A Pop-Quiz for Christians, Number 5

Reading the Bible to spot the incoherence of theology

Many years ago I met a young man who had been raised in an evangelical Bible-belt family. He told me that a common way to greet friends was, “How is your walk with the Lord going today?” Perhaps this derives from the old hymn, I Come to the Garden Alone, with the lyrics, “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own…” They know that Jesus is their friend. Since the Bible is god’s own word—without error or flaw—these are the Christians most likely to actually read the Bible. Inevitably, however, they run into Bible verses and stories that undermine, and even destroy, the Jesus-is-my-friend concept. Hence there are thousands of Christian apologists—including some very famous ones—whose mission in life is to spin the alarming Bible texts in the most positive ways, making everything “come out okay.”



There are also so many Christians for whom Bible reading/study is not a priority. Surveys have shown that they can’t be bothered, probably because so much of the Bible is tedious and obscure.  Their embrace of Jesus is based on his depiction in ritual, worship, stained glass—and on carefully chosen Bible texts read and preached about from the pulpit. “Take this Jesus on faith,” they are told by priests and ministers; they commonly recite ancient creeds that secure the sanctity of their Jesus, which doesn’t require much thought, and certainly no curiosity.


I suspect it’s rare for a priest or minister, from the pulpit, to given study assignments. For example: “I want you all, before next Sunday, to read the gospel of Mark carefully—yes, ALL of it—and write down your questions and concerns, the things you find troubling, and bring them for me to read.” That’s asking for trouble! One of my motivations for devising these Pop-Quizzes for Christians is to push them into Bible study: be curious, ask questions, find out that so much in the New Testament doesn’t make sense. 


Here are previous articles in this series: Pop-Quiz One   Two   Three   A Christian Flunks Pop-Quiz Three    Four  


So here are a few questions that require looking beneath the neat packaging offered by the clergy. Let’s start with a question about science, one that has high impact on belief in the Bible god.


Question One:


Why is this one of the most important photographs ever taken? Who took it, marking what important discovery? What are the possible implications of this discovery for belief in a personal god? —that is, a god who watches everything that every human being does. Hint: to learn about this photo, do a Google search: Edwin Hubble   Andromeda   VAR


Question Two:


Why is the virgin birth of Jesus a minority opinion in the New Testament? Name the only places it is mentioned in the New Testament. 


Question Three:


What conclusion may we draw from reading Acts 9:26-28 and Galatians 1:15-20 back-to-back?




“When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples, and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.”



“But when the one who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the gentiles, I did not confer with any human, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterward I returned to Damascus.Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days, but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!

Question Four:


Where do we find the story of the conversion of the apostle Paul to Christianity? Hint: it’s never mention in Paul’s letters. Why is it missing there?


Question Five:


In Romans 13, Paul claims that all government leaders are appointed by God. Can you spot two major embarrassments in Paul’s argument that have long vexed Christian theologians?


Question Six:


The apostle Paul claimed, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  (Galatians 5:24) Do married Christians pay attention to this? Why not, if the Bible is God’s Word? Paul was certainly the champion missionary of his time. How can his opinion be ignored?


Answers and Comments


Question One:


In 1920, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, astronomers Harlow Shapley and Curtis Heber debated the size of the universe. Shapley argued that our galaxy was the whole universe, while Heber suggested that distant smudges of light were actually other galaxies far beyond our own. About four years later, Edwin Hubble, using one of the most powerful telescopes of the time, identified Cepheid Variable stars (which allow correct calibrations of distance) in what we now know as the Andromeda galaxy. This was dramatic proof that our Milky Way galaxy is one of many galaxies—in fact, as we now know—one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. This is why Hubble’s photographic plate with “VAR!” written on it, is indeed one of the most important photos ever taken. For the first time ever, our position, our status in the Cosmos was known.


Thus the Cosmos imagined by the authors of the Bible was disproved, i.e., our planet as the center of a god’s attention, with that god located above the clouds—and dominating a spiritual realm located below the moon. This god was close enough to savor the aroma of burnt animal sacrifices, and to watch everything every human did; it even knew all human thoughts, and was ready to punish. It would be so cool if Hubble’s VAR! photograph could be mounted beside every picture of Jesus holding a lamb, beside every crucifix—as a reminder that the Bible god cannot be rescued from its ancient past.    


Question Two:


Today, especially in Catholic brands of Christianity, the Virgin Mary remains high profile and big business. She’s Queen of Heaven and has put in thousands of appearances around the globe. But in the very earliest days of Jesus belief, she wasn’t even on the map. In all of Paul’s letters—and in those forged in his name—the virgin birth of Jesus is not mentioned; these are the oldest Christian documents we have. The author of Mark’s gospel apparently knew nothing about it, and the author of John’s gospel—who surely was familiar with the earlier gospels—didn’t feel it was worth mentioning. 


So it is a minority opinion, found only in Matthew and Luke. And just exactly how would they have known that Jesus was virgin-born? Matthew says that Joseph got this information in a dream—how’s that for credible evidence! —and Luke imagined that an angel brought the news to Mary. Curious readers, those inclined to critical thinking, know this doesn’t work. John Loftus, on Christmas day in 2016, wrote on this blog:


“How might anonymous gospel writers, 90+ years later, objectively know Jesus was born of a virgin? Who presumably told them? The Holy Spirit? Why is it that God always speaks to individuals in private, subjective, unevidenced whispers? Those claims are a penny a dozen.”


Question Three:


Yes, do please compare Acts 9:26-28 and Galatians 1:15-20. These Galatians verses are Paul’s own words about the aftermath of his conversion. The text in Acts was written decades later by an author who created narrative to portray the event—or more correctly, to dramatize the event. He was an early expert in special effects, e.g., blinding lights and voices from the sky, with Paul being struck blind. None of which is reported by Paul in Galatians, or anywhere else in his letters. Critical historians have long been skeptical about the Book of Acts. The author never mentions his sources, and there are too many elements of fantasy literature, i.e., roles given to holy spirits and angels. Moreover, the author depicts Paul being welcomed by the original disciples, while Paul is emphatic that this didn’t happen. When Acts 9 and Galatians 1 are read back-to-back, it’s clear someone is lying. 


Question Four:


The dramatic narrative of Paul’s conversion “on the road to Damascus” is found in Acts 9, 22, and 26—and these don’t all agree on the details, which has provoked considerable scholarly debate. But in all of his writings, Paul doesn’t include this event. He mentions going to Arabia after his conversion, then returning to Damascus. So his being in Damascus seems authentic, which makes it even more puzzling that he never wrote about the very public revelation of Jesus “on the road” described in Acts. Again, we can chalk this up to author’s fantasy-writing skills. Moreover, a competent historian would have cited his sources, e.g., did he have access to diaries or letters that the other witnesses may have written?


Question Five:


The Christianity advocated by Paul is not the one that is embraced by so many of the devout today. Our response to so much that he wrote must be, “What was he thinking?” The first four verses of Romans 13 are a shock:


“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval, for it is God’s agent for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the agent of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.


So, no matter who has risen to power, God arranged it? We have the long perspective of history to know how wrong this is. But, poor Paul, he thought history was about to end with the arrival of Jesus on the clouds. For anyone with the slightest sympathies for democracy—respect for the “will of the people”—finds this blanket endorsement of those in power an embarrassment. And here’s a second embarrassment: Paul seems not to have known that the Roman authorities executed Jesus! “…for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the agent of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” So that was the case with Jesus, executed by the wrath of God? Throughout his letters, Paul shows so little awareness of the life of Jesus; he cared only for what he received from his private “revelations.” He seems to have missed the detail about Jesus being put to death by Roman officials.


Question Six:


I’m sure this is another example of Paul’s version of Christianity being out of sync with how the devout behave today. “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” So married Christians have to be talked into having sex because they’re no longer interested, since they believe in/belong to Jesus? Do Christian marriage counselors have to think of ways to overcome lack of sexual desire that has been crucified? Again, poor Paul, he was clueless: the only thing he cared about was getting ready to meet Jesus in the air when he arrived on the clouds (see I Thessalonians 4:17). If you belong to Jesus, nothing else matters, especially sex.


Yes, what a great thing Bible study is! When done honestly—with curiosity and critical thinking fully engaged—the incoherence of Christian theology is not at all hard to spot. Which has kept the professional apologists busy for centuries. 



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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