“Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat and upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen. And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not, shall be damned.”
– Luke 16:14-16, supposedly quoting Jesus of Nazareth
I’ve heard a number of variations on the rule, supposedly given to us by Jesus on Easter Sunday, that grace is dependent on believing something completely outside our experience and out of step with the rest of his teachings. This spiritual leader, this man who told us to love our enemies and to follow the Golden Rule suddenly isn’t spiritual. The single “virtue” separating those destined for grace and those destined for eternal suffering is credulity! Not by good works; not by kindness; not by following the Golden Rule; we are to be judged solely on our ability to believe the story that Jesus rose from the dead after sixty hours or so and again walked the Earth. Added to this, we must believe in absolution through blood sacrifice and we must be baptized. These rules are petty and ritualistic, they separate the world into believers, disbelievers, and people with different traditions and rituals, providing a new distinction: an “us” and a “them”; something which has regularly led us toward intolerance, bigotry, war and suffering.
I wasn’t suffering from “hardness of heart.” In fact, my problem was just the opposite. I knew this “rule” was unfair, arbitrary, capricious, and often disingenuous. I did not believe that a being (man or god) who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, who refused to be crowned “King of the Jews,” who walked and talked humbly among us and taught us unconditional love – this paragon of spiritual virtue would damn every non-Christian on the planet just for not believing this story, whether the story itself was truth or fiction.
Years later, I discovered that the Gospels were written to conform to a flawed translation of the ancient Messianic prophecies. When they no longer had a template by which to tell their story, the Gospel authors couldn’t come up with much on their own and the little they managed to concoct didn’t agree between them. Most importantly, I now understand spirituality. The Sermon on the Mount is spiritual while Luke 16:16 is most definitely not spiritual!
I believe in the kindness of Jesus, in treating enemies with loving regard, in taking responsibility and blame whenever possible and in avoiding resentment and recrimination. If God were so petty as to damn Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists while blessing those I found in my Sunday School classes, I wasn’t going to worship Him even if it were all true. I decided to throw in with the outcasts: the Buddhists, the Moslems, the Hindus, and the people who, like me, just didn’t know and so didn’t presume to know. I decided that this rule is small, petty, mean-spirited and foolish; and, thus, not worth following. While some may consider this “blasphemy,” I think Luke 16:16 is the blasphemy! How dare some ghost writer put these divisive words into the mouth of Jesus!
Blood sacrifice doesn’t make us better people. It isn’t effective at ending poor behavior or supporting a change in behavior. What it does is put the error in judgment behind us and help us feel better without really looking at it. Scapegoating Jesus hasn’t worked and won’t work to make us kinder, more compassionate or better world citizens. Maybe we’re kind to each other in church, but the outside world becomes “evil” and suspicious and somehow threatening to the safety we feel among fellow “believers.”
Those of us that have worked the Twelve Steps made amends. Making amends isn’t about symbolic blood, symbolic flesh, or holy water and involves no particular religious belief or practice. Making amends is about seeing the effects of our poor behavior, correcting those effects whenever possible, and choosing different behaviors in the future. This works. Religious rituals may make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but without looking at what we did and are still doing, they don’t make us better people; they just give us the pleasant illusion that we already are.
ORIGINAL SIN, CURIOSITY, and DOUBT
I put myself in Eve’s shoes. What would I have done if I had been told not to be curious about the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil? What would almost any person do? Why would Jehovah plant this artifact in the Garden of Eden anyway? He gave us free will and everything about that free will is the curious little serpent telling us to find out what this is all about. Furthermore, Jehovah knew ahead of time what Eve would do. He knew as He was creating her and, presumably before that. He knew exactly how things would turn our and yet He made and enforced this devious and petty rule that put us at odds with our own curiosity and free will.
I put this together with other stories. Failing the test of slavish obedience, Lot’s wife was punished decisively. Jehovah’s most obsequious follower, Job, was tortured and ruined as a test of his faith, his entire first family collateral damage. Abraham had to be willing to murder his son, the infant heir he had wanted for his whole long life; to deny every ounce of humanity or love in his soul and be stupidly, immorally obedient to win the Lord’s approval. I put myself in Abraham’s shoes as well. In my estimation, Abraham and Jehovah both failed the test of conscience and character. Obedience, throughout the Bible is far overrated, as the inhabitants of Jonestown, Guiana, found out the hard way.
If Jehovah had wanted sheep, why didn’t he just create more sheep? Why something which could think for itself? Why give us this big brain if we weren’t supposed to use it? Why give ME an intelligent and thoughtful mind and then demand that I close it; that I not think for myself; that I deny my empathy for “nonbelievers” and my skepticism at irrational and immoral behavior on the part of a “being” someone else tells me is “God.”
Then I considered an alternative hypothesis. If power-hungry leaders underwrote this novel, the most highly prized qualities in their acolytes would be blind obedience and unwavering loyalty. Curiosity, individuality and independent thought and ethics would be tabu. I chose common sense. I chose to believe my Creator has a purpose for my curiosity and intelligence – and not just to shame me with it.
PROPHECY and COVENANTS, WAR and SLAVERY
Where prophecy is involved, it appears that both mankind and Jehovah are constrained to follow it. Like covenants, prophecy empowers certain people and dis-empowers God and everyone else – especially original landowners and peacemakers.
Apparently Jehovah is shy. He doesn’t just stand up in front of everyone and hand them the tablets of stone. He’s willing to part the Red Sea in front of them, but telling them the new rules is delegated to others who speak for Him. These declarations involve an explanation of past and future history. These pronouncements include special legal pacts between Jehovah and the people who are willing to obey the leader that Jehovah has apparently selected. And these declarations show a consistent and perverse disregard for the legal and spiritual rights of anyone who is not in this group or who is not male.
I had already decided that Creation was a good thing and so I decided to assume God had good intentions when he concocted an atom, saw how amazing this perpetual motion machine was, and replicated a few hundred variations of this miracle a few quintillion times.
I also decided that Abraham and Sarah were greedy, dishonest, incestuous slave owners who abused their slave and were only looking out for themselves. When Sarah got Abimelech in trouble, she didn’t apologize, but ran off with a bunch of her host’s stuff. Maybe he gave her the loot, but he had no idea he had done anything wrong until the wrath of God descended upon him. Eight chapters later, exactly the same thing happened to the Pharaoh.1
My take on it? The plague was a disease or poison the couple planted in the household and the “miracle” was some cure or antidote. The rest was the con. Think about it. The story tells us this couple were greedy and dishonest. If they actually feared for Abraham’s life when they lied to Abimelech, why walk into the same problem with the Pharaoh?
When legal agreements keep popping up between Jehovah and descendants of these unlikeable people, that serpent starts whispering in my ear and I get curious again. These covenants all disregard the rights of others and empower “chosen people” to murder and steal; something Jehovah was supposed to have put the kibosh on when Moses was around.
Jehovah gives them license to steal and enslave. Would a loving God encourage and support such an abuse of other people? Hell, would a loving God do that to his “chosen people?” After all, He’s condemned them to the perpetual warfare we see in Israel today. Had these prophecies not been written or had we not believed them, the endless cycles of enmity in the Middle East might have been avoided altogether and those Jewish refugees would be settled among us, safely at home in our own neighborhoods.
I think religion is often used to control people, to use their loyalty and obedience for purposes not really in the interests of the group’s ultimate prosperity.
I believe that The Holy Bible was created not out of sincerity but out of a desire to justify and sanctify nefarious deeds such as stealing from and murdering or enslaving neighboring populations. If you look up the number of times God has supposedly given His approval to conquest, you start to see the hypocrisy of the Ten Commandments. God says, “Don’t murder” and “Don’t covet,” and then God gives title of others’ land all the way to the Euphrates River! Repeatedly, He is reputed to have given license to conquest.
I don’t believe in conquest. I seriously doubt that God approved and supported the invasion of Jericho or the many other city-states He “gave” to his “chosen people.” I am certain that much of the Bible was written by men for their own purposes and not because they wanted “Peace on Earth” or “Good Will to All Men.”
The God I talk to wants me to use my brain, to think for myself. God wants me to make better decisions and not just follow sheepishly on the path of least resistance. I seriously doubt that slavish credulity or blind obedience actually makes God happy. It certainly doesn’t make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren, which I believe would make God happy.
History seems to show conclusively that the guesses and imaginings that comprise the many different gods mankind has conceived of, including Jehovah, manage to contain the same defects of character and many of the same characteristics as the people doing the guessing and imagining. It seems to me that mankind must be incapable of doing well at understanding our Creator and that his many attempts are conceits and posturing rather than humility and honesty. Somehow trying to understand our Creator, if such a thing exists, just gets us into a lot of trouble with our friends and neighbors. Maybe we should just follow the Golden Rule and call the rest speculation or hope.
©David N. Dodson, September, 2015, Phoenix, AZ
1Genesis 12:11-20; Genesis 20