Christian “Truth” in Shreds: Epic Takedown 2

Picking the wrong holy hero

These are two of the biggest con jobs pulled off by the church. (1) Convincing its followers that Jesus was (is) the finest, greatest man who ever lived, which is not at all what we find in the gospels. (2) Fooling everyone about the gospels themselves, that they are the greatest story ever told. Anyone who reads them without faith bias can see this isn’t true. 


But can the con jobs last forever? Maybe people are catching on. This past Monday, John Loftus posted here the link to James A. Haught’s article, Christianity Is Collapsing, showing the data published by Gallup: “Tall-steeple ‘mainline’ Protestant faiths—once the pillar of WASP respectability—suffered worse, dropping so severely they’re dubbed ‘flatline’ Protestantism. Born-again churches followed. Southern Baptists lost two million members since 2006…Sincere people don’t claim to know supernatural things that nobody can know. They reject religion’s magic claims that lack any evidence.”


The gospel stories of Jesus are chock full of anemic fantasies, magical thinking, and bad theology. Hence the clergy of all brands are probably relieved that many lay people can’t be bothered to read the Bible. The official apologists have written countless books and erudite treatises to get around the hundreds—actually thousands—of problem texts that make it so much harder to believe. If the laity don’t discover these texts, so much the better.


The ultimate embarrassment is that the Jesus celebrated in hymns and depicted in stained glass is an idealized figure who bears little resemblance to the Jesus depicted in the gospels. This is not hard to see. Please, Christians, open your eyes, read the gospels critically, unsupervised by priests and preacher who are paid to make the story come out right. 


There’s homework to do outside the Bible as well, and one place to start is John Loftus’ essay in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet.” It’s hard for the faithful to wrap their minds around the idea that Jesus could have failed at anything, and that one of his main ideas was just plain wrong. So pay close attention to this Loftus essay. It is an epic takedown. 


Mind you, knowing what Jesus actually taught is beyond our reach. The problems are insurmountable, trying to figure that out—just from the nature of the gospels. Scholars have been guessing and speculating about the “real” words of Jesus for a long time. But the church can’t wiggle out of the negatives about Jesus, especially the embarrassing gospel depiction of him as an apocalyptic prophet; that is, he himself would soon descend through the clouds to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, forever erasing all rulers and regimes. 


That’s what he promised at his trial, Mark 14:62: “…you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” The imminent arrival of the kingdom was his primary message in Mark’s gospel. Why isn’t this mistake enough to make Christians realize something isn’t right? Did they pick the wrong holy hero?


Loftus states the case bluntly:  


“Either Jesus was a failed prophet or the NT isn’t even somewhat reliable. Either way, this falsifies Christianity. If we cannot trust the NT, then the basis for Christian beliefs fails. But if Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, then surely he wouldn’t get something so important so dead wrong.” (p. 316)


It doesn’t take too much common sense to figure out what can’t be trusted in the New Testament. In its earliest document, I Thessalonians, the apostle Paul promised his followers that their dead relatives would rise first to meet Jesus in the air—and he himself would be there for this triumph. Jesus’ promise at his trial should put people off, as well as:


·       Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  (Matthew 24:34)


·       When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:23)


One of the main appeals of the early Jesus cult was the assurance that The End Time—deliverance that the new Kingdom of God represented—would be soon. And Jesus is portrayed as the hero who would be center stage. 


Loftus points out:


“The most essential element is an eschatological prophetic community is a charismatic leader who makes a prediction of an impending doom in the immediate future. Without this prediction there would be no sense of urgency, no need to form a community, and no need to prepare for it in the present. It must be near. It must be soon. It must be an immediate concern.” (p. 320) 


Are Christians sure they have the right holy hero when they come across these texts?


·      “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”  (Matthew 24:37-39)


·      “For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” (Matthew 24:21)                            

·      “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10:34-26)

Loftus quotes Bart Ehrman, who pointed out that Jesus “…urged his followers to abandon their homes and forsake their families for the sake of the kingdom that was soon to arrive. He didn’t encourage people to pursue fulfilling careers, make a good living, and work for a just society for the long haul; for him, there wasn’t going to be a long haul.” (p. 244 in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium) To which Loftus adds: “This best explains why Jesus’ ethic isn’t livable, as much as Christian commentators have tried to make it appear so, because there was a ‘long haul’ after all.” (p. 322)  


It’s hard to ignore the cult extremism that we find in the bulleted Jesus quotes above, which means that apologists scramble to praise the good things attributed to Jesus, e.g., the parables of the good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. But sometimes too much praise is heaped where it doesn’t belong. In a footnote, Loftus mentions scholar Paula Fredriksen’s comment: “No human society could long run according to the principles enunciated in the Sermon on the Mount.” (p. 100, From Jesus to Christ) Many devout Christians would see what she means; they would willingly cross out so many lines in that famous sermon if they didn’t know that Jesus supposedly said them.


Loftus also discusses Luke 17:20-21, which seems to be an attempt to tone things down, in terms of the immediacy of the kingdom:


“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, 'The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”


What was Luke up to? He was the ultimate defender of the early Jesus cult, as we can see from his warning that divided loyalties were not acceptable, e.g., Luke 14:26, hatred of families was required to be a disciple. Luke’s gospel was likely written two or three decades after Mark, so there might have been disappointment that the kingdom hadn’t shown up. How to modify expectations?  “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed…”


What a change! This is not what the author of Mark 13 had in mind: 

 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened,    and the moon will not give its light,  and the stars will be falling from heaven,    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”  (Mark 13:24-26)

Luke was the author of the Book of Acts as well, and Loftus notes that in Acts 3:21 Peter is given this script, that Jesus “…must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.” Luke was in a bind, but as most theologians do—he had to make things up. Again, Loftus’ comment:


“So according to what the author of Acts tells us, by putting these specific words on the lips of Peter, the eschaton was not supposed to happen in Peter’s lifetime, but rather sometime in the future. What started out as an urgent call to action based upon an immediate eschaton has now been altered to cover up a failed prophecy.” And this is hardly a surprise: “Such talk of an immediate eschaton is completely removed in John’s Gospel.” (p. 331)


In the last few pages of the essay, Loftus discusses efforts of contemporary apologists to excuse these theological goofs in the New Testament:


“…we have a splintered array of eschatological theories coming from Christians who are trying to interpret and harmonize the NT with itself as if it were the inspired word of God and consistent in every respect. In light of nearly two thousand years and no return of Jesus in sight, Christian eschatological theories are in a major crisis.” (p. 333)


But there’s not much that can be done, given the clear meaning of so many gospel texts. The apologists have quite a task, trying to escape what Jesus would do, as Loftus explains:


“Clearly the events expected by Jesus and his followers were cosmic in scope, and soon to occur. It was not only going to be end of all of the kingdoms of men on earth but a total cosmic catastrophe in which the stars literally fall from heaven and the present earth is burned up, after which God inaugurates a literal kingdom with the ‘Son of Man’ reigning on a new earth from a new Jerusalem, in their very day. This prophesied event did not happen.” (p. 336)


With the title of the essay, has Loftus overstated his case? “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet.”  Those who are so attached to Jesus—the church marketing campaign has worked so well—may want to overlook this flawed theology attributed to Jesus. He said so many good things, right? But there are too many texts influenced by these catastrophic depictions of God getting even with humanity—to the extend of wiping it out….as in the days of Noah. There is vindictiveness in Jesus’ preaching. In the last judgment scene in Matthew 25, the folks who aren’t compassionate enough will end up in eternal fire. And he came not to bring peace, but a sword. It would be a good move for Christians to look away from the stained glass Jesus long enough to read the gospels with a keen, critical eye. It’s not as easy as you might think to find Jesus at his best.


Two years ago, by the way, I wrote another article (The Jesus Nobody Wants) on this Loftus essay.


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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