By David Madison
Here’s the link to this article.
There would be a lot of Cs, Ds & Fs
There are, of course, so many different kinds of Christians: from snake-handling cults in Appalachia (see Mark 16:17-18) to High-Church Anglicans who hold on to the resurrection as a metaphor—and thousands of varieties in between. James B. Twitchell put a humorous twist on it: “A Baptist is a Christian who learned how to wash; a Methodist is a Baptist who had learned to read; a Presbyterian is a Methodist who has gone to college; and an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian whose investments have turned out well.” (p. 31, Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face, 2007) Based on my own experience as a pastor, I know Christians exist on a scale, from lukewarm occasional churchgoers to those who are committed enthusiasts—they mean it when they tell us they “belong to Jesus.”
But there is usually a reluctance to probe, at least among the Christians I know today. “I know what I believe,” is commonly a cover for not really wanting to investigate. Why disturb the faith comfort zone? In order to get along in most areas of life, Christians usually want to check things out—get the facts—for example, when buying a car or a house. The fundamentals of their faith, however, aren’t given the same scrutiny. I suspect there is more doubt lurking below the surface than people want to admit. Don’t go there! Even study of science might seem risky, especially since some areas of science make the faith look especially vulnerable. After all, Christianity arose in the ancient world when basic understandings of the world—as provided by science—were unknown. For example, a lot of people know very well that heaven really isn’t up there, and clergy efforts to relocate it seem contrived.
With my own Christian acquaintances inmind, I fantasize about a Pop Quiz they should take. I wonder how they’d do, and I fear the worst. Here’s the Pop Quiz I have come up with, with two questions about science, and the rest relating to Christianity belief.
Pop Quiz for Christians
1. Who was Edwin Hubble, and how did his discoveries change how we think about our world?
2. Who was Georges Lamaître? What was his follow-up insight on Hubble’s discoveries?
3. What is epistemology, and why is it so important?
4. What is The Outsider Test for Faith?
5. What do New Testament scholars mean by “the quest for the historical Jesus”?
6. List ten theological problems presented by the gospel of Mark, e.g., examples of bad theology.
7. While John 3:16 is a favorite Bible verse, name the points of bad theology in John 3.
8. List five Jesus quotes in the gospels that you disagree with and ignore.
9. How does the story of Jesus ascending to heaven, in the Book of Acts, Chapter 1, jeopardize Christianity?
10. When did the Vatican announce the Dogma of the Immaculate Concept? What’s it about, and what’s the evidence for it?
On 26 April 1920, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis debated about the size of the universe. Shapley believed that the Milky Way galaxy was the whole universe. The distant smudges of light visible in the night sky were solar systems in the process of forming. Curtis believed them to be other galaxies, far beyond our own. Later in the decade, astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that one of the major smudges of light is indeed the Andromeda Galaxy, more than two million light years beyond our own galaxy. Moreover, he identified even more distant other galaxies that are receding; this provided evidence that the universe is expanding. Einstein’s theories had suggested this was the case, although Einstein himself was baffled by the idea.
It was then Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest and physicist, who pondered Hubble’s findings and suggested that the universe originated as a “primeval atom” that underwent sudden dramatic expansion billions of years ago. Later, astronomer Fred Hoyle ridiculed the concept by calling it the Big Bang. The term stuck, however, and cosmologists ever since have been accumulating the evidence for the explosion of the primeval atom.
When Christianity arrived on the scene, “heaven” meant a spiritual realm above the clouds, stretching perhaps as far as the moon. That was the Cosmos. So, of course, gods were nearby—a perspective from which they could monitor human affairs. This included the god of the Bible, Yahweh, who was hovering close enough to savor the aroma of burning animal fat, i.e., sacrifices to him offered by the faithful (Exodus 29:18).
This is the challenge to theology offered by Hubble’s discovery: with hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe—with perhaps trillions of planets—does it remain credible that there is a personal god who monitors the behavior of every human being? What is the evidence for that? This may be comforting to some—as well as a source of terror. Does the totalitarian monotheism of Christianity (God watches everything you do!) still make any sense at all? Indeed, theologians have their work cut out for them, which would be even more of a burden if every Christian knew and internalized what Edwin Hubble discovered.
According to one dictionary definition, “Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.” By what methods do you determine that your beliefs are true? If I ask, “What is your epistemology?” I expect an explanation: Do your ways of knowing about God hold up to critical scrutiny? Sound epistemology is especially important regarding religious beliefs.
It should be obvious that “I take it on faith,” or “My priest or preacher told me it’s true,” or “I learned it from my parents” are not sound epistemology. Most of the religions in human history have claimed legitimacy on precisely these inadequate foundations. Epistemology involves the search for reliable, verifiable, objective data that can support beliefs. “I feel it in my heart” is useless as a source of god-information. What you’re feeling is evidence for…what you’re feeling!
The Outsider Test for Faith is the title of a book by John W. Loftus. He proposes that any devout person should subject his or her own religion to the tests by which they reject other religions. That is, try your very best to analyze your own faith critically, with as much skepticism as you can muster.
This should snap believers to attention. Does a Catholic really know why he/she isn’t a Mormon or a Muslim…or a Southern Baptist? Could the differences in these faiths be clearly articulated? This is a major clue that believers rarely think about what they believe—and why. Which is all the more reason to embrace the Outsider Test for Faith. Examine every aspect of your faith as objectively as possible. Yes, the Mormons believe stupid shit, but Catholics and Protestants blindly accept absurdities as well.
For at least a century now, New Testament scholars have been engaged in the Quest for the Historical Jesus. They’re trying to figure out what can be known for sure about Jesus. Is this ever mentioned in church, Sunday School, or catechism? Looks like a cover-up, doesn’t it? New Testament studies have been in turmoil for a long time because scholars have not been successful in devising a methodology for identifying the authentic words and deeds of Jesus in the gospels. Hence the ongoing, and forever floundering, quest to discover who Jesus really was.
The gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus, and we don’t know the sources that the authors used, other than Old Testament prototypes, parallels in Greek literature, and their own imaginations. Dozens of “real Jesuses” have been proposed by dozens of scholars who pick and chose the bits of the gospels that seem authentic to them. But the Jesus who prevails in ritual and art—the ideal Jesus of the imagination, as Bart Ehrman has called it—is the one accepted by the laity. And the clergy have no interest in puncturing these fantasies, in letting the folks in the pews know about the agonies of devout scholars. Yes, a cover-up.
In Mark, the first gospel written, 1) the virgin birth isn’t mentioned—why would Mark skip that? 2) Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist for the remission of sins; 3) Jesus suggests to a paralyzed man that sin caused his affliction; 4) he tells his disciples that he teaches in parables to fool people, to keep them from repenting; 5) demons recognize Jesus because they belong to the same spiritual realm—and Jesus transfers them into pigs; 6) God speaks through water vapor, i.e., a cloud; 7) Jesus describes the horrible suffering God has in store for humanity when the Kingdom of God arrives; 8) the disciples are constantly portrayed as clueless; 9) the resurrected Jesus promised that baptized Christians will be able to drink poison, heal people by touch, and pick up snakes;10) verses 16:9-20 of the gospel are a fake ending. How did a fake ending get included in the Bible?
No, this is not an unfair request: that ordinary readers be able to identify such problems. If Christians really do believe that the Bible is the Word of God, they should be avidly reading and studying the gospel of Mark—and know it well. None of these ten problems is hard to spot, and there are even more. Four years ago, I published an article here titled, Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot. I suggested that, if you accept the Jesus in Mark’s gospel, you’re well on your way to full-throttle crazy religion. These examples I’ve cited of bad theology and ancient superstitions in Mark drag down the Christian faith.
John 3:16 itself is marred by bad theology. It states plainly that belief in Jesus is the key to eternal life, which means that most of the people who have ever lived are excluded.
As is made plain in verse 3:18, “…those who do not believe are condemned already…”
And verse 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” This vindictive, revenge theology cancels the feel-good theology that people assume when they hear the words, “God so loved the world…”
List five Jesus quotes that you disagree with. 1) Luke 14:26, Hatred of family is a requirement of discipleship; 2) Luke 14:33, You must give up all your possessions to be a disciple; 3) Luke 12:49, “I have come to set the world on fire and I wish it were already kindled; 4) Matthew 10:35, “I have come to set fathers against sons, etc.” 5) Matthew 5:40, if someone sues you, give him more than you’ve been sued for.
The website for my second book includes a list of 292 bad, mediocre, alarming Jesus quotes. These have gone unnoticed because they are not read from the pulpit, and Christians don’t read their Bibles all that much. People are satisfied with the ideal Jesus of their imaginations.
We read in the Book of Acts, Chapter 1, that the disciples watched Jesus disappear above the clouds as he rose to heaven. This can’t have happened, of course, because heaven isn’t a few miles overhead, where God sits on his throne—as the New Testament authors believed. A few miles above the clouds there is intense cold and deadly radiation, The British scholar A.N. Wilson once pointed out that, no matter by what means of propulsion, Jesus would have gone into orbit.
But it is not the fantasy element here that damages Christianity the most—although that’s a major weakness. The inescapable fact is that the newly alive body of Jesus—so Christians affirm—didn’t leave the planet. Which means that he died again, that is, his “having risen” was a temporary event (and, of course, there is no reliable, verifiable evidence that he did resurrect). So we have to assume 1) that Jesus was buried somewhere, and 2) the New Testament covered up what happened to him: the risen lord didn’t stay risen. There is a magnitude of bad theology here that falsifies Christianity.
The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception was announced by the Vatican in 1854. It states that when Mary was conceived, her soul was miraculously cleansed of original sin, thus guaranteeing that her son Jesus was also free of original sin. There is no evidence for this: it derives from theological speculation by theologians who believe in original sin.
So many times I have seen Immaculate Conception confused with the virgin birth of Jesus, though Catholics don’t make this mistake as often as Protestants do. But any Catholic who is asked to believe that Mary was conceived clean should press theologians who champion this aspect of the Vatican party line: how do they know this? Where is the data to back it up? They had to have their perfect Jesus, but how could that be possible if original sin had been passed on to him by his mother? Voilà: they added yet another unevidenced miracle, i.e., yet more magical thinking. If you want to find an outstanding example of stupid Catholic shit, this is it. It’s no longer 1854: how can anyone these days believe it?
But they do and it’s no mystery: I know Christians who are stunningly ignorant about their own faith: stubbornly, arrogantly, aggressively ignorant. They are unteachable, and are okay with that. Perhaps there are some Christians who would be willing to take this Pop Quiz and see that it’s a wakeup: Christianity is based on far too much bad theology. It’s been oversold.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.
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