Christians Have the BEST Magic!

And the best holy spirit too

I do sometimes wonder how Christianity gets away with it. But it’s not such a mystery after all. The failure to think it through accounts for the endurance of piety and belief; the failure to look below the surface and simply ask, “Does this make sense?” In the Book of Numbers, chapter 21, when the people of Israel complained too much about their ordeal in the desert, God was so pissed off that he sent poisonous snakes to bite them. Then, on appeal from Moses, God recommended a solution, which turned out to be a magical bronze snake: if people just looked at it, they wouldn’t die of snakebite. “Well, yes,” even some of the devout may say, “that’s just quaint Old Testament folklore.



But what a theological blunder that the author of John’s gospel pulled this episode into the story of Jesus: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This is right before that beloved verse, John 3:16. John’s author saw a parallel between the magic of looking at a bronze serpent to be cured of snakebite, and the magic of believing in Jesus to be cured of death. This ushers us into the realm of religious silliness, which becomes clear when people do just a little bit of “looking below the surface”—thinking it through


There has been so much comment about the Bible itself driving people away from faith, e.g., Andrew Seidel, “The road to atheism is littered with Bible that have been read cover to cover.” This is in the tradition of Mark Twain’s comment, “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Although the bad theology of John 3 isn’t so obvious—the reader has to dig a bit to get the significance of the serpent in Numbers 21—it’s easier to be taken aback when we run head-on into stories that smack of magic and superstition. And that is what we find in Acts 19.  


[This is another article in my series on all the chapters of the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The one on Acts 18 is here.]


One of the issues that has divided Christians has been baptism. Which kind is legitimate and efficacious, infant or adult? But in Acts 19 there are other distinctions. Paul ran into unknown disciples at Ephesus and queried them (vv. 2-6): 


“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied…


The author of Acts was familiar with the opening of Mark’s gospel (1:4), “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” but in his story the Holy Spirit was far more important than John the Baptist—yet these disciples Paul whom chanced upon didn’t even know there was such a thing. So Paul worked his magic, literally. He uttered a magic name (Jesus), and performed magic ritual (baptism, laying on of hands); these are Christian equivalents of abracadabra. And the results were immediate: these disciples now spoke in tongues and suddenly, marvelously, had an open communications channel to the God who runs the Cosmos: they “prophesied.” 


The devout who have been raised to believe that baptism is somehow effective and can’t be skipped (Mark 16:16 indicates that those who are baptized are saved), tend not to notice that this episode is a sure sign of magical thinking. Those outside this faith tradition—even many in other faith traditions—can easily dismiss this episode as a religious fantasy, a tall tale. 


But it gets worse just a few verses later in the chapter (vv. 11-12): “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.” There could hardly be a better demonstration that Acts is a religious tract fully committed to magical thinking. If an object—in this case a handkerchief or apron—had even touched Paul’s skin, it could be used to cure diseases and drive out evil spirits. 


This is holy-hero worship. Just a little bit of  thinking it through  should convince people that history has abundantly falsified this story. Just as famous faith healers—of the sensational TV variety—don’t visit hospitals to work their wonders, so too garments and handkerchiefs of popes and cardinals aren’t used to heal the sick. Notice that this text doesn’t even say that those who were healed had to “have faith.” The magic just worked. The costume inventory of the Vatican should be sent around the world to heal people. Isn’t that the implication of these verses in Acts? 


Then Acts 19 descends into comedy, vv. 11-16. We read that itinerate Jewish exorcists (“seven sons of a Jewish high priest”) thought they’d use the magic name of Jesus to get rid of an evil spirit. But this spirit would have none of it: 


“…the evil spirit said to them in reply, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?’ Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded.”


They even lost their clothes? This author missed his calling by about two thousand years. Today he could write comic books. 


Thus everyone knew that Christians had the best magic, vv. 17-20:


“When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices.  A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.”


This is unmistakably qualifies as a religious tract—it’s straight-out propaganda.


Careful readers—those who study the Bible seriously—will notice that very little in the Book of Acts is reflected in Paul’s letters. His dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, for example, is never mentioned in the letters. But the author of Acts no doubt knew Paul’s letters; he picked up on Paul’s determined, fanatical personality, and thus created this narrative, vv. 8-10:


“He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God. When some stubbornly refused to believe and spoke evil of the Way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.”


Paul was so possessed of religious certainty—as have been countless other cult fanatics—that he harangued folks in the synagogue about another religion for three months. “He left them”—but maybe he was kicked out—and then for two years “argued daily” in a lecture hall. The author of Acts construed this as promoting “the word of the Lord,” and exaggerated the outcome: “all the residents of Asia” got the Word. Paul is the champion prototype of Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness zealots, and the author of Acts is proud of that. Is the world better off with so many religious zealots who are determined to “speak out boldly”?


The final big chunk of Acts 19 is vv. 23-41, in which we read that advocates of another religion were panicked at Paul’s preaching. These were devotees of Artemis, goddess of “hunting, wild nature, and chastity…a patron of girls and young women and a protectress during childbirth.” Actually, it was a silversmith, Demetrius, who was afraid that business would fall off for the smiths who made shrines for Artemis. What would happen if Artemis lost ground to Jesus? A riot ensured, and Paul was restrained by his friends from entering the fray. Calmer heads eventually prevailed. Demetrius was urged to “take it to court” if he had a complaint. 


Demetrius would have been envious of the moneymaker that Christianity became. Marketing Jesus these days is a multibillion-dollar business, and for centuries the devout have built churches, millions of them—in the absence of any commandment in the New Testament to build as many churches as you can. The Catholic Church alone has 3,391 cathedrals worldwide. The number of builders and artisans who make their livings in this enterprise is beyond counting. All for the glory of God and Christ, of course, but this building boom has also been motivated—let’s face it—by priestly egos: “For my career I need a bigger church.” 


The Acts 19 reminds us that religions and profit-making go hand-in-hand. But how many Artemis worshippers are around today? Eventually this religion dried up as a moneymaker for the silversmiths. Christians really should be looking over their shoulders: there are thousands of neglected, dead gods from the past. How long will it take for the Christian god to be shelved in this archive of abandoned deities? The lack of reliable, verifiable, objective data is a major handicap. 


Way back in the day when the author of Acts presented his narrative, Christians had the best magic. But it was a matter of practical politics at the time of Constantine that Christianity made its big leap forward through the power of the state. It has continued to claim the best magic, of course. Billions of Christians still open and close their prayers “in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” Invoking that sacred name is, in fact, a magic incantation: their requests get this boost. 


And what’s the Holy Spirit up to these days? Robert Conner reminds of us the magical thinking continues here too: “The Holy Spirit is flitting around the world whispering into the temporal lobes of billions of people urging them to have their very own close encounters of the crazy kind.” (DCB, 23 February 2018) Indeed, the Holy Spirit has offered wildly different, conflicting advice about what God wants us to do. Something is amiss. Please, Christians think it through.



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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