Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught

The popular practice of ignoring Jesus

Increasingly, in recent decades, core Christian beliefs have been subjected to withering criticism and analysis. The problem of suffering keeps getting in the way of accepting that there is a caring, competent God in charge, as I discussed in my article here last week, God’s Credibility Is Running on Empty. But specifics of Christian doctrine also appear, after all, to be untenable: careful study of the Easter stories in gospels demonstrates that they fail to qualify as history. See especially, (1) Jonathan MS Pearce, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story; (2) Michael J. Alter, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry; (3) John Loftus’ essay, “The Resurrection of Jesus Never Took Place,” in his anthology, The Case Against Miracles; (4) Richard Carrier’s essay, “Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It.”


I suspect that many Christians themselves sense that suffering—especially when it arrives calamitously in their own lives—damages their faith in God’s goodness. But the resurrection stories probably are naively accepted because the faithful have been conditioned to tolerate the high levels of fantasy and magical thinking in the gospels. They may stumble a bit if they read Matthew’s story about a lot of dead people walking out of their tombs on Easter morning, but the acclamation, “He is risen!” is usually not diminished. The apostle Paul seems to have locked in this belief: “…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.” (Romans 10:9)


But devout Christians are not usually prepared to face another reality: that the teachings of Jesus himself diminish the value of the gospels. In fact, he taught a lot of things that most Christians don’t believe at all, and blatantly ignore. On so many issues they don’t want to know what Jesus would do. Why is it that so many of the devout just don’t notice that their holy hero, supposedly their Lord and Savior, doesn’t measure up as a great moral teacher?


It’s not such a mystery after all. Here are a couple of hard facts about Christian piety:


Fact Number 1: For centuries the church has promoted an idealized Jesus. We can see Jesus depicted in great art and stained glass windows. In Handel’s Messiah we find the words of Isaiah 9:6 applied to Jesus, For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given… And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. When priests and preachers speak about Jesus from the pulpit, the folks in the pews usually hear positive, feel-good verses from the gospels.


Fact Number 2:  most Christians don’t read the Bible very much. One research article published in 2017 was titled, Americans Are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read It. Check out the chart at the link. We rarely—if ever—hear Christians say, “Tonight I’m going home to read the gospel of Mark straight through.” There are too many other options: TV, movies, sports. 


So, the many negatives about Jesus go unnoticed, undiscovered. In my new book, Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons for Questioning His Words, the bad, mediocre, alarming things Jesus taught are sorted into ten chapters. While I was working on the book, I reread the gospels carefully for the umpteenth time in my 78 years and created an Excel spreadsheet, a chart of disappointing Jesus quotes. The total came to 292. I sorted them into four categories: (1) preaching about the end time; (2) scary extremism; (3) bad advice and bad theology; (2) the unreal Jesus in John’s gospel. This chart is included on the book’s website, www.BadThingsJesusTaught.com.


But in the book, you will find these inferior Jesus quotes arranged under ten headings. Here’s the Table of Contents:


Foreword by David Fitzgerald                                                                                 

Part 1 – Ten Troublesome Teachings

  1. Be Careful Not to Love Too Much
  2. Don’t Worry about Basic Human Needs
  3. Never Say No to a Borrower
  4. Give Me Everything
  5. Remarrying After Divorce Is Adultery
  6. You Are Accountable for Every Word
  7. You Can Do Magic
  8. I Don’t Want Everyone to Understand Me
  9. Do What I Say or I Will Hurt You
  10. I Will Return During Your Lifetime

My appeal to Christians in this book is simple: resist the impulse to rationalize these sayings that don’t sound right—to say the least—and give serious thought to their implications. Or, as I put it in the book:

“I’m calling out a silent rebellion by followers of Jesus—including many of his most devout disciples—against some of his key teachings. One characteristic of these teachings is that if they were uttered by anyone other than Jesus, these same believers would reject them immediately and openly, instead of pretending they must mean something else or are too mysterious to grasp.”

Where will serious inquiry into Jesus script lead you, and what are the implications for the faith? One of the common reactions among the faithful is denial: “Jesus couldn’t have said that!” This is based, of course, on the idealized Jesus they’ve been primed to believe in and taught to love. The irony is that many New Testament scholar say pretty much the same thing, but for different reasons. They have discovered that there is no way at all to verify any of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels. In Part 2 of the book I discuss the problems scholars have identified that block our view of the “real words of Jesus”—if there were any. In the final chapter I ask readers to ponder how Mark and John differ in their presentations of Jesus; the latter specialized in theology inflation

Part 2 – Other Reasons to Question

  1. Four Obstacles to Knowing What Jesus Said
  2. Two Versions of Jesus

John Loftus has said this about the impact of my arguments:

“In this book Dr. Madison lands a dozen punches against common assumptions about Jesus. We find ten categories of Jesus teachings that most Christians simply ignore or reject, then a summary of research by scholars—including devout Christian scholars—showing that the words of Jesus cannot be verified: 'There is virtually no chance that authentic words of Jesus are preserved in the gospels.' But then the faithful find this embarrassment: 'There are many Jesus sayings that Christians wouldn’t take seriously at all if they didn’t know Jesus said them.' Madison shows that far too many of the sayings of Jesus don’t make sense. They’re incoherent, containing impractical commands, and based on shallow and/or magical thinking, which are typical of cultic authoritarian leaders who demand blind obedience. This is an enlightening book by a biblical scholar who’s also a master communicator. I’m a big fan of his. Get! It! You! Must!”

John C. Wathey, author of The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing, wrote a review on Amazon, which includes these paragraphs:

“This lucid, insightful, and concise book takes a unique approach to the problem of Christian faith. Biblical scholar David Madison approaches the reader in a spirit of empathy and generosity but also uncompromising honesty. More specifically, he approaches Christian readers on their own turf. In the first ten chapters he assumes, for the sake of argument, that the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels are accurate representations of his teachings. If we accept this premise, is Jesus truly the greatest teacher of all time? Do his words really match the image of the loving Savior we were told about as children in Vacation Bible School? The answers will shock a great many Christians who have never read the New Testament completely, carefully, and honestly.

“Of course, many Christians are so deeply committed to their faith that nothing will shake the scales from their eyes, and Madison obviously understands this. But he also knows, from his own experience, that there are intellectually honest Christians who struggle with doubt and that a deep, open-minded study of Scripture only makes the problem worse. This book is ideal for people who are on that difficult path. It takes courage to seek truth, wherever that journey leads, but this book will help.”

Sometimes I’m told, “The people you really want to reach won’t read the book.” But I want to reach a wide variety of people. Yes, fellow disbelievers who are looking for resources as they interact with believers. It’s also important to grasp that Christians exist on a scale. There are those who qualify as 10’s. Nothing we can say—no rational arguments at all—can change their minds. Hope of heaven hangs in the balance. However, there are Christians who fall elsewhere on the scale. Maybe the childhood indoctrination didn’t work so well, and doubts come into play often enough. As nonbelievers we can encourage them to actually read the Bible—of all things. They shouldn’t settle for the feel-good texts read from the pulpit. There are 292 Jesus quotes that should bother people…and bring on that most corrosive habit: critical thinking.


“Three strikes and you’re out!” This applies to Christianity as well as to baseball. 


Christianity Strike 1: The concept of a loving, attentive, competent God is falsified by the colossal levels of human and animal we see around us every day. Clichés about his mysterious ways and free will don’t work.


Christianity Strike 2: The most fundamental doctrine of the faith, the resurrection of Jesus, cannot be sustained in the wake of critical analysis of the gospel stories of Easter morning. They are a blend of fantasy, folklore, and magical thinking. 


Christianity Strike 3: Jesus doesn’t measure up as a great moral teacher—in fact, far from it. He is one of the faith’s biggest problems. 




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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