A Pop-Quiz for Christians, Number 3

Confusion and incoherence in Jesus theology

One of the handiest tools for showing that Christianity is wrong—that its theology is confused and incoherent—is the Bible itself. I have seen so much resistance among church-goers to reading the Bible, even casually (say, just one chapter a day), let alone studying it carefully, thoughtfully, critically. Is this hypocrisy, or just laziness? If the devout really, truly believed that the Bible is their god’s word—more than a thousand pages of his wisdom and guidance—why don’t they obsess about reading it? 


For many of us who have left Christianity, there is no mystery about this neglect. My constant appeal for years to my Christian acquaintances has been: please read the Bible. When my book was published last summer, Ten Things Christians Wish Hadn’t Taught, I gave copies to some of my devout—openly, aggressively devout—friends. What was the response? Silence. They didn’t want to think about it, and they certainly didn’t want to read the Jesus quotes that I discuss in detail in the book. They want to trust their priests and ministers, and draw comfort from the ceremonies and rituals, while Jesus in stained-glass gazes down on them. No thought required.



What can we do to jar these worshippers out of their complacency? Probably nothing, but this is my third article in the series, A Pop-Quiz for Christians, trying to get them to wake up and smell—not the coffee—but the confusion and incoherence at the core of Christian theology. Just a little Bible study can do the trick—as well a casting a brief glance at science. Pop-Quiz Number 1 is here; Pop-Quiz Number 2 is here.


Now, Pop-Quiz Number 3, with just one question about science at the outset.


Question 1: What was the astronomer Carl Sagan referring to when he mentioned “The Pale Blue Dot”? How was the image obtained, and what are the implications of his comments for theology? 


Question 2


(1)  What is the primary message of Mark’s gospel? (2) How would you explain the lack of ethical teaching in Mark? (3) How do you incorporate the theology of Mark, Chapter 13 into your understanding of a loving God?


Question 3:


The author of Matthew’s gospel wrote quite a few things that New Testament scholars—and theologians too—find embarrassing. Explain why this is the case with Matthew 1:22-23; Matthew 2:13-15; Matthew 27:52-53.


Question 4:


Read carefully Luke 24:13-35, the story of Jesus appearing, after his resurrection, to two disciples who were walking on the road to Emmaus. Discuss the elements in the story that don’t look like history—and the factors that rule out its status as history. 


Question 5:


Read carefully John 20:24-29, the story of Doubting Thomas, also a post-resurrection story of Jesus. Again, discuss the elements in the story that don’t look like history—and the factors that rule out its status as history. How do these stories conflict with the apostle Paul’s understanding of resurrection? 





Answer, Question 1:


In 1990, the Voyager Spacecraft 1, when it was 3.7 billion miles from our sun, took a photo of Planet Earth. It was dubbed a Pale Blue Dot, but it is almost undetectable in the vastness of space. This provides dramatic illustration that the ancient concept of the cosmos—the one that prevailed when the Bible was written—is false, i.e., earth at the center of creation, with a god residing close overhead. Carl Sagan commented:


“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” Moreover, the inhabitants of this planet came up with “…thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines…” But most important—and of relevance especially to confident Christian theology:


“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale lightOur planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”  (emphasis added)


Christian theologians have tried, over the centuries, to modify and improve the Bible concept of God, but as our knowledge of the cosmos advances, that task has become increasingly difficult. Well, no: impossible. Our continual appeal to Christians is: show us where we can find reliable, verifiable, objective evidence for the deity you believe in and worship. So far, they have not delivered. 


Answer, Question 2:


The primary message of Mark’s gospel is the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. In Mark 1:14-15 we read: “…Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” And at his trial, in Mark 14, Jesus promised those present that they would see him coming on the clouds of heaven. In this gospel Jesus is presented as an apocalyptic prophet, i.e., he proclaims that the end of the age is near. Recent studies have suggested that Mark was influenced especially by the apostle Paul’s belief that the arrival of Jesus on the clouds was “any day now.” For this reason the author of the gospel might have felt little need to add ethical teaching—since the world was about to be transformed. Later, when Matthew copied most of Mark’s gospel, he added what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps to make up for this deficiency. 


The full terror of the apocalyptic message is presented in Mark, Chapter 13. As the kingdom arrives there will great calamity and suffering, and it’s about to happen. There is the warning at the end of the chapter to remain alert, keep awake. There are indeed Jesus cults within Christianity even now that look forward to the upheaval that their Jesus will bring. But I’m pretty sure that, outside these extremist groups, most Christians are stumped by Mark 13. They’re certainly not comfortable with it, because it doesn’t fit with their image of Jesus as lord and savior. There is too much in Mark that drags down the faith, which is the subject of an article I published here on the DCBlog in 2018, Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot: The Strange Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.


Answer, Question 3:


The author of Matthew’s gospel had an approach to scripture that many contemporary Christians would find bizarre: he simply ignored the context of the ancient stories, and landed on words he was sure had predictive significance. In Matthew 1:22-23, the author quotes Isaiah 7:14 to prove that the virgin birth of Jesus had been predicted hundreds of years before. Here’s basic homework for Christians: read all of Isaiah, chapter 7, and decide for yourselves: does it have anything whatever to do with Jesus? Matthew also made a mistake: he consulted the Greek translation of Isaiah 14, which incorrectly translated the original Hebrew, i.e., which reads young woman, not virgin.


Mark told his story of Jesus without a virgin birth; in his gospel Jesus is designated “son of God” at his baptism—and John’s gospel omits it as well. But apparently Matthew was persuaded that the virgin birth of other sons of gods—it was a common idea in the ancient world—was worth attaching to his Jesus story. Interestingly, when Luke wrote his virgin birth story, he ignored Matthew’s Isaiah quote. He might have thought it was inappropriate—just as we do. 


And speaking of Luke’s birth story, when we compare it with Matthew’s, we find more evidence that Matthew just made stuff up. Luke’s birth story includes details about the baby Jesus being presented at the Jerusalem Temple, and praised by a prophet and prophetess. Then this: 


“When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:39-40)


This cannot be reconciled with Matthew’s bizarre report that Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to protect Jesus from Herod, which is found in 2:13-15, and nowhere else in the New Testament. Why in the world would Matthew tell such a story, which is extremely unlikely? If Herod had been hunting for the baby Jesus, his parents could have hidden out among the peasantry in their own country. But, once again, Matthew had been hunting in the Old Testament for a text he could apply to Jesus; he landed on Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” The text in Hosea plainly says that the child called out of Egypt was Israel, and much of Hosea 11 is a complaint about the disobedience of Israel; Matthew cared nothing at all about context. Luke omits mention of this detour to Egypt—as Joseph and Mary were on their way home to Nazareth! —because it is just too absurd.


Perhaps Matthew’s most ridiculous make-believe episode is a truly dangerous one for the credibility of the Christian faith. He reports (27:52-53) that, at the moment Jesus died on the cross, 


“The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.”


This is magical thinking, i.e., the death of Jesus brought many people back to life (sounds a lot like Harry Potter, right?), but not only that, these newly alive dead people toured Jerusalem on Easter morning. None of the other gospels report any such thing, nor do any of the historians of the time. Matthew just drops this bit of nonsense into his story, without any follow-up: did these zombies head back to their tombs a few hours or days later? Even conservative scholars have conceded this is a tall tale, but that inevitably raises the question: Is the resurrection of Jesus itself a tall tale? Especially since the Jesus resurrection stories are so incoherent and contradictory. 


Answers, Questions 4 and 5:


These two questions can be considered together. Luke’s account of the disciples on the Emmaus Road, and John’s story of Doubting Thomas are found only in those gospels. Why would that be, since they are both so amazing? The former appears to be a literary creation based on a couple of verses in the fake ending of Mark’s gospel (16:12-13): “After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.” In another form: in Luke’s story, Jesus is unrecognized when he walks with the two disciples, and later, when he’s having a meal with them, at the moment when he is recognized—poof! —he vanishes. In John’s Doubting Thomas episode, we’re told that, “Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”  (John 20:26) Robert Conner has pointed out, in his book, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story, that the gospel authors borrowed elements from contemporary ghost folklore as they created their resurrection accounts. Which brings us to another fundamental problem with these solitary episodes in Luke and John: they were written decades after the supposed events, and cannot be verified by contemporaneous documentation


We can suspect, moreover, that the apostle Paul would have been shocked by these stories. He would have said No Way! A newly alive dead Jesus who sat down to eat with disciples—and who invited Thomas to stick his finger in his sword wound? In I Corinthians 15, Paul is emphatic that it is spiritual bodies that are resurrected, not dead flesh that was put into the ground—or a tomb:


“So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.”   (vv. 42-44) Paul, in all his letters, never mentions the story of the Empty Tomb on Easter morning, probably for two reasons: (1) it hadn’t been invented yet by the later gospel writers, (2) a revived body walking out of a tomb wasn’t at all what Paul meant by a spiritual body.


Conner has noted another curiosity: In Mark’s gospel, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34), but when the women who had gone to the tomb reported the resurrection to the disciples, Luke reports (24:11): “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” When the Emmaus Road disciples told the others that they’d seen Jesus, “...they did not believe them.” Conner is stumped—as we all should be: Why were the disciples so clueless? Why didn’t they wait at the tomb to see this happen? How was such an important event not witnessed by anyoneThe Doubting Thomas episode seems to have been designed to encourage belief without evidence, which has been the approach (the gimmick) of religious leaders forever, across the spectrum: “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” (John 20:19) 


This gimmick still works today, i.e., so many folks believe in their Jesus under the influence of priests and preachers (“…just take our word for it!”), without bothering to actually read the gospels, study them carefully, and above all, question everything. My goal with these Pop-Quizzes is to encourage Christians to do just that. When this happens, the confusion and incoherence in Jesus theology are not hard to spot. 





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.


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