The Religion of Salvation

I want to start out by asking you for a moment how you would feel about it, if you were a judge who sentenced a man to be killed. You had him killed because he was part of a new extremist doomsday sect that denounces the local authorities and causes social disturbance.

Later on you found out this man was a good man and you began to sympathize with him. At some point in your life you have an epiphany, you begin to realize he’s right. You join his rapidly growing sect, where everyone inevitably knows you as the guy who ordered Stephen to be killed.

Now, Stephen did not found this sect. He was a mere follower himself. The founder, who died before most people joined the sect, was a mystical teacher. People ascribed great miracles to him. He could walk over water. He could seemingly hand out infinite amounts of wine and bread.

And as time went by, the things he was said to be capable of began to inflate. He could heal the sick. He could resurrect the dead. He could bring clay birds to life. And after the authorities had him killed, he came back to life himself.

You feel extremely guilty for having Stephen killed. It haunts you every day. And you want nothing more than to be forgiven. To have this stain wiped off your name, to not have to face any consequences for this misery after your own death.

And so what do you do? When you join the community, you change your name. Rather than Saul, you now call yourself Paul. And you introduce an idea, that is revolutionary in nature. All of us humans are sinful, all of us are guilty. But it is because of the mysterious founder of our movement, who was blameless, that we can all be completely forgiven of our errors.

When you read the New Testament, who do you find proposing the idea that faith in Jesus wipes us free of sin? One man: Paul of Tarsus. In fact, we witness the notion born with Paul, that faith in Christ itself is a transformative event.

And baptism becomes an important event, a onetime ceremony in which your sins are wiped away. The interesting thing is, that baptism as practiced by John the Baptist does not necessarily appear to be a one-time event. John the Baptist is only really known for baptizing Jesus in the Christian tradition, there are no teachings inherited from him, but he was an important man in his own era. Jesus himself was a follower of John the Baptist, who branched off with his own followers after John’s death.

In Iraq, another group of followers of John the Baptist survive to this day. They are called Mandaeans. They practice the ritual of baptism every Sunday. They’re an ethnoreligious minority, they have no desire to convert others.

The sect that Paul joined was one that believed the end of the world was imminent. Paul himself believed so too. Jesus would return any moment. It attracted people from the bottom of the social pyramid. As these people were murdered for their faith, the survivors began to venerate them. They were now saints, who had ascended to a better place.

And it is here, where we find the DNA needed for exponential growth. On the one hand we have Paul’s insistence that faith in Christ, the idea that Christ sacrificed himself for all of humanity (not just Jews) is enough to have our sins forgiven. And on the other hand, we have a government that will turn you into a martyr if you are killed due to your faith. People soon begin to preach to Roman soldiers, who readily kill them.

There is an inherent conflict between the family of Jesus in Palestine on the one hand and the form of Christianity promoted by Paul. The family of Jesus had little interest in the universalist new religion Paul was giving rise to, in which every man on Earth could be saved by virtue of his faith in Christ. To his family it was simple: They were Jews and Jesus was a Jewish teacher. To become a Christian, you first had to become a Jew.

For Paul, the Jewishness of Christianity, requiring gentile converts to maintain the Jewish commandments, was a threat to the concept that Paul was giving rise to, of salvation through faith in Jesus.

And Peter, who was appointed as successor by Jesus, had to figure out how to keep the community functioning, without these conflicts tearing everything apart. That was not easy. He is seen as falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, between the Jewishness of Jacob brother of Jesus and the universalism of Paul. In the end, he gave in to Paul’s ideas.

Although Paul is seen today as perhaps the most important figure in Christianity after Jesus himself, in his own era he was hugely controversial within the church. But if you’ve ever been in any ideological or religious community, you’ll be well aware that conflicts are typically not discussed in writing. They’re discussed in private, behind closed doors.

This is the other thing that is important to keep in mind. The entire New Testament is a narrative we inherited from people who would have thought highly of Paul. We’re trying to understand a story, based on one party’s account of it.

The idea that faith in Jesus wipes away your sin is a unique innovation for Judaism, that found fertile ground around the world. Religions that take over the world, will tend to be the ones that give you easy answers to difficult problems.

There are not many practitioners of Chöd, a technique of Tibetan Buddhism, because the Chöd practitioners have to spend their days on charnel grounds, around decaying corpses. Christianity in contrast, especially the protestant traditions, offers a path towards salvation that is much less complex and challenging for its adherent. You need to believe in someone else, to do the nasty job for you. Someone else is tortured to death on a cross on your behalf, so that your tax fraud or extramarital affair doesn’t lead you to eternal suffering.

But Christianity is not unique in this. Just as there are many Hindu and very few Aghori, there are many Buddhists and few Chöd practitioners. The most common form of Buddhism is pure land Buddhism. It is thought that by venerating a Buddha, you can be reborn in his pure land. This means you don’t have to live out the negative consequences of your karma and don’t regress back into animal forms.

According to some texts, simply calling upon the Amitābha Buddha ten times is sufficient to allow even a layperson to be reborn in his pure land, Sukhāvatī. He created this world after accumulating good merit through countless lives, until he incarnated as a Buddhist monk named Dharmākara, who renounced his throne after learning about Buddhism and set out to create this pure land for humans. Nobody knows who Dharmākara was exactly, he is thought to have lived in a different system of worlds perhaps.

But it’s pretty clear here, that we see the same mechanisms emerge that turned Jesus from a marginal Jewish teacher into the prophet of the world’s largest religion. The Gautama Buddha never taught people that simply having faith in a Buddha would solve your problems for you. That is a tradition that became popular among laypeople, who had no ability to devote themselves to contemplation the way monks could.

And similarly, you’re not going to find any clear suggestions from Jesus that simply having faith in Jesus will somehow bail you out. We see Jesus emphasize the value of forgiveness and we see him argue that you can encounter him anywhere, in prison or hungry on the side of the street. But what we don’t see until Paul, is the idea that Jesus does the dirty job for us.

In many protestant sects, we see the religion again reduced to this bare essence. I don’t think it is conducive to spiritual growth. There is the obvious question, of what it means for people who died never hearing of Jesus. Are they condemned, through no fault of their own?

More importantly however, why should we want to transfer the consequences of our actions to Jesus? Why should he suffer on our behalf? And if he does not have to pay the actual price himself, why would anyone not consent to it? Why would you need to have faith? God never asks my consent for my death. Why would he need my consent, to have my sins forgiven?

What’s going on here, is that we witness a psychological phenomenon that appeals to people who feel guilty. If you feel guilty, if you feel like a bad person, you will be attracted to the idea that someone can wipe out your guilt for you. It began with a man who felt guilty for having one of his fellow Christians condemned to death.

You don’t need fancy theories about Paul being a Roman spy, to understand the religious innovation this man introduced into the world, how he could have come up with it. You just need to ask yourself: What does it feel like, to be responsible for an innocent man’s death?

29 Comments

  1. I’m not too familiar with Islam, but don’t they believe that Paul was visited by Satan potentially and from there was leading people off track?

    They view Jesus as another prophet instead of the son of god I think.

    • I’m not too familiar with all the intricacies of Islam either.

      A religion founded by a polygamist slave-owning warlord is not worth my attention.

      • Interesting read. Convince a human that he is inherently evil and must be saved from damnation through his faith in the divinity of a man-god. That is evil. Was Paul evil, or were his writings to the churches later twisted to suit an agenda? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care.

        Grift and corruption chokepoints:

        Policy/Delivery of healthcare
        Climate Science and green energy
        Organized religion
        War making

        The above are nothing but tools to skim funds and enrich corrupt support structures. Huge amounts of wealth are channeled through these endeavors with almost no accountability.

        You’ve explored elements of all but one. When will you venture into the morality of war?

        Have a remarkable week!

        • I don’t really think of Paul as evil.

          I think he was a man crippled by guilt, who had to live with a trauma. The death of Stephen must have chewed on him, so much so that it led him to transform Christianity, which in turn required him to sever it from its Jewish character.

  2. Somewhat unrelated: there is no way to escape the black hole of religious belief.

    Existence and non-existence of God are unprovable by the definition of God.

    Atheists, therefore, are practicing a RELIGION by “believing” that God does not exist even if no evidence exists that it does not exist.

    I am an agnostic who knows God’s existence cannot be proven or disproven.

    So, JUST IN CASE, I try to live a righteous life with a modest and spotty success record of doing so.

    I hope that my anti-Covid-vax substack will increase my chances in the unlikely event that I am ever facing the posthumous Judgment

    • Hey, Igor!
      I just wanted to say that you are one of my heroes on the internet!
      Selfless and sociable!
      I think the Lord already rewards you with love and graces in this life.
      (BTW, that’s the meaning of sacrifice: you sacrifice your time for others!)
      Also, genuine, sincere agnostics are the closest think to the wisdom of Judeo-Christian thinkers (such as Dostoevsky, Girard), ascetics and saints.

  3. The original Quakers, of which there is still a remnant of similar believers in the denomination “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)”, have an understanding and interpretation of the Bible and of Christian doctrines that you might not find repulsive. They take spiritually things that you, and others, seem to think must be taken literally.

    Jesus Christ is the “Word of God” (the “Utterance” from God), the spiritual Light that can and does enlighten every man who comes into the world (John 1:9); not just those who have read the Scriptures or those who say they have faith in him.

    John the Baptist performed a water baptism (immersion), but told his followers that Christ would baptize (i.e. immerse) them with the Holy Spirit and fire. That is the baptism we are to seek; to be immersed in the essential nature of the Holy Spirit of Christ. Not to be dipped in water. That water ritual should have died out, as did so many other Jewish rituals in early Christianity.

    Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, after no one was left there of her accusers, to go forth and sin no more. She was expected to change. We need to change our whole mindset; we need to be transformed, and then act differently, according to our new ways of thinking. Salvation involves a healing from our propensity to sin, so that we can become “perfect” (i.e. spiritually fully developed, to our individual maximum) as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48).

    If you actually want I can describe their understanding of Christ’s sacrifice.

    I have pondered many of the things that you discuss and have been a seeker, but have found my rest in this particular denomination.

  4. “And similarly, you’re not going to find any clear suggestions from Jesus that simply having faith in Jesus will somehow bail you out.”

    um john 3:16?

    • Yeah I am aware. The idea of Jesus dying for our sins is clearly present in John’s gospel, which is generally thought to be the youngest of the four.

      Hence why I formulated my sentence the way I did:

      >you’re not going to find any clear suggestions from Jesus that simply having faith in Jesus will somehow bail you out

      The message of John 3:16 is clear: Jesus died for our sins.

      But what is not clear, is where this text came from. The text does not make it clear whether these are words that Jesus spoke himself.

      And that’s the puzzling aspect of Christianity to me: The central tenet of the Christian faith, is an idea Christ himself is not recorded to have preached.

      • Institutional Christianity is (like many religions) a Russian doll in which

        the doctrine of the church is built on

        the doctrine of the church fathers is built on

        the doctrine of the Pauline (primarily) and Petrine epistles is built on

        the Gospels [is built on the Old Testament?]

        (and you can argue, the gospel is John is built on the synoptic Gospels, but I don’t meant to imply that John is necessarily a “superior” Gospel, it’s just chronologically later, almost certainly less authentic, but considered significant enough in its content to be included by the compilers)

        This process at an earlier stage is preserved in the Bible of Marcion, the first attempt at a canonical Bible, which is a version of the Gospel of Luke and some (not all) of the later canonical Pauline epistles. No other Gospels, no John, no Petrine Epistles. (Marcion also argued that the Jesus of Luke did not build his doctrine on the Old Testament, which has made him more famous, but maybe is less relevant here.)

        The Christianity of Christendom/Christian Europe IOW is specific path of ideological branching from the source material and far from the only one possible. Most of these branchings were also complete by Late Antiquity and so don’t even derive from the Christendom itself. They are inheritances from an older civilization.

        I would argue modern Christianity in turn isn’t even the Christianity of Christendom, but mostly just commentaries on American Unitarianism/Transcendentalism/Progressivism, which has Christian origins but has abandoned almost all of the doctrine (someone mentioned Quakerism above, which is one of the earliest strands of this, originating in Early Modern England).

        Personally I find the Synoptic Gospels very insightful, worldly, and relevant – but not much of the other stuff.

        • Very interesting. Have been looking into Marcion and his pre-Nicene canon. No OT, a different God therein per Marcion. His one gospel is Luke as you say. His version lacks the infancy narrative and begins with Jesus “descending” to Capernaum. We naturally assume he was walking or riding there but Marcion seems to imply that he came “down” from a higher realm and such was his incarnation. Did Marcion cut and paste from extant versions to suit his beliefs, did the Nicene church add and paste, or did both work with what was available at the time and sincerely attempt to keep what seemed authentic?

  5. Pistis πίστις means to trust. Greek. Similar in Latin. Credo > credit, credibility etc.

    I think Nietzsche noticed that especially Protestantism had the seed of atheism.

    Very noteworthy are Dostoevsky and René Girard, for people of modernity.

    Girard described mimetic desire, mimetic violence, scapegoats, as an awesome anthropologist he was.

    Obviously, Christians became scapegoats. And they are and will be again.
    Christ also became a scapegoat, but broke the cycle of violence. “Forgive them, Father…”. Even His disciples fell for the mimetic violence, see Peter among the servants outside the Sanhedrin when Jesus was arrested.

    These are my understanding, but I invite you to look for Girard and Dostoyevsky.

    I wanted to refer to these on other posts, but they are relevant here as well.

    (Jesus was not a disciple of John. At least, we don’t see such a thing in the Gospels)

    (Paul was present during Stephen’s martyrdom. He was however a militant Pharisee, who chased Christians to protect the tradition of his ancestors, from the threat he perceived them to be)

  6. Quote: “What does it feel like, to be responsible for an innocent man’s death?”

    Below the “Layer” of guilt-and-sin questions, there is the layer of free-will-questions, which is way more fundamental.

    Did I have a choice? That’s the real question.

  7. A historical context:
    You need only read the book of Jonas (Old Testament) to see that the Jews knew the Lord cared for every people, in the case of Jonas: the Assyrians of Nineveh.
    So, there is no Jewish-only religion.
    Besides, not only the Phoenicians but also the Jews (same stock of people) were very widespread in Antiquity around the Mediterranean (and further).
    Paul is a Hellenistic Jew, but also a traditionalist. Paul’s collaborators (like my favorite Apollos) already lived among the Nations, before Paul started his work.
    Last but not least, Polytheism was already on the way to Monotheism through Megatheism. There’s an open academic website on ancient inscriptions you can have a look.

    Pistis “πίστις” means to trust in Greek. Similar in Latin: Credo > credit, credibility etc. It is also interesting that “believe” is akin to love (liebe).
    So faith doesn’t mean an individualistic choice.

    I think Nietzsche noticed that especially Protestantism had the seed of atheism (individualism and utilitarianism).

    For people of Modernity, very noteworthy and eye-opening are Dostoevsky and René Girard. Tolkien is also a good introduction, but you already know him (Radagast).
    Others, like Chesterton, must be very good too.

    Girard described mimetic desire, mimetic violence, scapegoats, as an awesome anthropologist he was. I shall write more on mimetic desire in “no point arguing”. In short, we copy the desire of others instead of having our own. This leads to a shortage, which leads to violence, everyone vs everyone. To avoid a total collapse, people turn against a scapegoat. (In Judaism there was indeed a goat used for a rite of this kind).

    Obviously, Christians became scapegoats. And they are, and will be again to a greater extent.
    Christ also became a scapegoat, but He broke the cycle of violence (“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they are doing”. Even His disciples fell for the mimetic violence: see Peter among the servants outside the Sanhedrin when Jesus was arrested. “Denying” him means he becomes part of it.

    These are my understanding, but I invite you to look for Girard and Dostoyevsky. I wanted to refer to these on other posts, but they are relevant here as well.

    (some points of minor importance: )
    (Jesus was not a disciple of John. At least, we don’t see such a thing in the Gospels)
    (Paul was simply present during Stephen’s martyrdom. He was however a militant Pharisee, who chased Christians to protect the tradition of his ancestors, from the threat he perceived Christians to be)

  8. The Gospels do pretty much say that salvation comes from believing Jesus.

    “Then said they unto him, ‘What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?’

    “Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent'” (John 6:28-29).

    The idea that Jesus somehow “died for our sins” comes from Paul, though. (When John the Baptist called Jesus the “Lamb of God,” the reference was to the Passover lamb that saved people from death, not to sin offerings, which were usually not male lambs.)

  9. Why is it so important for you believers to have a free will?

    Basically I can understand that. My Ego totaly denies it that all what I do and all what I think is determined. I will never give up the idea to have a free will.

    But science totally destroys this idea. Some say the unpredictable radioactive decay, an effect supposedly without reason, would be enough to prove that free will can exist. But even if that hubris is true, it does not help. Random will is not free will.

    Isn’t it from an esoteric view way better to not have a free will?
    Let god do the job to select which experiences are best for you for your maturing into a godlike being. And when you are ready, you get real free will.

  10. “But what is not clear, is where this text came from. The text does not make it clear whether these are words that Jesus spoke himself”

    John 3:10 attributes it to Jesus. Yes with 2000 year old text things can get twisted, but the NT and OT for that matter have been replicated very well thoughout the centuries with recently discovered ancient texts proving this out by matching newer ones.

    There have been many pieces trying to water down Jesus claims (not accusing you of this) possibly to try and defeat the Lewis trilemma

    • >John 3:10 attributes it to Jesus.

      No, we don’t know whether it’s still Jesus speaking, or commentary by the evangelist. But Jesus is referred to with a term he never is recorded as using himself, but that is used by the evangelist earlier on in the text. In other words, it’s probably the evangelist.

  11. Thought provoking-post, as always. Thank you, Rintrah. I am drawn to this blog for the same reason as I am drawn to the writing of Chesterton (who an earlier commenter mentioned): highly original takes (here I mean viewpoint, not ‘hot take’) on complex subjects, expressed with clarity and brevity. I also enjoy your use of the comma.
    Some scattered thoughts:
    > What would Jesus have thought of Paul’s ministry? Their messages have often felt discordant to me. In protestant church I was taught The Roman Road to Salvation. It all seems so easy and straightforward; so easy, that you might ask yourself, why didn’t Jesus write this down himself, as the ultimate authority on all Christianity-related matters?
    > What were Jesus’ views on the natural world, and could some aspects of his views have been missed by those who recounted his ministry? We are told in Matthew, that Jesus urges us to take encouragement that God takes notice when a sparrow falls to the ground, and that our lives are worth more than many sparrows. But beyond this I don’t find much. Surely he must have noticed predation and suffering in the natural world; the ‘sparrow’ reflection seems shallow, relative to the many profound (my view) teachings of Jesus.
    > Do you think Jesus came into contact with Eastern religion? Through merchants and trade routes, for example?
    > When Paul writes that the whole creation groans in travail, waiting to be redeemed, is he making a comment on the ‘uglier’ (ugly to me) aspects of the natural world, such as death, suffering and predation? Is this travail of nature something that weighed heavily on his mind?

    Would love to hear your thoughts on how various religious traditions view the problem (my view, maybe others don’t think it’s a problem) of death and predation in the natural world, excluding human life. I would find that very helpful.

    PS thanks for your LSWM advocacy.

    • Some thoughts:
      > Paul is a man of High Status in the Greco-Roman world, who obstinately REFUSES to use it in a selfish way–he even defends Low Status people! (women; slaves…)
      > In Matthew (10:30) “our hair are counted”; the flowers are more glorious than Solomon’s dresses, the birds find food…
      > Egypt; Mesopotamia; Persia borders with India (too big to miss); Pythagoras; statues of Buddha with Hellenistic elements; “ex Oriente lux”… I think the Jews preserved the important stuff, even if they spoke the language of their time (Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic).
      > “hamartia” (ἁμαρτία = sin, in Greek) doesn’t mean “misdeed”. It means, “missing the goal” or “the path”. More of a philosophical term (?). “But I see another law in my members…” might also point to the stresses of the natural world (natural laws?), death and predation. If that is the case, then (some say) this might be a field for free will.

  12. Don’t know anything about Paul , what I do know is that I am not interested in organizations that require sacrifice. The secularists want sacrifices for the greater good (usually determined by them). The religious require it for a reward in the next world. Not convinced.

  13. Why should I settle for salvation or paradise when I might become divine? I want to party with god and not worship him.

  14. All those who think that salvation comes _only_ from Jesus disregard that in the Lord’s Prayer, He directs us to pray to the Father. The Lord’s Prayer (aka “Our Father” prayer) is the one part of the New Testament that is the least likely to have been altered by oral transmission over a couple of centuries, because it is so simple, powerful, and spoken directly by Him. The Lord’s Prayer is even Islamic canon, via one of the Hadiths.

    If one doesn’t like the Middle Eastern pedigree of Christianity, you can use the name Baldur instead. He reigned on Earth after the direct reign of the Allfather, in the new cycle that came after the Ragnarok of the old civilizations. Maybe that cycle is ending now, with Christian churches emptying; maybe it’s just a deeper iteration of the Fourth Turning. If anyone is looking for the Son of Man, they can still find him giving us strength and inspiration in unexpected ways. Chihiro in Spirited Away is a wonderful Christic avatar, taking upon her the sins of her parents; so is Prince Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, bringing peace, with no regard for his own safety. Kevin in Home Alone is another one. Stella, in the anime Hells movie, is a profound esoteric avatar. The Gods are all around us, speaking to us in so many ways. It is up to us to listen and raise ourselves towards them.

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The patients in the mental ward have had their daily dose of xanax and calmed down it seems, so most of your comments should be automatically posted again. Try not to annoy me with your low IQ low status white male theories about the Nazi gas chambers being fake or CO2 being harmless plant food and we can all get along. Have fun!

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