Christianity and Contemporary Issues
In this post, I want to address some of the contemporary political, social and values-based issues often raised by today’s conservative “Christians,” that are frequently the direct opposite of the teachings attributed to Jesus, including such hot-button issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, preserving the Founders’ cherished separation of church and state, the imagined “war on Christmas” (and “war on Christianity” in general) and others. We will examine why Christians take a non-Biblical view that is almost completely opposite of Jesus, and how this came to be.
Is Morality Declining?
A number of those who have written to me assert that, even if I am right, it is dangerous to undermine the literal belief in Christianity because it offers moral stability. They claim that, as a literal belief in Christianity has declined, that modern society has become more immoral.
In many respects, we are actually a more just and moral society than at any time in our history or the history of the world. We no longer practice slavery. We no longer practice child labor or the horrible oppression of assembly lines as they were known a hundred years ago. We protect working people. We protect women and minorities. We encourage those who are disabled to have greater equality of access to opportunities and to participate in the mainstream of everyday life. There is more charity and kindness and giving than ever in history.
While there are clearly some problems that exist, and some of them are new, they are not caused by removing the superficial, trivial symbols from ancient mythologies such as mandating very banal prayers in schools or posting the Ten Commandments. They are caused by a move toward a more impersonal society that results from the urban congestion of mega-cities that did not exist 200 years ago, before the Industrial Revolution. In those days, the infrastructure, communications systems and technology to produce food on farms and keep it fresh for delivery to cities simply did not exist. While a few mega-cities did exist in ancient times (Rome, London, Paris, Beijing), the resources needed to sustain large cities caused that to be a rare, aberrant phenomenon. In 1800 when Thomas Jefferson was President, the largest city in the United States was New York with 60,000 people; second was Philadelphia with 30,000. Today those would be considered small towns. The people who produced goods were personally acquainted with the people who consumed them, their neighbors. The burgeoning crush of congestion and the alienation of those who produce from the strangers that consume creates indifference, which requires regulatory protection. Media and communications allow the rapid spread of new ideas and images (not all of them good) which does more to upset traditional values than outdated mythologies or removing superficial symbols such as a bland, non-sectarian prayer that no one paid attention to anyway.
Along the same lines, many have written me to attest as to how Christianity has improved the quality of their lives. In many cases, I have no doubt but what their brand of Christianity works for them, just as others’ brands of Christianity do for them. Buddhism works for others. Judaism for others, and Hinduism, Islam, and so on. Yet not all the details of their factual claims are specifically or actually true. The point is that these are tools to help us steer away from counterproductive wallowing in purely selfish, base desires. If they work to make our lives better, it is not necessarily because they are literally true, but because they provide a sense of values, virtues and purposefulness, as well as an organizational framework within which to express them. In other cases, religion has not led to improved quality of life, but rather to persecution, violence, international strife, etc.
Is Religion Necessary for Morality?
Some claim that it is not possible to have morality apart from religious authority. Such people perpetuate the simplistic myth of morality by externally-imposed fiat — that unless there is an all-powerful authority figure standing over us, threatening to punish us for doing wrong, we will have no reason to be moral.
To say that morality is based on “God” because he has the POWER is to say that morality is based on power. Because god is the biggest, baddest dude in the universe, morality is nothing more than a cosmic game of “might makes right.”
Cowering in fearful obeisance to dominating bullies is not morality.
The only true morality is that which springs from internalizing self-actualized compassion, the self-driven compulsion to be kind and loving because it makes the world we are a part of a more harmonious place for everyone. It is morality we adhere to even when no one, including imaginary sky gods, is watching.
When parents use the “Big Santa is watching” threat to try to coerce “moral” behavior in children, does that prove anything factually about the existence of Santa? Or merely that those who respond to such externally-imposed “morality” are simply childish?
The key to whether a system of moral teaching (whether religious or otherwise) improves the quality of our lives or makes it more harsh, is whether it promotes love, harmony and positive values.
One point that needs special emphasis is the way in which modern evangelicals create a specific code of Puritanical “morality,” especially in matters of sexuality, and then claim it to represent “traditional” or Biblical values when they bear little, if any, resemblance to sexual standards of the Bible.
Premarital sex: I Cor 7:36 explicitly states that if an unmarried couple have sex before marriage, there is no sin as long as they subsequently do get married. Note that he does not say the sin is “forgiven,” but that there “is no sin”! Many in modern culture confuse fornication (premarital sex) with adultery (extramarital violatons of the marital vows). They forget that while the penalty for adultery was death by stoning, the penalty for fornication was to marry your partner, well, unless it was one of the same-sex deals.
While this may come as a surprise to many modern Christians following a more recent tradition of neo-Puritan prudery, one must consider that, while Paul (author of the passage) is surely no friend to the Law of Moses, it did reflect conventions regarding sexual morality that he would be familiar with. And according to the Old Testament Law of Moses, in Exodus 22:16, in a chapter that details the penalties for minor offenses, the penalty for a man seducing a virgin is that he must marry her and, if her father refuses to grant permission, he must remit a monetary payment the equivalent of a marriage present for a virgin. In a chapter filled with specific penalties, no other penalty for fornication is specified, whereas the crime of adultery — the violation of vows made — is elsewhere repeatedly accompanied by a mandatory death penalty.
Abortion: Those who claim to oppose abortion based on the Bible are wrong. Although abortion was known and practiced in Bible times, the Bible never says one single word against abortion. The Bible speaks of birth, death, life, pregnancy, and God’s foreknowledge of individuals, not only before birth, but before they’re even fertilized, or “formed in the womb” (Jeremiah 1:5). Any one of these references would have been a perfect opportunity to explicitly prohibit abortion if any such intent existed, but they did not. The only explicit reference to intentionally terminating a pregnancy is in Numbers 5:12-28 which specifically permits abortion through the Hebrew ritual of Sotah, using an ancient abortifacient of “bitter water” described in the King James version as “ephah of barley meal.” The ritual is required in cases where a man suspects that his wife may have been impregnated by another man. According to the Hebrews’ superstitions about the ritual of Sotah, if the woman were guilty, the bastard fetus would be expelled (aborted), but would remain safe if she were innocent. While abortion per se is not mentioned here or anywhere else in the Bible, the references to Sotah causing “thy high to rot, and thy belly to swell,” as well as the “curse” to a woman (the loss of a pregnancy or the barrenness of total infertility), may not be clearly understood by many readers in our time, but would be clearly understood in the era in which it was written.
An excellent, much more extensive discussion of abortion in terms of Christian scripture and theology can be found at:
Same-sex marriage: Similarly, the Bible is cited as a basis for opposing homosexuality in general, and same-sex marriage in particular. It is true that the Law of Moses forbids homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), but (as noted in Chapter 3) the same Law also prohibits eating pork and shellfish (Leviticus chapter 11), and requires ritual purification of women completing menstruation, yet these commandments are not so widely cited.
As for the idea of “Traditional Marriage” being “one man and one woman,” this idea is not Bible-based at all. According to the Old Testament, the institution of marriage by God is that of one man and multiple prepubescent underage women, who must be of the same ethnicity and are essentially his chattel property, over whom he has “dominion” in the same way as he has over his livestock. There are numerous instances of polygamous marriage in the Old Testament, always reported with approval and never with criticism for the polygamy itself unless it involved other wrongdoing. The Law of Moses explicitly recognizes polygamous marriage and sets forth rules for its governance in Exodus 21:10-11 and Deut 21:15-17. Isaac, son of Abraham, was given two wives at the same time (sisters Leah and Rachel; Genesis chapter 29). Kings David and Solomon had “many wives” (1 Sam 25:43; I Sam 27:3; I Sam 30:5;18; 2 Sam 5:13; I Chron 14:3; I Kings 11:3 and were only criticized for the foreign wives or when David killed Uriah to take his wife Bathsheba). Hebrew war hero Gideon was acclaimed for his “many wives” (Judges 8:30), and various other Israelites were celebrated for multiple marriages (I Sam 1:2; I Kings 20:5; 1 Chron 4:5; 2 Chron 11:21; 2 Chron 13:21; 2 Chron 24:3). And this is only a small sampling of the total number of favorable references to polygamy in the Old Testament.
So much for the “tradition” of one man and one woman. The “Traditional Values” movement seems to be very selective as to which “Biblical” traditions they wish to embrace and which they prefer to ignore.
Could an All-knowing, All-powerful, All-loving God Allow Suffering of the Innocent?
Often we hear accounts of those who suffer from terrible illnesses and afflictions which they did nothing to bring upon themselves and which they did nothing to deserve. Or we hear of the innocent victims of torture, cruelty, enslavement, criminal violence or terrorism. We hear of how God was in the towers with the victims of the World Trade Center terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
But how could a god who is supposed to be all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving allow suffering by those who are completely innocent?
So again, where was God? I don’t mean in the aftermath of courageous heroes or compassion for victims. The valor of heroes and the suffering of victims has nothing to do with God. Where was God before the planes crashed?
If a supervising adult were watching kids playing in the pool, and clearly saw as one child held another’s head underwater, how would we judge the adult who simply stood by and watched as one child forcibly, maliciously and intentionally drowned another, taking no action to intervene? I can assure you, the excuse that the responsible adult was just allowing the child to exercise his or her “free will” would not be received very kindly. If fallible mortal humans — who do not claim to be all-knowing, all-powerful or all-loving, but merely more-knowing, more-powerful and more-loving than children or the uncivilized — are morally accountable for protective intervention, then it is logically impossible to simultaneously believe that God is all-knowing, that God is all-powerful, and that God is all-righteous and loving.
As some survivors thank God for sparing their lives, how must the families feel of those who God didn’t care enough to save?
Yes, yes, I understand that the traditional response is to say that God allowed the terrorists to murder thousands of innocent civilians and heroic firefighters and police because our “Heavenly Father” grants his children, the terrorists, their “free will.” Forgive me, however, if I then ask you, again, that if the parent supervising the children’s pool party, stood by and watched, in full view and knowledge, as one child intentionally and maliciously drowned another, and did nothing to intervene, you be excused by you as allowing the child his “free will.” If you do not allow this standard for the parent, how can you allow it for God who, if anything should be held to a higher standard.
At least those who believe in “higher powers” in the universe that are merely “higher” or “superior” and not fully “omnipotent” or “supreme” can say that their less-than-omni gods are just doing the imperfect best that they can.
Christmas and Make-believe “Culture Wars”
In recent years, the myth of a “War on Christmas” has been fabricated by conservative “Christians” as a pretext for stirring up defensive animosity toward those who resist their efforts at dominating all of culture and society. This is seen in several specific ways:
One of the most visible manifestations of the paranoia behind these fabricated fears about “culture wars” is a campaign to replace the generic holiday season greeting of “Happy Holidays” with the more narrow, specific greeting of “Merry Christmas,” regardless of whether or not the recipient even celebrates that holiday.
Those who are consumed by such delusions fail to understand the perspective of those who say, “Happy Holidays” to strangers during the period between mid-November and mid-January, when a number of holidays occur including Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Solstice, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year, Epiphany and, in some years, Ramadan and/or the Feasts of Eid al-Adha and Al-Hijra. Some of these holidays represent religious or cultural viewpoints; some are secular. But they all occur during this time of year. And when you meet a stranger, not knowing their viewpoint, saying “Happy Holidays” is simply a gesture of respect to avoid judging others or imposing your choices on them.
If I encounter someone and do not know the person’s preference, I find it least presumptious to say “Happy Holidays”; if I do know their preference, then I will offer the appropriate greeting. If I know someone celebrates Christmas — as I do — I will greet them with “Merry Christmas.”
There is no anti-Christian bias; there is no “War on Christmas.” These myths are the creations of those seeking to stir up hatred where there is none, in a season meant to represent “peace on earth, goodwill to all.”
The “Reason for the Season”
One of the common sentiments expressed by conservative Christians regarding the holiday season is that, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
This is not true.
The season in which Christmas (and many other holidays) falls is winter.
The “reason for the season” is the Winter Solstice.
The date of Jesus’ birth is unknown. The date of the Christmas holiday, and many of the traditions of the Christmas season (trees, lights, Yule logs, evergreen berries such as holly, Father Winter and elves) are all pagan in origin, and reflect the fact that many holidays are placed in this season to celebrate the lengthening of days and the hope of renewal.
Jesus was born into a province of the Roman Empire, on a date lost to history. December 25 of the Julian calendar was already established as the biggest holiday of the Roman calendar: the pagan holiday “Saturnalia.” Even in modern astrology (which originated in that era) Saturn “rules” the sign of Capricorn, which begins with the winter solstice.
Saturnalia was a drunken bacchanal of orgies and earthly pleasures, the biggest holiday of the Roman Empire. It was not observed by the early faithful Christians. After Constantine, when Rome officially became Christian, the Church/ State combination had two problems:
1: The people did not want to give up their biggest holiday, any more than people like me who are raised Christian but go in different directions want to give up our holidays or traditions; and
2: The Church was beginning to set aside holy days for saints and wanted a holy day for the biggest star of all — not a mere saint but the son of god, Jesus Christ, but had no idea when his birthday was, though they suspected it to be most likely in spring.
How to consolidate these two concerns?
Not knowing the actual date of Jesus’ birth, but needing a date on which to celebrate it, the church decided to pick an arbitrary date to assign as Jesus’ birthday, and they picked December 25 so they could replace the pagan bacchanal of Saturnalia — the biggest of all Roman holidays — with what would then become the biggest of all Christian holy days (holidays).
As Christianity spread north, it imported many pagan traditions, including traditions of holly wreaths that bear their fruits in the depths of winter and evergreen trees that stay green when others are bare. Also added were Father Winter, who was blended into the mythology of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, to evolve into Santa Claus, and pagan myths of elves and a magical North Pole, along with some leftover revelry and drunkenness from the old Saturnalia.
Christmas was here before Jesus, and while the addition of the Christian tradition is one important component of Christmas, the holiday still goes on with or without him.
Jesus is not the “reason for the season,” and Christmas is but one of many holidays celebrated during this season.
Christmas did not originate with Jesus, nor did most of the other pagan traditions of this holiday. Not only are there many other holidays during this season, but even Christmas itself originates from a pagan holiday, and many of the traditions added later (trees, lights, Yule logs, evergreen berries such as holly, Father Winter and elves) are incorporated from other pagan traditions from all over the world.
Jesus vs. Santa Claus
To self-described “Christians,” the holiday of Christmas revolves around the person of Jesus and the occasion of his birth. For many of those Christians, the figure of Santa Claus is a close second, and for many non-Christians who celebrate Christmas as something other than a religious observance, Santa is the primary figure.
The two have much in common.
Both Jesus and Santa Claus are based on real persons (Jesus of Nazareth, son of a carptenter, and St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the 4th Century) who likely existed, but for whom absolute verification is greatly lacking. Based on the most reliable information, both were simple, kindly gentlemen who had an appreciation for the needs of children and the individual worth of each child. Beyond the sketchy (and unverified) details of their lives, there are many myths and legends and exaggerations, often invoking miracles and magic.
Both of these myths represent legends in which they offer free gifts — Jesus brings salvation and Santa brings toys to children. In both cases, the gifts are unconditional, well, with the exception that in each case they do have the requirement that you believe in them. At one time in my life, I believed in a real, literal Santa Claus who brought me presents for Christmas. Still later, I believed in a real, literal Jesus as savior who magically makes my “sins” disappear in return for accepting a human sacrifice. While I have outgrown the literal belief in the magical, fantasy aspects of both mythologies, I continue to embrace and celebrate the spirit of joy, love and (almost) unconditional giving represented by each.
The two are both excellent figureheads for representing various dimensions of a special holiday, as long as we remember to separate reality from fantasy as to both (more about the reality and fantasy of the Santa Claus myth in the introduction to Chapter 10).
Religion and Politics
Is the United States a “Christian Nation”?
There is no doubt that George Washington, Sam Adams, John Adams and many others among the Founding Fathers were devoutly religious (although Washington’s attendance at services was notoriously spotty).
There is also no doubt that Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine were clearly not devout Christians, though they came out of that background and later developed their own independent thoughts that rejected both the literal belief in an inerrant/infallible Bible as well as a rejection of most tenets of traditional Christian dogma. Thomas Paine was especially hostile toward traditional religion. In his 1794 treatise, “The Age of Reason,” he wrote: “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”
Jefferson, a self-described “Deist” (believing in a “higher power” as “Prime Cause” in the universe but without ongoing involvement with its subsequent course) appreciated the more liberal teachings of Jesus but rejected his literal divinity or the miracles of the Bible, or its god-given inerrancy. He had especially harsh words towards Paul, whom he described as “the first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus.” [Letters to William Short, April 13, 1820 and James Smith, December 8, 1822]
Even among those who claimed some degree of religious devotion and belief, there does not appear to be any evidence that they wanted to impose it on others or bring it into the public square. These early leaders were highly suspicious of government, and those who were believers did not trust government to be making choices about religion while those who were not religious certainly saw no role for the government in promoting something they did not believe in.
Thus they created a Constitution and Bill of Rights in which the separation of church from state was the first among the enumerated rights and, while that phrase itself does not appear in the Constitution (it comes from a 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Baptist Church of Danbury, Connecticut), the “Freedom of Religion” in the First Amendment has been universally interpreted by legal authorities as being able to choose ones own religious or non-religious path.
There is no mention of Jesus or Christianity in the Declaration of Independence. There are only generalized references to the “Laws of Nature” and to “Nature’s God” or “Divine Providence” — nothing remotely specific to the Christian belief system, which its author, Thomas Jefferson, did not believe in. These benign, general references seem stylistic in the same sense that we might refer to “Mother Nature” or “Father Time” without pronouncing a literal belief in them. And there is no mention whatsoever of religion at all in the original Constitution, except to prohibit any religious requirement for holding office (Section VI), nor in the Amendments to the Constitution, other than the First Amendment which requires complete religious freedom.
Some additional expressions by Thomas Jefferson as to his personal lack of belief in Christian dogma and the separation between church and state :
From “Notes on the State of Virginia” 1782: “I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth.”
From “Notes on the State of Virginia” 1782: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.”
From a letter to John Adams dated April 11, 1823: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
From a letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper dated February 10, 1814: “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.”
From a letter to Horatio G. Spafford dated March 17, 1814: “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
From a letter to Francis Adrian Van Der Kemp dated July 30, 1816: “No man ever had a distinct idea of the Trinity. It is the mere abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”
From a letter to Correa de Serra dated April 11, 1820: “Priests … dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight.”
Even John Adams, who most certainly was a devout believer as a matter of his own personal, individual conscience, separated personal beliefs from public policy. In terms of official policy, Adams was firmly with those who kept god out of the picture. Here is the official language from the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797, negotiated and signed by John Adams, and ratified unanimously by the U.S. Senate without debate: “The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” [Emphasis added]
As a postscript, it should also be noted that Abraham Lincoln also expressed rather candid views. While not one of the original Founders, he is credited with saving the Republic at a time of its greatest crisis, and is considered one of our greatest presidents. In a letter dated Sept 13, 1862 to Judge J.S. Wakefield after death of his son Willie, Lincoln said: “My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them. The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.”
As noted earlier, I see today a resurgence of those who seek to unravel the carefully crafted separation of church and state that was the genius of our Founders, and which enhanced the integrity of both church and state. I see many conservative Christians trying to create an official religion in our secular nation. They do not have confidence that others will be attracted to their brand of harsh, cruel Christian teaching rooted in Paul rather than Jesus on its own merits, but that it requires authoritarian government coercion to force itself onto others. Ironically, the same conservatives who express little confidence in the government to handle other matters are quite content to let government dictate matters of faith; they seem to place more trust in the government to decide matters of conscience than in their churches, families and private religious schools. It is incumbent on all free people to resist the intursion of public institutions into the most private of personal domains. The last time the Church dominated the Western world, we called it the Dark Ages. Today, many of those with the same mentality seek to resist and obstruct science and reason and return us to that era of dark reliance on superstition. It is hoped that this effort can help expose some of the reasons why such primivitve thinking must be rejected.
Who Do You Trust? Church Leaders or Politicians?
Jesus taught in his seminal public discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, that religious exercises such as prayer and worship should be personal and private. On prayer, Jesus did not suggest, he commanded in Matthew 5:5 “thou shalt not” pray in public. Not even in the synagogues or street corners! How can anyone who calls themselves “Christians” lobby for public prayers? Have they even read the Bible that they proclaim to be the Word of God?
And Jesus clearly delineated between religious authority and the secular, non-religious authority of the government. Jesus makes it explicitly clear in Matt 22:21 and Mark 12:17 and Luke 20:25 that we should render to the government (Caesar) that which is the government’s (Caesar’s), and separately to God that which is God’s. In this way, we can see that Jefferson’s vision of a “wall of separation between church and state,” an expression he was the first to use while writing a letter explaining this concept to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, in 1802.
We hear about calls for “balance” by religious extremists, who demand that Creationism (the belief that God created all things specifically, also known as “Intelligent Design”) be taught in science classes alongside Evolution.
The problem is that Creationism, even if dressed up with the fancy title “Intelligent Design,” is not science. Science, however imperfect and incomplete, is based on specific protocols of empirical, measurable, quantifiable, replicable observation and experimentation — observable, measurable, replicably quantifiable data such as transitional fossils, (including those between major branches on the tree of life such as from reptiles to birds), as well as specific verification of relationships based on the kind of highly-reliable DNA evidence that can convict the guilty, free the innocent or establish paternity with absolute certainty. Faith is not based on any such observation or objective evidence. The very definition of faith in the Bible is that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1; emphasis added]. That which is not seen cannot, by definition, be part of a systematic protocol of observation. Creationism is simply not based on science. It is based on the story in Genesis, although as we have seen in Chapter 3 that there are two different accounts of Creation in Genesis, and the account in Genesis Chapter One directly contradicts that in Genesis Chapter Two.
There may be a place to cover religious teachings in schools, as literature or for its role in the development of what became the discipline of theology, or in legitimate discussions of comparative theology — but not in science classes.
It always strikes me as humorous that the same people who demand “balance” in biology and geology classes never demand the same balance in medical schools by hiring medicine men or other quacks, or in astronomy classes by teaching astrology (which is actually based on the ancient Greek theological belief that the sun, moon and planets were literally Gods in the sky, each assigned an area of influence over various aspects of the lives of mortals, reflected in “signs” that reflected the season of one’s birth and “houses” that reflected the time of one’s birth, thus recognizing the earth’s revolution around the sun as well as its daily rotation on its axis). Nor does the Bible literalists’ demand for “balance” ever go both ways: when have they ever provided quantifiable, replicable scientific data to support the creation accounts in Genesis?
Would Jesus Be Liberal or Conservative?
Labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” and especially partisan identities such as Democrat or Republican did not exist at the time Jesus lived on this earth. Carefully thought out political and economic philosophies such as capitalism or socialism had not been contemplated. So clearly no party or ideology can unequivocally claim Jesus as an adherent. However, if one considers the teachings attributed to Jesus in the gospels, and compares them to modern philosophies, he would clearly fall into the liberal camp.
Look at some of these specific teachings:
On rich and poor: “Sell all your possess and give to the poor.” (Mark 10:21). Or: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matt 19:23-24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25).
For those who oppose higher tax rates on higher levels of income: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” (Luke 12:48).
Jesus followers took him seriously: “All that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, according to their needs.” (Acts 2:44-45, emphasis added; this was enforced by threat of death in a more detailed description in Acts 4:32-37 and Acts 5:1-11). Shades of Karl Marx! If someone were to suggest such a practice today, those who claim to be Jesus’ followers today would call him a Communist. Would they call Jesus a Communist? A Socialist?
So if Jesus is such an outspoken liberal, why do those who claim to be his followers stake out a conservative position so opposite of what he taught?
It all goes back to that fundamental conflict that has been repeatedly cited in earlier chapters between Jesus (supported by his brother James) and the renegade “apostle” Paul.
Jesus is compassionate (some might ridicule him as a “bleeding heart” liberal) and inclusive; Paul is the one who oppresses gays, women and slaves. Jesus is flexible and understanding; Paul is rigid, legalistic, strict, dogmatic and doctrinaire.
Jesus teaches salvation through universal compassionate love expressed actively through actions; Paul teaches an easy, selfish salvation based on expressing belief, and says it doesn’t matter what you do, and bases this teaching on a doctrine rooted in a bloody ritual of human sacrifice.
“What if You’re Wrong?”
Many times, in written correspondence or one-on-one dialogue, when Christians become frustrated with their inability to reconcile their mythological literalism with a more expansive and more realistic perspective on Christianity, they will respond with a statement that goes something like this: “You had better be sure that you are right. If I’m wrong, all I’ve sacrificed is a little inconvenience. But if you’re wrong, you’ll pay for your error by spending eternity in hell.”
This statement is a colloquialized adaptation of an idea postulated by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. As a mathematician, he earned famed for developing early theories of probability applicable in games of chance. He asserts that the infinite magnitude of God is so vast that it is incomprehensible to mortal humans, and being beyond our capacity for understanding certainly exceeds our capacity to prove or disprove. Thus he claims we must either believe or not believe based on faith or the lack of it. In weighing this decision, since we can’t resort to logic or proof, since it is beyond us, we must find some other rationale. So he likens it to a wager in which there are two choices: either we accept God or reject belief in deity. As a wager, he finds this a no-brainer. If you believe and you are right, you have infinite, eternal gain of infinite, eternal happiness; if you are wrong you have suffered minimal loss, if any, and probably still had a better quality of life. On the other hand, if you disbelieve and are right, you could avail of more enjoyment of vices (which might actually not be a better quality of life); but if you are wrong you have risked everything and lost your eternal reward and instead suffer eternal damnation. So the risk on 50/50 odds is a choice between infinite gain with minimal (if any) loss versus minimal (if any) gain with risk of infinite loss.
But no matter its lofty philosophical origins, ultimately the claim is reduced to what it really is: an empty, meaningless exercise in frustration. It is a hollow “cosmic death threat.” And when looked at from another perspective, even Christians can readily see its fallacy. This point is further discussed in Chapter 10.
When I was in high school back in the 1960s, I had a very close friend who was a very devout Sunni Moslem from Egypt. At that time I was still a zealous Christian, active in youth ministries. It was at his urging that I first read a translation of the Koran, and we spent many enjoyable lunch hours debating our respective religious perspectives. He used to say something very similar to me: “What if you’re wrong?” And I would say the same thing back to him. And neither of us was the slightest bit intimidated by the others’ threats, which are merely a substitute for the failure to come up with a more substantial, logical basis for discussion.
Similarly, even within Christianity, differing branches of Christians say the same thing to each other. Differing sects of evangelical Protestants may argue about points of doctrine, but generally accept the legitimacy of each other’s claims of having been “saved” by “accepting Jesus Christ as Savior.” However these evangelical Protestants generally will not accept the validity of other Christian branches such as liberal Christians, Catholics, Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, all of whom they claim are not real Christians despite all of them having built their doctrines around a messianic belief in Jesus as divine savior. Similarly, Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, each of which claim a monopoly on the truth, say the same thing to all the others.
Without additional basis for why each of their claims should be accepted as the one and only valid claim, the mere utterance of this “cosmic death threat” means nothing.
I have shown with ample evidence that the literal claims of divinity for the Bible and for Christian mythology, whatever other importance and merit they definitely offer, are the works of wise but ancient men, not of any divine deity. In basing these claims on solid foundations of support, I have no more fear or intimidation from such hollow threats because I do not accept Jesus as a literal atoning sacrifice than I do because I also do not accept Zeus, Jupiter, or the gods of ancient Egyptians, Incas or Mayans as being literally divine (though I also find much wisdom and value in those ancient mythologies).
Many Christians write to affirm that their belief is not just based on logic, but rather on a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” — that their hearts have been touched and inspired as a witness to the truth of their beliefs.
Such testimonies are indeed powerful. I know, because I felt the same deep and passionate conviction when I was a Christian.
But again, this experience proves nothing because it is not unique to Christianity. On the contrary, it is common to almost all religions. This deeply personal feeling is the essence of the religious experience, and is what motivates and drives those who become the most devout and ardent adherents to any sect. This is what inspires martyrs to be willing to give up their mortal lives for their faith, whether they be Catholics fighting Protestants in Ireland or Jews and Moslems fighting each other in the Middle East. All of them are passionate in their fervent devotion because they have all had the same experience — except that the same experience “proved” very differing conclusions to very differing religious communities.
Religion is a powerful force in many lives, and many have had powerful experiences that engender strong belief, but this is a phenomenon exhibited in all faiths. Therefore, since they cannot all be true, such experiences may be powerful, but they do not validate claims of the supernatural.
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