Missionaries Had a Huge Head Start on the Fact-Checkers

Pulling-the-wool has worked from the get-go

“It’s so much easier to believe in God when you hear music like that. I can feel it all coming back to me.” So says one of the characters in James Runcie’s novel, The Road to Grantchester, after hearing Handel’s Messiah. And as the soprano sings “If God be for us, who can be against us?” the protagonist of the story “…is so struck by the fact that the higher notes in the aria are reserved for the words ‘God’ and ‘Christ’ that his tears come unbidden.”

I know the feeling. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God was one of the favorite hymns of my youth, and there are few experiences as awesome as hearing it sung in a cathedral accompanied by the thundering bass of a colossal pipe organ. You feel its impact…to your very bones. Even Richard Dawkins has said, “…I don't want to do without Bach's St. Matthew Passion or the Verdi Requiem…”

Music, of course, has become part of the theatre of church, designed to provoke intense emotion, so that tears and belief “come unbidden.” Emotion is a key for the deflection of thought. The church is highly vested in blunting curiosity about evidence; indeed carefully crafted theatre—the choreographed rituals, the architecture, stained glass, artwork—is designed to mask the absence of evidence.

There are also chapters in scripture that are especially well crafted to achieve the same effect, to impress folks with God’s mysterious and awesome ways. One of these is Chapter 10 of the Book of Acts, which itself was designed, not to recount history, but to enhance the faith of Christians well more than half a century after the death of Jesus. The author of Acts knew how to hit the right notes; he was aware of the themes and ingredients that would resonate with his target market.

This is another article in my series on all of the chapters of the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The one on Chapter 9 is here.

The hero in this text is Peter, who, since he is soon to disappear from Acts, gets good press in this chapter. Gone is the strident, vindictive Peter whom we encountered in Acts 5; there he scolded two people death—literally—for not giving all of the money from the sale of property to the church.

Here, however, we find a Peter whom angels recommend. We read that a pious centurion in Caesarea named Cornelius—he was generous and “prayed constantly to God”—was visited by an angel, who instructed him to summon Peter from Joppa; straightaway he sent two slaves and a soldier to fetch Peter.

The next scene is Peter’s famous vision of a large sheet descending from heaven: “In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” (vv. 11-12) This is not a text for vegetarians: “Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.” (vv. 13-16)

We can give demerits for a couple of things in these first sixteen verses, if our hope is to defend Acts as history. An angel is given a speaking role, and both the centurion and Peter have visions in which they receive instructions from God. Visions are certainly real, in the sense that hallucinations are real—bizarre stuff does go on inside the heads of religiously inclined folks. But in this case we can suspect that the visions/angels/voices are simply literary devices. The author is being creative, using the omniscient perspective of a novelist.

But we can appreciate that the author is taking sides in the struggle of the early Jesus movement to decide if it would remain a breakaway Jewish cult—bound by Jewish laws and traditions—or if it should embrace the wider world. This author advocates the latter. Cornelius is not Jewish; he is a Roman centurion praised for his piety. He prayed constantly to God and was favored with an angel visitation: “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”

The Old Testament dietary laws take a hit in Peter’s vision of the sheet lowered from heaven: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” In this way the author also smacks down the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:18, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” It would seem Matthew was more sympathetic with the “keep it Jewish” faction—and he alone created this Jesus script; it is missing from the other gospels.

While Peter was pondering the vision, he received another revelation (vv. 19-20): “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” Peter found them at the front gate—and discovered their mission: “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.”

Peter gave them lodging for the night, then headed off with them to Caesarea to meet Cornelius and his family. Right off Peter demonstrates that he had learned the lesson of the sheet lowered from heaven in his vision: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” He was curious about why he had been summoned, and is told: “So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”

Again, we can see this author crafting the story with his target market in mind, i.e., diverse members of the Jesus cult (i.e., Jews and Gentiles) who shared the mindset about the spiritual realm. It’s a nice touch that Cornelius had been identified as an upright man “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation,” (although, inexplicably, Peter didn’t seem to know who he was) thus making the point to these readers that this was a Gentile admired by Jews, and that his Gentile family was “gathered in the presence of God” to hear what Peter had to say.

Peter begins with a surprising expression of ecumenism: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (vv. 34-35) He then makes the pitch for Jesus, and thereby wanders into a thicket of theological problems:

• “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses…” (By-Us-Who-Were-Chosen-by-God, by the way, is a sure mark of cult fanaticism.) It’s almost as if the author of Acts had already encountered skepticism, i.e., isn’t it suspicious that the Risen Lord didn’t appear to anyone outside his circle of acquaintances?—at least in the gospel accounts, which betray no knowledge whatever of Paul’s claim that Jesus appeared to “more than 500” (I Corinthians 15). Why not appear to Pilate or to those who were present at his trial? After all, Jesus promised at the trial that they would see him coming on the clouds of heaven. Yet only the original cult devotees of Jesus saw him. Even then, no doubt, there was skepticism about the farfetched resurrection tale.

• Witnesses “…who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Paul knew nothing of these stories, and argued that it was spiritual body, not a physical one that “rose”—so presumably not a revived body that could eat and drink. The author of Acts knew the story of the Empty Tomb, which is never mentioned in Paul’s letters.

• “…he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” Why would Christ the Judge be necessary if, as Peter said at the outset, “…in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

• “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” This is standard New Testament propaganda, and is a lie. There are no prophets, at all, anywhere in the Old Testament who “testified” about Jesus, much less who predicted forgiveness of sins for those who believe in him. The fact-checking concept was unknown to the gullible cult followers who read Acts; they wouldn’t have headed to the library to look up what the prophets had to say. And to receive forgiveness "through a name" is an aspect of magical thinking.

In this short space of ten verses (34-43), Peter, as scripted by our author, has stumbled badly. Well, from the standpoint of consistency and honesty; these virtues are not often demanded of theologians, especially by members of their cults.

But never mind that. Now our author kicks the drama up a few notches (vv. 44-46):

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”

So the scene is transformed into a mass séance: a divine spirit has been summoned (by Peter’s mediocre sermonette, no less) and the point is made again that Gentiles as well as Jews are favored—by spirits who cause people to “speak in tongues.” Peter moved to seal the deal (vv. 47-48): “‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” In the fifth chapter we found a similar story of the Ethiopian eunuch who straightaway believed Philip and was baptized on the spot: Philip was a complete stranger who had hopped into his chariot and explained a text from Isaiah—yes, of course, the text was about Jesus.

The author of Acts is a master of cult narrative. He depicts people listening to the pitch and accepting it promptly. No due diligence, no fact checking. These stories set the tone—and the precedent—for missionaries and preachers for centuries to come: “Here’s our message—trust us, we’re in touch with God—come to the altar, be saved, get baptized.” Remember: preachers and missionaries are cult propagandists. No, that’s not too harsh: They are paid by their bureaucracies preserve, protect, and defend their particular versions of the truth. Would your local Catholic priest invite Mormons, Muslims, or evangelicals to services, to preach their opposing versions of the truth? Catholics show up to the get the official approved party line…from their own paid propagandists.

The last thing the bureaucrats want or expect is dissent, due diligence, and fact-checking, especially when trying to win souls for Christ. They just want winning…so much winning.

“New converts in different social contexts,” John Loftus has pointed out, “have no initial way of truly investigating the proffered faith. Which evangelist will objectively tell the ugly side of the Bible and of the church while preaching the good news? None that I know of. Which evangelist will tell a prospect about the innumerable problems Christian scholars must solve? None that I know of.” (The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, p. 90)

John Loftus urges Christians to apply the Outsider Test of Faith to their beliefs. That is: Will they hold up to full, skeptical scrutiny? …the kind you apply to religions you don’t believe in. And this is not rocket-science. It’s a matter of reading the Bible, and analyzing all faith claims, in full skeptical, due-diligence mode, unsupervised by priests or preachers. Now it’s their turn to face the fact-checkers.

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.