A Religion Not Made for Success

Were I inclined to believe in them, I would say that the New Testament gospels were a set of maddeningly strange and frustrating documents. Although they contain some beautiful ideas, they always stop just short of bringing them to their logical conclusions. They contain moving admonitions of universal love, but never go so far as to extend that compassion to women or the enslaved. Although Jesus is said to have had pity on the sick and the infirm who came to him and cured them of their ailments, he never did anything to help the millions more who were too sick or too distant even to seek him out, although if he was truly omnipotent that would have been within his power. Though they repeatedly promise that the kingdom of God is just around the corner, that promise remains unfulfilled to this day.

In these ways and others, one could say that Christianity is a religion not made for success. It began as a small, fringe apocalyptic sect, and its originators apparently expected it would always remain so. To judge by what they wrote, the authors of the gospels expected Christianity to persist in its original state – its members penniless vagrant proselytizers, traveling from town to town to preach, sleeping on the ground and subsisting on alms – until Jesus’ return and the end of the world, which the first generation of Christians clearly expected to happen within their own lifetimes.

As proof of this, consider that the gospels lack the sort of rules concerning organization and hierarchy that are ultimately needed for a church to survive in the long term. Other than a few vague references, Jesus never gives advice on how to ordain priests and bishops, how to establish a church hierarchy, or how to select new apostles. He never even defines a formal creed!

This lack of formalization has caused the fragmentation of Christianity into so many different sects and denominations, a degree of variation virtually unparalleled in any other major world religion. For example, Judaism is mainly divided into Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, while Islam is mainly divided into Sunni and Shiite. Christianity, by contrast, has literally dozens of major denominations, often separated by fierce and even violent disputes over the most trifling points of doctrine, such as whether the bread and wine used in communion “literally” (but not literally) become the body and blood of Jesus, or whether they only do so figuratively; or whether children should be baptized or only adults, and whether it is necessary to enter Heaven in any case. Given the grab-bag nature of the gospels, and the highly ambiguous and cryptic nature of many of their teachings, it is hardly surprising that such a diversity of interpretation has arisen.

Furthermore, much of the advice given in the gospels clearly assumes that Christianity will always consist of rootless bands of evangelists, such as Jesus’ teachings that one must sell everything one owns and forsake one’s family to be a Christian, or that people who follow him will always be rejected and reviled. Such teachings make perfect sense in the context of the outcast cult which Christianity started off as. Nowadays, of course, it is largely composed of the very kind of wealthy, settled, comfortable people that Jesus preached against, which is why these teachings are widely ignored by today’s Christians. Some Christians even flatly contradict them, such as the teachers of the “prosperity gospel” who claim that that God wants all his followers to be rich. One need only consider the vast wealth and tremendous luxury enjoyed by Christian leaders, such as the pope or the powerful preachers of the Protestant right, to see how far the religion has diverged from its original teachings.

Finally, take Jesus’ teachings that the end is imminent. These perpetually unfulfilled promises have led to the bizarre phenomenon of feverish apocalyptic speculation that has consumed every single generation of Christians, died away as that generation grew old and gray, and then was taken up just as eagerly by the next generation. Where other religions are more sensitive to history and continuity, the urgent and immediate nature of the gospels’ end-time claims have made many Christian sects all but deaf to it.

In all these ways, Christianity has “stretched its boundaries” as it tries to build a large, mainstream religion on the precepts of a small, isolated cult. Its original infrastructure was not designed for future growth and success. Although later New Testament documents, such as the Pastoral epistles, attempt to provide some framework for this, for the most part Christianity did not become formalized in this way until long after the canon was closed. Much of its formal ideas are little more than the interpretations, and in some cases the outright inventions, of church figures who for the most part were making it up as they went along.

If this religion had been founded by an all-knowing god, it is more likely than not that he would have been aware of its future growth potential and set up its institutions accordingly. The ad hoc and arbitrary nature of the way Christianity has grown, however, points instead to the conclusion that it was invented by human beings who, regardless of their theological creativity, could not foresee the future.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.