How It Works: God

Let’s see. If there’s a God – and how could there not be? – he’d have to be perfect. And powerful and really, really good. Not like all those pagan Gods who are just a bit too much like us. No, the most bestest God of all would have to be big and powerful, and good and perfect. I mean, why bother otherwise?

Oh, oh… first problem. If he’s good and perfect, how to explain us and the fact life can be pretty crap and not good or perfect at all? That can’t be his fault, can it? He’s perfect, so he couldn’t possibly make something that isn’t. Soooo… only logical conclusion – the crap must be our fault. Something we do, or maybe something we are. Yes, that’s what it must be (plus we get to bump up our part.)

And shit happens. Tsunamis, earthquakes, the crops fail, the rains don’t come. Life can be tough and seem pointless. It’s all depressing, then we die. It can feel like we’re being punished. Wait! Maybe we are being punished! For things we’ve done, or for what we are. That would fit wouldn’t it? A good and perfect God would surely want to punish us, with death and destruction and stuff. So that’s what these things must be!

Let’s get all this written down, that this is how things are. This good and perfect God finds us offensive and that’s why life is so shit. Except, except… surely God’s a reasonable bloke at heart and can be appeased? We could wheedle our way back into his good books and then life wouldn’t be quite so bad. Not sure how, though. Maybe sending him presents would do the trick, though how to get them to him when we can’t see him or anything…

I know! Let’s eviscerate some animals and then burn them and that way, he’ll be able to smell our efforts up where he lives, in the sky. That’s bound to work. And to be doubly sure, let’s mutilate our genitals and keep our women subjugated – because he can’t fail to like that.

Or maybe not. Maybe life will still be shit and we’ll still be shit. Maybe we need something more… imaginative. So let’s pretend that this God of ours puts together a rescue package. And what this means is he zaps us with some magic that obliterates the bits of us he can’t stand, which is pretty much all of it. And – here’s the good bit – we get to keep some of the eviscerating and sacrifice stuff.

Let’s get that written down too. And, and… maybe we can have it that this God is really going to rescue us and make everything not shit any more. He’s going to shake things up down here… no, no, wait – better than that, we’re going to go and live with him in the sky once we die, which gets rid of how shit death really is, and we’ll all live happily ever after, those of us he’s zapped anyway. Everyone else he can torture and burn forever! Yes that’s it! That’s how it’s got to be. God can still be good and perfect, even though he murders just about everyone, and some of us will get to be good and perfect too, and all the crap will just disappear, as if by magic.

That’s it. That’s how it really is. I can see it all now.

Oops. Gotta go. Time for my medication.

straitjacket

Jesus or Paul?

Nicodemus

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?