bible, christianity, constantine, crime, david madison, history, suffering
By David Madison
So many crimes done in Jesus’ name
“If you read the scriptures and are not shocked out of all your religious beliefs, you have not understood them.” Oh how I wish these words could be mounted in stained glass, in churches throughout the world. This is a quote from Dr. Jaco Gericke’s essay, “Can God Exist of Yahweh Doesn’t?” in the 2011 John Loftus anthology, The End of Christianity. But that kind of honesty is missing. Instead, via stained glass, sermons, ritual, and hymns, the folks in the pews are familiar with feel-good Bible verses—and even many of those reflect bad, incoherent theology; with just a little careful thought, most people could figure out that John 3:16 is deeply flawed. Many years ago, when I—as a pastor—led Bible study classes for my parishioners, I advised a generous helping of skepticism when reading the Bible. But no, the Bible is the word of God. Folks read the Bible to anchor their faith, so they welcome the pious filters that keep them fooled. Of course, many of them skip Bible reading altogether, and priests and preachers breathe sighs of relief.
If there is anything else that should kill Christianity, it is the history of Christianity itself. The devout want to accept “the greatest story ever told,” i.e., Jesus appearing as the messiah, preaching goodness and love, and the truth of his message is secured by his resurrection. From there it was all uphill: belief gained traction, acceptance of Jesus spread throughout the generations and centuries—and here we are now with more than two billion Christians in the world. But that’s not the history of Christianity—that’s fantasy. Here’s another quote that points us in the right direction:
“Approximately 1,950 years ago, a few anonymous Greek writers propagated the oral tales of a self-appointed Hebrew evangelist, a seemingly harmless undertaking…They wrote of a magical birth, a miracle-performing man in the Jewish tradition, and his eventual crucifixion. They could not possibly have foreseen how much harm their stories would cause the world once embraced by predatory, narcissistic, and pious men.” (emphasis added, Kindle, p. 475)
These are the words of Michael Paulkovich, in his essay, “The Ascent and Reign of the Christian Behemoth,” in the 2021 John Loftus anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering. In this essay, he illustrates how much harm Christianity has done—how much it has indeed contributed to horrendous suffering. So much of the time, Jesus-belief was spread through violence and coercion. Just a couple of Bible verses provided the motivation and fuel. This is the Jesus-script we find at the end of Matthew’s gospel, 28:19-20:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Teaching them to obey has far too often been done at sword-point. The author of Matthew’s gospel was trying to promote the early Jesus cult, so Paulkovich probably calls it correctly that this author could not possibly have foreseen the harm that “teach them to obey” would cause.
Just as the Christian laity can’t be bothered to do serious homework about the Bible—most are not even aware of the vast literature available, so much of it done by devout scholars—so too there is precious little curiosity about Christian history. One super pious person I know, when I asked, “Who taught you what you believe?” beamed with pride: she learned her faith from her grandmother, who probably had zero knowledge of the church’s brutal history. Paulkovich’s 14-page essay includes a bibliography listing about 75 works. Most folks don’t have an informed faith, but if they want to give it a shot, Paulkovich’s bibliography can help make a start with that.
He notes that, for well over two centuries, the Jesus cult was small, maybe five to ten percent of the population. But once someone with real power was brought on board, things changed:
“With Constantine, the Christian colossus truly began to rear its mighty head in the fourth century. Some seven decades later the most harmful edicts began with Theodosius I, bolstered by every emperor thereafter, along with the perpetually corrupt Christian church and its forgeries and falsifications. The juridical campaign that would thrust the tiny Jesus cult upon the masses would accelerate in 390–395 CE as Emperor Theodosius decreed that all pagan practices were illegal under penalty of death. Christians began systematic destruction of pagan statues and temples, closed schools of philosophy, burned books, and eventually plunged Europe into the Dark Ages. Over the centuries, Christendom devised many tricks and deceptions for their cause.” (emphasis added, Kindle, pp. 477-478)
Not something to be proud of, clearly. One of the best book titles ever is Phillip Jenkins’ Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years. There’s a big hint here that grandmother’s version of the faith can’t be traced back to Jesus! Paulkovich includes a quote from this Jenkins’ book:
“Horror stories about Christian violence abound in other eras, with the Crusades and Inquisition as prime exhibits; but the intra-Christian violence of the fifth-and sixth-century debates was on a far larger and more systematic scale than anything produced by the Inquisition and occurred at a much earlier stage of the church history…” (Kindle, p. 477)
We can fast-forward to much later periods, e.g. the crusades and the Inquisition. It makes no sense to claim, “But that was then, this is now”—as if that gets Christianity (or its god) off the hook. Predatory, narcissistic, pious men still drive so much of this religion’s success (e.g., Evangelical fanatics). The faithful today need to ponder the religious crimes of the past. They need, for example, to see how the Cathars were treated in the 13th century, once the pope decided this brand of Christianity should be crushed:
“The crusade was terminated in 1229 with the Treaty of Paris, yet in the following years the Inquisition took over. In its incursion against the Cathars it was a slow and patient machine to crush their will, a religious tribunal reporting to the pope alone, systematically traversing towns and villages of Languedoc to root out heresy: by confession, conversion, denunciation, and systematic elimination of all the Cathar priests and priestesses, ‘one after another spotted, found, captured, subjected to recanting their belief, or death.’ All told, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 innocent men, women, and children were murdered by Catholic forces, often by burning them alive.” (Kindle, p. 483)
One of the most horrible features of church history has been its embrace of anti-Jewish hatreds. John’s gospel played a major role in fueling this phenomenon, which increased with the ages, culminating in the Holocaust. (See especially, Hector Avalos’ essay, “Atheism Was Not the Cause of the Holocaust,” in the 2010 John Loftus anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.) Anyone who has read Martin Luther’s suggestions for persecution of Jews has to wonder why Lutherans don’t move promptly to change the name of their denomination.
Paulkovich lists many of the crimes that the church has committed, including these:
“Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom had declared in the fourth century that it was ‘the duty of all Christians to hate Jews,’ claiming Jews ‘sacrifice their children to Satan.’” (Kindle, p. 480)
“The empire fell in the fifth century; Flavius Romulus Augustus was the last Roman emperor. The remainder of the Christian devastation to the West would be achieved by kings, popes, and bishops. The Fourth Council of Toledo convenes in 633, condemning all Jews because they ‘killed Christ.’” (Kindle, p. 481)
“In 1191 Christian King Richard ‘the Lion-Hearted’ conquers Navarre in Spain, and the city of Acre in Israel. In Acre, Richard executes 2,700 prisoners of war, many of them women and children. Some are disemboweled by order of Richard in search of possible swallowed gems. Before his 1189 coronation, Richard forbids Jews from attending the ceremonies. As a result, hundreds of Jews are murdered by his callous Christian soldiers.” (Kindle, p. 482)
“Ferrand Martinez, archdeacon of Ecija, preaches violence against the Jews and declares that they should be forced to convert to Christianity. In Seville on 6 June 1391, Christians murder some 4,000 Jews under the leadership of the archdeacon. Their houses are destroyed, and 25,000 Jews are sold as slaves. In 1394, King Charles VI expels all Jews from France.” (Kindle, p. 486)
The grievous irony is that the depiction of the Jews in the gospels may be entirely fictious. The gospel authors were defenders of a break-away Jewish sect, and thus cast “the Jews” as enemies—the author of John especially. We cannot verify that anything in the gospels actually happened. Paulkovich, as noted earlier, called the “propagation of the oral tales” about Jesus as “a seemingly harmless undertaking.” But as history has shown, great harm has come from the fantasy narratives created by the gospel authors.
It can be noted, by the way, that not all church people qualify as predatory, narcissistic, and pious men. Many Catholics during World War II demonstrated remarkable heroism in saving Jews being hunted by the Nazis. See the Wikipedia article, Rescue of Jews by Catholics During the Holocaust.
But why are highly motivated, driven religious people so susceptible to doing evil things? Because religious certainty is a dangerous thing: “I know what god wants, I’m on the side of god, so don’t defy me.” All religions have played this game.
This Paulkovich essay is a solid tutorial on the crippling impact theology can have on human affairs. It also illustrates the glaring incoherence of Christian theology especially: Its all-powerful, loving, competent god did nothing to stop/prevent so many crimes done in the name of Jesus.