For Religious Advocates, Honesty Is Rarely the Best Policy

The Book of Acts ends with bad theology and a cover-up

Promoters of religions, by which I mean missionaries, priests, preachers, evangelists, do not believe that honesty is the best policy. As they proclaim their cherished religious truths, they don’t bother to inform their audiences that hundreds of other religions have different ideas about god(s)—sometimes drastically different. What preacher, standing in his/her pulpit, is going to say, “Be aware, I am paid by my denomination to advocate our version of the truth, so, in your own best interest, be sure to comparison shop. Check out what other religions believe.”  Nor do the preachers encourage study of the negative aspects of their religions.



John Loftus has pointed out: 


“New converts in different social contexts have no initial way of truly investigating the proffered faith. Which evangelist will objectively tell the ugly side of the Bible and of the church while preaching the good news? None that I know of. Which evangelist will tell a prospect about the innumerable problems Christian scholars must solve? None that I know of.”  (The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, p. 90)


Religious promoters get away with what they do because so many people are credulous, i.e., critical thinking skills are lacking. A good example of this is found in the Book of Acts, chapter 28. The apostle Paul—so the story goes—had landed on Malta, on his way to Rome. He had gathered wood for a fire, and a viper “fastened onto his hand.” The locals thought this was a sure sign that he was a murderer, but Paul shook off the snake. “They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.” (Acts 28:6) Unintentionally, the author of Acts has described how religions succeed: when folks can’t think critically, or don’t want to, or don’t know enough about the world to understand causation, superstitions and magical thinking prevail. 


[This article is the final one in my series on each chapter of the Book of Acts, chapter 28 being the closing chapter of the book. The Introductory article is here. The one on chapter 27 is here.]


Nor does it take much for people to believe—to take it on faith—that some people speak for god(s). And there have been so many who claim to do so. There are thousands of Christian brands alone, each with holy leaders who speak the words of their god—and, no surprise, they don’t agree. How likely is it that Bart Barber, head of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Pope Francis will agree to merge their churches because they’ve finally resolved all their differences? 


In Acts 28 we find the apostle Paul claiming to speak—and heal people—because his power comes from the one true god. The author of Acts fails the critical thinking test as much as anyone else, and he knows the stories that will move and convince his credulous readers. He reports that Publius, a prominent citizen of Malta, welcomed Paul, and then:


“It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.”  (Acts 28:8-9)


There is nothing whatever to distinguish this from common religious fantasy/folklore the world over: a holy hero curing people by touching them. It’s a common technique for impressing people. 


Paul’s final arrival in Rome is described, and he is allowed to remain under house arrest, with considerable freedom. Our author manages to get in a final slam at the Jews, thus adding to the regrettable anti-Semitism we find in the New Testament. Paul invited Jewish leaders in Rome to meet with him, and explains why he was being escorted to Rome by soldiers: 


“…the Romans wanted to release me because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor—even though I had no charge to bring against my people.” (Acts 28:18-19)


On another day, the Jewish leaders met again with Paul, who was in full missionary mode:


“From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets. Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.” (Acts 28:23-24)


Here again the holy hero is presented as one qualified to “testify about the kingdom of God.” But it is strange indeed that he would make his case for Jesus from the law of Moses and the prophets. As in all of Paul’s letters, there is no clear, unambiguous reference to the life, teachings, and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul made his case for a savior Jesus based on his private visions (= hallucinations) of a newly-alive Jesus, and on his interpretations of Old Testament texts. Yet there is not a single text in that ancient document—either in the law of Moses or the prophets—that makes specific reference to a man named Jesus who would be the messiah in the time of the Romans. Christians forever—since the time of Paul—have scoured the Old Testament for references to Jesus, but their success in doing so depends on their own interpretations, i.e., they read meanings into texts that they land on. 


“Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.” This is the story of religion from day one: there are far more disagreements about god(s) than agreements. And Paul delivers a parting slam about the Jews whom he cannot convince. He quotes a text from the prophet Isaiah, in which the latter condemns the people of Israel for being stubborn:

“The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah, ‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen but never understand, and you will indeed look but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull,    and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; otherwise they might look with their eye    and listen with their ears and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’’   (Acts 28:25-27, based on Isaiah 6:9-10)

So here is holy hero Isaiah preaching as instructed by the nasty, bully god Yahweh, who was annoyed that “his people” didn’t appreciate his totalitarian management style. Father Joseph Fitzmyer, in his monumental commentary on Acts (The Anchor Yale Commentary, Volume 31), observed: “Thus, Luke [the presumed author of Acts] is saying that those in Israel who now refuse to accept the Christian gospel are merely continuing a practice of obduracy long known from their ancestors.” (p. 791) Remember that the author of Acts was a propagandist for the early Jesus cult, and of course it was a major irritant that most Jews didn’t buy the argument that Jesus had been the messiah, the son of their god. So they had become the enemy, and were the brunt of considerable criticism; this is Paul’s parting shot: “Let it be known to you, then, that this salvation of God has been sent to the gentiles; they will listen.” (Acts 28:28) Texts like this have fueled hatred of Jews for centuries. Shame on the New Testament —and on the deity who is given credit for inspired it. 


Now we come to the stunning, puzzling ending of the Book of Acts, these two verses: “He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28:30-31) 


The End.


Fitzmyer makes two comments: (1) “What is striking about this final scene in Acts is that Paul makes no contact with Roman Christians and that nothing is learned about his appearance before Caesar, the climax to which the Lucan story has been building up. It deals only with his testimony to the Jews in Rome.” (p. 790) (2) “It ends abruptly and surprises the modern reader. Is it unfinished? Has it been somehow truncated in its transmission? No one knows.” (p. 791)


Acts is commonly dated by scholars to the end of the first century, or early second. In other words, could the author of Acts have been unaware of what happened to Paul in Rome, and how his life ended? It is so unlikely that the fanatical preacher for a small cult would have been sent to Roman, for his case to be heard by the emperor. This sounds like bravado: see how important our holy hero is! Since the author of Acts made up so much anyway (he has the holy spirit and angels playing active roles—the stuff of fantasy literature), he could have risen to the challenge of depicting Paul facing the emperor. 


But there’s probably another reason that our author decided to sign off with the eloquent declaration that Paul taught “…about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Writing two or three decades after Paul’s death, what an embarrassment that Paul turned out to dead wrong about Jesus “arriving on the clouds” while Paul was still alive. He had promised the Thessalonians (I Thess. 4) that their dead relatives would rise to meet Jesus in the air, and that he himself would be present to take part in the glorious event. There is so much in his writing about the arrival of Jesus soon. Married couples should stop having sex, to be pure when Jesus arrives; Christians shouldn’t take each other to court, because they would be judging angels after Jesus brings his kingdom. He advised the Corinthians (I Cor. 7): “…the appointed time has grown short… For the present form of this world is passing away.”


When the author of Acts wrote his story, he must have wondered how things had gone wrong. Perhaps he omitted any mention of Paul’s death, because he didn’t want to draw attention to this major flaw in Paul’s theology. No surprise to us, since it was hallucination-based theology. We almost have to admire this author’s skill at cover-ups! In his very first chapter he reports that Jesus ascended to heaven as the disciples watched. This cannot have happened, of course. But if you’re claiming that a resurrected body had been walking around for a few weeks, what else do to with it but sent it up to the sky—to avoid the embarrassment that it died again. This is one of many reasons we know that the resurrection story just doesn’t work. This author was okay with covering up what happened to Jesus, so why not do the same thing with Paul? Paul’s preaching “boldly and without hindrance” was his version of a happy ending. 


Easily one of my favorite assessments of Paul is that provided by R. G. Price in his book, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed


“Who was the apostle Paul? Nothing is known about him other than what is recorded in his writings, but any objective assessment of his writings reveals Paul to have essentially been a raving lunatic.” (p. 375) 


Weigh these words carefully: “Nothing is known about him other than what is recorded in his writings…” R.G. Price knows full well that the Book of Acts cannot be trusted as history: we have no way to verify anything that the author reports about Paul. Joseph Fitzmyer mentions frequently in his commentary that the various stories must derive from the author’s “Lucan source.” But this begs the question, “How does he know there was a Lucan source?” This is speculation, guesswork, wishful thinking—to avoid admitting that the source for these stories was the author’s creative imagination. Richard Carrier has pointed out that the authors of the Jesus and Paul stories “…are mythographers; novelists; propagandists. They are deliberately inventing what they present in their texts. And they are doing it for a reason (even if we can’t always discern what that is). The Gospels simply must be approached as such. We have to stop thinking we can use them as historical sources.” (p. 509, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt).


The gospels and Acts are chock full of magical thinking, fantasy, miracle folklore. All of which would be dismissed by the devout if they came across such stories in the scriptures of other religions, Harry Potter novels, or Disney adventures. But, of course, priests and preachers are duty-bound to press the case that Bible stories must be true—as least on some level (metaphorically, symbolically, if not literally)—because the Bible is the word of their god. Even if they do believe this themselves, such diversions and contortions do not qualify as honesty.




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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