All Is Calm, All Is Bright: Not According to Jesus

The coming of his kingdom will be horrific

“Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright. Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy infant so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.” The sentiment-saturated Christmas season is gradually receding, with its images of baby Jesus in the manger and Handel’s magnificent music: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” 


This text is from Isaiah 9:6, which the New Testament itself never applies to Jesus. This an example of inventing a Jesus that measures up to your ideal. During the runup to Christmas, I saw memes on social media that reflect this concept: “Instead of putting Christ back into Christmas, try putting Christ back into Christians.” Along with this we hear that Jesus was about love, compassion, helping the poor, caring for refugees: Jesus the good guy, Jesus the best guy.



This understanding of Jesus seems far removed from the strident Christian nationalism we’re now seeing. Forget about separation of church and state—it’s a bad idea; we’re told that we need a Christian theocracy, and there are those determined to make it happen. The Christian nationalism mix includes anti-Semitism, pushing back against gay rights, especially marriage equality—and the embrace of misogyny in the form of draconian anti-abortion policies. Immigrants are especially despised in this version of Christian enthusiasm. 


The theology behind it all seems contrary to the version of Jesus celebrated at Christmas. However, there is plenty of Jesus-script in the gospels that fuels division and hatred. The Christian nationalists are looking for war, including war against other Christians—they would call them pseudo-Christians. They can point to texts in which Jesus predicted exactly this, e.g. Matthew 10:34-36:


“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”


Luke’s version of this is slightly different, Luke 12:51-53:

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter
and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Luke opens this section with these words (v.49): “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze!

One of the most frightening chapters in the gospels is Mark 13. There we find Jesus-script in which the coming of the Messiah’s kingdom is described:

Verses 12-13: “Sibling will betray sibling to death and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Verse 19: For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now and never will be.

How do the devout deal with these texts—if they even bother to read the gospels carefully? In what possible context would these verses make sense? How do they fit with the image of Jesus commonly championed by the church? 


What prompted the gospel authors to report that Jesus made such alarming predictions? It seems to have been part of a strategy. The strong consensus of mainstream New Testament scholars is that Mark was the first of the canonical gospels to be written, probably about forty years after the death of Jesus—and in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. The small Christian sect faced this reality: most Jews simply didn’t believe that Jesus had been the messiah. After all, the messiah was supposed to be triumphant, ousting the Roman oppressors. So the gospel authors set out to show that Jesus would, someday soon, prove who he was by bringing his kingdom: he would arrive from the sky; according to Acts 1, that’s where he’d gone forty days after his resurrection. 


The Christian sect claimed to know the secret for surviving the cataclysmic arrival of the kingdom: you had to be a Jesus-believer, part of the “elect.” That was the pitch of the gospel authors: they created propaganda for the Jesus sect. Yes indeed, he had been the messiah: that was to be made clear with his arrival from the sky. That event would include welcoming only those who believed in Jesus: “Then he will send out the angels and gather the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.(Mark 13:27)  


Mark was clever: he reports Jesus correctly predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem temple some forty years before it happened. Wouldn’t that seal the case that he was indeed the messiah? The audience for Mark’s gospel wouldn’t have thought of fact-checking, i.e., how could these word of Jesus be verified? Mark’s gospel is saturated with fantasy and magical thinking, so it’s pretty clear that critical thinking hadn’t gained much traction. It’s too bad that Matthew and Luke plagiarized most of Mark’s gospel. 


It's hard to decide: should we call early Christianity a sect or a cult? There are examples of Jesus-script that sound very much like cult fanaticism: divided loyalties were not tolerated. There is Luke 14:26, that has caused so much anguish for apologists: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” It would be hard to find Christians who hate life itself  because they follow Jesus. In other words, they too would label this as cult fanaticism—if they didn’t know these are words attributed to Jesus by an author supposedly inspired by their god. 


Another question comes to mind when we read Matthew’s version of this text (10:37-38): “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Was Matthew trying to soften Luke 14:26, or was the author of Luke’s gospel not satisfied with Matthew’s wording, so intensified the sentiment by using the word hate on purpose?


There is other Jesus-script that reflects cult fanaticism. One man told Jesus he wanted to follow him, but had to go home first to bury his father. “But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’” (Matthew 8:22) How brutal is that! And we find this text in Matthew 12:47-50:


“Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” Does the will of my father in heaven. This is very much typical cult-speak: the preacher claims to know the mind of the deity that he/she represents. 


In Mark 13:21-22 we also find a hint that the early Christian cult was in theological disarray, certainly a precursor to the theological chaos what would prevail during the coming centuries: “And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’  or ‘Look! There he is!’—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” Perhaps the author of Mark was aware of the apostle Paul’s complaint, written years earlier, in 2 Corinthians 11:3-4:


“But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.” 


Paul’s fervent expectation that Jesus was going to arrive soon probably fueled Mark’s imagination as well. In his letters, Paul urges Christians to get ready for it. In I Thessalonians 4, he assures that congregation that their dead relatives—those who had become Jesus-believers, that is—would rise to meet Jesus in the shy, and he promised them that he would join them. When Mark wrote 20-25 years later, he included this Jesus script (13:33-37): 


“Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”


It is clear that the Jesus cult was expecting his appearance soon. At his trial, Jesus assures those present that they would see him coming on the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62). Proof of his messiahship was anticipated right away. 


There are many brands of Christianity that prefer to ignore these extremist texts I’ve drawn attention to. To be sure, they still recite the Lord’s Prayer as part of their public and private rituals, including the words “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—without giving much thought to how horrible the arrival of the kingdom will be, e.g., “…suffering such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now and never will be.” (Mark 13:19)


This reflects the age-old practice of cherry-picking Bible verses to get the kind of religion you want. There are so many Bible verses that must be ignored to end up with a feel-good faith and a feel-good Jesus. But on the other hand, militant Christian nationalists savor revenge theology; the severe texts fuel the certainty that their god wants many people marginalize or crushed. And there are other texts—not words attributed to Jesus—that play this same role, e.g.,  


John 3:18: “Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.


John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life but must endure God’s wrath.


Romans 2:5: “…by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 


Romans 2:8-9: “…those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but injustice, there will be wrath and fury. There will be affliction and distress for everyone who does evil…”


New Testament authors weren't bothered by the wrathful, bully god of the Old Testament that moderate Christians find distasteful.


It’s not a bad idea, however, to evaluate scripture using rational, critical approaches. For a while now I have been using the term Jesus-script —instead of writing, Jesus said. For the simple reason that all words attributed to Jesus in the gospels are, in fact, script created by the gospel authors. These documents were written decades later; the authors never name their sources. How did they know—how could they know—what Jesus said? This problem is only made worse by printing the supposed words of Jesus in red. This gives readers false confidence that these are the authentic words of Jesus. 


For so many reasons, there is no way to determine what Jesus actually taught, e.g., most of the people who heard him preach, including the disciples, were probably illiterate; we can be sure there were no stenographers as his side: just how, by whom, and when, would his words have been written down, accurately?  New Testament scholars have been stumped by this problem for a long time. It’s not a stretch to say that Jesus’ words are lost forever. 


But that didn’t stop the gospel authors from creating Jesus-script. To serve their agendas—frankly their propaganda purposes—in promoting the Jesus cult. Any lay person who reads the gospels carefully, especially comparing parallel stories, can see how much the individual gospel authors changed the Jesus-script as they saw fit. 


So I have to make a confession: the title for this article includes the words, Not According to Jesus. But nobody knows what Jesus said. There is some comfort in that, actually. The horrors that will happen when the kingdom of god appears all derive from the imaginations of the gospel authors. 





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 Christianity Blog since 2016.


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