What to Do When You Disagree with Jesus?

Priests and preachers sweep so much under the rug

We are so used to easy access to the Bible it’s easy to forget that for most of Christian history the laity did not have the Bible. That became possible in the wake of the invention of the printing press in 1450, and the move in the following century to translate the Bible into the languages spoken by the laity. So for well over a thousand years the church got people to believe what it wanted them to believe about Jesus. It sold an idealized Jesus based primarily on Paul’s hallucinations of a resurrected Jesus who ruled in heavenly realms. During this long dark age of Bible ignorance, the laity learned the story of their lord through great works of art, stunning stained-glass renderings, and the word spoken from pulpits.



But this was a highly edited, filtered version of Jesus.  “What Jesus did while on earth was irrelevant to what he could do for you now that he was exalted to the highest throne in heaven, and it was this heavenly Jesus that was sold to the masses, not some dead carpenter from Galilee.” (Richard Carrier, The End of Christianity, edited by John Loftus p. 57) Even Jesus’ earthly deeds were depicted selectively, e.g. miraculously feeding thousands with a few loaves, raising the dead, healing people by touch, and, of course, at the end ascending to heaven after being resurrected: a holy hero of magnificent dimensions.    


Even when the laity finally got easy access to be the Bible, did that make much difference in their perception of Jesus? Surveys in recent years have shown that most Christians don’t make a habit of diligent Bible reading—let alone diligent Bible study. They don’t come at it with a critical frame of mind. Not many of the faithful show up at church on Sunday morning with a list of questions for the pastor: “I found these Bible verses quite upsetting—how can these possibly be true?” And yes, many of these verses are Jesus quotes. Pastors and priests have been trained to offer excuses, diversions, deflections: “Well, Jesus couldn’t have meant that.” 


The inconvenient truth, however, is that there are lots of Jesus quotes that damage his status as a great moral teacher. In my reading of the gospels over the years I’ve wondered: How does the church get away with it? If lay readers really paid attention, they’d be pestering their pastors continually to get explanations for the mediocre and offensive Jesus quotes. My frustration with this built enough for me to write a book about it, which was published in August, Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn't Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His WordsIn preparation for this I reread the gospels for the umpteenth time in my 79 years, and created an Excel spreadsheet—a master list of mediocre, bad, alarming Jesus quotes. The total come to 292. 


This list can be found on the book’s website: BadThingsJesusTaught.com. Christians may scoff: how can there possibly be any, let alone 292? But I’m pretty sure if many of these Jesus quotes were presented to Christians without telling them that these are words of Jesus found in the gospels, they would reject them without question, and ignore them without hesitation. And they would probably raise their eyebrows if they heard the “excuses for Jesus” offered by their priests and preachers. 


Now, in my book I don’t discuss all 292 of these Jesus quotes. That would have made the book unwieldly—and far too long. I divided the book into four categories of quotes: 1) preaching about the end time; 2) scary extremism; 3) bad advice and bad theology; 4) the unreal Jesus of John’s gospel. But it turns out that wasn’t the best approach. One of the dangers that writers face—especially those who work alone, as I do—is that we don’t see the problems that a good editor does. So when I submitted the manuscript to my editor/publisher, Tim Sledge, of Insighting Growth Publications, he saw that the book was still unwieldy and lacked focus for maximum impact. 


He recommended that we call dramatic attention to the main problem: these Jesus quotes make many Christians uncomfortable, to the point of questioning the wisdom of their lord and savior—if they’re inclined to be totally honest about it. He suggested a different organization of the material with a high impact title: Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn't Taught. Which was precisely my point. And it wasn’t difficult at all for Tim to identify ten categories (see the Table of Content on the book’s website). 


It’s a good idea to find an editor with intense familiarity with the subject at hand: Tim Sledge—for more than 30 years a Southern Baptist preacher—has written several books, two of which are especially relevant: Goodbye Jesus: An Evangelical Preacher’s Journey Beyond Faith and Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief.


So: What to do when you disagree with Jesus? 


First option: Walk away. Admit that the religion based on this holy hero doesn’t work. It’s not the product as promoted and advertised for centuries. A lot of people have come to the realization that they were fooled as children. Christianity has followed the practice of hundreds of other religions: indoctrinate the young. Faith, not curiosity, is the primary virtue. 


Second option: Hold on for dear life to the idealized Jesus by assuming that preachers and priests can offer good excuses for the bad Jesus quotes: surely they know what they’re talking about. The bad Jesus quotes are not what they seem to be, and we hear the common apologetics: Jesus was speaking metaphorically, he was using hyperbole and exaggeration to make his points. This is one way to put the best possible spin on these problem texts. But one obvious question: just how do these modern defenders of the faith know what Jesus was thinking? Never mind: devout folks who have attached their hopes for heaven on Jesus want to preserve the idealized Jesus. 


My book is an appeal for Christians to face the bad Jesus quotes honestly: deal with what seems to be the plain meaning of the texts. Study them at a level beyond the excuses offered by the clergy. As I put it in the book, I’m calling out a silent rebellion against the assumption that the Jesus quotes must be okay. That’s been the party line of the Christian bureaucracy for as long as the laity have had access to the Bible. But it is truly hard to sustain that defense.  


Third option: Agree with Jesus! Or more bluntly, embrace the bad Jesus quotes—they’re actually okay. Which means embracing the bad theology they’re based on. And we see strident, vindictive, malevolent Christianity all around us, because many believers adopt the strident, vindictive, malevolent Jesus quotes. And the delusional ones too. 


I suspect even many Christians roll their eyes when the crazies make headlines by announcing the date when Jesus will arrive on the clouds; the clock on that has been reset endlessly. Jesus had predicted at his trial what he would arrive on the clouds to bring the kingdom (Mark 14:62). He promised those at his trial that they would witness this. This text is included in Chapter 10 of my book, I Will Return in Your Lifetime. The immediacy of the kingdom is obvious in Mark’s gospel especially, which prompted my article here three years ago: Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot—there I wrote: If you accept the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, you are well on the way to full-throttle crazy religion.


There are two things about the predicted kingdom that should bother Christians: 


First, the Jesus script in Mark 14:62 is obviously wrong. Jesus did not descend through the clouds, to be seen by those who had attended his trial. The author of Mark’s gospel was just as wrong about that as the apostle Paul was with his promise in I Thessalonians that he himself would be alive to see dead Christians rise from their graves to meet Jesus in the sky. Folks who still look to the sky to see Jesus arrive ignore the timing mentioned in the New Testament.   


Second:—and this is simply bad theology: the arrival of the kingdom, as depicted in Jesus-script, will be a dreadful event: there will be more suffering than at the time of Moses, indeed since the beginning of creation itself. Christians who are so fond of John 3:16—"God so loved the world”—are simply not paying attention the god-inflicted horrors depicted in Mark 13, which is cruel, scary Jesus-script.    


My Chapter 9 titledDo What I Say or I Will Hurt You, focuses on more Jesus threats. His preaching about eternal fire falls into this category (the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25). He also assured the disciples that villages that did not welcome their preaching would be burned to the ground on the Day of Judgment. 


Yes, there are Christians who savor this kind of get-even theology: they relish the idea that God is ready to bring swift punishment. They welcome these severe Jesus quotes—there’s no such thing as wishing Jesus hadn’t taught them. God has terror in mind for gay marriage, gay-day at Disney, and abortion. This is what I mean by strident, vindictive, malevolent Christianity. These Jesus quotes represent a threat to a peaceful society in which we show a high level of tolerance for human differences and treat each other with respect. These Jesus quotes have pushed Christianity in the direction of cult extremism, which I also touch on in my Chapter 1Be Careful Not to Love Too Much. There I discuss the infamous verse Luke 14:26, in which Jesus teaches hatred of family as a requirement for being a disciple. Theologians and preachers have gone to extraordinary lengths to put a positive spin on this; some apologists have tentatively embraced this teaching: after all—so they say—nothing should dilute our devotion to God. No doubt the author Luke, who was a propagandist for the early Jesus cult, wanted to make exactly that point. But contemporary Christians who don’t identify with such extremism see the problems with such Jesus quotes. They have every right to be suspicious of shallow arguments designed to make Jesus look good. They really do wish Jesus hadn’t taught such things. 


So, back to the question: what to do when you disagree with Jesus? Yes, there are good Jesus quotes, but they are similar to teachings of other religious leaders. Jesus isn’t a standout. The bad, mediocre, alarming Jesus quotes suggest that walking away may be the decent thing to do.      



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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