They just say NO to their Lord and Savior
A few years ago, a devout Catholic woman was kind enough to read an early version of a chapter that ended up in my 2016 book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief. Her willingness differed from the response I got from other churchgoers—those who refused because they were Christians; they were afraid that their faith might be damaged (i.e., I don’t want to think about it). In the chapter she read I discussed Jesus-script about his coming on the clouds to bring god’s kingdom. I was surprised—but not surprised—by her reaction: “I didn’t know Jesus is supposed to come back.” How could she not know this? —because it’s right there in Jesus-script: this would be the finale of his story, his eventual triumph, initiating the kingdom. I was not surprised, however, because I have yet to meet a Catholic who has been encouraged to read the Bible. As I’ve often pointed out, the gospels are a minefield, and the clergy want to avoid having to defend them. This minefield includes 292 not-so-great Jesus quotes—well, that’s my tally, and the list can be found on the website for my book, Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught.
But it had also apparently escaped this woman’s notice that there are vocal brands of Christianity that still expect the arrival of Jesus on the clouds. They can’t wait, certain that this will happen, because it says so, right there in the New Testament. Nevertheless, there are many devout Jesus followers who aren’t influenced much at all by this expectation. It’s one of many ideas in the New Testament they’re willing to minimize, set aside, ignore. With what we know about the Cosmos these days, a holy hero arriving from the sky sounds really weird, too much like what we find in comic books.
However, the original Jesus cult emerged in a world saturated with superstition, and well before comic books assigned wild fantasies about flying heroes to harmless entertainment. Christians who get along just fine not expecting Jesus to come back seem to be okay with just rubbing out so much Jesus-script.
In the first chapter of Mark’s gospel we read the message that Jesus preached: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe in the good news” (v. 15). This was to be a dramatic, world-changing event—and if you wanted to survive, you had to repent of your sins. Indeed, Jesus himself was baptized “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). John’s gospel presents a perfect Jesus who was present at creation, so its author felt that Mark got it really wrong: he deleted any mention of Jesus being baptized.
Of course, no kingdom of a god arrived on earth—anyone can look around and see this didn’t happen: the horrors of human history testify to the absence or negligence of gods. In fact, the author of Luke’s gospel seems to have been uneasy with Mark’s message about the imminent arrival of the kingdom, and repositioned it with this Jesus-script: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). Theologians and clergy have welcomed this text: it allows them to assure the devout that the promised kingdom is an internal reality, something you feel in your heart…I guess. So Luke helped Christian theology’s slide into theobabble.
But, of course, not so fast. Mark stands in the way of this watered-down understanding of the kingdom. At his trial (Mark 14) Jesus is asked point-blank if he is the messiah, and he makes this boast: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (v.62). That is, he promised those present at his trial that they would see him arriving on the clouds. Perhaps this Jesus-script is based on Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (see especially, Tom Dykstra, Mark, Canonizer of Paul): Paul was confident that Jesus would soon arrive on the clouds:
“…the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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 Thess. 4:16-17).
“Then we who are alive, who are left…” Christian folks today who are staring at the sky to spot Jesus don’t seem to notice this timing mentioned in their New Testament. For Paul, there was no doubt whatever that he would be alive to witness this spectacular arrival of Jesus. It all sounds glorious, right? Meeting Jesus in the air, being with him forever—provided you believed in your heart that Jesus resurrected (Romans 10:9).
Mark’s awful chapter 13 would probably be voted down by many Christians: toss it out of the gospels—and Matthew’s chapter 24, which copies so much of it. Since Mark 13 “predicts” the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, many devout scholars concede that Mark’s gospel was written after this event. Hence the first gospel was created some forty years after the death of Jesus. But the truly grim nature of Mark 13 undermines the loving image of Jesus that the church promotes.
Verse 5 appears to describe considerable bickering in the early Jesus cult, and verses 7-8 depict catastrophes that will precede the arrival of the kingdom:
“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Verses 12-13 are especially terrifying: “Siblings 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.”
It keeps going downhill in verses 17-19: “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. 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.”
But then, finally, supposedly a happy ending after the horrendous pain and grief, verses 24-27:
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 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.”
The chapter ends with a warning to be watchful. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert for you do not know when the time will come…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.”
So this author speaks of being alert in the evening, at midnight, or at dawn…keep awake! He could not have imagined that Christians 2,000 years in the future would still be waiting for Jesus to show up!
Christians who would like to see this chapter chopped out of the Bible can see that it’s is an example of crude cult propaganda: a holy hero will arrive through the clouds, preceded by calamities and disasters, family members killing each other, and stars falling from the sky; then angels will gather the elect from everywhere. And it’s going to happen any minute now! This propaganda—this Jesus-script—is aimed at those who consider themselves “the elect.” They’re privileged to be in the cult.
But they were not gifted with critical thinking skills, nor did their all-knowing god bother to educate them about the Cosmos: that heroes don’t float down from the sky, nor do stars fall from the heavens. The gospel writers themselves were clueless on these matters, and not bothered by the incoherence of their stories. As we saw, Jesus promised those at his trial that they would see his arrival on the clouds; Matthew had his own take on this: “When they persecute you in this town, flee to the next, for truly I tell you, you will not have finished going through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23). This is more cult delusion about the imminent arrival of Jesus.
As time went on—decade after decade—confidence about the arrival of Jesus from heaven seems to have faded. However, modern day predictors—who refuse to pay attention to the timing mentioned in the New Testament—repeatedly have set the date for Jesus’ arrival, and set it and reset it, when he doesn’t show up. It seems pretty clear that both Paul and the Jesus-script imagined by the gospel writers got it all wrong. Anyone who wants to claim that these were the real words of Jesus, has do deal with Jesus being wrong. A basic rule for reading/study of the gospels is question everything, be skeptical of everything. This includes reading what Bible scholars have written about every story that doesn’t seem to fit with what we now know about the world and how it works. For help with Jesus-script about the end time, see especially John Loftus’ essay, “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet,” in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.
Try to wrap your mind around this: there is little ethical teaching in Mark’s Jesus-script. The great moral teacher doesn’t show up here. This author was focused on the apocalyptic promise, and the ability of his hero to vanquish demons.
Part of questioning and being skeptical is putting aside the claim that scripture has to be true because it is divinely inspired, and ignoring the plea of the clergy to take it on faith. About any text in the Bible every reader should ask: is this based on revelation, imagination, or hallucination? If anyone wants to settle on revelation as the answer, then we have a right to ask for the reliable, verifiable, objective evidence that backs up this claim. It’s vital to keep stressing this request, because the clergy—modern cult propagandists—desperately hope the laity will ignore it.
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.