By David Madison at 2/03/2023
Here’s the link to this article.
They just say NO to their Lord and Savior
Nothing undermines Christianity more than taking a close look at the teaching attributed to Jesus in the gospels—and, well, taking a close look at Christian history. Even some of the Jesus-script that deserves a high-rating reveals how far short this religion falls in real life. Moreover, there are many sayings of Jesus that would make many laypeople uneasy—they would even find them appalling—if they took the time to think about them carefully. My own list of questionable Jesus sayings comes to 292, which I’ve broken down into four categories: (1) Preaching about the end times; (2) Scary extremism; (3) Bad advice and bad theology; (4) The unreal Jesus of John’s gospel.
This article begins a new series in which we’ll take a close look at some of the Jesus-script that many Christians themselves resist and reject—but would be reluctant to say so out loud.
Let’s begin with a Jesus quote that most Christians would endorse enthusiastically, Matthew 18:21-22: “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’” Some translations render the Greek as “seventy-times seven.” These words echo that line from the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:12, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We find similar sentiments in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:23-24: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Let’s look at Matthew 18:21-22 from three perspectives.
Has this very generous level of forgiveness been standard Christian behavior? Do most of the faithful even aspire to it? When I served two Methodist parishes, I soon discovered, in each one of them, the factions and frictions: the people who just didn’t get along. In fact, there were toxic rivalries. There was no such thing as “a big happy family” because forgiveness wasn’t a top priority. I thought of this many years later when I read Tim Sledge’s book, Four Disturbing Question with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief. While I was in a middle-of-the-road Protestant denomination, Tim Sledge was not, and saw what happens with evangelicals:
“Take a group of these born-again, new creations in Christ—to whom God is giving directions and guidance for day-to-day life—put them in a church and wait. Eventually, some of them will get into a disagreement about something. Sometimes they work it out, but often, no matter how much prayer takes place, one group gets angry and leaves, often to start another congregation. Wait a little longer, and the process will repeat—over and over—and that’s one reason we have not only thousands of churches, but thousands of Christian denominations.” (p. 16)
“…one group gets angry and leaves…” So here are super-Christians who fail utterly at forgiving seventy-times-seven. Egos, personal ambitions, and theological arrogance play far bigger roles than forgiveness. And what a scandal: Christians have failed so dramatically at forgiving that there are now many thousands of Christian brands.
At one of my jobs a few years back, two of my colleagues were devout Catholic women. But one of them hated the other one, based I suspect on envy and jealousy. I saw no evidence whatever of any degree of Christian forgiveness. It never entered her mind.
And here’s a headline that caught my attention this week: First Baptist Church members must now sign sexuality oath opposing LGBTQ freedoms. The opening sentence:
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Calling the “sexual revolution” a “threat to our church,” First Baptist Church in Jacksonville will now require congregants to sign a statement affirming their opposition to LGBTQ+ freedoms if they want to remain members.
Here again: super-Christians who banish Matthew 18:21-22 from their thinking as they devise policy about how to treat LGBTQ people. We can be sure there are gay people in that congregation. If Matthew 18:21-22 are authentic words of their Lord and Savior, we wonder What Would Jesus Do?
So much of Christian history demonstrates that Matthew 18:21-22 has failed to gain traction: the horrors of the Inquisition and the Crusades come to mind. The New Testament itself has fueled virulent anti-Semitism, and this emerged full strength in the rantings of Martin Luther. He suggested seven steps be taken against the Jews—the list is here on Wikipedia—and the first two set the tone: “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools … This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …” “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
These were the folks who didn’t agree that Jesus was the messiah, so no mercy, no forgiveness whatever for them.
Inexplicably, the Christian god himself is not held to this high moral standard. Jesus makes his grand pronouncement about forgiveness in Matthew 18:21-22, and then illustrates his point with the parable of the unforgiving slave: a king wanted to get rid of a slave who owed him a lot of money, i.e. he planned to sell the slave and his family. But the slave begged him not to, promising to pay him all the money he owed: “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). But that same slave was brutal toward another slave who owed him money, throwing “him into prison until he would pay the debt” (v. 30). When the king heard about this, he was enraged: “‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt’” (vv.32-34).
We sometimes wonder what was going on inside Matthew’s head. This parable does not illustrate abundance of forgiveness. The slave whom the king had forgiven screws up badly, and gets tossed into jail. For the parable to be an illustration of Matthew 18:21-22, the king would have taken him aside and offered guidance on how to treat people better. “Okay, I forgive you for the way you treated your fellow slave, so let’s try this again. Let’s see if you can do better.” But Matthew makes an even bigger mistake, derailing into really bad theology:
“Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:34-35)
Yes, you read that right: Jesus says that the heavenly father will hand every one of you over to be tortured if you don’t forgive. Even the most pious believers should be horrified by this text. Of course this doesn’t match the cherished ideas about a loving-father-god that the church promotes. But it does match the angry, wrathful god we find portrayed in scripture. For more on this, see my article Bible god is Not a god ANYONE Would Want.
The authors of the New Testament based their theologies on the bad-tempered god of the Old Testament, hence it’s no surprise to find a carry-over of vindictive theology. There are other texts in Matthew where generous forgiveness plays no part:
“I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (12:36-37).
In Matthew’s famous Last Judgement scene (25:31-46) we read that those who fail to show sufficient compassion will “… depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…”(v. 41)
When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, he advised them not to waste time on those who wouldn’t listen: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (Matthew 10:14-15).
As has been the case with cults throughout the millennia, early Christian thought-leaders insisted that correct belief was a qualification for belonging. If you failed at this, you were condemned—with no generous forgiveness in sight. We have no idea who wrote the forged ending of Mark’s gospel, but he reflected this intolerance: “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” (16:16)
This strident intolerance is also found in that Bible chapter in which the devout find their favorite verse, i.e., John 3. Verse 16 states that god “so loved the world,” but we find this brutality in verse 18: “Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” And the last verse of the chapter (v. 36) reinforces this failure to forgive: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life but must endure God’s wrath.”
The devout who truly believe these bits of scripture were inspired by the Christian god—whom they adore, worship, sing songs to—have they made any effort to wrap their minds around these cruel, unforgiving texts?
New Testament scholars are aware of the fundamental problem with Matthew 18:21-22—as with any text in which Jesus is quoted: how do we know if Jesus actually said any such thing? There is actually no way to find this out, which is why it is appropriate to use the term Jesus-script. It looks very much like the gospel authors imagined what they thought Jesus might have said as they created their stories. Matthew 18:21-22 is found in no other gospel. The closest parallel we find is in Luke 17:3-4: “Be on your guard! If a brother or sister sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” Moreover, the other gospels do not have the parable that follows, about the king and his slaves.
We cannot take seriously the argument that these must be the words of Jesus because they’re in the Bible, which was inspired the Christian god. This is an article of faith; writing authentic history has to be based on documentary evidence, not on what the faithful hope/wish is true. The gospels fail as documentary evidence because they were written decades after the death of Jesus—and their authors never mention credible sources, i.e., sources that would satisfy secular historians.
Add to this problem the troublesome fact that Jesus-script, just as presented in Matthew, is incoherent, as the quotes above indicate: the generous forgiveness in Matthew 18:21-22 is ignored even in the parable that follows, as well as in the texts about condemnation and eternal punishment by fire. Was it Jesus who was hopelessly confused—or did Matthew fail to think things through? I discussed this at length in my article here, Who the Hell Hired Matthew to Write a Gospel? In the following centuries, Christian theologians—of so many different varieties—have added substantially to the confusion and incoherence.
A major contributor to the confusion and incoherence is Jesus-script itself, so much of which falls far short of being great moral teaching. We’ll get into more detail on this in the articles to come.
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). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available.
His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity 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.
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