Pop Quiz for Christians, Number 2

Would your devout friends get passing grades?

In 1927 Bertrand Russell delivered a lecture at the town hall in Battersea, England. The topic was Why I Am Not a Christian, and this is now the title of a book that includes several of his writings. In 2011 Richard Carrier published a 92-page book with the same title. Russell was one of the great minds of the Twentieth Century; Carrier is one of the top Jesus scholars of our time. I’m pretty sure that Christian book stores don’t carry either of these book—i.e., there isn’t a section, “Books Written by Our Atheist Critics.” Devout believers may boast that their faith is unshakeable, but we suspect otherwise. They might identify with the fellow who cried out to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) Thus they keep their distance from anything that might puncture faith.



But there is great irony here: it’s not just atheist authors that Christians have to worry about. The Bible itself plays a major role in destroying belief in a good, competent god. Seth Andrews has fantasized about running a TV quiz show called Hell If I Know, played by devout contestants whose ignorance of the Bible is exposed (see his new book, Christianity Made Me Talk Like an Idiot!). My fantasy involves giving Christians Pop Quizzes to help them grasp how much they don’t know about their own faith. So this is Pop Quiz Number 2. Pop Quiz Number 1 is here


The first question is about science, then the rest are about the Bible.



1.     What is the primary preoccupation of cosmologists, and what fields do they specialize in? What are they trying to find out? Name two of the tools/instruments that have proved most helpful in their work. 


2.     Where do we find the Sermon on the Mount? That is, in which of the gospels? Why do you think this famous sermon is missing from other gospels? List five of the teaching in this famous sermon that you disagree with (come on—be honest!).  

3.     Name four of the major differences between the gospel of Mark and the gospel of John. Why do you think they differ so much?

4.     “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come…” These are the opening words of The Lord’s Prayer. They are a fundamental part of Christian piety. Try to analyze these words, however, as someone who isn’t so used to them. Identify four possible objections to the beliefs reflected here.

5.     Some scholars have expressed doubt that Jesus existed. They identify as Mythicists, suggesting that Jesus was a mythical figure originally, and that the gospels are fictional accounts created decades after the new sect got its start. As farfetched as this may seem to devout believers, name three issues—found in the New Testament itself—that prompt suspicion that Jesus didn’t actually exist. 


Question One: 

Cosmologists are applying their brain power to finding out how the cosmos began. They are astronomers and physicists. Important tools in this search have been (1) The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, (2) the European Space Agency’s Planck Mission, (3) The Hubble Space Telescope. The James Webb Space Telescope, launched recently, has the capacity to collect even more data.  


Cosmologists know that “God did it” is a non-answer, because it provides no evidence for what actually happened and how—especially the version found in Genesis, “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” That is a form of magical thinking common in the ancient world: a god speaks and something happens. Cosmologists are looking for actual data upon which to base solid answers. That requires hunting for the data using the tools mentioned above. This important work of cosmologists is far beyond the horizon of awareness of most of the devout, probably because “God did it” is a curiosity stopper. What amazing tools—those mentioned above—these scientists have created to figure out what’s happening in the universe. By looking at a patch of space no larger than the scoop of the Big Dipper—where the naked eye sees a few twinkling stars—the Hubble telescope photographed more than a million galaxies. This is far beyond the imaginings of the ancient theologians who believed that god’s realm was above the Earth and below the Moon. And, by the way, the cosmologists have found no data supporting the god idea. See especially the essay by Sean Carroll, Why (Almost) All Cosmologists Are Atheists.

Question Two:

The Sermon on the Mount is found in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. The author of Luke’s gospel broke it up, abbreviated it, and said that it took place on a “level place.” It is absent from the gospels of Mark and John. In just five verses in Matthew’s version, 5:28-42, we find several commands that Christians would choose not to obey, which I have bolded:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you

Also, 6:19: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, and 6:25: Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?


The Sermon on the Mount is commonly considered the gold standard for ethical teaching, yet much in it is ignored by Christians. The author of Mark’s gospel probably had never heard of this sermon, and his focus was the imminent kingdom of God that Jesus was soon to bring to earth; John left it out because his major passion was Jesus, the guarantor of eternal life, i.e., belief in that was the key to salvation. We can see that each gospel author had his own agenda, and Matthew felt that Mark—from whom he copied extensively—had to be strengthened. But Richard Carrier reminds us that speeches for heroes in ancient epics were commonly made up; the Sermon on the Mount, he says, is

“…a well-crafted literary work that cannot have come from some illiterate Galilean. In fact, we know it originated in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, because it relies on the Septuagint text of the Bible for all its features and allusions…These are not the words of Jesus. This famous sermon as a whole also has a complex literary structure that can only have come from a writer, not an everyday speaker.”  (pp. 465-466, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt)

Question Three:

1)    In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist; in John’s gospel it doesn’t happen. 2) In Mark’s gospel, the words of the Eucharist are spoken at the Last Supper; in John’s gospel these words are omitted. 3) The huge monologues of Jesus in John’s gospel are missing from Mark’s gospel; how could Mark have missed all this Jesus-script? 4) The whole of Mark’s account of Jesus could have played out in just three or four weeks, while John’s gospel presents it as a three-year ministry. 


It is commonly understood by most New Testament scholars that Mark’s gospel was written first, and John’s last—maybe forty or fifty years apart. This allowed for considerable theology inflation to have happened during those decades—and John excelled at theology inflation: he even has Jesus present at creation, which couldn’t have been further from the mind of Mark’s author. Again, each gospel author had his own agenda—and imagination. These major differences certainly cast down on the claim that these authors were inspired by a god to write “the truth” about Jesus.  

Question Four:

Yes, it is a major challenge to step back from the Lord’s Prayer to analyze it critically and objectively. 


But here’s what can emerge when that happens: (1) assigning to God a human gender label, i.e., father, is a vestige of ancient thinking about God—projecting human traits onto gods, making them in our image—and this has a played a major role in the misogyny that has plagued Christianity: god is male.  (2) placing God “in heaven” also reflects ancient concepts about heaven being a realm located spatially above the earth. Theologians have tried to redefine heaven as a spiritual reality with no specific location, which most of the devout—who are attached to The Man Upstairs—probably find hard to identify with: they want heaven to be up there, otherwise it might just be too mysterious. (3) hallowed be thy name. These are perhaps the most jarring words in this opening of the prayer: why is it necessary to remind a god that its name is holy? What’s the point? This seems to be stroking the divine ego, and also reflects the ancient custom of fashioning gods after tribal chieftains. (4) thy kingdom come. This reflects the theology Mark especially, i.e., there Jesus’ primary role is to usher in the kingdom of God—soon. So it’s no surprise that the Jesus-script in Matthew included asking his disciples to pray for the kingdom to come. Here we are 2,000 years later, and it hasn’t happened.

Question Five:

The indignation index usually goes up when Christians hear the suggestion that Jesus didn’t exist. How dare people say that! But rather than flaming out, isn’t it better to be able to engage intelligently in the debate? 


Here are three factors—among others—that prompt doubt about the historicity of Jesus.  

(1) The gospel authors cite none of their sources. No matter how cherished the gospels are, there is no contemporaneous documentation to validate any of their stories, i.e., letters, diaries, transcripts.  Nobody who lived at the same time Jesus did wrote anything about him that has been preserved. This wildly popular preacher—so the gospels tell us—left no mark at the time. Which is really strange. Jesus is not there where he’s supposed to be. 

(2) The earliest New Testament documents—at least by the dating currently assigned to them (or guessed at) by scholars—proclaim the message of Jesus Christ, lord and savior, with scant mention of Jesus of Nazareth, his preaching and ministry. It’s almost as if there were no story to tell. Why are the epistles largely silent about the peasant preacher from Galilee? Why so little interest? That has caused a lot of anguish among devout scholars. 

(3) Careful analysis of the gospels allows identification of plenty of sources that the authors did use (which fail as contemporaneous documentation), e.g., stories from the Old Testament, borrowings from Greek literature (after all, the gospels were written by Greek-educated authors), and the abundant surrounding religious traditions from which the gospel authors could draw, including miracle folklore. Other gods were said to be born of virgins, other dying-and-rising gods assured salvation for their followers. The gospels are chock full of such miracles, fantasies, and magical thinking. It has proved very hard for New Testament scholars to sift through all these elements to identify the “real Jesus stuff”—if there is any. The gospel writers give no clue—no real data—whatever that they derived their stories about Jesus from eyewitnesses (despite Luke’s claim at the opening of his gospel)—and no contemporaneous documentation is cited. This is not the right way to write history. 


Of course, it’s rough for devout folks—who have been taught to adore the gospels and love their Jesus—to face these issues head on. Among other things, it requires a lot of homework, both reading the gospels super carefully, super critically, and reading the books that address these issues honestly. At the end of the second paragraph of the Introduction to the Cure-for-Christianity Library, you’ll find the names of several mythicist scholars. 

Okay, I admit it: a Pop Quiz for Christians is a form of entrapment. No preacher or priest, no Sunday School or catechism teacher, ever says, “Please fact check everything I’ve told you. Find out the opposing views.” But every question on my two Pop Quizzes is a challenge: do the research, question everything. “I believe, help my unbelief” isn’t good enough—that’s giving the benefit of the doubt to the ecclesiastical establishment. Find out if unbelief isn’t the better, more sensible, way to go.  


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.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.


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