Preface and Introduction to "The Gospel According to Whom?" by Dr. John Beversluis

[See the Tag below for my introduction to these series of posts]. When I looked again at the book files that the late John Beversluis sent me in 2008, he included a Preface, an Introduction, and not six but seven chapters. Here for the first time are his Preface and Introduction. What he wrote is as good as I remembered! It's also more timely today than it was thirteen years ago.

INTRODUCTION by John Beversluis.

This is a book about the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They are called “synoptic” because they cover basically the same ground but from different perspectives and thus provide a collective synopsis (or overview) of the life of Jesus. The Gospel of John, known as the Fourth Gospel, is similar in some respects, but dissimilar in many others. Like many people, I grew up thinking that these books were written by disciples who followed Jesus around and wrote down what he said and did. It was not until I was in seminary that I discovered to my dismay that this is not true and that we actually have no idea who wrote them. Mark and Luke were not even disciples. We do know that the synoptic Gospels were written late in the first century (or early in the second) and that John was written about 100 (or possibly as late as 120). This means that they were all written between (roughly) 70 and 120—and therefore anywhere from forty to eighty (or even ninety) years after the death of Jesus, so they could not have been written by any eyewitnesses—disciples or otherwise. Since my seminary days I have met many intelligent people who did not know any of this either. I concluded that it must be one of the best-kept secrets in all Christendom.

Another very well-kept secret is that the synoptic Gospels contain many errors: factual, historical, scientific, philosophical, ethical, chronological, numerical, mathematical, geographical, and prophetic. They also contain many contradictions, inconsistencies, and other discrepancies. In this book, I bring many of them to light, so fair-minded readers can see for themselves that they are indeed errors that cannot be denied and inconsistencies that cannot be harmonized or explained away. I will offer a massive body of textual evidence to refute the claims made by that vast army of backward Christian soldiers—made up of conservative-fundamentalist leaders—who keep insisting that these errors and inconsistencies are only apparent and that anybody who says otherwise should be dismissed as a blasphemer attacking God’s holy Word. In this book I set out to prove that they are wrong. My purpose is not to attack the synoptic Gospels, but to promote the honest and objective study of them by rescuing them from fundamentalists who refuse to see (and prevent others from seeing) what is really in them.

There is an even more disquieting problem. In addition to errors, contradictions, and inconsistencies that cannot be reconciled, the synoptic Gospels contain many passages that portray Jesus in a very unfavorable light: behaving with astonishing incivility towards people (including his own mother), exploding with rage, resorting to violence, cursing individuals and sometimes whole villages (and even trees!), threatening people with everlasting torment, instructing his disciples to steal, and destroying a herd of 2,000 pigs. In a word, the synoptic Gospels are open to objection not only on logical and factual grounds, but also on ethical ones.

I do not claim to have discovered errors and inconsistencies that everybody else has missed. Many of the passages I present have been documented again and again by mainstream New Testament scholars who are steeped in Greek, intimately familiar with the manuscript traditions, and the work of other scholars. The problem is that most ordinary people know little or nothing about any of this. In fact, many people who revere (or claim to revere) the Bible have never read it—except perhaps for a favorite psalm or two, the story of Jesus’s nativity, and a few verses they were required to memorize in Sunday school. The few who do read it—or, at least, the New Testament—seldom read it in its entirety, seldom know Greek, and almost never read books and commentaries written by New Testament scholars. The typical conservative-fundamentalist (“born-again” and “Bible-believing”) Christian reads the synoptic Gospels naively and innocently, assuming that they were written by divinely-inspired eyewitnesses and contain a wealth of reliable and first-hand information about the life and teachings of Jesus.

Allegations of errors, contradictions, inconsistencies, and morally dubious conduct in the Bible offend (and often anger) such Christians. They usually respond by dismissing them out of hand and accusing those who make them of attacking the Bible when, in fact, they are merely citing passages from it. My book is intended for readers like that. I wrote it to convince them that the synoptic Gospels are not the logically consistent, factually accurate, historically reliable, and ethically lofty documents that they are said to be, and that this will become increasingly—and even painfully—obvious to any attentive, objective, and fair-minded reader.

Why are conservative-fundamentalists so quick to dismiss these well-documented and undeniable allegations? I can think of two reasons.

First, they have allowed themselves to be browbeaten by some charismatic and seemingly well-informed pastor, youth leader, or popular author, who jovially assured them that these allegations are unfounded and mere satanic chatter from atheists, who have hardened their hearts against God, or from liberal theologians, who read the Bible selectively, accepting what they like and discarding the rest. Lay-persons who believe this nonsense do not realize that intellectually honest New Testament scholars—whose work their trusted spiritual mentors misunderstand, trivialize, and usually have not even read—do not lodge these objections because they are atheists or liberal Christians; they are atheists or liberal Christians because of these objections.  It never seems to occur to them—or to the religious leaders who mislead them—that many who lodge these allegations started out exactly like themselves—devout believers with true faith in God and an unquestioning belief in the Bible but who eventually left the fold—often reluctantly and with heavy hearts—because they could not, as honest men and women, continue to cling to their former position in the teeth of so much irrefutable textual evidence, thus joining the ranks of other backslidden believers who, in obedience to the command to search the Scriptures (John 5:39) had searched them too diligently.

Anybody who doubts that this can and does happen needs to read the Introduction to Bart Ehrman’s illuminating book, Misquoting Jesus, in which he absorbingly recounts his intellectual journey from uninformed credulity to informed skepticism. A “born-again” Christian, a student at Wheaton College, an active participant in a Campus Life Youth for Christ organization, and a seminary student at Moody Bible Institute and later at Princeton University, he learned Hebrew and Greek, so he could read the Bible in the original languages, learned German and French, so he could read what scholars had said about it, and then immersed himself in textual criticism of the New Testament—only to discover that this superb education had undermined his whole concept of what the Bible was and brought about a “seismic change” in his thinking about it.

A second reason why fundamentalist lay-persons are so quick to dismiss these allegations is because, to them, this is all mere hearsay—second-hand information consisting of broad generalizations about errors, contradictions, and inconsistencies. They are seldom, if ever, encouraged to investigate these matters for themselves first-hand—independently, objectively, with an open mind, and without the “guidance” of somebody else—and arrive at their own conclusions. Nor are they encouraged to read the New Testament attentively and critically, examining specific examples of these allegations and wrestling with them diligently, systematically, and with open Bibles, so they can check for themselves whether these allegations are true or false. That is what I will be asking readers of this book to do.

The true character of the carefully choreographed travesty popularly known as “Bible study” may be seen by savoring a ludicrous example of misinterpretation which will serve as a preview of what is to come in the chapters that follow.

When I was in seminary many years ago, I once pointed out to our distinguished but ultra-conservative professor of New Testament theology that, according to Matthew 27:5, Judas Iscariot hanged himself whereas, according to Acts 1:18, he purchased a field, fell headlong into it, and “burst asunder.” I pointed out that these passages are inconsistent and cannot both be true. One cannot hang oneself and then purchase a field and die falling into it. Or vice versa. With a forced smile that seemed to say “I’ve heard it all before,” he strode to the chalkboard, drew a picture of a tree located at the edge of a sharp cliff with one branch jutting out over the precipice, and then learnedly explained that a man might very well have hanged himself from such a tree; that his weight might very well have caused the branch to snap; and that such a man, having hanged himself, might very well have plummeted to the ground, branch and all, and “burst asunder” in what might very well have been the field he had previously purchased. I could hardly believe my ears. After all, this was seminary, not the amateur hour. I resisted the mad impulse to ask, amid all these “might very well haves,” what would have ever prompted Judas to climb such an inconveniently located tree, creep precariously to the end of its suicide-inviting branch, secure a piece of rope to it as well as to himself, and hang himself; not to mention, how the branch managed to defy the laws of physics by thoughtfully waiting to snap until all these elaborate preparations were complete. Instead, I courteously replied, “Thank you, sir.” It was obvious to me, but to none of my utterly convinced classmates, that here was a man who was prepared to say anything, no matter how absurd, than admit that these passages are inconsistent. I left his classroom wondering whether theologians could be sued for malpractice.

If anybody is inclined to dismiss this as the silly interpretation of a senile old professor that no responsible New Testament theologian would endorse, I hereby promise that they will find it (and others equally absurd) in the passages I will be citing from books by Christian theologians and popular apologists who have made a name for themselves in conservative-fundamentalist circles as “defenders of the faith.”

    Here is a priceless specimen found on page 284 of a book fatuously entitled I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by would-be Christian apologists Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek. According to Matthew 28:5, Mary Magdalene arrived at the empty tomb of the risen Christ and saw one angel; however, according to John 21:12, she saw two angels. Are not these passages inconsistent? Not according to Geisler and Turek. They resolve the alleged inconsistency as follows: It is true that John says Mary Magdalene saw two angels. It is also true that Matthew says she saw one. But he does not say that she saw only one. She might very well have seen two. So where is the problem? The passages are perfectly consistent. Matthew and John just present “divergent details” like newspaper reporters often do when covering the same story. By way of response, I can only say that if that is what Matthew’s angel meant, he was just a smart aleck or practical joker

    This bizarre solution, according to which numbers do not mean what they say unless prefixed by “only,” must be rejected. You might as well argue that since Mark 6:38 says that Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, but not only five loaves and only two fish, he might have had a cartload of food and there was no miracle at all. Or since in 1 Timothy 2:5 Paul says that there is one mediator between God and man, but not only one, there might be two, or ten, or any number of mediators. If Geisler and Turek would reject this argument in these passages, which they surely would, why do they use it themselves when dealing with their passage? Are they not just trying to have it both ways?

Nor are they correct in comparing Matthew and John to newspaper reporters. Reporters do indeed often present divergent details when covering the same story. But there is distinction between divergent details and inconsistencies. Unlike the former, which are compatible and are all true, the latter are incompatible and at least one must be false. If Sportswriter A reports that the Cubs defeated the Dodgers by a score of 5-4 before a record crowd of 54, 271 fans who sweltered in temperatures in the high nineties and Sportswriter B reports that Chicago beat Los Angeles to the delight of a large crowd that included former president Bill Clinton, they have presented divergent but consistent details that are all. However, if Sportswriter C reports that the Cubs eked out a close 5-4 victory over the Dodgers before a season-low crowd of 1,018, who stayed to the bitter end in spite of unseasonably cold weather and occasional thundershowers, they have not presented divergent details but made inconsistent statements that cannot all be true.

So have Matthew and John. I will discuss this example in greater detail in chapter seven. For the time being, this is enough to show that, like my old seminary professor, Geisler and Turek are prepared to say anything, however absurd, than admit that these two passages are inconsistent.

Although my primary purpose is expository, my secondary purpose is polemical and I want to lay my cards on the table at the very outset. Biblical criticism of the kind found in mainstream New Testament scholarship, known as higher criticism, has been under attack by conservative-fundamentalist theologians since its inception in the mid-eighteenth century. Until quite recently, the details of this controversy remained largely unknown to conservative-fundamentalist Christians. This situation has changed noticeably during the past several decades due to the publication of books by fundamentalist theologian Norman L. Geisler, popular fundamentalist apologist Josh McDowell, and ultra-conservative Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft. There are, of course, many others like them; but in this book I will focus on them as representative and (more or less) mentors of those who try to tread where they have already trod. They are the chief contemporary fundamentalist whitewashers of the New Testament referred to by the sub-title of this book.

Their books not only continued the centuries-old battle against higher criticism, but brought it to the attention of fundamentalist readers. They are energetically marketed and endorsed by names that have enormous clout in fundamentalist circles. Each presents his refutations of allegations like the foregoing as decisive and his defense of the inspiration and authority of the Bible as a mission accomplished. Their books are infused with a C. S. Lewis-like air of effortless brilliance and confident finality that prompted one presumptuous reviewer to deliver himself of the following blurb: “I suspect that anyone who has read this book and is still a religious skeptic is living in denial”—a sentiment that the authors themselves seem to share. I disagree. I submit that if anybody is living in denial, it is a person who has read this book and is still a Christian. The one thing more damaging to Christianity than a good argument against it is a bad argument for it. This book is full of them.

The magnitude of their misunderstanding of the methods and aims of higher criticism is evident not only from their superficial summaries and facile refutations, but also by their description of it as destructive Biblical criticism—as if these higher critics were nothing more than the theological equivalent of a demolition crew hired to obliterate the Bible. As a matter of fact, New Testament theologians of the past like Friedrich Scheiermacher, Albert Schweitzer, David Friedrich Strauss, Ernest Renan, Rudolf Bultmann, and the Tübingen School had a Goliath-like stature that dwarfs these poorly trained and under-equipped would-be Davids whose puny polemical slingshots and three smooth stones are not equal to the task. Their books cry out for critical scrutiny: not because they are successful—which they are not—but because they are superficially impressive, extraordinarily influential, and therefore in urgent need of being refuted. That is part of my purpose in this book.

The suppression of knowledge by Christians is nothing new. From the very beginning, the Church has done everything in its power to impede the advance of intellectual progress. It has opposed free inquiry in the name of authority, denied facts in the name of faith, obstructed science in the name of Aristotle, and prohibited the expression of honest opinion in the name of revelation. It has censored books, tortured people who possessed them, castrated adulterers, executed heretics, sent geniuses to the gallows, and consigned thinkers to dungeons. The list is long and horrendous: Arius, Pelagius, Abelard, Campanella, Bayle, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Bruno, Servetus, Spinoza, Kant, Voltaire, Paine, Linnaeus, Buffon, and Darwin—to name just a few of the most prominent. Even more revolting than the list itself are the alleged crimes for which these intellectual giants were identified, hunted down, tortured, and murdered: having sexual intercourse out of wedlock with women they loved, maintaining that human beings have free will, denying that Adam named every existing animal and that Noah preserved every known species in the ark, denying the doctrine of the Trinity, maintaining that the earth revolves around the sun, inventing the telescope, discovering new planets, denying the existence of fixed stars and the fixity of species, denying that comets are activated and controlled by demons, and maintaining that human life evolved from lower forms. The minute higher criticism appeared on the horizon orthodox theologians took aim at it.

I am not suggesting that authors like McDowell, Geisler, and Kreeft would participate in these proceedings or even approve of them. But they are equally determined to suppress accuracy about the Bible—especially about the New Testament. They, too, denounce those who make allegations about logical, factual, and ethical problems in the Bible. Like one-trick ponies, they always go through the same routine. When somebody points out a few of these errors, contradictions, and inconsistencies, they do not admit their mistake and withdraw their claim; they find excuses for the Biblical writer, “reinterpret” the passage, or explain it away. The example of Matthew and John is a case in point. If you demur, they accuse you of intellectual dishonesty, moral turpitude, and “living in denial.” These self-appointed avenging angels of “God’s holy and infallible Word” have been making irresponsible claims like these for decades and it is time that somebody called them on it and held them accountable.

I wrote this book from the conviction that these authors have done incalculable harm to millions of people by discouraging them from reading the Bible attentively and critically, by teaching them to deny what is there for all to see, and by training them to close their eyes to contrary evidence. In this book I try to undo some of that harm.

McDowell’s most influential book has gone through several editions whose titles are all variations on the original Evidence That Demands a Verdict which was published in 1972 and soon followed by More Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Although billed as a defense of the Christian faith, it is really nothing more than a 750-page collection of quotations from hundreds of other writers from various fields who all agree with McDowell. The inference he apparently expects readers to draw is that he must be right because all these smart people agree with him. In that sense, his book is the longest example of the logical fallacy of appealing to authority in the history of the world. The title suggests that he arrived at his “verdict” that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God as a result of a careful sifting of the evidence—textual, historical, archeological, linguistic, etc. However, a perusal of the book quickly reveals that his belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Gospels (and of the Bible as a whole) is based on a faith commitment that he brings to them, not a conclusion that he draws from them. He had arrived at this “verdict” long before he consulted the evidence and he “assessed” the evidence in light of a conclusion already arrived at. This phenomenon was unforgettably described by Samuel Butler in his 1903 novel entitled The Way of All Flesh:

A clergyman . . . can hardly ever allow himself to look facts fairly in the face. It is his profession to support one side. It is impossible, therefore, for him to make an unbiased examination of the other. We forget that every clergyman with a living or curacy is as much a paid advocate as the barrister who is trying to persuade a jury to acquit a prisoner. We should listen to him with the same suspense of judgment, the same full consideration of the arguments of the opposing counsel, as a judge does when he is trying a case. (p. 137)

Does it follow that every clergyman is intellectually dishonest? Not necessarily, according to Butler:

You should not call them dishonest for this any more than a judge should call a barrister dishonest for earning his living by defending one in whose innocence he does not seriously believe; but you should hear the barrister on the other side before you decide upon the case. (p. 284)

    My response was always the same. When a rational person discovers evidence that calls into question a cherished belief, he or she rethinks the matter and either modifies the belief or abandons it. Thus when one discovers that reindeer cannot fly or cope with a sled large enough to hold enough presents for every child in the world, one does not postulate an annual Yuletide transportation miracle; one abandons one’s belief in Santa Claus. When one discovers that wishing upon a star does not rescue relatives from Nazi concentration camps, prevent children from dying of cancer, or even enable one’s favorite team to win the Super Bowl, one does not rebuke oneself for lack of faith; one stops wishing upon that star. One should do the same thing when one finds evidence that calls into question one’s belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.

In writing this book, I have self-consciously stood on the shoulders of many great New Testament theologians and scholars. But I have especially tried to emulate two learned but popular writers who were unusually serious students of the Bible and unusually fearless critics of it—Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason (published in 1794), and Steve Allen in Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, & Morality and More Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, & Morality (published in 1990 and 1993). My purpose is to carry on the important task undertaken by them. Unlike their books, which cover the whole Bible, mine is confined to the synoptic Gospels—not everything in them, but the major topics listed in the Table of Contents.

Some might find Thomas Paine and Steve Allen a decidedly odd couple. After all, the former was an 18th century English pamphleteer, the author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man, and an influential revolutionary figure in France and later in colonial America, whereas the latter was a 20th century comedian, the creator of the “Tonight” show, and a regular panelist on popular 1950s game shows like “What’s My Line?” and “I’ve Got a Secret.”

But the pair had more in common than initially meets the eye. Although neither was a professional theologian, both were keen students of the Bible with a remarkable fund of Biblical knowledge that puts most Christians to shame. Paine actually wrote part one of The Age of Reason without access to a Bible while awaiting execution in a French prison. He not only quoted extensively from both the Old and New Testament, but also cited chapter and verse—later justifiably boasting that he had produced a book that “no Bible believer, writing at his ease and with a library of theological books at his disposal, could refute” (p. 100-101). He loved to correct religious critics who misquoted the Bible when arguing against him.

Allen’s knowledge was equally impressive. However, his mammoth Biblical project—totaling more than 800 pages—started inauspiciously. About half of this material was written in hotel rooms across America as he read the Gideon Bibles left in bureau drawers or nightstands as spiritual food for the impoverished wayfarer. They had exactly the opposite effect on him. Far from providing answers, they raised so many questions that he started taking copious notes and jotting down his thoughts, thus unknowingly embarking upon (what turned out to be) a 20-year study of Scripture and authoring two books about it. Both are well researched and cover an enormous amount of material. Although scholarly, they are eminently readable and often witty. The overarching question is “whether the Bible is in fact what it has been represented to be for 2,000 years—i.e. the totally straightforward, literal word of God.” Allen’s research led him to conclude that it is not.

Those who remember Steve Allen only as an articulate and urbane television personality will be surprised to learn that he wrote two 400-page books about the Bible. His wit and self-deprecating manner was a mask for his unassuming intelligence and lightly-worn erudition. (He had the temerity to debate politics with William F. Buckley, Jr.) A prodigiously talented man, he was the creator and first host of the “Tonight” show, a creditable actor, a sophisticated comedian, a prolific composer and lyricist, a published poet and novelist, an accomplished pop and jazz pianist, a formidable talk-show host, an able moderator, and the creator and host of PBS’s acclaimed series “Meeting of the Minds” that aired during the late1970s and featured a group of actors cast (and dressed) as great thinkers of the past—Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Galileo, Martin Luther, Voltaire, Karl Marx, Susan B. Anthony, and many others—sitting around a table embroiled in political, scientific, and philosophical discussions that were as interesting as they were entertaining. (Allen wrote all the scripts). All in all, he wrote over 50 books—most of them unabashedly humorous, a few deadly serious.

The most serious by far were his books about the Bible in which he patiently and dispassionately examined the Biblical texts (and many scholarly books and articles about them), sweeping nothing under the rug and following the evidence wherever it led. Although his own views were always obvious, he was never argumentative and always fair and courteous to those who hold opposing positions. He ungrudgingly acknowledged the poetic and comforting passages in the Bible, but insisted that it is unreasonable and unfair for believers to quote and place such emphasis on them but completely ignore “the far more numerous passages in which not comfort and encouragement but terror, moral revulsion, and puzzlement are perfectly reasonable reactions” (p. xxxi). He cited many of these “sorry and embarrassing” passages in which the savage exploits of the Israelites are graphically (and jubilantly) chronicled: the slaughters, the massacres, the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children—sometimes entire cities—most of whom had neither wronged nor provoked the Israelites in any discernible way, and, in the case of the singularly unfortunate Canaanites, for no better reason than that they inhabited a geographical region that Yahweh had promised to His “chosen people.” These, and a host of other equally morally revolting passages, combined with many errors, contradictions, inconsistencies led him to conclude that the Bible is not the logically consistent, factually accurate, historically reliable, and unfailingly edifying book—or, rather, collection of books—that fundamentalists say it is, but a very mixed bag that most people revere only because they are largely ignorant of its contents.

Allen presented this information, not as a rabid infidel determined to turn Jews and Christians into atheists, but as an objective reporter trying to acquaint them with facts that they need to know if they are ever to arrive at an informed and rational assessment of the book they revere as sacred. Contrary to many idle and Christian-inspired rumors, he was not an atheist who “hated” God, but a lifelong Catholic until his automatic excommunication at age 32 for having married a second time. Though he ceased to be a Catholic, he continued to believe in God. He repeatedly explains that one of his main reasons for denying that the Bible is the Word of God is because he is convinced that a God who is worthy of worship and good in any sense conceivable by man would never sanction the savage behavior found in the Old Testament—behavior allegedly carried out in obedience to His explicit commands—or issue such commands in the first place.

While I am on the subject of “hating” God, it is worth pointing out that, according to Allen, it is not atheists who are guilty of this act—one cannot hate a being whose existence one denies—but the (mostly unknown) authors of the Old Testament who attribute to Him criminal acts (and commands for others to commit equally criminal acts) of such enormity that we would detest (and demand the execution of) any human being who performed even one of them. Although Allen’s intention was benign, his book elicited much hostility and resentment. That should come as a surprise to nobody. The one thing that fundamentalists deplore even more than people who do not search the Scriptures are people like Steve Allen who do.

In the Introduction to his first book he confesses that he had originally planned to publish it posthumously and explains why he changed his mind with rhetoric that is even more timely and more desperately in need of being heard today than it was in 1990:

[A]n element of urgency has entered into the public dialogue that was not present at the outset. Because of the constitutional freedoms wisely established by our nation’s founding fathers, Americans are at liberty to hold any religious beliefs at all, or none whatever. But there is a negative aspect to this, as there always is in the context of freedom. Along with beautiful, inspiring, uplifting, and morally instructive beliefs that flourish in such a climate, there will inevitably be a certain amount of destructive, superstitious nonsense preached. Many of our nation’s fundamentalist Christians, who, by and large, believe that the Bible is reliable as history and science, are no longer content with teaching their freely gathered congregations their theology and publishing their views, which they have every right to do. But just as my freedom to swing my arms about stops at the point of another’s nose, so the freedom to preach unscientific superstition deserves to be limited when it attempts to impose itself on those who have not requested it and who may, in fact, hold contrary opinions, or none at all. When, for example, America’s fundamentalist believers in the inerrancy of the Bible insist on having historical and scientific errors taught in our nation’s public schools, then they must be opposed by all legal means. That is a reason I have decided to delay publication of my views no longer . . . I believe it is the imposition of a dictatorship that increasing numbers on the Christian Right now wish to construct in the United States. I refer specifically to a group of believers who call themselves Christian Reconstructionists. Some harmful organizations, throughout history, have disguised their basic agenda while in the process of appealing to a broad base of support. The Reconstructionists are quite frank about their social prescriptions. They believe that Christianity should be the official religion of the United States and that American laws should be specifically Christian. (pp. xxix-xxxii)

He thereupon quotes a remark by Bill Moyers in his “fascinating and strangely ignored” program, telecast by PBS on December 23, 1987, in which he alleged that the Christian Reconstructionists—the contemporary successors of the Moral Majority of the 1970s and 1980s—“want to invent America all over again, with the Bible as its primary charter, and Washington D.C., as a new kind of government where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven” (p. xxxii). They have resolved to abolish our democracy in which the only legitimate basis of governmental authority is the consent of the governed, and replace it with a Christian theocracy in which governmental authority does not derive from the people—and from representatives they elect—but from God and anyone arrogant and presumptuous enough to step forward as His earthly mouthpiece. So far, the claimants to the title have been crashing bores: gay-bashing windbags like the late Reverends Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy and menacingly Bible-thumping presidential hopefuls like the still very much alive-and-kicking Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee.

Allen’s response to the ominous prospect of a Christian America was a characteristically droll suggestion that it would be hard to improve upon. As a “proper punishment” for people found guilty of trying to impose their beliefs on everybody else, he proposed that they should be sentenced to a 12-year course in world history with particular attention to what transpired in Europe during the dreadful and blood-drenched centuries when provinces and countries were ruled by Catholic priests and popes and Protestant reformers. This sorely-neglected curriculum would remedy the present paucity of knowledge about the tortures and executions of the Inquisition, the pillages and massacres of the Crusades, the intolerance and tyranny of the Protestant reformers, and many other religiously-motivated horrors. He went on to emphasize that this centuries-long travesty of morality and the fundamental principles of justice was one of the chief factors that prompted America’s founding fathers to feel so strongly about the wisdom of keeping the church and the state separate—a principle, I might add, that guarantees not only freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion and its endemic evils of mind-control and the oppression of all who demur. To their eternal credit, the founding fathers understood that the best way to ensure that was by making it constitutionally impossible for any one particular religion to become the official national religion to whose doctrines everybody must subscribe and to whose moral values everybody must conform.

During the 18 years that have elapsed since the publication of Allen’s book, Christian Reconstructionism has made alarming gains in American private and public life; and the need for an antidote to its relentless assault on religious and moral freedom is greater than ever. Allen’s strategy was bold. He was not content simply to indict past religious institutions and persons—like the Inquisition, the Papacy, and Protestant reformers—for their moral atrocities and crimes against humanity, thereby implying only that these corrupt institutions and persons had betrayed their own theological doctrines and moral principles. He went further in two important ways: first, he conducted a searching investigation of these doctrines and principles themselves and found many of them both rationally indefensible and morally objectionable; second, he traced these doctrines and principles to their ultimate source, which was neither the Inquisition nor the Papacy nor Protestant reformers, but the Bible.

In addition to deploring the fact that most people know next to nothing about history and are, at best, only vaguely aware of the religiously-motivated atrocities of the past, Allen deplored the fact that most people (including most Christians) know next to nothing about the Bible and are only vaguely aware of the atrocities (and many other problems) it contains. He concluded that it is this lamentable ignorance which explains why they continue to revere it. Although he occasionally alluded to the first kind of ignorance—ignorance of “the obvious atrocities found in Christian history, of which there are more than enough to gratify the prejudice of the antireligious and to shame all decent Christians” (p. xxiii)—his primary goal was to dispel the second kind—ignorance about the Bible. For it is precisely that—and not “righteous indignation”—which is the real cause of the rage and appalling verbal abuse that is directed at critics who often know immeasurably more about the Bible than those who claim to be defending it.

As Martin Gardner rightly observed in his Foreword to Allen’s book: “No other work by an American can be likened more favorably to Thomas Paine’s classic The Age of Reason” (p. xii). 

      Like Allen, Paine objected to the Bible—Old and New Testament alike—on basically four grounds: its logical inconsistencies, its moral atrocities, its evil and capricious God, and the eagerness of the clergy, past and present, to form alliances with the state in order to enlist its power as they attempt to impose their theology and morality on everybody else. This is what he wrote: 

There are matters in [the Old Testament], said to be done by the express command of God, that are as shocking to humanity and to every idea of moral justice as anything done by Robespierre . . . or by any other assassin in modern times. When we read in the books ascribed to Moses, Joshua, etc., that they (the Israelites) came by stealth upon whole nations of people, who, as history itself shows, had given them no offense; that they put all those nations to the sword; that they spared neither age not infancy; that they utterly destroyed men, women, and children; that they left not a soul to breathe—expressions that  are repeated over and over again in these books, and that, too, with exulting ferocity—are we sure that these things are facts? Are we sure that the Creator of man commissioned these things to be done? And are we sure that the books that tell us so were written by His authority? . . . To believe, therefore, the Bible to be true, we must unbelieve all our belief in the moral justice of God; . . . And to read the Bible without horror, we must undo everything that is tender, sympathizing, and benevolent in the heart of man. Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice. (pp. 104-5)

Nor did he mince his words in denouncing Christianity:

Of all the systems of religion that were ever invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests; but so far as respects the good of man in general, it leads to nothing here or hereafter. (p. 186)

Unread and mostly unknown among today’s conservative-fundamentalists, Paine’s impassioned expose of the Bible (and of Christianity), published in 1794, shocked and outraged believers in England and on the Continent. He was vilified as an atheist (he was actually a deist), found guilty of blasphemy, and hanged in effigy. His publisher was imprisoned, and people were subject to immediate arrest, without a trial, for having a copy of his book in their possession or even for displaying his portrait.

The Age of Reason received a similarly hostile reception from Christians in colonial America who could not tolerate anybody educated enough to inform them about the horrifying contents of the book they would rather revere than read. It came as a shock to them, as it still does to conservative-fundamentalists today, to discover that The Age of Reason was greatly admired by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Monroe—all of whom were also deists. Monroe actually saved Paine’s life (in 1795 when he was Minister to France) by rescuing him from a French prison and taking him into his own home to recuperate. These men—all of them founding fathers and future presidents of the United States—not only defended Paine’s views and held identical ones; they also befriended him, gave him political sanctuary, and invited him to join them in defending religious freedom and freedom of speech in America. Conservative Christians who breezily assure us that the founding fathers were devout Christians bent on basing the United States of America on Christian principles betray a monumental—and inexcusable—ignorance of what they really believed and committed to print in their autobiographies, public documents, and voluminous correspondence which contradicts on practically every page the idle propaganda fabricated and disseminated by Christian Reconstructionists.

As Paine and Allen would also be the first to admit, few of their criticisms and objections are original. For the most part, they were disseminating criticisms and objections that had been made by European theologians—particularly in Germany. The great achievement of Paine and Allen is that they communicated their views in popular and eminently readable books rather than in ponderous and jargon-ridden tomes with jaw-breaking titles like Vorläufig zu Beherzigendes bei Würdigung der Frage über die historische oder mythische Grundlage des Lebens Jesu.

I will have more to say about Thomas Paine in the chapters that follow. For the time being, permit me to say that if I were asked to recommend a few books by non-Christians that every Christian should read at his or her earliest convenience, Paine’s and Allen’s would be at the top of my list. Close behind would be The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy by C. Dennis McKinsey. The misdirected millions who zealously peruse the devotional fluff that passes for theology in the “Religion” and “Inspirational” sections of bookshops throughout America—not to mention, hungrily devour the nutrition-free spiritual junk food produced, packaged, and marketed by the likes of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyers, and Robert Schuller, are in dire need of the admittedly disturbing but accurate revelations brought to light by freethinkers like Paine and Allen, whose intellectual honesty compelled them to see through the sanitized and whitewashed fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and to recognize it for the intellectually and morally problematic book it is.

Paine vigorously opposed and vehemently protested against European kings and princes who used the authority of the Church to reinforce their political power and against priests, popes, and Protestant clergymen who were only too willing to be used and thereby enhance their control over their parishioners and the masses generally. His experience in France, where at the invitation of Lafayette and Concordet he assisted in drawing up a constitution and writing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, alerted him to the negative, self-serving, and largely reactionary attitude of the clergy about political affairs and the close alliance between them and the aristocracy and monarchy. A tireless opponent of ecclesiastical oppression and a tireless champion of human rights, he was determined to dissolve this alliance in France and throughout Europe, and he was only to happy to throw in his lot with Jefferson and the other founding fathers to prevent the same thing from happening in colonial America.

The emergence in contemporary America of Christian Reconstructionism as a social and political force to be reckoned with—coupled with the fact that conservative presidential candidates shamelessly woo them, court their approval, and yield to their every demand—is a grim indicator that the time is ripe for another Thomas Paine or Steve Allen. Although their books have sadly disappeared into oblivion, their work—the work of reason and rationality must go on—in every area of life, but especially in religion. The battle against intellectual, theological, and moral oppression must be fought anew by each generation. This book is my entry into the fray. I am no Thomas Paine or Steve Allen. But, as with food when one is starving, anything is better than nothing.

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