Christianity: Ten Knockout Punches, Number 10

Paul, apostle and saboteur of sane religion

It’s hardly a secret that reading the Bible is not a favorite pastime even among Christians—especially when there are so many other options, e.g., movies, TV (binge watching is now a thing), sports, hobbies. God’s Holy Word doesn’t stand a chance. When was the last time you heard a Christian say, “I’m going to spend my evening reading the gospel of Mark, all of it, then tomorrow—I can’t wait!—I’ll dive into the book of Ezekiel”?

I suspect that boredom is a factor—as well as a certain unease, even with the gospels. When readers come across stories that are a stretch to believe, e.g., Jesus glowing on a mountain top chatting with Moses, and at ground level chatting with demons, or healing a man’s eyes by applying mud and spit—well, these episodes spark too much doubt. But at least they’re stories; the vivid images engage the reader.

We can be pretty sure that the level of interest drops off sharply when folks dip into the letters of the apostle Paul; it would be no surprise whatever if these are the least read books of the New Testament. Why bother wading through these texts when Paul’s reputation is assured anyway? Everyone knows the fantastic story of his conversion on the road to Damascus. And his famous Hymn to Love in I Corinthians 13 has been heard countless times at weddings. What more could any author want?

But, alas, all is not well. Pious folks need to dig deeper. If we asked a hundred people leaving church, “What is your best take-away from Paul’s Letter to the Romans?”, would even a small percentage be able to say much of anything about it? Evangelicals might rise to the challenge, but most Catholics would draw a blank. The letters of Paul get less traffic than the gospels, which at least have the stories. Thus Christians fail to appreciate how malignant Paul’s influence has been.

Hence, this is Knockout Punch Number 10: Paul was a delusional fanatic; he poisoned Christian faith with his madness, magical thinking, and bad theology. And if Christians took the time to plod through his letters, they could make their own lists of items that drag down the faith.

Here are the links to the previous articles in this series of Knockout Punches:

Number 1: The Easy Acceptance of the Very Terrible and Video
Number 2: Just How Do You Find Out About God? and Video
Number 3: The Scripture Fallacy and video
Number 4: The Confusion and Incoherence of Theism and Video
Number 5: Which Monotheism? Which Christianity? and Video
Number 6: Verifiable Information about Jesus Doesn’t Exist and Video
Number 7: The Embarrassingly Bad Resurrection Tale and Video
Number 8: Christianity Is a Cult of Human Sacrifice and Video
Number 9: What Jesus Would Do Isn’t Good Enough and Video
Number 10, Video

It’s not hard at all to spot the delusions. Paul was certain—obsessively so—that Jesus would descend to earth in the near future to begin his supervision of the world. In the earliest document in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians—written decades before the gospels—he gave his readers this assurance, 4:15-17:

“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.”

Paul expected to be alive to join “the dead in Christ” who would leave their graves (well, their spiritual bodies, as he speculates elsewhere) to meet Jesus in the clouds, in the air, to be with him forever.

We feel his sense of urgency in I Corinthians 7: 29-31:

“…the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

That’s how close Jesus was. It’s already time to give up sex (behave as if you don’t have wives), and give up being happy (i.e., stop rejoicing).

In the previous chapter (6:1-3) he scolded Christians for taking each other to court:

“When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? 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?”

Yes, he told the Corinthian congregation that they would judge angels in the new Jesus administration.

Christians, please let these delusional texts sink in; they erode sane religion—and yes, there is sane religion. Beliefs are unevidenced and terribly misinformed, inherited by rote: innocuous fantasies confessed by people who otherwise know how the world works. Which Paul didn’t: on what basis did Paul assure the Thessalonians that they would meet Jesus in the clouds, to the sound of God’s trumpet?

We declare to you by the word of the Lord…”

And how would Paul have received this word of the Lord? Paul hallucinated the dead Jesus talking to him. So, does this make it all okay? Believable? Of course, Christian apologists insist that it was the alive Jesus speaking to him. But this makes it worse, because all of these predictions were wrong. “Well, Paul just had the timing wrong” is a feeble dodge by those who still want to see it happen. The timing was off by 2,000 years? The word of the Lord was that much in error?

On this basis alone we can enter Paul into the contest for World’s Worst Theologian. Nor can we be surprised that he drags us further downhill—with his simplistic and sinister view of human and divine nature. We cannot fault him for believing the na├»ve folklore (the Adam story) explaining humanity’s predicament, “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.” We know better now: we can’t blame Adam. Evolution by natural selection endowed our brains with territoriality, aggression, and fierce in-group loyalties; this reality is what theology needs to come to terms with.

Paul’s silly ramblings (Romans 5:12-15) can be dismissed:

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

"But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.”

He sums up the cure—the solution for sin—neatly in verse 17:

“If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

Those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness. And what is the key for receiving these? In Romans 10:9 we find Paul’s clear enunciation of the magic spell: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

And this transformation should be evident in the daily lives of Christians. Just as demon possession was a common belief in the ancient world, Paul believed that one could also be Jesus-possessed. In Galatians 5:22-23 we find one of Paul’s feel-good sayings:

“…the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

But what does Paul mean by self-control?

And here we come to perhaps the most unwelcome cold-shower in the New Testament, even for devout Christians, verse 24: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Christians in their daily lives know this is not true at all. Our bodies have been engineered by nature for lust —“belonging to a god” doesn’t nullify that, for which there is glaring Exhibit A: the rape of children by celibate clergy, who brag to the world that they belong to Jesus.

This text about belonging to Jesus is unmistakable evidence of Paul's fanaticism—his detachment from reality. He would have us believe that God owns those who have signed up for salvation; they have become slaves. Paul is explicit about this again in Romans 6:22-23: “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If Christians allow this to sink in—this bargain, for which there is no evidence whatever, by the way—much of Paul’s twisted advice emerges as silliness. Will there ever be an Apostle Paul School of Marriage Counseling? Certainly Christians would avoid it. His Hymn to Love is often read at weddings, but how about these verses from I Corinthians 7?

• “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”

• “…because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”

• “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

There was no space in Paul’s brain for anything other than “belonging to Jesus”—and for his sinister view of divine nature that I mentioned earlier. Paul remained attached to angry Yahweh, whose default emotion was wrath. These days we have trouble imagining a universal god, with billions of galaxies under management, paying much attention to human affairs.

But Paul was into revenge theology.

• Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

• Romans 2:5: “…your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”

• Romans 2:8: “…for who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.”

Paul rants against the sinners of the world (Romans 1:28-32):

“… since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.”

Paul includes rebellious children and gossips in this list of those who deserve to die; God’s wrath casts a wide net indeed. This revenge theology founds its place decades later in the gospels, in Jesus-script about the Last Judgment.

This is enough of a tip-off that Paul was a troubled person, but he blurts out his angst later in his letter to the Romans—a congregation he has never visited (Romans 7:15-20):

“I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

Not: “Hey, I make mistakes like all of us do,” but sin dwells within me. How can that be if he belonged to Jesus? It’s as if Satan had his way with Paul, “May my Force be with you.” Scholar A. N. Wilson offers this astute analysis:

“To say that the apostle Paul was self-contradictory is an understatement. He was a man who was fighting himself and quarrelling with himself all the time…and he managed to project the warfare in his own breast onto the Cosmos itself.” (Jesus: A Life, p. 23)

Is this a guy you wanting scripture? On top of the madness, magical thinking, and bad theology we might also point out this alarming curiosity: Paul had no interest in the life and teachings of Jesus; we search in vain for evidence that he knew much at all about Jesus—and no, his version of the Eucharist in I Corinthians 11:23-27 doesn’t count; this text was grafted onto the Jesus story by Mark.

Paul expounds ceaselessly on the magical properties of belief in the Risen Christ, but missed out on the “information” about Jesus that ended up in the gospels. Indeed, when we read Romans 13, we wonder if Paul even knew that Jesus was executed by the imperial government in Jerusalem—or so say the gospels.

No, this is not the guy you want writing scripture. Christopher Hitchens, at his father’s funeral, read one of Paul’s feel-good texts, and noted that it shines “out from the wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying which surrounds it.” (God Is Not Great, p. 12)

Christianity was damaged by the hallucination-based ramblings of this rogue apostle.

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 re-issued 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.