Christian “truth” in Shreds: Epic Takedown 8

21 faulty ideas, doctrines, and faith practices

Pick a church, any church, and wait outside on a Sunday morning for people to come out of the service. You’re there to do a survey: ask random folks to describe their religion: “What are the basics of your faith?” Chances are, you’ll hear something like this: “Our lord and savior is Jesus Christ. He taught his followers how to lead righteous lives, and he died on the cross to save us from our sins. He resurrected from the dead on Easter morning, and now lives with God in heaven. His resurrection means that he overcame death, and we too will have eternal life if we believe in this amazing victory.” Of course, there will be many variations of this affirmation, since there are so many different—and differing—versions of Christianity.


If you were to ask a second question, “What are the origins of these beliefs—where did these ideas come from?” the common answer would be “the Bible.” But it’s far more complicated than that: where did the Bible authors get their ideas? And why do they differ so much? Christian theology ended up being so incoherent—which is largely unnoticed by the laity—because Christianity is a blend of three ancient superstitions: 


(1)  a tribal god selected one tribe to be his chosen people, and even they suffered because of his bad temper. His chosen people got beat up over the centuries—one foreign conqueror after another—hence the belief emerged that this god would send a hero, a messiah, to rescue them. This developed into nasty, revenge theology: apocalypticism. Most of the people on earth will be killed as a remnant of the chosen people survives.

(2)  When the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the ancient practice of sacrificing animals to get right with this god—he appreciated the flow of blood—came to an abrupt end. Of course, Judaism turned out to be the better for it, but Christianity headed in the wrong direction: just one human sacrifice was sufficient. 

(3)  There were several dying-rising savior cults in the world in which the Jesus cult emerged, so we’re not surprised that this belief was added to the Christian mix: the human sacrifice had come back to life, and believing in this resurrection was a key to getting to live forever. The apostle Paul especially embraced this bit of magical thinking.


This is the blend of superstitions behind the popular affirmation that Jesus “is lord and savior.” It has had remarkable staying power, and even today there are armies of apologists, i.e., theologians who vigorously defend these beliefs. So many people have huge emotional investments in believing there’s a way to get out of dying. Jesus is their ticket to eternal life, a theme that the gospel of John, for example, pursues relentlessly. 


Where can we find actual data that would justify these beliefs? For a long time serious thinkers have critiqued this blend of superstitions, pointing out the fallacies and silliness. As Peter Boghossian has pointed out, “In the last 2,400 years of intellectual history, not a single argument for the existence of God has withstood scrutiny. Not one. All refuted. All failures.” (A Manual for Creating Atheists). But also, how do such beliefs survive when there is so much incoherence: things that just don’t make sense on any level.  


Boghossian is among hundreds of authors who have published devastating critiques of theism. John Loftus has contributed more than most, with several books of his own, as well as impressive anthologies with contributions by dozens of writers. Three previous articles in this series on Epic Takedowns are comments on Loftus essays: Epic Takedown Two, Six and Seven

In Seven, I commented on one of his essays in God and Horrendous

, “The Abject Failure of the God of Creation, Revelation and Redemption.” It turns out that god botched all three. In his opening essay of this anthology, “In Defense of Hitchens’s Razor,” Loftus makes the case for defending Hitchens’s point: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” (from God Is Not Great, p. 150)    


Ockham’s razor has become widely accepted because it maintains that the simplest explanations for events are usually the best: additional qualifiers, e.g., a god did it, themselves usually cannot be justified or defended. Loftus points out:    


“Both razors are epistemological in nature, and both are important. Ockham’s Razor has to do with the burden of proof. It’s placed squarely on the person making miraculous claims, since they require additional entities. Hitchens’s Razor has to do with the need for objective evidence. Lacking it, miracle claims can be dismissed out of hand without a second’s thought.” (p. 18)


This essay is divided into two major sections, the first being The Christian Faith Has No Objective Evidence on Its Behalf, pages 19-35. Loftus analyzes miracle claims especially. Of course, Christian balk at accepting the miracle claims of other religious—which would mean that the other religions are right. He mentions Mormon, Muslim, Catholic and Buddhist miracles: “Depending on your own religious enculturation, you too dismiss these other unevidenced miracles out of hand because they lack any objective evidence, and rightly so. Go do likewise to your own miracles.” (p. 19) Christian apologists commonly insist that there are hidden unevidenced miracles, which is understandable when faith is touted as the primary way to know that your religion is the right one. But Loftus points out that this collides with reality on the issue of suffering:


“If a perfectly good, all-powerful god exists who performs hidden unevidenced miracles, it’s reasonable to conclude there would be no horrendous suffering of any kind in the world.” He notes the 2004 tsunami that killed about 225,000 people. God just watched this tragedy? 


“… the very fact that it happened means god doesn’t do hidden unevidenced miracles. For if god doesn’t stop the most egregious horrific cases of suffering, there’s no reason to think he stops any lesser kinds of suffering either. If god doesn’t do anything about horrendous suffering, then s/he doesn’t do anything about suffering at all. This is an undeniable fact that honest reasonable believers must acknowledge.”  (p. 20)


What would be the objective evidence that an omni-god exists, but decided for some reason to let the tsunami happen—along with countless other massive human tragedies? Apologists know they must divert attention from such painful realities, and Loftus lists five commonly used dodges, one of which is Believers will tout the irrational virtues of faith. William Lane Craig knows for sure that Christianity is right because of his certainty that the Holy Spirit guarantees it. 


That falls far short of objective evidence—in fact is just the opposite. And Loftus brings this issue down to the practical level: why believe specific things that Christianity asks of its followers? He focuses attention on lack of objective evidence for the virgin birth of Jesus. Just how would the gospel writers have known any such thing—well, Matthew and Luke, the only two who made the claim? 


“Now one might simply trust the anonymous gospel writer(s) who wrote this miraculous tale down, but why? How is it possible they could find out that a virgin named Mary gave birth to a deity? Think about how they would go about researching that. No reasonable investigation could take Mary and/or Joseph’s word for it.” (p. 28)


Moreover, our knowledge of other religions of the time makes us suspicious: “The belief that Jesus was born of a virgin most likely derived from pagan parallels in those days.” (p. 28) Loftus says that he focuses “…on the virgin birth because it’s the gateway to doubting the gospel narratives…” (p. 28) 


In that era, fantasy narratives could win converts as easily as anything else. Loftus quotes from Richard Carrier’s essay, Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire, “When we pore over all the [early Christian] documents that survive, we find no evidence that any Christian convert did any fact-checking before converting or even would have done so. We can rarely even establish that they could have, had they wanted to.”  (p. 29)


We can make the case that so many modern Christian aren’t interested in fact checking either, and there are so many elements of their faith that are vulnerable to critical analysis. A giant portion of this Loftus essay (pp. 35-46) is his critique of 21 Christian ideas, doctrines, and faith practices. This certainly qualifies as an Epic Takedown. 


The Atonement is on this master list: God requiring a human sacrifice—his own son, supposedly—in order to forgive sins. How does that make sense? It’s been the constant message of the church for centuries, and the laity—not interested in fact checking—have bought it. But not so theologians, who have wrestled with this troubling idea:


“One way to tell whether a theory is in crisis is to observe how many versions of that theory have been proposed. How did the death of Jesus supposedly atone for sins? There have been a lot of versions proposed by Christians who, for good reasons, have disputed the others. The earliest proposals were the Ransom Theory and the Recapitulation Theory. Then came a host of them afterward, like Anslem’s Satisfaction Theory, the Penal Substitutionary Theory, the Governmental Theory, the Moral Influence Theory, and recently the Relationship Theory. There are many others.” (p. 41) 


There has been so much struggling with atonement because it is a sinister mixture of superstition and magical thinking. There is no objective evidence whatever to back it up, hence theological speculation has been endless. That is, Christian theologians argue about it—non-Christian theologians think it’s a grotesque joke—while the laity are none the wiser: the simple “Jesus saved us from our sins” will do just fine. 


I identified especially with this Loftus critique: The Scale of the Universe and a Tribal GodHe says that when he was in “the throes of doubt,” he put poster pictures of the universe on his office walls. Where did tribal god described the Bible fit into our growing awareness of the Cosmos? Even when I was in seminary, I had the same suspicion that something was seriously off. The Bible authors thought of heaven as a realm stretching possibly as far as the moon, and they had no idea what the stars were. Their idea of god was fashioned accordingly, and theologians have worked hard to refashion god to match what we now know. But their guesses and speculations don’t work: the objective evidence for their reimagined god can’t be found. And this thought came to me in seminary: there may be smart civilizations “out there” that have been researching the Cosmos far longer than we have. We don’t have the benefit of their knowledge, yet in our profound isolation here on earth, we think we’ve figured out what a creator god is like. He may be mysterious, but no matter, we are confident about what god wants and expects.


Just how likely is that without objective evidence?


Another of my favorites on this Loftus top-21 list is the Ascension, i.e., Jesus ascending to heaven—up, up, and away through the clouds. This story (Acts 1) is, in fact, a cover-up. It simply could not have happened, as anyone who understands that the earth orbits the sun in space pulsing with deadly radiation. Loftus includes a quote that I cited in one of my articles here, What to Do About Your Dead-Again Jesus?  I found it on Scott McKellar’s Facebook page:


“In the course of his ascension, at around 15,000 feet, Jesus began to wish he had brought a sweater. At 30,000 feet he felt weak from lack of oxygen. By 100,000 his bodily fluids were boiling away from every orifice. If he ever did return, it would be as a fifty-pound lump of bone and frozen jerky.”   (p. 43)


Rather than admitting that the newly-alive body of Jesus died again—what else to do? Invent a story that he floated away to heaven: a cover-up.


Loftus ends his list of 21 with The Task of Apologists:  “Why should Christians have to defend the Christian faith at all? In the first place, god should have left little to defend by providing the needed objective evidence… God is the ultimate CEO, so god is to blame for the Christian church, if they cannot adequately defend the truth and goodness of Christianity and the church. I call this the problem of divine miscommunication.” (p. 45) 


When you’re promoting an omni-god for which you can’t provide objective evidence—“take it on faith, take it on faith, take it on faith!” —why should we take you seriously?  Loftus provides a lot of reasons—in this essay, actually more than 21—for not going along with the scam.



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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