I trace the beginnings of my spiritual journey to a time when, as a young teen, I began to take interest in the great questions in life and was frequently distracted by a desire to understand how I fit into the big picture. Living near the beach, I often took advantage of the opportunity to sit and contemplate on the shores of Huntington Beach, California. I felt a palpable sense of peace and belonging at the ocean and I often would retreat there for solace. My answers to life’s great questions remained ill-defined at this point in my life but my own native religion was nature-centered.
In my later teen years, however, I came under the influence of several enthusiastic Christian friends. At first, I was very resistant to the Gospel message and to some of the content of the Bible. But over time, my attraction to the welcoming fellowship, the high moral standards, the reassuring divine promises, and the ready supply of answers to my deepest questions, overcame my misgivings. I embraced Jesus as Lord and Savior and embarked on what became a 20-year sojourn.
From the beginning, my experience of Christianity was focused around an intense interest in experiencing personal communion with God, understanding the Bible, and living a life of service. Over the years, this resulted in much time spent in private prayer and worship, contemplative retreats into mountain or desert, two college degrees focused on Biblical studies, and ministry pursuits that included an associate pastorship, home bible study fellowships, hospital visitation, street witnessing, feeding the poor in Mexico, and soup kitchen work.
Christianity was always an uncomfortable fit however. Unseen by even my closest Christian friends was a fierce inner struggle to make sense of the full Biblical message and to live a life of integrity consistent with that message. Gradually, serious misgivings about the Bible mounted. Rather than alleviate my doubts, the more I learned about the Bible, the more I encountered intractable problems on every hand. Tension and struggle eventually reached such an extreme that I knew something had to give, yet I felt trapped. Certainly, I told myself, something was wrong with me or my apprehension of the faith. I thought by definition nothing could be wrong with Christianity or the Bible itself.
A watershed moment arrived one day when a close Christian friend of mine casually suggested that all one had to do was place any stumbling stone on the shelf and just continue along the path trusting that, in the end, God would take care of everything, including any doubts. The advice was a well-intentioned bit of standard Christian counsel; the timing however was all-significant. My immediate response was to ask what should be done if those stumbling stones became so numerous and heavy that the shelf were to break. The comment was lost on my friend, but it was a self-revelatory moment. It finally occurred to me that all the tension I felt was due to my being at that breaking point. Cognitive dissonance simply overwhelmed me and I could no longer take refuge in pious evasion. I felt literally suffocated under the weight of so many flimsy rationalizations for Biblical problems. I had to do something, so at that moment I decided that I would rethink everything, that none of my assumptions would be off-limits, and that I would follow the truth wherever it took me.
The process was nothing short of traumatic. Not to mention lonely. I came to understand firsthand why several of my seminary friends had experienced nervous breakdowns while struggling through the same process. But in the end, I re-emerged wiser and with new focus, and a sense of peace that I had not known for a long time. I was also no longer a Christian.
Through it all I see myself as having come full circle. Once again my religion is nature-centered. Rather than looking to a man-made deity, I now try to live life to the fullest, here and now, and awaken to all the wonders that surround me.
I’ve moved on from Christianity because, in balance, I no longer find it credible or attractive. Decades of intensive study have lead me to conclude that the Bible shows every sign of having originated in the minds of errant mortals, not the mind of God. As such, like all other human works, it is a mix of good, bad and ugly. What follows is a sampling of the evidence that convinced me.
--Divine sanctioning of brutal slavery
--Divine ordering of genocidal rampages
--The long bloody trail of divine mass-killings
--Mosaic Law a rehash of ancient barbaric legal codes
--Hell, a sadistic eternal divine torture chamber
--Crude anthropomorphic portrayals of God
--Denigration of women
--Appeasing an angry deity through human sacrifice
--Denigration of life in this world
--Extreme, unrealistic, emergency-mode ethics
--False offer of final, ultimate, infallible truth
--Denigration of unbelievers
--Fraudulent claims of prophetic fulfillment
--Jesus a failed doomsday prophet
--Extreme mythological makeover of Jesus
--Jesus like other god-men saviors of the day
--Miracle and resurrection accounts not credible
--Reliance upon fanciful mythological sources
1) Because old sacred texts cannot evolve, religions that rely on them keep the people that live by them stuck in the mindset of the times they were written. This creates the dual problem of perpetuating primitive or even barbaric thinking, and impeding progress. Over the last 2000 years, Christianity has been guilty of both offenses.
The issue of slavery offers an excellent example. Ownership of one human being by another is, of course, the abhorrent essence of slavery. In Leviticus 25:44-46 God grants his people permission to purchase and own slaves, and to enslave them for life:
“‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life...”
Slaves could also be obtained during wartime. In this passage, God lumps people right together with livestock, no distinctions, just all part of the plunder of war:
“As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.” (Deut. 20:14)
If sanctioning slavery weren’t bad enough God also approved brutal treatment of slaves, pronouncing that a master could beat his slave within an inch of his/her life and, as long as the slave didn't die, the master would suffer no penalty. The divine justification for this cruel ruling: The slave is the master's property!
“Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.” (Exodus 21:20-21)
There it is: Divine sanction of the essence of slavery, right from the mouth of God - or so one must believe if the Bible is accepted as divinely inspired infallible Scripture. Slavery advocates in our own country used Old Testament passages such as these to defend their practices during the debates that raged in the 18th and 19th centuries. Every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination, but this considerable moral progress was made in spite of the Bible, which condones the practice, and not because of it.
2) Accepting the Bible as inerrant, inspired revelation from God requires one to approve of the barbarisms which ancient Israel committed against their neighbors—including the massacre of men, women, children and nursing babies—at the explicit mandate of God: “Thus says the Lord of Hosts: …attack Amalek…kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” (1Samuel 15:2-3). Shockingly, God was angry with Saul, the King of Israel, and stripped him of his kingship because he didn’t carry out this command completely enough, failing to kill off the king of the Amalekites and the best of their herds.
The enormity of this crime needs to be felt to be appreciated. Imagine this blood-soaked scene: thousands of babies and small children hacked to death with sharp swords, and mothers fleeing in terror clinging to their little ones only to be run down and mercilessly slaughtered. The elderly, the sick and the pregnant similarly shown no mercy.
Unfortunately the Amalekites were not a one-time special case as the Israelites were commanded by God to engage in numerous genocidal rampages. See Deut. 20: 16-17 where God demands the wholesale slaughter of numerous other tribes: “...do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.” As just one example among many, Joshua’s forces, in obedience to this command, slaughtered every inhabitant of Jericho including the animals: ”They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” (Josh. 6:21) Note how this grotesque carnage is not depicted as a grim necessary evil, but as an act of religious devotion: By destroying “with the sword every living thing,” Israel “devoted the city to the Lord.”
That the ancient Israelites would kill for their god Yahweh should come as no surprise. In fact, it was right in character because Yahweh was a war God, the essential meaning of “the Lord of Hosts,” one of the most common names for God in the Hebrew scriptures. Here are Yahweh’s instructions to Israel concerning war:
“When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. He shall say: “Hear, Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” (Deut. 20:2-4)
Listening to how Israel’s leaders spoke about their God is also very enlightening here. Following the destruction of Pharaoh’s forces, Moses exalts: “The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.” (Exodus 15:3) In his famous confrontation with Goliath, David declares:
“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (1Sam. 17:45-7)
Seen in historical context, the ancient Israelites were talking, thinking, and acting like the other tribes/nations of the time period in killing for their war god(s). The Moabite stone, for example, contains an inscription in which the Moabite king Mesha (see 2Kings 3) told of victories that he had won through his god Chemosh who "saved me from all the kings and let me see my desire upon my adversaries." Later in the inscription, Mesha said this about a victory his forces had won over Israel: "But Chemosh drove him [the king of Israel] out before me." This statement has a very Old Testament feel to it, only this time it was Israel’s enemies claiming victory through their god. In another example, pavement slabs in the temple of Urta at Nimrud contain an inscription by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II in which he described the massacre of 600 and 3,000 captives he had taken in battle "at the command of the great gods.”
Some Jews during the time of Jesus were embarrassed enough at Yahweh’s ordering of massacres that they attempted to allegorize their way out of the dilemma. In one creative remake, the people of Amalek represent the passions of the soul that must be rooted out - not living, breathing human beings with hopes and dreams, and who, like the rest of us, bleed and suffer and die.
No matter what kind of rationalization is used by the believer, the chilling fact must be faced that belief in the Bible as infallible Scripture compels the justification of genocide, of saying that these ancient atrocities were right and moral because God commanded them. Note that genocidal massacres perpetrated by Israel’s neighbors were condemned:
“This is what the Lord says: “For three sins of Edom, even for four, I will not relent.
Because he pursued his brother with a sword and slaughtered the women of the land...For three sins of Ammon, even for four, I will not relent. Because he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders….” (Amos 1:11,13)
But which is more likely: That the Creator of the universe ordered genocidal massacres by one ancient Middle Eastern tribal society (Israel), or that Israel was acting just like other tribal societies of the time?
3) God’s lust for killing
The God of the Old Testament actually has a much wider problem than that of repeatedly ordering genocidal massacres of men, women, children and nursing babies (as if that weren’t bad enough). He seems to have a decidedly strong inclination for killing, and killing frequently, en masse, for petty reasons, and as a first resort. The most obvious contemporary parallel that comes to mind is the worst modern terrorist organizations. Quite a company to travel in.
In total, the Old Testament speaks of God killing people scores of times: from the slaughter of millions by means of the Flood, to the tens and hundreds of thousands killed on numerous other occasions, to individuals like Lot’s wife, who committed the irredeemable crime of looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah, or the man caught collecting sticks on the Sabbath...and many, many more. It should also be pointed out that in most of his mass-killings, innocent children and babies were butchered by the thousands; one well-known case, the fourth item in the list below, actually targeted children. Here is only a partial list of the brutal, bloody trail left by the God of OT depiction:
--Sodom and Gomorrah, and surrounding towns
--The Egyptian plague of hail
--The killing of every Egyptian firstborn child
--Fratricidal killing and plague following the golden calf incident
--Part of Hebrew camp burned for complaining about hardships during wilderness wanderings
--Great plague in Hebrew camp for complaining about food
--14,700 in Hebrew camp killed by plague for complaining against Moses and Aaron
--Many in Hebrew camp killed by venomous snakes for complaining
--24,000 in Hebrew camp killed by plague for sinning with Moabites
--Midianites completely slaughtered; only virgins allowed to live
--Entire Benjamite towns slaughtered to avenge one murderous act
--50,070 Israeli inhabitants of Beth Shemesh killed because someone looked into the ark of the covenant
--70,000 Israelites killed by plague because King David took a census of his fighters
--42 children mauled to death by bears for making fun of Elisha
Based on a review of the Torah’s two dozen or so capital offenses, it appears that God is rather fond of killing as a parenting strategy since no less than four different actions by a child are deemed worthy of a brutal, violent death. Parents are commanded to stone to death their children if they are rebellious (Dt. 21:18-21) or if they advocate false worship (Dt. 13:8-9). Children who curse (Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9) or strike (Ex. 21:15) their father or mother are also to be put to death. No talk of mitigating circumstances due to age or family conditions, no talk of ways to redeem the child or work through the situation - just bludgeon them to death with heavy rocks. To make matters worse, Jesus affirms this approach when he asserts that the killing of children who curse their parents is a commandment of God declared by Moses, and a demonstration of the divine imperative to honor one’s parents (Mt. 15:4; Mk. 7:9-10). Talk about tough love.
Also on God’s death penalty list: if a young woman is found not to be a virgin on her wedding night, she’s to be stoned on her father’s doorstep by the men of the town (Dt. 22:20-21). Sheer ancient barbarism at its most depraved.
One is left wondering why a God with unlimited power, knowledge and creativity, and who is supposed to be the essence of loving kindness, couldn’t come up with better solutions for child-rearing, teenage promiscuity or dealing with problem situations. Or, at the very least, a first resort other than “off with their heads.” His actions make him look more like the infamous Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland than the omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator of the Universe.
One is not left wondering, however, why some leaders in the early church wanted to distance the new Christian movement from the Old Testament and, in some cases from the God of the Old Testament. Marcion, an influential second century leader with a large following, was so repulsed by the atrocities associated with Yahweh, the God of the OT, that he concluded that he was a wrathful, jealous tribal deity of the ancient Jews and not the Father of Jesus.
4) The law purportedly delivered to Moses by God bears an uncanny resemblance to other Mesopotamian law codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, the Law of Eshnunna, the Code of the Assura, the Code of the Nesilim, and the law of Ur-Nammu. These law codes derive from the Old Babylonian Empire, Sumerians, Hittites or Assyrians and predate the Law of Moses in most cases by many centuries. Predictably many of these laws appear primitive or barbaric by modern standards. But the main point being made here is that when compared to the background culture of the day, supposed revelations from God start to look all too human, and derived from the thought of the time period, not the mind of an omniscient Creator. Here are a few of the many similarities which indicate not only the same laws but, in some cases, the same principles upon which laws were based:
-- Eye for eye, tooth for tooth principle of justice:
“Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.” (Lev. 24: 19-20)
Note that the Code of Hammurabi, written centuries earlier, contains the same principle using the same examples of bodily injury:
“If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.
If he break another man's bone, his bone shall be broken….
If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.”
-- Body parts cut off as penalty for woman who injures a man’s testicles
“If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.” (Deut. 25:11-2)
“If a woman in a quarrel injure the testicle of a man, one of her fingers they shall cut off. And if a physician bind it up and the other testicle which is beside it be infected thereby, or take harm; or in a quarrel she injure the other testicle, they shall destroy both of her eyes.” (The Code of the Assura I.8)
-- A raped virgin given as a wife to the rapist who may never divorce her
“If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. (Deut. 22:28-8)
“If a man has taken and raped another man’s virgin daughter, dishonoring her …. The father may give his raped daughter to her rapist…. Then her rapist is to marry her, and will not be allowed to divorce her. (The Code of the Assura I.55)
-- Restitution/penalty was based on the social status of the victim.
“If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed.” (Lev. 19:20)
“If anyone blind a free man or knock out his teeth, formerly they would give one pound of silver, now he shall give twenty half-shekels of silver.
If anyone blind a male or female slave or knock out their teeth, he shall give ten half-shekels of silver, he shall let it go to his home.” (The Code of the Nesilim)
-- Trial by ordeal
Trial by ordeal was an ancient judicial practice by which the guilt or innocence of the accused was determined by subjecting them to an unpleasant, usually dangerous experience. This practice was used widely from ancient times until the 16th Century, and is attested as far back as the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu.
In Numbers 5:11ff, a husband who suspects his wife of unfaithfulness is to take her to the priest and subject her to a trial by ordeal:
“...[the priest] shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her….If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.” (Num. 5:24,27-28)
Note that if wife is proven innocent, the jealous husband pays no penalty: “The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing….” (Num. 5:31)
-- A false accuser was to suffer the penalty that his charges would have brought on the accused.
“If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime… The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother…” (Deut. 19:16-21)
“If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he cannot prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.” (Code of Hammurabi)
-- A conflict involving the loss of borrowed or deposited goods is settled by taking an oath before god.
“If anyone gives a donkey, an ox, a sheep or any other animal to their neighbor for safekeeping and it dies or is injured or is taken away while no one is looking, the issue between them will be settled by the taking of an oath before the Lord that the neighbor did not lay hands on the other person’s property.” (Ex. 21:10-11)
“If any one store corn for safe keeping in another person's house, and any harm happen to the corn in storage, or if the owner of the house open the granary and take some of the corn, or if especially he deny that the corn was stored in his house: then the owner of the corn shall claim his corn before God (on oath), and the owner of the house shall pay its owner for all of the corn that he took.” (Code of Hammurabi)
-- Rules were defined for selling family members or self into servitude, as well as time limits for letting servants go free. The Code of Hammurabi stipulated freedom after three years, the Mosaic Law after six.
-- Death penalty for a couple caught in adultery:
“If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die.” (Deut. 22:22)
“If a man catch a man with his wife, both of them shall they put to death.” (The Code of the Assura I.15)
-- Death penalty for sorcery:
“Do not allow a sorceress to live.” (Ex. 22:18)
“If a man or a woman practice sorcery, and they be caught with it in their hands, they shall prosecute them, they shall convict them. The practicer of magic they shall put to death.” (The Code of the Assura I.47)
-- Death penalty for bestiality:
“Anyone who has sexual relations with an animal is to be put to death.” (Ex. 22:19)
“If a man have intercourse with a cow, it is a capital crime, he shall die.” (The Code of the Nesilim)
-- Death penalty for incestuous relations:
“If a man has sexual relations with his father’s wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman are to be put to death.” (Lev. 20:11)
“If a man have intercourse with his own mother, it is a capital crime, he shall die.” (The Code of the Nesilim)
-- Death penalty for relations with daughter and mother:
“If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you.” (Lev. 20:14)
“If a man have taken a free woman, then have intercourse also with her daughter, it is a capital crime, he shall die. If he have taken her daughter, then have intercourse with her mother or her sister, it is a capital crime, he shall die.” (The Code of the Nesilim)
--Death penalty for kidnapping:
“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.” (Ex. 21:16)
“If any one steals the minor son of another, he shall be put to death.” (Code of Hammurabi)
-- Goring ox law:
“If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death.” (Ex. 21:29)
“If an ox be a goring ox, and it shown that he is a gorer, and he do not bind his horns, or fasten the ox up, and the ox gore a free-born man and kill him, the owner shall pay one-half a mina in money.” (Code of Hammurabi)
Even what might appear to be highly enlightened aspects of the Mosaic Law are also found to be in step with the thinking of the time. Yes, the Law of Moses encourages compassion for the orphan, the widow and the poor. But a very similar social justice concern is found in the Law of Ur-Nammu: “The orphan was not to be delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not to be delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not to be delivered up to the man of one mina.” And in his extant letters, Hammurabi calls himself “the reverent god-fearing prince,” and that his job as king was “to make justice appear in the land, to destroy the evil and the wicked so that the strong might not oppress the weak.” His law code bears this out as it sought to establish justice for everyone including women, children and even slaves.
So also with the Mosaic practice of canceling all debts every seventh year, and the year of Jubilee in which sold land was returned to its previous owners. For centuries prior to the Mosaic Law it had been the practice in Mesopotamia during the Old Babylonian period for kings to proclaim an act of justice at the beginning of their reigns or at intervals of seven or more years thereafter. Like the Law of Moses these edicts called for the forgiveness of debts and the reversion of land holdings to their original owners.
5) Hell: The ancient Jews believed that the spirits of everyone who had ever lived - including all of their saints - were in the cold, dark and dreary underworld of Sheol. The Old Testament knows nothing of a fiery place of never-ending afterlife torment. This idea grew in popularity during the great cultural intermixing that occurred in the intertestamental period. Active volcanoes, spewing molten lava and smoke from the depths of the earth, were thought by the ancients to lend credence to this notion. In large measure, intertestamental Jewish theologians adopted this idea of hellfire.
So did Jesus and the apostolic writers:
Mark 9:43 - “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.”
Mat. 10:28 - “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Mat. 13:39-42 - “The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Mat. 25:41 - “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Luke 16: 22-24 - “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”
Jude 1:7 - “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” [Gen. 19:24 - “Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens.”]
Rev. 21:8 - “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars--their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.”
As a result this mere accident of history still saddles us today, some 2,000 years later, with the idea of a divine torture chamber, perhaps the most abhorrent, sadistic concept ever conceived. It’s one thing if Hitler, Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein engaged in acts of mass torture and unspeakable cruelty, but the Creator of the universe?
The concept of Hell is actually so deranged, toxic and archaic that few modern-day Christians actually believe it. Most believers, out of necessity, employ various kinds of coping mechanisms in an attempt to live a consistent Christian life with Hell as part of their belief system. These coping mechanisms typically take the form of avoidance—the concept of Hell is simply put out of mind—or re-definition—Hell is watered down to be a metaphor for more palatable concepts like separation from God, or annihilation.
6) Anthropomorphic deity
Egocentrism is a hallmark feature of immaturity. Humankind in its childhood supposed itself and its world to be the literal center of the universe. All heavenly bodies were thought to revolve around the earth. The sun existed to give light to the day, the stars and moon, light at night (Genesis 1). Every tribe thought that its central place was the center of the world; not surprisingly, the Jews asserted this honor for Jerusalem. Many ancient peoples also imagined that they were the first people, and that their language was the original language. Cut from the same cloth is the notion that the ultimate mystery of the universe and source of all being is a person just like us. Aristotle arrived at the truth long ago when he said: "Men create gods after their own image...." “If triangles made a god, they would give him three sides.” (Charles de Montesquieu)
Scores of biblical examples exist that portray the Creator of the universe with humanlike, often unflattering, characteristics. When Israel fell into idolatry, God’s response reminds one of a mercurial unbalanced tyrant who flies into a rage only to be calmed by one of his counselors allowing, in the end, for a cooler head to prevail:
““I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” (Ex. 32:9-14)
God appears to have his mind changed based on an ancient version of “But what would the neighbors think?”
Or how about God threatening to throw crap at or smear crap in the faces of those that displeased him, or lift their skirts up over their heads?
“I am against you,” declares the Lord Almighty. I will lift your skirts over your face…. I will pelt you with filth…” (Nahum 3:5-6)
“...declares the Lord...I will pull up your skirts over your face that your shame may be seen…” (Jeremiah 13:25-26)
“And now, you priests, this warning is for you. If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will send a curse on you….I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices…” (Malachi 2: 1-3)
One is reasonably left wondering whether these are the words of the Creator of the universe, or a crude ten-year old - the kind who got his mouth washed out with soap in generations past.
Is this a God to believe in? Is that a God we can believe in?
Mirroring the authoritarian political structures of the time, Biblical patterns of worship follow from a primitive view of God as despot to be placated, appeased and flattered. One is reminded of the tyrannical kings of centuries past who surrounded themselves with fawning sycophants, and required their subjects to grovel in their presence and endlessly stroke their apparently fragile egos. In like manner, the “four living creatures” who surround God’s throne endlessly stroke his ego: “day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”
(Rev. 4:8) But the groveling doesn’t end there: “Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. (Rev. 4:9-10)
Just as humankind has outgrown the notion of an earth-centered universe, the time is long overdue to put off immature notions of a sky god made in our image.
7) The denigration of women:
In the following two passages, note how much emphasis is placed on women keeping quiet, so much in fact that it has to driven home with excessive repetition: Remain silent, not allowed to speak, ask at home, disgraceful to speak, learn in quietness, not permitted to teach, must be quiet.
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1Cor. 14:34-35)
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” (1Tim. 2:11-14)
Even a casual reading of these texts will put to rest the apologist’s desperate argument that these strictures are culturally based or targeted at local problems, and therefore need not be universally applied or followed today. No, these unequivocal apostolic commands are rooted in revelatory bedrock: the law, the creation and the fall.
When listening to these and other NT admonitions targeting the speech of women, one cannot help but think of the most disdainful stereotypes that have all too often been applied:
“As for younger widows... they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to.” (1Tim 5:11, 13)
Even in the more delicate statement, that a woman’s beauty “should be that of...a gentle and quiet spirit…” (1Peter 3:4), the combined message of the New Testament comes through loud and clear: Women: Shut Up!
The Church Fathers were especially fond of elaborating on the passage from 1Tim. 2 and the Genesis story that lies behind it. In their writings, the woman was represented as the door of hell, as the mother of all human ills. She should be ashamed at the very thought that she is a woman. She should live in continual penance on account of the curses she has brought upon the world. She should be ashamed of her dress, for it is the memorial of her fall. She should be especially ashamed of her beauty, for it is the most potent instrument of the devil.
Tertullian was not some fringe crank but was one of the leading Church Fathers from the second and early third centuries and is widely considered the “father of Latin Christianity" and "the founder of Western theology." He famously stated about women:
“Do you know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserters of the divine law; you are she who persuades him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert - that is death - even the Son of God had to die.”
Tertullian also insisted women will remain subordinate in heaven. In fact in his eyes that's why their flesh had to be raised, to ensure their inferiority would be perpetuated!
Taken as a whole, it would be hard to find anywhere a collection of more grotesque and degrading references to the female gender than the New Testament and early Church Fathers provide (except perhaps in modern rap lyrics). The biblical passages, and the disdainful attitudes they inspired in later Christian leaders, are unmistakable testimony to bias on the part of these all-male authors. Human bias of this sort is inconsistent with the idea of divinely inspired scripture, but is exactly what one would expect from male religious leaders in the ancient world. On this score even Mao was a vast improvement: “Women hold up half the sky,” he said. Holding half of the race down, leaving undeveloped half of our talent, is a crime against humanity for which Christianity is guilty.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the crusade she led for women’s rights serves as just one example of the very real harm done by Christianity. She was an American suffragist, social activist, abolitionist, and leading figure of the early women's rights movement. Her Declaration of Sentiments, presented at the Seneca Falls Convention held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, is often credited with initiating the first organized women's rights and women's suffrage movements in the United States. For Stanton:
“When, in the early, part of the Nineteenth Century, women began to protest against their civil and political degradation, they were referred to the Bible for an answer. When they protested against their unequal position in the church, they were referred to the Bible for an answer….so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible.”
To the women of her day she asserted:
“...your political and social degradation are but an outgrowth of your status in the Bible….” and “The Bible teaches that woman brought sin and death into the world, that she precipitated the fall of the race, that she was arraigned before the judgment seat of Heaven, tried, condemned and sentenced. Marriage for her was to be a condition of bondage, maternity a period of suffering and anguish, and in silence and subjection, she was to play the role of a dependent on man's bounty for all her material wants, and for all the information she might desire on the vital questions of the hour, she was commanded to ask her husband at home. Here is the Bible position of woman briefly summed up.”
Sarah and Angelina Grimké, known as the Grimké sisters, were 19th-century Southern American writers, orators, and educators who were the first American women advocates of abolition and women's rights. Due to their very public advocacy, a group of ministers cited the Bible in an open letter reprimanding the sisters for stepping out of "woman's proper sphere" of silence and subordination. Thankfully for both causes, the Grimke sisters refused to be reined in.
8) Human sacrifice: The concept of sacrificing something important to the gods or spirits is found in religions around the world. Usually, the more important the god or the request, the more important the sacrifice had to be. The most important thing which could be sacrificed was, usually, a human being. Typically, the person was sacrificed for the sake of the welfare of the entire community — to appease an angry god who had cursed the tribe, to plea for better crops, to ensure success in a coming battle, etc. Because such needs were universal, human sacrifice was quite commonplace among ancient peoples (e.g., Aztecs, Mayans, Incas, early Greeks & Romans, Vikings, some Middle Eastern tribes, early Chinese & Japanese).
Unfortunately Christianity, through its central idea of the sacrificial death of Christ for the sins of the world, perpetuates this dreadful concept. Unadorned by its social acceptance, developed theology and other trappings, Christianity at its core is a primitive religion based on appeasing an angry, invisible deity through human sacrifice: “Since we have now been justified by his [Christ’s] blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him” (Romans 5:9).
9) Denigration of this life: In Christianity, this earth is a temporary stage that God will soon destroy, this life a brief passageway to a life without end, in a world beyond death. Believers are encouraged by scripture to see themselves as strangers or aliens in this life, to live out their time here as foreigners, to view their citizenship as being in heaven, and to not love anything in this world, which is under the power of Satan. From this perspective it makes perfect sense for Paul to proclaim “to die is gain!” In a similar vein, the Didache - a second-generation Christian work from the late 1st Century thought to have been sacred scripture by some early church leaders - instructs the believer to pray “let this world pass away” as part of an after-Communion prayer. How tragic, how sad, how utterly deluded. These sentiments may have made life more bearable to the downtrodden Jews of the first century who despaired of life under foreign domination, and who despised a world wracked with war, famine and injustice, where life was often short and brutish. But this emphasis upon the afterlife and the denigration of life in this world is wrong and perverse in its effects.
At the very least, it prevents the full participation in and embracing of life in this world with all of its beauty, as well as its joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures. There is also the tendency to create a mindset that discourages improving life here and now. Sure the Bible exhorts one to help a neighbor in need, but there is no injunction to correct structural evils because this world is considered beyond hope. From a strictly biblical point of view, working for the long-term betterment of humankind would make as much sense as trying to establish a social program aboard the sinking Titanic. The only true hope in Christianity involves escape from this doomed world, as from a sinking ship, and resides in a salvation process wherein one is placed on God's salvage list for those to be spared when the current world is incinerated. As it states in Jude 23: “save others by snatching them from the fire….” When the famous American abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, began to display a growing interest in the political and social issues of the day, his devout mother tried to dissuade him with this admonition:
“Had you been searching the Scriptures for truth, and praying for the direction of the Holy Spirit to lead your mind into the path of holiness, your time would have been spent more wisely spent, and your advance to the heavenly world more rapid.”
Thankfully this great voice for human rights and dignity wasn’t silenced by his mother’s well-meaning but misguided advice.
This belief also tends to inhibit the progress of science and the natural curiosity that motivates it. Consider this revealing quote from St. Ambrose (a prominent 4th century church father): "To discuss the nature and position of the earth does not help us in our hope of the life to come." St. Ambrose was not at all unique or unusual in his sentiments—biblical theology directly breeds this kind of value system. Numerous early church fathers (Tertullian, Eusebius, Lactantius e.g.) even went so far as to condemn curiosity as dangerous or sinful arguing that any secrets God didn’t tell us he obviously didn’t want us to know. Christians who hold to different priorities only come to do so when they begin to think independently and/or come in contact with non-Christian influences.
10) Christianity demands an extreme, unrealistic ethic. In large part this is due to the emergency-mode nature of the NT outlook; that is, one must live as if the world were coming to an end at any moment:
“What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” (1Cor. 7:29-31)
This sense of emergency created by an expected impending apocalypse is further intensified by the high stakes involved: the threat of being sentenced to eternal torment and losing everlasting bliss. If the choices made in this lifetime really do determine an eternity of either torment or bliss, then saving oneself and as many others as possible isn't just the pre-eminent concern, it is life's only concern. Nothing else makes any rational sense. If taken seriously, this perspective renders any kind of normal life impossible, and promotes crippling anxiety and guilt.
The extreme nature of the NT ethic can also be seen in Jesus' unqualified prohibition against divorce found in the earliest written of the four Gospels, Mark (10: 11-12), as well as in Luke 16:17. This simply does not work in the real world—and everyone knows it. The fact that exceptions for unfaithfulness (Mat. 5:32) or abandonment (1Cor. 7:15) had to be added later by apostolic writers reveals the untenable nature of Jesus' blanket proscription. Witness also the Catholic Church and its annulment practice (if you’re a Kennedy, a 25-year marriage with 3 kids is no obstacle), or most Protestant pastors who, through theological artifice, attempt to stretch the stated divorce exceptions to deal with life's inevitable tough cases.
11) Biblical inerrancy
The concept, at its base, arises as a salve for our existential angst, an answer to that human longing for a voice of certainty in an uncertain world. But certainty in this world is neither possible nor desirable: not possible because life in this world, if it is anything, is ever-changing and unpredictable; not desirable because the adventure of living is in great measure the challenge of forging a meaningful life in an ever-changing world where the end result of one’s efforts cannot be known. Those who seek the certainty of inerrant revelation are demanding a guarantee on life which doesn't exist and short-changing the life that they have been given. Those who think that Christianity has supplied them with certainty have been deceived, and are therefore worse off than before.
12) Revealed religion—that is, religion built upon revelation from God—carries within it terrible, built-in dangers. Followers of revealed religion understandably believe that they possess the final, ultimate truth of God. But this conviction inevitably leads to the imposition of that truth on others, justified by the belief that they are acting in the best interests of others, and according to divine mandate. And the force of divine mandate also serves to override the believer’s natural moral sense or reasoning, so that heinous acts of violence can be carried out without any pangs of doubt or regret. Further compounding the problem, the New Testament commonly refers to unbelievers in the most disdainful manner—“wicked evildoers,” ”unholy,” “of the darkness,” “lawless,” “sinners,” “of the devil,” “under the wrath of God,” “damned,” bound for hell, and “dead,” just to name a few. The result is a truly dangerous mix which has the potential to go far beyond mere judgmental attitudes, intolerance and divisiveness, though those things are certainly bad enough. One could easily have predicted that a revealed religion of this nature would inevitably lead to all manner of horrors, everything from witch hunts to wars and inquisitions. History has more than borne out this prediction. In modern times, this same unholy cocktail of incendiary ideas—inherited in part from Christian theology—currently drives much of the religion-inspired terrorism and the us-versus-them religious violence that sweeps our world.
In addition, revealed religion and intellectual freedom are mutually exclusive. If one accepts the concept of revelation, that once-for-all truth has been delivered to humanity by the Creator of the universe, what a person can and cannot reasonably explore is severely restricted. If revelation makes it clear, for example, that there is a destiny of heaven or hell awaiting every person, can one reasonably consider otherwise? If God weighs in, the debate ends and the limits of inquiry are defined. Thus Christianity narrows the range of human thought and behavior, corralling both mind and life, creating unfree conformists to a supposedly divine dictate. And in the enforcement of the divine dictate, fatefully, the concept of heresy is born.
Christians rightfully condemn radical Islamic jihadists and regimes for their brutal execution of heretics, but when Christians came to power in the late Roman Empire in 380 CE they wasted little time before they too began the same practice. Five years in fact. The Spanish bishop Priscillian won the ignominious distinction of being the first. He was condemned and, with six of his companions, put to death in 385. His crimes included: teaching an unorthodox doctrine of the Trinity and that human souls were joined to bodies as a punishment for sins, allowing followers to receive the Eucharist in the church but eat it at home or in the conventicle, women joining with men during the time of prayer, fasting on Sunday, meditating at home or in the mountains instead of attending church during Lent, and advocating the reading of apocryphal texts. And thus, having dispatched its first egregious freethinkers, the Church embarked on a bloody reign of terror, putting people to death for thought crimes for over 1400 years, its final execution coming in 1826 with the hanging of schoolmaster Cayetano Ripoll, accused of deism by the waning Spanish Inquisition.
Putting people to death for such “crimes” as listed above may be hard to fathom in our post-Enlightenment world, but the answer is rooted in revealed religion and how it warps one’s perspective making even this murderous tyranny seem justified at the time. The views of the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, are instructive here. He reasoned that heresy could send people to an eternal hell, and therefore inflicted the greatest possible harm upon other human beings. As such it was the greatest of all crimes and deserved the punishment of death. Airtight reasoning if you accept his assumptions, nightmarish mass-murdering barbarism if you don’t.
"Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." (Blaise Pascal) "Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion -- several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight." (Mark Twain)
13) Faith is a trusting commitment not substantiated by evidence or reasoned proof. To make the ultimate life commitment required by the Christian salvation experience, without reasoned consideration of the issues and ramifications, is foolhardy and dangerous. This is the means by which millions become trapped within absurd cults, sometimes with lethal consequences. What may start with an admonition to “take the leap of faith” or "just let your heart guide you" may end with a final taste of funny Kool-Aid.
14) The New Testament's claim that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled many Old Testament messianic prophecies doesn't withstand scrutiny. Four examples are supplied, the net force of which provides a painful truth for the believer to swallow: The 1st Century Christian community was so motivated to proclaim Jesus as Messiah that they played fast and free with the data to make it conform to their beliefs. The methods employed are of two basic types: 1) Manipulation of the Old Testament material to make it to appear to refer to Jesus; 2) Modification of the Jesus narrative to make it fit an OT passage believed to be Messianic. The first three examples involve forcing the OT to correspond to the Jesus story, while the final one exemplifies the reverse.
1. Matthew's 14-generation scheme in Mt.1 is a classic example:
“Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah” (1:17)
Here the author attempts to show how Jesus is the grand culmination of Old Testament salvation history, all part of a carefully predetermined schedule of divine action in history. At first glance, this appears pretty impressive. That is, until one does a little fact-checking which reveals that Matthew purposefully left out a handful of generations in order to make it work. This isn’t an amazing prophetic scheme, it’s a force fit. But it gets worse. Matthew also goofed. The final set of fourteen, from the exile to the Messiah, is one short; it’s only thirteen, and that’s just plain embarrassing.
2. Mt. 1:22-23 – Here Matthew pulls a passage out of Isaiah 7 claiming that it prophesied Jesus’ virgin birth:
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).”
Problem: Isa. 7:1-16 has nothing to do with virgin births, or the time of Jesus. The whole idea of a virgin is based on a mistake contained within the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. As a result many modern translations correct the mistranslation of Isa. 7:14 by speaking of a “young woman,” not a “virgin,” because that is the better rendering of the Hebrew term:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (RSV)
But more important is the fact that the nature of the child’s birth – virgin or not – isn’t in any way the point of the passage from Isaiah. The child in question lived during the time of King Ahaz in 8th century BCE, not in the 1st century CE. God was reassuring Ahaz, the king of Judah, that he did not need to fear the two kings threatening his kingdom. The child was to be a sign to the king of God’s protective presence, hence his designation as Immanuel (“God with us”). God’s guarantee to Ahaz was that very soon, while the child was still quite young, the two enemy kingdoms would be destroyed:
“…for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isa. 7:16)
Isa. 7:14 has everything to do with bolstering the courage of an 8th century BCE king during a time of war, and nothing to do with a 1st century CE virgin birth. Only by doing violence to this passage can Matthew assert prophetic fulfillment.
3. Mt. 2:18 — The New Testament writer contends that King Herod's decree to kill the male children at Bethlehem fulfilled a prophecy of Jeremiah (31:15) which refers to "Rachel weeping for her children." Jeremiah however is addressing the problem of Jewish dispersion caused by Babylonian captivity. The "children" referred to are the Jewish people, the descendants of Rachel, who were relocated to Babylon. They were not the victims of a massacre. Far from it. Jeremiah promised that they would "…come back from the land of the enemy (Jer.31:17)." Jer.31:15 has everything to do with the 6th Century BCE Babylonian captivity and nothing to do with Herod killing children at Bethlehem in the 1st century CE. Once again, only by doing violence to the OT passage can Mt.2:18 assert prophetic fulfillment. That Matthew was indulging in a bit of creative hagiography would also explain why this story can be found in no other source of the time period, whether Gospel or history. Josephus, the 1st century CE Jewish historian, chronicled Palestine during this period in great detail, but he knows nothing of this horrific event.
In historical context, the New Testament writers were employing the same technique used by their contemporaries at Qumran (the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls) who likewise wrested numerous Old Testament passages from their context in order to use them as prophetic credentials for their leader, the one they called the "Teacher of Righteousness."
4. Mt. 21:4-5 — Here the New Testament writer commits two fouls by first misinterpreting a passage from the prophet Zechariah and then manipulating the Jesus story in order to match his misunderstanding:
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech.9:9)
He mistook the obvious parallelism of the Old Testament passage to mean that both a donkey and a colt were being ridden at the same time, instead of the donkey and colt being parallel references to the same animal (perhaps the most common of all Hebrew literary devices). Then he, unlike either of the other two Gospel writers who retold this story, portrays Jesus stunt-riding on both animals simultaneously:
“Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me….The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.” (Mt. 21: 1-2, 6-7)
At best this is an embarrassment; it certainly isn't divinely inspired predictive prophecy. It is also reasonable to ask what other aspects of the Gospel story were manipulated or manufactured to make them fit OT prophetic statements?
15) Failed doomsday prophet
In a religious environment where predictions about the end of the world were very common (Lk. 21:8), Jesus fit right in. Jewish apocalyptic prophets had been predicting the imminent end of the world for centuries by his time. Jesus was sucked into the same seductive mindset, so he explicitly and repeatedly promised to return to his contemporary generation, an event which he said would usher in the end of the world and the final judgment. This expectation is clearly evidenced in most of the New Testament writings. Unfortunately like all those prophets who had come before, he got it wrong.
He said the following to his disciples as he prepared them for Jerusalem and his impending death:
“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Mat. 16:27-28)
To his disciples while in Jerusalem:
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near…. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days…. There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish…. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world…. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
(Both Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels also record Jesus’ erroneous assertion that the contemporary generation would see the end (Mark 13:30; Mat. 24:34). No less than famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis has called this “certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible” and an “exhibition of error.”)
To the supreme council in Jerusalem he stated:
“And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:62)
The resurrected, exalted Jesus to the church at Philadelphia:
“Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.” (Rev. 3:10-11)
The NT closes with these words from the resurrected, exalted Jesus which imply that the coming is so very soon that there isn’t even time left to change one’s spiritual state:
“Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.” “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. (Rev. 22: 10-12)
This imminent apocalypse was actually the core of Jesus’ proclamation to the world. The Gospel writers summarized his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Mat. 4:17; Mark 1:15). The “kingdom of heaven is at hand” is a reference to the impending end of the age when God overturns the forces of evil and restores his rule (the “kingdom of heaven”) over a rebellious world. The message of John the Baptist, with whom Jesus was intimately associated, is described by Matthew as being identical to Jesus’ (Mt. 3:2). John emphasized the imminence of the in-breaking of God’s rule and the final judgment in the starkest terms:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mt. 3:7-10)
This coming wrath which both warned about was so near at hand that the “ax was already at the root of the trees” - it is difficult to be more imminent than that! Both Jesus and John were 1st century doomsday prophets analogous to the kind found on modern street-corners holding a sign with “The End of the World is Near.”
The New Testament writers took Jesus at his word and frequently repeated their belief in his imminent return to them, that the end of the world and final judgment were near, and that they were the terminal generation:
“According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep [died].” (1Thes. 4:15)
Similar to Jesus’ words in Rev. 22 about there being no time left to even change one’s spiritual state, Paul expresses the same sentiment about one’s social, emotional and material status:
“What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” (1Cor. 7:29-31)
“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.” (1Cor. 10:11)
“And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:11-12)
“You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” (James 5:8-9)
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching….You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For, in just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, 36-7)
“Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.” (1John 2:18)
The preceding quotations are just a small sampling of similar expressions found throughout the New Testament. This theme is so prominent, in fact, that no coherent understanding of the NT is possible without its recognition. See also Mt. 10:23; 23:33-36; 24:30-34; 26:64; Mark 9:1; 13:26-31; Luke 9:26-7; 18:6-8; John 21:20-3; Acts 2:17; Rom. 16:20; 1Cor. 1:7-8; 15:51f; Gal. 5:5; Phil. 1:6, 10; 3:20-21; 4:5; 1Thes. 1:9-10; 2:19; 4:13-7; 5:10, 23; 1Tim. 4:1; 6:14; 2Tim. 3:1; Tit. 2:11-13; Heb. 1:1-2; 9:26-28; James 5:3-9; 1Pet. 1:4-7, 13, 20; 2:12; 4:7, 12-13; Jude 18; Rev 1:1-3; 3:10-11; 22:6, 20.
The first generation believers were lead to believe that Jesus’ return was so imminent that, when some began to die off, it created confusion and consternation. So the early church leaders responded in various ways to shore up the faithful, such as Paul attempted to do with his explanations in 1Thes. 4:13-17 and 1Cor. 15: 51-2. In these passages he clearly indicates that not all of the believers then living would die but that some would be alive at Jesus’ coming:
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1Thes. 4:13-17)
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep [die], but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1Cor. 15: 51-2)
Some thirty years after Paul’s letters were written and most first generation believers had died off, the writer Matthew takes a different tack in responding to this developing crisis within the community of the faithful. His approach to the problem is on plain display in Matthew 24:45-25:46. As with much of his Gospel, Matthew used Mark for his material in Matthew 24:1-44, a speech by Jesus which includes his promise to return in glory at the end of the world during the lifetime of his contemporaries. To address the apparent failure of this promise and the fallout within the Christian community, Matthew adds material not found in Mark and not needed at that earlier stage, Mt. 24:45-25:46, a series of related parables, in order to encourage the faithful to be about the Lord’s business as they wait far longer than expected for the promised return. Note these references to the “long time” in each of these parables:
“...My master is staying away a long time...” (24:48)
“...The bridegroom was a long time in coming…” (25:5)
“After a long time the master of those servants returned…” (25:19)
Not satisfied with a purely “carrot” approach, Matthew also includes a strong dose of “stick.” One can fairly conclude that since the biggest stick of all was brought to bear - the sternest set of warnings about judgment and hellfire in all of the NT - that there was a severe problem with disgruntled believers or outright defection on the part of the wavering faithful.
“But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (24:48-51)
“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ (25:10-12)
“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! ...throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (25:26, 30)
“Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (25:41)
Roughly contemporaneous with the writing of Matthew, the writer of 2Thes. refers to another kind of response to Jesus’ delayed return. In this letter, an illegitimate form of “realized eschatology,” that in some manner Jesus’ return had in fact already occurred, is roundly condemned as false teaching:
“Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.” (2Thes. 2:1-2)
The use of a realized eschatological approach has been employed often over the last two millennia as this same apocalyptic fervor is reborn again and again. Numerous prominent groups in modern times have used this fallback position when predictions of the Second Coming have failed. Most recently, American Christian radio host Harold Camping stated that the Rapture and Judgment Day would take place on May 21, 2011. When this failed to materialize, he tried to reinterpret his way out of this predicament by claiming that May 21st had been a "spiritual" day of judgment, and that the physical Rapture would occur on October 21, 2011. The Jehovah’s Witnesses used a similar technique in response to their failed 1917 prediction, as did the early Seventh Day Adventists who, in response to the failed Oct. 22, 1844 prediction, responded to their crisis by asserting that the October 22nd date marked not the Second Coming of Christ to earth, but rather a heavenly event.
Back to the 1st century: Toward the end of the 1st century, hope still springing eternal, the believing community held out one final desperate hope regarding Jesus’ promise that some of his disciples wouldn’t taste death before his return - the aged disciple John. He was the last of the original disciples. Since Jesus couldn’t be wrong, surely this meant that John would not die. But when this last-ditch hope was dashed by John’s death, there was a need to provide an apology. John’s Gospel happily supplied it:
“Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” (John 21:22-23)
Consistent with the response to this “rumor,” John’s Gospel also, predictably, strips from the narrative any mention of Jesus’ promise to return to his contemporaries. And the soon appearing Kingdom of God (or Heaven), spoken of more than 120 times in the earlier Gospels, is replaced by an ingenious form of realized eschatology that focuses on the believer already having eternal life and freedom from condemnation:
““Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” (John 5:24-25)
“ Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18)
When the first generation of believers had completely died off, the church faced a thorny problem with opponents who used the failure of this grand promise to mock the faith. 2Peter, likely the latest of the New Testament books (perhaps even early 2nd century), explicitly addresses this crisis:
“Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:3-4)
But, sadly, rather than face a difficult truth squarely, the author of 2Peter still clung to the notion of living in the “last days” and proceeded to try and rescue the situation by resort to theological spin doctoring (2Peter 3:5-18). His apology attempts to buy time by appealing to God’s patient desire to give people a chance to repent, and to the unique divine perspective on time. It is perhaps more instructive to note that Peter did not resort to one of the preferred 21st century apologies for Jesus’ failed promise to return. This is all just a modern misunderstanding the apologists say, a failure to comprehend the figurative apocalyptic language Jesus was employing. Properly understood, the promised coming in judgment was fulfilled in the First Jewish War with Rome when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed and the Jewish people scattered. Aside from the fact that this explanation utterly fails to address the unmistakable references to the end of the world, and to believers’ expectations of resurrection and meeting the Lord “in the air” at his coming, 2Peter uncovers this strained argument for what it is by making clear that Jesus’ promise meant exactly what it obviously meant: His coming signaled the real, literal end of the world, complete with fiery destruction, final judgment, no more opportunity for salvation, and the appearance of a new heaven and new earth where righteousness dwells. The modern apologists, embarrassingly, find themselves in the company of the false teachers who taught that the promise had already been fulfilled, that the day of the Lord had already come.
The Book of James employs the apology found in 2Peter but with a clever twist. He repeatedly implores the restive believers to be patient until the Lord’s coming, for in doing so they will be following the Lord’s patient example metaphorically described here as a farmer waiting for the full yield of harvested souls:
“Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” (James 5:7-8)
These efforts at damage control remind one of what religious groups throughout the ages have done when prophecy fails. Rather than learn the lesson that failure attempts to teach and rethink basic assumptions, the sacrosanct is shielded from all true reappraisal and the prophecy is salvaged through the use of spiritual fulfillment notions or other creative theological recasting. The truth is sometimes painful: Like all those who came before and after him, Jesus was a failed doomsday prophet.
Jesus however was not merely wrong. As falsehoods typically do, this falsehood has caused great harm - and continues to do so. C.S. Lewis: “We must admit at once that this doctrine [Jesus’ Second Coming] has, in the past, led Christians into very great follies.” I have personally known many Christians who made the decision to rush foolishly into marriage (“getting married before the Rapture” was the common refrain), or to forgo college due to the mistaken belief that Jesus’ return was so imminent that it made no sense to be sitting in a classroom while millions of souls perished at the end of the age. I had well-meaning Christians try to dissuade me from pursuing my education on these very grounds.
Like so many misguided souls who came before, many who believed Jesus was returning in 1844 had given away all of their possessions and were left bereft when the prophecy proved false. In like manner many followers of Harold Camping in 2011 sold all and mortgaged their and their children’s futures in order to throw their full effort behind the cause. I know of one case where teenage children bitterly objected to their parents’ emptying their college accounts. Of course, to no avail. It is impossible to know how many thousands or millions of lives over the last 2,000 years have been harmed, even ruined, by the innumerable replays of this falsehood, but of the “very great follies” that Lewis spoke he also said: “To write a history of all these...would need a book, and a sad, sordid, tragi-comical book it would be.”
16) The Extreme Makeover of Jesus
On three occasions the earliest Gospel, Mark, explicitly records that Jesus became angry, 1:40-45, 3:1-6 and 10:13-16. When Matthew and Luke adapted these stories from Mark (roughly 90% of Mark’s material was used by Matthew and Luke), in each case they sanitized the text by removing all reference to Jesus’ anger. (See Mt. 8:1-4; 12:9-14; 19:13-15: Lk. 5:12-16; 6:6-11; 18:15-17) Apparently anger wasn’t thought to be a suitable emotion for the Son of God to display. In the first of these cases, Mk. 1:41, Jesus inexplicably gets angry when a leper asked him for healing. This appeared so unseemly to later handlers of the NT text that some changed the wording so that it read Jesus felt compassion rather than anger.
The makeover Jesus underwent is also on display when comparing the earlier Gospels - Mark, Matthew and Luke - to the latest Gospel, John. Apparently realizing that a lot of hellfire and brimstone talk wasn’t the best way to market Jesus, John cleansed most of this from his version of the Jesus story and significantly ramped up the love talk which, of course, is how the Gospel of John has come to be known as the Love Gospel. Jesus actually speaks very sparingly about love in the earlier three Gospels, a grand total of about 19 verses between them, versus over 220 verses which depict Jesus, the firebrand preacher, speaking of hell, condemnation or judgment. So there’s roughly an 11 to 1 ratio of judgment talk to love talk in the first three Gospels, whereas love outweighs judgment in John roughly 60/40 - quite a radical shift! And quite an extreme makeover.
As described in “Failed Doomsday Prophet” above, the early church had a real problem on its hands due to the failure of Jesus’ promise to return during the lifetime of his contemporaries, a problem which cut right to the heart of his reputation and, by extension, to the integrity of the Gospel message. This of course couldn’t be allowed to stand. Paul was already starting to address this issue mid-century as believers began to die off, and the author of 2Peter had a full-blown crisis to deal with by century’s end. Produced at the end of the century, the Gospel of John was written against the backdrop of this crisis. Predictably, John repeated none of these statements about the impending apocalypse and the return of Jesus which would usher in the end of the world.
Finally, it’s not a coincidence that all the good proof texts for the divinity of Jesus are found in John, the latest Gospel. There, and there alone, the reader encounters Jesus of Nazareth, the humble carpenter’s son, elevated to full divine status:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1:1, 14)
See also Jn. 5:18; 8:24, 58; 20:28. Not only do the earlier Gospels lack anything like these explicit declarations but they also contain passages that imply that Jesus was not divine. For example, in Mark and Matthew we witness Jesus stating that he doesn’t know certain things known only to God the Father:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mk. 13:32)
It’s pretty tough to square this with the idea that Jesus was God in the flesh, at the same time fully God and fully man – so tough in fact that later copyists removed the problematic phrase “nor the Son” from the parallel passage in Matthew (24:36). Luke dealt with this problem by omitting this troublesome passage altogether (Lk. 21).
In fact a close look at how Luke and Matthew edited the material they used from Mark, reveals an unmistakable process of making Jesus “bigger and better”, in short, more divine. Mark contains no birth story at all. Matthew and Luke make Jesus look much more impressive with their miracle-laden birth narratives full of angelic visitations, prophecies, a virgin mother, and a miraculous star, all quite reminiscent of how other ancient greats were extolled. Not content with Jesus being divine at his birth, John trumps all the earlier gospels by going back to the ultimate beginning when the Word (Jesus) was God.
Bigger Jesus, smaller John the Baptist: Mark blithely narrates John baptizing Jesus without any concern that this was for the forgiveness of sins and that the baptizer usually holds a higher position than the baptized. Matthew addresses this issue by having Jesus overrule John’s suggestion that he should be baptized by Jesus. Luke mentions the baptism but doesn’t mention John’s role; John leaves out the baptism altogether.
Bigger and better Jesus: During Jesus’ ministry, Mark 1:32-34 states “they brought him all who were sick or possessed….and he healed many….” Matthew’s version of this story flips the “all” and the “many”, the net effect of which makes Jesus’ healing powers look more impressive: “they brought to him many...and he healed all….” (Mt. 8:16) When visiting his hometown Mark 6:5 notes that Jesus “was not able to perform a single miracle…”; Mt. 13:58 removes the issue of ability and makes it a decision on Jesus’ part.
Jesus’ gut-wrenching suffering during his final passion, ending with his pitiful, despairing cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” is in stark contrast to the very “in control” manner in which he managed his death in the decades-later Gospels of Luke and John. These later writers were obviously disturbed by Mark’s portrayal and all it implied about the real Jesus who died a very human death, complete with despair and disillusionment. He’d been betrayed, deserted by his closest disciples, and now even God had forsaken him. But this all-too-human Jesus did not fit the increasingly divine Christ of later telling, so this plaintive cry is edited out of the account and replaced with a Jesus who is in command and taking care of business. He assertively tells the criminal next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk. 23:43) Then he utters his final words: ““Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” When he had said this, he breathed his last.” (Lk. 23:46). Committing his spirit into the hands of his Father is the polar opposite of the “forsaken of God” statement found in Mark.
In John, we witness Jesus acting decisively to take care of his mother:
“When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” (John 19:26-7)
Then Jesus said, ““It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30). Obviously, these two very different utterances cannot both be his final words; they are further evidence of Gospel writer contrivance to create a bigger, better, more divine Jesus of Nazareth.
In all, it was gradual deification over the course of some 30 years, from the writing of Mark until John’s Gospel. His makeover now complete, the fiery, volatile, all-too-human, doomsday prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, had now been transformed into the kinder, gentler, divine Christ of popular imagination.
17) New Testament miracles: These were very superstitious times wherein people believed that miraculous events occurred routinely. For example, witness how quickly people jumped to the conclusion that Paul was a god in human form (Acts 14:11-2; 28:6). Humankind was only beginning to mature out of its childhood at this stage in history and was prone to using supernatural explanations for anything that amazed them, or any process in nature that was not understood, which means just about everything. Gods, angels, demons, fairies, spirits, etc. were a means of labeling the inscrutable. This method was applied to anything from sickness to comets, lightning to volcanoes, bird flight to sunsets, rainbows to windstorms.
The miraculous was also frequently used to adorn momentous occurrences and revered individuals. The writings of both Jewish and Roman historians during this time period attest to this practice. Suetonius, a Roman historian, claimed that the Roman Senate witnessed Augustus Caesar ascend into heaven. Both Suetonius and Tacitus, another Roman historian, assert that the emperor Vespasian healed a blind man by putting saliva on his eyes, and a crippled man by touching him—miraculous events which purportedly were witnessed by many people. Within just 10 years of the events in question, Josephus, a Jewish historian, claimed that during the time of the First Jewish War (66-70 CE) the temple square was at midnight lit up bright as day, a heifer being led to the temple altar gave birth to a lamb, that the temple gate, which took some 20 men to open and close, opened of its own accord one night, and that chariots and soldiers were seen in the clouds around Jerusalem. He further states that the latter miracle was seen by too many people to doubt it.
Evidence from within the New Testament, and from the extra-biblical Jesus tales that followed, reveal a myth-making process that began with the earliest apologists (the Gospel writers) trying to make the case for Jesus as Messiah. As the New Testament repeatedly affirms, the "Jews seek [miraculous] signs"—and that is exactly what the New Testament writers attempted to provide. So some 30 to 60 years after the death of Jesus they gathered the circulating miracle stories about Jesus and compiled them into the four Gospels. Yet close inspection of the parallel miracle stories they wrote reveals evidence of growth and accretion. Just like the proverbial fish story, the miracle story has a tendency over time to become more miraculous.
The most famous of the Gospel miracles (the only one to be told by all four Gospel writers), the feeding of the multitude, exemplifies this process quite well. As this story circulated over the decades before it was recounted by Mark, a feeding of a crowd of 4,000 with leftovers enough to fill 7 large baskets gradually grew into a story about a crowd of 5,000 with leftovers enough to fill 12 large baskets. Since both versions of the story were circulating together, Mark mistakenly thought they were different stories and so included both of them in his Gospel. (A side-by-side reading of these two stories reveals an identical storyline and many exact verbal parallels, demonstrating unmistakably that these are two versions of the same story.) Matthew, who incorporated about 90% of Mark’s material, followed suit. (The feeding of the 4,000 (Mk. 8:1-9; Mat. 15:29-38), and the feeding of the 5,000 (Mk. 6:30-44; Mat. 14:13-21)) Luke, who was more discriminating in his use of Mark (used about 50%), and the last written Gospel, John, correct this error of repetition and only present the larger of the two “fish stories.”
As noted above: Mark’s “they brought him all who were sick or possessed….and he healed many…” is tweaked in Matthew’s version of the story to make Jesus’ healing powers look more impressive: “they brought to him many...and he healed all….” (Mt. 8:16)
The walking on water story offers another example. A miracle in Mark's gospel which only involves Jesus (Mark 6:48) is expanded in Matthew's gospel to include Peter, who gets a memorable lesson in the importance of faith (Matthew 14:29).
The non-canonical stories that followed, found in some 50 additional Gospels, grew ever more fantastic and attempted to fill in the gaps left by the New Testament accounts, such as miracle stories from Jesus' childhood. Many of these stories were considered by early Christians to be as divinely inspired as any of the books of the Bible in our present canon. In the first few centuries, they were read at church services as regularly as we read from the Gospels in today's services. Despite the fact that the church eventually chose to distance itself from these later stories, they form a continuous line of tradition with the officially sanctioned tales.
That the miracles of Jesus are non-historical myths would explain why no contemporary writers ever mentioned Jesus or his miracles which supposedly attracted multitudes and put Palestine into such an uproar. It also accounts for how raising Lazarus from the dead neither caught the attention of at least one historian nor that of the other three Gospel writers.
Bottom line: There is a very great difference between accepting contradictory assertions about impossible events, based on overlapping sources, made by a few anonymous writers in superstitious times two thousand years ago, with no corroborating evidence, and accepting the results of modern experiments repeated hundreds of thousands of times under rigorous controls, always with the same results.
18) Virtually every major aspect of New Testament theology and the story of Jesus can be found "off-the-shelf" in the religious milieu of the day. This reality belies the claim that Christianity is based upon divine revelation, and reveals the all too human basis of Christian belief.
The early Christians behaved like every other group in every other era -- they adopted and adapted ideas from the culture around them. What Paul and the other early biblical writers had wasn't on their tables, it was in their heads. What they had were the same general notions of divinity, cosmology and humanity, and how those things worked together, that everyone had in their time. They knew how gods worked, so when they wrote about Jesus, they made sure he worked like a god.
Not only did Jesus do the same miracles the earlier pagan gods did, but the gospel stories of his miracles are told using the old pagan formula of an aretalogy, listing the miracles and great deeds of the god. Jesus is depicted as the son of god who suffered, died, and was reborn. But he wasn't the first son of god who suffered, died, and was reborn. He brought salvation, but he wasn't the first god to do that either. His mother was a virgin; he wasn't the first god there either. It's the same with miracles, baptism, the Eucharist, heaven, hell, prophecy, and eternal life; the list goes on and on. The pagans had them all, and generations before Jesus.
Like Asclepius, Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, Mithras and many others, Jesus was a god, shaped like a man, walking, talking, eating, but still having magic god powers. Like the other pagan god-men, Jesus was a subordinate god, son of the great universal god, miraculously conceived in a mortal woman, living for a while on earth rather than in heaven, helping people. Jesus was not a Xerox copy of one particular pagan god, rather he was new in the same way the first Honda Accord was a new car. But the Accord wasn't the first car, it was a new arrangement of old ideas, some new, but mostly old. So was Jesus.
The truth of the preceding is so incontrovertible that the great Christian apologist of the second century, Justin Martyr, rather than try to deny it, readily acknowledged:
“In saying that the Word, who is the first offspring of God, was born for us without sexual union as Jesus Christ our teacher, and that he was crucified and died, and after rising again ascended into heaven, we introduce nothing new beyond those whom you call sons of Zeus….When we say that [Jesus] healed the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, and raised the dead, we seem to be talking about things like those said to have been done by Asclepius.” (1 Apologia 21-22)
However, to deal with the uncomfortable implications of this admission, Justin explains that the devil invented these Greek stories to corrupt the truth of the Gospel of Jesus. (Dialogue With Trypho, 69) In a similar vein many in modern times have argued that the devil also planted the dinosaur fossils in order to confuse and mislead. That sneaky rascal.
19) The Resurrection: Five fundamental reasons why rational people cannot believe the New Testament accounts: (1) Dying and rising savior-gods were commonplace in the religions that flourished before, during, and after the time Jesus of Nazareth lived; (2) Typical of very superstitious times, residents of 1st century Palestine were prone to believe resurrection stories (see, for example, Mt.14:1; 27:52-3); (3) The claim that a man dead three days was restored to life is an extremely extraordinary claim that requires extremely extraordinary proof; (4) The only biblical proof in support of the resurrection claim is hearsay in nature: the Gospels were written by later anonymous writers using overlapping source materials, and not by Jesus’ disciples or other eyewitnesses; and (5) The New Testament accounts of the resurrection are highly contradictory and exhibit unmistakable signs of fundamental evolution, legendary embellishment and editorial correction.
The earliest resurrection account in the NT is found not in the Gospels but in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (I Cor. 15:3-8)
Jesus’ appearance to Paul was clearly visionary: He only saw a light and heard a voice (Acts 9:3-9). By equating Jesus’ appearance to him with his appearance to other disciples, Paul implies that all the resurrection appearances were visionary in nature, unlike the very corporeal resurrection accounts of the later Gospels. Only the two latest Gospels, Luke and John, have Jesus proving his real flesh and blood nature by eating with his disciples and showing them his crucifixion wounds. The transformation of his resurrection appearances from visionary to corporeal was just one aspect of the fundamental makeover this story underwent.
When comparing the Gospel accounts from earliest (Mark) to latest (John), the process of legendary embellishment is in plain view as the story grows larger and more elaborate at each stage. The later Gospels also attempt to clean up the earlier accounts. Mark’s entire resurrection narrative is a mere 8 verses long, contains no resurrection appearances at all, no ascension into heaven, and only depicts a white-robed young man instructing the women visiting the tomb to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. It ends by saying that the women “said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Of course later copyists weren’t comfortable with such a deficient narrative and embellished Mark with a fuller ending that included three appearances (16:9-20) obviously drawn from the other later Gospels. Verse ten of this embellishment says that Mary Magdalene saw Jesus and reported this to the disciples, a correction which directly contradicted the true ending of Mark which states that the three women at the tomb, including Mary Magdalene, were so afraid that they told no one.
Matthew devoted 15 verses to describe two appearances, first to the women and then to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee, thereby tying up some loose ends left by Mark. Like Mark, it contains no reference to an ascension into heaven. In direct contradiction to Mark’s ending, Matthew corrects the earlier account by stating that the women ran away from the tomb and immediately told the disciples. Additionally, Mark’s prosaic narrative is spiced up with a violent earthquake, a fantastic story of many dead people who came out of their graves and went around Jerusalem visiting people (Mt. 27:53) and, instead of a young man at the tomb, an angel of the Lord whose appearance was like lightning, so frightening in fact that the Roman guards were paralyzed with fright.
Luke expands Mark’s story more than four-fold by devoting 39 verses to three appearances. The young man of Mark, and angel of the Lord of Matthew have now grown to two men gleaming like lightening. The first appearance that he narrates occurs the day of the resurrection and depicts Jesus appearing to two disciples who were traveling on the road to Emmaus, a town 7-8 miles outside Jerusalem. In their conversation with Jesus they mention that the women at the tomb had seen a “vision of angels,” a tantalizing remnant of an earlier stratum of resurrection tradition which depicted these experiences as visionary in nature. Excited once they realized Jesus had appeared to them, these two disciples are said to have hurried back to Jerusalem where they found the eleven disciples assembled. The Eleven shared their excitement and told them that Jesus had appeared to Peter, apparently Jesus’ first appearance, consistent with Paul’s account. The Eleven make no mention of an appearance to the women in contradiction to Matthew. Also in direct contradiction to Matthew, wherein Jesus first appeared to the disciples in Galilee as directed by the angel, Jesus appeared to the assembled disciples that same day in Jerusalem. He showed them his crucifixion wounds, ate with them, and instructed them. Then he led them out near Bethany and ascended into heaven, the first reference to the ascension and a major new embellishment.
In his most significant break from Mark and Matthew, Luke completely cleanses Galilee from the resurrection narrative. He only records Jesus’ resurrection appearances to disciples in and around Jerusalem, and is completely silent about any meeting in Galilee or directive to meet his disciples there. In what appears to be a correction to Mark and Matthew consistent with his implied purpose to produce a better Gospel account of Jesus (Luke 1:1-3), he modified the angel’s reference to Galilee. Note Mark and Matthew’s angelic commission to meet Jesus in Galilee:
“You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:6-7)
“Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” (Mt. 28:5-7)
Luke removes the directive and substitutes a reference to a time past when Jesus spoke of his resurrection when they were with him in Galilee:
“He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ (Luke 24:6-7)
Clearly Luke was trying to fix the embarrassing problem of having the disciples told one thing (meet in Galilee), only to have Jesus do another (meet in Jerusalem).
John’s narration is longest of all and expands the resurrection appearances to four - first to Mary, and then three more appearances to the disciples - complete with lengthy dialogues. Aware of the Galilee-Jerusalem provenance conflict of the earlier Gospels, John attempts to harmonize them by including both Jerusalem and Galilee appearance stories in his narrative. (The ending to Mark added by later copyists also attempts this harmonization.) In another attempt at harmonization, the young man of Mark, angel of the Lord of Matthew, and two men of Luke, have been conflated into the two angels of John’s Gospel. Typical of John’s editorial tendency to demote and marginalize Peter, he doesn’t mention his appearance to him at all, despite this being the first appearance, with all the significance that carries. In contradiction to Luke/Acts which depict Jesus instructing his disciples to wait in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit that would empower them for ministry, John corrected the earlier account and described Jesus bestowing the Holy Spirit on the eve of his resurrection:
“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23)
Modern apologists try to make much of the "empty tomb" and how this is such a powerful witness to the resurrection. A close reading of the New Testament however has the opposite effect. Fundamental contradictions between the stories make this an occasion for suspicion about the story itself, as the most basic facts - where, how and by whom Jesus was buried - are in disarray.
1) Who took Jesus down from the cross and buried him? Paul’s statements in Acts 13 are unequivocal on this point: It was Jesus' Jewish enemies. "The people of Jerusalem and their rulers..." who condemned Jesus, and asked Pilate to have him executed, they "carried out all that was written about him." They "took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb." They did this, in contradistinction to Jesus’ disciples, "those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem" who were "now his witnesses to our people." (Acts 13:27-31) The Gospels however claim that it was one (the Synoptic Gospels) or two (John) of Jesus' disciples who took him down from the cross (Lk. 23:53) and buried him.
These two versions of the story could not be more different on this point: The handling of Jesus’ body after crucifixion is included in Paul's charges, his list of Jewish crimes against Jesus. In the Gospels, the handling of his body after crucifixion is depicted as an act of devotion and care on the part of his disciples.
2) Which tomb? Matthew says that it was Joseph's own tomb; all other witnesses indicate that it was an anonymous tomb. Matthew makes it clear that the tomb was chosen because it was Joseph's own tomb. John makes it equally clear that the anonymous tomb was chosen because it was convenient: "At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there."
3) Was Jesus given a proper burial? John states Joseph and Nicodemus anointed Jesus’ body with 75 pounds of spices when they buried him, while all the other accounts imply that he never received a burial anointing. In fact, Mark and Luke say the very reason why the women were visiting the tomb Sunday morning was to bring spices with which to anoint him. As Luke tells the story, the women watched the whole process of burial and then immediately went home to prepare spices and perfume because the men in their haste hadn't so prepared the body, hadn't quite given Jesus a proper burial. Then, as soon as they could following the Sabbath, they went to the tomb in the early hours of the morning on Sunday to anoint Jesus and give him the proper burial he lacked. It’s hard to believe that the women watched the burial process but missed the application of 75 pounds worth of myrrh and aloes! But consistent with his telling of the story, John of course doesn't mention the women bringing spices, or that this was the reason why they came to the tomb. In fact he doesn’t mention a group of women at all. He merely states that it was Mary Magdalene who came to the tomb.
This is more than a mere quibble since, in Mark and Luke, the story turns on this detail. If the men had adequately prepared Jesus' body, then the women wouldn't have felt the need to go right home and prepare to do what had been lacking in his burial. And, as a result, they wouldn't have had a need to visit the tomb on Sunday morning, nor been so motivated to get to the tomb as early as Sabbath law would allow.
Given all of the above, one cannot be faulted for concluding the resurrection narratives are legendary and highly contrived, and that the Gospel writers felt free to, and did, manipulate the story as they wished.
Apologists also like to claim that only the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus can explain the subsequent development of the Christian movement. This is not true. All that is necessary is for the early disciples to have believed he had been resurrected, not for the actual resurrection to have occurred.
20) Biblical source material: 2 Peter 2:20-1 states that “no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Evidence from the New Testament, however, tells a different story. Material from 2Peter and Jude reveals a process that was very fallible and all too human.
In combating enemies of the churches under their care, 2Peter and Jude both used a well-known intertestamental tale about misbehaving angels as a key, authoritative example of divine judgment against wrongdoers, and as a warning to their opponents:
“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell [Tartarus in Greek, the deep abyss in ancient Greek mythology that is used as a dungeon of torment for the wicked], putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.” (2Peter 2:4-10)
“Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord at one time delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” (Jude 5-7)
The chief source, an intertestamental work named IEnoch, elaborates this tale at great length. It tells the story of angels who had intercourse with women during the time of Noah, resulting in evil, giant offspring, and as a consequence were rounded up and incarcerated by the archangel Michael:
“And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: 'Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.' And Semjâzâ, who was their leader, said unto them: 'I fear ye will not indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.' And they all answered him and said: 'Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.' Then swore they all together and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And they were in all two hundred; who descended in the days of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And these are the names of their leaders: Sêmîazâz, their leader, Arâkîba, Râmêêl, Kôkabîêl, Tâmîêl, Râmîêl, Dânêl, Êzêqêêl, Barâqîjâl, Asâêl, Armârôs, Batârêl, Anânêl, Zaqîêl, Samsâpêêl, Satarêl, Tûrêl, Jômjâêl, Sariêl. These are their chiefs of tens.” (1Enoch 6:1-8)
“And all the others together with them took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in unto them and to defile themselves with them, and they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants. And they became pregnant, and they bare great giants, whose height was three thousand ells [Note: an ell was a measure of length equivalent to six hand breadths, typically about 45 inches, which makes the giants over 2 miles tall!] who consumed all the acquisitions of men. And when men could no longer sustain them, the giants turned against them and devoured mankind. And they began to sin against birds, and beasts, and reptiles, and fish, and to devour one another's flesh, and drink the blood. Then the earth laid accusation against the lawless ones.” (1Enoch 7:1-6)
“And the Lord said unto Michael: 'Go, bind Semjâzâ and his associates who have united themselves with women so as to have defiled themselves with them in all their uncleanness. And when their sons have slain one another, and they have seen the destruction of their beloved ones, bind them fast for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, till the day of their judgment and of their consummation, till the judgment that is for ever and ever is consummated. In those days they shall be led off to the abyss of fire and to the torment and the prison in which they shall be confined forever. And whosoever shall be condemned and destroyed will from thenceforth be bound together with them to the end of all generations.” (1Enoch 10:11-14)
It is plain by the biblical authors’ usage of this tale that, in their estimation, these sinful angels were as historic and authentic, and the insights gained as revelatory and authoritative, as the story of Israel in the wilderness. That 2Peter and Jude put such heavy theological weight on material from 1Enoch should come as no surprise since these New Testament authors, like many early Christians, thought 1Enoch was inspired, holy writ. The earliest literature of the Church Fathers is filled with references to this book. The early 2nd century Epistle of Barnabus made much use of 1Enoch as did 2nd and 3rd century Church Fathers like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen and Clement of Alexandria. Tertullian (160-230 CE) called 1Enoch "Holy Scripture,” and the Ethiopic Church even added the book to its official canon. (The Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Eritrean Orthodox Church consider it canonical to this day.) Though widely known, read and revered the first three centuries after Jesus, this and many other books became discredited after the Council of Laodicea (364 CE) and, being under ban of the authorities, it gradually passed out of circulation.
Nevertheless, speaking “from God” and “carried along by the Holy Spirit” Jude quoted 1Enoch 1:9 as scripture:
“Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all of them of all the ungodly acts they have committed in their ungodliness, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”” (Jude 14-15)
Note that Jude mistakenly believed that the ancient, antediluvian Enoch (“the seventh from Adam”) actually wrote IEnoch, though this book is undeniably a pseudepigraphical work from the two centuries before Jesus. Peter, an apostolic leader, conferred the ultimate seal of approval on the Book of Jude by incorporating almost all of it into 2Peter. The problems just keep piling up here.
And these problems cannot be dismissed as incidental or unimportant; they strike at the heart of the Bible’s credibility. Peter, a leading apostle, is found engaging in fundamental theological reasoning about God and his character from a highly fanciful and obviously fictional source. Most modern-day Christians, if they only knew, would be horrified to read IEnoch and to realize that this was the type of material from which New Testament writers derived their theology and inspiration. Thankfully, examples such as this one exist wherein the sincere seeker of truth can sweep back the curtain of mystery that surrounds the production of the New Testament and gain a behind-the-scenes look at how the authors worked and from what sources their ideas actually derive.