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Lithium for Jesus

For me, Jesus symbolizes two widely disparate ideas: profound, selfless love and soul-crushing shame and fear. The compassionate, endearing side of Jesus gets a lot of press, so please excuse me if I don’t mention that part of the story. I want to mention why I have a few problems with the idea that Jesus is kinder, gentler son of cranky ol’ Jehovah of genocidal fame.

First, Jesus symbolizes hell for me. No one mentions Hell in the Hebrew Bible, at least not in the sense of endless torment for the wicked. Prior to the arrival of Jesus, the Bible is actually pretty vague about the state of the dead. The word translated as hell in the Old Testament (שאול or sheol) is also often translated as grave. For the ancient Hebrews, Hell and the grave were synonymously defined as the place of all the dead, not just the wicked dead.

Between the Old and New Testaments as the Greeks were spreading their culture throughout the ancient world, it seems that some part of the Jewish culture adopted the idea of a place of torment for the sinful dead. Jesus introduced the idea of hellfire into Abrahamic religion. (e.g. Matthew 5:22; Mark 9:45,47; Luke 16:19–31)

I doubt that we can truly blame a single man named Yeshua of Nazareth for introducing this idea into Jewish culture, but he is emblematic for me of the adoption of the idea of hellfire because his followers made Hell the nightmare it is today: an eternal punishment for sins committed during the finite span of mortal life—a punishment out of all proportion to the crime.

And then there’s Satan and his minions. Though Christianity didn’t create the idea of malevolent unseen spirits, it did nothing to quell its spread. Christianity in my life taught me to fear the temptations of legions of demons.

Jesus also introduced the idea of thought crime. He was the first totalitarian. He declared that simple bodily appetites and emotions were sinful. (Matthew 5:22,28) Jesus could have been the leader of Eastasia punishing people for crimethink. I waged war on myself in Jesus’ name. He taught me to hate myself because I couldn’t control the stray thoughts and desires that crossed my mind. I spent my years as a Christian trying (but never quite succeeding) to feel Jesus’ love. At the same time I lived in fear and shame because of his cruel teachings and the doctrines of many of his followers. He has never apologized for the unnecessary pain he put me through.

In short, I’m much happier now that I’ve diagnosed Jesus as having bipolar disorder. Now if he’d only take his meds.

[bipolar jesus]

[This post was inspired by Eddie Lee's recent comment.]

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  1. Stephen Merino said,

    December 4, 2007 @ 11:38 am

    I expect that some of this post is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but I thought I’d play a little devil’s advocate (or maybe Jesus’ advocate?). If you believe that Jesus is just a fictional person, or that he was real but was greatly embellished and glorified by 2000 years of Christianity, why blame him? Why does he deserve that? Or, more importantly, why even care?

    Since the existence of God and Jesus and a knowledge of their character are really not anything I can know or hope to know, I have decided to not let them bug me. The Unitarian tradition of dealing with Christ is to treat him as a great prophet and example, and to attribute more of the questionable stuff to human tampering. In general, I think I go along with this. Vilifying him is probably just as unfounded as glorifying him, don’t you think? Probably on the same grounds.

    Your thought crime hypothesis is really interesting. Are you serious? First of all, I doubt that he was the first to introduce the idea, and, second, is there anything wrong with acknowledging that thoughts can be immoral and can lead to immoral acts? You may disagree with some Christians on what kinds of thoughts are immoral, but is there anything wrong with acknowledging it? I think that’s actually one of his neat contributions, as long as you don’t obsess over watching your thoughts.

  2. Jonathan Blake said,

    December 4, 2007 @ 12:35 pm

    I tend to doubt that Jesus was a historical figure. In this post, I treat him as a symbol of the religion that has grown up in his name. When I vilify the abusive side of Jesus’ personality, I’m really vilifying the abusive aspects of Christianity.

    Regarding thought crime, I can’t say that Jesus (or Christianity) was absolutely first in holding people accountable for the content of their thoughts. Depending on how you interpret it, the commandment against coveting your neighbor’s property is clearly about thought crime. In my mind, however, Jesus has come to symbolize that ideal: that not only should we restrain our actions, but that we should also restrain our thoughts. Where the Mosaic Law dealt mostly in our actions, Jesus included our thoughts. Christian’s generally consider this a higher law; I consider it a regression.

    I don’t believe that there is such a thing as an immoral thought. There are only thoughts that may incline us to actions that are unhealthy. In the spirit of free thinking, we should feel at complete liberty to think anything we desire—anything—with the caveat that prolonged and repeated entertaining of thoughts will bias us toward similar actions.

    Paul Graham wrote an essay that played a part in changing my life in this new self-determined direction: What You Can’t Say. What we can’t say or even think has a large amount of control over us. When I couldn’t even allow myself to seriously entertain the thought that God didn’t exist because that was heresy, I was controlled by my desire to fit in to my culture. Once I allowed myself to think forbidden thoughts, they lost their power.

    For another example, I had a hard time when I believed that it was a sin to lust after a woman who wasn’t my wife. I work in an environment rich with opportunities to be attracted to women who aren’t my wife. It was a daily struggle to keep my thoughts chaste, to avoid sinning in my thoughts. Now that I’m an atheist and don’t believe anyone is watching and judging my thoughts, the problem has disappeared. I’m still attracted to other women (as any healthy heterosexual male would be), but I have very little angst over it. Ironically, I’m less tempted now that sexual thoughts are no longer a forbidden fruit.

    As yet another example, when I was younger I would occasionally allow myself to imagine sex with another man just to see if I had homosexual attractions. I was actually quite afraid that it might be true and afraid that I was sinning in my thoughts, so these flights of fancy probably lasted all of one second at a time. I don’t spend much time thinking about it anymore. I can imagine homosexual as long as I want, and I’ve decided homosexuality isn’t my cup of tea. End of story. Ridding myself of the belief in thought-sin enabled me to stop worrying and get on with my life.

    I believe that this is why we see so many strongly, conservatively religious people acting so counter to their public beliefs. They have demonized their own thoughts and thereby given them power.

    Long story short, yes, I object to the very idea that a thought could be immoral. If you want to explore an idea that people tell you is reprehensible, do it. Think about whether or not God exists. Think about your sexual attractions to people who you “shouldn’t” be attracted to. Question the theory of evolution. Question the Bible. Question the Holocaust. Think dangerous thoughts and decide for yourself. We’ll accept the common wisdom on some things. On other things we won’t. The point is that we will have decided for ourselves rather than allowing our thoughts to be dictated to us.

  3. Jonathan Blake said,

    December 4, 2007 @ 12:47 pm

    Let me add (just try to stop me!) that I allow myself to be irritated when Christians portray Christianity as all love, forgiveness, mercy, marshmallows in hot chocolate, and cuddly kittens. There’s more to the story. Jesus has a harsh side that I think we don’t see because we don’t allow ourselves to question his teachings.

  4. Stephen Merino said,

    December 4, 2007 @ 1:06 pm

    I see your points. Rather than focus on Christ as a figure, though, I really feel like your attention should be on understanding how institutional religion and social structure use these ideas to control, influence, inspire, etc. people. It’s not what Christ said or did, it’s how groups portray or interpret what he did or said. When you talk about the “dark side of Jesus,” it’s really the dark side of how Jesus can be presented or interpreted. Unless you believe that Christ really said and did certain things in the Bible that you would see as “dark.” Then that’s a different story. But, you don’t seem to put a lot of stock in Biblical accounts.

    In a certain sense, I agree with you about thoughts. To an extent. I don’t think that certain thoughts are immoral because someone is watching us or because we’ll be judged by them, rather, because our thoughts make up who we are, what we spend our time and energy on, and how we behave. So, in that sense, I think our thoughts are important and have moral consequences, especially since they lead to action. I expect that you’d agree with me on that last point, we just see things a bit differently.

    I also found that I felt a tremendous freedom in what I could think about. This really opened up how I see the world. It’s quite nice.

  5. Jonathan Blake said,

    December 4, 2007 @ 1:42 pm

    In some ways, my criticism of Jesus is a veiled version of exactly what you say. I put my criticisms the way I do because 1) I’m venting my frustration at these ideas and it’s easier to vent at a person rather than an institution, 2) whether or not he was real makes little difference because people believe that he was real, and 3) criticisms of an institution or interpretations don’t get at the root of this evil. If I criticize the way someone practices or interprets Christianity, a Christian could say that they don’t practice it that way or that I should criticize those people who are implementing Christianity poorly. That Christian could go on feeling justified and believing that Jesus was the paragon of love.

    I’ve set my aim a little lower than a particular institution. As a famous Unitarian said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” I don’t mean to say that Christians aren’t good Christians; I mean to say that Christ was wrong. Jesus (whether he is a historical fact or a mythological symbol) had it wrong and created a great deal of suffering because of it. There is no good way to interpret some of Jesus’ teachings, in my opinion.

    With what influence I have, I want to speak out against the fundamental error that assumes all of Jesus’ teachings are centered in love. Then, if we’re going to cherry-pick Jesus’ teachings, let’s do it openly and unapologetically, praising his praiseworthy doctrines and condemning the repugnant.

    Regarding immoral thoughts, our difference of opinion may lie in a different estimation of the risk of entertaining certain thoughts. I also don’t identify with my thoughts.

  6. Green Oasis » Better Than Jesus said,

    January 31, 2008 @ 9:56 am

    [...] on the deficiencies of the moral teachings of Jesus along the same lines (but better than) my post Lithium for Jesus. In short, not only is Jesus not the best moral teacher in history, on average we are now more [...]

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