There’s good news and there’s good news…

Bat-Jesus

Mark, Matthew and Luke all tells us that Jesus preached the gospel when he was alive (Mark 1.14-15; Matthew 4.23, 9.35 & 10.5-7; Luke 20.1). So what was this gospel? What was Jesus’ ‘good news’? He had yet to die so it couldn’t possibly have been ‘you can be saved through my death and resurrection’ because this magic formula had yet to be arrived at by those who came later. Nor could it have been ‘accept my substitutionary atonement whereby I take the punishment you deserve in order to restore your relationship with God,’ for much the same reason. Nor could it have been, ‘you must accept me as your personal your saviour if you want to gain everlasting life in Heaven,’ because he didn’t regard himself in this way and he didn’t, according to the synoptic gospels, offer an eternity in Heaven. No, Jesus’ good news could not have been any of these because they are all later developments, mumbo-jumbo invented about him by others, not things he said himself .

Actually we needn’t speculate on what the good news was that Jesus preached because the gospels tell us: God was going to intervene in history very soon, rescuing his people from Gentile rule and setting up his Kingdom, in which he, Jesus, would be judge and king (Matt 24.27-34 & 25.31; Luke 1.33; 21.25-28). People, he said, referring only to Jewish people, should prepare themselves for this coming Kingdom by mending their ways (Matthew 10.5-6).

How soon would all this happen? In the lifetime of his hearers according to Mark 9.1, Matthew 16.28 and Luke 9.27, maybe even within a few weeks or months. When sending out the disciples to spread his good news he promised them, ‘you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes (to usher in the new Kingdom)’ (Matthew 10.23). We can only assume that the disciples are back by now – in fact they return a few verses later – yet the Son of man still hasn’t materialised among the clouds in full view of ‘the tribes’ of the Earth (Matthew 24.30).

As the Bible records, Jesus was wrong in every respect; God did not set up his new Kingdom within the lifetime of those Jesus spoke to; the Son of man did not appear; the Romans were not overthrown; Jesus was not appointed judge and king of the world. The sarcastic inscription on his cross, ‘King of the Jews’, was the closest he came to having his self-aggrandising prophecy realised.

Is this the Jesus that Christians worshipped subsequently and still worship today? It ought to be as he’s the one revealed in the first three gospels. But the Jesus believers carry around in their heads is not this man. The ‘Jesus’ worshipped by Christians is primarily a construct of Paul’s – his ‘Christ’ – and their own collective imaginations. The mythical ‘Christ’ that Paul ‘did not receive from any man’, has replaced and almost obliterated Yeshua and his mistaken beliefs about the coming Kingdom (though Paul held on to the idea that it was indeed imminent; see 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17).

Admittedly ‘the Christ’ has had a far better shelf-life than Yeshua could ever have had on his own; the continual resurrection of the idea in the minds of believers – and only there – has ensured the perpetuation of the myth. When all is said and done, however, the Christ is nothing more than an imaginative recreation of a failed zealot with an altogether different gospel.* Yeshua’s good news of the Kingdom died shortly after he did and like him has stayed dead, its echoes preserved by Mark, Matthew and Luke and ignored by Christians everywhere.

* I’m aware there is a body of thought that gives primacy to the mythical god-man, ‘the Christ’, with the Jesus stories being seen as a later ‘in-fill’ designed to provide him with a plausible back-story. I’m not convined of this for several reasons, which I’ll explore at a later date.

Christianity: always winter but never Christmas

Spot the difference:Shore

Christians are hot on evidence.

There isn’t enough for evolution, they say, even though there’s an abundance.     

None, they claim, that the Earth is billions of years old, but only 6 thousand.

Not enough that climate change is man-made, when there’s considerable evidence it is.

None that there’s a genetic component to homosexuality when science reveals that there is.

But, as far as the resurrection of the body, judgement and eternal life in either Heaven or Hell are concerned, these they believe in, no evidence required.

I recently challenged Christians on Charisma magazine’s blog-site to provide or point me to evidence that any one of the 107 billion people who has ever lived who after they had died had gone on to enjoy either eternal life in Heaven or eternal punishment in Hell. Unfulfilled promises from magic books weren’t admissible, because a promise of something happening is not the same as it actually doing so. Jesus didn’t count either, as there are no eye-witness accounts of his bodily resurrection, only stories written decades after the supposed event. In any case he was half Vulcan or something, not an ordinary mortal.

Alas, my challenge went unanswered. You won’t find it on the Charisma site now because it has been removed by the moderator there. Expecting evidence from Christians for what they believe is patently unreasonable. After all, who needs evidence when you can exercise your licence to believe whatever you’re told?

Of course, there is no evidence of any resurrection nor of anyone who has gone on, post-mortem, to enjoy everlasting life. Have you noticed how everything about Christianity is either invisible – God, the Holy Spirit, Heaven, angels, demons – or lies permanently in the future; the Second Coming, the resurrection of the body, the Kingdom of God, judgement and eternal life? All of them always just that little bit further on. This year, next year, sometime, never. Just not now.

Yet Jesus, Paul, Revelation’s John and most other New Testament luminaries believed God’s Kingdom, the resurrection and judgement were coming within their own lifetimes.* Not one of them entertained the thought that 2000 years down the line none of these miraculous events would have materialised.

Small wonder then, that at the start of the second century, believers began to lose hope in the Second Coming, the Kingdom’s arrival and an earthly resurrection of the dead. Maybe, some of them began to think, eternal life would be not be here on Earth, as Jesus and Paul had promised, but in Heaven with God, which they most definitely hadn’t. This way, everything that hadn’t happened here on Earth would happen instead after death (we can see this transition taking place in the very late gospel of John). All of which was fortunate, because it dispensed with the need for confirmation and evidence; no-one could prove – apart from the fact nobody has ever survived their own extinction – that believers didn’t go to Heaven when they died. Equally, no-one could provide evidence they did.** How neat and convenient.

So if any Christians reading this would like to like to show us some evidence for the resurrection of the dead, post-mortem judgement, Heaven, Hell, God’s Kingdom on Earth – any of it – I’m sure we would all like to see it. Until then, I will go on regarding all of these assurances as empty promises – pie in the sky – that believers cling to desperately, while calling their desperation ‘faith’.

* See Matthew 16.27-28 & 24.27, 30-31, 34; Luke 21.27-28, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 15.51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17; 1 John 2:17-181; Peter 4.7; Revelation 1.1 & 21.2-4

** Psychics claim to commune with the dead of course, or at least with their spirits; more hokum from the minds of the deluded. Even if it weren’t, this isn’t the kind of resurrection Christians envisage for themselves. They dismiss psychics’ ‘evidence’ of life-after-death as so much demonic deception.

Now make up a story about it

Bible4

So there we have it. The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection all derive from imagined sightings of him post-mortem. Call them hallucinations, visions or revelations, none of them were encounters with a real, revived physical being.

Except that’s not quite it, because it’s worse than that, Jim.

Most of our accounts of the resurrection appearances are fifty years or more too late. Paul’s is the only first hand account we have and even that is sketchy and recounted several years after it happened. For at least three of those years, Paul meditated on his seizure and interpreted it as a revelation from the Lord. Undoubtedly, others had similar experiences; the stories of the resurrected Christ came from somewhere and the resurrection seems to have been central to Christian faith from its earliest days. Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15:4-8 those he says have encountered the risen Christ:

He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

Paul implies here that his own experience is the same as that of the others on his list; they too, then, had visions of the risen Christ within their imaginations. Significantly, Paul omits Mary Magdalene, the first to ‘see’ the post-mortem Jesus according to the later gospels, while some of the other encounters Paul claims to know about do not find their way into those accounts. Of those that do, we can be confident the details are wrong. They were most certainly not as they are described in the stories that eventually came to be written.

The earliest copies of Mark’s gospel famously have no resurrection appearances. The women discover the empty tomb, which Matthew and Luke later lift into their gospels, and, bizarrely, decide not to tell the disciples about it. By the time we get to last canonical gospel, written some thirty years down the line, its author embellishes Luke’s attempts to suggest that the risen Jesus has some physicality; he allows his old friends, especially Thomas, to poke around in his wounds and he eats fish. Nonetheless, as in the earlier gospels, the disciples all have trouble recognising him, even on a third occasion, and are afraid to ask him who he is (John 21.12). Did his followers simply experience, as John 14.15-20 and Matthew 18.20 seem to suggest, an intense sense of Jesus’ presence? This would make the reports of actual sightings evidence of later believers’ need for something more substantial than flashing lights and fuzzy feelings. Which is how, over time, surrounding detail came to be added.

In their specifics, the resurrection appearances in the gospels and Acts are stories that accrued around the visions and inner traumas experienced by Jesus’ friends and other zealots. As such they are fiction; the angels at the tomb – probably the empty tomb itself – the encounter on the road to Emmaus, the fish breakfast and the rest. Bart D. Ehrman demonstrates convincingly in Jesus Before The Gospels, that the oral tradition was not capable of transmitting the details of Jesus’ life and ministry accurately over a 40 year period (when Mark’s gospel was written). The same is true, perhaps moreso, of individuals’ idiosyncratic inner experiences. Over 50+ years, after which Matthew and Luke’s gospels were composed, reports of these visions would have been altered innumerable times by those relating them, ever onwards and outwards; details would inevitably have been changed, added, removed and invented in a protracted game of Chinese whispers. In all probability the gospel writers themselves introduced their own embellishments.

So then, from a small number of visions/hallucinations/feelings, via significantly altered accounts of these same subjective experiences, together with others that are pure invention, to the eventual recording of such stories 50 to 80 years later, this is the evolution of the fantasy that is the risen Christ.

Believing is Seeing

Fish

Have you noticed how the risen Jesus seems only to have appeared to those who were already primed to see him? Of course, the accounts of the resurrection are inconsistent, unreliable and constructed long after the supposed event, but just for now, let’s take them at face value. Jesus appears first, according to Matthew, Luke and John, to his female followers – maybe one on her own (in John), maybe two (Matthew), maybe several (Luke) – but to women who would be mourning him and would be longing to see him again. And lo and behold, they do! He’s not quite substantial and not quite recognisable – every bit the hallucination, in fact – but he appears.

Next he is said to have shown himself to the disciples – maybe one (Luke), maybe two (Luke again), maybe several (Matthew) – men who have been thrown into complete disarray by Jesus’ death but who believed in him and his mission to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, and were looking forward to ruling it with him. So naturally they see him in their midst. Never mind he walks through walls and disappears at will, just like an apparition – he appears! As Acts 1.3 puts it, ‘he presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs’.

Wait – ‘by many proofs’? What does that mean? That he had to prove he’d come back to life? Could they not see that for themselves? Couldn’t they recognise the man with whom they’d spent the last three years? Or if they could, weren’t they convinced he’d returned from the dead so that he felt he had to prove it? How? How did he prove it? With a death certificate? By letting them poke his holes? And this took forty days? Isn’t it more likely they were subject to group hysteria and some sort of hallucination (they’d had hallucinations before – see Matthew 17:1-9) and they then had to convince each other that what they’d experienced was really Jesus? No wonder it took forty days to concoct a ‘plausible’ story, to arrive at ‘the many proofs’ that Acts speaks of. Whichever it was, Jesus’ gullible old pals convinced themselves they’d seen him.

During these same forty days – though in his gospel Luke implies it’s a much shorter time (24.40-53) – Jesus fits in a guest appearance at a rock concert in front of 500 believers – believers, note. Not people who were converted as a result of this miraculous appearance, but people who were already part of the Jesus cult when they experienced this vision. Or so Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15.3-8. He wasn’t actually there, but he heard about it from a friend of a friend of a friend so it must be true.

And finally he appeared also to Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15.5). Not as a physical body but as a beam of light in Paul’s head. I’m not getting into how this was, as Paul himself admits, no more than an inner vision (he too is prone to hallucinations – see also Acts 16:9-10 and 2 Corinthians 12.1-7) because you can read about that here. Rather, I’m going to argue that Paul, arch-enemy to this point of all things to do with the Jesus cult, is just as primed for a sighting of the Lord as all those other people who think they saw him… next time.

to be continued.

Faith: An Exercise In Futility

MountainsWhat is faith?

The anonymous author of the book of Hebrews says it’s ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ (11.1)

Hoping for ‘things’ like perfection, resurrection, eternal life, heaven (not to mention the ability to move mountains), the likes of which no-one has ever achieved, is nothing but wishful thinking. Despite what the Hebrews author says, wishful thinking isn’t evidence of anything – except a capacity for wishful thinking.

By it’s very nature, then, faith is not evidence, but the very opposite. It is the effort to believe in things for which there is no evidence and the delusional insistence that the imagined is more real than that which is.

Consensual text

BiblePastor Chris Linzey has taken me to task for quoting the Magic Book out of context. Interestingy, the latest post on Chris’s blog, written by his father, does just that, so it must be okay for Christians to do it even if no-one else can.

Let’s take a close look at a couple of verses, Matthew 19.4-6, that God’s Chosen like to quote out of context, entirely altering their meaning in the process (but that’s okay, because you know, Christians are doing it):

Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ (Matthew 19.4-6; Jesus quoting Genesis 2.24 out of context).

As it stands, this passage seems to suggest that Jesus is endorsing marriage between one-man and one-woman (only) but pan out from the isolated section and this not what he’s talking about at all. He’s discussing divorce. Here’s the verse in context:

Some Pharisees came to (Jesus), and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’ (Matthew 19. 3-9)

What the one-man, one-woman verse can now be seen to be saying is that once a couple are married, they should stay together and not divorce; Jesus isn’t prescribing marriage at all. Add even more context and what we find following the lines about divorce is this:

His disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.’ (Matthew 19.10-12)

In other words, Jesus doesn’t recommend marriage in any shape or form, not even between one man and one woman; his view is that it is better not marry at all. He goes further still: it is better to be completely sexless, as if without testicles, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. He acknowledges, bless him, that not everyone will be able to comply with this ‘teaching’ – who’d have thought it?

Zoom out further still and set this part of Matthew’s gospel against Luke 20.34-35 where Jesus really is talking about marriage:

He said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that [Kingdom] age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’

This time the message is that only those mired in the ways of the world marry, costing themselves a place in the coming Kingdom. Those in the know, however, avoid it and so guarantee their resurrection and transition to the new age. Whatever else it is (wackadoodle nonsense?) this is not a ringing endorsement of marriage. The verses from Matthew and Luke when taken together show clearly that not only did Jesus fail to endorse one-man, one-woman marriage, but that he disparaged the entire institution. He believed that when the Kingdom came to the Earth, marriage would be done away with altogether and advocated abandoning it in the interim as well. You wouldn’t know this though from the decontextualised use of Matthew 19.4-6.

We might ask here why it is that today’s Christians don’t comply with his directive. Why don’t they shun marriage as their Lord and Saviour says they should? Why do they regard his commands as optional? Why don’t they want to guarantee themselves a place in the coming Kingdom by vetoing marriage? Have they abandoned all hope of God’s Kingdom ever coming to the Earth? Shifty hermeneutics won’t help them here either, because Paul is of a similar opinion (1 Corinthians 7.8-9; 28-29). Evidently this is the kind of teaching Christians are free to discard, perhaps because they see it – unjustifiably – as specific to the first century, like the coming Kingdom itself.    

So, yes, context can be important, given the haphazard and disjointed fashion in which the Almighty chose to express himself. But it doesn’t always produce the result Christians might like. That’s where the sleight of hand known as ‘hermeneutic consistency’ comes in. We’ll try that out next time.

 

 

Some material in this post has appeared before; specifically here. I hope I didn’t take it out of context.

 

We owe it all to Jesus

MarySo the UK is a Christian country. Prime minister Dave Cameron has decreed it. In his hallowed Christmas message he proclaims that Britain derives all of its values from Christianity:

As a Christian country, we must remember what (Jesus’) birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.

‘Peace, mercy, goodwill, hope and tolerance’. Doesn’t it warm your heart? This country of ours has these wonderful sentiments at its core and all of them derive from the baby Jesus. I’m not sure about where our other values – capitalism, colonialism, democracy, free-thought and expression – originate but no doubt Dave will tell us they too spring from our ‘religious roots’.

What about the values he mentions though? Do they originate with Jesus as Dave claims?

Peace we covered last time: Christianity have not brought peace into the world, ever. Dave seems to have forgotten that Britain is currently at war; the so-called ‘war on terror’ Is he now suggesting that as a ‘Christian country’ we should turn the other cheek and propose peace, because that’s what Jesus would want? I doubt it, somehow.

Mercy? Here’s the kind of mercy Jesus proposed: ‘But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me’ (Luke 19:27). Nice.

Goodwill? Jesus always extended goodwill to others. Like here: ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs (non-Jews)’. And here: ‘Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs (non-Jews again), lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you’ (Matthew 15.26 & Matthew 7.6).

Hope? The Bible does speak about hope – hope that this will all soon be over and God will consign non-believers to hell, set up his kingdom on earth and put Jesus in charge (Matthew 19:28 & 24.51). Is this what Cameron means by hope?

Tolerance? Paul on tolerance: ‘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). It’s difficult to see how modern notions of equality and acceptance can derive from bigotry like this.

No, Britain does not get its values from Christianity or the Bible or baby Jesus. It has worked them out for itself, principally through social progress and the reforms of modern times.

The UK is not a Christian country in any other sense either. Christians are required to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5.38–42), give all they have to the poor (Luke 14.33) and buy into a convoluted salvation scam plan (2 Timothy 1.9 etc). Can a country do these things? It would be unthinkable for it to give away its wealth, accede to other countries’ demands and respond non-aggressively to attack. Individual Christians don’t or won’t do these things and it would be nothing short of suicidal for a country to attempt to; yet this is what Jesus insists is involved in following him. It’s impossible for individuals to live this way, let alone entire nations.

Cameron can’t even claim that the majority of the population subscribes to the great salvation plan either. A recent government poll showed that only 49% of the population admits to being Christian and in any case, the plan is designed for individuals, not countries. So let’s hope (hah!) the Prime Minister will stop fawning over Christians, fatuously pretending that the UK is a Christian country when it isn’t. Let’s hope too he understands that our values, whatever they are, do not derive from an ancient, expired superstition. The UK is not a Christian country in any sense. Let us rejoice in that fact.

What is the point?

Stairway

There isn’t any point. At least, not ‘out there’ somewhere, waiting to be discovered. The point, purpose and meaning of life is what we make of it. We make our own purpose.

The Christians among us claim to have real purpose. Not like we sad non-believers whose purpose is to do with raising and supporting our family, being creative, doing things for others or whatever. No, Christians get their real purpose from God, or so they say. Perhaps some of them would be good enough to share it with us; is it rushing from one church meeting to another? Singing badly written hymns badly? Cosying up to one another? Telling others about the great salvation plan?

Apparently not, though they do seem to spend a lot of time doing these things. According to CARM the purpose of life ‘is to praise God, worship Him… proclaim His greatness, and… accomplish His will.’ Got Questions, on the other hand, says it’s to ‘1) glorify God and enjoy fellowship with Him, 2) have good relationships with others, 3) work, and 4) have dominion over the earth,’ while Open Bible claims it’s ‘to love and serve God in order to help bring about God’s glorious plan for creation.’

That’s it? The purpose faith supplies is this woolliness? It’s about doing stuff we already do (‘work’, ‘have good relationships with others’) and fawning over a needy, insecure deity? God help us if this is all it amounts to. Those who claim to know the secrets of eternal life and the mind of God himself should surely be able to come up with something better than the rest of us.

As I’ve written before, this isn’t what Jesus told his followers life was for. No, he said it was to work to bring about God’s kingdom on Earth (Matthew 6.33; 13.44, Luke 9.62 etc). Try as you might you’ll struggle to find a Christian site that says this is the point. That’s because Christians long ago – almost two thousand years ago – stopped believing that God’s kingdom was due to arrive here and switched their expectation to one of an after-life in heaven. But that’s not what the Bible promises, and it’s certainly not what Jesus said.

So maybe, Christians, you’re missing the point of your faith and your purpose in life; it’s to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth (Matthew 6.10) – in the first century (Mark 9.1). No wonder you’re now so rudderless, so lacking in direction and real purpose. You missed the boat, which sank without you two millennia ago.

Now you have to construct your own meaning, just like the rest of us. Except ours is better, lacking as it does the faux Biblical language and all those fairy tale elements.

 

 

Our Operators are Waiting to Hear from You!

ApostlesHi! You’ve reached the Salvation Hotline. Calls may be recorded for training purposes. All offers are validated by our six day guarantee.* Please listen carefully to your options:

Press 1 for Matthew. With one of our less popular offers (but don’t let that put you off!) Matthew is waiting to explain our buy-one-get-one-free offer! Keep the Jewish law and be saved, plus, forgive others and be forgiven yourself!

Press 2 for John who will tell you how you can get your very own get-out-of-Hell just by believing! Eternal life awaits!

Press 3 for Luke. Luke wants to let you know you how you can be saved simply by asking for forgiveness. Note: this offer cannot be used in conjunction with any other.

Press 4 for Luke’s bargain Family Ticket! Only one family member need sign up and the rest go free!

Press 5 for Paul and to hear about a unique special offer! ‘God’s grace’ can save you without you making any real effort on your part! Not to be missed.

Press 6 for Paul’s great alternative offer: get saved for free! No need to do anything! (Offer good for Jews only. Terms and conditions apply.)

Press 7 for a special operator who passes himself off as Paul but isn’t. And he has a great offer for our female callers! He’ll tell you about how, just by having babies, you can be saved! It really doesn’t get any better than this, ladies! Get saved just by doing what comes naturally!

Press 8 for a very special guy of ours who wants to stay anonymous! But he will show you how you can escape death by buying into Jesus’ cosmic defeat of evil!

Press 9 for James who will tell you how you need to do good if you want to be saved. So, okay, Paul doesn’t think so, but we want to make sure you hear all our offers!

Please note: these offers are mutually incompatible so you might just want to hang up now and forget all about them.

*Our guarantee isn’t worth the paper it’s written on but for legal reasons, here it is anyway:
Press 1: Matthew 5.17-19 & 6.14.
Press 2: John 5.24.
Press 3: Acts 2.36-38.
Press 4: Acts 16.30-31.
Press 5: Romans 10.5; Ephesians 2.8.
Press 6: Romans 11.26-27.
Press 7: 1 Timothy 2.15.
Press 8: Hebrews 2.14-15.
Press 9: James 2.14-17, 24

The Jesus Cult

Cult2A programme on the UK’s Channel 5 this week, Trapped In A Cult?, featured stories of people who had had encounters with or had escaped from cults. It didn’t spend too much time defining what a cult might be, but suggested that it’s a movement revolving around a charismatic individual who insists that only he or she has a direct line to God or some sort of Higher Truth. Such individuals insist that others must follow their teaching exclusively and that followers sever all ties with family and non-believing friends. They frequently demand too that followers give up their material possessions in order to demonstrate their commitment to the movement.

The programme also noted that once the original founder of a cult dies, or has been discredited in some way, belief in him or her can persist, with followers persuading themselves that their leader has miraculously transferred to a higher plane of existence. (Further information about cults and their leaders can be found on The Cult Education Institute web-site.)

Many modern religious movements conform to this pattern: The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, the Unification Church (Moonies), Scientology and Branch Davidians to name but a few. Orthodox Christians are always eager to point out the apostate, cultish nature of these heterodox ‘churches’, blind to the fact that their own belief system began in exactly the same way. The original Jesus movement had all the hallmarks of a cult and its leader the characteristics of a cult leader:

Jesus insisted that only he had a direct line to God and Higher Truth:
For example in Matthew 10.32–33: Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven

and John 14.23: Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

He demanded his teaching be followed exclusively:
For example in Luke 10.16: He who listens to you, is listening to me; and he who rejects you is rejecting me; and he who rejects me is rejecting him who sent me

and Matthew 12.30: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

He expected his followers to sever ties with family and non-believing friends:
For example in Luke 14.26: 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.

He told those interested in joining his movement to give up material possessions:                                                                                                             Matthew 19.21: If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

and when he died, his followers persuaded themselves he’d gone on to a higher plane:                                                                                                                  Luke 24.51: While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.

What do we learn from this? That if it looks like a cult, sounds like a cult and behaves like a cult then the chances are, it’s a cult. Christianity is just a first century cult that hit the big time. We are now so used to having it around – how legit it became! – we overlook its origins and essential characteristics. These are exactly the same as any other cult, both before and since.