Maybe the Apostle Paul Could Talk You Out of Christianity

So much that he wrote is just plain wrong

How astounding is this: one of the founding heroes of the Christian faith wrote letters—he was obsessive about it—and we still have those letters today. Actually, the originals were lost, so we have copies of copies of copies, many generations of copies removed from the originals. Which means that quite a few errors crept into the text—some words also got left out by mistake—but it’s still quite something that we have what we do. For anyone who is genuinely curious about what Christian thought was like, right at the beginning, these letters are a treasure, preserved in the New Testament. It is a curiosity that Jesus himself didn’t think of writing letters, to codify his insights about God. After all, he was part of God himself, the divine trinity. If not letters, why not treatises? Just preaching words that evaporated into the air as he wandered Palestine seems so inadequate. Moreover, the Jesus-script that we have in the gospels probably was invented by their authors, writing decades later: there’s no way to verify any of the words attributed to Jesus. But, hey, the gospel writers had firmly held theological ideas about Jesus. So they’re worth reading, right?



There’s startling irony here, however. If I were to approach the Christians I know and say, “Let’s discuss the gospel of Mark, you go first,” would any of them know where to begin? Surveys have shown that so many Christians just don’t read the Bible. Skipping Leviticus or Ezekiel I can understand, but shouldn’t the gospels be familiar, well-known territory to church-goers? Sad to say, however, that isn’t the case, and Paul’s letters get even less attention. That’s no surprise: they are a much tougher read than the gospels. Then too, why bother? Isn’t what you learned in Sunday School and catechism enough? Folks seem to trust the creeds, the rituals—and they’re pretty sure what they’ve learned from ministers and priests can be taken on faith.


We know that’s not good enough. Many of the words of Jesus in the gospels are pretty awful, enough for me to write a book about ten things even Christians wish Jesus hadn’t said—if they’d bother to read the gospels! Hence my article here on the DC Blog a while back, Maybe Jesus Himself Could Talk You Out of Christianity


The situation with the apostle Paul is even worse. He achieved saint status, and the story of his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (told three times in the Book of Acts) has boosted his hero status. He was the tireless missionary, as comes across both in his letters and in Acts. But his Christ obsession turns out not to have been a healthy one, and from his letters it is clear that he was a deeply troubled person. Christian theologians have worked hard spin it differently, but others have been less sympathetic, e.g. British scholar A. N. Wilson wrote: “To say that the apostle Paul was self-contradictory is an understatement. He was a man who was fighting himself and quarreling with himself all the time…and he managed to project the warfare in his own breast onto the Cosmos itself.”  (Wilson, Jesus: A Life)


Paul provides insight into that warfare, in these verses in his Letter to the Romans, 7:15-20:


“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me. For I know that the good does not dwell within me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do the good lies close at hand, but not the ability. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me.”


What was the solution to that? Throughout the ages, countless people have claimed to be deeply influenced by visions—that is, they have been/are certain to have thereby glimpsed the divine realm. With good reason, we suspect brain defects instead, e.g., frontal lobe epilepsy, varieties of mental illnesses, hallucinations. Paul’s obsession was that Jesus, from the heavenly realms, had spoken to him. And this truly seized his brain. He became a fanatic. Surprisingly, conservative Christian scholar, Ben Witherington III, admits that there’s 


 “…little doubt that most moderns, even most modern Western Christians, would have been taken aback by Paul. We would have seen him, both before and probably also after his conversation, as a fanatic. We would also likely have seen him as too driven and too single-minded—a person without a life apart from his missionary work.” (What Have They Done with Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible, pp. 235-236)


One theological certainty that impacted Paul’s thinking—as a devout Jew—was the expectation that God would send a messiah to rescue Israel from its enemies. From his visions he was convinced that Jesus had been assigned this role—and that it would happen soon. Moreover, belief in Jesus was the key to escaping the sin that dwelt withinand even death. Thus a torrent of bad theology flowed from Paul's visions, as is clear from his letters. If many Christians today took the time to read these letters carefully, they would have to confess, “No, this is not the Christianity that I practice.” But it’s right there in the New Testament. Some might even agree that he was nuts. 


Bad Theology, Example One


The earliest Christian document we have—as many scholars believe—is Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians (commonly called First Thessalonians, but the second one is thought to be a forgery). He addressed one of their worries: some of their friends and relatives who had accepted Christ had already died. So would they be out of luck when Jesus arrives? We wonder how Paul came up with the answer he gave them: he promised them that the dead will rise first to meet Jesus in the air—and that he himself will be joining this party in the sky (verse 4:17). Would Christians still be waiting for Jesus to arrive 2,000 years later? Not a chance. Throughout his letters, Paul cautions his readers to be ready; it would happen soon. 


Bad Theology, Example Two


It just won’t do to claim, “Well, Paul just had the timing wrong.” His theology itself was wrong. He expected his new converts to reorder the priorities of their lives. Modern Christians know that they don’t live as Paul urged. This text in I Corinthians 7:29-31 should help talk church-goers out of Christianity; they have no way to identify with this advice:


“…the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” 


“…the appointed time has grown short… the present form of this world is passing away.” Hence this was Paul’s truth: 

·      husbands should act as if they don’t have wives 

·      don’t give in to mourning  

·      forget about being happy  

·      ignore your possessions  

·      stop dealing with the world 


The first bullet is also reflected in Galatians 5:24, “And those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Come on, all ye faithful followers of Jesus, you’re no longer interested in sex? Is this the Christianity you signed up for? If you say Yes, but you’re not in a monastery or convent, I don’t believe you. At some point, someone has talked you out of Paul’s understanding of Jesus. The theologian who came up with this Jesus-script in Matthew 5:28 was just as afraid of sexuality: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” 


Bad Theology, Example Three


My guess is that not too many Christian pastors who offer pre-marital counseling will suggest that couples turn to I Corinthians 7 for guidance. I quoted vv. 29-31 above, but the chapter gets off to a bad start.


“It is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife what is due her and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”   (vv. 2-5)


And then: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”  (vv.8-9)


So, a man shouldn’t touch a woman, but if that can’t be helped, go ahead and get married. Go ahead and have sex—because of your lack of self-control. Paul sets the best example that he wishes people would follow, i.e., by not being married. He was clueless: don’t most folks look forward to getting married because, among other things, they want to be aflame with passion? The verses reflect Paul’s distress that sin dwelt within him; he was alarmed about his own sexuality. As A. N. Wilson suggested, he projected the warfare within his own breast onto the cosmos itself. He certainly projected it onto marriage. Today we would refer him to therapy.


Bad Theology, Example Four


One of the finest bits of theology in the New Testament is the Jesus-script we find in Matthew 18:21-22:


“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”  


We know that god himself, as described in both the Old and New Testaments, doesn’t meet this standard (see especially Dan Barker, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, and Steven Wells, Drunk with Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible.) And the apostle Paul fell far short of it himself. He seems to have relished the idea that god was going to get even. He was sure that wrath was god’s primary method of dealing with humans. Here he sounds very much like a crank preacher:


Romans 1:18: …the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth.


Romans 2:5: 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.  


Romans 5:8: …while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but injustice, there will be wrath and fury.


Even Paul’s god himself played a role in engineering sin:

“God gave them over to an unfit mind and to do things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of injustice, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die, yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.”  Romans 1:28-32

Notice in this list of those who deserve to die: people who are full of envy, gossips, those who are haughty, and are rebellious toward parents. There is precious little forgiveness here, or willingness to reach out to people to help them improve. There is actually so much injustice and malice on this list—so doesn’t Paul himself, according to his own decree, deserve to die? Protestant theologian C. H. Dodd (1884-1973) once called The Book of Romans “the first great work of Christian theology.” But I suspect that if many Christians today studied Romans carefully, they’d decide to walk away from Paul’s brand of faith. 

Please notice that these four elements of Bad Theology are firmly anchored in the New Testament. On his better days—maybe Paul was on his meds—he wrote things that preachers gladly read from the pulpit, e.g., “love is patient and kind.” Also, his magic spell for salvation, Romans 10:9, is forever popular: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Presto, voilĂ , you’re in. How easy is that! Hence his hero status remains intact. However, he wrote so much that is mediocre, shallow, and horrible: such embarrassments in the New Testament. Why don’t Christians say enough is enough?




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). His YouTube channel is here. 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

Please support us at DC by commenting on and by sharing our posts, or subscribing, donating, or buying our books at Amazon.