It’s a cult!
With well more than two billion followers, Christianity ranks as humanity’s biggest religion, and thus to many it also qualifies as one of the great religions of the world. Look at all it has going for it: 2,000 years of momentum, churches in every city and town—in the countries where it predominates—as well as massive cathedrals that draw vast crowds. From my own experience, I can say that those in London, Paris, Milan, Rome, and Barcelona are indeed magnificent. Some of the great composers have set Christian stories and rituals to music, e.g., Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi. A massive propaganda engine promotes the faith as well: Sunday school, catechism, and professional apologists whose primary goal is to explain away the incoherencies that sabotage Christian theology, i.e., its many claims about god are in jarring conflict, and cannot, in truth, be reconciled. But the apologists are slick enough to make it look good.
Full Stop: In fact it doesn’t look so good. If you don’t recognize Christianity as a vast, splintered, quarreling cult, you’re not looking at it closely, critically, skeptically—as an outsider would, as John Loftus makes the case in his 2013 book, The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True. Christian adults who went through the
Sunday School or catechism experience were trained not to do so. And they think you’re crazy if you call Christianity a cult. Those unfortunate 900 folks who drank the Kool-Aid—committing mass suicide in 1978 in Guyana—under the urging of Jim Jones: they were
members of a cult.
But it doesn’t take all that much study, that much research into Christian origins—that is, looking below the surface of cherished dogma—to see the stark reality: core Christian beliefs are a clumsy blend of ancient superstitions, common miracle folklore, and magical thinking. All of these flourished at the time Christianity emerged.
Based on its core beliefs, Christianity is a cult. Are the folks in the pews really okay with these ideas?
It might be a bit troubling when the devout read in Genesis 8:21 that Yahweh was pleased with the aroma of birds that Noah burned after the flood. Likewise, we read in Leviticus 1 that this god liked the aroma of bull-flesh being burned. This reflects the naïve concept of god that prevailed at the time: he was close overhead to get a whiff of the smoke. Now we know that the Cosmos has billions of galaxies—so the idea that god is pleased by the aroma of smoke on earth just won’t do. In Mark 1:44 we read that Jesus, after healing a man, told him to “…show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded”—most likely a burnt offering. Incinerating animals was in fact big business at the Jerusalem Temple before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
But Christianity decided to make an adjustment: it upgraded to human sacrifice. Here’s what we read in the New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 9:26-28, about the role of Christ:
“…he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” This is Jesus-script found in Mark 10:45: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”
It strikes me as a horrible twisting of piety that, in some Christian traditions, the horror of the crucifixion is depicted as vividly as possible: the bloodier Jesus is, the better: a brutal human sacrifice. How does this possibly make sense? An all-powerful god can’t just forgive people, but somehow slipped into theological dotage, and arranged this gimmick: “I came up with this idea of having my son murdered—to enable me to forgive humans.”
This is from the Wikipedia article on human sacrifice, as widely practiced around the world, with the Christian twist on it:
“Christianity developed the belief that the story of Isaac's binding was a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ, whose death and resurrection enabled the salvation and atonement for man from its sins, including original sin…The beliefs of most Christian denominations hinge upon the substitutionary atonement of the sacrifice of God the Son, which was necessary for salvation in the afterlife. According to Christian doctrine, each individual person on earth must participate in, and/or receive the benefits of, this divine human sacrifice for the atonement of their sins. Early Christian sources explicitly described this event as a sacrificial offering, with Christ in the role of both priest and human sacrifice…”
And It Gets Worse
Just as many other religions/cults embraced human sacrifice—for a variety of reasons—so it was believed that some dying gods came back to life. In other words, it was a common superstition, as Richard Carrier has explained:
“The dying-and-rising son (sometimes daughter) of god ‘mytheme’ originated in the ancient Near East over a thousand years before Christianity and was spread across the Mediterranean principally by the Phoenicians (Canaanites) from their base at Tyre (and after that by the Carthaginians, the most successful Phoenician cultural diffusers in the early Greco-Roman period), and then fostered and modified by numerous native and Greco-Roman cults that adopted it. The earliest documented examples are the cult of Inanna and Dumuzi (also known as Ishtar and Tammuz), the cult of Baal and Anat, and the cult of Marduk (also known as Bel or Baal, which basically meant ‘the Lord’), all of whose resurrection stories are told in Sumerian, Ugaritic and Assyrian tablets (respectively) long predating the advent of Christianity” (p. 169, Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt).
Carrier discusses this belief in great detail in his 29 March 2018 blog article, Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It.
The early Jesus-cult borrowed the idea, and profound ignorance of this fact has prevailed for centuries. Robert Lowry’s 1874 hymn captures Christian naivete perfectly: “Up from the grave He arose, With a mighty triumph o’er His foes, He arose a Victor from the dark domain, And He lives forever, With His saints to reign. He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!”
The confusion in the Easter morning gospel stories should be a tip-off that something is wrong. The four gospels managed to attain sacred status among early Christians, so they were put side by side in the holy canon, without any thought—so it would seem—to their contradictions. Snippets of the Easter stories are read from the pulpit, but it’s not common for the laity to scrutinize the four Easter accounts side-by-side. They are, in fact, a mess, and Christian apologists have worked oh-so-hard to make them look coherent. From Mark (the first) through John (the last), the story grew with the telling. Luke alone included the Road to Emmaus story, and John alone included the account of Doubting Thomas, both of which suggest that their authors were influenced by ghost folklore. On this, see Robert Conner’s book: Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story.
The Magical Thinking Piles On
One of the great embarrassments for devout New Testament scholars is that the apostle Paul, who was the first to write about Christ, does not mention—in any of his letters—the supposed events of Easter morning, including an empty tomb. He bragged that his Christ-information did not come from any human sources, but from his visions (= hallucinations). He was locked into his conviction that Jesus had been resurrected.
It would appear that Paul was terrified of dying, and was convinced he’d found the formula for living forever. He assured the folks in the Thessalonian congregation that their dead relatives (i.e., those who had believed in Jesus), would escape from their graves to meet Jesus: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever” (I Thessalonians 4:17). The problem with death was solved! And in Romans 10:9 he was just as explicit: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
This is magical thinking, utterly, totally: if you say and believe that Jesus was raised from the dead—well, that’s the magical formula for getting out of dying. Followers of other cults that worshipped dying-and-rising savior gods were just as confident that they had the right god.
The author of John’s gospel took the magical thinking to an even higher level—actually, it’s a lower level—because it is so ghoulish. In his sixth chapter, he includes Jesus-script in which his Christ promises eternal life to those who drink his blood and eat his flesh. Other such cults had sacred meals as well, and this text probably played a role in moving the Catholic church to adopt the concept of transubstantiation: by the Miracle of the Mass, the bread and wine become the real body and blood of Jesus, i.e., magic potions. That’s just too spooky.
As mentioned above, the Easter morning stories in the gospels provide no evidence at all that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. But the people who embrace resurrection theology should notice they’ve got a big problem to deal with. So Jesus was alive and walking around (the gospels don’t agree on just how long)—so what do you eventually do with the newly alive Jesus? In the first chapter of Acts we read that, after forty days, Jesus ascended to heaven, i.e., he rose from the earth and disappeared into the clouds. Apologists today may claim that this can be taken metaphorically, but the author of Acts—knowing nothing about how the Cosmos is structured—would have assumed that his story was accurate. After all, writing decades later, he had to provide a happy ending: Jesus sitting on a throne in heaven next to Yahweh.
But we know that there’s no throne of god somewhere above the earth. Just a few miles overhead is the intense cold of space, pulsing with radiation. A few years ago, Scott McKellar commented on the fantasy story in Acts 1:
“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 feet 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.” (from a Facebook post)
So newly alive Jesus—if you believe he resurrected—never left Planet Earth. Thus even devout Christians, if they give any thought at all to this, have to admit that Jesus died again. Just as Lazarus did, and the dead folks whom Matthew claims came alive when Jesus died, then walked out of their tombs on Easter morning to wander around Jerusalem. What happened to Jesus in the end? Nobody knows. The gospels don’t tell us. What an embarrassment: the New Testament is guilty of a coverup. Jesus isn’t alive somewhere in the sky guaranteeing eternal life for those who believe that he rose from the dead. The magical thinking—the cult fantasy—just doesn’t work.
One final point: the Christian cult still embraces the idea that its god must be praised and glorified by humans. This derives from a primitive concept of god that was based on the behavior/expectations of tribal chieftains and kings. As much as theologians have tried to upgrade this concept—make it more respectable—it now seems so unlikely. Does a god who runs the Cosmos need/require continual flattery and stroking by a species of mammals on one planet? That it gets off on being sung to? In fact, that’s just silly. Yet the building boom goes on: putting up more churches for devout to gather in, to offer praise: “How great Thou art, how great Thou art, Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee, How great Thou art, how great Thou art.”
There is no reliable, verifiable, objective evidence that god(s) exist—and certainly none that god(s) expect repetitive, unending praise. But cult nonsense has incredible staying power.
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). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available.
His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.