You too can be free

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One of the most liberating aspects of jettisoning Christianity was the realisation that nothing I did had cosmic significance. Nothing anybody does has cosmic significance. Yet to hear the cult’s leaders and spokesman talk, now as then, everything matters.

First and foremost, what you believe determines whether you lived forever in Heaven or not. Can you credit that: what you believe. So better get that doctrine sorted out! Right thought makes all the difference. You only have to read a few Christian blogs to realise how important this still is. Believe something only minimally unorthodox and your eternal life is in jeopardy. Not only that, but what you think in the privacy of your own head about issues like abortion, homosexuality, politics and society is subject to the Lord’s scrutiny. Better get it right – ‘Right’ being the operative term. It means recognising that Trump is God’s Chosen One because the Almighty is really only interested in the USA. He has much less time for other nations, except maybe Israel, so better get your thinking straight on that score, buddy.

God is, or so his self-appointed mouthpieces like to tell you, obsessively interested in how you, as an individual, spend your time, the language you used and whether you’re a faithful steward of the money he supplies (that’s the money you work hard for yourself). He lays it on your heart about how you should spend your time, the only valuable way being in the service of his Kingdom-that-never-comes. You’re made to feel that if your marriage isn’t close to perfection then you’re not really working at it (though god knows the biblical view of marriage is nothing like the one promoted by today’s Christian leaders). You’re made to feel you must share the gospel with everyone else you have relationships with: children, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, complete strangers. Don’t they too deserve to have a chance at eternal life? You don’t want them denied it because you failed to speak up, do you? Well, do you?

And then there’s the guilt when you can’t do all of this. You’re not sure you believe all the right stuff. You think you do but then you’re told about some point of doctrine you hadn’t considered and it is, apparently, really essential you do. So you consult the Holy Spirit who you think lives in your heart and you wonder why he hasn’t spoken up before now. Maybe you have liberal views about abortion. And really, you can’t find it in yourself to condemn all those ‘sodomites’ you’re told about; what difference does it make if you do or don’t? And your marriage is less then perfect. In fact, it’s a little bit messy, like human relationships tend to be, and sometimes you want just to relax, maybe laze a little bit. Not everything you do has to contribute to the Kingdom, after all.

But the guilt won’t let you. What kind of Christian are you, anyway? And as for witnessing at every opportunity, you wonder why you feel like a dog that’s compelled to pee at every lamp-post. Can’t friends just be friends? Can’t you just appreciate others for who they are, not as sinners who need saving? Apparently not.

What a wonderful release it is then, when you finally realise that none of this crap matters. Nothing you do, say or think makes the slightest bit of difference to whether you or others live forever (Spoiler: you won’t, they won’t.) How you act may help others feel a bit better about themselves or provide you with a sense of fulfilment but that’s the extent of it. Outside your immediate context, you’re insignificant, and there’s great significance to that. The pressure is off; God is not watching you to see whether you’re a good and faithful servant. Your time, money and thoughts are yours and yours alone. It’s entirely up to you how you use them, free from the tyranny of religion.

 

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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.

What if… the resurrection really happened?

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The Christian faith rests entirely on the resurrection of Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15.17 & 19:

…If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Of course neither Jesus nor Paul’s invention, the Christ, were raised from the dead; those encounters with him, described in the gospels are, like Paul’s, visions and sensations of his presence (later ‘the Holy Spirit’) embroidered in the 40 or more years between when they occurred and when they were recorded.

Let’s though, suppose that Jesus really did rise from the dead and work backwards from there. What difference did it make? More specifically, what does the bible say were the results and consequences of Jesus being raised?

The Coming of the Kingdom

According to the New Testament (Matthew 25.34; Romans 15.12; Revelation 20.4-6), the resurrection was a clear sign that Yahweh’s Kingdom was finally arriving on Earth.

Was God’s wonderful reign established here on Earth back in the first century? Were all wrongs righted, the social order inverted, and war and suffering abolished (Mark 10.31; Matt 5.2-11; Rev 21.4)? New Testament writers believed that following the resurrection, all of this would be happening –

in reality, none of it happened; not then and not since.

The Resurrection of the Dead

Did Jesus’ resurrection result in even more people rising from the dead? Paul said it would; he said Jesus was the ‘first fruits’, meaning the first of many, with others following him in being raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15.20-21). Has any ordinary person – anybody at all – ever returned from the dead, long after they passed away? Not one; never mind the hundreds or thousands Paul and other early cultists had in mind. No Pope, no shining example of Christian piety, no activist or worker in the Lord’s vineyard has ever been resurrected during Christianity’s entire history. The dead have always remained stubbornly dead.

So no, this didn’t happen either.

After-life in Heaven

Did the resurrection result in people going to heaven after they died? This seems to be the view held by many Christians today. Unfortunately, it is not what the New Testament offers. Its writers believed that the Kingdom of Heaven would be coming to Earth in their very near future, not that ordinary mortals would invade God’s home post-mortem. Granted there are traces of this view emerging in the later books of the New Testament (given the failure of earlier predictions about the Kingdom coming to the Earth), but it is not what the founders of Christianity believed and hoped for.

In any case, who has ever died, again from the billions who have lived, and gone to heaven? No-one. Predictably, Christians now say that this transition won’t happen until the final judgement, scheduled for some unspecified time in the future (looks like God is as limited by time as we are.) That’s Christianity for you: always winter but never Christmas, everything in an ever-distant future.

No-one has gone to heaven as a result of the resurrection and no-one ever will.

New Creatures

Did the resurrection result in those who believed becoming ‘new creatures’? Paul said it would (2 Corinthians 5.17). He also said members of the new cult would be loving, forgiving and non-judgemental (1 Cor 5.12 & 13.14). There’s no evidence, from his letters, that they were, nor is there evidence from the long and often cruel history of the church. Christians today don’t always radiate loving-kindness either. Those who are caring and gentle before they become Christians remain so; those who are self-gratifying, vindictive or exploitative find a new context in which to be so. As I’ve said before, religion is like excess alcohol; it exaggerates the essential characteristics of a person, for good or for bad.

What it doesn’t do is make shiny ‘new creatures’.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Perhaps that nothing went to plan in post-resurrection Christianity. The promised results all failed to materialise. If the effects of the resurrection were and are not what they should have been, what does this say about their supposed cause?

If a storm is forecast and yet, when the time comes, there is no rain, wind or damage, wouldn’t we say that there was no storm?

If a woman said she was pregnant but during the ensuing nine months there was no physical evidence of pregnancy and ultimately no baby, wouldn’t we say she wasn’t pregnant at all?

If God’s Kingdom on Earth, brand new creatures, the resurrection of ordinary believers, the final judgement and eternal life in heaven failed to materialise, wouldn’t we say there can have been no resurrection? The supposed causal event of all these non-effects really can’t have happened. Jesus died and like all dead people stayed dead. The visions, dreams and imaginings of his early followers gave rise to a cult in his name, one that, ultimately failed on all levels to deliver what it promised.

There was no resurrection.

 

Christianity: a failure from the very beginning

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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.

God’s Election

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As we saw in the previous post, the Bible tells us that God chose his ‘Elect’* before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1.4-6). Which begs the questions –

1: On what basis did God select the favoured few untold aeons before they were born? Did he decide by looking at their dress sense, as Jesus’ parable in Matthew 22.1-14 suggests? I guess it must be, given the Bible is the ‘literal’ word of God.

Or did God assess ahead of time just how righteous his Chosen would turn out to be? In Matthew 25.31-46 Jesus says righteousness is the yard stick (though naturally Christians don’t believe him because Paul says something different).

Or did God decide in advance – Paul says he ‘foreknew’ – who would repent and turn to Jesus, free-will be damned? Maybe, but then Jesus suggests that not everyone who does even this will make it into God’s Kingdom (Matthew 22.1-14).

What a bummer! Looks like God’s decision is/was purely arbitrary. You make it, or not, on the whim of a capricious monster.

2: What’s the point of evangelism? If God chose who was going to have eternal life/enter the Kingdom/live in Heaven before the creation of the world, then there can be absolutely no need for anyone to tell anyone else about Jesus, sin and salvation. Why? Because it makes no difference; God’s Chosen will remain his Chosen, as they were long before they were born, and he’ll be sure to rescue them once they die. Those who haven’t been pre-selected will stay lost and will go to Hell whether or not they’ve heard or responded to the gospel.

‘But how will the unsaved Chosen hear the message if we don’t tell them?’ ask our zealous evangelical friends, still not getting the point. Jesus, lads! The Chosen don’t need to hear the gospel: God – has – already – chosen – them. They will go to Heaven, live in the Kingdom or whatever, regardless of your efforts. You and your evangelism are superfluous.

3: How can you be sure, if you’re a Christian, that you’re of the ‘Elect’ and so destined for Eternal Life? Yes, you’ve chosen Jesus – but has he chosen you? How can you know? Your own sense of righteousness, your faith, self-sacrifice and adherence to sound doctrine (whatever that is) are no guide to whether or not you’ve made the grade. Only God knows that, and he’s not telling.

Not yet, anyway, so you’d best make sure you’re buried in your very best clothes, just in case.

* Jesus is made to call the chosen few ‘the Elect’ in Matt 24.22, 24 & 31; Mark 13.20, 22 & 27 and Luke 18.7.

Jesus or Paul?

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Jesus is asked a few times in the gospels about how a person can find eternal life – like that’s the most obvious things to ask a travelling snake-oil salesman. Maybe it is, I don’t know. It was in the first century anyway, if the gospels are to be believed.

Jesus gives a variety of answers in the three earliest gospels: in Matthew 19.17 it’s ‘keep the commandments’ – those terrible, brutal laws I talked about last time. In Mark 12.30-31 he says the way to eternal life is to love God with all your heart and soul, and your neighbour as yourself. In other places he tells his audience that if you want to be forgiven by God then first you must forgive others (Matthew 6.14); if you want God’s compassion then first you must be compassionate (Matthew 25:31-46); if you don’t want to be judged, then you shouldn’t judge others (Luke 6.37).

Jesus is particularly fond of this kind of measure-for-measure salvation; it’s the lynch-pin of his good news – do unto others as you would have God do unto you. And almost every time he mentions it, he connects it with the Law and commandments.

Never does he say, anywhere in the gospels, that if you want to gain eternal life, or find favour with God, or be saved, then what you have to do is believe in the redemptive power of his own imminent death. Even when he could have done so, when he could have worked a little bit of Christian dogma into his teaching, he doesn’t. And that’s strange really, when you consider that Paul’s brand of Christianity – the one that’s come down to us today – is built entirely on the idea that the death and resurrection of Christ is the only thing can save us from God’s wrath.

Paul’s alternative gospel, which is expounded in Romans and summarised in Galatians 3.10-13, goes something like this:

Paul looks at the old Jewish Law and says, ‘actually it’s impossible. None of us can keep it. We’re all under a death sentence for some tiny infringement of it, because any and all infringements lead to the death penalty. But,’ he goes on, ‘Christ has taken that penalty for us by dying in our place. So although the law demands we should die and then suffer for eternity, we won’t, because he died for us. Then he rose again, just as those who believe in him will.’ That last bit – about believers rising from the dead – really doesn’t follow from his premise that the Law is impossible, but this is Paul talking, a man with only a passing acquaintance with logic. He doesn’t, either, have any evidence that Jesus took the penalty for the rest of humankind – he made that bit up too.

And that, in a nutshell – I do mean nut shell – is Paul’s ‘good news’. It bears no relation to the good news that Jesus preaches in the synoptic gospels. Admittedly, the Jesus who wanders his way through the first three gospels is for the most part a pre-death Jesus. You could argue, as a result, that he wouldn’t talk about redemption through his death before it had happened… but then again, why not? He talks about all sorts of other things he thinks are going to happen after he dies and rises again; he’s going to return pretty damn soon in a blaze of glory, through the clouds with an army of angels; heaven and earth are going to pass away; God is going to unleash his kingdom on the new earth.

But in spite of these mad speculations, he doesn’t mention even once in the synoptic gospels that people can be saved merely by accepting that he has paid – or will pay – the penalty for their infringements of the law, their sins if you will. Never. All the more odd when you consider that Mark, Matthew and Luke were putting their gospels together long after Paul preached his particular brand of salvation. Yet they don’t put this message into Jesus’ mouth, nor do they add it to the narrative.

It’s just not there.

So… were the gospel writers not aware of it? If they did know of it, was it that they didn’t like it? Did they know, in fact, that Paul’s formula didn’t square with what Jesus himself had said, or what they at least believed he’d said?

Whatever it was, the result is there are two conflicting versions of the ‘good news’ in the New Testament: Paul’s and Jesus’. One is easier than the other; in Paul’s plan all you have to do is believe. The other is difficult (and if we’re honest, really only designed for Jesus’ fellow Jews); it entails things like forgiving repeatedly, showing compassion, putting others first, turning the other cheek and, especially, following the six hundred and odd commandments that make up the Law.

So guess which one Christians today prefer.

Here’s a clue: it’s not Jesus’ gospel – the one without the magical incantation but with the barbaric Jewish law. But if, as Christians believe, Jesus was the Son of God – maybe even God himself – then why do they always accept Paul’s reinterpretation over and above everything their Lord said? Why do they disregard all that Jesus demands of those who would follow him, and take instead Paul’s easy path?

In the end, though, what Jesus and Paul (as well as the gospel writers and different factions of the early church) are in dispute about is the highly improbable and the absolutely impossible. It doesn’t matter whether they thought you could gain ‘eternal life’ by obeying the commandments or by letting someone else take your punishment for you; humans do not live forever. Just because a zealous first-century preacher thought they could does not make it so. Just because a different fanatic from roughly the same time believed it doesn’t make it happen either. There’s no evidence any human has ever, after this brief earthly existence, gone on to live forever. Equally, there’s no evidence that a deity exists, so those rules that are so important, in different ways, to Jesus and Paul can’t have originated with him. They’re man-made too.

So, with no God and no eternal life, Jesus and Paul might as well have been discussing whether the tooth fairy wears a pink dress or a green dress. What does it matter when she doesn’t exist?

How much more were they wrong about?

How long you got?