A Big Chunk of Cult Posturing in John’s Gospel

A mighty stream of pompous theobabble

Insight into Christian origins is provided by three texts, written by a man who never met Jesus. (1) The apostle Paul states in Galatians 1:11-12: “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin, for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” A revelation as he imagined it, unless you’re willing to credit visions claimed by hundreds of other religions. (2) He also imagined that Jesus was a dying-rising savior god; that is, those who believe in this hero are entitled to eternal life, as he states in Romans 10:9: “…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.” (3) In I Thessalonians 4:17, Paul assured his followers that their dead Christian relatives and friends would be the first to rise to meet Jesus when he arrives on the clouds: “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.”


Yes, this toxic mix of fantasy, nonsense, and magical thinking was bouncing around in Paul’s imagination, fueled by what he had absorbed from other cults. For full details on this, see Richard Carrier’s essay, Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan Guys. Get Over It.


Paul seems to have had no clue about the real Jesus (if, indeed, there was one). All of the abundant detail about the ministry and miracles of Jesus that we find in the gospels is missing from Paul’s letters. That wasn’t what mattered to him. He was attached to the dying-rising hero, and that’s what he proclaimed so enthusiastically.


The author of Mark’s gospel (no one knows who he actually was) wrote his tale of Jesus a couple of decades later. Everything he relates could have happened in a few weeks, and we lack any information at all as to where and how he came by the stories he relates. Devout scholars argue that this author had access to reliable oral tradition and eyewitness accounts, but there is no evidence for this. We suspect he relied on his imagination, as much as Paul did. Matthew and Luke copied most of Mark’s gospel (but neglected to admit doing so) and added material from their imaginations. Again, it’s hard to avoid this conclusion since they don’t name their sources. 


But the first prize as Champion at Imagining must go to the author of John’s gospel. Anyone who has carefully studied Mark, Matthew, and Luke has to wonder where and how John came up with all the stuff he tells. He offers a baffling opening: Jesus, the Galilean peasant preacher, had been present at creation. The other gospel authors knew nothing about this—or at least they failed to mention it. If anyone had challenged John: how do you know that Jesus was present at creation, he would have no doubt claimed that his god told him. And, of course, that has been the claim of theologians—who don’t agree—for thousands of years. They can’t provide reliable, verifiable evidence, but no matter, they (somehow) know the mind of god. 


Be suspicious, very suspicious. 


In this article, I will focus on a few verses in John 14-17, a huge Jesus monologue found nowhere else. How did the other gospel authors miss it—if they used reliable oral tradition and eyewitness testimonies? How did they miss it if they were inspired by god to tell the truth about Jesus? All of the gospel authors were motivated to advance the early Jesus cult, but John 14-17 stresses the benefits of being a member of the cult: it is an example of massive overpromotion.  


John was obsessed with the certainty that knowing Jesus, belonging to Jesus, was the only way to connect with god at the most profound level—and be guaranteed eternal life. He was sure that his god—his god alone—could make sure this happened. 


Cult comfort


How well I recall, from my childhood, the opening of John 14:1-2, in the wonderful language of the King James Version: “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.


Verse 3 offers the ultimate assurance to the cult members: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” And here’s the whole purpose of the cult, vv. 6-7: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”


Near the end of this long monologue, at the start of chapter 17, Jesus “looked up to heaven” to address the Father. This reflects the cozy view of the cosmos then accepted: the Father is above, as is his dwelling with “many mansions” that the cult members will settle into, after their escape from death, thanks to the dying-rising hero Jesus. These folks are assured they are the most privileged, 14:13-14: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”  


Because the members of the cult adore the dying-rising hero, his departure will not be a source of alarm, vv. 18-20: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” And verse 26: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” 


Thus the author of this gospel offers his assurance that the cult will be continually guided by this Holy Spirit. The irony, of course, from our perspective many centuries later, is that the Christian cult has fought and splintered endlessly because there is so little agreement on exactly what the Holy Spirit has taught. John’s imagination was not up to the task of seeing the history of the church that was to come. 


Cult threats


Chapter 15 begins with another of the “I am” claims made by Jesus—according to this author: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” But then comes the warning, the cult has high expectations, v. 6: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Lack of full commitment, full loyalty are not permitted. This reminds us of the brutal verse that we find in Luke’s gospel, 14:26: “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.”


Hatred against the cult


What was it like to have a conversation with the author of John’s gospel? In chapters 14-17 especially, his religious arrogance is on full display: "Ours is the only right religion, we’re privileged to be uniquely loved and favored by god.” Did he behave this way in his every-day interaction with other people? If so, it’s not hard to imagine that people didn’t like him, wanted to keep their distance: “What a pompous ass!” He must not have been too bothered by this shunning, and he created Jesus-script to explain it:


 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (15:18-19)


It would seem that being hated is part of the divine plan. Maybe John just failed to notice that being arrogant and pompous produced hateful responses. 


The seeds of the most destructive hatred


One of the great sins of the New Testament is its fueling of anti-Semitism. The Jesus cult was a breakaway Jewish sect: the vast majority of Jews rejected the idea that Jesus qualified as the Messiah. The author of John’s gospel responded by lashing out. He devised this Jesus-script at chapter 8:44, addressing the Jews: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.” As Hector Avalos has pointed out, “That verse later shows up on Nazi street signs.” (The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, ed. by John Loftus, p. 378) This theme is repeated in a different way in chapter 16:1-4: 


 “I have said these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.”


They have not known the Father. This blunt accusation—along with the suggestion that the Jews have the devil for their father—has caused so much damage. No doubt Martin Luther’s virulent anti-Semitic rantings derive from such texts. 


Promises to the cult 

Later in chapter 16, verses 23-24, the benefits of belonging to the cult are defined precisely: “Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” Countless devout Christians have discovered that this is simply not true.

And devotees of the cult will be protected, verse 16:33: I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution, but take courage: I have conquered the world!”  

More fluff—first rate theobabble—that emerged from this author’s imagination.

The Jesus-script prayer to the Father in chapter 17 includes this promise as well, verses 21-23: 

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” 

That they may become completely one. A bigger failed promise can hardly be imagined. 

My constant appeal to the devout is please read the gospels. Dr. Jaco Gericke has stated the harsh truth: “If you read the scriptures and are not shocked out of all your religious beliefs, you have not understood them.” (The End of Christianity, ed. by John Loftus, p. 137) This actually requires more than reading: put curiosity and critical thinking into high gear—which is so hard to do for those who have been indoctrinated, who have been persuaded from their earliest years that the Bible is a reliable source of god-information. Break out of the Sunday School mentality. Study John 14-17. It’s not hard to see that the ancient theologian who wrote these chapters did a lot of damage to the religion he was supposedly championing. Your religious beliefs are in for a major shock.  



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.


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