You’re Sure You Know Jesus in Your Heart? Can You Verify That?

Imagination plays a major role in religious certainty

The huge ecclesiastical bureaucracy has been in charge of promoting an idealized Jesus, hence it’s no wonder Christians are confident that they know Jesus in their hearts. They fail to notice that Jesus is a product, one that is presented in the most positive ways. The church has always gotten away with this because, for the most part, the laity can’t be bothered to look at the so-called evidence; that is, to verify what they’re told about Jesus. 


The supposed sources of Jesus knowledge are simply not valid. They are the equivalent of smoke and mirrors. The fervent promoters of Jesus—theologians and clergy, but beginning with the gospel authors—remind us of the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz conjuring stories and fantasies. Let’s consider a few examples.


Visual Aids


For some reason, the faithful are okay with the idea that god is invisible. That’s just one step short of imaginary—but that’s another story for another time. Since Jesus was the part of god that became visible, it has been essential to depict Jesus in stained glass, statuary, paintings—in a wide range of art forms. But all of these depictions come out of the imaginations of artists, because in all of the New Testament—this is a puzzling deficiency of the gospels—Jesus is never described. Some Christians want to believe that the gospels are based on eyewitness reports, which makes it strange that descriptions of Jesus were not included. What did he look like? Was he tall or short, handsome or homely, thin or stout? 


So for centuries, the masters of visual aids have depicted Jesus as they imagined him. If you have a cherished image of the Jesus you know in your hearts, that is the result of artistic imagination. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Caravaggio portrayed Jesus quite differently; an especially idealized   Catholic rendering probably holds greater appeal. 


Miracles Are Impressive, Right?


Holy heroes the world over, and through the centuries, have attracted followers because of the wonders they perform. And the Jesus whom Christians know in their hearts is no exception. The power of Jesus flowed through his garments, so that a sick woman who touched his hem was healed. He restored sight to a blind man by mixing his saliva with mud, and smearing it on the fellow’s eyes. He transferred demons from a man into a herd of pigs, and glowed on a mountaintop while chatting with Moses and Elijah. Changing water into wine, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead, feeding vast crowds with a few loaves and fishes—these were also in his repertoire of wonders. If you’re already supercharged with Jesus-belief, these stories stoke your enthusiasm. 


My challenge to believers is two-fold. 


(1)  Read all of these stories carefully, critically. Are they to be taken seriously? The problem, of course, is that the gospel writers failed to provide sufficient evidence (e.g., documentation) for those of us in the modern world to say, “Sure, these things happened as described.” A careful study of the Lazarus story provokes suspicion. It is found only in John’s gospel (chapter 11)—how were the other writers unaware of it? Jesus says he was glad he didn’t get there in time to save Lazarus, because he seemed eager to score points: this miracle illustrates that he is the resurrection and the life. It looks contrived—no surprise whatever in John’s gospel.                                                                                                                                 

   The Jesus enthusiasts should be aware that such gospel stories reflect the miracle folklore that existed in the ancient world. These were the things holy heroes did, so the gospel authors included them in their accounts. What is more probable: these were bona fide miracles—or borrowings from common folklore? In Jesus: Mything in Action, Volume 1, David Fitzgerald states to issue clearly:


“Like the pagan miracle workers, Jesus cast out demons and healed the blind, deaf, and mute with mud and spit, using the same spells, incantations and techniques taught in many popular Greek magic handbooks of the time.” (p.105)


(2)  Boasting about miracles to prove a god’s power is risky business; such claims present too many problems. For insights into this, I recommend Matt McCormick’s essay, “God Would Not Perform Miracles,” in John Loftus’ 2019 anthology, The Case Against Miracles. Why does an all-powerful, loving, caring god, who knows when even a sparrow falls to the group, put up with such massive suffering in the world? If it was god’s miracle that Jesus fed 5,000 people, why are there hungry people in the world today? If Jesus healed a blind man, why are there blind people anywhere today? McCormick states the theological dilemma precisely:


“…millions of people suffer horribly from disease, famine, cruelty, torture, genocide, and death. The occurrence of a finite miracle, in the midst of so many instances of unabated suffering, suggests that the being who is responsible doesn’t know about, doesn’t care about, or doesn’t have the power to address the others.”  (p. 67)


Jesus Is Cherished in Christian Hearts Because of What He Taught


This is where we hit the hardest brick wall. The clergy make a practice of reading nice, inspiring Jesus quotes from the pulpit. They’re not hard to find. Just do a Google search for good Jesus quotes. But the clergy in hard-nosed brands of Christianity—who hope to see god’s wrath visited on sinners—are far more inclined to rely on the dreadful Jesus quotes. Devout folks who don’t bother to read/study the gospels commonly fail to notice the dreadful quotes. 


I found myself wondering how Christians can be Jesus-followers when there is so much Jesus-script in the gospels that is so very bad. Because it is unnoticed! —churchgoers don’t make a habit of reading/studying the gospels. This reality prompted me to reread the gospels to find the Jesus quotes that most of the devout—I suspect—would disagree with and flatly reject. The result of this project was my 2021 book, Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught. On the book’s website, you’ll find a list of 292 Jesus quotes that so many Christians wouldn’t be thrilled with. There I have sorted them into four categories: Preaching About the End Time, Scary Extremism, Bad Advice & Bad Theology, and The Unreal Jesus of John’s Gospel. In the book, they’re sorted differently, into ten categories. 


Preaching About the End Time. In Mark’s gospel especially, the kingdom of god will arrive on earth soon, and there will be grim destruction, as depicted so graphically in Mark 13. 


Scary Extremism. In Matthew 10, we read that Jesus sent his disciples out to preach in villages, and he assured them: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (vv.14-15). That’s extreme, as is the requirement that hatred of family is required for those who want to be followers of Jesus (Luke 14:26).


Bad Advice & Bad Theology. What a shame that the famous Sermon on the Mount includes a fair share of bad advice: don’t worry about what to wear or what to eat, and don’t store up treasures on earth. For so many modern Christians, this advice has no bearing on their lives. And a champion example of bad theology is found in John 6, where Jesus recommends ghoulish magic potions, i.e., eat his flesh and drink his blood, to gain eternal life. 


The Unreal Jesus of John’s Gospel. This Jesus with a colossal ego—so full of himself—is so unlike the Jesus we find in Mark, the first gospel. 


Chances are, the folks who know Jesus in their hearts haven’t paid much attention to these very negative aspects of the gospels, in fact, they’ve been guided away from such texts. Or have been convinced by clever apologists that the bad Jesus quotes aren’t that bad after all. So much energy of the clergy and theologians has to be devoted to making Jesus look good, when the gospels tell such a different story. Always bear in mind that the gospel authors were promoting the early Jesus cult, and ancient cult beliefs/fanaticisms are not shared by so many modern believers.   


Now for the second part of the brick wall that devout Christians face when they are so sure they know Jesus in their hearts. And this is even more problematic. We have no way—none whatever—of knowing what Jesus said. Every single scrap of Jesus-script in the gospels was created by the gospel authors. We are forced to this conclusion because the authors, writing decades later, don’t identify their sources: how did they find out what Jesus said? Devout scholars want to believe that “reliable oral tradition” did the trick, but this is speculation, guesswork; they have no way of verifying this claim. It doesn’t help that the author of John’s gospel (21:24)—the last to be written—mentions a disciple who “testifies to these things and has written them.” We need to see the documentation—not an anonymous author’s boast—and any novelist can create such characters.


The very devout who are sure that they know Jesus in their hearts can claim that this knowledge is guaranteed by the holy spirit—nothing else is necessary. This is a form of blind obedience to their imaginations: dammit, they just know it! And they might claim that “inspired scripture” is the source of their confidence. But oh dear, there is so much in the inspired gospels that works against this claim. Maybe it’s time for these folks to learn how critical thinking can be derailed by confirmation bias. Remember: what you feel in your heart is evidence for what you’re feeling. To back up any claim that you’re tuned in to cosmic realities, please show us where we can find reliable, verifiable, objective evidence.




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, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) 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. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here