The Jesus Nobody Wants

The Jesus Nobody Wants July 11, 2019

Editor’s Note:  Yes, David, there are “normal” Christians; they just don’t pay much attention to the details of their religion, that you obviously know a lot about. If they thought more about these things, a lot more of them might leave, just as you did. /Linda LaScola, Editor

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Or do they?

By David Madison

Am I allowed to indulge my fantasy that there are normal Christians? By which I mean folks who love their families, go to work every day, plan their careers, save for retirement, look forward to vacations, mom and dad enjoy consenting-adult time alone together, and they show up at church. All of these pursuits—except for showing up for church—take a hit in the New Testament.

Love their families: Luke 14:26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Go to work every day and plan their careers: Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.”

Save for retirement: Matthew 6:19: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…”
Look forward to vacations: I Corinthians 7:29-30: …“from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice…”

Mom and dad enjoy consenting-adult time: ditto, I Corinthians 7:29: “…from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none…”

Maybe the normal Christians are those who don’t pay all that much attention to Bible details. At least they shrug off these texts that sound okay when recited piously from the pulpit (well, except for Luke 14:26…when did you ever hear that from the pulpit?). But they should be cautioned about giving them close inspection: Funny how that can backfire. As David Fitzgerald has said,

“It’s no coincidence that the Christians who study the Bible the hardest are also the most likely to become ex-Christians.” (Jesus: Mything in Action, Vol.1)

And there is one theme especially in the New Testament that may be a brick wall for normal Christians. If they read the texts carefully, pumped with curiosity, the honest response to this theme might be,

“What is this shit?”

But they know they can’t say that about something Jesus said.
The church has done a good job positioning Jesus to ensure adoration, with the help of great artists especially.

Handel, for example, put Isaiah 9:6 to good use:

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Hence most of the folks in the pews don’t think right away of Jesus as their beloved apocalyptic prophet. Close inspection of the synoptic gospels, however, brings them face-to-face with this Jesus, and adoration is brought down a few notches. Just what is this Jesus all about?

Suddenly we’re plunged into a strange thought world that doesn’t square well with normal Christians who work hard to get on with their lives.

There’s actually a lot of homework required to understand apocalyptic prophet, especially when a crucial adjective is added: “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet,” which is the title of one of John Loftus’ four essays in his 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.

Christians have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that Jesus could have failed at anything, but close inspection of the gospel texts leaves little room for doubt; placing Jesus in his cultural context also leaves little room for doubt. Loftus describes the situation:

“The best interpretive framework to understand Jesus is within the context of the Jewish apocalypticism of his day, if we’re to understand him at all. We see Jewish apocalypticism everywhere, stemming from such texts as Isaiah 24-27, Daniel, Zechariah 9-14, parts of Enoch 1, Sibylline Oracles, the Testament of Moses, 4th Ezra, 2nd Baruch and the Apocalypse of Abraham. The Dead Sea Scrolls show apocalyptic elements in them, especially in the War Scroll, where there is a war between the ‘children of the light’ and the ‘children of darkness,’ during which God intervenes in the seventh battle and the Sons of Light are given their victory.” (pp. 318-319)

See what I mean by homework…if Christian folks want to see Jesus’ apocalyptic message in context.

Loftus quotes scholar Paula Fredriksen (From Jesus to Christ): The Essenes “saw themselves as living on the edge of time, in the very last days, and they dedicated every moment and aspect of life to preparing, after their fashion, for the coming Kingdom of God.” He adds, “in this contextual milieu, it’s not difficult at all to think Jesus believed and taught what others did in his day. In fact, this is what we would expect to find.” (p. 319)

How well church propaganda has worked—in building up a Jesus to adore, not an apocalyptic preacher, not a crackpot—is reflected pretty well by a remark that a normal Christian woman once made to me, “I really hadn’t thought much about Jesus coming back.” Which means that his apocalyptic preaching simply hadn’t registered.

But apocalypticism is hard to miss; just three chapters into the New Testament, John the Baptist blazed the trail for Jesus, speaking of wrath and fire as he scolded the Pharisees and Sadducees:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt. 3:7 & 10)

When Mark’s gospel was written, a literal Kingdom of God—to be violently installed on earth—was presented as something just around the corner. Apparently the apostle Paul’s enthusiasm, his certainty, that Jesus would arrive soon, hadn’t faded all that much. It should be hard for careful readers to miss this, as Loftus points out:

“…the very generation of people living in his day will witness this apocalyptic event, which clearly echoes what we read in Mark 9:1 when Jesus says to his disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power.’” (p. 321)

In Matthew’s gospel we read that Jesus sent his disciples on a preaching mission, and expectation reached an even higher pitch:

“I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Matt. 10:23)

Loftus again quotes Fredriksen’s insight on the mindset present in these early Christian texts; they all shared

“the belief that the End was fast approaching and the final restoration of Israel was at hand…The forces of good will utterly vanquish the hostile powers, demonic and human, and the Kingdom of God will finally, truly be established.”

But it didn’t happen. This embarrassing mistake is preserved in the New Testament to this day, as well as the glaring truth about Christianity, as Loftus states bluntly:

“…given the many doomsday prophets throughout history, it should not surprise us if the Jesus cult movement was just another of them. These predictions and movements are a dime a dozen, so to speak, and to this date they have all been wrong. At best, the Jesus cult fits this same profile. And its predictions failed, too.” (p. 317)

Naturally, the Jesus cult had to adjust to reality. It never managed to actually do that, of course, but its propagandists had to spin the failed apocalypticism; again, Loftus quotes Paula Fredriksen:

“Successive disappointments gave rise to new interpretations as the tradition reworked what was too central to relinquish.”  [After all, these were supposed to be the words of Jesus himself.] “Reconceiving Jesus and the Kingdom, Christian tradition in various ways continually adjusted itself…as its central prophecy failed. And as part of its adjustment to this unexpected future, the tradition grew away from its own past.” (pp. 327-328)

This unexpected future How awkward: neither Jesus nor Paul anticipated the great expanse of Western and global history. As some early Christians grasped that they were stuck with the world as it is—no Kingdom of God in sight—they switched tactics; hence we find texts like Matthew 28:19: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Loftus devotes several pages of his essay to a description of such adjustments, as the later gospel writers had to account for the missing kingdom:

“Such talk of an imminent eschaton is completely removed from John’s Gospel.” (p. 331)

Where did all the nonsense come from? Namely, that there would be a Kingdom of God installed on earth. Or a heavenly Kingdom would replace what was on earth? As ancient Israel was subjugated by one army and empire after another, all culminating in the massive power of Rome, how would God’s Old Testament promise of triumph for Israel be redeemed? Naturally God would intervene to set things right.

How bad did these speculations get? Take a close look at Mark 13. Why don’t Christians shake their heads…and run for the exit? Or why aren’t their suspicions aroused by Jesus’ statement in Mark 14:63?

“…you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Amazingly, today in the 21st century, it’s still part of the Christian apologetic endeavor to put the best possible spin on this foolish theology embedded in so many bizarre verses in the gospels and epistles. In the final part of his essay, Loftus addresses this phenomenon:

“There are so many questions and disputes between Christians over this issue that the evidence seems clear: attempts to harmonize the statements in the NT are a failure. Christians misunderstand what is going on in the NT writings themselves. The authors were reinterpreting these prophecies just like every other failed doomsday cult has done in order to survive as a community.” (pp. 333-334)

The Blue Ribbon Gullibility Prize, however, goes to evangelical Kenton L. Sparks, whom Loftus quotes:

“…it is quite clear that the author of Daniel, like the authors of countless other Jewish apocalypses, expected the Kingdom of God to appear in his lifetime…these expectations clearly turned out to be incorrect…in fact we are still waiting for it.” (pp. 326-317)

We are still waiting for it. He’s kidding, right? There are still Christians who want the apocalyptic Jesus? How does that possibly make sense? Why should ancient theological fantasies—and there are hundreds to choose from—command even the tiniest bit of respect today? Jesus pushed one of these fantasies, urging his disciples to pray to Yahweh,

“Thy Kingdom come…” No thank you.

It has been easy to toss off the End of the Age nonsense in the New Testament, because the normal Christians whom I mentioned at the outset cannot identify with that level of crazy. And they probably have a good laugh too when We-Are-Still-Waiting-for-It receives the ridicule it deserves.

But was the prayer, “Thy Kingdom come” taught by Jesus? Here Christians may draw some comfort, although very little. Their Lord and Savior is virtually unknowable; he remains a stained-glass phantom and caricature. The gospels are all about the theologies of their authors, culminating in John’s egregiously egotistical Jesus. They never—least of all John—report verifiable sayings of Jesus, because there is no way to verify them. There is no way to reconstruct the real Galilean peasant preacher—if there was one—who was co-opted by the cult propagandists who authored the gospels.

The normal Christians owe it to themselves to see what they’re missing if they “haven’t thought very much about Jesus coming back”—and the implications of this theology for their faith.

**Editor’s Question** How did you ever fit into the author’s definition of “normal Christian”?

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Bio: David Madison, a Clergy Project member, was raised in a conservative Christian home in northern Indiana. He served as a pastor in the Methodist church during his work on two graduate degrees in theology. By the time he finished his PhD in Biblical Studies (Boston University) he had become an atheist, a story he shares in the Prologue of his book, published in 2016: 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith.  This essay is reposted with permission from the Debunkng Christianity Blog.

>>>>Photo Credits:  By, Attributed to Balthasar Denner – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6364709

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  • Lambchopsuey

    In my experience, the good Christians are the ones who have no connection to any church.

    When one reads 1 Cor. 7, it is clear that Paul (or whoever wrote it) expected the end of the world in the next 5 minutes – there would not be time enough for another generation. IN fact, virginal celibacy was such a focus throughout Christianity’s history (with marriage a distinct, disdained, distant second class status) that it’s no surprise Christianity’s so messed up.

    Another interesting source about the “failed apocalyptic preacher” is Hyam Maccoby’s “Jesus and the Jewish Resistance”. You can read an excerpt here – I found it *fascinating*.

  • alwayspuzzled

    Interestingly, the essay makes the case for atheism by employing biblical literalism. An odd strategy. Once a biblical literalist, always a biblical literalist??

    • ThaneOfDrones

      I used to accuse non-literalists of cherry-picking the Bible, but a simple text search taught me that there are no cherries in the Bible.

    • Interestingly, I said nothing about atheism in this essay. My point is that Christianity is falsified by careful analysis of the gospels, and it has nothing to do with being a biblical literalist…or not. Most Christians seem to pay only superficial attention to their scriptures, and they would be shocked at the suggestion that the gospels don’t tell the true story of Jesus. We see Jesus through the filter of cult propaganda created by the gospel authors, and the faithful don’t want to accept the consequences of their own biblical literalism.

      Of course non-fundamentalist theologians see the problems of Jesus the apocalyptic prophet and resort to toning him down, latching onto other texts that suit the ideal Jesus of whom they could ask, “What would Jesus do?”

      But Christianity is caught in a big bind. Whether it goes for a literal or symbolic/metaphorical/’deeper spiritual meaning’ of the texts, in the long run either course is weighed down by too many problems. Christianity had been falsified on so many levels. Once it has crumbled, then we get to the issue of atheism. That is, is theism viable at all? And on what basis?

      • Linda LaScola

        Good points — thanks for clarifying.

  • mordred

    Thanks for the article. Reminds me of how reading the bible for myself and finding Jesus’ actual teachings to seem concerned mostly with the coming kingdom and the end of the world was an important step in my development out of Christianity – I was looking for help with real world problems!

  • “At Best Jesus Was a failed Apocalyptic Prophet,” Correct! The first incarnation failed. His teaching lost to both Jew and Gentile through disobedience and unbelief. All that exists from history is the theological counterfeit pretending to be of Christ, retailing to a gullible world a false gospel, a poisonous hope and counterfeit salvation. Thus the purpose of the second coming, like the first, will not be to confirm any existing faith tradition, but to expose the folly of that attempt to comprehend the mind of G-d and offer correction to those with the humility to ‘see’ and ‘hear’.

  • ElizabetB.

    I am thinking it’s on us which version, if any, of the Jesus stories we connect with — There’s such a variety — Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary, Crossan’s nonviolent revolutionary, Reza Aslan’s violent rebel, Schweitzer’s apocalyptic prophet, Evangelicals’ propitiating sacrifice, Feminists’ Wisdom, skeptics’ nothing-not-historically-verifiable…. As you say, at this point there’s nothing provable (until they perfect time travel) so it’s up to each of us what we do with these traditions. I like the nonviolent revolutionary idea, the “way open to other ways,” and some of the wisdom like the Good Samaritan/Iranian, and chalk the odd things up to odd ideas people have had thru the ages. I am glad you spotlight odd ones!!

  • ElizabetB.

    (Raging Bee, how did you learn that the word “h*ll” has been blocked by Disqus? I tried multiple ways to post a comment on Bruce’s post “Why I’m Not Interested in a Nicer Friendlier Christianity,” but it wasn’t until I took your cue and substituted an * for the “e” in that word that the comment posted.)

    • ElizabetB.

      Looking for a list of banned words, I found this on a 4-year-old DiscussDisqus site:

      “I think that one reason for not showing the list of restricted words is that then people
      will know which words aren’t restricted (but can be used to the same effect as the ones restricted).
      “Also, posting the list of restricted words to the community then posts the restricted words for all to see, which is counter to why they’re restricted in the first place. : )
      “If you’d like to see a sample restricted word list (as a moderator of a Disqus forum), go to your admin panel Settings > Filters > and click ‘sample list of restricted words’. The list is just a sample; it is based on what we’ve seen come up again and again and what we think may help moderators just starting out.
      “Each community/culture/group will of course have its own take on what words are a-ok and which aren’t.
      “If you have any other questions or feedback about Discuss Disqus moderation or our choices regarding community guidelines, please feel free to let us know at discuss-disqus@disqus.com

      • Linda LaScola

        FYI — the moderator’s panel is currently not working. It’s been reported.

        Meanwhile, say “h*ll”. We’ll know what you mean!

    • Linda LaScola

      I appreciate your sleuthing, Eliz, and want to add that Patheos is “on” this problem. I don’t understand enough about technology to figure how such a thing could happen, do do know that it wasn’t intended.

      I also know that it was never the “moderator” (me) who banned the remarks — they disappeared for me too.

      • ElizabetB.

        I’ve assumed that the “list” was Disqus’ list… blocking words didn’t sound like you! Interesting that it sounds like blogs can make individual choices….

  • mason

    Maybe this is to stop Evangelicals from preaching h*ll ?

  • Phil

    So Jesus was actually a hate preacher “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple”