The Persistence of Christian Crazy

“…it’s a problem for the rest of us…”

“Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” So said John the Baptist when he spotted Jesus heading toward him, according to the opening chapter of John’s gospel (v. 29). This gospel was written well after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. The Temple had been a great slaughterhouse, doing big business in the ritual killing of animals to atone for sins. John’s theology represents an adjustment, an upgrade from animal to human sacrifice: Jesus is the one and only Lamb whose death is needed to cancel sin. This is ancient superstition, a dramatic example of magical thinking, promoted even today by a vast church bureaucracy.


A few months before life was changed by the pandemic, I attended a funeral at a Catholic Church; I had walked into a Lamb-of-God shrine. The human sacrifice—a grotesque monumental crucifix—dominated the décor, and the congregation was assured by the priest that eternal life was the reward for belief in the Lamb; there was no doubt whatever that the soul of the deceased had ascended to heaven, as symbolized by the smoke floating upward from the incense burner. At the end, the faithful went to the altar to eat a piece of the flesh of the human sacrifice. 


The Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult is alive and well in suburban America. 


Those in attendance that day are successful citizens of the modern world who would reject any notion that their cell phones, cars, and refrigerators work by magic; yet when they walk into the church, they step into the world of superstition and don’t notice the high quotient of Christian crazy. 


But these days Evangelicals seem to have taken the lead in Christian crazy. One good example is Prophet Jeremiah Johnson, who got into big trouble with his followers when he confessed, out loud, that he got it wrong when he predicted that Donald Trump would be re-elected; he had misheard the word of the Lord. He was stunned by the backlash, as I discussed in my article here 18 January 2021, A Tsunami of Christian Hate.    


When you have to admit that you got the word of the Lord wrong, isn’t it time to review your epistemology? How can you be sure that your channels to God are reliable? But that thought doesn’t seem to have occurred to Prophet Johnson. He adopted a major course correction as described in an article by Emily McFarlan Miller. He abandoned Jeremiah Johnson Ministries, which entailed “tremendous financial loss.” This apparently means a withdrawal from political commentary—probably a good thing—but Johnson has decided to go deeper into the realm of Christian crazy. 


His new focus will be Altar Global, whose purpose is to get ready for the coming of Christ, i.e., “help prepare the Bride of Christ for the return of our glorious Bridegroom King Jesus.” Miller points out that this “…includes a one-year intensive program called the Altar School of Ministry, based in Concord, N.C., where Johnson and others will train students ‘on the lifestyle of an end-time messenger and the return of the Lord.’”


Johnson defended this move: 


“I am not discouraged nor am I drawing back from my calling. Quite the opposite. I feel God is launching me, my family, and our ministry team further into His purpose for us. In response to God’s gracious correction, refinement, and empowerment, I am choosing to refocus my gaze upon Jesus and the eternal realities of His Kingdom like never before.”


This is a shrewd move if Johnson is trying to win back some of his evangelical base; how can you go wrong when these folks so eagerly await the return of Jesus—in fact would do anything to help make it happen? Johnson seeks to ground the new focus with his assured connection to God, i.e., “after much prayer and the clear direction of the Lord.”  


So epistemology be damned, because so few of his followers will probe to find out how he knows the “clear direction of the Lord.” Cult followers usually trust that their revered leaders have a direct line to God. 


But they don’t appear to have a direct line to the New Testament concept of “the Lord’s coming.” In the ancient documents this was a prophecy with an expiration date. The arrival of Jesus on the clouds to bring his kingdom was expected soon. New Testament authors would have been utterly baffled if they knew that Christians 2,000 years in the future would still be waiting for it to happen. How could that be?


There is such urgency in the letters of Paul; the arrival of Christ was imminent. He fully expected himself to join with people rising from their graves to meet Jesus in the air (I Thessalonians 4); married people should stop having sex to remain pure for Jesus’ arrival; Christians shouldn’t take each other to court because they themselves will be judging angels in the new kingdom. According to Mark’s account of the trial of Jesus, the latter promised those in attendance that they would see him coming on the clouds. In the terrible Little Apocalypse in Mark 13, Jesus declared of the arrival of the Son of Man (= himself):


“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  (Mark 13:29-31)


This is naïve, wishful-thinking theology on steroids: “God will arrive soon to rescue us.” This is not how history works; for centuries preachers have been resetting the clock for Jesus’ arrival—because their predictions have failed repeatedly. This Christian crazy is perhaps even more tiresome than belief in a human sacrifice whose blood and flesh have magical saving powers. 


I suspect that Johnson pays little attention to epistemology because he has no doubt whatever about his direct line to God. I found this paragraph in his book, Judgment on the House of God: Cleansing and Glory Are Coming


“As I lay in a deep sleep, two angels came and visited me in my hotel room. One angel had fiery blue eyes and held a huge broom in his hands. I instantly knew him to be an angel of cleansing. The other was an angel of glory clothed in breathtakingly beautiful garments. Many of the colors in these garments I have no name for. I have never seen these colors here on earth.” (Kindle, page 15)


Does he really believe that the God of the Cosmos is contacting him through his dreams? If so, lucky him! Or does he create such tales to appeal to his target market, very much as the gospel authors did? Why don’t these angels show up in atheists’ dreams—you know, to bring us around to the truth? Why don’t they show up in church? 


Perhaps because he got stung so severely on the Trump issue, how could he go wrong focusing on King Jesus?


“…we are choosing to radically obey Jesus over any other voices in this season.” 


This no doubt has appeal to the What Would Jesus Do? crowd, but radically obeying Jesus can be pretty scary. I noted that Johnson dedicated the book to his wife and four children:


“…may we always seek a greater cleansing together as a family so that the glory of God might truly be demonstrated through all that we say and do. I love the five of you with all of my heart!”


Not to nitpick, but in Mark 12:30, Jesus says that God deserves that level of devotion: “…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.” And in Luke 14:26 Jesus tolerates no divided loyalties: “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.”


“…radically obey Jesus” might sound cool, but Jesus said so many bad, mediocre, and alarming things, at least as reported by the gospel authors; apologists and preachers have no easy task coming up with a good Jesus who deserves to be radically obeyed.      


It’s not just Prophet Johnson who has suffered the consequences of Trump worship. Another article came to my attention this week, Pastors Are Leaving the Pulpit as QAnon Radicalizes Their Flocks, by Val Wilde (posted 18 March 2021 on The Friendly Atheist blog). Her opening paragraph:

“What would it take for a shepherd to abandon his sheep? Some American evangelical pastors are learning the answer to that question in real time as they watch members of their flocks fall headlong into conspiracy-theory thinking that leads to fractured relationships, COVID denialism, and even political violence.” Said one pastor whom Wilde interviewed: “I do think that a lot of pastors are burdened right now and need a friend. It’s not easy watching people that you’ve invested time in become radicalized so quickly right in front of you.”

It’s a good bet that critical thinking skills are not on the agenda when millions of people show up for church, to be encouraged to eat bits of Jesus’ flesh. “Take it on faith” and “Trust in God’s mysterious ways” are the primary appeals to justify belief in things unseen: no evidence, let alone proof needed. With this mindset, it’s no wonder that conspiracy theories can take root so easily. 


Wilde’s closing sentence can be taken as a stunning indictment of Christianity itself: “But any time a massive number of people uncritically accept outlandish, unfalsifiable ideas about a powerful conspiracy, it’s a problem for the rest of us as well.” 


The champion conspiracy theory of all time is that our world is under close surveillance by an all-powerful cosmic spirit that monitors the behavior of every human being (“I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter,” Matthew 12:36)—even our thoughts don’t escape the spirit’s notice (“…according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all,” Romans 2:16.) To escape the wrath of this all-powerful spirit—it maintains a fiery hell—belief in a human sacrifice that the spirit arranged is required. 


Truly these are “outlandish, unfalsifiable ideas.” Prophet Jeremiah Johnson—and so many others like him—demonstrates that a virulent, malignant form of Christianity rages in the world. 


Indeed it is a problem for the rest of us.


[I wrote this article at the request of Linda LaScola, who manages the Rational Doubt Blog; it was published there yesterday. The RDB is the voice of The Clergy Project, an online support group for clergy who have become atheists.]



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.


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