Hope v. Miserable Christians

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I am without hope.

Well, I’m not actually, but I am according to many of the Christians who engage me in futile dialogue about how lost I am, how much in need of repentance I am and how not believing in Jesus leaves me entirely adrift in life. ‘Hope of what?’ I invariably ask, and they tell me of being resurrected after I die, of avoiding the judgement of God in the post-mortem state and of spending eternity thereafter with the Lord.

And I have to agree, I am without hope of these things. In return I tell them that evidence shows us that people do not live forever, that because no-one survives death there can be no judgement after it and that no-one therefore gets to spend eternity with the Lord (never mind the fact there’s no Lord to spend it with.) No-one in the entire history of humankind, I tell them, has ever done such things. They say then that they feel sorry for me, because the bible promises they will happen and that only as a Christian (repent! repent!) can I have hope that I will enjoy them for myself.

Just in case you were wondering, all this Christian ‘hope’ in impossible events might sound like it’s indistinguishable from wishful thinking, but it’s not! Here’s how the Desiring God website puts it:

When you read the word “hope” in the Bible (like in 1 Peter 1.13* ‘set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ’), hope is not wishful thinking. It’s not “I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but I hope it happens.” That’s absolutely not what is meant by Christian hope.

Christian hope is when God has promised that something is going to happen and you put your trust in that promise. Christian hope is a confidence that something will come to pass because God has promised it will come to pass.

*written by someone who wasn’t Peter, but we’ll overlook that.

So, you see, Christian ‘hope’ is fixing one’s own wishful thinking onto the wishful thinking of people who lived two thousand years ago, people who believed with certainty that Jesus would be coming to the Earth through the clouds to rescue them at any moment. Having hope today is trusting in this mistaken belief; wishing and hoping that these guys were right, when clearly they were wrong. The hope of today’s wishful thinkers is that the wishful thinking of the past will eventually happen. But these first century wishful thinkers were making it all up; wishing and hoping and praying that Jesus would be back soon, that the resurrection process that they thought he’d begun would continue with them and that they’d inherit the Earth and live forever. As Word of God for Today puts it:

Paul spoke* of the “…hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time… (Titus 1:2). Only in Christianity is there such a promise of glorious life beyond the grave. The hope of eternal life is very important, and even if we Christians have hope only in this life we are of all people most miserable (1 Cor. 15:19).

*Not Paul, but we’ll overlook that too.

I sometimes ask Christians to point me to one person, one ordinary mortal who has ever achieved immortality – not someone from a story or (biblical) myth; not Jesus who wasn’t, according to them, an ordinary man, but an incarnate deity – who has survived death and gone on to live with God forever. They can’t, of course. None of the bible’s scenarios for the end of the age, the return of Jesus, the resurrection of believers and the rest has ever come to pass. Nor will it.

Despite their denials, hope that all these fantasies will come true is wishful thinking, just like the Rastafarians hope that Haile Selassie will return from the dead to rescue the descendants of slaves from Jamaica, or my fantasy that one day I’ll win the lottery when I don’t even buy a ticket. It’s wishing, as countless people from different cultures and religious background have throughout history, that life doesn’t end when we die.

Christian hope is futile wishful thinking in an impossible dream. I for one am glad to be without it.

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The Voice in my Head is my Only Friend

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I hear it clearly, the voice in my head. It speaks to me all the time; telling me I am marked out for greatness. I am the Chosen One. I shall make this country and these people great again too. It all falls to me.

The voice speaks sure and true; it does not mislead me. It is of the Lord. Others tell me they have a voice within, but they are misled; the hear merely their own thoughts. I know this, for once, long before, I listened to that same voice, the endless annoying sound of the self, undermining, planting only doubt, questioning my true destiny. It was Satan’s voice, whispering sweet and low. But his is not the voice I hear now. It is God who speaks clearly to me now, strengthening me, reassuring me, directing my path. His voice sounds for me and me alone. It is my constant companion and there is no need of any other. I listen only to him.

He directs me to gather around me those I need to realise my mission. There are others who do not share my vision; the vision he gives me. It matters not; they matter not. Those who do not do my bidding fall by the wayside. Others take their place, true believers in the work I am doing. God himself tells me so, God alone guides me.

For I am the Chosen One; this he has made clear. I am his Son, his appointed Savior for this dissolute age. All else will pass away but what I do will never pass away. For I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.

 

Jesus, plus nothing

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‘Jesus, plus nothing’ is the motto – the slogan – of ‘The Family’, a secretive, clandestine Christian group that for 60+ years has influenced, and been part of, the government of the USA. Yes, poor persecuted Christians, who find their rights eroded on a daily basis (or so they like to tell us) actually exercise a disproportionate amount of control over those in power. Controlled for many years by ‘the most influential Christian you’ve never heard of’, Doug Coe, this group disregards any notion of separation of church and state. The new Netflix series, The Family, based on Jeff Sharlet’s books The Family and C Street, documents their activities, which include affecting policy both at home and abroad, and taking the gospel of ‘Jesus, plus nothing’ to the mighty and powerful across the globe, often on the taxpayer’s dime.

But what does ‘Jesus, plus nothing’ really mean? There’s no doubt it’s intended to convey a stark honesty: this version of Christianity, it says, is without all the clutter that has accrued since Jesus walked the Earth, including all of Paul’s complicated theology. The Family’s holy book is not the bible in its entirety but a slim volume simply entitled Jesus that contains only the four gospels and Acts. The Jesus story, pure and simple.

Except there really isn’t anything simple about the Jesus story. It isn’t even a single story. Nor is there one, single Jesus. (As you’ll see at the links, I’ve written about both of these problems before.) The Jesus that The Family promotes is one of its own making. Of course, every version of Jesus is a construct, loosely based, at best, on bits and pieces from the bible, but manufactured entirely by what different groups and individuals would like him to be. It’s probable that the gospels themselves are constructs built on Old Testament ‘prophecies’ and references, and that the Jesuses they portray are no more than literary creations. Even so, the Jesuses held dear by modern believers, and The Family in particular, bear little resemblance to the constructs of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John on which he is supposedly based.

He is, as one of The Family’s Christian critics points out, a talisman, a magic word that opens doors for speaking ‘truth’ to dictators and tyrants. A Jesus synonymous with power; the power to control nations’ policies, direction and morality. A Jesus who chooses his men (always men) to wield this power; a Jesus who chooses ‘weak vessels’ to do his bidding; a Jesus who, The Family is convinced, chose Donald Trump to be president. And when Jesus chooses you – or when his agents on Earth do – then you are chosen indeed. They make sure of it.

To be continued.

Crawling from the Wreckage

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I’m occasionally accused of criticising only evangelical Christianity. It’s an easy target, I’m told, and I should spend some time investigating the more sophisticated and respectable version of Faith: intellectual, liberal Christianity. In fact I already have, and have written about it before. This ‘respectable’ version of the Faith is every bit as dishonest and intellectually lazy as its more excitable counterpart.

It has always seemed to me that evangelicalism and fundamentalism do at least take the most indefensible parts of the bible seriously. They may ignore them when it comes to applying them (loving enemies and giving to all who ask, for example) but at least they accept them, if only metaphorically, as part of ‘God’s inerrant and infallible Word’. Intellectual Christians on the other hand sidestep what they find uncomfortable, selecting only that which fits with what they think the Faith should be:

A Loving Father? Then we’ll disregard the parts where God is clearly anything but.

A wise and compassionate Jesus? We’ll pretend the bits where he’s cruel, ignorant and just plain wrong aren’t really there (or are later additions to the gospels; the mistaken beliefs of the early church.)

Church as inclusive community? We’ll have some of that and ignore all the unhelpful nonsense about most of humankind being destined for eternal torture. (That, after all, is just Paul, or whoever, getting carried away.)

I know they do this, because when my own faith was in its death throes, I did too.

Back in the early ’90s. I’d given up on evangelicalism but desperately wanted to salvage something of the Faith that had once meant so much to me (even as it completely messed up my life.) I wanted a God of Love, so persuaded myself there was one – disregarding what I knew of the hateful, unsavoury aspects of the God of the bible. I also really wanted Jesus to have some meaning; if not as personal saviour then as one who exemplified a purposeful and compassionate life. To do this I had to overlook Paul’s theology of a vengeful God, hell bent on punishing everyone.

In the end, however, I had to be honest with myself and accept that the nice God I was trying to believe in was no more real than the nasty one. What I wanted had no bearing on the nature of God, nor on whether he existed. Similarly with the nice Jesus, who could be unpleasant and unreasonably demanding as well. I was being entirely selective, as most Christians are, about how I constructed my own personal Jesus.

Hanging on to fragments of faith was futile. I could no longer sustain the cognitive dissonance required to embrace the parts of Christianity that made me feel good, inspired me or made me kinder, while ignoring the downright nasty bits. If I was experiencing the good things (and I was) I had to accept they were coming from somewhere other than Christianity; if I was to go on experiencing them I had to acknowledge that and cultivate them by other means.

It seemed at first that this would be difficult outside of a church but in fact there are numerous groups committed to helping and inspiring others, without the superfluous and irrelevant presence of religion. It simply isn’t necessary to hang on to selected scraps from a discredited belief system; life lies, in abundance, elsewhere.

This is why I have no more respect for intellectualised, liberal Christianity than I have for evangelicalism. There is nothing intellectual about the cognitive dissonance needed to be an ‘intellectual’ Christian. It is, in the end, a largely content free version of Faith, the spiritual equivalent of a homeopathic remedy. I mean, really: why bother?

Why Christians Don’t Do What Jesus Tells Them To …And What They Believe Instead*

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A few days ago, notorious God-botherer and TV evangelist, Pat Robertson, said on his TV Show that churches should revise Jesus’ stern teaching about divorce to better fit modern sensibilities. As today’s Christians divorce at about the same rate as non-believers, old Pat thinks it a mite inconvenient that they should feel guilty about it. He reminded his viewers that Jesus gave the church authority over all things and that it should therefore amend Jesus’ teaching. That’s amend as in ‘ignore completely’.

Which is fine, I guess, if you take the same approach to everything else Jesus said. That way, Christians would be safe to ‘amend’ his commands about feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, healing the sick, turning the other cheek, welcoming the stranger, going the extra mile, forsaking possessions, relinquishing wealth, giving to everyone who asks, not judging, putting themselves last and others first, loving their neighbour and enemies alike… and so on.

But wait – they do that already, don’t they? Most Christians don’t practise these things. They don’t see these commands as applicable to them. They work hard, and unconvincingly, at interpreting his words as metaphorical – ‘he didn’t really mean give everything away because where would that leave us?’ – or claim they’re being taken out of context, or insisting they have a spiritual meaning…

Which is to say, nothing Jesus said is to be taken literally, even though the most straight forward reading of his pronouncements is that this is how he meant them. It’s how his early followers, the people who preserved or created his words in the gospels, understood them. Why record them otherwise?

But Jesus’ moralising is inconvenient, impractical, exacting, extreme; ridiculous, in fact, and Christians know this. Still his commands must be dealt with somehow. So the Righteous™ work round them – like Robertson and the teaching about divorce – or they ignore them completely and replace his priorities with ones of their own: worshipping him; defending his reputation; striving for power; complaining about secular society; promoting aggression; acquiring wealth; trying to control others’ behaviour; interfering in others’ sex lives; suppressing LGBT people; arguing that religious rights trump those of minorities; opposing abortion.

None of these figured on Jesus’ agenda. Some are in direct opposition to what he’s made to say in the gospels.

When we see Christians doing the things Jesus tells them they should be doing, maybe then we’ll listen to what they have to say. When they demonstrate credibility rather than hypocrisy, maybe they’ll have earned the right to be heard. But as there’s not much chance of that happening any time soon, it’s way past time we ignored them, and their superstition, in much the same way they ignore their Lord and Saviour™.

 

 

*See my book of the same name: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/147016373X/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i0 (US) & https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/147016373X/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i0 (UK)

 

Why it’s never a good idea to throw stones from inside your glass house

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I added the comment below to Bruce Gerencser’s blog yesterday. Bruce had been writing about one reason people don’t like Evangelical Christians, that being their attitude towards LGBT folk. It’s a good post and well worth your time (though not, of course, till you’ve finished here.) This is what I wrote:

It never ceases to amaze me that people who claim to possess the key to salvation, know the secret of eternal life, have a relationship with the creator of the universe and think their sins are all forgiven, have nothing better to do than spend their time slagging off LGBT folk.

A quick, admittedly non-scientific, survey of Christian blog and web-sites suggests that at least a third are attacks on those fortunate enough to be gay.

Maybe all that other stuff just isn’t as marvellous as they like to think it is.

Genuinely, I cannot understand how, when they think they’re tapped into the First Cause/the Power of the Universe/God, the Father Almighty, that the best evangelicals can do is to make repeated snipes at gay people. I had a look this morning at the Christian Research Network site to find three articles had recently been posted doing precisely that: one called ‘Which should be illegal: Christianity or Sodomy?’, about how religious rights are soon to be negated by gay rights (they won’t be, specially not in America); one criticising popular preacher Beth Moore for supporting a small number of gay-affirming pastors and another attacking clergy who might be gay but who remain celibate.  Obviously these matters are of great concern to the Lord of Hosts, the Judge of Mankind, who is, nonetheless, demonstrably impotent when it comes to doing anything about them. Or maybe, given his non-existence, they matter only to his small-minded sycophants here on Earth.

Bruce writes in another post that he doesn’t comment on Christian web-sites because ultimately it makes no difference; evangelicals don’t listen and don’t want to know what others think. They regard even the mildest criticism as the persecution the Bible promises they will face, particularly in these ‘last days’ (that we’ve been enjoying now for two millennia.) Bruce is right, of course. All the same, when I’ve time, I can’t help but comment on their anti-gay rhetoric, their judgement and condemnation of a relatively powerless minority. They can take it how they like; their casting of the first stone just can’t go unopposed.

I think it’s always pertinent to ask Christians why they’re not living according to Jesus’ commands – by not judging others, giving to all who ask, loving their enemies, and the rest, because as sure as eggs is eggs, the majority don’t. As if this matters to today’s evangelicals. Being a Christian is really about being part of a glee club that first and foremost benefits its members, no one else. Sometimes the party bubble needs a little puncturing. Of course, believers don’t like it; they tell you Jesus was only speaking ‘metaphorically’, which he always is when he says things they don’t like. They become aggressive and unpleasant because, presumably, that’s what he would want. Nonetheless, they sometimes need to see that when they condemn others, they can expect to be judged in return. That’s just how it works. Jesus says so.

Oh, and Dolly Parton too:

If you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones,
Don’t shatter my image till you look at your own,
Look at your reflection in your house of glass,
Don’t open my closet if your own’s full of trash,
Stay out of my closet if your own’s full of trash.

Amen to that, Dolly.

 

All in the Mind

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Christians dispute that those who saw the Risen Jesus after his death were merely experiencing hallucinations or ‘visions’ in their own heads. Despite the fact that the only first-hand eye-witness report we have of a resurrection sighting is of precisely this nature – Paul’s, in Galatians 1.16 where he says that the Risen Christ was revealed ‘in’ him – Evangelicals in particular insist that Jesus rose physically from the dead and was seen by numerous ‘witnesses’.

And yet, in the two thousand years since he supposedly ascended into Heaven, no-one has seen Jesus in his resurrected, physical body. This doesn’t stop believers today claiming that they experience him in ‘real’ ways. As the old song goes, they walk with him and talk with along life’s narrow way. Or they think they do.

Back when I was a Christian I used to hear Jesus speaking to me. He’d create a thought in my head, telling me to act in a certain way, to speak to some lost soul about him, for example. At the time I was convinced these promptings were really ‘the Lord’. How could they not be? I had his Spirit living inside me, a sure-fire way of experiencing the living Jesus. His presence felt very real, as it does still for millions of Christians. What greater proof of the resurrection could there be?

In fact, Jesus’ ‘voice’ was no more than the vague recollections of Bible verses I half remembered. The sense of his presence I felt was a trick of my own mind, conditioned by hours of sermons, Bible reading and the mutual reinforcement provided by fellow-believers.

I never actually visualised Jesus, though many claim to. They see him in burnt toast or cloud formations; they dream about him or think he has visited them in the night, standing at the foot of the bed. Some have near-death experiences when they (imagine) they travel to Heaven and are welcomed by his outstretched arms. Others ‘know’ he has rescued them from calamity, or purposely sent them a sign (by leaving a Bible unscathed after a storm destroyed a house, as happened this week in Indiana.) Still others, a mite more credibly perhaps, have a sense of Jesus being present in a wishy-washy mystical way. He seems especially real when they’re caught up in the ecstasy of worship or a mighty and wondrous healing is being staged taking place. What a blessing! After all, didn’t Jesus promise in Matthew 18.20 that ‘when two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them’? (Probably not, but Christians believe he did and that’s what matters.)

My point is this: if this is how Jesus ‘manifests’ himself today – in whispered messages, inner-visions, emotions, dreams, blessings and ‘signs’ – and if these are enough to keep today’s believers convinced he lives again, then isn’t it likely that this was exactly how his earliest followers experienced him after his death? Not as a real, physical body but in these same ‘spiritual’ ways, conjured up by minds deep in the thrall of religion? If illusions of their own imaginations are enough to persuade the susceptible of the Risen Lord’s presence today, then surely they were more than enough to convince a handful of superstitious zealots in the first century.

I mean, just look at Paul.