For God So Loves The World

NepalFor God so loves the world he let an earthquake and its many aftershocks kill up to 10,000 people in Nepal.

For God so loves the world he stood by while up 100,000 more people lost everything, including their homes, because of the same earthquake.

For God so loves the world he drowned 900 refugees fleeing the terrors of war in their own countries.

For God so loves the world he allowed 250 individuals to be killed by a rogue pilot who flew the plane they were on into the side of a mountain.

But wait! One particular Christian preacher knows why this kind of thing happens. He can explain how these catastrophes, particularly the devastation caused by the earthquake, are compatible with a God of love. Here’s what it’s really all about:
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That’s right. God only allowed these terrible things to happen so that more people – excluding the ones he murdered, obviously – would have the chance to turn to Christ. Isn’t that marvellous? And Tony Miano, who is the same lunatic street preacher arrested in London in 2013 for sharing God’s ‘love’ for LGBT people, is not alone. German pastor Wolfgang Wegert said much the same thing of those who died on Germanwings Flight 9525: ‘A plane crash is a reminder of our own mortality. By that, God wants to make people repent, so that we (can) be saved by Jesus.’

And, do you know, they’re right. No, really, they are. There is no other response available to the Christian who wants to explain events that involve the terrible loss of life. That’s because the Christian God, the one who purports to love us so much, as well as all the other versions, is conspicuous by his absence. He’s always absent, always powerless to prevent such disasters, too remote to want to. Which might just suggest he doesn’t exist (which of course he doesn’t) leaving those who feel the need to cling to belief in him to explain his actions or, rather, the lack of them. So they supply him with an ulterior motive. And why not? A fabricated being needs a fabricated excuse. But this being the real world, the options are limited. So what we get is this; God is only trying to draw people to him. How truly loving. The equivalent of a human father murdering several of his children so that those he spares might love him more. A monstrous and preposterous idea for a monstrous and preposterous God.

And so it falls to human beings of all persuasions to show compassion and to help the survivors of earthquakes, the relatives of plane crashes, the misplaced and grieving refugees. We might be flawed, fallible and – according to the self-righteous – ‘sinful’, but we can at our best, demonstrate the love so lacking in their absent deities. And unlike the many meaningless gods, from Yahweh and Jesus to Allah and Vishnu, we can be present too, because we are real.

 

You can donate to the Nepal earthquake appeal here.

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Jesus v. Paul Round 2: And the winner is…

Make-overI’m re-reading Barrie Wilson’s excellent How Jesus Became Christian. Wilson makes the case that Paul’s Christianity was, and is, an entirely different religion from that of the historical Jesus. He shows how Paul’s ‘Christification’ changed the original mission of Jesus – to alert his fellow Jews to the imminence of God’s kingdom on Earth – ‘from one focused on the teachings of Jesus to one about the Christ’ (p242).

How right he is. This very the dichotomy troubled me in my own church-going days when evangelical Christianity, as it still does, consistently excluded the demanding, extreme and human Jesus of the synoptic gospels to focus instead on this illusory supernatural being. They preach sermons about him, sing hymns to him and intone creeds that skip glibly over everything Jesus said and did when he was alive. The Christ was, I came to see over time, an invention of Paul’s, the product of his strange hallucination sketchily recounted in Galatians 1.11-12 and 1 Corinthians 9.1 & 15.45. The Jesus he talks about is a sort of cosmic super-hero, a god-man of the type found in pagan religions in the first century. He has little or nothing to do with Jesus the Jew preacher and would-be Messiah, preserved – just about – in the three synoptic gospels.

So, the differences between Jesus and the Christ are profound. Here are a few of them, that I’ve drawn up, demonstrating that Christianity as we know it – essentially Paul’s ‘Christified’ version with inconvenient bits removed – bears little relation to the ‘good news’ of Jesus:

Jesus’ good news: God’s Kingdom on Earth imminent (Mark 9.1 etc)
Paul’s good news: Salvation through a dying/rising god-man (Romans 3.19-26; 4.24; 5.1-2; 5.10 etc)

Jesus presents as: Jewish Messiah claimant: ‘Son of Man’; Self-appointed judge and king in near future (Matthew 16.28; 13.41; Luke 22.30 etc)
Paul presents: Mystical saviour: The Christ, who saves those who ‘share’ in his death and resurrection; Christ as judge and ruler of mankind in near future (Romans 3.25; 6.1-11; 13.11-12; 1 Corinthians 15.20-28; Philippians 3.20)

Jesus’ qualifications: Teacher, preacher and healer; ideas rooted in Jewish prophecy; full of his own importance (Matthew 5.17; 7.12; 9.35; 25.40)
Paul’s qualifications: Builds entire religion on single hallucination; borrows heavily from pagan cults; full of his own importance (1 Corinthians 15.8; Galatians 1.15-16)

Jesus’ position: Adherent of Jewish Law; emphasises its importance (Mark 6.2; Matthew 5.19)
Paul’s position: Disregards Jewish Law; implies it is ‘dung’ (Romans 3.28; Galatians 5.6; Philippians 3.7-9)

Jesus insists on: Obedience to Jewish Law (Matthew 5.17-20)
Paul insists on: Faith in Christ and his resurrection (Romans 1.16-17; 3.22)

Jesus’ salvation requirement: Be righteous/perfect (Matthew 5.48; 13.43)
Paul’s salvation requirement: Faith (Romans 5.1; Galatians 2:15-16)

Jesus expects: Right behaviours and attitudes (Matthew 5.38-48)
Paul expects: Right belief (Romans 10.10-13)

Jesus’ teaching: Measure for measure morality (Matthew 6.38; 7.2; Luke 6.37); Forgive in order to be forgiven (Matthew 6.14); Show mercy in order to be shown it (Matthew 5.7); Give in order to receive (Matthew 6.38); Treat others as you wish to be treated (Matthew 7.12)
Paul’s teaching: Profess right belief (Romans 10.9)

Jesus’ commands: Love God (Matthew 22.37); Love your neighbour (Matthew 22.39); Love your enemy (Matthew 5.44)
Paul’s commands: Embrace Christ (Romans 8.35-38; Galatians 3.27); Be filled with the Holy Spirit (Romans 5.5; Galatians 5.16-18); Avoid those with different teaching (Romans 16.17; Galatians 6.6-9)

Jesus’ extremism: Give up everything you have (Mark 10.21; Luke 14.33); Give to all who ask (Matthew 5.42); Turn the other cheek (Matthew 5.39); cut off own hands, remove eyes (Mark 9.43-47); Consider castration (Matthew 19.12)
Paul’s extremism: No interest in anything Jesus taught when was alive; intolerance of Jesus’ original followers (Galatians 2.11-21)

Jesus’ guarantees: Resurrection/eternal life through demonstration of one’s personal righteousness once the Kingdom comes (Matthew 25.31-36)
Paul’s guarantees: Resurrection/eternal life for those with right belief and faith when Christ returns soon to judge mankind (1 Corinthians 15.20-28; 51-52)

Jesus’ outcomes: No Kingdom on Earth; no appearance of the Son of Man or a returned Jesus; disappearance of the movement that subscribed to Jesus’ ‘good news’
Paul’s outcomes: No appearance of the Christ; no rapture; no resurrection; no cosmic judgement

Jesus’ result: Failure
Paul’s result: Becomes mainstream Christianity; Paul wins!

As Wilson makes clear, the two are, despite some small overlap, very different belief systems. The Christ Christians worship is not the same as the Jesus they ignore. Nonetheless, they continue to pretend they are one and the same, unable to see that the join is, and always has been, a gaping hole.

 
Notes:
i) Biblical references are by no means exhaustive; there are many others that support each point and difference.

ii) Details of Wilson’s book are:
Wilson, B. (2008) How Jesus Became Christian: The Early Christians and the Transformation of a Jewish Teacher into the Son of God. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.

Money, Money, Money

MoneyAfter the Kingdom-that-never-comes, what does Jesus talk about more than anything else? Love? Forgiveness? Marriage? Sin? No. While he does mention all of these, more of his teaching is to do with money and wealth. When he isn’t speaking about money specifically he’s using it as the background to a parable. Eleven of his thirty-nine parables involve it.

He had a thing about money. He resented the wealthy to such an extent he said it was unlikely they’d find a place in his new world order – the famous ‘camel through the eye of a needle’ saying of Matthew 19.24.

Come the revolution, he implied, the rich would have their wealth stripped from them (Luke 6.24-25).

He consigned the wealthy to Hell, not because they weren’t ‘saved’, but because they were rich and ignored the poor (Luke 6.19-25).

He seemed to think being poor was a virtue and that those who were, were especially favoured by God (Luke 6.20).

He preached against what he saw as the dangers of wealth and on more than one occasion (Matt 19.21 & Luke 12.33) and advised those with money and possessions that if they wanted God’s approval they’d have to give them away to the poor.

“No one can serve two masters,” he’s recorded as saying in Matthew 6.24. “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

Jesus was no capitalist.

So what do Christians make of Jesus’ evident contempt for money? They certainly don’t give it all away as he said they should. Nor do they see it as an impediment to their salvation, even though Jesus was clear it is (Matt 13.22). As far as today’s Christian are concerned you can serve God and mammon, which is good news – just not Jesus’.

Most Christians in the modern west are incredibly wealthy in comparison with the rich of the first century whom Jesus castigated. Take a look too at the incomes of well known pastors and evangelists – Billy Graham is estimated to be worth $25 million, for example; Creflo Dollar $27 million (but he can still beg his flock for $60 million more to buy a new jet) and Benny Hinn $40 million (who did the same a few years ago). You can see why it’s imperative rich Christians get round Jesus’ injunctions about the evils of wealth somehow.

What is a Christian to do? What they always do when they don’t like what Jesus has to say: ignore him, or try to explain away what he actually said. So, enter the usual excuses: he was only speaking metaphorically/shouldn’t be taken literally/’really meant’ something else. And what did Jesus ‘really mean’ when he denigrated money? That it’s the love of money that’s the problem – doesn’t 1 Timothy say so? Indeed it does, but 1 Timothy was written a hundred years after Jesus. Already his message about wealth was being diluted; Jesus doesn’t make any nice distinction between possessing wealth and loving it. According to Jesus, having money is to love it (Matthew 6.21).

In that case, say those who really can’t countenance surrendering their wealth, money and/or the love of it is really only a problem when it comes between the believer and God. But to believe this necessitates overlooking Jesus’ repeated point that it always comes between the individual and God. Money, according to the radical, demanding Jesus of the synoptic gospels cannot be trifled with; it will always turn those who have it away from God, as well as from those who don’t have any (Matthew 6.21).

And that’s the problem, isn’t it. Jesus is – or was – just too radical and too demanding for those who profess belief in him. He can’t possibly mean that they should surrender their wealth and possessions for the sake of their spiritual well-being. And so they do exactly what he said they’d do: they put their money before God.

Never mind. They can always campaign against others’ so-called sin or whinge about the supposed loss of religious liberty, about which Jesus says nothing. Just so long as they don’t have to do what he says with their wealth because in an area where they have all the religious freedom in the world, they definitely don’t want to exercise it.

 

The Revolution Has Been Postponed

LiteralSo we all sat down on the grass and waited for the great man to speak.

“You’re a winner,” he said eventually, “if you’re ordinary and oppressed, because one day you’re going to rule the Earth!” Everyone gasped. We were all of us just ordinary, plain-speaking folk and things like this didn’t happen to us.

“Yes, really,” he said, “because God is going to establish his kingdom on Earth. And when he does he’ll sweep away the rich and the powerful, and you’ll be in charge. This I promise.”

We couldn’t believe it – proper gobsmacked we were.

“You’re in luck too,” the teacher went on, “if you’re poor, because once God’s kingdom comes, you’ll be rich beyond measure. And as for those of you who are hungry, you’re going to be filled like you’ve never been filled before. God, you see, is going to turn everything upside. Those of you at the bottom of the heap now – and let’s face it, that’s all of you sorry schmucks – are suddenly going to find yourselves at the top. And those who are on top now will be right down at the bottom. This, I promise you, is how it’s going to be.”

I can tell you everyone was beaming. We could already feel the change in the air.
Then Eli, sitting next to me sticks up his hand. “Hey, boss,” he shouts.

“Eli,” I says to him, “don’t be disrespectful. “This bloke obviously knows what he’s talking about. He’s a messenger from God.”

“Yo, boss!” shouts Eli again.

“Yes,” the man up front says to him. “What?”

“When’s all this going to happen, then?” asks Eli. “When can we expect this big change?”

“Oh,” the teacher says, “I was thinking… maybe in a couple of thousand years?”

“What?” Eli says. “What good is that to us? From the way you were talking we thought all these wunnerful things were going to happen soon. What’s the point of telling all of us, sitting here in front of you, that we’re gonna be top dog and everything if it’s not us you’re talking about.”

“Good point,” the great man says. “All right then. How about if it’s sooner?”

There’s a lot of murmuring and everybody thinks this a good idea.

“Great,” he says. “Then that’s settled. We’ll make it sooner, so that you guys are still around. How does that sound?”

Everybody says it sounds marvellous.

“Great,” the big man says again. “It’s agreed, then – it’ll be soon. On that, you have my word.”

That was good enough for us and so we all set off home to get ready for the big changes we’d been promised.

“Thousands of years in the future,” Eli scoffs. “What a bloody con. Who does he think he is? God Almighty?”

Christians’ Favourite Delusions 32: Jesus Is God

Res2Test your Bible knowledge and see if you can work out when it was Jesus became God:

Was it:

a) After he died?
Paul thought this was when God decided to adopt Jesus. The Almighty noticed what a good man Jesus was and decided to resurrect him. In so doing, he made him his Son:

his Son… was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead. (Romans 1. 3-4, my emphasis)

Paul doesn’t say Jesus was God. In fact, he strongly suggests he wasn’t, both in the phrase ‘descended from David’ and in his assertion that he became God’s Son – not God – only at the resurrection. So, Jesus wasn’t God when Paul wrote Romans, round about 57CE. If, as Bart Ehrman suggests in How Jesus Became God (p224), Paul is quoting an earlier creed, it’s not what the first Christians believed either.* Paul does edge closer to a divine Jesus in other letters – Philippians 2, for example – but that’s not what ‘God revealed’ to him originally.

b) When he was baptised?
In the earliest gospel, Mark says it was when he was baptised that Jesus became God’s son:

(Jesus) saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1.10-11)

So in Mark, God adopts Jesus earlier in his career than in Paul’s Romans scenario. All the same, while he gets to be God’s beloved son, this doesn’t make him divine; God has many sons in the Bible and a Son of God, with or without capitals, is not the same as ‘God the Son’. Jesus himself makes this clear in Mark 10.18, where he actually denies he’s God.

c) When he was born?
Well, this is more like it. According to Matthew, Jesus is the Messiah from the time he was born. We’ve got even further back now – from Paul’s post-mortem elevation of Jesus, to his baptism, to his birth. Of course all of these can’t right. If Jesus was divine from birth – or even before – there’d be no need for him to be promoted after his death. But Matthew doesn’t actually say he’s divine; he suggests that Jesus fulfils all the prophecies of the Messiah (of course he doesn’t, but that’s what Matthew wants us to believe.) However, the Messiah, according to the very ‘prophecies’ Matthew quotes, is not divine; he’s a human warrior king. Oops.

d) When he was conceived?
Luke is determined to push it back further still. For Luke, it’s when God magically makes Mary pregnant that Jesus becomes truly and literally God’s son (Luke 1.35). Except, of course, Mary appears to have no recollection of this event later in the gospel narratives when she can’t work out why her son behaves in bizarre ways. Could Luke have made up the entire conception story? You bet.

e) Back at the beginning of time?
John’s gospel appears to say so:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.1-5)

Or does it? John says the Word (Logos) has always existed and is part of God – but does this mean Jesus? This question vexed the church for the best part of it first four hundred years. Was the Logos the same as God and was Jesus the Logos? The council of Nicaea in 325 attempted to clear the matter up but not all bishops agreed with its conclusion – that the Son was ‘begotten not made’ (whatever that means) – and the controversy raged for another few decades.

f) When the church decided he was?
Yup, this is it. A different group of bishops decided, finally, that Jesus was God at the Council of Constantinople in 381. They re-jigged the statement made at Nicaea fifty-six years earlier, which then became the ‘Nicene creed’ that’s still said in some churches today.

So, Jesus didn’t become wholly and officially divine until 381, a mere 350 years after he lived and 300 after Paul and the gospel writers. How scriptural is that?

Jesus wasn’t divine, wasn’t God incarnate, wasn’t the Son of God with capital letters, wasn’t the Messiah, wasn’t and isn’t the saviour of the world. He was a first-century preacher and prophet whose prophecies were a disaster, whose mission to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth failed and who died and was buried. He was resurrected only in the ideas of other men, who tried and eventually succeeded in making him into something he wasn’t.

 

* I’ve not referred extensively to Ehrman’s writing in this post but undoubtedly his many books, especially How Jesus Became God, have influenced me, as has Barrie Wilson’s How Jesus Became Christian. Jonathan Hill’s Christianity: The First 400 Years, published by Christian company, Lion, was also useful.

 

Christians’ Favourite Delusions 31: The first Christians wouldn’t have been prepared to die for a lie.

VisionOkay, so if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, what caused Christianity to spread the way it did? Or, as Christians like to put it, why would early Christians be prepared to die for something that didn’t happen? For the same reason they were ready to die for things that did happen; they were religious fanatics and people have died for a lot less. In any case, we have little evidence the earliest Christians did die prematurely for their faith, but they had plenty of reasons, other than a resurrection that didn’t happen, to give their lives to the cause:

1. Many of them seemed to think that, after his death, they’d had a vision of their leader. This was persuasive enough for the Pharisee Paul to become a follower ‘unto death’ – so why not for others? Still today, believers claim they’ve seen Jesus – it’s often how new cults get started – and those who lived in the first century were even more fanatical and superstitious. According to the gospels they –

  • believed in reincarnation (Jesus and John the Baptist are taken to be reincarnated versions of long dead prophets in Mark 6.14-15 and Matthew 16.14);
  • thought that the dead could return to life (Mark 6.16; Matthew 27.52) and
  • accepted that angels walked the Earth performing miracles (John 5.4).

It’s not much of step for them to have believed that the visions they were having or hearing about were of a resurrected Jesus. It doesn’t matter they weren’t; it was enough that early converts believed they were.

2. Jesus promised his original disciples and hangers-on that the Kingdom of God on earth was not far off. It would happen, he promised, in their lifetime; the ‘Son of Man’ would come down from heaven through the clouds with a battalion of angels and would take charge of the Earth on God’s behalf (Matthew 16:27-28; Matthew 24:27, 30-31, 34; Luke 21:27-28, 33-34). It’s not clear whether Jesus regarded himself as this mythical figure from the book of Daniel but nonetheless Jesus’ first followers were convinced the end was nigh – God was soon to intervene in history to transform the Earth, remodelling it in their favour (Matthew 5.5-12). They were privileged to have this information direct from Jesus himself – this was his Good News, his gospel – and they set about making it known. Even Paul, who changed the Jesus he’d never met into a cosmic super-hero, believed this (1 Corinthians 15:23-26). A brave new world was a cause worth living for and, if necessary, dying for.

3. The very first Jesus-followers, the disciples, believed that when all of this happened – when God’s Kingdom was on the Earth as it was in Heaven – they would rule it with him. Hadn’t Jesus himself told them that they would? He surely had – it’s recorded in Luke 22:28-30. So not only was God going to renew the Earth and its political systems, he was going to put them in charge! Who wouldn’t want to hang on to a promise like that? It was, surely, one worth living and dying for. We know, because Paul tells us in Galatians 2 and elsewhere that the disciples holed themselves up in Jerusalem to await God’s intervention; for them this meant the return of their Master who would carve up the transformed world and put them in charge of it.

So there we are, three good reasons why Christianity caught on:

  • Visions of Jesus, which meant that, even if his body had died, he had miraculously gone beyond death and would be returning soon;
  • The promise of God’s Kingdom on Earth, when the underdogs would become top dogs;
  • The susceptibility and gullibility of those at whom the message was aimed.

This is why the new movement spread rapidly, particularly among the susceptible, gullible under-class. No resurrection was necessary. Over time those visions, like Jesus’ message, would morph into something quite different, giving us the myth of a physical resurrection, a church he never intended founding and, eventually, the ‘promise’ of heaven. These were never part of the original ‘Good News’.

Happy Easter, y’all.