Site project and core themes (How religious themes shape “secular” thought. How ideas descend across history.)
Basic problem solving requires going to the fundamental root of a problem (“winning the battle of ideas”).
This site probes core themes in worldviews, foundational ideas/beliefs that have inspired, incited, guided, and validated human behavior across history. These ideas are critical to engage because the ideas/beliefs that we hold in our minds and worldviews will shape what we become in life. They influence our feelings, our responses, and our actions in daily life. People have always tried to order their lives according to the ideas/beliefs that they hold, whether they are religious or “secular” ideas. (See anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s work on the human impulse to replicate divine models, or ultimate realities/ideals, in human societies.)
Now there are good ideas and bad ideas, and basic to the human adventure is to differentiate between the two. One significant drag on human progress toward a better future has been the tendency to preserve our better insights in old inherited contexts. For example, some of the best human insights are embedded in religious holy books that also contain “bad religious ideas”- subhuman themes (e.g. “God is love but will send you to Hell if you do not believe all that is in this book”). These pathological myths of punitive, destroying deity still shape the core of our inherited belief systems, notably our great religious traditions. Why? Because people are reluctant to let go of inherited religious ideas that have long been presented to the public as “sacred”, and therefore untouchable or unchangeable. They are believed to be “divinely inspired”. Therefore, people feel obligated to maintain the good with the bad in contradictory mergers- i.e. harmonizing bad ideas with good insights. The result is cognitive dissonance. See Zenon Lotufo’s Cruel God, Kind God.
Joseph Campbell: “The fundamental themes of mythological thought have remained constant and universal, not only throughout history, but also over the whole extent of mankind’s occupation of the earth… the common themes have been there all the while… from the first emergence of ancestral man from the animal levels of existence, and are with us still…”, Myths To Live By.
This site isolates the central complex of bad ideas (Top Ten Bad Religious Ideas in sections below) that have infected human consciousness across history- ideas that have long incited the worst of human behavior, notably primitive animal-like ideas related to the tribal exclusion of others, the domination of others, or punishing violence toward others. This site focuses especially on the core bad idea of a retaliating, destroying deity that punishes people. This punitive deity myth is the cohering center for the other bad ideas, notably the apocalyptic millennial complex. Punitive, destroying deity has been the great Lie at the core of human worldviews from the beginning. It persists today in both religious and secular versions- i.e. revenge of Gaia, angry planet, retributive Universe, or punishing karma.
Punitive, destroying deity was present in the earliest human writing, the Sumerian Apocalyptic Flood myth. That ancient Threat Theology has descended down through all subsequent religious traditions and into the secular apocalyptic myths of the modern world.
A summary list of the more notable bad ideas:
The starting point of the bad ideas complex is the myth of an original paradise that was ruined by corrupt people (the devaluation of humanity begins early). That myth sets the background for the distorting belief in the subsequent decline of life toward something worse, toward collapse and ending. An apocalypse will be the final punishment and destruction, the great purging of imperfection from the world so the lost paradise can be restored for the favored true believers (God expressing tribal or limited love toward his chosen people). The apocalyptic threat produced the demand for salvation conditions and sacrifice/payment as the proper human response to the divine threat of punishment/destruction. Religion emerged in history as the social institution that communicated the required conditions to appease and please threatening deity.
(Note: Salvationism has been horrific waste of human time and resources in response to a mythical fraud, the great Lie of punishing deity. There has never been any such reality.)
Ancient people projected their worst features onto their gods, beginning with the features of past animal existence and then later plant societies. Campbell notes, for instance, that plant-based societies gave us the insight that death brings life (i.e. rotting vegetation giving rise to new green shoots, the seed dies in order to give life). This says Campbell, inspired the mythology of death as the giver of life, “Hence, the hideous idea followed that the way to increase life is to increase death”. The result was “a general rage of sacrifice through the whole tropical belt of our planet”. Later people added “the mythic theme of the Willing Victim… some primordial being that offered itself to be slain, dismembered and buried, and from whose buried parts then arose the food plants by which the lives of people are sustained”.
Note, this mythology predates Christian theology by millennia and shows where Christianity got its basic themes of a divine being offering himself as a sacrifice to appease divine wrath and to bring salvation and life to people. “The same fundamental themes have remained constant and universal… sacrificial death increases life…”.
Campbell adds that later human orientation to the cosmic realm added beliefs in gods as cosmic ruling realities that provided the model for life on earth (i.e. the divine law, word, will, or plan for people to follow).
These ancient bad ideas have caused immense damage across history. Apocalyptic threat has always incited fear and pushed populations to embrace “coercive purification” approaches in order to prevent or eliminate some threat, in order to save something (see Richard Landes below).
In Sumerian mythology the gods threatened to eliminate badly behaving humanity by a great apocalyptic Flood. In Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda would use an apocalypse to purge corrupt, sinful humanity from the world in order to restore the lost paradise. So also in Judaism, Christianity and Islam- sinful humanity had to be purged from the world in an apocalypse, so that paradise could be restored.
(Insert: Stunning research has established that the mass-death movements of the twentieth century were shaped by the apocalyptic millennial themes that were borrowed from Christianity)
In Marxism the apocalyptic threat to the world was corrupt humanity in capitalist industrial society that had ruined the original hunter/gatherer communal paradise. In Nazism the apocalyptic threat was expressed as the annihilation of the Aryan race and society by Jewish Bolshevism and industrial civilization. In environmentalism, greedy humanity in industrial society is once again the great threat that must be coercively stopped or purged from the world so that the lost paradise of a wilderness world can be restored.
These primitive themes have descended down through history from religion to the “secular” versions of the modern world. Again, we have the myth of some core threat expressed today in the diverse “secular” versions of deity- i.e. revenge of Gaia, angry planet, retributive Universe, and punishing karma.
“The same fundamental themes have remained constant and universal…”
Paraphrasing another point from Campbell’s outline of human story: The myth of some Ultimate Threat is the great monster in life that we have to conquer and slay.
Further, bad religious ideas have always worked to validate our inherited animal impulses, notably the impulses to limited tribalism (our band versus others), to alpha domination of weaker others, and to exclude and destroy the “enemy” other. In religious versions of the ‘animal passions’, people divide tribally into true believers versus non-believers. They embrace their God as a dominating Lord or King (alpha male). And they believe that their God will ultimately exclude and destroy the unbelievers. These base animal features are prominent features of the monster gods of historical religious traditions.
Bad ideas in religious or secular versions continue to incite the worst impulses in people.
The breakthrough to the wonder of unconditional reality
I take insights on unconditional reality from diverse traditions to affirm that the creating Mind or Consciousness behind all reality is absolutely no conditions Love. Most parents, spouses, and friends/neighbors get unconditional as the highest form of goodness or love, and practice it in daily life. Most average people get unconditional forgiveness/mercy as the most humane response to imperfect people around them. We take the best in humanity and project that out to define deity, but to transcendent degree. This is the proper way to do theology. “If you imperfect people know how to love unconditionally, then how much more does God, as ultimate Goodness, love unconditionally”.
Unconditional radically redefines the most foundational ideal in human worldviews- the idea of deity. It overturns the entire complex of bad ideas, but most importantly it overturns the worst of all bad ideas- that of angry, punitive God. There never was any wrathful God, any divine threat, or any punitive deity. Related ideas of divine judgment, separation, exclusion, and destruction were always great mythical frauds/lies based on the greatest Lie of all.
There is only Love behind all- a stunning no conditions Love. That also means- get this stunner- there is no divine demand for blood sacrifice as payment for wrong. The salvation industry (sacrifice as payment for wrong) has been a great waste of time and resources.
An unconditional God also radically redefines the human person. We are not the fallen, corrupt, sinful beings of primitive mythology. At our core we are the same unconditional love that is God. The God that is no conditions love has incarnated in all humanity equally, not just in special religious people like Jesus or Buddha.
Yes, we still have an animal inheritance in the form of a core animal brain with its base animal impulses. But we are not our brains. Our animal brain is not our essential self or person.
Our struggle with the animal inheritance is how we learn to become human. Human goodness emerges from the struggle against its opposite- the “animal passions” (Campbell). We develop and grow as human in our struggle with the animal, our only real enemy in life. As Campbell noted- in our struggle with our monster we gain insights and learn lessons that we can then pass on to benefit others.
Our real enemy is not some other imperfect person but the inherited animal that is inside us. We are therefore told- “Do not judge the other, do not worry about the speck in the other person’s eye, but pay attention to the beam in your own eye, your own imperfections, your own animal passions”. Our real enemy in life is inside each of us. That is the real monster that we face and must conquer.
And as Campbell suggested, a wise man gives us a sword to slay our monster.
Unconditional, as our core ideal, potently counters all the basic features of the inherited animal. Unconditional counters the tribal impulse by urging us to embrace all people as family. It counters the impulse to dominate others by telling us to respect all as equals. And it counters the impulse to exclude, punish and destroy the differing other by inspiring us to engage unlimited forgiveness and restorative justice toward all.
Unconditional tells us what it means to be authentically human. It points us to human responses and behaviors that are strikingly different from the animal responses to retaliate, to hurt and to destroy differing others. Unconditional liberates us from the debasing, dehumanizing slavery to animal impulses. It sets us free to be authentically human or humane. It orients us to universal love, unlimited love that is the most ennobling of all ideals. Unconditional enables us to “tower in stature as maturely human” (Campbell).
Unconditional revolutionizes ethics, relationships, and justice systems. Nelson Mandela was a powerful recent example of the unconditional treatment of enemies that resolved situations of potential violence and pointed an entire society toward something better.
Unconditional core Reality also resolves humanity’s primal fear of after-life harm. There is no coming judgment, punishment, or destruction in some Hell. All are ultimately safe in inexpressible Love. All will be liberated from the animal and return to Love in the end. Inexpressible unconditional Love greets us all at the end of our life stories. There is no Grim Reaper. There is only Love.
Jesus and Paul illustrate these two great opposing traditions: non-punitive, unconditional reality in Jesus, versus punitive, conditional religion in Paul.
Jesus introduced the stunning new theology of a non-retaliatory, unconditional God. But that was too scandalous and offensive to many good, moral people. It did not affirm traditional justice as some form of punishment or fair payment (eye for eye). The vineyard and prodigal parables of Jesus illustrate the offense that this unconditional reality caused to good, moral people. The all-day workers and the older brother were offended at an unconditional love that did not punish others or demand that conditions be met (i.e. “Love without expecting anything in return”). They were offended by the unconditional mercy shown to failing, imperfect offenders.
Unconditional love especially offended Paul.
Paul then intentionally rejected the theology of Jesus and retreated to the old complex of bad ideas in his Christ myth and Christian religion. He created his Christ myth and Christian religion based on the primitive mythology of a retaliatory God. His retaliatory theology was entirely opposite to the non-retaliatory message of Jesus (compare Matthew 5:38-48 with Romans 12:17-20). Most damaging in Paul’s Christ myth was that he buried the unconditional nature of the God of Jesus with the demand for a supreme condition- the sacrifice of a cosmic Savior to pay for all sin (see Paul/Jesus contradiction below).
Christianity then brought the complex of bad ideas into Western consciousness and society. Islam absorbed most of it’s bad ideas from Jewish Christianity (via Waraqa the Ebionite priest). The correlations between these systems of belief is striking. As Campbell said, the core themes are endlessly repeated.
19th Century Declinism then offered a “secular” version of the Christian ideas, notably the myth of apocalypse.
The bad ideas complex (notably apocalyptic millennialism) then shaped Marxism and Nazism. Today those same bad themes have been embraced by environmental alarmism, and continue in the great world religions and extremist movements like ISIS.
Remember that you can kill off ISIS and you will still get eruptions of the same ideology, so the experts tell us- “You must win the battle of ideas”. ISIS is just one striking example of the same complex of ideas that have incited other similar mass-death movements to violence (i.e. Marxism, Nazism, and Carsonism- i.e. Carson’s apocalyptic alarmism in Silent Spring).
To “win the battle of ideas”, go to these core themes and overturn them with unconditional. And especially overturn the core bad idea of punitive Force or Deity. That will offer the greatest liberation and transformation ever, at the most foundational levels of human consciousness.
See comment in sections below on unconditional restorative approaches in an imperfect world. Qualifiers on restorative justice approaches. Love is always responsible to restrain bad behavior, while doing so with restorative intent and approaches.
Paul’s Christianity embraced the worst of historical bad ideas, notably the core theme of human sacrifice to appease angry deity. You cannot gussy up that core theme with apparent humanizing terms like love (i.e. “God so loved the world”), redemption, salvation, hope, mercy, grace, and so on. That is still lipstick on a pig. The core themes remain the same- human blood sacrifice, a human victim suffering a violent death to appease a raging deity. Zenon Lotufo exposes the true nature of a person that finds pleasure in the suffering of others (in Cruel God, Kind God).
Two key New Testament sections that note Paul contradicted Jesus: He intentionally rejected the non-retaliatory theology of Jesus in Romans 12:17-20 (see also Thessalonians and the early chapters of Romans). And Paul rejected the wisdom saying tradition of Jesus in his first Corinthian letter. Jesus was a wisdom sage.
Liberating human consciousness at the most fundamental level– core themes in worldviews.
Two people have influenced us more than any others. They presented two entirely opposite views of the core ideal in human thought- ultimate reality or deity. One affirmed all that was wrong in human thought and the other pointed out how to correct that.
Historical Jesus pointed to the nature of authentic love as non-retaliatory and unconditional. He offered the greatest liberation ever- from all those bad religious ideas that have darkened and enslaved human consciousness from the beginning, most critically the horrific idea of divine punishment and destruction.
Paul and his Christian religion re-enforced the pathology of divine punishment and destruction and short-circuited that potential greatest liberation ever. His Christ myth re-affirmed the worst of past mythology, notably the core myth of divine punishment and destruction.
If we are going to “win the battle of ideas” at the most fundamental and important level, then engage it here at the level of foundational themes in human worldviews.
The Jesus/Paul contradiction (again)
(Main point: Jesus tried to liberate human consciousness from retaliation by radically redefining the ultimate human ideal- deity. He presented the new theology of a “non-retaliating God”. Paul rejected that and re-enforced divine retaliation at the core of human consciousness. Paul’s views dominate public consciousness today via his retaliatory Christ and retaliation-based Christian religion. See Romans 12:17-20 for detail on his basic theology.)
Whatever happened to the “stunning new theology” of a no conditions God? Two millennia later that “greatest contribution of Jesus to the history of ideas” is still buried in highly conditional Christianity. The oceanic difference between unconditional reality and conditional religion is the essence of the contradiction between Historical Jesus and the Christ of Paul, his Christian “Jesus Christ”. That contradiction, and the burial of the Jesus message in Christianity, is the mother of all scandals and a central theme on this site.
The Jesus/Paul contradiction illustrates a critical problem with religion across history. The Jesus message of an unconditional deity points humanity to a new authentically humane ultimate ideal (i.e. God as ultimate love or goodness). To the contrary, Paul’s conditional Christ re-affirms the basic nature of religion as an essentially conditional institution that has never been able to reveal the wonder of unconditional reality to humanity. Religion has always buried the unconditional God in religious salvation conditions (i.e. how to appease and please God).
Joseph Campbell has said that the old systems of belief are in disarray (the old mythical/religious traditions) and in the scientific age humanity has been moving irreversibly toward a new era that requires new master stories. I would argue that the stunning insight of Hist. Jesus is one critical element for new grand narratives. It is a foundational theme that responds to human “spiritual” concerns and the human desire for ultimate goodness or love (i.e. issues of ultimate meaning).
The Contradiction between the core message of Jesus and the entirely opposite message of Christianity
Again, there is a profound contradiction between the central message of Historical Jesus, and Paul’s Christian myth of ‘Jesus Christ’. The irreconcilable contradiction, on Paul’s side, highlights a fundamental pathology in human worldviews. Paul created his Christ myth to affirm the primitive belief that there was some divine threat behind life (a punitive, destroying God). He stated this threat theology in his ‘apocalyptic’ Christ. On the Historical Jesus side, humanity was offered the liberating alternative of an unconditional core Reality (i.e. no apocalyptic threat, no demanded conditions).
Two key aspects help to focus the difference between Paul and Jesus. First, there is the central theme of non-retaliation on Jesus’ side. His statement that there should be “no more eye for eye, but only love for enemies, because that is what God does, sending sun and rain on all alike both good and bad”. And then there is ultimate retaliation on Paul’s side. He quotes God as stating, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay… to every person according to what they have done”.
Further, on the Jesus side there is the foundational theme of unconditional. Again, note the Jesus statement that sun and rain are given to all alike, both good and bad, and without the condition of some expected return. Jesus adds, “Do not just love those who love you in return. If you exercise that limited and conditional love, then what credit is that to you?” Authentic divine love makes no demand for payment or prerequisite condition of any kind. Divine love is genuinely unlimited and free, no matter how people respond.
And on Paul’s side there is the supreme condition of a blood sacrifice as payment before God will forgive or save. Further, there is the related condition that only those who believe Paul’s Christ myth will be ‘saved’. Paul says, “People are saved by faith in Paul’s Christ… Paul’s God saves those who believe in Paul’s Christ”, (my paraphrase of Paul’s statements in Romans 1-3).
Keep these contrasts in mind. The unconditional God of Jesus versus the conditional God of Paul- this constitutes the main contradiction between Jesus and Paul/Christianity.
Humanity has not yet begun to explore the liberating and humanizing potential of embracing an unconditional deity as our highest ideal and authority, as the centering ideal of a new master story. For one, this revolutionary insight powerfully resolves humanity’s primal fear of after-life harm. There is no such thing as a God that threatens to punish and destroy people. There never has been any such reality. Tragically, religions across history have embraced this pathological myth of punitive, destroying deity as their foundational theme.
Conclusion: Paul’s Christ myth has buried the unconditional discovery of Jesus for two millennia (see James Tabor quotes in sections below on Paul and his Christian religion as the most influential myth in history). Surely, this is the greatest scandal in history, to deny humanity the relief and assurance of an absolutely no conditions Love behind all.
Note: My appeal to the Jesus material is not from a Biblicist perspective that views Jesus or the bible as some special authority. No. Unconditional is self-validating as true, right, and good. It does not need validation from any religious authority. It stands on its own. I use Jesus just to illustrate unconditional because he is a familiar religious icon and makes some useful statements on the topic.
Added note: How do I establish unconditional as the central theme of Historical Jesus? I use research such as the Q Wisdom Sayings research. The earliest versions of Q contain the Matthew 5:38-48 passage (similar to the Luke 6:27-36 passage). I take that as the statement of the main theme of Jesus because it stands above the rest of the Q material with its “stunning new theology of a non-retaliatory God”. It is the most striking insight in the original Jesus material. And other material in the Jesus tradition affirms this non-retaliatory or unconditional theme as a “cohering center”.
But again, I do not need Jesus to validate unconditional. It is simply the most humane thing that we have discovered. It tells us what authentic love really is, what ultimate goodness is. It is the best of being human. And we take the best of humanity and project that out to deity, but to transcendent degree. If we know how to do good, then how much more God does.
One more: What about my disorienting statement that Paul’s retaliatory Christ re-enforces our animal inheritance? Yes. I summarize that inheritance in the features of tribal mentality (our band versus outsiders/differing others), domination of others (alpha), and the exclusion, punishment, and destruction of the differing other.
Paul’s Christ affirms tribal love (favoring true believers), domination of people (Lord, every knee shall bow), and ultimate exclusion, punishment, and destruction of the differing other, the unbeliever.
The unconditional of Jesus overturned the animal with unlimited, universal love for all, the embrace of all as equals in the one family of God (sun and rain on all alike, both good and bad). And no ultimate exclusion, punishment, or destruction.
Retribution, retaliation, punishment
Across history people have always believed that there is some form of retribution at the core of reality, expressed in myths of angry deity, divine judgment and punishment, exclusion of the bad (unbelievers), and ultimate destruction (i.e. myths of apocalypse and hell). These themes have been so deeply embedded in human consciousness that it appears disorienting to many people to even question their validity as truth. Some form of payback has always been viewed as essential to justice.
The core myth of punitive, destroying deity has been tightly paired with the belief that certain conditions must be met to appease and please the upset gods- conditions of payment and sacrifice, correct beliefs to hold, taboos to obey, and rituals to follow (i.e. religious lifestyle).
Historical Jesus offered an entirely liberating alternative- the truth of a non-retaliating, unconditional God at the core of reality. A God that demanded no payment for forgiveness, and required no conditions to fulfill in order to be included in the family of God. The God of Jesus freely embraced all, both good and bad, as the inseparable heirs of divine generosity and love. No one would be excluded from the all-embracing and unlimited love of God that was expressed in sun and rain given to all alike.
This “stunning new theology of Jesus” presented a powerful new centering ideal for human worldviews- the ideal of absolutely no conditions love. The ultimate expression of authentic love. But this unconditional message scandalized and offended most people. It was just too disorienting to traditional understanding of proper justice and fairness in life as some form of reward the good and punish the bad. See Jesus’ vineyard and prodigal parables for illustration of how unconditional generosity offended good, moral people.
Consequently, this unconditional “diamond of Jesus was buried in the dung” of a contrary New Testament message that re-affirmed proper justice as some form of retribution (Thomas Jefferson). The “pearl of Jesus was buried in the slime and muck” of Paul’s opposite message of the conditional Christ (Leo Tolstoy).
Paul intentionally and directly rejected the Jesus breakthrough on theology and retreated to the same old retaliatory theology of all past religion. He began to present his retaliatory, apocalyptic Christ myth in his first letters to the Thessalonians: “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire he will punish and destroy those who did not believe Paul’s gospel” (my paraphrased summary).
The Christ of Paul has been the single most influential myth ever conceived, history’s single most prominent icon of ultimate retribution, or Threat theology. His Christ myth is also the epitome expression of highly conditional religion. Central to his Christ myth is the demand to meet a supreme condition- i.e. the sacrifice of a god-man to appease the wrath of God. Again, see the full statement of this wrathful deity, and the demanded sacrifice/payment to appease divine anger, in Romans 1-5.
These contrasting beliefs are not just peripheral matters to tickle elite minds in esoteric scholarly debate. Bad religious ideas have had a horrific impact on humanity across history, inciting endless misery and abusive treatment of others. Religions of threat and conditions have promoted endless unnecessary guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, and depression among people. Not to forget the huge waste of time and resources on the sacrifice/salvation industry over history.
Further, the core beliefs of Christianity- i.e. the “apocalyptic millennial” complex of myths- have been a significant force behind the mass-death movements of the past century. See the stunning research of Richard Landes, Arthur Herman, Arthur Mendel, David Redles, and David Cook (Islamic apocalyptic), among others noted below.
The nature of our highest human ideals and authorities (i.e. deity) are critical to inspiring, inciting, guiding, and validating human behavior. People have always become just like the God that they believe in.
One illustration: People have used the ideal of divine retaliation and punishment to validate endless tribal retaliation and punishment of opponents/enemies. Note how apocalyptic threat has incited alarm in populations and that alarm has then pushed people to embrace salvation schemes that have often involved “coercive purification” of some threat or enemy. We saw this played out with devastating consequences in Marxism and Nazism (see again the research of Herman, Landes, Mendel, Redles, and Cook).
The totalitarian demand for instantaneously-purged society and immediately-installed utopia now continues in environmental alarmism. We see this in the environmental project to coercively stop greedy/corrupt humanity in industrial civilization as the contemporary apocalyptic threat to life. The apocalyptic claim that some threat is “imminent” is used to justify coercive “Salvationist” action (i.e. “save the world”). Arthur Mendel (Vision and Violence) has done an excellent job detailing the horrific outcomes of apocalyptic alarmism that seeks the “instantaneous transformation” of societies, in contrast with the actual “gradualism” of history and life.
The non-retaliatory, unconditional deity of Jesus severs the taproot of apocalyptic threat- overturning the core myth of punitive, destroying deity that is behind apocalyptic alarmism. The unconditional theology of Jesus revolutionizes entirely (i.e. humanizes) the highest human ideal- deity.
His insight offers a way forward into true liberation of consciousness from deeply embedded ideas that have long darkened and enslaved human consciousness with fear (i.e. most importantly, the primal fear of after-life harm).
As noted above, unconditional core Reality offers the potential for resolving issues like religious violence that is incited by bad religious ideas like divine violence (i.e. a violent God that validates human violence). Unconditional counters bad behavior in general by orienting consciousness to universal forgiveness and inclusion of all. And it potently counters alarmist movements by rejecting the myth of a God that threatens to retaliate in an apocalypse.
The embrace of unconditional deity as our core human ideal will revolutionize ethics by pointing to something authentically humane. It will transform justice systems by urging movement toward restorative justice approaches. And it will humanize relationships between people and groups by ending tribal exclusion for more unconditional or inclusive forms of relating. Nelson Mandela offered us a powerful example of how the unconditional treatment of others defuses situations of potential violence and brings healing to societies.
This idea of divine vengeance/punishment has dominated mythology from the beginning. It became foundational to all religion, and has even moved into the “secular” ideologies of the modern era- i.e. revenge of Gaia, angry planet, retributive Universe, and punishing karma. This worst of all bad ideas persists at the heart of human consciousness and worldviews even today. It continues to incite tribal division and exclusion of differing others, domination of unbelievers, and the drive to punish and destroy the differing other.
Qualifier: Christian people naturally prefer to ignore the darker side of their Christ myth and to focus on the better features of the Christ- the good side. They describe the Christ in terms of high ideals like grace, mercy, and love. But such “confirmation bias” focus ignores or downplays the foundational features in Paul’s Christ- those background elements of divine anger, vengeance, and ultimate destruction (see, for example, Romans 12:17-20, the Thessalonian letters, or Revelation). Those darker features undermine the more humane elements like love.
Yet, Christians also recognize the undeniable importance of unconditional, and have tried to embrace this feature in expressions such as, “God now loves unconditionally because Jesus died to pay for all sin”. That is oxyomoronic in the extreme. God cannot be unconditional because his demand for a supreme condition has been met. Unconditional does not demand some condition be met first before it forgives or loves. That violates all common sense. Authentic love is not conditional.
Brief overview of punitive, destroying deity in major belief systems
Begin with the earliest writing- the Sumerian Flood myth to destroy humanity, then the Egyptian Destruction of Mankind and Return to Chaos myths, and Zoroaster’s Ahura Mazda destroying the world with molten metal and washing all down into hell (Zoroastrianism shaped the Western religions). Add the Hindu Lord Shiva- destroyer of the world, and Greek belief in a core Retribution. Also Jewish, Christian and Islamic belief in divine judgment and punishment. The core themes of divine vengeance, punishment, and destruction have dominated human thought like no other ideas.
Let your mind comprehend for a moment just how prominent these features have been in shaping human consciousness and worldviews across history. The Japanese lady summarized this for all humanity after the 2011 tsunami when she asked, “Are we being punished?” Today an angry planet (i.e. Mother Earth) is threatening vengeance on humanity.
The profound contradiction between Historical Jesus and Paul’s Christ myth is critical to understand because of the immense influence these two icons have had on humanity over the past two millennia. The new humane ideal of unconditional that was introduced by Jesus was subsequently distorted by Paul’s Christ in the Christian religion. Note Jefferson and Tolstoy’s comments on this.
The Christian merger of Jesus in the Christ has caused endless confusion- cognitive dissonance- and the consequent burial of the Jesus theology.
The stunning “non-Christian” breakthrough
Two millennia ago the wisdom sage, Historical Jesus, someone entirely contrary to Christian Jesus, overturned that idea of core retribution/punishment. He said there was no such reality as a punishing, destroying deity and offered the “stunning new theology of a non-retaliating God” (James Robinson). He stated in Matthew 5:38-48 (my paraphrase), “There should be no more ‘eye for eye’ retaliation, but instead, love your enemy because God loves God’s enemies, sending sun and rain on all alike, both good and bad”. That meant no discrimination, no exclusion, and no ultimate punishment for the bad guys.
Or Luke’s version (6:27-36) “Love your enemies… If you love only those who love you, then what credit is that to you… Love your enemies and you will be the children of the Most High (i.e. you will be just like God)… for God showers kindness on the ungrateful and evil. So be unconditionally merciful just as God is unconditionally merciful”.
Note that he based a behavior on a belief. He first stated the non-retaliating ethic and then based that ethic on a similar non-retaliating theology (do this because this is what God is like). Be like God. Act like God.
And his new view of God as non-retaliating offended good, moral people. Jesus spoke of this offense notably in two of his parables- i.e. the all-day vineyard workers that were upset with the owner being equally generous with the latecomers who had not earned an equal wage. That offended their sense of fairness. And he noted the older brother in the Prodigal who was offended with the Father’s unconditional mercy and love for the badly behaving younger brother. Both were offended, scandalized by the absence of proper justice and fairness. To them, justice should mean the proper and fair reward of the good and the punishment of the bad.
If you are not offended or scandalized by the unconditional God of Jesus then you have not fully grasped the radical nature of how he overturned conventional views of justice.
The larger point that Jesus made was that God was unconditional love. With an unconditional God there was no demand for proper ultimate justice. That meant there would be no ultimate judgment (“Judge not”, Matthew 7), no ultimate tribal exclusion of the bad (sun and rain given to all alike), and no ultimate punishment or destruction. All- both good and bad people- would receive the same mercy, forgiveness, and love. There was no condition of some payment demanded for wrong done (remember the Father in Prodigal). With an unconditional God there was no demand for a blood sacrifice.
The shameful Christian retreat to ultimate retaliation
Paul was also offended by the teaching of Jesus and rejected outright his new unconditionally merciful and generous God. He rejected that theological breakthrough and retreated to the same old punitive, destroying God of all past mythology and religion. He stated his theology clearly in Romans 12:17-20, quoting an Old Testament passage, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”. Paul then created his Christ myth to embody that ultimate vengeance (see Thessalonians). His Christian religion buried the new theology of Jesus. The diamond of a non-retaliating deity was buried in the larger context of retaliation and punishment. Matthew followed Paul’s lead. After including the statement of Jesus on non-retaliation in Matthew 5-7, Matthew later re-affirms divine retaliation in his warning that unbelievers will be cast into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In his Christ myth Paul also contradicted the unconditional feature in the theology of Jesus. He did this by re-enforcing the idea of a supreme condition of blood sacrifice to pay for wrong.
Compare the core statements of Jesus and Paul to see the stark contradiction between Jesus’ non-retaliation message and Paul’s retaliatory Christ myth. Note that both use the pairing of a behavior that is based on a theological belief.
Matt.5:38-48, “Do not retaliate (no more eye for eye) but love your enemies because God does not retaliate but loves God’s enemies, giving sun and rain to both good and bad”.
Romans 12:17-20, “Do not retaliate because God will retaliate… Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says God”.
Paul appears to embrace the same non-retaliation ethic as Jesus but he then bases that on a contrary theology of divine retaliation. That is a direct contradiction of the theology of Jesus. The gospel writers follow Paul’s theology of retaliatory deity. Yes, they include the wisdom sayings of Jesus as they were too well-known to ignore. But they place those sayings in a surrounding context that contradicts what Jesus taught. That explains the ‘cognitive dissonance’ of the New Testament (Zenon Lotufo, Cruel God, Kind God).
Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy understood this contradiction between Jesus and Paul and stated it in blunt terms of “diamonds/pearls that were buried in dung, muck, slime, garbage”.
That is the great scandal of Christianity and Paul’s Christ myth. And yes, Paul tries to explain his Christ with features like grace, mercy, and love. But these higher human ideals are conditioned on the greater background theme of a wrathful God that must first be appeased by violent punishment in the death of a human sacrifice. There is nothing authentically unconditional in Paul’s gospel.