How Do You Get to Live Forever with Jesus in the Sky?

The apostle Paul’s fully delusional scheme

I occasionally see this meme on Facebook, with attribution to Mark Twain:  “Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.” But this is probably wrong on three counts: (1) I have never been able to verify it as a Twain quote; (2) the first priests—those who stood out from the rest of their clans as possessing connections to the gods—probably were not con artists; (3) and the people who believed them sensed that the connection was genuine. Of course the time would come when con men took over—these days televangelists come to mind especially.

The earliest priests probably speculated about the continuance of life after death, as seems likely from the items found in ancient graves, items that might be needed on a journey in the realm of the dead. There is little in the Old Testament about such journeys; souls descended to sheol, then soon vanished. Even the story of Elijah flying to heaven in a chariot offers no suggestion whatever that this was a blissful realm open to ordinary folks.


But ancient Israel was strategically located on the land bridge connecting Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece—and was an easy target for Roman conquest. Which meant that Judaism, and eventually Christianity, absorbed religious ideas that flourished in these cultures. Christianity would embrace full-blown belief in heaven and hell, Satan, demons, and angels—all products of vivid imaginations trying to figure out the natural world. 


For someone like the apostle Paul, who seems to have been totally freaked out by the fear of death, one aspect of ancient piety had special appeal: the power of a dying-rising god to engineer escape from death. In the earliest New Testament document we see this superstition in full force; in I Thessalonians 4, he promises his readers that their dead relatives will rise to meet Jesus arriving in the sky:


“For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”  (verses 16-17)


“...we will be with the Lord forever.” On the condition, however, that his readers had believed that their particular dying god had in fact risen, as Paul states plainly in Romans 10:9: “...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.” 


But in the wake of Paul’s hallucinations of the dead Jesus speaking to him—and thus his certainties that this risen god was the key to salvation—Paul had to deal with the traditional Jewish belief that the Law given by Yahweh was the way to stay on the god's good side. And this is the thrust of the third chapter of his letter to the Galatians.  My article on Galatians 1 is here; the one Galatians 2 is here.


Naturally, keeping all laws laid down in the Torah was a burden, and there are many stories of Yahweh’s wrath in the wake of disobedience. But when one’s eternal fate became a central focus, the law was a hindrance as well as a burden, hence the appeal to Paul of a magic formula to secure God’s grace: belief in a rising-dying god


And Paul was sure that there was an outstanding example in the Old Testament of belief/faith, long before the law had been given to MosesHe saw what he wanted to see in the 15th chapter of Genesis, the story of Yahweh’s promise to Abraham:   


“And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’  But the word of the LORD came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’  He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the LORD; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”   (Genesis 15:3-6)


This is an addendum to Yahweh’s promise to him in Genesis 12:  


“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  (verses 1-3)


Paul considered Abraham not only an example of steadfast faith, but he also was convinced that the ancient tribal god Yahweh had Jesus Christ in mind so many centuries later—verse 16 as rendered by the KJV:


“Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ.”


Christian scholar R. Alan Cole, in his commentary on Galatians, evaluates this theology:


“[Abraham’s] ‘offspring’ was named as a further beneficiary, and this ‘offspring’, understood at the deepest level, was Jesus Christ...Paul knows as well as any other Hebrew scholar that spermaoffspring, literally, ‘seed’, can have a collective sense even when used in the singular. There would have been no need to use the plural form to cover the meaning ‘descendants’. Paul is saying, in typical Jewish fashion, that there is appropriateness in the use of the singular form here, in that the true fulfillment came only in connection with one person, Christ. Here all must agree: and some at least will agree with Paul that such ‘appropriateness’ is not without the controlling guidance of the Holy Spirit. Later, Paul himself will use sperma, ‘offspring’, in its collective sense, to cover a multitude of descendants.” (page 147, Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary)  


. . .the controlling guidance of the Holy Spirit. . .” This paragraph is a good illustration of why we need secular scholars looking at these ancient texts. R. Alan Cole won high praise as a New Testament scholar, which was well deserved. But alas he was a devotee of the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult: no secular scholar would credit the guidance of a holy spirit. That’s theology, not history.


And there’s a fair share of bad/mediocre theology in Galatians 3. Three items come to mind:


(1) Secular scholars—as well as many mainstream devout scholars—acknowledge that the epic story of Israel’s origins in the Old Testament is folklore: it was created by their poets and theologians. There is no evidence whatever that Abraham or even Moses were historical persons. It would be especially silly to argue that the “conversation” between Yahweh and Abraham actually happened: it’s theology-script. Hebrew folklore does not qualify as evidence for its god—any more than Greek folklore proves its gods.


 (2) Nor is there any grand theology here. This is nationalistic folklore designed to boost confidence that this particular people had a magnificent destiny from the get-go. And, by the way, two very dangerous ideas emerged from this thinking: chosen people and promised land. So much blood has been shed defending and disputing these concepts.


(3) Paul was on the hunt in the Old Testament for texts that would support his hallucinated theology. Just as Matthew tried to apply Isaiah 7:14 and Hosea 11:1 to Jesus—neither of which have anything to do with him—Paul thought the Abrahamic texts in Genesis could be applied to Jesus. But theologians are frequently guilty of such dishonesty, knowing they can usually get away with it. Of course, devout Jewish theologians would argue that Paul was out of his mind, and there are so many texts in his letters for making that case! 


We can say that Paul was an extremist, and many Christians who stumble across Galatians 5:24 would agree: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Beware of any religious leader who wants you to belong to his god. This is an extreme form of being absorbed in Jesus: believing in the resurrected Jesus was what mattered, as he emphasized in Galatians 2:16:


“...a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”


But there was pushbackMany of the early Christians thought of themselves as Jews who happened to believe that Jesus was the messiah—and they weren’t so sure that Paul had it right. When Matthew wrote his Last Judgment scene (chapter 25), good or bad behavior were the standards for being sorted into the kingdom or into eternal fire. It was also Matthew who created Jesus script in the Sermon on the Mount that seems to be an explicit repudiation of Paul’s theology:   


 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:17-19)


I really do wonder how Christians today deal with this theological confusion. I suspect many pious folks are sure that good behavior is the key to getting into heaven: that’s why the iconic image of St. Peter with his ledger at the Pearly Gates has such staying power. They want the Ten Commandments erected in the public square: follow the rules! But then there are other equally pious folks who are sure that their personal relationship with their risen lord is key—belonging to Jesus—confessing with their lips, as Paul put it, that Jesus was raised from the dead: this is the key to heaven. They should be more concerned that Romans 10:9 (cited above) be on public display! Yet none of these latter folks could explain how this differs from a magic spell. Do they even care?


Galatians 3 closes with one of the most famous texts in the New Testament: 

 “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:27-29)

There has perhaps been a temptation, on the basis of these words, to consider Paul a great civil libertarian: all are considered equal. But the last thing on his mind was “equal treatment under the law”. Governments would soon pass away when Jesus arrived in the sky. Those folks who had “clothed themselves with Christ” would join that happy party no matter their gender, nationality, or anything else. It is one of Paul’s grand pronouncements, by which he won converts to his rising-dying savior god; his gimmick worked then and it still does. But it is totally detached from reality.



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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