with a damaged, flawed hero; the evidence for this is right before our eyes in the four gospels. The glorious image of its central figure, which the church has sold so successfully, is a mirage. The church has gotten way with a lot, and, given the biblical ignorance of the laity, will continue to do so.

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 by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.