Warning: May Contain Nuts

You ever meet a guy who says –

The world is under the power of evil supernatural beings.1

These supernatural beings once caused the death of a Godman. 2

This Godman had the last laugh because he came back to life.3

He, this guy, has actually seen the risen Godman! In his head.4

He’s visited part of Heaven, though maybe this was all in his head too.5

Those who align themselves with the risen Godman will also be resurrected (he’s not clear how this works. It just does).6

The Godman will be coming down from Heaven soon (‘soon’ as in the first century).7

Everyone who believes in the Godman will then levitate into the sky to meet him (yes, really!)8

People who die before this happens won’t miss out. Like everyone else, they’ll get a brand new body – a spiritual one!9

This guy has no idea what this spiritual body will be like (so don’t ask)10

The Godman will set up a magic Kingdom on Earth and those who’ve aligned themselves with him will live in it forever.11

People this guy doesn’t like won’t.12

If you were to encounter someone who said these things today, you’d quite rightly decide they weren’t right in the head and you’d give them a wide berth. Of course there’d be those who wouldn’t; gullible individuals who are unable to tell the difference between fantasy and profundity (like those duped by cult founders such as Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, Jim Jones, David Koresh, L. Ron Hubbard and hundreds of others.) This is precisely what happened when this particular collection of absurdist claims first circulated, for these form the core of Christian belief, as devised by arch-fantasist Paul. Whether they’re aware of it or not, today’s Christians subscribe to this nonsense.

This is what Paul teaches.

This is what the Bible says.

This is what faith entails.

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1 1 Corinthians 2. 6-10

2 1 Corinthians 2.8

3 Colossians 2.15

4 Galatians 1.11-12

5 2 Corinthians 12.1-4

6 1 Corinthians 20-23

7 1 Thessalonians 4.15-16

8 1 Thessalonians 4.17

9 1 Corinthians 15. 42-44

10 1 Corinthians 15.35-37

11 Colossians 1.13

12 1 Corinthians 6.9-10

The Ten Rules of Cult Club

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Which cult?        

        Any.

            All of them.

Let’s call this one The Brotherhood of the Lord.

Rule 1. Give your heart and soul to the Brotherhood.

Rule 2. Separate yourself from you family. They’ll just be a drag on you. They won’t understand you’ve found the Truth.

Rule 3. Treat other Brothers and Sisters as your family instead. Put them first.

Rule 4. Be prepared to die for your Brotherhood family. It’s not too much to ask.

Rule 5. Renounce your ego! You can’t enter fully into Truth until you let go of self.

Rule 6. Don’t criticise your brothers and sisters, specially not the leadership. The leaders know better than you; you are mere sheep and little children.

Rule 7. Sell everything you own; you won’t need it now. Give what you make to the poorest members of the group.

Rule 8. Listen to your leaders. They will tell you secrets about life that no-one outside the Brotherhood can possibly understand.

Rule 9. Don’t stop believing: if you’re obedient to the cult, your sins will be forgiven and you will live forever.

Rule 10. Be prepared: God is coming real soon to rescue you from this wicked world and elevate you to a place of glory

Or, as Jesus put it:

Rule 1. Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14.33). No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9.62).

Rule 2. If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14.26).

Rule 3. Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Behold my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12.48-50).

Rule 4. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15.13).

Rule 5. If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Luke 9.23).

Rule 6. Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven (Luke 6.37). Anyone who is angry with his brother without a cause will be subject to punishment. And whoever says to his brother ‘Raka!’ will be subject to the Council. And whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hell fire (Matthew 5.22). Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18.3).

Rule 7. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me (Mark 10.21).

Rule 8. This is why I speak to the crowds in parables: although they see, they don’t really see; and although they hear, they don’t really hear or understand (Matthew 13.13)

Rule 9. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give them eternal life; and they shall never perish (John 10.27-28)

Rule 10. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 23.12). I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. (John 11.25-26).

Two questions:

1. How many Christians today do all the things demanded by Jesus?

2. Who decided he said these things? Did Jesus say them – or was it the cult that arose in his name who put them retrospectively in his mouth?

Next time…

The many and varied, Spirit-inspired interpretations of the Kingdom of God

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For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16.27–28).

Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24.34)

See also Matthew 24.27, 30-31; Luke 21:27-28, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 15.51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17; 1 John 2:17-181; Peter 4.7

The Kingdom of God. What does it look like? When will it happen? Has it happened? You’d think that with the Kingdom of God being a central part of Jesus’ teaching, the central part, in fact – his ‘good news’ is about nothing else – that these would be questions Christians would find easy to answer.

They don’t. The Holy Spirit inspires a variety of incompatible responses from the faithful to the what, when and where questions. The most popular is, of course, that the Kingdom of God equates with Heaven: the saved are all going to heaven when they die. Post-mortem bliss, most Christians would tell you, is what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. After all, doesn’t Matthew refer to the Kingdom as the Kingdom of Heaven? Yes… but no: an after-life in Heaven is not what Jesus and his scriptwriters meant by the Kingdom. If it was, they would have said so, rather than promising, as they do, that God’s Kingdom was coming to the Earth real soon.*

So, when Jesus says the kingdom is just around the corner, which he does repeatedly in the synoptic gospels, he can’t have meant Heaven. Let’s try another favourite: Jesus meant that God’s Kingdom on Earth would manifest itself thousands of years in the future – in our time, no less. It’s all to do, you see, with Jesus’ return and the final judgement. As these have yet to happen then the final part of God’s plan – his reclaiming of his creation – will be in the (far) future too. A neat solution to be sure, but one that runs counter to everything in the gospels and in Paul. Admittedly it’s an idea that was taking shape in 2 Peter (3.8), a forgery written about 150CE, long after it had become apparent the Kingdom was running way behind schedule. However, you won’t find it in the synoptic gospels or the Pauline epistles because it isn’t what Jesus, Paul, the gospel writers or the earliest Chrsitians believed.

Where does this leave Jesus’ devotees today? With a Jesus who didn’t really mean the Kingdom would be manifesting itself in the physical world. This Jesus proclaims the Kingdom as something that exists inside his followers as an internal state of being. It’s true some of his pronouncements appear to fit this interpretation; the Kingdom is within you and all that, but what these statements are about in context is the Kingdom’s immanence at the time; what Jesus was saying was, ‘the Kingdom is arriving now; look at the signs – it’s all around you.’ A gnostic flavoured restructuring of what he actually claimed is yet another Spirit-led interpretation we can dispense with.

Consequently, some Christians accept that, yes, Jesus preached a Kingdom that would dramatically materialise in the real world close to the time he was speaking. That it didn’t in any observable way creates a dilemma: as God Incarnate, perfect and infallible, Jesus can’t have been wrong. This must mean the Kingdom did arrive when he said it would and we are living in it now. The Kingdom, these Covenantists say, is another term for the Christian era; the reign of the church, the Age of the Holy Spirit. We’re living in the Kingdom and have been for two thousand years!

How’s that working out?

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Yes, this looks exactly like the Kingdom of God Jesus promised: An eternity of peace with death and illness banished and the meek having inherited the earth; the social order reversed, God in charge and Jesus and his pals running the show. Or not.

So, however the faithful (re)interpret his words, however much they twist, cherry-pick or just plain ignore them, Jesus was wrong. The Kingdom of God did not arrive on the earth in the first century as he predicted. It’s definitely not here now. It won’t be coming in the future and it doesn’t await in an after-life; these were never the deal. (See my earlier series, Making Excuses for Jesus, for more detail.)

Whatever Christians do, wherever their imaginary Holy Spirit leads them, they end up with implausible and incompatible ways of explaining (away) the non-arrival of the Kingdom of God that Jesus promised. It’s a fallacy, a fantasy, another delusion sustained by the wilfully ignorant.

*John 18.36 does have Jesus say that ‘his’ Kingdom, as it’s become by the time of the fourth gospel, is not of this world. John, however, bears little relation to the other gospels and was written at least 70 years after Jesus lived. In any case, it doesn’t say or mean that common-or-garden believers are going to Heaven when they die.

God: more reasons why not

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The third reason it’s unlikely God exists (see the previous post for the first two) is that he is a mass of contradictions; omnipotent and yet vulnerable to his creation’s ‘sin’. Loving yet unable to stop himself from meting out savage justice. Interventionist yet conspicuously absent when actually needed. Distant and mysterious and yet intimately involved with a select number of humans. Oblivious to the thousands who starve to death each day yet overly concerned with how others dress, spend their money or have sex.

The God of the Bible is everything a badly conceived character in a third-rate novel might be. Not surprising really, when that’s what he is. The all-too-human authors of that most mixed, muddled and deplorable book creating and recreating him in their own image, modifying and evolving him until he is a transparently human creation. He is a product of their misinterpretation of reality, wishful thinking and vindictiveness, human traits he reflects throughout the so-called ‘holy book’ and in his church throughout history.

Four, God is ineffectual in the real world. He demands the love and devotion of his creation and gives next to nothing in return. Warm fuzzy feelings possibly, and a ludicrously nonsensical ‘salvation’ plan that undercuts his supposed omnipotence. That’s it. That’s all he offers. Oh, and eternal life spent as an automaton, forever worshipping him. Nothing in the here and now. Nothing to alleviate poverty, feed the starving, eliminate disease or rescue us from viral pandemics. He doesn’t even do this for those whom have pledged allegiance to him, however much they claim he has or will do. This leaves us with two options: he is either an absolute failure or he doesn’t exist. I conclude the latter.

Five: Jesus. Jesus is the prime evidence there is no God. Not one of the claims Jesus made for God was realised. God doesn’t answer prayer; he doesn’t give whatever is asked of him (Mark 11.24; Matthew 21.22); he didn’t bring his kingdom to the earth in the first century (Luke 9.27; Matthew 24.29-31 & 34); he didn’t set Jesus and his disciples up as rulers of the world (Matthew 19:28). In short, he didn’t do a damn thing his supposed son said he would. Jesus was sadly mistaken, deluded, about his Father. In terms of delivery, Jesus’ God did nothing for him, nor for those, like Paul, who came after him. The New Testament is nothing but testimony to its own failure, its God mere make-believe.

To be continued, again. I mean how many more reasons can there be that demonstrate God is unlikely to exist?

Jesus: best social distancer ever

Jesus is coming back. He’s coming back soon! The Covid-19 pandemic is a sign of the end times and it won’t be long now till Jesus returns to rapture all his buddies!

I know this because a whole load of cranks pastors are telling the world that, once again, the end is nigh. 56% of U.S. pastors polled believe it’ll be real soon with 97% convinced that if not now, then in the near future.

In reality, Jesus is never coming back. He might appear to predict his return in the gospels but he said it would be soon relative to those who were listening to him. True, he didn’t appear to know exactly when it would be because his Father hadn’t deigned to tell him (weren’t he and the Father one?) but he did know it was soon:

Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Matthew 16:28).

Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (Matthew 24:34).

I don’t believe Jesus said this at all. His mission while he was alive was to kick-start God’s kingdom on Earth and to right the wrongs done to his own people, the Jews. He didn’t expect to die when he did (he didn’t predict his death either) but right up the last minute thought God would intervene, rescue him and set him up as King of the world (Matthew 19.28). All of this is preserved in the synoptic gospels.

Once everything had gone disastrously wrong, his followers had to make sense of his premature death. So followed the stories of a resurrection, based on grief-induced visions and fuzzy feelings. Once these faded, his early followers became convinced this wasn’t – couldn’t be – the end of the story. Jesus had to come back to complete his mission. The newly converted Paul thought so too: Jesus’ death wasn’t the end; his resurrection wasn’t the end – it was the beginning; when Jesus came back down from Heaven he would resurrect his followers and the Kingdom of God would arrive. Paul believed this would happen in his own lifetime (1 Thess 4:15-17)

When the gospels came to be written decades later, Jesus himself was made to say much the same thing. Like a 1st century Arnold Schwarzenegger, he promised he’d be back. But Jesus wouldn’t have said this. He had no intention of going away until his mission – to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth – had been completed. Subsequent believers, including the gospel writers, knew with the benefit of hindsight that this mission hadn’t gone to plan. Consequently, they rewrote the plan. Jesus, having risen from the dead (or so they believed) would be returning to complete his mission. They then retrospectively supplied him with foreknowledge not only of his supposed return but of his execution and resurrection too. The predictions of a second coming were put into Jesus’ mouth by later believers; the gospel writers specifically.

They were wrong. Jesus did not return when they hoped, which is hardly surprising for any number of reasons: the dead don’t come back to life; Jesus himself didn’t promise he’d return (neither the first time nor the second); beliefs, however resolutely held, do not create reality.

The Jesus story would now be over and done with if it were not for Paul re-interpreting into something it wasn’t; substitutionary atonement designed for Gentiles as well as Jews. Jesus failed to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth (no surprise there); he didn’t rise from the grave; he’s not coming back. Believing won’t make it so.

Happy Easter y’all.

 

 

Can you be a Christian and… gay?

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No. You can’t. The church regards your gayness, your same-sex attraction, as sinful. If you act on your feelings you are, according to the bible, an abomination. You cannot enter the Kingdom of God if you have sex with someone who’s the same sex as yourself, not even if that’s within a committed, loving relationship:

…do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men (1 Corinthians 6:9)

Paul doesn’t mince his words in Romans 1:25-28 either:

…God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error… God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper…

There’s no getting away from this: the bible is emphatic and unequivocal about how it views homosexuality and those who ‘practise’ it. There’s no ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ here. Gay people are unnatural, degraded, indecent, dishonourable, wicked, unrighteous, sinful and more: this, Paul is clear, is how God sees it too.

Some people, however, want to be both; they’re gay and they also consider themselves to be Christians. They’ve answered the altar call/been born again/baptised into the family of God and have made a commitment to Jesus/God/the church in whatever way their particular ‘fellowship’ teaches they should. Now they’re faced with what to do about their sexuality, when the bible, and in all probability their church too, finds it abhorrent. What to do?

Not all Christians are alike, of course, and not all churches the same. Some, a scattered few, are gay affirming. They say it’s okay for you and your partner to be gay, they still welcome you and see your homosexuality as a cause for celebration: you can, they say, be gay and Christian. To do this, however, they have to find ways around what the bible says about homosexuality. So they argue that the condemnation of the Old Testament is no longer applicable and doesn’t, in any case, refer to committed same-sex relationships. They make the case that Paul is really only referring to temple prostitution and promiscuity, not to loving couples.

If they’re honest, they acknowledge that these are pretty weak arguments and resort instead to ignoring everything the bible says about homosexuality (which is actually very little) and find comfort in the fact Jesus himself doesn’t appear to have mentioned it.

There are several problems with this way of thinking:

  • If you’re going to ignore these parts of the bible, what else can safely be ignored? It’s a slippery slope, brethren, a slippery slope;
  • Dismissing the bible’s grave warnings about same-sex sex, doesn’t mean that they’re not still there;
  • you’re engaging in a form of collective cognitive dissonance in pretending they’ve somehow disappeared or are no longer applicable;
  • You’re out of step with most other branches of Christianity, nearly all of which noisily disapprove of homosexual sex, relationships and even “marriage” (note obligatory scare quotes.)

In any case, gay-affirming churches are few and far between. The chances of living close to one are remote. Chances are, you’re stuck with a common-or-garden church. Chances are it disapproves of you. Chances are it will want you to renounce your sexuality. But there’s good news! If you’ve been saved/washed in the blood of the lamb/baptised, it’s easy. Your sins are forgiven and you are a new creature: God/Christ/the Holy Spirit will free you from the shackles of same-sex attraction. Here’s how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 6:10-11:

And such were some of you (idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, that is). But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

So that’s it then. You can’t be a Christian and gay. The gay has to go.

That’s the Christian perspective anyway. I hope I’ve represented it fairly enough. I can’t help but feel there’s more to it than that, however. We’ll consider whether there is next time.

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.

 

Between Jesus and Paul

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When I joined the group – which I’m not going to call a cult; other people call it a cult, but it’s not. There’s nothing cultish about it – when I joined the group, the leaders told me I had to ignore whatever my family said about it. They instructed us all that the best way to really commit ourselves was to turn our backs on our families. Of course they were right – hadn’t the Teacher himself said so? – families belonged to our old lives. They didn’t understand the Teacher’s message or how important his mission was and how much he loved us. So I turned my back on mine. They weren’t worth a thing next to Him.

Then they said I should give everything away. Sell it all and hand it over to the poorest in the group because possessions only hold us back. Get rid of them, they told us the Teacher had said, and don’t even hang onto the money you got for your stuff. Give that away too. Because, you see, nothing material matters. We’re in the last days. God is going to use the Teacher to do amazing things, to change the world so that those of us at the bottom of the pile rise up to the top, and those on top now – the rich, the powerful and the cruel – well, they’re going to get their comeuppance. Nothing else matters. How could it, really? God’s New Kingdom is going to arrive any day now.

So I spend all my time going out into the streets, proclaiming this great news to the lost. Most of them don’t want to know, of course. They say there have been a thousand would-be messiahs who’ve declared that the world is about to end soon and it never does, and things go on just the same.

This time, though, it’s different. The Teacher is different. He said, the leaders who knew him say, that we should act as if the Kingdom has already arrived. So we try not to judge the foolish ignoramuses who ignore his words of warning, and we make ourselves servants, always doing more than people demand of us, turning away meekly when they spit at us or strike us in the face. We give to anyone who asks – not that I have much to give these days (only what the group graciously provides for me) – and we visit the sick and those in prison. We feed the hungry and give our clothes to the poor, specially our impoverished brothers and sisters in the Lord. Truth to tell, I’m one of those myself now – one of the poor – but I have untold riches stored up in Heaven.

So I have no regrets. I’m doing what the Teacher commanded. I follow his blessed instructions, which his followers passed on to our revered leaders. And it won’t be forever, will it. Just a short while now and we will have our reward. The Teacher will return and he will usher in God’s magnificent Kingdom on Earth and there’ll be no more crying and no more serving; the Lord will lift us up to great heights and we will inherit the Earth.

Didn’t the Teacher say so?

Wouldn’t this be what it was like for some of those early followers of Yeshua Bar Yosef? Those who came immediately after the disciples, but who heard ‘the good news’ only second or third hand? Followers of the Way, known in some circles as ‘The Poor’, whom Paul persecuted? Believers who were around in those few years prior to Paul getting his hands (and unhinged mind) on the message and altering it beyond all recognition? Those ‘Christians’ (the name wouldn’t have existed back then) must’ve believed something and it couldn’t have been Paul’s mystical salvation plan, which didn’t yet exist. From the evidence that survives in the synoptic gospels and from Paul’s disputes with the disciples, I surmise that, for someone who took Jesus’ message seriously in those very early days, it must have been something like the experiences of the hypothetical follower above. As misguided and futile as all of this was, it is, nevertheless, a far cry from the bloated, self-serving travesty that is Christianity today.

The Incarnate Deity?

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Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate Deity,

Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.

This, according to Charles Wesley’ hymn, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, is what Christmas is all about: God manifesting himself on Earth as a child and subsequently a man.

What a disaster this whole idea is. The stories of Jesus’ birth do serious damage to two key elements of the Christian message:

First, they detract significantly from the good news the adult Jesus proclaimed and which survives to some extent in the synoptic gospels: the Kingdom of God was coming to the Earth very soon and people – Jewish people – should mend their ways accordingly. Instead, the nativity stories, which occur only in Matthew and Luke, are a reflection of what had happened to the faith by the time these gospels were written. The message had changed. It was less about what Jesus had to say and more about how he himself should be worshipped. He had, after all, as early Christians had started to believe, come from Heaven to save everyone from their sins.

Second, the nativity stories negate the resurrection. If a mortal Jesus rose from the dead, then we might conceivably have a miracle on our hands. But for an ‘incarnate deity’ to have accomplished the same thing – well, that’s no big deal. It’s what gods do all the time. The resurrection experiences, whatever they were, are invalidated by the gospel writers when, at the start of his story, they suggest Jesus is somehow divine. (John is even more emphatic; Jesus is the eternal Word made flesh.) So there’s nothing special about the resurrection, it’s just a god doing what gods do.

The nativity stories represent the confusion within early Christianity. Its adherents wanted it both ways, to have their cake and eat it. Maybe today’s believers can help us out of the dilemma: is it Jesus’ birth – his incarnation – that matters, or is it his death? Because it cannot be both. If Jesus was God in human form from the very beginning, then there’s nothing particularly special about his death and resurrection. Gods can’t really die, especially when none of them, including Yahweh, are alive in the first place.

Jesus: Speak not clearly did he

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Why did Jesus not speak clearly? If he came from God, or was God in some way, why didn’t he express himself directly and with precision? Why did he obscure what he had to say with hyperbole, riddles and demands that even he couldn’t meet?

Don Camp, light-weight apologist and C. S. Lewis aficionado, has been giving me a little lecture over in the comments section of Debunking Christianity. He’s been providing the basics in how some of Jesus’ remarks in the gospels are hyperbolic and are therefore not to be taken literally. I am, of course, already aware of Jesus’ tendency to exaggerate (how far does this qualify as false witness, I wonder?) but Don and I were specifically discussing Matthew 5.29-30 where Jesus advises those who lust after a woman to pluck out their right eye and cut off their hand. Don asserted that obviously this is an exaggeration, to be understood figuratively, not literally. I asked him how one distinguishes between the two.

Don responded by saying one should look for clues in the scriptures (the bible as Murder, She Wrote); clues that might reveal how early Christians responded to Jesus’ assertions. If they ignored what Jesus said (while most did disregard his more extreme commands, such as the self-mutilation statements, there is evidence that some did indeed take him literally), then we can safely do the same. If, on the other hand (no pun intended) they acted on what he said, then it’s fair to assume it’s okay for today’s Christians to do the same. Sounds simple right? But it still doesn’t help anyone decide what is hyperbole and what is meant literally.

For example, Christians largely ignore Jesus’ commands to go the extra mile, give the shirts of their back to those who ask for them, turn the other cheek, love their enemies, disavow wealth, sell all they have, give no concern for the future and do all they can for the homeless, sick, naked and displaced. There isn’t a lot of evidence that even early followers did these things. Does their disregard for these commands mean that Jesus must have meant them figuratively? That there is spiritual truth to be discerned from them but that no practical action is expected or required?

Where do Jesus’ apparent assurances that his followers would heal the sick, raise the dead (Matthew 10.8) and do ‘works’ even greater than his (John 14.12) fit? Are these hyperbole or are they intended to be taken literally? Given early Christians serve as Don’s yard-stick for what is hyperbole and what is literal, what did they think? We don’t actually know, though evidently some considered the promises significant enough to include in the gospels. Among today’s believers, there are those – and not just on the fringe – who accept them as literal, while others scoff at the idea of taking them at face value.

What about Jesus’ promises that God’s Kingdom was imminent and that he would rise from the dead? Aren’t these just hyperbole too? Don says no, because people at the time didn’t ignore them (as they did his ‘obvious’ hyperbole) but believed they would happen. Therefore, they must have been meant literally. Unfortunately, Don fails to take into account that the promises of a resurrection were applied retrospectively; Jesus didn’t actually predict his own return from the dead (for reasons discussed here.) The Kingdom of God, meanwhile, failed to materialise when Jesus said it would. The extent to which early Christians believed these promises hardly demonstrates their literal truth. In any case, is ultimate truth to be determined by how ordinary, largely uneducated, superstitious back-water folks responded to what they heard or read? What a spurious and unreliable way to decide.

Which brings me back to my original question. Couldn’t Jesus have been a lot clearer about what he meant? Instead, he dressed up a lot of what he said in what might, or might not be, hyperbole. He issued other ‘truths’ in parables that he didn’t intend the hoi-polloi to understand (Mark 4.12). He offered advice that is of no practical use, some of it positively detrimental. He was neither systematic nor consistent and contradicted himself. So much of what he said is open to interpretation, to the extent that there are now thousands of Christian churches, cults and sects, all at odds with one another because they disagree about what he meant.

The New Testament as a whole too is a muddle of conflicting ideas and advice… though that’s a discussion for another time.