A One-Two Punch: Christianity Out Cold

Too many resurrected gods, and too much suffering

Chances are, there are no Catholic priests who, from the pulpit on Sunday morning, will urge their parishioners to study the Book of Mormon: “Maybe the Mormons have it right, and we don’t.” Chances are, there are no Southern Baptist preachers who will suggest that, for a month, everyone in the congregation should go to a Catholic Church: “Maybe the Catholics are following true Christianity.” Chances are, no Methodist ministers will stand in the pulpit and advise that everyone should study the Qur’an—read it cover to cover: “Maybe Islam is the one true religion, after all.”



By what criteria would these Christians determine that these other religious brands are wrong—and that theirs is right? John Loftus has suggested (see his book, The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True) that Christians should evaluate their own religions as objectively/skeptically, as they weigh the truths of other religions. Here’s the irony, of course: if we asked the “average” Catholic, Southern Baptist, or Methodist, “How do you know your religion is true?” —what would be hear? “My minister/priest told me it’s true.” “I learned it from my parents.” “The Bible says it’s true.” There is little inclination or incentive to probe their own beliefs, because… 


There is precious little curiosity. How many “average” Christians do you know who have studied—really studied—Christian origins? Or even the Bible, for that matter? And who have come to terms with the problems that the gospels present? Peter Brancazio has called it correctly:


“The discrepancies between the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John are rather substantial, yet the average Christian is largely unaware of them. In Christian Bible study, conflicts are generally glossed over and gospel narratives are intermingled so as to present a harmonized view. Yet the critical reader is left to wonder why the New Testament does not present a unified portrait of Jesus.” (p. 384, The Bible from Cover to Cover: How Modern-Day Scholars Read the Bible)


…the average Christian is largely unaware… Indeed, curiosity is poison to faith, and Jesus-script in the gospel of John (chapter 20) warns about exactly this: Jesus scolds Doubting Thomas for wanting evidence, for not wanting to take someone else’s word. Jesus might also have warned of the dangers of reading the gospels! If the devout studied the gospels carefully, thoroughly, skeptically, belief in Jesus would take a big hit: something is seriously wrong! Any priest or preacher who has studied the gospels knows full well that any layperson who reads these documents carefully will spot the discrepancies and contradictions. How can “the good book”—indeed, God’s Word—have so many flaws?


Notwithstanding my devotion to the Bible as a kid, I do recall, one day as a youth sitting in church in rural Indiana, wondering, “How do we know anything is there?” That is, that there really is a god we were praying to. Too bad I didn’t pursue that thought further. 


I admire the spunk shown by Margaret Downey when she was age 10:


“I distinctly recall the day I first read Matthew 19:26. I closed the Bible with an audible, ‘Sheeez. ‘With God all things are possible.’ What a joke!” … I concluded at a very young age that God doesn’t make all things possible—hard work and determination do.”  (p. 10, 50 Voices of disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, in her essay, “My ‘Bye Bull’ Story”)


When I was a teenager, my devout mother purchased the 12-volume Interpreter’s Bible, designed for ministers. She was a voracious reader, and one of her favorite challenges to me was, “What are you doing to improve your mind?” For me that meant—among other things—studying the Bible seriously. But Margaret Downey’s mother went one better:


“I wanted to understand the world and begged my mother for a set of encyclopedias. Fulfilling that request was not easy for her…The two-year encyclopedia payment plan was the greatest investment my mother ever made. She knew those books were needed to improve our education. She was right. The day the World Book Encyclopedia volumes arrived, I made a vow to read them from A to Z.” (p. 11) 


Knockout Punch One: Study of Other Religions


Margaret Downey did read that whole encyclopedia: “That was when I discovered the difference between mythology and reality. The many gods that had been created by man became evident as I learned about Apollo, Poseidon, Uranus, and Zeus. It was only logical for me to question the modern God belief as I moved toward the end of reading the ‘Z’ volume…”  (p. 11)


Yes, study of other religions makes it clear that the Christian god, based on the intolerant deity imagined by the writers of the Old Testament, has no claim to originality or uniqueness. Moreover, it is startling to see how much Christian theology borrowed from the other religions of antiquity in its fashioning of the Jesus story. It was a common idea that important heroes—who seemed to qualify as sons of god—had been born of virgins, impregnated by a god. Matthew and Luke added this to their Jesus stories, but it turned out to be a minority opinion in the New Testament. The authors of the gospels of Mark and John don’t mention any such thing, and the apostle Paul was unaware of it. Matthew and Luke added mythic elements to their stories that give the game away. Never mind, Catholic theologians ran vigorously with the pagan mythology, creating a Virgin Mary labelled Queen of Heaven, who was even bodily assumed to heaven; or so the Vatican officially declared—wait for it—in 1950!  


But here’s the borrowing that shatters the believability of Christianity: the resurrection of a god—that too was grafted onto the Jesus story. The case for this is beyond dispute, as Richard Carrier has made clear in his 2018 article, Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over ItIt’s worth careful reading and study, some 10,000 words. In it Carrier describes, in detail, the gods and heroes who were believed to have resurrected, e.g., Osiris, Dionysus, Zalmoxis, Ianna, Adonis, Romulus, Asclepius, Baal, and Hercules. Carrier, as usual, is very thorough, including many links for deeper study. We can see that the details of these resurrections differ substantially, but the basic idea—dying and rising—is there. This article is an invaluable resource, and includes this crucial summary:



“All these different kinds of dying and rising, all these different resurrections of dead men, gods, and demigods—so many kinds, so many versions, so popularly believed—demonstrates that the ancient public was everywhere enthralled with the idea of resurrection, or returning from the dead. And they believed countless myths of exactly that. And even turned some of those myths into hopeful models of worship for their own personal salvation: the risen god, bestowing on them the same gift of a future return to life. They would have debated what kind of future life they’d want to return to—in the same flesh that died, or flesh improved and made immortal, or a wholly new superior body altogether—but for every fancy, there was a myth to satisfy them. The Christians also debated what kind of resurrection they wanted to await them; they were no more unified on that point than the pagans. But they were no different from them either. The Christians were not selling something new. They were actually getting in on an already popular game.”

And, Carrier’s last word: “It’s time to face this fact. And stop denying it. It’s time to get over it already. Resurrected savior gods were a pagan idea. All Christianity did, was invent a Jewish one.”

How in the world does Christianity survive when we now know this? We’re back to Brancazio’s observation: …the average Christian is largely unaware. Even the clergy are largely unaware—and as paid promoters of the Christian faith, they don’t devote a lot of time and energy to any careful analysis of Christian origins. This is another form of the ignorance that allows so many brands of Christianity and theism to thrive: the last thing the clergy want is for their parishioners to study competing brands of theism, either in the modern or ancient world. 


When I once pointed out to a Christian on social media that quite a few other ancient gods/heroes had risen from the dead—so their followers claimed—he had his answer: “But our Jesus is the only one who really did!” What good would it have done to ask him for the data to back up that claim? “For the Bible tells me so…” Once Jesus was identified as a dying-rising god, Christian theologians made the most of it, emphasizing eternal-life-for-everyone in the cult. The most grotesque expression of this is found in John’s gospel, chapter 6, where we find Jesus-script about drinking his blood and eating his flesh to assure eternal life. This reflects the sacred meals practiced in other ancient cults, and proved to have remarkable staying power, i.e., the practice today of going to church today to “take communion.”  


Knockout Punch Two: Horrendous Suffering: A Good God Is Out of the Question


Margaret Downey thought Matthew 19:26—“With God all things are possible”—was a joke. As indeed it is when we consider the possible things the Christian god could/should be doing to eliminate/prevent massive human and animal suffering. Priests and preachers, theologians and apologists have developed a wide range of excuses for god that seem to satisfy churchgoers, e.g. god works in mysterious ways, we can’t know his greater plans, he’s testing us, he’s punishing us. Among other things, these excuses blunt critical thinking and can even generate guilt among the faithful: “Maybe some of the suffering is my fault.” 


Our primary response is to ask the faithful to pay attention: how can this be “your father’s world” when the suffering is so massive: 


(1)  Thousands of genetic diseases, i.e., pain and suffering programmed into the human body. 

(2)  Aggressiveness and territoriality programmed into human brains by evolution, hence thousands of wars fought over thousands of years. Something is fundamentally wrong with this setup—if a god set it up. 

(3)  Why would a caring god put humans into a natural setting that is cursed with so much chaos, e.g., earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed perhaps 60,000-80,000 infants and toddlers: How can this have been a divine plan?

(4)  Throughout the millennia, plagues have ravaged humans: so much agony and suffering. The Black Plague of the 14thcentury, the flu epidemic following World War I, Covid in our own time. And how can aging be part of a divine plan? We biodegrade while we’re still alive. So much pain and humiliation. 

(5)  Until the invention of modern medicine, infant and child mortality rates were horrible—for millennia. So much anguish for parents, and the burden on women to bear more children.

(6)  The gods remain silent on which religion is the right one. So it’s no surprise that Christianity itself has splintered into thousands of different, competing, quarrelling brands. Moreover, one of the primary causes of war has been religions fighting over who is right. Think the Thirty Years War; think the Crusades; think the American Civil War, in which Christians massacred each other because the Bible could be used to defend slavery. 


When we survey just these examples, the shallow excuses so commonly offered for god fall so far short. One way to prod the faithful to pay attention is one major piece of homework, the 2021 John Loftus anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering.


Russell Blackford, in his essay, “Unbelievable!” in 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, states the truth eloquently:


“As we survey the vast abundance of the world’s awful circumstances, the endlessly varied kinds of exquisite pain, the deep suffering and sheer misery, inflicted over untold years on so many human beings and other vulnerable living things, it is not believable that a loving and providential (yet all-powerful and all-knowing) God would have remotely adequate reasons to permit it all. (p. 7)


If there is a god for whom all things are possible, it clearly hasn’t been paying attention to this planet. We would have been rescued from the horrendous suffering. Christians pray fervently to their god, for whom all things are supposed to be possible. They are confident that prayer works because—this is the way our brains trick us—they count the hits and ignore the misses. 


George Carlin was wiser by far:


“You know who I pray to? Joe Pesci. Two reasons: First of all, I think he's a good actor, okay? To me, that counts. Second, he looks like a guy who can get things done. Joe Pesci doesn't fuck around. In fact, Joe Pesci came through on a couple of things that God was having trouble with.”

God has had trouble with far too much. He seems to have a raised quite a few ancient gods and heroes from the dead, and then went off to adventures elsewhere in the galaxy, leaving humanity to struggle and suffer on Planet Earth.  




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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