Christians’ Favourite Delusions 31: The first Christians wouldn’t have been prepared to die for a lie.

VisionOkay, so if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, what caused Christianity to spread the way it did? Or, as Christians like to put it, why would early Christians be prepared to die for something that didn’t happen? For the same reason they were ready to die for things that did happen; they were religious fanatics and people have died for a lot less. In any case, we have little evidence the earliest Christians did die prematurely for their faith, but they had plenty of reasons, other than a resurrection that didn’t happen, to give their lives to the cause:

1. Many of them seemed to think that, after his death, they’d had a vision of their leader. This was persuasive enough for the Pharisee Paul to become a follower ‘unto death’ – so why not for others? Still today, believers claim they’ve seen Jesus – it’s often how new cults get started – and those who lived in the first century were even more fanatical and superstitious. According to the gospels they –

  • believed in reincarnation (Jesus and John the Baptist are taken to be reincarnated versions of long dead prophets in Mark 6.14-15 and Matthew 16.14);
  • thought that the dead could return to life (Mark 6.16; Matthew 27.52) and
  • accepted that angels walked the Earth performing miracles (John 5.4).

It’s not much of step for them to have believed that the visions they were having or hearing about were of a resurrected Jesus. It doesn’t matter they weren’t; it was enough that early converts believed they were.

2. Jesus promised his original disciples and hangers-on that the Kingdom of God on earth was not far off. It would happen, he promised, in their lifetime; the ‘Son of Man’ would come down from heaven through the clouds with a battalion of angels and would take charge of the Earth on God’s behalf (Matthew 16:27-28; Matthew 24:27, 30-31, 34; Luke 21:27-28, 33-34). It’s not clear whether Jesus regarded himself as this mythical figure from the book of Daniel but nonetheless Jesus’ first followers were convinced the end was nigh – God was soon to intervene in history to transform the Earth, remodelling it in their favour (Matthew 5.5-12). They were privileged to have this information direct from Jesus himself – this was his Good News, his gospel – and they set about making it known. Even Paul, who changed the Jesus he’d never met into a cosmic super-hero, believed this (1 Corinthians 15:23-26). A brave new world was a cause worth living for and, if necessary, dying for.

3. The very first Jesus-followers, the disciples, believed that when all of this happened – when God’s Kingdom was on the Earth as it was in Heaven – they would rule it with him. Hadn’t Jesus himself told them that they would? He surely had – it’s recorded in Luke 22:28-30. So not only was God going to renew the Earth and its political systems, he was going to put them in charge! Who wouldn’t want to hang on to a promise like that? It was, surely, one worth living and dying for. We know, because Paul tells us in Galatians 2 and elsewhere that the disciples holed themselves up in Jerusalem to await God’s intervention; for them this meant the return of their Master who would carve up the transformed world and put them in charge of it.

So there we are, three good reasons why Christianity caught on:

  • Visions of Jesus, which meant that, even if his body had died, he had miraculously gone beyond death and would be returning soon;
  • The promise of God’s Kingdom on Earth, when the underdogs would become top dogs;
  • The susceptibility and gullibility of those at whom the message was aimed.

This is why the new movement spread rapidly, particularly among the susceptible, gullible under-class. No resurrection was necessary. Over time those visions, like Jesus’ message, would morph into something quite different, giving us the myth of a physical resurrection, a church he never intended founding and, eventually, the ‘promise’ of heaven. These were never part of the original ‘Good News’.

Happy Easter, y’all.

Christians’ Favourite Delusion 7: What a friend we have in Jesus

James

So you’ve decided to follow Jesus and from here on in, Christians tell us, you’ll share real intimacy with your Saviour.

There are many permutations of this belief: having Jesus in your heart; walking daily with the Lord; enjoying a loving relationship with him; letting him speak to you. All rely on the premise that the post-mortem Jesus is an eternal, supernatural being who is able, somehow, to stroll, chat and administer one-on-one therapy. The old spiritual, still much beloved in Christian circles, declares ‘what a friend we have in Jesus’, while Mary Stevenson’s modern parable insists that his footprints are beside the believer’s in the sand – except, that is, when he has to carry them.

However, the concept of Jesus as bosom buddy and occupier of right and left ventricles is nowhere to be found in ‘God’s word’. Yes, there’s the possibility of feeling Jesus’ presence when with other believers; the shared delusion of Matthew 18.20 that over time would morph into ‘the Holy Spirit’. And it’s true too that Paul decides in 1 Corinthians 6.14 that believers’ bodies are sanctuaries or temples of this same Spirit. But these are both a long way from a Jesus who lives within the believer’s heart and, as another old hymn has it, ‘walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way’.

The Jesus of the gospels is not looking for people to be his chums. He does say in John 15.14, ‘you are my friends if you do what I command you’, but this is hardly what we’d call ‘friendship’ – ‘you can only be my friend if you do exactly what I say’ is the unreasonable demand of playground bullies and manipulators everywhere. It certainly isn’t friendship in the sense we normally understand it. But even if you’re taken in by this offer, do you do what he says? It’s highly unlikely, given that he insists you sell all you have and give to the poor, turn the other cheek and transform yourself into a slave, working selflessly and sacrificially to bring about the Kingdom of heaven:

…whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve… (Matthew 20.26-28)

When you’ve turned yourself into a lifetime servant of others, surely then you can expect Jesus to be your best mate? Like the disciples before you, who also wanted to be part of God’s circle of favourites, you miss the point of what it was, and is, to be a slave; to work ceaselessly in demanding conditions with no reward, no wages and no acknowledgement. The most any servant of God can expect, Jesus tells us, is that he will say ‘well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master’ (Matthew 25.23). That’s it – that’s the extent of your ‘reward’: he’ll recognise your position as a slave and tell you you’ve pleased him, your slave-master. And that’s what you call friendship?

Jesus is not your loving buddy. He never said he would be and you’re just confusing him with James Taylor if you think he did. Even if you want to ignore what the Bible says about being a slave – and I’m betting you do – you can’t have a relationship with someone who has been dead for 2,000 years.

Face facts, Christians: your ‘friendship’ with Jesus, your entire concept of him, is no more than the product of your own imaginations.