Maybe Jesus Himself Could Talk You Out of Christianity

There’s so much he shouldn’t have said!

A few years ago I asked a prominent Italian journalist: “Can it possibly be true that the Vatican hierarchy really believes the wacky ideas that the church promotes?” For example, transubstantiation, papal infallibility, immaculate conception, the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven. He responded, “Oh, maybe half of them do. Don’t forget, it’s a business.” The primary product of this business is Jesus, and for twenty centuries the church has worked hard to hype the product. The apostle Paul got the ball rolling with his message that he’d had private conversations with the dead Jesus, whom he was convinced was alive in heaven. Paul was confident that believing in resurrected Jesus was the key to salvation. This is a perfect example of magical thinking: believe something and voilĂ , you get your wish. Decades after Paul, the gospel writers wrote their stories about Jesus the Wonder Worker.



But, as it turns out, all of these documents were beyond the reach of laypeople. The ordinary folks who attended church didn’t have Bibles, so they trusted Jesus as presented in ritual and art.  The church invented creeds for people to recite, e.g., the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, which curiously enough, left out the ministry and teaching of Jesus. Their focus was on correct belief required for salvation, and this too reflects magical thinking: if you faithfully mouth all this theobabble—to put it bluntly—you’re believing the right stuff. The ritual also included awesome ceremony, costuming, and music—what a magnificent thing the pipe organ is! Ritual also made a special thing of consuming the body and blood of Jesus. And during all this, worshippers could look up to see depictions of their magnificent Jesus (do a Google search for “Jesus depicted in stained glass). 


There were the consequences for not believing correctly. The horrible side of Christian theology is the certainty that there will be severe punishment for rejection of Jesus. Yes, torment by fire, forever. In the Old Testament, Yahweh promised destruction and suffering for backsliders who didn’t keep the law or who bowed down to other gods, but hell was missing. The authors of the New Testament added that, and they also kept alive the idea that God is wrathful. John the Baptist scolded the religious authorities who showed up to witness his baptisms: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7) The apostle Paul was certain that wrath was God’s default emotion:

“But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Romans 2:5-8)

Later, when the gospel authors created Jesus-script, they included this nasty, get-even theology. Laypeople today—as surveys have shown—don’t do a lot of Bible reading. Even though the Bible has been in the hands of worshippers for a long time now, the church hype about their wonderful savior matters far more than troubling, even horrifying, Jesus quotes found in gospels. They hold fast to what Bart Ehrman has called “the ideal Jesus of the imagination.” 

There are so many Jesus quotes that, if pious church folks heard them yelled by a crazy street preacher today, they would walk away quickly, muttering, “What a nut-job.” How did it happen that appalling, alarming Jesus-script ended up in the gospels? Their authors were not, in fact, concerned to promote an ideal Jesus of the imagination. Their purpose was to advance severe, intolerant theology; they were sure their religion was the only right one—and there would be dire consequences for those who ignored their message. 


For example, when Jesus sent his disciples out to preach in villages, he assured them that people who didn’t listen to them would be punished: 


“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”  (Matthew 10:14-15)


Sodom and Gomorrah were burned to the ground. So that will happen to towns that can’t be bothered to listen to wandering preachers? This mean-spirited theology is a sign of cult fanaticism. Clearly the author of Matthew’s gospel included this Jesus-script because this was how he wanted events to play out. Surely one of the reasons that hell-fire has had such staying power in Christian thinking is that fire as punishment is so prominent in teaching attributed to Jesus. We find this in Matthew 13:


“Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  (Matthew 13:40-42)


In the famous judgment scene in Matthew 25, a few of the verses are quoted a lot, others not so much. The theme here is who deserves heaven and who deserves hell. Those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those in prison, etc., will win God’s favor. But those who fail these standards of compassion are out of luck: 


“You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink... And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”   (verses 41-42 & 46)


How in the world do devout folks—so caught up in adoration of their ideal Jesus—reconcile themselves to these words of their savior in Luke 12? 


I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son, and son against father, mother against daughter, and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”   (Luke 12:49-53)


Why is such division anticipated? Cult leaders commonly demand full allegiance to the group, hence family allegiances must be broken once you’re in the cult. This reminds us of the rude response of Jesus to a man who wanted to follow him, but he first had to go home to bury his father: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”  (Matthew 8:22) Such stridency is reflected as well in Matthew 22:37, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Our cult’s god want all your devotion. Most Christians today, if they carefully pondered this commandment, would have to confess: No, that’s not how I live my life, focused all, all, all on God. 

In a chilling story in Acts 5, Peter scolds a couple for not giving to the church all the money they earned from selling a field. They both dropped dead, and—no surprise—“…great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” (Acts 5:11) Matthew 12:36-37 is in this same category of threat-theology: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”


That’s how cults thrive: our god will get even with you.

In first gospel written, Mark, the focus is the much anticipated—and soon to arrive—Kingdom of God. That’s its primary message, with little preaching about moral ideals (hence Matthew added the Sermon on the Mount). We read that, at his trial, Jesus was asked if he was the messiah; this was his answer to that audience: “I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:62) Maybe modern Christians give a wink-wink to this (“Well, Jesus just got the timing wrong, but he will arrive in the clouds to bring the kingdom”), and they assume it will be a wonderful thing. 

Again, however, what did the gospel writers—the cult promoters—have to say about this? Matthew reports these words of Jesus:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 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 24:36-39) Here Jesus seems to be driving home the point he made just a few verses earlier: “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.” (verse 21)

So when Jesus arrives, most of humanity will be killed off? It’s not hard at all to pick up on such cult madness in the gospels. These texts are not hidden away. They’re in full view. I often ask, “Are Christians just not paying attention?” Of course they’re not. One Catholic woman, years ago when I was speaking about Jesus arriving on the clouds, remarked: “I didn’t know he was supposed to come back.” Or when they do come across these horrible texts, they brush right by them: “I guess I don’t understand, but God is mysterious after all.” The ideal Jesus of the imagination is locked in—not to be dislodged by curiosity, skepticism and honest reading of the texts. The same can be said of professional Christian apologists who are committed to defending Jesus’ reputation. 

Of course, the text that presents the biggest challenge—to theologians, Bible editors and translators—is Luke 14:26: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” The Greek word for hate is right there, and Luke reported this as a Jesus saying for a reason: loyalty to the cult, not to family, was a supreme value. 


Defenders of the faith react a couple of ways to the cult-centric texts: 


First: “You’re taking these words out of context!” But please, in what context would these verses be okay? And I have identified the context: the gospel authors were advocates for their particular cult. 


Second: There are many wonderful, feel-good texts that must be considered as well. Yes, of course there are, but they don’t nullify these texts. In fact, they increase the tension; they add to the incoherence of Christian theology. Surely this is one of the best texts: “Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’” (Matthew 18:21-22) Jesus coaches people to behave this way, but given the dismal history of Christians fighting each other, we wonder if, here again, Christians aren’t paying attention. But, according to Jesus, God himself is not bound by this rule of abundant forgiveness: you’ll get tossed into eternal fire if you’re not compassionate enough; you will be judged by every careless word you utter; your town will be burned to the ground if you decline to listen to Jesus’ disciples.  


When I was preparing to write my book published last August (Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught), I reread the gospels carefully. I compiled a list of Jesus quotes that don’t measure up: they’re not what we would expect of a superior moral teacher. The total came to 292, and the list is available on the book’s website. 


A lot of ex-Christian folks have said that the Bible itself was one of the main reasons they walked away from the faith. When we look at all the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels, it’s not a stretch to suggest that maybe Jesus himself could talk you out of Christianity.




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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