Prophecy: The Bible’s Track Record

In earlier posts we saw how the authors of Mark and Matthew’s gospels rooted around in the scriptures for anything that might be passed off as a prophecy. They then turned what they found into stories about Jesus.

What though about passages in scripture that actually declare themselves to be prophecy? How do these fair in the fulfilment stakes? As you might guess, not well. There are many failed prophecies in both Testaments; here I’ll take a select few, just to give you a flavour of how hopeless they are:

In Exodus 23:27, YHWH declares that all of Israel’s enemies will run from them:

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run.

Oops! The scriptures themselves are replete with examples of the Israelites’ defeat at the hands of their enemies.

In Ezekiel 29:8-12, the Lord proclaims his intentions towards the hated Egyptians:

The Nile is mine; I made it, therefore I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt a ruin and a desolate waste from Migdol to Aswan, as far as the border of Cush. The foot of neither man nor beast will pass through it; no one will live there for forty years. I will make the land of Egypt desolate among devastated lands, and her cities will lie desolate forty years among ruined cities. And I will disperse the Egyptians among the nations and scatter them through the countries.

None of this ever happened.

Isaiah has it in for Egypt too. In 19:1-8 the Lord promises:

The waters of the river will dry up, and the riverbed will be parched and dry. The canals will stink; the streams of Egypt will dwindle and dry up. The reeds and rushes will wither, also the plants along the Nile, at the mouth of the river. Every sown field along the Nile will become parched, will blow away and be no more. The fishermen will groan and lament, all who cast hooks into the Nile; those who throw nets on the water will pine away.

The Nile has never dried up.

In 2 Samuel 7:13-16, the Lord promises that the descendants of David will rule forever:

(David) is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.

The Davidic line ended with King Zedekiah in about 586BC. Much is made in the New Testament of Jesus’ descent from David on his father’s side (while also insisting he didn’t have a human father!) and this prophecy is altered in Acts 2:29-31 to make it fit Jesus’ supposed kingship. This is neither what it says nor means in its original context.

The deranged Zephaniah, writing in the 7th century BC, prophesies that the end of the world is imminent:

The great day of the Lord is near – near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter; the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath – a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness – a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers.

Another failure, unless you’re prepared to consider 2600+ years and counting as being ‘near and coming quickly’.

The earliest prediction we have of the Christ’s appearance on Earth is from Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 1-8. You’ll note how he says how everything he describes will happen soon to the people he is writing to:

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober… For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

Notch that up as another non-event.

How about the prediction in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4, thought to have been written circa AD50, that the Christ will not appear from heaven until ‘the man of lawlessness’ takes up residence in the Temple?

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. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD70 before the man of lawlessness could make his appearance. Unsurprisingly, not a single prophet foresaw the catastrophe. (No, not even Jesus. It is generally agreed that Mark’s gospel was written around AD70 and that Jesus’ ‘prophecy’ about the temple’s destruction was composed after it had happened.)

And then, finally, prophecies about the end times, whether from the scriptures or from Paul, are inserted into the synoptic gospels so, miraculously, they become the words of Jesus:

‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ (a quote from Isaiah 13:10; 34:4.) At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 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 (Mark 13.34).

And thus, Jesus is likewise made into a false prophet.

Then again, what other sort is there? Prophets are zealots who believe they’ve been granted special access to the Lord’s plans. There are still fantasists today who believe the Lord speaks to them with portents of future disaster. It would be generous to say that all of them – those in the Bible and their modern descendants – are wrong far more often than they are right. In fact, they are always wrong; it is impossible to know the future. Meanwhile, so-called interpreters of prophecy, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and their equivalents today, alter ‘prophecy’ and unrelated statements to suit their needs, shaping their stories to create the illusion they have been miraculously ‘fulfilled’.  

How Do Christians Explain Those Who Renounce Their Faith?

Aka The Death of Ananias by Raphael (Acts 5)

What was original Christianity like, long before it acquired that name? Before Paul’s ideas took hold? Clearly the cult existed prior to Paul. He tells us so himself: worship groups were around – the one he writes to in Rome, for example – before he  established his own. 

The early faith seems to have emanated from the visions of early believers such as Cephas and James. Quite what they ‘saw’ is open to debate but it led to them setting up a sect within Judaism that focused on the saving power of a risen celestial being.

And everything was absolutely hunky dory within these early communities. Members shared all their possessions (except when they didn’t, in which case they were annihilated on the spot) and lived in perfect harmony together, worshipping Jesus and experiencing miracles on a daily basis.

According to Acts, that is. According to Paul, by the time he came to be involved, it was all very different. Many of the early ‘churches’ were characterised by squabbling, greed, legal disputes, confusion about doctrine, sleeping around, visiting prostitutes and power struggles (Galatians 5.20; 2 Thessalonians 3.14-15; 1 Corinthians 1.10, 4.21; 1 Corinthians 6.1-10; 1 Corinthians 6.12-20; Galatians 1.6-9; 1 Corinthians 5.9-13 etc.) Worse still, there were defections by converts who came to their senses and left the cult.

How can this be when, according to Paul these people were inhabited by God’s holy spirit and saved once and for all by the redeeming blood of Jesus? Just as today, early believers, including Paul, had a hard time explaining how a person could be once saved and then lose their faith. They came up with various excuses how this could happen:

Excuse #1. Apostates were never really been saved: they were faking it in some way, their faith hadn’t been deep enough or Satan had snatched it away from them. One enterprising and influential cult member even came up with the sneaky idea of putting these explanations into the mouth of Jesus (because of course he would have foreseen the problem.) So arose the parable of the sower. According to Mark 4.1-20, the ‘word’ doesn’t always ‘take’. It might seem as if it has but sometimes it is uprooted by the cares of this world. Alternatively, it falls on stony ground and really doesn’t stand a chance of growing. Or Dick Dastardly Satan intervenes and destroys the faith of those who once believed. As a cultist called John later put it,

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us… (1 John 2.19)

Which really says nothing: ‘they left, so really they weren’t part of our gang to begin with.’ A brilliant bit of exposition.

Excuse #2. Apostates are still saved. In direct contradiction of the parable of the sower, some Christians invented a different way of accounting for those who had ‘fallen away’: the ‘once saved always saved’ argument, based on a few cherry-picked bible verses. Despite appearances, those who’ve left the faith are nonetheless still savedThe ‘reasoning’ is that because salvation is a work of God, it cannot be undone, no matter how much one refutes the faith, or provides reasons for leaving it or demonstrates the untruthfulness at the heart of it. Salvation is like a tattoo you regret getting but with which you’re stuck for the rest of your existence. (Except not really, for a whole host of reasons but principally because there’s no God to work the magic in the first place.) This line of reasoning runs entirely contrary to the acknowledgement in the parable of the sower that there are always those who will leave the faith.

Excuse #3. Apostates have been hurt by the church and as result have abandoned the faith (but Jesus is waiting for them to return!) While I don’t know anyone who has renounced Christianity for this reason alone, it does play a small part in some defections. Why? Because self-serving and vindictive Christians are evidence that Christianity simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t make ‘new creations’, infusing people with a holy spirit that makes them better people. Believers, despite their claims, are no more moral than those who are unsaved. You’ll know this if you’ve been on the receiving end of Christian judgment or condemnation. When Christians themselves undermine the claims of their religion it creates a justifiable scepticism in one-time brothers and sisters.

Excuse #4. Apostates just want to wallow in sin. Back to the parable of the sower for this one: ‘Satan has ensnared you into life of sin and debauchery and you have abandoned the one true way’. I have to say this is not true of any ex-Christians I know.  They’ve dispensed with the wholly religious idea of ‘sin’, and now live their lives as authentically as they can, looking after their loved ones and helping others where possible. Then again, so what if people want to wallow a little bit?   

The one reason that causes others to leave the fold that is never recognised by Christians is the gospel itself. No sir. That some people are able to see how irrational, contrived and downright untrue it is, is not a possibility Christians are willing to entertain. Jesus himself, however, seems to recognise that some people are just too intelligent to go along with it:

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children (Matthew 11.25).

Even he knew – or, far more likely, the sect that put these words into his mouth – that for anyone capable of a modicum of critical thinking (‘the learned and the wise’), the cult’s claims simply don’t stand up to inspection.

What are the Odds?

To look at it another way…

The stories of the Old Testament are largely fictional. They’re myth, legend and otherwise fabricated. There was no Eden, no world-wide flood, no slavery in Egypt, no Exodus. There’s no evidence that the characters around which events supposedly took place actually existed: no Noah, Abraham, Moses, Job, Jonah or Daniel. Their stories were created long after the time they purportedly lived; centuries later. The stories written about kings – which, if they existed, were no more than half-remembered tribal chiefs – and the so-called great prophets are constructed from folktales. In short, nothing we read in the Old Testament actually happened.

When we get to the New Testament, we find convoluted exposition of Paul’s ‘revelations’ about Jesus; visions and imagined sightings of a celestial being he had in his own head. It’s the same for the fruitcake writer of Revelation who envisaged an unreal comic book Jesus; invention every bit of it. The Acts of the Apostles offers a fanciful and wholly inaccurate ‘history’ of the early church, including angels, teleportation and fatal miracles. Of the 21 letters in the New Testament, at least 11 are forgeries, known to have been written by anonymous authors who were not who they claimed to be. The other 10, including Paul’s genuine letters and the likes of Hebrews, make up all sorts of mystical stuff about an angelic Godman-cum-high priest.

 And yet, in the midst of these myths and legends, made-up characters and stories, forgeries and fantasies and mystical musings stands the indisputable truth of the gospels. Or so Christians and theologians would have us believe. These particular stories, surrounded as they are by fiction on all sides are historical, factual and true.

What are the odds?

Will the real Jesus please stand up? (part 2)

What evidence is there in the Bible that Jesus really existed? Let’s take a look*:

Paul’s Christ – imaginary (only in his head)

The crucifixion – invented (structured around and based on selected parts of the Old Testament. These aren’t prophecies of his death, they’re used as the template for people writing centuries later)

The Resurrection stories – made up (following various visions and ‘revelations’. The stories themselves are not in Paul or Mark; they’re made up later)

The empty tomb – imaginary (added to bolster resurrection stories. Unknown to Paul)

Miracles – made up (not in Mark where Jesus flatly refuses to perform them. Later miracles all have symbolic meaning. They are symbolic)

Nativity stories – make-believe (the two accounts in Matthew and Luke conflict and have all the properties of myth)

Jesus’ ‘I Am’ statements – invented (only in John: missing entirely from the other gospels. How did they miss them?)

Sermon on the Mount – made up by Matthew (not in Mark but suddenly in Matthew where it is clearly a literary construct)

Jesus’ teaching – invented (next to none of it is original, based as it is on Paul’s teaching, Old Testament ‘wisdom’ and what the gospel writers needed him to say to fit their agendas)

Cult rules – made up (by members of the early cult church)

The Beloved Disciple/Lazarus and Nicodemus – imaginary (not in the other three gospels. How could they not know about Jesus’ most impressive miracle, the raising of Lazarus?)

The woman caught in adultery – invented (a very late addition to the fourth gospel; possibly as late as 350CE)

The Ascension – make-believe (I mean, really?)

Paul’s adventures in Acts – made up (largely incompatible with what Paul himself relates)

Revelation – total lunacy (made up in its entirety: Jesus didn’t say any of the things attributed to him there: he didn’t dictate letters to churches, isn’t a cosmic warlord, hasn’t brought a celestial city to the Earth, etc, etc)

Satan, demons, angels, spirits, powers and principalities – imagined (all non-existent)

Old Testament tales – made up (Creation, Adam & Eve, Tower of Babel, Noah, the Exodus, Job, Jonah, Daniel. Too many to list)

Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, James, Jude, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus – forgeries

Jesus – imaginary? It makes you wonder. So much is demonstrably made up about him. If he did exist, he has been buried under layers of make-believe, myth and other fiction; a grave from which he will never rise.

To be continued…

* Examples derived from my own considerations, Richard Carrier’s On The Historicity of Jesus, Bart D. Ehrman’s Forged and Did Jesus Exist?, Michael J. Alter’s The Resurrection, Barrie Wilson’s How Jesus Became Christian &  Freke and Gandy’s The Jesus Mysteries, amongst others.

 

In which Paul takes a trip to the third heaven

Blog408

In the New Testament, there are:

8 or more supernatural ‘visions’;

18 or so ‘appearances’ of angels;

about 6 significant dreams, through which God talks to people;

a dozen apparitions of dead people and

at least 3 significant ‘revelations’, in which individuals sense God in their heads (Paul, Jesus and John of Patmos).

The man who is largely responsible for Christianity as we know it, Paul, alludes only briefly to his magical conversion to the faith, describing it as ‘in’ his head in Galatians 1.16. It’s up to the writer of Acts to elaborate and embroider this non-event. Paul does, however, give rather more detail about another hallucination he has, in 2 Corinthians 12.1-4. To avoid boasting, he says boastfully, he refers to himself in the third person:

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to gain, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of it I do not know, but God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or out of it I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to Paradise. The things he heard were too sacred for words, things that man is not permitted to tell.

This is evidently a psychotic episode; seeing things that are not there, experiencing events that are not happening. Paul himself admits he doesn’t know whether it was a real experience, nor does he know if he was in his body or not (definitely in it, just out of his mind.) He heard, he says, things he can’t possibly repeat, which makes you wonder why he bothers mentioning the whole bizarre episode in the first place: ‘I had this fantastic experience, unlike anything I’ve experienced before – but I can’t tell you a thing about it.’ It sounds like a dream he’s having trouble remembering or, like, man, a really freaky hallucinogenic trip.

From psychotic episodes like this – his conversion is another one – Paul spins his entire theology. Yes, the faith of Christians everywhere is founded on the hallucinations of a first century nutcase visionary.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve better things to do with my life than base it on the dreams and visions of a psychotic who lived 2000 years ago.

 

 

Young men’s visions, old men’s dreams

Stephen4

In Acts 2.17, Luke (mis)quotes a prophecy from Joel 2.28:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.

I was always taught that the Acts version was a prophecy in its own right, predicting what would happen in the very last days before Jesus returned, some time in the future (his future, though maybe not ours.) But it isn’t. Luke, or whoever wrote Acts, is claiming the fulfilment of the prophecy in his own time. He’s not saying,’ this is what will happen at some point in the next few millennia.’ He’s declaring – or he’s making Peter declare – ‘this is what’s happening right now.’ Luke, like all members of the cult in its early days, believed the last days had arrived; God was about to impose his Kingdom on the Earth, in a display of power and glory (Luke 21.27).

The dreams and visions of which Luke speaks were, he believed, happening then, as he was writing. To prove it, he relates numerous dreams and visions in Acts; Stephen’s vision of God and Jesus; Paul’s ‘sighting’ of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and Peter’s encounter with, erm… a table-cloth to name only a few. Elsewhere, Paul himself refers obliquely the innervision that led to his conversion (Galatians 1.16) and recounts his ‘visit’ to ‘the third heaven’ (2 Corinthians 12.2); he’s kind of embarrassed about this one though – as well he might be – and relates it in the third person.

Luke knows that the new cult is built on dreams and visions. He believes such hallucinations are genuine revelations from God himself. Moreover, Luke tells his readers explicitly and directly in Acts 2.17 that such visions and dreams were how the cult’s founders experienced the risen Jesus. How do we know this is what he means? Because he puts the quotation about young men having visions and old men dreaming dreams into the mouth of Peter. That’s the disciple Peter whom the gospels tell us was one of the first to experience the risen lord. Luke has Peter reveal the nature of that experience. ‘This is how it was for me,’ he confesses. ‘I had a god-given vision, just as the scriptures promise.’

Luke is proud of the fact that the new faith is based on young men’s visions and old men’s dreams. Proud enough to include it in Acts 2.17 and proud enough to make Peter of all people declare it. Christianity owes its existence to these hallucinations and delusions, nothing more.

 

The Sect Hiding in Plain Sight

Condemning-Pharisees

With thanks to David Eves.

Back at the start of Christianity, the cult was divided into numerous factions; not unlike its modern counterpart. Acts’ claim that all the new converts – the church – got on famously, sharing all they had and generally taking part in one big love-in is spin, a lie concocted by its author, ‘Luke’. Its not the only lie he invents; later in Acts he tries to present the new faith’s ambassadors, Paul and the original apostles, as being largely in agreement about what the Christian message was about. We know from Paul’s own writing that this wasn’t so.

Likewise the united church. We know that there was part of the cult that had a very different theology and soteriology (doctrine of salvation) from Paul. They didn’t subscribe to his incantational magic about a dying god-man who would save them if they claimed his death for themselves. Instead, this group believed that the way to find favour with God was to be ‘righteous’, by doing good works and generally expending oneself on others. Its members promoted, and probably practised, a yin and yang measure-for-measure philosophy: God would show forgiveness, mercy and compassion, they said, only to the same extent that a believer demonstrated them him or herself. Because they believed Jesus had commanded it and God favoured it, they denounced wealth and advocated a self-deprecating way of life. They were predominantly Jewish. They believed Jewish Law was still valid and should still be followed by cult members. They were, however, hostile towards those who, unable to see any value in the new cult, remained within Judaism. The sect invented anachronistic stories about Jesus sparring with the Jewish leaders of their time, half a century or more after Jesus died.

Though it is unlikely any of members of this sect had ever encountered Jesus in person, they believed he was going to return to the Earth while they were still alive in order to judge humankind. Naturally he would vindicate them while condemning all others, particularly the rich and powerful. He would do this because they were the ones who were doing as he commanded – helping the sick, the hungry and the homeless – which would ensure the returning Lord would look on them favourably. None of them had seen the resurrected Jesus but nevertheless they valued the stories they heard about those who supposedly had, and they promoted these stories themselves.

How do we know this? Because this particular sect left behind a record of their beliefs. They imbued them with authority by putting them into the mouth of a preacher who had lived more than fifty years earlier. Who knows, maybe he did say such things. The sect either believed that Jesus had actually contradicted Paul’s notion that the Jewish Law was no longer valid or they felt it necessary to to make Jesus say so themselves. Likewise, they rejected the magical mysticism preached by Paul that was beginning to take hold in those early days. The group’s beliefs were radically different and their writing specifically designed to counteract ideas they opposed with a passion.

Where will you find this group’s writings? In the bible, at the very start of the New Testament in the book called ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’; this book is their writing, give or take the odd bit of tampering from later on. Matthew’s gospel details the sect’s beliefs about Jesus, their measure-for-measure morality, their recipe for righteousness and their beliefs about salvation and the coming judgement.* So different are these from Paul’s ideas that the gospel can only have been created to counteract his doctrines. The community that produced Matthew had no truck either with Paul’s theology or his soteriology.

Read Matthew for yourself and see how much it is at odds with Paul. The discrepancy is there for all to see, yet Christians have always convinced themselves, if they’ve thought about it at all, that not only is Matthew’s gospel compatible with the mumbo-jumbo that follows it, but that its ‘good news’ and Paul’s are identical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

* I’m happy to provide chapter and verse from Matthew’s gospel to support all I say about it.

Christianity: a failure from the very beginning

Celia5

Christianity just doesn’t deliver. Jesus doesn’t deliver. None of his promises that I outlined last time have ever produced the goods. Not surprising really when he’s been dead for the past two millennia. He’s no more likely to deliver than anyone else who’s been regarded as a god by misguided devotees (and there’s plenty of them).

Yet for those 2000 years Christians have insisted that he does, even when there isn’t a scrap of evidence he’s listened to a single word they’ve said, answered even one of their prayers, enabled them to heal the sick or helped them move mountains – any of the stuff he promised he’d do. So why do they insist he really does? Partly because many of them haven’t a clue that he even said these things. Discussing their faith with Christians online, they often tell me that Jesus never said, for example, that God would give them whatever they ask for or would make their lives better or give them the ability to do miracles greater than Jesus did himself (which of course he does, in Mark 11.24, Matthew 11.28 and John 14.12-14 respectively). In short, they are ignorant of what the bible actually says and all the preposterous magical promises it makes.

Those who do know of its promises have a range of excuses for why they never happen; they were only meant for the early church; today’s believers don’t have enough faith; they were only ever intended metaphorically; God is currently withholding his good will (usually because Christians are too tolerant of everyone else’s ‘sin’). The fact is the promises of Christianity have never delivered.

I’ve been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s The Triumph Of Christianity, where, for entirely different reasons, he lists the problems that beset the church in Corinth (p291) that Paul addresses in his first letter to them. Here’s a summary:

Serious divisions within the church, with different members following different leaders (1 Corinthians 1.12)

Various forms of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5)

Men in the church visiting prostitutes and bragging about it (1 Corinthians 6)

Other men under the impression they shouldn’t have sex at all, not even with their wives (1 Corinthians 7)

Fractious arguments about whether Christians should eat meat from animals sacrificed to pagan gods (1 Corinthians 8 & 10)

Some women attending meetings without their heads covered (1 Corinthians 11)

The wealthy greedily eating the shared meals and leaving none for the less well-off (1 Corinthians 11)

Worship that was chaotic because those speaking in tongues were trying to show spiritual one-upmanship (1 Corinthians 12-14)

Members not using their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the community (1 Corinthians 12 & 13)

Some claiming they had already experienced ‘resurrection’ and so were more ‘saved’ than others (1 Corinthians 15)

Apart from one or two specifics, this could be the church of the 21st century! Paul, though, wrote his letter to the relatively small group of believers in Corinth around 54-55CE, a mere twenty or so years after Jesus’ death. Already by then, Christian communities were overcome with problems. There’s no indication they were experiencing the miracles Jesus promised, nor were they behaving like the ‘new creatures’ Paul’s says the Holy Spirit makes of believers:

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5.17)

The behaviour of the Christians at Corinth was, by any standard, appalling; they seem to have no more understanding of morality, no more sense of charity, no more demonstration of brotherly love than the ‘heathens’ around them. And yet they were new creatures ‘in Christ’, believers in Jesus, vessels of the Holy Spirit. With all this supernatural support they really should have been doing better – much better – than they were.

I’ve often wondered why Paul didn’t just give up at this point, especially when other churches he wrote to had similar problems. Any rational person would have looked at how these new converts were behaving and would have concluded that the new religion simply wasn’t working. The promises Jesus made (if Paul was even aware of them) and the changes he himself said accompanied conversion simply weren’t happening. None of them had materialised, even at this early stage.

But instead, Paul soldiered doggedly on. He travelled far and wide drawing others into the cult and then had to write to them too, to tell them how to behave and what faith in his Christ actually entailed (see his letter to the Galatians, for example, and that to the church at Philippi). Didn’t Paul ask himself where the Holy Spirit was in all this? Where was the guidance and supernatural assistance promised by Jesus? Despite the airbrushed version of the early church presented in Acts, Paul’s letters tell us what it was really like: a complete disaster.

And so it continued. As Ehrman shows, people converted to Christianity in part because of its promises that believers would avoid hell and live forever in heaven instead. Many convert for the same reason today. With the zero success rate of all of its other promises, it’s not difficult to predict how Christianity’s assurances of eternal life are going to pan out.