By David Madison
Here’s the link to this article.
The questions are getting tougher
Wouldn’t it be cool if Christians could settle their differences? What an embarrassment that they can’t agree on what their god is like and how he/she wants to be worshipped? Isn’t 30,000-plus different Christian brands a scandal? I’ve known strident evangelicals who are certain that Catholics are their worst enemy.
Wouldn’t it be cool if Christians could suppress their urge to build more churches? Does the world really need more? There is so much hunger and poverty: why not put funds where they’re desperately needed? Yes, Jesus was a carpenter—supposedly—but was that an endorsement of construction-without-end?
Wouldn’t it be cool if Christians were in the habit of binge-reading their Bibles? Aren’t the gospels, especially, supposed to be the word of their god? If the devout really believed that, wouldn’t they be able to quote wide swaths of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by heart?
We know for sure that Christian bickering over who is right will never end, nor will the building of new churches cease—even as congregations die out and old churches are converted for other uses. But is it futile to hope that churchgoers can be coaxed to read their Bibles? My ulterior motive, of course, is that careful Bible-reading can do as much as anything else to undermine faith. If people really think about what they’re reading, and are provoked to serious study—to question everything—the Bible takes a big hit. Its status as the Word of God loses credibility.
I’ve created these Pop-Quizzes for Christians in the hope they’ll be seen by churchgoers who don’t make a habit of Bible reading. The questions are meant to provoke suspicions: “Gee, I never realized that,” and “How does that possibly make sense?” But I’m just quoting the Bible, folks!
So here is Pop-Quiz Number 4, with the first question related to science. Here are links to the previous quizzes: Pop-Quiz 1 Pop-Quiz 2 Pop-Quiz 3 and A Christian Flunks Pop-Quiz 3
There are thousands of genetic disorders/diseases—glitches and goofs as genes are passed along—that cause horrendous human suffering. What are the implication of this for the claim that human life was intelligently designed by an all-powerful, loving god?
Let’s continue with the issue of illness. Do Christians today commonly assume that illness is a way that their god punishes people? My guess is that they don’t. If a friend or relative gets sick—especially something like cancer—our first impulse is not to ask, “What horrible sins has he/she committed.” Yet we find the illness/sin link in Jesus script. In Mark’s gospel (2:1-12) Jesus heals a paralytic—by forgiving his sins. In John 5:2-18, Jesus heals a man who had been sick for 38 years: “…you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (v. 14) Are you okay with this idea that the god of Jesus gets even with sin by inflicting illness? How does that work in your theology?
The consensus of mainstream Bible scholars is that the letters of the apostle Paul were written well before the gospels. His first letter to the Corinthians can perhaps be dated to 53-54 CE. The gospel of Mark—chronologically the first of the four in the NT—seems to have been written in the wake of the first Jewish-Roman War that ended in 73 CE. Please compare the words of the Eucharist found in 1 Corinthians 1:11 with those reported in Mark, which was written twenty years later:
Corinthians 1, 11:23-26:
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
“While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’”
Paul never met Jesus, he was not at the last supper; he claimed that he received these words “from the Lord”—by which he meant his visions of Jesus. What are the implications when we see these texts side-by-side? What conclusions can we draw from these words of Paul predating the gospels?
The Christian Bible contains both the Old and New Testament. The whole thing is God’s Word. But because of the terrible temper the Old Testament god—and great stretches of rules for sacrificing animals the right way—it is quite common for the devout to claim that the New Testament is their primary guide to life. But explain how that is possible, when there’s Jesus script forbidding this attitude:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
Answers and Comments
When believers pray for their god to heal someone—and even organize prayer marathons to be more effective—the assumption must be that their god can work on the cellular level in the human body to knock out illness. If that is so, we have to wonder how an all-knowing god is so negligent. Why isn’t god paying close attention to all the glitches and goofs that cause genetic disorders/diseases—and using his almighty power to clean them up, before they can do damage? The claim that our bodies have been intelligently designed by a loving creator doesn’t make sense when we see that genetic glitches happen, and cause so much suffering. But, full stop: the errors in human anatomy have been well documented, which destroys the intelligent-design claim. For example, see Abby Hafer’s book, The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not.
“Are you okay with this idea that the god of Jesus gets even with sin by inflicting illness? How does that work in your theology?” We have all seen really nice, good people who have suffered terribly from horrible diseases. The devout commonly retreat to “it’s a mystery” —rather than speculate on the terrible hidden sins the person must have committed. But the truly honest approach would include admitting that the gospels—with the Jesus-scripts I quoted—reflect first century superstitions about illness and sin: a god is going to get even with you for sinning. Such superstitions had deep roots in the ancient thinking. The prophet Isaiah had no patience with the sinful pride of high society ladies: “…the Lord will afflict with scabs the heads of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will lay bare their scalps and heads.” (Isaiah 3:17)
By the way, unless the god is right there (whispering in your ear?) to explain which sins caused the suffering, what’s the point? Illness as punishment for sin is actually bad theology, and Jesus-script doesn’t change that fact. It’s best to delete such superstition from your worldview.
The eucharist is described in 1 Corinthians 11 and Mark 14. “What are the implications when we see these texts side-by-side? What conclusions can we draw from the words of Paul predating the gospels?” Yes, this requires study and extra effort. Curiosity has to kick in: when were these two documents written? How might they be related? Since none of the gospels had been written when Paul was so active in his promotion of the new Jesus sect, how did he find out about Jesus? What did he find out? Not much, apparently; we search in vain in his letters for details about the life, ministry, preaching, and miracles of Jesus of Nazareth. He even brags about not consulting the people who had actually known Jesus:
“For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin, for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12)
And he tells his readers exactly how he found out the wording of the eucharist: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” That is, by way of his private revelations/visions (we could call them hallucinations) of Jesus, whom he was confident was not dead, but alive. Hardly a surprise at a time when there were other ancient cults that believed in dying-and-rising gods.
Given Paul’s intensive missionary zeal, which included writing long letters advocating the faith, it’s not a stretch to suppose that Mark had Paul’s text of the eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11—which he didn’t learn from any human source—in front of him when he wrote his gospel. This is one of the implications of the side-by-side comparison of these texts. Mark wasn’t writing history at all; he was passing along Paul’s theology. Mark added the setting, i.e., a last supper, with Jesus surrounded by disciples; that part was missing in Paul’s vision. Here’s some important homework on this issue: Tom Dykstra’s book, Mark Canonizer of Paul: A New Look at Intertexuality in Mark’s Gospel (2012).
Readers have to pay close attention to notice such things; they have to be curious, and be willing to question everything. New Testament scholars—both devout and secular—have sharpened these skills. But most of the laity, as surveys have shown, read the Bible casually, if at all. They are trained by priests and preachers not to question everything. Thus they miss important clues that the New Testament itself plays a major role in falsifying Christianity.
“…it is quite common for the devout to claim that the New Testament is their primary guide to life. But explain how that is possible, when there’s Jesus script forbidding this attitude…”
Supposedly, for Christians the Bible is the holy word of their god. In fact, there are many texts in both the Old and New Testament that the faithful wish were not there. But it just won’t do to rank the Old Testament as inferior. God’s genocide in the Noah story? Jesus promised that, at the coming of the kingdom of god, there will be as much suffering as at the time of Noah. How is that better? The god of the Old Testament promised to punish and wipe out those who broke his laws. The god of the New Testament added eternal fire after death as punishment. How is that better?
Matthew’s Jesus-script includes the insistence that “not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law…” But we can see Matthew’s motivation: almost from the beginning of the Jesus sect, there were those who wanted it to remain a Jewish sect—Matthew was so inclined. The apostle Paul thought otherwise, and preached to the Gentiles. He downplayed the importance of the law, one primary example being the elimination of circumcision as a condition for converting to Christ. In the long run, Paul’s side won that battle.
But it won’t do to downgrade the Old Testament—how dare you anyway if it’s still part of god’s holy word? It’s right there on the church altar every Sunday! This amounts to picking and choosing what you like, depending on your own religious sensibilities. That is, you are judging the Holy Bible, you are deciding which parts are holy. Bear this in mind, however: even those early Christians who downplayed the law looked to the Old Testament to prove that Jesus was the messiah. They hunted for texts they were sure applied to Jesus, even though there is no mention whatever of a Jesus of Nazareth who would one day be the messiah. Nevertheless, so many stories of Jesus in the gospels are based on Old Testament models. The apostle Paul especially scoured the ancient texts for proof of his version of the Christ.
As I’ve said many times, the Bible—especially the gospels—is a minefield. Every step you take, the ground under your feet may explode. Which is why I say to Christians, “How about we go for a walk?”
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). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.